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DVD Reviews for 8/26: Crashes, flashes and gashes

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful scribe looks at the perils of auteurism, checks out some long-gone television, makes a tacky remark about Jude Law’s personal problems and has horrible flashback of the damage that can be done by someone with a cheese saw and no concept of mercy.

The problem with being a hard-core auteurist and proclaiming a director as a genius is that such people often find themselves in the awkward position of defending some perfectly ridiculous movies in an effort to maintain those theories. A John Carpenter fanatic has to grapple with “Memoirs of an Invisible Man,” a Walter Hill follower needs to devise a way to justify the existence of “Brewster’s Millions” or “Another 48 Hrs” and those who have made a study of the works of Robert Altman of Alan Rudolph run the risk of serious muscle damage from the contortions they have to undergo to deal with the numerous oddities in their respective filmographies. As a sort of accidental auteurist, I understand this problem and I admit to having found myself adopting some odd positions myself–I once wrote a piece describing Brian De Palma’s “Snake Eyes” as one of his most personal and autobiographical works and I stand by most of those words today.

I am reminded of the dark side of auteur worship with the DVD debuts this week of “Trauma” and “The Card Player,” two films from renowned Italian horror maestro Dario Argento that are generally dismissed by even his most dedicated fans as among his weakest efforts. On the surface, I can’t really disagree with that assessment–both films are seriously flawed and don’t come close to approaching the brilliance of such loopy Grand Guignol masterpieces as “Suspiria,” “Inferno” or “Tenebrae.” And yet, despite their numerous flaws, they each have moments of true inspiration that harken back to his glory days as a director and suggest that when he still has the skills to dazzle viewers when he feels like making the effort.

Of the two, 1993's “Trauma” is probably the easier to defend because it contains more of the essential elements that Argento has used to such memorable effect over the years–a screw-loose plot, a gallery of weirdo characters, extended set-pieces that are little master-classes in the art of filmmaking that culminate, more often than not, in a moment of astonishing brutality and other things so absurd that you don’t know whether to throw things at the screen or silently admire him for his audaciousness. In this, his first American-made film (which he did to broaden his audience–a meaningless gesture since the film never received a Stateside theatrical release and was dismissed as a crass sellout throughout the rest of the world), Asia Argento (Dario’s daughter and a gifted writer-director in her own right) stars as Aura, a troubled young anorexic who is sent to a Minneapolis mental institution after witnessing the brutal decapitation of her parents during a strange seance. However, Aura is convinced that she saw something odd about the proceedings–which, of course, she can’t quite remember–and her suspicions grow when a killer begins bumping off people she knows with a portable guillotine. With the aide of her doctor, a recovering drug addict played by Chris Rydell, she tries to unravel the mystery–which also includes a nutty doctor (Frederic Forrest) who tries to “cure” her via hallucinatory berries–and does so in a finale that will probably most viewers shaking their heads while dropping their jaws.

Although I wouldn’t rank it as an Argento masterpiece–I concede that it is one of his weakest efforts–it does have its saving graces. He gets some good nutball performances from the likes of Forrest, Piper Laurie and ubiquitous loon Brad Dourif. The idea of the portable guillotine (designed by Tom Savini) is an intriguing one and while the film is more bloodless than you might expect from something involving a portable guillotine, Dourif’s death scene is elaborate enough to deserve comparison with Argento’s greatest set-pieces and concludes with a strange moment in which a clue emerges from someplace where a clue simply shouldn’t be coming from. Most of all, it features a standout central performance from Asia Argento in the first of three films that she would appear in under the direction of her father (followed by the brilliant “The Stendhal Syndrome” and the questionable “The Phantom of the Opera”)–she is quite good as the haunted Aura and gives the proceedings a dramatic heft that might have otherwise gone unnoticed among all the flying heads and outrageous plot twists. Fans going in with lower expectations will find it to be better than its reputation suggest while newcomers to Argento may find it an easy way to begin accessing his work.

2003's “The Card Player,” his most recent work,on the other hand, probably his weakest film to date. Fans who were heartened by the gory back-to-basics 2002 giallo “Sleepless” were appalled to find him following it up with the squarest work of his entire career–a blood-free police procedural about a troubled cop (Stefania Rocca) who is on the trail of a killer who challenges the cops to play him at Internet poker with the stakes being the lives of his potential victims. Instead of trying to come up with new and elaborately choreographed ways of killing people, Argento has chosen to keep the blood off the screen in an effort to concentrate on his plot and character. This would be an admirable approach if the plot and characters were at all interesting or compelling. They aren’t and the result is a deadly dull affair that is saved from total disposability by a wild-and-wooly final reel in which Argento comes close to giving viewers the kind of flamboyant thrills that his name is usually associated with.

Fans will be pleased to note that Anchor Bay has provided these admittedly lesser works with a nice set of supplements. Both feature commentaries from author Alan Jones, whose career-long study of Argento was recently compiled in the book “Profoundo Argento” and making-of featurettes while “The Card Player” also contains a new interview with Argento himself. They may not be his best efforts but die-hard fans will doubtlessly find these discs to be essential.

TRAUMA: Written by Dario Argento and T.E.D. Klein. Directed by Dario Argento. Starring Asia Argento, Christopher Rydell, Frederic Forrest, Piper Laurie, Laura Johnson and Brad Dourif. 1993. 110 minutes. Unrated. An Anchor Bay Home Entertainment release. $19.95

THE CARD PLAYER: Written by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini. Directed by Dario Argento. Starring Stefania Rocca, Liam Cunningham, Silvio Muccino, Fiore Argento and Mia Bennedetta. 2003. 106 minutes. Unrated. An Anchor Bay Home Entertainment release. $19.95


AUDITION (Lions Gate Home Entertainment. $19.95): In what is perhaps the only unquestionably great film to date from the insanely prolific Takashi Miike, a meek middle-aged widower decides to find a new bride for himself. I won’t say anything else about what happens except to say that you will never look at dating videos, seemingly docile Japanese women or cheese saws in quite the same way again. Brutal, brilliant and definitely not for the squeamish, this is one of those rare modern horror movies that will never be forgotten by anyone able to make it to the stunning finale.

BEAUTY SHOP (MGM Home Entertainment. $24.98): Sure, it is an essentially useless spin-off of the charming “Barbershop” (which seems to have started up its own cottage industry of useless sequels and spin-offs) but at least it allows Queen Latifah the opportunity to earn a living that doesn’t involve shilling low-quality fast-food pizza or appearing opposite Jimmy Fallon.

BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING (The Criterion Collection. $29.98): Probably best-known to contemporary audiences for inspiring the 1986 American remake “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” this 1932 comedy from Jean Renoir, in which a bum (Michel Simon) turn a well-to-do household upside down when they take him in, gets the full-scale Criterion treatment with extras dealing with Renoir’s life and career.

DUST TO GLORY (MGM Home Entertainment. $24.95): As I have no desire to have my mailbox fill once again with homophobic threats on my life, let’s just move on.

FOUR FRIENDS (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.95): No, not a horrifying combination of a bad Marky Mark film and an annoying Jennifer Aniston sitcom, this was late screenwriter Steve Tesich’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning work “Breaking Away,” an autobiographical story of a Yugoslavian-born, Indiana-raised immigrant coming of age in the 1960's with two close buddies and the free-spirited girl that they are all in love with. Directed by Arthur Penn, this is one of those perfectly wonderful films that disappeared almost immediately after its release and is a buried treasure waiting to be rediscovered.

GLADIATOR: EXTENDED EDITION (Dreamworks Home Entertainment. $39.95): This swords-and-sandals epic gets a lot of shit for having been given the 2000 Best Picture Oscar. While I would have personally gone with “Almost Famous” myself, I have to say that I would rather see this film again over the likes of “Chicago” or “A Beautiful Mind” any day of the week. This mammoth, three-disc set features an extended version prepared by Ridley Scott, a new commentary track with Scott and Russell Crowe, a three-hour-plus documentary covering all aspects of the production and the proverbial much much more. You will be entertained.

HOWLING 2: YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.95): One of the most ridiculous horror films ever made–though it still somehow manages to remain the second-best entry in the seemingly endless series of direct-to-video “Howling” quasi-sequels–and one that is worth watching for exactly three things; the presence of Christopher Lee and Sybil Danning as a pair of werewolf siblings, the immortal scene in which Danning claws off her clothes and shows off her assets and the closing credits that endlessly repeat the scene of Danning showing off her assets.

INSERTS (MGM Home Entertainment.$14.95): This is a strange and largely obscure drama about a once-promising Depression-era filmmaker (Richard Dreyfuss) who has been reduced to cranking out cheap pornographic loops inside his run-down mansion. Cult film fanatics may be intrigued by a couple of things: the role of the wide-eyed starlet is played by the always-watchable Jessica Harper (which leads me to once again wonder where the hell the DVD of the strange “Rocky Horror Picture Show” sequel “Shock Treatment” is) and there have been suggestions in recent years that the real-life model for the director was none other than the legendary Ed Wood.

THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.95): Even by the standards of director Robert Aldrich, whose works included such over-the-top gems as “Kiss Me Deadly,” “The Longest Yard” and the immortal “The Legend of Lylah Clare,” this 1967 melodrama was considered to be a bit much by viewers at the time. The plot revolves around a soap opera actress (Beryl Reid) who is facing both the on-screen demise of her character and the off-screen loss of her girlfriend (Susannah York) to one of the very network weasels (Coral Browne) who may be preparing to fire hire from the show. Today, it is most interesting as a curio since it was one of the first major movies to deal in a relatively straightforward manner with the subject of lesbianism.

KISSED (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.95): In this decidedly odd 1997 drama, a young woman (Molly Parker) who has had an erotic fixation with death since childhood scores her dream job–an assistant in a mortuary. What is shocking about this film is not the subject matter but the fact that director Lynne Stopkewich treats it in a serious manner without ever resorting to cheap exploitation or lurid gross-outs. Those of you going through withdrawal over the conclusion of “Six Feet Under” might want to check out this little-known gem.

LA PETIT LILI (First Run Features. $29.95): What could have been just a standard-issue French drama about a group of people–including a young wannabe filmmaker, his famous actress mother and her new lover, a stodgy director of big-budget entertainment–is kicked up a notch by the presence of Ludivine Sagnier (who made a memorable impression as the erotic center of “Swimming Pool”) as the wannabe’s girlfriend whose mere presence throws everything up for grabs. Sure, she is gorgeous and I suspect that the opening scene will wear out many a pause button but once she puts her clothes back on, she also proves once again that she is an actress of considerable talent as well.

LAYER CAKE (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. $27.95 ):Although dismissed by some as just another clone of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” (hard to argue since debuting director Matthew Vaughn produced those films and Guy Ritchie returned the favor here), this twisty crime drama, about a British drug dealer whose comfortable life falls apart the moment he decides to quietly retire from the life, has enough going for it without those comparisons. The storyline (based on the book by) is more coherent than flashy, it features a great central performance from Daniel Craig in the lead (as well as nice turns from the likes of Colm Meany and the fearsome Michael Gambon) and it contains enough shots of the stunning Sienna Miller in a variety of skimpy outfits to cause most viewers to wonder what the hell Jude Law could have been thinking.

LIFE AS WE KNOW IT: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $39.99): Although this short-lived series was produced by people involved with such instant classics as “My So-Called Life” and “Freaks and Geeks,” this show about the trials and tribulations of a group of teens (one of them played by Kelly Osbourne, who received the lion’s share of the publicity during its brief existence) dealing sex, angst and peer pressure. And yes, one of the kids does get to sleep with his teacher but since it is a young boy and an older woman (especially one who looks like Marguerite Moreau), I guess it is good fun all around.

A LOT LIKE LOVE (Touchstone Home Entertainment. $29.95): This astonishingly witless and charm-free–in which Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet try and fail to make anyone care about whether they wind up together or not–may not be the worst romantic comedy ever made. However, it comes far closer to achieving that less-than-noble goal than most right-thinking viewers would ever want to experience for themselves.

NEW JACK CITY: SPECIAL EDITION (Warner Home Video. $19.95): Mario Van Peebles’s great 1991 crime thriller–in which the spread of the crack epidemic is seen through the eyes of a drug dealer on the rise (Wesley Snipes in the best performance of his career) and the cops (including Ice-T and Judd Nelson) who have vowed to bring him down by any means necessary–finally gets the special edition that it deserves.

THE O.C.: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Warner Home Entertainment. $59.95): According to most fans of the show, this second season of the Fox teen soaper was a decline from its debut and it tried too many gimmicks to lure new viewers (especially Marissa’s sweeps-timed flirtation with the Sapphic side of life). However, it is still entertaining enough to remain a giddy guilty pleasure and this set allows fans to catch up before the imminent debut of Season Three. Fun note–Rachel Bilson, who plays the adorable vixen Summer, and I share the same birthday this very week.

OLDBOY (Tartan Home Video. $24.99): One of the rare cult films in recent years that actually lived up to the advanced fanboy hype, this twisted thriller involves a man who is mysteriously kidnapped and locked in a hotel room for fifteen years, only to be just as mysteriously released and given five days to figure out who is behind it all and why. This Korean import is a mind-bender along the lines of “Memento” and features any number of images (including one involving a live baby octopus that we can only hope didn’t involve multiple takes) that will haunt viewers for a long time. Although it is scheduled for an American remake, I can’t imagine it having even a fraction of the impact of this original version.

ONCE AND AGAIN: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $59.95):If you want to be astonished by the acting skills of young Evan Rachel Wood and don’t feel like blowing your money on that “Pretty Persuasion” craptacular, she can be seen in a much better light as a tormented teen dealing with a newly blended family in this set comprising the second season of the acclaimed, if short-lived, drama from the creators of “thirtysomething.”

THE RING 2 (Dreamworks Home Entertainment. $29.95): Speaking of remakes without a fraction of the impact of the original version, this lame-ass follow-up to the 2002 surprise hit features Naomi Watts plodding through another mystery involving haunted videotapes, deadly secrets from the past and creepy little girls with all the enthusiasm of someone who has been forced to live up to a contractual obligation by appearing in a sorry-ass sequel. Inevitably, this is being issued in an “Unrated” edition but it could feature an extended sequence along the lines of Watts’s infamous love scene from “Mulholland Drive” and it still wouldn’t be worth watching. Those with a fondness for these films, on the other hand, may want to check out “The Ringu Saga” (), a new collection comprising the original Japanese films “Ringu,” “Ringu 2"

THE TRANSPORTER: SPECIAL EDITION (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.95):Thanks to the efforts of producer/co-writer Luc Besson, this 2002 thriller, in which a highly-skilled driver (Jason Statham), who will transport anything for a price, no questions asked, puts himself in danger when he decides to involve himself with the mysterious young woman (the gorgeous Shu Qui) who is his latest parcel, was one of the most goofily entertaining action films in recent years. This package includes deleted scenes, a commentary between Statham and and a free ticket to the upcoming “Transporter 2.”

VINCENT & THEO (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.95):One of the odder titles (and that is saying something) in the long and varied filmography of Robert Altman, this 1990 effort was a surprisingly straightforward and heartfelt biopic that took a look at the contentious relationship between tormented artist Vincent Van Gogh (Tim Roth) and the brother (Paul Rhys) who dedicated his life to taking care of his sibling and trying to spread the word about his art. An interesting look into the life of both the tortured artist and those caught up in the madness.

WEEKEND (New Yorker Video. $29.95): I have seen this, Jean-Luc Godard’s shocking, funny, repellent and landmark 1968 allegory about the social and political climate of the time, numerous times over the years and I still don’t feel as if I have come close to grasping what it is supposed to “mean”–in my view, a true testament to the film’s brilliance. On this disc, critic David Sterritt and director Mike Figgis (whose radical experiments with digital video and narrative form have made him arguably the closest thing to Godard–aside from Godard himself–working today) offer their own explanations via, respectively, a commentary and interview. Hard-core Godard followers may also want to check out the other of this week’s Godard DVD releases–his thoughtful and troubling 1996 effort “For Ever Mozart” (New Yorker Video. $29.95).

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originally posted: 08/26/05 14:20:26
last updated: 09/23/05 14:19:17
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