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DVD Reviews for 10/21: Holy Bat@#$&! Edition

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your humble scribe discusses hot babes, cold corpses and that most terrifying of cinematic sights--Neil Diamond acting. (Of course, most of you will be too busy wallowing in Batman-related material to even notice.)

There are a number of cool titles in this roundup but I suspect that for most people, this week is all about “Batman.” Even by eliminating the various animated products that are being released (although I must say that “Batman Vs. Dracula” sounds at least as intriguing, though in a much different way, than “Emmanuelle Vs. Dracula”), there are no fewer than six major cinematic treatments of the comic-book world’s favorite Man in Black that are appearing on DVD-two for the first time and the rest in lavishly overhauled and appointed special editions. Although I suspect that many of you reading this have probably already run out and grabbed most-to-all of them already, here are a few thoughts on each of the titles and their various extras.

BATMAN-THE COMPLETE 1943 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION (1943): For the first cinematic treatment of Batman, a 15-part serial produced on the cheap by Columbia Pictures (the Batmobile has clearly been bought off the nearest used-car lot and Batman and Robin are now FBI agents instead of vigilante superheroes), the producers decided to use him as a vehicle for some good ol’ fashioned cinematic jingoism of a type that probably went over gangbusters in 1943 but which inspires only dropped jaws today for its ham-fisted portrayal of evil Japanese saboteurs and its whole-hearted endorsement of internment camps (including praise for how our “wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.”). If you can get beyond that (not to mention the fact that this wildly anti-Japanese product has been released by none other than Sony), it is reasonably amusing by the standards of silly serials–the fifteen chapters are filled with weird gadgets and locales (the wily Japanese have their secret lair hidden within the Tunnel of Love at a local amusement park), stock footage that is repeated to the point of madness and enough cliffhanger cop-outs to drive the Annie Wilkes within all of us to reach for the nearest sledgehammer.

BATMAN (1989): Watching this film again today, I still feel the way that I did back in 1989 when Batmania swept the nation. It is a lot of fun to watch, visually astonishing and the Danny Elfman score is one of the all-time greats. However, while Jack Nicholson is absolutely perfect in the role of the maniacal Joker, his outsized personality so throughly dominates the proceedings that Batman himself (Michael Keaton, who is actually pretty good under the circumstances) winds up fading into the background when he should be standing front-and-center. Nevertheless, it holds up better than most of the event films of the 1980's do these days. On the plus side, the package contains a commentary from director Tim Burton (easily the best and most informative that he has ever done) and an in-depth documentary on the long road that the film took to make it to the screen that actually features a new interview with Nicholson himself (though it doesn’t feature any real mention of the dirt surrounding the often-chaotic production that have been cited elsewhere) as well as a storyboard-based animated reconstruction of a dropped scene that was meant to introduce the Robin character. On the minus side, it also features three videos (“Partyman,” “Scandalous” and “Batdance”) from the now-embarrassing song score composed by Prince.

BATMAN RETURNS (1992): Of the four Batman films produced between 1989-1997, this controversial entry is by far my favorite. Whether you like it or hate it seems to depend on how you approach the film. If you are looking at it as the next Batman movie, it is pretty much a disaster as our hero gets even more lost in the crowd than before against an trio of scenery-chewing supervillains–the grotesque Penguin (Danny DeVito), the alluring Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, whose outfit and demeanor sent an entire generation of ten-year-old boys into premature puberty) and the Christopher Walken-esque Max Schreck (played, coincidentally enough, by Christopher Walken)–in a narrative even more haphazardly constructed than your typical Tim Burton film. However, if you are approaching it as the next Tim Burton film, however, it works much better as a visually stunning and darkly humored exploration of the lives of a group of weirdo misfits stuck in a world that can’t begin to understand or accept them unless they hide their true natures away under a series of masks. This disc features another Burton commentary, a continuation of the documentary chronicling the history of this installment, a series of featurettes on the various technical aspects and a video from the much-missed Siouxsie and the Banshees.

BATMAN FOREVER (1995): After parents and Happy Meal marketers were horrified by the bleaker tone of “Batman Returns,” Tim Burton was dismissed from the franchise and replaced with the redoubtable Joel Schumacher, who immediately began to head towards the campy tone of the 1960's TV show that Burton tried to avoid at all costs. This time, Val Kilmer plays the man behind the mask but it hardly makes a difference as he and romantic lead Nicole Kidman are overwhelmed by the scenery-chewing contest that evidently broke out between Tommy Lee Jones (as Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, a role that theoretically should have been Billy Dee Williams’s, who played Dent in the first film) and Jim Carrey (as a Riddler less restrained than the one essayed by Frank Gorshin). The winner–any concession-stand operator smart enough to stock extra-strength aspirin for audiences pummeled into submission by the sheer noisiness of the whole enterprise. This disc has another doc and another series of featurettes, along with a commentary from Schumacher, a series of deleted scenes and the video for Seal’s hit “Kiss From a Rose.” The best thing one can say about this one is that it isn’t the worst of the bunch.

BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997): For about a year before it came out, I had a dear friend of mine who kept insisting that I had to take her to the press screening of this epic under the threat of severe pain–at the time, she was under the throes of crushes on both George Clooney (taking over the cape, cowl and the now-nipple-festooned Batsuit from Kilmer, who chose to do “The Saint” instead) and Chris O’Donnell (returning as the basically useless Robin). Anyway, I took her along and, as you no doubt remember (unless you turned to therapy or drink to repress the memories), the film took about nine minutes to reveal itself as one of the worst things–let alone worst movies–ever created in the whole of human history and I wound up deriving a great deal of perverse pleasure at watching the expression on her face change from delight to horror as her dream film collapsed in an orgy of idiotic plotting, bad puns and a visual aesthetic that not even the presence of Uma Thurman in full-out sex-bomb mide could quite overcome. Advanced word suggested that Schumacher’s commentary track was going to be a 125-minute apology but alas, it is pretty much the standard-issue fluff (although he does point out several things that he was encouraged by the studio to include in order to up the merchandising potential). The rest of the set includes docs, featurettes, a deleted scene and four music videos from the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Jewel, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and R. Kelly–the last one is kind of ironic when you consider that this is a film that no one would piss on even if the negative was on fire.

BATMAN BEGINS (2005): Having basically killed off the franchise in 1997, Warner Brothers struggled through any number of false starts (the most intriguing being a “Year One” scenario to be directed by Darren Aronofsky) before turning the reins over to Christopher Nolan, best known for the 2000 head-spinner “Memento.” The result, to the shock and surprise of many, was the best “Batman” film to date–a complete reinvention of the series that intelligently blends the fantastical with the realistic while providing the unusually strong cast (including Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine and Gary Oldman) with something to do in between the special-effects sequences. Though Nolan surprisingly doesn’t provide a commentary, this 2-disc set (there is a 1-disc movie-only version but if you have read this far, you probably aren’t in the market for it) features plenty of featurettes chronicling the production and even a 72-page comic book featuring reprints of the very first Batman tale along with two other relevant stories.

BATMAN-THE COMPLETE 1943 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION: Directed by Lambert Hilver. Starring Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish and Shirley Patterson. 1943. Unrated. 260 minutes. A Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment release. $29.95

BATMAN: Written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skarren. Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Billy Dee Williams and Jack Palance. 1989. Rated PG-13. 126 minutes. A Warner Home Video release. $26.99

BATMAN RETURNS: Written by Daniel Waters. Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken. PG-13. 126 minutes. A Warner Home Video release. $26.99

BATMAN FOREVER: Written by Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Starring Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Nicole Kidman, Chris O’Donnell and Drew Barrymore. 1995. PG-13. 121 minutes. A Warner Home Video release. $26.99

BATMAN & ROBIN: Written by Akiva Goldsman. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Uma Thurman, Chris O’Donnell, Alicia Silverstone and Elle MacPherson. 1997. PG-13. 125 minutes. A Warner Home Video release. $26.99

BATMAN BEGINS: Written by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman. 2005. PG-13. 140 minutes. A Warner Home Video release. $30.99


THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN-SEASON ONE (Warner Home Video. $39.98): In what is sure to be the first of many releases from Warner that will serve to hype the release of next summer’s big “Superman” movie, this 5-disc set contains all 26 episodes from the classic TV show’s 1952-53 season, several Frosted Flakes commercials and a 1940 short subject featuring star George Reeves and, coolest of all, the 1951 feature film “Superman and the Mole Men,” the first feature-length adventure of the Man of Steel.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98):When it was originally released in 1998, most people were perplexed that the Coen Brothers would choose to follow their breakthrough film “Fargo” with a decidedly goofball stoner comedy in which a barely conscious hipster (Jeff Bridges in peak form) stumbled his way through a Raymond Chandleresque mystery involving a kidnapped trophy wife (Tara Reid), a band of nihilists, pornographers, conceptual artists and bowling. In subsequent years, though, a enormous cult has grown around this–perhaps the most sheerly likable of all the Coens’ films–and you would think that a DVD reissue would cater to that market. Instead, this disc basically is just a rehash of the original disc (of which the chief supplement was a short interview with the Coens) and the only major addition is a silly prologue in which a faux-historian discusses the painstaking “restoration” that the film required, a joke that they already pulled with the reissue of “Blood Simple.” There is also, for an additional price, a fairly tacky “Achiever’s Editions” collectors set that includes a few photos taken by Bridges, a set of drink coasters and a bowling towel–sadly, there is no rug to tie the whole set together.

CHAINED HEAT 2 (New Line Home Video. $19.95): Brigitte Nielsen, in the days before she hit the wall chronicled on “The Surreal Life,” stars as the sexually perverse warden of a kinky women’s prison. If there is a more potentially delightful sentence in the English language than “Brigitte Nielsen . . . stars as the sexually perverse warden of a kinky women’s prison,” I, for one, don’t know if I could bear hearing it.

DAY OF THE DEAD 2: CONTAGIUM (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.95): I have no idea what this actually is, aside from the fact that George Romero doesn’t have anything to do with it, so I would recommend giving it a wide berth unless you have an uncontrollable desire for direct-to-video zombie crap.

ELEKTRA-UNCUT (Fox Home Entertainment. $26.98):Unless this version consists of nothing but two hours of Jennifer Garner sitting around in her alluring Elektra garb and the rest of the film has been regaled to the deleted scenes section, I think I’ll be giving this one a pass.

THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE-THE NEW GROOVE EDITION (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.95): Disney repackages an out-of-print title–in this case, their 2000 slapstick comedy with David Spade as a snarky emperor who is transformed into a snarky llama–with a couple of new little tidbits added to the previously released extras for those who missed it the first time around. In the same vein, they are also reissuing their nifty 1999 version of “Tarzan” (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.95) in a one-disc edition that removes much of the special material from its original 2-disc incarnation.

THE JAZZ SINGER-25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.95):The “Glitter”of its day, this remake of the ever-popular chestnut, bizarrely reconceived as a vanity vehicle to show off the acting talents of Neil Diamond, has so many unintentionally hilarious moments that it winds up being more amusing than most deliberate comedies. I can’t decide if my favorite moment is when Diamond puts on blackface to substitute for an ailing member of an all-black group that he writes music for (he forgets to do his hands, leading to the unforgettable cry, “Hey, that’s a white boy up there!”) or when Laurence Olivier, playing Diamond’s Jewish cantor father, actually gets to say “I heffff no son!”

LAND OF THE DEAD (Universal Home Video. $29.98):The theatrical version of George Romero’s long-awaited fourth “Living Dead” zombie epic remains one of the very best films of 2005. This unrated version fleshes things out–literally (more gore) and thematically (more story)–and throws on enough bonus features (including a Romero commentary) to make it a must-have purchase for any serious student of the horror genre. Oh, and that Asia Argento is also easy on the eyes.

LIFEBOAT (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.95): Generally overlooked in discussions of the sound films of Alfred Hitchcock, this 1944 effort is actually one of his more interesting works. After an ocean liner is torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat (which is also sunk in the process), eight survivors–including a saucy journalist (Tallulah Bankhead) and the captain of the U-boat (Walter Slezak)–float upon a cramped lifeboat while desperately trying to find an Allied ship. The question: is the German, the only one capable of navigating the craft, actually helping the other survivors or is he actually piloting them towards another German ship? One of Hitchcock’s first and best experiments at working withing self-imposed technical restrictions, this film–the last major Hitchcock film to hit DVD–is supplemented with a commentary from historian Drew Caspar and a short documentary on its making (including one amusingly dirty story about Bankhead and her general disinclination towards wearing underwear).

MA MERE (TLA Releasing. $24.98): Those in the mood for a dark, depressing and decidedly unpleasant (though not uninteresting) cinematic experience might want to give this twisted French psychodrama, in which the great Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel portray a mother and son whose relationship grows decidedly more bizarre as the film progresses.

THE SABATA TRILOGY COLLECTION (MGM Home Entertainment. $35.95): Although hardly in the same league as Sergio Leone’s legendary “Man with No Name” spaghetti western trilogy, these three films, all starring Lee Van Cleef as the titular beady-eyed gunfighter and all featuring him blowing the hell out of anyone who pisses him off, are still pretty entertaining examples of the genre for those with a taste for sleazy and violent entertainment.

SAVING FACE (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $26.96):Also known as “My Big Fat Gaysian Wedding,” this was a slight but entertaining romp about a repressed Asian-American lesbian (Michelle Krusiec) who meets the girl of her dreams (Lynn Chen) but has to keep it a secret when her mother (Joan Chen) moves in after becoming unexpectedly pregnant. A nice debut for writer-director Alice Wu that is actually better than it sounds.

SAW: UNCUT SPECIAL EDITION (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $26.98):Just in time to tie in with the release of the upcoming “Saw II,” Lion’s Gate has finally decided to grace us with the uncut and super-gory version of last year’s surprisingly successful horror hit. For fans, it is probably worth the upgrade for the extra blood and guts (literally, in the case of the latter) but they still don’t make up for the extraordinarily awful lead performance by Cary Elwes–he is so bad at times that even Ed Wood or Uwe Boll might have thought seriously about recasting.

SEASON OF THE WITCH/THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.95): Two of George Romero’s more obscure films–both produced in the wake of “Night of the Living Dead” when he was hoping to avoid being typecast as just a horror filmmaker–finally appear on DVD. The former is a fairly interesting 1973 parable about the feminist movement in which a straight-laced housewife who turns to a suburbanized form of witchcraft (such as putting her spell books on her credit card) in an effort to break various patriarchal shackles and whatnot. The latter is a far less successful romantic drama involving a rebellious hippie and a model that is easily the dullest thing that he has ever put on film. For fans of Romero, both are still worth catching to demonstrate that Romero’s skills as a filmmaker extend beyond the trappings of his zombie epics.

SUZANNE VEGA-LIVE AT MONTREUX (Red Distribution Inc. $14.98): As someone who harbors both a long-standing crush on Ms. Vega and a longtime fondness for songs featuring trenchant lyrics backed by wispy folk-pop arrangements, this DVD of a 2004 concert performance (featuring such hits as “Luka,” “Tom’s Diner” and “Caramel”) is pretty much a must-own.

TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE (Thinkfilm. $29.98): An interesting documentary from Mark Wexler about his father, acclaimed cinematographer/filmmaker Haskell Wexler, and the occasionally stormy relationship that they share as a result of differing personal, professional and political philosophies. Interesting both as a chronicle of an unsung Hollywood legend and a thoughtful look at the ties that bind (and occasionally choke) fathers and sons.

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originally posted: 10/21/05 12:50:30
last updated: 10/29/05 04:23:34
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