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DVD Reviews for 1/13: "They aren't even sure if it is a baby!"

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your humble critic tries and utterly fails to explain one of the most mystifing films ever made and flashes back to the time when the words "Directed by Barry Levinson" served as a lure and not as a warning.

David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” has been described by more than one critic as being the perfect cult movie since it so completely defies any attempts at explanation, categorization or analysis. For this reason, many people adore it for its striking visuals, bizarre humor and the fact that it lends itself to any number of interpretations. At the same time, just as many others loathe its for its impenetrability, its occasionally disgusting imagery and a soundtrack that, to them, seems to consist entirely of leaky radiators and white noise from a nearby radio. Since the film hit the midnight movie circuit in 1978, this debate has raged on and now with the advent of this DVD (the same one that Lynch has been selling exclusively on his own website for a couple of years), it is likely to continue on as a new generation of fans and detractors are exposed to it.

How to describe the indescribable? Imagine the strangest mental hygiene film you have ever seen depicting the tragic results of pre-marital hanky-panky. Now picture it taking place in a strange land that resembles a post-post-nuclear Pittsburgh and inhabited by aliens who have assumed human form without quite having a grasp on how to make it work. Henry (Jack Nance) is a oddball schnook who learns from his girlfriend Mary, during the most singularly strange meet-the-parents sequence ever filmed, that they have had a severely premature baby that looks like a cross between an animal fetus and one of E.T.’s uglier relatives. Forced to marry, his already squalid life is made even more excruciating by Mary’s constant nagging and the baby’s constant choking cries until he is driven to committing a desperate act of . . .something. At the same time, the film also makes room for vignettes involving a woman living in the radiator who sings about heaven, man-made chickens, a sultry neighbor who tempts Henry with the pleasures of the flesh, a dream sequence that sort of explains the title and a few other items that completely defy description.

Any expecting Lynch to provide any explanations on this DVD in the form of a commentary track is going to be disappointed by the lack of such a thing–then again, how much of a surprise can that be coming from a filmmaker so adverse to breaking up the cinematic experience that he doesn’t allow chapter stops on his discs? Outside of the stunning restoration of the film–this is simply the best that I have ever seen it look–there are only two extras to be had here. The first is a trailer that is essentially a random collection of images that must have bewildered anyone encountering it for the first time. The second is far more significant–a feature-length documentary that is essentially Lynch sitting down and talking about the entire history of the making of the film. No, he doesn’t provide his own personal interpretations and he doesn’t explain how the effect of the baby was achieved, but the stories that he does tell–from the initial conception to its release–are endlessly fascinating and fans will be thrilled to discover a few bits of behind-the-scenes footage sprinkled throughout. For fans of the endlessly quirky and inventive Lynch, this disc (as well as “The Short Films of David Lynch,” a collection of strange shorts that, like “Eraserhead,” were previously available only through his website) is a must-own. For others, especially those who want to take a walk on the cinematic wild side, it is definitely worth a look–for full effect, don’t put it on until midnight.

Written and directed by David Lynch. Starring Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Judith Anna Roberts and Laurel Near. 1977. 89 minutes. Unrated. An Absurda/Subversive release. $29.95.


THE BAD SLEEP WELL (The Criterion Collection. $29.95): Though generally overlooked by film scholars for the likes of “The Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon,” this 13th collaboration between Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune was a taut and fascinating drama that combined elements of film noir and “Hamlet” to tell a story about a young man who gets a job at the corporation that destroyed his father in order to bring down both the organization and the people running it from within.

CABIN IN THE SKY (Warner Home Video. $19.95): Making his directorial debut, Vincente Minnelli came up with this utterly delightful adaptation of this all-black musical about the forces of Heaven and Hell battling for the soul of relapsed sinner Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Featuring wonderful performances from Ethel Waters (as the devout and pure wife praying for her husband’s salvation) and Lena Horne (devastating as the sexy siren leading him down the wayward path), this is a film that is so joyous and entertaining that only a churl would complain about some of the mild bits of stereotyping. Warners is also releasing two other excellent black musicals this week–the solid and respectful 1929 film “Hallelujah” (the first major film from Hollywood to feature an African-American cast) and the wild 1936 epic “The Green Pastures” (in which Bible stories are depicted through the point-of-view of rural sharecroppers).

THE CHUMSCRUBBER (Dreamworks Home Entertainment. $29.99): In the wake of the success of “American Beauty,” many films have attempted to replicate its blend of suburban ennui, teen turmoil and dark social satire. Few have copied that formula as blatantly as this barely-released nonsense and few have failed so mightily at the task. A good cast (including Jamie Bell, Camilla Belle, Ralph Fiennes, Glenn Close, Carrie-Anne Moss and William Fichtner, among others) is utterly wasted in one of the more obnoxiously pretentious films in recent memory.

THE CONSTANT GARDENER (Universal Home Video. $29.95): Now if you have a jones for a Ralph Fiennes movie this week, I cannot recommend this politically-charged drama highly enough. Based on the John Le Carre novel about a mid-level diplomat trying to get to the bottom of the murder of his activist wife (Rachel Weisz) in Kenya, this is a film that is, by equal turns, angry, thought-provoking and deeply touching. Besides, you should pick it up now before there is a rush on the title once Weisz gets her all-but-inevitable Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): Although I have never been particularly fond of this 1986 John Hughes comedy–for all his quaintly rebellious nature, the hero (Matthew Broderick) is kind of a twerp and his big “Day Off” in Chicago sees him doing the sorts of things that any suburban family from Schaumburg might indulge in–I know that enough people disagree with this assessment that this special edition DVD, featuring a few new mini-documentaries focusing on such subjects as the impact of the film on the career of Nixon apologist/pornographer/Jimmy Kimmel patron Ben Stein, comes as no surprise. I do have two questions. First, why does this version drop the Hughes commentary that appeared on the first version? Second, what kind of world do we live in where someone looking like Mia Sara can simply disappear from the film world altogether?

THE GIRL FROM MONDAY (Hart Sharp Video. $19.99): Even by the standards of notoriously iconoclastic filmmaker Hal Hartley, this 2004 digital feature is kind of an oddity. It’s a Godard-influenced sci-fi satire that posits a future world where human beings are traded like commodities (and your sex life helps your stock performance), totalitarianism is everywhere and a gorgeous alien falls from the sky and causes upheaval in the lives of several denizens of this brave new world. Weird and not entirely successful, to be sure, but it is certainly ambitious and there are flashes of Hartley’s deadpan humor throughout.

GOOD MORNING VIETNAM : SPECIAL EDITION(Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $19.99): A relic from the good old days when films starring Robin Williams or directed by Barry Levinson were things to look forward to instead of fear. Although not quite as ground-breaking as it may have seemed back in 1987–it pretty much plays like a standard service comedy today–it still remains perhaps the most successful shoehorning of Williams’s quicksilver stand-up persona into the confines of a standard narrative. (For a less successful example, a special edition of the thoroughly overrated “Dead Poets Society” also appear this week.)

HUSTLE & FLOW (Paramount Home Video. $29.95): A not-entirely-successful Memphis pimp suffers from a case of job insecurity and decides that he wants to become a rap star instead. One of the most overrated movies of 2005, this contained an impressive lead performance from Terrence Howard in the service of a threadbare story that merely served up another helping of the pimping myth that we have seen countless times before.

RED-EYE (Dreamworks Home Entertainment. $29.99): Although it gets mighty ridiculous in the final reels once the action returns to land, this Hitchcockian effort from Wes Craven, in which a sweet lass (Rachel McAdams) struggles to outwit her seatmate (Cillian Murphy), a slick assassin who is trying to force her to aid him in his latest job by threatening to kill her father if she doesn’t help, is a pretty good thriller that takes a potentially ludicrous premise and milks a good amount of tension out of it. After the disaster of “Cursed,” this film marks a return to form for the eternally underrated Craven.

THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER (Universal Home Video. $14.95):Left out of that “Pink Panther” box set that came out a couple of years ago because of a rights issue, this 1975 farce is being released just in time to cash in on the presumed interest in the upcoming Steve Martin remake. Like most of the later “Panther” films, this one has a few brilliant bits of physical comedy from Peter Sellers but is, on the whole, not quite as funny as you might remember it being if you saw it for the first time as a young child.

SAM PECKINPAH’S LEGENDARY WESTERNS COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $59.98): Last week, we discussed “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,” the centerpiece of the magnificent 4-film collection comprising some classic works from the iconoclastic director. While that is the best of the bunch, the other titles–1962's “Ride the High Country,” 1969's “The Wild Bunch” and 1970's “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”--are nothing to sneeze at either; each title contains an informative commentary from a quarter of Peckinpah scholars as well as interesting featurettes. While they are all sold separately, I can’t imagine any genuine film fan worth his sand who wouldn’t want to own all of them.

SARABAND (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $29.95): Not simply a valedictory exercise that exists only to remind us of his glory days as a world-renowned director, Ingmar Bergman’s latest (and last, if his pronouncements are to be believe) work, a sequel to his “Scenes From a Marriage” is a living and breathing work of art that works on its own terms and the most harrowing and memorable parts have little to do with the original film. However, to see Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman together again in the hands of Bergman is a treat and a thrill–they have been living with these characters in their minds for as long as Bergman has. Neither of them are “acting” their parts–they simply inhabit them to such a degree that the three decades of elapsed time seems to disappear. “Saraband” is heavy lifting, to be sure, but those willing to make the effort will be rewarded with something that is an all too rare occurrence these days–a genuine work of art.

TRANSPORTER 2 (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Perhaps not as artistically significant a sequel as “Saraband,” this latest excursion into the mind of writer-producer Luc Besson is nevertheless a blast from start to finish–a relentless ballet of eye-popping stunts and eyebrow raising plot developments that is as entertaining as it is implausible. The scene in which our hero (the steely-eyed Jason Statham) removes a bomb from the bottom of his car is so cheerfully goofy that if the Bond producers had any sense, they would have signed Besson up in a heartbeat to breathe life into that particular franchise.

TROUBLE MAN (Fox Home Entertainment. $14.98): Not nearly as famous as “Shaft,” the film that it pretty obviously borrows liberally from, this 1972 blaxsploitation gem has its share of virtures–chiefly a bad-ass lead performance from Robert Hooks and an even-badder-ass jazz-influenced soundtrack from Marvin Gaye (later excerpted in films such as “Seven” and “Four Brothers”)–and it holds up today as a better-than-average example of the genre.

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originally posted: 01/13/06 15:45:09
last updated: 01/21/06 02:21:01
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