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DVD Reviews for 9/30: The Return of the Thin White Duke

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic takes a look at a sequel, a prequel, a couple of really weird cult items and tries to determine whose white-trash nightmare is more terrifying to behold-Henry's or Britney's

British director Nicolas Roeg doesn’t really get talked about much these days–his output in the last decade has been relegated to mostly TV movies such as “Samson and Delilah” (featuring Elizabeth Hurley in the role she was born to play) and “Full Body Massage” (a Mimi Rogers vehicle hailed by Mr. Skin and few others), as well as something listed on IMDB as “The Sound of Claudia Schiffer.” However, in his heyday in the 1970's through the early 1980's–a period that saw such mind-bending works as “Performance,” “Don’t Look Now,” “Walkabout” and “Insignificance”–he was one of those directors whose every new film was an automatic must-see for anyone interested in the cutting-edge of contemporary narrative film. In an apparent bid to reassert his name, The Criterion Collection has issued two of his more notable achievements on feature-packed DVDs this week–one of them a reasonably well-known cult item and one that might have become one if anyone had ever gotten a chance to see it.

The relative unknown is 1980's “Bad Timing,” a psycho-sexual drama that was deemed so kinky and off-putting by The Rank Organization, the venerable British company that produced the film, that it removed its logo from all prints and publicly claimed it to be “a sick film made by sick people for sick people.” Set in Vienna, the film opens as a young American woman (Theresa Russell, who began a long-running professional and personal relationship with Roeg on this film) is rushed to the hospital after an apparent drug overdose. There is a question as to whether it was an accident, a suicide attempt or something more sinister and a local detective (Harvey Keitel, in a decidedly odd bit of casting) begins to interrogate the woman’s lover, an American professor played by Art Garfunkel. Through him, we are treated to the dark and erotically charged story of their stormy relationship while doctors frantically struggle to save her life and the cop tries to determine for himself what happened.

Most viewers may have that same problem because Roeg and screenwriter Yale Udoff having chosen to tell the story using a jagged and decidedly non-linear approach–it is difficult at times for first-time viewers to quite figure out what exactly what is going on. And yet, it is an approach that really works in the context because it forces you to pay more attention to what is going on and it causes you to constantly reevaluate who these characters are and what they have done to themselves and each other. At the time, the casting of Keitel and Garfunkel was questioned and derided by many critics–the former because it forced a live wire into a more somber role and the latter because few wanted to see any intense sexual relationship involving Art Garfunkel–but there work comes off a little better nowadays; seeing a low-key Keitel forces you to think that he may have something up his sleeve and Garfunkel is actually pretty good at playing an emotionally remote weasel. However, the acting prize, then and now, goes hands-down to the always-astounding Theresa Russell in the kind of sexually charged high-wire act that would pretty much define her career. At various points, she is required to come off as sweet, devastatingly sexy and utterly monstrous and she pulls off the different shading with a frightening ease.

By comparison to “Bad Timing”, Roeg’s 1976 film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” seems like a far more conventional film, even though it is about an alien who comes to Earth to save his planet from destruction and winds up turning into a failure and an embittered alcoholic instead. David Bowie, then at the height of his glam-rock weirdo phase, made an indelible impression in his first acting role as the alien in question and Roeg surrounds him with strong supporting actors such as Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry. Although nominally science-fiction, this is not another film that is wholly dependent on elaborate special-effects in order to work–the only major effect on display is Bowie himself and he is splendid; to date, no other director has come close to capturing Bowie’s oddball appeal in the context of a fictional film. A cult film when it premiered–mostly because of the Bowie connection–“The Man Who Fell to Earth” still holds up today as a science-fiction film that is genuinely about ideas instead of hardware.

Of the two discs, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” not surprisingly, gets the more elaborate treatment. The two-disc set contains the original 139-minute cut (which had several keys scenes deleted for its American release), numerous elements ported over from Criterion’s 1992 laserdisc release–including an informative commentary track from Roeg, Bowie and Henry and an interview with Walter Tevis, the author of the original novel–new interviews with Candy Clark and Rip Torn and a copy of the Tevis novel. By comparison, the “Bad Timing” disc may seem a bit paltry–despite being seemingly ripe for one, there is no commentary track–they aren’t complete throwaways. There are contemporary interviews with Roeg and Russell that shed a lot of light on the film and there is also a selection of intriguing deleted scenes. Frankly, the best thing about the “Bad Timing” disc is the fact that it exists at all–because of the intense subject matter and the legal complications surrounding the soundtrack (all killer tunes from the likes of The Who, Tom Waits and others that were never cleared for home-video release), the film has never been released on video in America until now. While it probably won’t suddenly become regarded as a masterpiece–it is a difficult and challenging work–its availability should prove to be a boon for Roeg cultists and fans of films that aren’t afraid t go off the beaten path.

BAD TIMING: Written by Yale Udoff. Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Starring Theresa Russell, Art Garfunkel, Harvey Keitel and Denholm Elliott. 1980. 122 minutes. Unrated. A Criterion Collection release. $29.95

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH: Written by Paul Mayersberg. Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Starring David Bowie, Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry. 1976. 139 minutes. Unrated. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95


THE BLIND DEAD COLLECTION (Blue Underground. $99.95): Four obscure Spanish cult horror titles from the 1970's–“Tombs of the Blind Dead,” “Return of the Evil Dead,” “The Ghost Galleon” and “Night of the Seagulls”–are boxed together by the good folks at Blue Underground, a company dedicated to giving the top-flight DVD treatment to films that used to only appear at the bottom of grindhouse triple-bills, with a fifth disc containing a documentary of director Amando de Ossorio. For those with a taste for films about zombified Knights Templar back from the dead and ready to rumble (despite having had their eyes burned out so they could never find the way back from Hell), this set is your dream come true.

BRITNEY & KEVIN-CHAOTIC(Jive Video. $19.95): Think of it as a skankier version of “How I Met Your Mother.” Nice to know that when the spawn of everyone’s favorite pop tart and the background dude from “You Got Served” goes into therapy, he can simply bring this DVD along and save his analyst months of work.

THE CANDY SNATCHERS (Subversive Cinema. $24.95): One of the few grindhouse epics of the 1970's that was so dark and twisted that it managed to bully even the hardened audiences who frequented such joints (usually either to get warm or reload) into submission with its sheer visceral power. An innocent girl is kidnapped and buried alive in the hopes of scoring a hefty ransom for her family and thing go horribly wrong for everyone involved, leading to one of the more unforgettable climaxes that you are likely to encounter.

CARLITO’S WAY: RISE TO POWER (Universal Home Video. $26.98): A decade after anyone could have possibly cared, the vastly underrated Brian De Palma-Al Pacino gangster epic gets its own questionable direct-to-video prequel, albeit without either De Palma or Pacino. In order to make up for that absence, the filmmakers have thoughtfully included Luis Guzman, who actually did appear in the first one, and Sean “P. Diddy” (or whatever it is this week) Combs, who may have rented the first one.

EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $39.95): Pretty much the same DVD of the 1987 Sam Raimi horror-comedy classic that Anchor Bay has been flogging for years–the only additions this time are a couple of new (if inessential) featurettes and badass foam-rubber packaging in the style of the “Book of the Dead” edition of “The Evil Dead” that they put out a couple years ago. If you have inexplicably never purchased the film before, however, this is a must-own as the film itself is a classic and the commentary from Raimi and star/longtime foil Bruce Campbell is one of the best ever recorded.

FAMILY GUY: STEWIE GRIFFIN-THE UNTOLD STORY (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Since one of the few pleasures of this wildly uneven show is seeing how close they come to the edge of what is permissible on network television each week, it is hard to imagine that Seth McFarlane’s creation being allowed to run wild and unfettered in the hoary netherworld of direct-to-video “film” (i.e. three soon-to-broadcast episodes with the dirtier bits left in) is going to somehow improve things. Nevertheless, the show has its admirers, though some many question the premise–maniacal baby Stewie on a search for the man he believes to be his real father–tramples upon its previously established history.

HENRY-PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER: 20th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (MPI. $24.98): John McNaughton’s no-budget gem about a sociopath (Michael Rooker in what would become a career-defining role) blandly going about his exploits remains one of the creepiest and most terrifyingly effective horror films ever made. Finally getting the special edition it has long deserved, this set includes a commentary from McNaughton, a behind-the-scenes look at the filming, deleted scenes and a documentary on Henry Lee Lucas, the real-life killer who inspired McNaughton in the first place.

LORDS OF DOGTOWN (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $29.95): The film that proved that “Thirteen” was no fluke and that Catherine Hardwicke really was a crappy filmmaker after all. Between the “unrated” cut of this flop skateboarding epic and the simultaneous release of a longer version of “A Knights Tale” (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment), this week is simply chock-full of fully extended Heath Ledger–fine if you are Michelle Williams, I suppose, but not if you aren’t.

THE RIGHT SPECTACLE: THE VERY BEST OF ELVIS COSTELLO-THE VIDEOS (Rhino Home Video. $19.95): The title says it all–27 videos from one of the greatest contemporary singer-songwriters are compiled here (both hits such as “Everyday I Write the Book” and “Veronica” as well as obscurities) as well as a collection of rare TV appearances. In addition, each video contains commentary from Costello himself and he also chimes in with extensive liner notes. A must for Costello fans and a worthwhile purchase for anyone else.

ROBOTS (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.95): This year’s “Shark Tale”–another crappy Pixar clone that tries to substitute celebrity voices (Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, Amanda Bynes, Drew Carey and, I fear, Robin Williams) and bland CGI animation for the harder-to-acquire wit, charm and narrative grace that were the real reasons behind the success of “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo.”

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originally posted: 09/30/05 11:41:49
last updated: 10/07/05 12:02:38
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