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DVD Reviews for 2/24: "Life is Pain!"

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful reviewer takes a look at a couple of 80's sleaze classics, takes what will hopefully be his last gratuitous shot at “Rent” and once again declares Milla Jovovich God.

Because it features wild levels of sex, violence and lurid plot developments, some moviegoers may be shocked and/or appalled by the new thriller “Running Scared.” However, moviegoers of a certain age and temperament will be able to remember that there was once a time when films, especially low-budget exploitation vehicles that needed something to give them an edge in a crowded marketplace, weren’t afraid to push the boundaries of good taste and common sense in order to entertain and provoke their audiences without being watered down by focus groups intent on making things as bland as possible. The good folks at Anchor Bay have unearthed two such trashy gems and it is amazing to discover that they still pack a substantial punch nearly 25 years after their original release.

Once considered to be an over-the-top depiction of a future that couldn’t possibly occur when it was released in 1982, Mark Lester’s “The Class of 1984" now plays as an almost psychic look at the increase in school violence. Perry King stars as an idealistic music teacher who goes to work at a school totally dominated by the brilliant and psychotic student Stegman (Timothy Van Patten, clearly channeling Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange”). At first, he tries to reason with the troublesome student, especially when the punk is revealed to by a musical prodigy, but the tensions eventually boil over into a jaw-dropping final battle in which the once-restrained teacher finally takes corporal punishment to the next level. It sounds like a dumb cross between “Death Wish” and “The Blackboard Jungle” but it is a lot better than it sounds–the performances are all surprisingly strong (and yes, that is Michael J. Fox in an early role taking a knife in the gut), the violent set-pieces are staged by Lester with a lot of imagination (and yes, there is a scene that makes full use of the shop class facilities–wood and auto) and the screenplay contains a wicked streak of black humor throughout. All three elements combine in its most famous scene, in which Roddy McDowall, as a biology teacher pushed to the edge of a nervous breakdown, finally snaps and gives his charges a pop quiz at gunpoint.

Perhaps the only film that could make “The Class of 1984" look benign and humanistic by comparison, Gary A. Sherman’s “Vice Squad” is like the sickest and most sadistic episode of “Hunter” ever produced. In this one, Season Hubley (the star of the similarly depraved “Hardcore”) plays Princess, a struggling single mother who turns to prostitution in order to earn the money to care for her child. Busted one night, she is forced by a hardass cop (Gary Swanson) to help him set up a brutal pimp named Ramrod (Wings Hauser) in order to arrest him for the murder of another hooker. Unfortunately for her, Ramrod escapes from custody hell-bent on revenge and Princess spends a long night on the streets trying to avoid him while the cops frantically try to find her before Ramrod does. Even sleazier than it sounds, “Vice Squad” is a nightmarish vision of hell on Earth that is thoroughly dominated by a genuinely frightening and depraved performance from B-movie veteran Wings Hauser as Ramrod–he gives a personification of evil in its most twisted and charismatic form that is truly unforgettable. Though essentially a grindhouse release through and through, the film did attract some high-profile fans–Martin Scorsese and Walter Hill among them–while attracting the scorn of the likes of Rex Reed. What more of a recommendation could you possibly want?

CLASS OF 1984: Written by Mark Lester and John Saxton and Tom Holland. Directed by Mark Lester. Starring Perry King, Tmothy Van Patten, Merrie Lynn Ross, Michael J. Fox and Roddy McDowall. 1982. 98 minutes. Unrated. An Anchor Bay Home Entertainment release. $19.95

VICE SQUAD: Written by Sandy Howard. Directed by Gary Sherman. Starring Season Hubley, Gary Swanson and WIngs Hauser. 1982. 93 minutes. Rated R. An Anchor Bay Home Entertainment release. $19.95


ACTION: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $24.95): Another great TV show cancelled too soon (only 13 episodes were produced and several of those were never even broadcast) gets a second chance on DVD. This was a frequently hilarious Hollywood satire in which craven producer Jay Mohr struggles to save his flagging career by bringing the multi-million dollar extravaganza “Beverly Hills Gun Club” to the screen. Corrosive, pitch-black humor, hilarious cameos from the likes of Salma Hayek, Keanu Reeves and others willing to skewer their public images and a Warren Zevon song for its theme–what more could you want in a show.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (Warner Home Video. $26.98): This docu-drama chronicling the investigation into the Watergate break-in by reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) is a classic piece of muckraking moviemaking that is just gripping today as it was back in 1976. However, while this 2-disc package is an impeccable set–featuring documentaries on the film, the real-life investigation and the story of “Deep Throat” himself as well as a commentary by Redford–you might want to hold off purchasing it for one week in order to get the “Controversial Classics II” box set, in which it appears along with similarly expansive versions of “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network.”

CAMILLE 2000 (First Run Features. $19.95): If you like your smut tastefully soft-core and filled with heavy-breathing European lasses, I guarantee that you will go for this prime example of late-1960's erotica from exploitation icon Radley Metzger. There is a sort of plot–a vague riff on the classic tearjerker “Camille”–but I suspect most of you who pick this up will be fast-forwarding to the Good Parts, of which there are several.

DADDY LONG LEGS (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): While visiting France, a middle-aged millionaire spots a cute 18-year-old girl living in an orphanage and, enamored but wary of their age difference, anonymously sends her to college in New England. Three years later, they meet at a school dance and she, not knowing who he is, falls in love with him. That would be “Ewwwww” but since it is a frothy musical and since the leads are Fred Astaire and the eternally waifish Leslie Caron, I guess we aren’t supposed to notice just how profoundly creepy the whole premise is.

DOMINO (New Line Home Entertainment. $27.98): One of the freakiest movies to come from a major studio in years, this hyper-kinetic pseudo-biographical look at the life of the late model-turned-bounty-hunter Domino Harvey was a jaw-dropping riot of sight and sound in which the whiplash directorial style of Tony Scott, a trippy meta-movie screenplay from Richard Kelly and a sexy go-for-broke lead performance from Keira Knightley mashed together into the kind of glorious mess that has “cult movie” written all over it. Oh yeah, it also finds room for Mickey Rourke, Christopher Walken, some “90210" refugees and a lap-dance sequence that is both utterly gratuitous and completely indispensible.

ERIK THE VIKING (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.95): Although it isn’t nearly as funny as its Monty Python pedigree (it was written and directed by Terry Jones) would suggest, this oddball spoof of Viking movies, in which Tim Robbins stars as the title pillager who sets out on a quest to see if there is more to life than raping and conquering, does have its occasional moments of genuine wit, not to mention a cameo by Mickey Rooney.

FIRST DESCENT (Universal Home Video. $22.98): Having spent the last couple of weeks largely ignoring the Winter Olympics (aside from those sassy, sexy and flexible ice skaters), now you have a chance to not watch another 90 minutes of people snowboarding and jumping off of mountains in this little-seen documentary/Mountain Dew ad.

MEMORY OF A KILLER (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $24.95): An aging hired killer, one in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, is appalled to learn that his latest target is a 12-year-old prostitute at the center of a crime ring. He refuses but when she turns up dead anyway, he goes after the people who hired him even though he is not entirely sure that he didn’t actually do it himself. A tense and twisty Belgian thriller that you should definitely check out now before the all-but-inevitable American remake.

MIDNIGHT COWBOY (MGM Home Entertainment. $29.95): One of those “classic” films that hasn’t really aged as well as one might think, this Oscar-winning look at a hustler and a sickly con man trying to eke out a living on the dirty streets of late-1960's New York nevertheless contains a couple of great performances from Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, a standout soundtrack (including the immortal “Everybody’s Talking” and an early songwriting contribution from Warren Zevon) and a couple of justifiably famous scenes that have been referenced and parodied for so long that some people may be familiar with them without realizing that this is where they came from in the first place.

NORTH COUNTRY (Warner Home Video. $28.98): Proving just how weak it was for actresses last year, this listless and by-the-numbers docudrama about a woman fighting sexual harassment in a Minnesota mine still somehow managed to snare Oscar nominations for Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand. On the other hand, it was the best Theron-McDormand film of last year, slightly outclassing “Aeon Flux.”

PARAMOUNT COMEDY SHORTS (Kino Home Video. $29.95 each): A reminder of the good old days when theaters showed short subjects before the movie instead of commercials touting the joys of cellular phones and “My Name is Earl,” these two discs collect a number of rarely-seen short subjects that served as a training ground for any number of performers. “Cavalcade of Comedy-1929-1933" gives us an early look at such soon-to-be-famous faces as George Burns & Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle and Bing Crosby. “1928-1942: Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin” is a little more self-explanatory; it gives us a look at some of the short cinematic efforts of some of the most legendary American humorists of all time. Benchley is the center of the majority of the 14 shorts (including a 1928 film of his famous “The Treasurer’s Report” routine), there are also contributions from tablemates Alexander Woollcott and David Ogden Stewart.

PULSE (Magnolia Home Video. $26.98): One of the few entries in the recent Japanese horror boom that actually lived up to the advance hype, this was a disturbing techno-terror about a recent suicide whose ghostly image begins appearing on the computers of his friends. Easily the second-most terrifying DVD release of the week.

RENT (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video. $28.95): Easily the most terrifying DVD release of the week (and easily the most obvious joke in a DVD release column this week).

THE WEATHER MAN (Paramount Home Video. $29.95): With its blend of sentiment and satire told in a seriocomic tone, this dramedy, in which a Chicago weatherman (Nicolas Cage) struggles with success in his professional life and failure in his personal life, feels at times like a more moderate version of the similar “American Beauty.” It doesn’t quite work but it does contain good performances from Cage, Michael Caine (as his estranged father) and Hope Davis (as his embittered ex-wife).

YOU STUPID MAN (Warner Home Video. $19.95): I don’t know how I missed this romantic comedy when it came out a couple of weeks ago–then again, since it has been sitting on a shelf since 2002, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. David Krumholtz, everyone’s favorite math cop, as an ordinary schnook who get dumped by girlfriend Denise Richards when she gets hired to co-star on a TV show, rebounds with Milla Jovovich and then is faced with a difficult decision when the now-cancelled Richards wants to resume their relationship. I’m guessing that this one is going to have an even more predictable finale than usual because, after all, who in their right mind would go back to the golden calf after encountering God. (Yes, I believe I did just once again compare Milla Jovovich to God and yes, I am completely comfortable with that.)

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originally posted: 02/24/06 15:56:34
last updated: 03/03/06 18:21:08
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