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DVD Reviews for 1/27: A Nice Guy Finishes Too Soon
by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic takes a look at a couple of cool little movies that you have probably never heard of, a couple of incredibly stupid ones that you have heard of and gives a few suggestions for anyone planning to commemorate the passing of Chris Penn.

As you have no doubt heard by now, actor Chris Penn died a few days ago, just before the Sundance premiere of his latest film, “The Darwin Awards.” While there is some debate as to his age (some sources say 40 while others claim 43), there is not debate to the fact that it was far too soon. Although he may have been regarded by some as merely the brother of Sean Penn (one wire piece that went out made it seem as though that was his sole claim to fame), he was a reliable character actor who turned in any number of fine performances over the years. Of course, he did more than his share of crap as well–there is no reason to get into such trifles as “Beethoven’s 2nd,” “Rush Hour” or the redoubtable “Corky Romano” other than to simply note their existence–but when he was given some worthwhile material, he would more often than not turn in some memorable work.

Below, I have listed five films–all currently available on DVD (though you may have to work at finding one of them)–that are definitely worth checking out. Beyond the titles, you should also seek out the likes of “Pale Rider,” “At Close Range,” “Mulholland Falls” and “Masked & Anonymous” in which he turned in equally interesting work in smaller roles.

FOOTLOOSE (1984): Yeah, the movie is pretty much unbearable to watch today (frankly, it wasn’t all that hot back then either) and it is a little amazing to realize just how many allegedly hip people back then swallowed a plot–little more than a variation of the “Let’s put on a show!” schtick–that seemed dated when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did it. One of the few good things about the film was Penn, who played the small-town kid who buddied up with big-city outsider Kevin Bacon–watching him try to guide his raw, ungainly physique into something resembling cool dance moves was an authentic delight in a otherwise oppressively synthetic confection.

RESERVOIR DOGS (1992): Well, duh! In perhaps the best-known work of his career, Penn played Nice Guy Eddie, the son of crime boss Lawrence Tierney in Quentin Tarantino’s landmark crime drama and got to deliver, in his big gunpoint monologue at the climax, one of film’s best moments. Check out the bonus features for a hilarious interview with Penn in which he talks about working with the legendarily prickly Tierney.

TRUE ROMANCE (1993): In another film based on a Tarantino screenplay, this time directed by Tony Scott, Penn makes a brief but memorable appearance in a few scenes as a cop who, with partner Tom Sizemore, gets involved with a drug-deal sting that turns into a wildly over-the-top Mexican standoff. Although he didn’t have much screen time, he and Sizemore brought such an energy and edge to the proceedings that it feels as if they play a larger part in the proceedings than they actually do.

SHORT CUTS (1993): In Robert Altman’s sprawling epic chronicling the lives of a group of ordinary Los Angeles residents, Penn was gripping as a pool cleaner whose increasing frustration with wife Jennifer Jason Leigh’s work as a phone sex operator–why can she say those things to total strangers but not to him?–more or less triggers the cataclysmic events of the still-controversial finale. In a film that reveled in operatic moments, his menacing slow burn was a terrifyingly identifiable image of a man who is losing his place in the world and who tries to regain it in the most savage and primitive manner possible.

THE FUNERAL (1996): Arguably the least-known title here, this defiantly odd work from Abel Ferrara–yes, this is odd even by his legendarily freaky standards–features Penn and Christopher Walken as a pair of Depression-era brothers/gangsters trying to learn who was responsible for the hit on their younger brother, a budding Communist played by Vincent Gallo; Penn’s character is going through some significant personal problems as well that lead to a memorably shocking final scene. Arguably the best performance of his career–alternately sensitive and scary–and easily one of the strangest titles in his filmography. This is one that may be difficult to track down but it is definitely worth whatever effort you must go through in order to see it.


THE ARISTOCRATS (Thinkfilm. $29.99): For those who came away from this filthy and funny documentary about the dissection of an infamously dirty joke, recounted here by over 100 comedians (with Gilbert Gottfried and Sarah Silverman getting top honors for their memorable renditions), thirsty for more, this disc includes a large deleted scenes section featuring full-length and alternate versions of the joke not seen in the film–Kevin Pollack delivers one in the style of Albert Brooks (in the film proper, he does it as Christopher Walken) that is worth the purchase price all by itself.

CISCO PIKE (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $14.95): In this off-beat, if little remembered, look at the music and drug scenes of early-1970's Los Angeles, Kris Kristofferson stars as a rock singer, recently released from prison for drug-dealing, who tries to get back into music but finds that everyone he knows (including a corrupt cop played by Gene Hackman) is more interested in him for his drug connections. Those of you who liked “Tequilla Sunrise” may find this to be an intriguing early variation of that film’s basic plot.

FLIGHTPLAN (Touchstone Home Entertainment. $29.99): Just out of curiosity, exactly what were the bad guys planning on doing if a.) Jodie Foster decided not to move to another row to take a nap and b.) her child behaved like a normal kid on a plane flight by fidgeting, fussing and making endless requests for juice or trips to the bathroom?

THE FOG: UNRATED SPECIAL EDITION (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $28.95): Okay, this remake of a solid John Carpenter vehicle just plain sucks and not even the sight of Maggie Grace’s hinder in tiny blue panties can even begin to cover up that fact.

OLIVER TWIST (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $28.95): Although he doesn’t really transform the material in any significant way that would better suggest why he felt compelled to make the umpteenth adaptation of Charles Dickens’s warhorse, Roman Polanski did deliver a visually spectacular and dramatically solid version of the tale, bolstered by a strong and strangely sympathetic performance by Sir Ben “Bloodrayne” Kingsley as Fagin. While not exactly top-shelf Polanski, this film, a flop in theaters, is one definitely worthy of rediscovery on home video.

REPO MAN (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98): Universal puts out another version of Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic–a film combining such arcane elements as punk rockers, aliens, a 1964 Chevy Malibu and career performances from both Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton–with pretty much the same extras as before. Meanwhile, they continue to refuse to issue Cox’s 1987 masterpiece “Walker,” a brave and boldly surreal biopic that told the tale of America’s first intrusion into Nicaragua in the 1850's while pointing out the similarities to our adventures there in the 1980's.

SNL-BEST OF DAVID SPADE (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $19.98): I am assuming that this will go down as the shortest DVD in the history of the format. This week also sees the release of “SNL-The Best of Alec Baldwin,” for those of you with an insatiable desire for jokes about pedophile Boy Scout leaders and “Schwetty Balls.”

THUMBSUCKER (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $26.98): As recent alienated-youth movies go, this was a pretty good one thanks to a surprisingly strong cast–including Lou Taylor Pucci (who won awards at Sundance and Berlin for his performance), Tilda Swinton, Vince Vaughn (in a surprisingly low-key role) and Kelli Garner–and interesting work from first-time filmmaker Mike Mills.

THE VIRGIN SPRING (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): In Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film, one of his greatest works in my book, a 13-year-old girl in medieval Sweden goes out on a journey to a distant church, only to be raped and murdered by a couple of goatherds. Ironically, the killers then unwittingly seek refuge with her parents–when they discover what has happened to their child, they take swift and sorrowful revenge. Initially overlooked by some as a minor film in comparison to the likes of “The Seventh Seal,” it became more well-known when Wes Craven used the basic plot as the inspiration for his equally stunning “Last House on the Left.”

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originally posted: 01/27/06 16:01:49
last updated: 02/04/06 04:07:17
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