DVD Reviews for 3/24: "Ereway Niay Hetay Oneymay!"
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/24/06 16:00:32
In which your faithful critic, stunned by the destruction of his NCAA brackets due to the collapse of Duke and Gonzaga, offers up the distraction of a couple of good movies about writers, several refurbished classics and the inexplicable sight of Sally Field in a wimple.
The problem with most movie musicals today, especially the ones based on shows originally conceived for the stage, is that the filmmakers don’t quite seem to realize that they are making a movie and not a theatrical piece. Too often, they seem so beholden to the original stage choreography, instead of taking advantage of the freedoms inherent in the medium of film, that the results (especially such recent efforts as “Rent” and “The Producers”) look less like films and more like souvenir videos shot by audience members who are merely content to lock the camera in the center and just capture everything in one undifferentiated mass. It is this lack of creativity and vision that makes a DVD set like the new musical box set “The Busby Berkeley Collection” such a thrill to watch by comparison–even though all the movies in the set were made in the 1930's, the musical numbers were staged with such daring, energy and a willingness to exploit the medium of the cinema to its fullest potential that even the weakest on display blow away practically any recent example of the genre that you could mention.
Originally a choreographer on Broadway, Berkeley was lured to Hollywood once talkies began to work on the musical films that the studios were beginning to produce. Most of these films were clunky and uninspired–little more than stage shows caught on film–and Berkeley was about to return to Broadway when Darryl F. Zanuck hired him to direct the musical numbers for an upcoming film called “42nd Street.” He did so by breaking all the rules of film choreography–he would use close-ups of individual performers instead of wide shots and he would assemble his dancers in elaborate geometric patterns that could only be properly realized when filmed by overhead cameras–and the result was a smash hit film. For the rest of the decade, he would continue to devise ever-more elaborate numbers until the genre began to die out in the latter part of the decade–he would continue to work off and on in the next two decades (most notably in the surreal 1942 extravaganza “The Gang’s All Here”) but he would never top the sheer exuberant spectacle of his 1930's work.
This set contains five of the most famous films that he worked on (all made between 1933-1934); “42nd Street,” “Footlight Parade,” “Gold Diggers of 1933,” “Dames” and “Gold Diggers of 1935.” Aside from the last title, all pretty much follow the standard “Lets-Put-On-A-Show!” formula to the letter with little variation. (The best of the bunch, “Footlight Parade,” has more of an impact today because of the added benefit of a live-wire lead performance by James Cagney as the driven theatrical producer. ) However, one doesn’t go to a Busby Berkeley movie for the intricate plotting–they go for the musical numbers and there is hardly a dog in the bunch. “42nd Street” has the staggering street ballet of the title song and the nifty “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.” “Footlight Parade” features a pair of numbers, “Honeymoon Hotel” and “Shanghai Lil” that are still racy enough to raise eyebrows today. “Gold Diggers of 1933" contains the equally ribald “Pettin’ In the Park,” the famous “We’re In the Money” (including a verse sung in pig Latin)and the daring social commentary of “Remember My Forgotten Man,” a number that perfectly captured the feelings of millions during the height of the Depression, when the film was released. “Dames,” perhaps the least-known of the films here, contains a brilliant kaleidoscope-like staging of the title tune. With “Gold Diggers of 1935,” Berkeley was put in charge of directing an entire film for the first time and came up with perhaps the most famous of all his creations–an epic production of “Lullaby of Broadway” that continues to blow the mind no matter how often you see it.<
Each film in the set contains a nice collection of bonus materials–vintage cartoons and short subjects (“Footlight Parade,” for example, has a cartoon based on “Honeymoon Hotel”) as well as new featurettes on Berkeley and his legacy. However, the most significant extra is the bonus disc called, simply, “The Busby Berkeley Disc.” Originally designed for laserdisc, this 163-minute feature contains 21 complete musical numbers from his nine Warner Brothers films–four of which (“Fashions of 1934,” “Wonder Bar,” “In Caliente” and “Gold Diggers of 1937" remain MIA on DVD)–that have been compiled as sort of a greatest-hits package. Although the inclusion of the numbers from the movies in the set may strike some as a bit superfluous, it is nice to have the option of watching all the Good Parts one after the other without interruption.
A Warner Home Video release. $59.98.
NEW AND NOTABLE
BUKOWSKI: BORN INTO THIS (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): Although you’ll probably learn more about the life of the notoriously hard-bitten author Charles Bukowski (whose life inspired the film “Barfly”) by actually reading some of his books, this documentary about his life and times (including such talking heads as Bono, Tom Waits and Sean Penn) should provide enough information to allow you to sound informed the next time you are trying to chat up a cute hipster girl.
CAPOTE (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.95): Although I think that Bennett Miller’s look at Truman Capote, his research into the crime that would inspire the landmark book “In Cold Blood” and his mutually exploitative relationship with accused killer Perry Smith was a little overrated, it remains worth watching simply for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s astonishing, award-winning performance as Capote–more than just an impeccable impersonation, he goes beyond the voice and mannerisms to find the human being underneath.
CHICKEN LITTLE (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): Disney’s attempt to out-Pixar Pixar was a silly little trifle that was utterly devoid of the heart, emotion and wit of even their weakest efforts. (Little wonder that Disney mended fences with them a couple of months after its theatrical release.) However, this DVD does serve as a nice little tribute to the late Don Knotts , who made his final film appearance as the voice of Mayor Turkey Lurky and wound up scoring the only real laughs to be had. He can also be heard in an alternate opening that is included in a deleted scenes section.
DAVID BOWIE: SERIOUS MOONLIGHT (Virgin. $24.98): Caught during one of his rare moments of simultaneous commercial and critical triumph, this 1983 concert (filmed during his tour promoting “Let’s Dance”) sees the Thin White Duke ripping through a set of favorites including “Heroes,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Young Americans” and 15 others. Now if only someone would release a video of that truly demented 1987 “Glass Spider” tour–the one in which he took all of that good will and flushed it down the toilet with one of the most bewildering and ridiculously overscaled concert extravaganzas ever staged.
DEAR WENDY (Fox Lorber. $24.98): Using the same light and subtle touch that he brought to “Dogville” and “Manderlay,” the ever-cranky Lars von Trier wrote this ridiculous melodrama about a youthful group of pacifist gun nuts in a small mining town who wind up exploding into violence for reasons too silly to get into here.
DERAILED (The Weinstein Co. $29.95): I don’t want to suggest once again that Jennifer Aniston simply doesn’t have what it takes to be a movie star based on the box-office failure of this ludicrous tale of lust, deceit and revenge. However, I will note that the Weinsteins, whose new company debuted with this film, have decided to downplay her presence in the DVD ads and are now trying to pass it off as some kind of urban gangsta drama (if only because of the presence of a couple of rappers in supporting roles).
DREAMER: INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY (Dreamworks Home Entertainment. $29.95): C’mon, a cute kid (Dakota Fanning), a reliable supporting cast (including Kurt Russell, Elisabeth Shue, Kris Kristofferson, David Morse and Luis Guzman) and a horse that wins the big race at the end–how can you possibly resist this better-than-average family film about a little girl who saves a horse destined for destruction and nurses him into a champion?
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (Warner Home Video. $27.98): Maybe something got lost in the translation or maybe it wasn’t that good to begin with. Whatever the reason, Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, which chronicles his journey back to Odessa to discover how his grandfather escaped from the Nazi invasion, was transformed by writer-director Liev Schreiber (an excellent actor who should probably keep his day job) into an insufferable bore of a film that wants to be both whimsical and heart-rending and fails at both.
THE FLYING NUN-THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $39.95): Oh, I see–I can’t put on a DVD of “Police Squad” or “Fernwood 2-Night” or the second season of “Twin Peaks,” but I have full access to the first season of one of the dumbest and most inexplicable sitcoms ever produced. If this doesn’t sate your desire for Sally Field at her most unbearably chirpy, Sony is also releasing the first season of “Gidget” this week as well.
HOUSE OF THE DEAD 2: DEAD AIM (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $26.98): Alas, the good doctor Uwe Boll was not involved in this direct-to-cable/video sequel to his legendarily derided zombie film. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is something that I leave for you to decide.
IN THE MIX (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $26.98): Hmm, an inter-racial romance with a pop star as one of the leads in which a guy falls in love with the woman for whom he has been hired to act as a bodyguard–wonder what could have inspired this blink-and-you-missed-it attempt by Usher to translate his musical popularity to the silver screen?
SOUTH PARK: THE COMPLETE SEVENTH SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $49.99): Three words: “Taco-Flavored Kisses.” (At least J-Lo has a better sense of humor than Tom Cruise.
THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (Sony Home Entertainment. $26.96): Yes, I know that this indie hit from Noah Baumbach, about a divorcing literary couple (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) whose bitterness has peculiar effects on their two sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) is well-acted, nicely written and is cheerfully willing to make all of the main characters deeply flawed people. However, the fact that we are supposed to believe that no one in the packed auditorium of an Upper East Side high-school talent show in 1986 notices that the “original” song sung by Eisenberg is actually Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” (you know, one of the key songs from the enormously popular “The Wall”) just kills the entire thing for me.
STALAG 17: SPECIAL COLLECTOR’S EDITION (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): Thank you, Paramount, for revisiting Billy Wilder’s landmark 1953 comedy-drama, about a group of American soldiers (including William Holden, in his Oscar-winning performance) as they struggle to survive and escape a German P.O.W. camp while trying to discover the identity of the spy amongst them. Now when are you going to get around to finally releasing Wilder’s brilliant and long-missing 1951 masterpiece “Ace in the Hole,” a title that you announced last year and then mysteriously pulled at the last minute?
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: 50th ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION (Paramount Home Video. $24.99): Actually, this three-disc set gives you twenty commandments for your money. In addition to the immortal 1956 Cecil B. DeMille epic (in which Charlton Heston parts the Red Sea, Vincent Price wields a mighty whip and the likes of Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson and many others chew the scenery amidst the still-impressive special effects), Paramount has also included DeMille’s 1923 silent feature of the same title–a bizarre work which features Moses leading the Jews to the promised land in the first half and then cuts to a modern-day Cain & Abelesque tale of two squabbling brothers whose rivalry for the hand of a pretty homeless woman (not to mention the shoddy building materials the unscrupulous one utilizes to build a ginormous cathedral) leads to inevitable disaster. Both films are fascinating looks at filmmaking styles that have long since disappeared into the mists of time and are thoroughly enjoyable for reasons other than their obvious camp appeal.