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DVD Reviews for 12/09: Extra-Awkward Edition

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic explores the shadowy corners of classic film noir, watches as Leslie Nielsen saves us from the dursed British and speculates on which soon-to-be-divorced couple has put out the most inadvertently awkward release of the week.

For fans of film noir, 2005 has been an embarrassment of riches on the DVD front. In the space of one calendar year, we have seen the release of such masterpieces of the genre as “Laura,” “The Street With No Name,” “Crossfire,” “Born to Kill” and the proverbial many, many more. Now, as the year comes to an end, one more classic hits the DVD shelves for the first time–Henry Hathaway’s 1947 effort “Kiss of Death.” For fans of noir, nothing more needs to be said–you probably had it on pre-order from the minute it was announced. For those of you who have somehow never encountered it, a brief explanation.

Victor Mature, in what was easily the best performance of his career, stars as low-life hood Nick Bianco, a three-time loser who has just gotten pinched for a jewel heist. The cops try to convince him to turn states evidence but he refuses based on the assurance that is cohorts in crime will look after his wife and children for him while he is in jail in exchange for his silence. Of course, that assurance winds up being worth nothing and Nick learns that his wife has committed suicide and his daughters have been placed in an orphanage. In order to save what remains of his family, he finally turns on his former colleagues and is paroled. A while later, Nick has remarried and begun a new life when he learns that one of the people imprisoned by his testimony, the psychotic Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) has just been released and is ready for revenge.

There are many reasons why “Kiss of Death” is such a memorable film. The story, despite sounding somewhat trite and predictable, throws enough curveballs into the mix to keep viewers on their toes. (In fact, the film would go on to be remade twice–the 1958 Western “The Fiend Who Walked the West,” starring future studio head Robert Evans in the title role, and a more straightforward 1995 adaptation with David Caruso and Nicolas Cage.) Besides Mature, the cast is filled with reliable character actors (including Brian Donlevy, Colleen Gray and Karl Malden) doing strong and sturdy work. However, the major reason why the impact of the film has lasted to this day was the stunning debut performance by Widmark as the mad-dog Udo. One of the first full-on portrayals of a psychopath to be seen in an American film, he came up with a creepy, giggly force of evil that still resonates today–the scene in which he deals with a squealer’s invalid mother in a decidedly brutal manner is still as shocking today as it was back in 1947.

Written by Ben Hecht & Charles Lederer. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Starring Victor Mature, Colleen Gray, Brian Donlevy, Richard Widmark and Karl Malden. 1947. 98 minutes. Unrated. A Fox Home Entertainment release. $14.98


24: SEASON 4 (Fox Home Entertainment. $69.98): Another day, another non-stop series of nail-biting cliffhangers, escapes from certain doom, visits from sexy terrorist types, shocking secrets and diabolical plans that only the two-fisted and iron-bladdered Jack Bauer can possibly stop in the ta-daa nick of time. The one question that may even elude Bauer–why does Shannen Doherty (who is a sexy terrorist type of an entirely different sort) appear on several of the commentary tracks contained on this six-disc set when she has had absolutely nothing to do with the actual show?

CINDERELLA MAN (Universal Home Video. $29.98): Sorry, that money-back guarantee that was adopted in a last-ditch effort to save this overhyped and underwhelming true-life boxing drama from a disappointing box-office take is no longer in effect. Clearly, this disc is coming out now in an effort to rekindle interest in time for Oscar nominations but I suspect that only Paul Giammati (quite good as Russell Crowe’s loyal friend and trainer) will need to clear his schedule this March.

DIRTY LOVE (First Look Home Entertainment. $26.99): Look, I never said that this crudely effective gross-out comedy, showcasing the over-the-top comedic stylings of star/screenwriter Jenny McCarthy, was a masterpiece. I said that it has some pretty funny moments, an inspired go-for-broke performance from McCarthy and that, given the choice, I would take it over most of the recent Farrelly Brothers films of late. The disc contains a commentary track featuring McCarthy and director/soon-to-be-ex-Mr.-McCarthy John Asher–depending on when it was recorded, this could be the most awkward DVD release of the week.

THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (Warner Home Video. $29.98): Look, I never said that this big-screen adaptation of one of the dumbest TV shows ever made was a masterpiece either. All I said was that given the source material, the film (which was partially worked on by the Broken Lizard guys) was a hell of a lot funnier than it had any right to be. Besides, the casting of Burt Reynolds, the man whose good-ol’-boy epics helped inspire the show in the first place, as Boss Hogg was either a stroke of genius or a depressing inevitability.

FANTASTIC FOUR (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Yes, this is one of the worst films of the year–an unholy botch of a bad script, a director (Tim Story, the auteur of “Taxi”) utter unsuited for such material and a group of bizarrely miscast actors looking like idiots in uncomfortable outfits–but the notion of a Jessica Alba commentary track makes this DVD almost irresistible.

FORBIDDEN GAMES (The Criterion Collection. $29.95): No, Criterion has not decided to give us a fancy version of the 1995 straight-to-Skinemax erotic thriller best known, if at all, for an appearance by future WWE Diva Amy Weber. This is just that darn 1952 classic from Rene Clement about a young French girl, orphaned by an air raid, who is befriended by the young son of the peasants who take her in–the two attempt to process the grief that they can barely begin to understand by constructing a cemetery for dead animals. Sorry to disappoint you.

FUN WITH DICK AND JANE (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $14.99): While waiting for the long-delayed Jim Carrey-Tea Leoni remake to finally hit the streets, you might want to take a gander at the 1976 original in which George Segal and Jane Fonda played the affluent couple who turn to crime to fund their lavish lifestyle when they find themselves unemployed. As I remember, Ed McMahon is really funny as Segal’s sleazy boss, but it has been a while.

IMAGINE: DELUXE EDITION (Warner Home Entertainment. $19.98): As shameless hagiographies go, this look at the life and art of John Lennon (being released just in time to commemorate the quarter-century anniversary of his murder) isn’t too bad–it uses old footage and home movies, augmented by a narration by Lennon himself (culled from interviews) to tell the story of one of the most influential men of the 20th century. Not definitive by any means (the notoriously self-critical Lennon is painted here in terms that would embarrass a saint) but a good overview for new acolytes and a nice bit of nostalgia for the older ones.

KID MILLIONS (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.95):In this amusing 1934 romp, an amiable New York doofus (Eddie Cantor, in one of his comparatively rare film roles) learns that his archaeologist father has died and left him a fortune–the only hitch is that he has to journey to Egypt to collect it. Along the way, he runs into any number of people hoping to swindle him out of his fortune, a gallery of familiar faces (including Edgar Kennedy, Martha Raye and Ann Sothern) and an odd finale shot in the then-new three-strip Technicolor process.

NEWLYWEDS-NICK AND JESSICA-THE FINAL SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $26.99): Okay, maybe the Jenny McCarthy movie is the second-most awkward DVD release of the week.

PUDDLE CRUISER (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): I haven’t seen this 1996 college comedy yet–I suspect that few of you have either–but the fact that it was the premiere cinematic effort of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe (who went on to do the cult favorites “Super Troopers” and “Club Dread”) is enough to encourage me to seek it out.

THE ROCKFORD FILES: SEASON ONE (Universal Home Video. $39.98): The classic 1970's James Garner detective show finally makes its DVD debut and if you look closely among the 22 episodes collected here, you will also spot the likes of James Woods, Ned Beatty, Lindsay Wagner, Suzanne Somers and the seemingly immortal Abe Vigoda. The only bonus here is an interview with Garner about the development of the series–I’m guessing that it won’t get around to mentioning how he had to sue Universal when they tried to screw him on his residuals.

SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (The Criterion Collection. $39.95):One of the classics of the French New Wave, this weird and wonderful 1960 homage/goof on gangster films (in which Charles Aznavour stars as a acclaimed pianist hiding from life and love in a saloon while his brother is simultaneously hiding from mobsters) from Francois Truffaut was perhaps the most sheerly entertaining work of his entire career. This two-disc set, on the heels of Criterion’s great edition of Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” features a commentary from film scholars Annette Insdorf and Peter Brunette, a new interview with Aznavour and excerpts from documentaries centering on both the film and the David Goodis novel that inspired it.

SPANKING THE MONKEY (New Line Home Entertainment. $14.99):Although perhaps a little too squirmy at times for most viewers, this 1994 comedy–in which a milquetoast young man (Jeremy Davies) and his domineering mother (Alberta Watson) spend a decidedly uncomfortable summer together when the former is forced to care for the other when she suffers a broken leg–was definitely an original and marked the discovery of a unique new filmmaker in David O. Russell, who went on to make “Flirting With Disaster,” “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees.”

STAR WARS-CLONE WARS: VOLUME 2 (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): Unless George Lucas finally breaks down and decides to issue either the original versions of the Original Trilogy or, dare I hope, the immortal “Star Wars Holiday Special,” this DVD–the second half of the acclaimed Cartoon Network miniseries that bridged the gap between “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith”–just might be the last “Star Wars”-related item that you need to pick up before the next great format change.

WALT DISNEY TREASURES: WAVE FOUR (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $32.95 each): Although this latest wave of items from the Disney vaults may not seem as impressive as previous years, fans of the collection probably won’t be disappointed with these selections. Those with a taste for history Disney-style will be amused by “Elfego Baca and The Swamp Fox: Legendary Heroes,” selections from the studio’s 1950's television output–the former features Robert Loggia as a gunfighter-turned-lawyer and the latter stars Leslie Nielsen in the role of the Revolutionary War hero later played by Mel Gibson in “The Patriot.” More television fun can be found on “The Adventures of Spin and Marty,” which contains the entire first season of the serial that was a popular segment of “The Mickey Mouse Club.” On the film front, Donald Duck makes a return engagement with “The Chronological Donald, Volume 2,” covering his cartoon appearances from 1942-1946. For true Disney fanatics, the pick of the bunch is most likely “Disney Rarities-Celebrated Shorts, 1920's-1960's,” a set composed of one-offs and rare material ranging from the studio’s “Alice in Wonderland” shorts from the 1920's, fascinating early experiments in combining live-action and animation, to such beloved latter-day works as “Ben and Me,” “Ferdinand the Bull” and “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom.”

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (Fox Home Entertainment. $14.98): The team responsible for the classic film noir “Laura”–director Otto Preminger and stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney–reunited in 1950 for this lesser-known gem. In it, Andrews plays a hot-headed cop who accidentally kills a murder suspect and then tries to cover up his misdeed by pinning it on a career criminal that he hasn’t yet been able to bring down. In other words, this is decidedly not an adaptation of the Shel Silverstein classic.

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originally posted: 12/09/05 15:56:04
last updated: 12/23/05 16:39:06
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