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DVD Reviews for 11/4: Keep Watching the Skies!

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic looks at some special and not-so-special editions, examines aliens from above and below and wonders when in the hell R. Kelly is going to get out of that damned closet.

The last few weeks have seen a run on special edition reissues of catalogue titles with a certain kind of cult appeal and many, surprisingly, have turned out to be a bit disappointing. One such disappointment was the new version of “The Big Lebowski,” the Coen Brothers noir spoof that perplexed audiences when it was released in 1998 but which has gone on inspire an entire cottage industry of fans who hold yearly celebrations where they offer up White Russians in toast to the film. However, you wouldn’t know anything about that based on the new disc–the only new things it offers viewers are some photos taken by Jeff Bridges and a new faux-introduction about the restoration which is merely a rehash of the joke they previously used on the “Blood Simple” re-release. (If you purchase the more-expensive “Achiever’s Edition,” you merely receive some drink coasters and a bowling towel for your extra $20.) Even cheesier is the new “Office Space” disc that is being released this week–my complaints can be seen below. Both titles have the kind of fan base that would pay top dollar for a truly special edition and yet they are being given scraps that would have barely seemed adequate the first time around.

That is why Paramount’s new edition of the 1953 George Pal production of “War of the Worlds” is such a delight to behold. Obviously, it is being put out to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the Steven Spielberg remake (which is itself being released later this month) and no one would have been particularly surprised if the studio had just tossed out a repackaging of their initial bare-bones version. Instead, they have put together an impressive package that will satisfy the most devoted sci-fi buffs. Not only that, they are only charging $14.95 for it, making it one of the best DVD bargains of the year. The disc contains two full-length commentaries–one features stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson and the other has director/sci-fi buff Joe Dante (whose films, such as “Explorers,” “Innerspace,” “Matinee” and “Looney Tunes: Back In Action,” have always celebrated 50's-era genre films), historian Bob Burns and author Bill Warren (whose seminal book of 1950's sci-fi films, “Keep Watching the Skies,” is a must-own for anyone vaguely interested in the genre) geeking out over an all-time favorite–the original trailer and short documentaries on the making of the film and its then-groundbreaking (and Oscar-winning) special effects and H.G. Wells, the author of the original story. Best of all, it even features a compete recording of the infamous Orson Welles radio adaptation of the story that both scared the crap out of America on Halloween Night, 1938 and distracted people from noticing the arrival of Lectroids from Planet 10 in New Jersey. (This raises the question of why Paramount didn't release this disc a week or two earlier to capitalize on the seemingly obvious holiday tie-in.)

As for the film itself, it is one of those rare genre films that actually lives up to the “classic” designation that fans have bestowed upon it for decades. Sure, there are some cheesy moments here and there (especially the opening and closing narration from Sir Cedric Hardwicke), the ending is very silly and MST3K fans may find it difficult to keep a straight face throughout a film in which the stalwart hero is named Dr. Clayton Forrester. However, the film moves along quickly enough and once the attacks finally begin, the special effects are still impressive enough (as long as you are willing to forgive the occasional visible wire) to provide the kind of jolt that contemporary CGI effects just can’t quite manage. It may not have the overwhelming visceral impact of the recent Spielberg take on the material but I would willing take this film–flaws and all–over that version in a heartbeat. For all its flaws, the 1953 “War of the Worlds” still has the power to dazzle viewers–an ability that I doubt the current version will have a half-century from now.

Written by Barre Lyndon. Directed by Byron Haskin. Starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne and Robert Cornthwaite. 1953. Unrated. 85 minutes. A Paramount Home Video release. $14.95


ALIENS OF THE DEEP (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): No doubt hoping to cash in on some of the publicity surrounding last week’s release of the gigantic “Titanic” special edition, we now have the DVD debut of Cameron’s recent 3-D IMAX documentary in which he and a group of NASA scientists explore the strange sights at the Mid-Ocean Ridge. Visually extraordinary, to be sure, but the film lacks the focus of Cameron’s previous undersea documentary, “Ghosts of the Abyss.” Although this disc lacks a 3-D option, it does include both the original 47-minute theatrical version and an 99-minute extended cut.

THE CAPTAIN & TENNILLE-THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION (Bayside Distribution. $45.98): For those of you who believe that popular music achieved perfection with the release of “Muskrat Love,” this 3-disc compilation of highlights from the briefly-aired variety show starring Toni Tennille and Daryl Dragon is probably a must-have. Fans of 1970's kitsch may get a kick out of it as well for the odd clothes, the bewildering guest stars (including Don Knotts, Leonard Nimoy, Muhammad Ali, George Burns, Heart, and the casts of “Charlie’s Angels” and “Welcome Back Kotter”) and the even-more-bewildering dated jokes and spoofs (including something entitled “The Bionic Watermelon”).

FAME-SEASON ONE (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $49.98): Does anyone else find it ironic that of all the people to appear on this show, a long-running, low-rated spin-off of Alan Parker’s 1980 cheesefest about the New York School for the Performing Arts, maybe two–Janet Jackson and Lori Singer–went on to anything remotely resembling fame?

HAMMETT (Paramount Home Video. $14.99): When Francis Ford Coppola opened his Zoetrope Studios in 1980, one of his ambitions was to bring acclaimed foreign directors to come to America and work for him. One who took the bait was Wim Wenders, the German director who was then riding high with such internationally revered films as “Kings of the Road” and “The American Friend.” Wenders set to work on this adaptation of Joe Gores speculative 1975 novel that dealt with a pre-fame Dashiell Hammett (Frederic Forrest) in the years when he was working as a Pinkerton detective and stumbling onto a case that would influence his later career. The “Cursed” of its day, the production went through two years of reshoots, rewrites and delays caused by Zoetrope’s financial problems–Wenders shot an entire second feature, 1982's “The State of Things” (which itself dealt with a catastrophic film production)–before it was briefly released and quickly pulled from theaters. Unlike “Cursed,” this is still a worthwhile film–it is gorgeous to look at, Forrest is surprisingly effective as Hammett and it has clearly been made by someone with a deep affection for film noir. Sadly, no commentary or deleted scenes that would illustrate the behind-the-scenes fireworks but this film is still a curiosity worth checking out.

LION OF THE DESERT/THE MESSAGE (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $29.95 each): Now here are a couple of curiosities–two incredibly expensive historical epics that were financed by none other than Muammar Qaddafi himself. The former is a large-scale biography of Omar Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn) and his heroic defense of Libya against the forces of Benito Mussolini (Oliver Reed) during World War II. The latter is another biopic–this one about the Prophet Muhammad (who is never depicted in the film) and the birth of Islam. Generally, these films are best remembered today, if at all, for two bits of trivia. First, the director of both, Moustapha Akkad, would strike it rich as one of the producers of a low-budget horror film called “Halloween.” Second, when “The Message” premiered in 1976, it caused such a furor amongst devout Muslins (who were disturbed by any cinematic portrayal of their leader) that death threats were made, theaters were bombed and some fanatics even took hostages at one point.

MILLIONS (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.98): After the flashiness of such films as “Trainspotting” and “28 Days Later,” director Danny Boyle threw fans and critics for a loop by coming up with something truly unexpected–an utterly charming and delightful family film about a young saint-obsessed child who gets a chance to live out his altruistic dreams when he discovers a bag full of pound notes that were taken in a bank robbery. Sentimental but never sappy, this film is a real winner for children and adults alike.

OFFICE SPACE-SPECIAL EDITION WITH FLAIR (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): Hot on the heels of the disappointing recent special edition of “The Big Lebowski” comes another reissue of a modern cult classic that doesn’t come close to living up to the expectations of fans. Sure, Mike Judge’s 1999 goof on contemporary corporate culture is a blast–and definitely worth buying if you don’t already own it–but the so-called “flair” included in this version isn’t much to shout about. The film has finally been anamorphically enhanced but instead of such hoped-for extras as a Judge commentary or the original “Milton” animated shorts that inspired the film, there is only an uninformative documentary featurette and an amusing-but-brief collection of deleted scenes. Essentially, what could have been a killer set turns out to be the kind of disc that Bob Lumbergh himself might have approved.

THE PERFECT MAN (Universal Home Video. $29.98): Even by the less-than-sterling standards of a standard Hilary Duff vehicle (of which “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” is probably the high-water mark–and no, “Human Nature” doesn’t count), this agonizingly predictable romantic comedy–in which she invents a fake Internet boyfriend so that flighty mom Heather Locklear won’t be tempted to pull up stakes once again–was pretty awful. What else can you say about a film in which the inability of a character who looks like Heather Locklear to find a date is not the most implausible part? Even the most desperate of perverts–the ones who watch “The Gilmore Girls” every week for reasons other than the fast-paced dialogue–will find themselves bored senseless with this one.

STAR WARS: EPISODE III-REVENGE OF THE SITH (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Yes, it is by far the best of the second trilogy of the “Star Wars” films–hell, it is the only one of the three that doesn’t hurt too bad on a second viewing. However, there isn’t anything here that I wouldn’t gladly sacrifice forever in a heartbeat for another look at “Star Wars” or “The Empire Strikes Back.”

TRAPPED IN THE CLOSET (Sony Music Video. $19.98): Although this apparently endless music video/soap opera has its fans, I suspect that this will go down as only the second-most-popular R. Kelly DVD. Yes, I am fully aware that I made the exact same joke last week about Paris Hilton in my “House of Wax” blurb, but if famous people are going to follow up humiliatingly public sex videos, they have to expect such oh-so-clever barbs from writers too bored to come up with anything new. Available in Unrated and Edited versions–I can only hope that both are golden shower-free.

TWO FOR THE ROAD (Fox Home Entertainment. $14.98): A great, if underrated film, this 1967 romantic comedy-drama from Stanley Donen, chronicling the ups and downs in the relationship of a British couple (Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney) as chronicled in the vacations taken throughout their 12-year-marriage. Funny, touching and decidedly real, this film also proves to any doubters that Audrey Hepburn was a genuine actress and not simply a charming clotheshorse. Mysteriously overlooked on its initial release, this went on to become a cult favorite and this disc (featuring a commentary by Donen) will hopefully expose it to a new generation of viewers.

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originally posted: 11/04/05 15:48:56
last updated: 11/11/05 17:59:42
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