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DVD Reviews for 6/30: Milla & Piper? This May Be the Best DVD Week Ever!

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/30/06 14:24:42

In which your faithful critic is so overwhelmed with giddiness over the idea of new titles featuring Milla Jovovich and Piper Perabo that not even another one of those Tyler Perry nightmares can ruin his good mood.

One of the interesting developments in cinema this year has been the resurgence of the concert film as a viable artistic format. For years, the genre was written off as little more than a way for a band to cash in with what usually consisted of an lackluster film that was little more than a visual record of the accompanying soundtrack album. Sure, there were a few decent examples of the form over the years–the Talking Heads effort “Stop Making Sense,” Tom Waits’s “Big Time” and event films like “The Last Waltz” and “No Nukes” come to mind–but most left a lot to be desired unless you were a hard-core fan of the performer in question and didn’t mind watching indifferently-shot footage of stoned audience members, slack-jawed bassists and the nostrils of the lead singer.

In recent years, however, no doubt as a result of the exploding DVD market for such things, concert films have been making a large-scale comeback. Theatrically, 2006 has already seen such impressive and critically hailed works as “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” and the upcoming “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man.” On the home-video market, it seems as if hardly a week goes by without some act releasing a video of a recent concert tour for fans who want to relive memories of the show or who didn’t want to fork out the exorbitant tickets prices that were being charged for even the worst seats in the nosebleed section. At the same time, older concert films are being re-released on DVD in elaborate special editions featuring the kind of bonus materials that will satisfy even the most ravenous fan appetites. This week sees the release of one such title, the 1987 feature “Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll,” and it is a cause for celebration as a work that was already one of the all-time great music-related documentaries has been transformed into a DVD that is a must-have for anyone even vaguely interested in the history and iconography of popular music in America.

The impetus of the film was a 1986 concert in St. Louis meant to celebrate the 60th birthday of Chuck Berry, the man who all but invented rock music with such songs as “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and too many others to list here. This project was the brainchild of Keith Richards, who backed up Berry at an appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival earlier that year and decided to put together a show that would find his hero playing with a band of well-rehearsed professionals (as well as famous guest performers like Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Etta James and Julian Lennon) instead of the unrehearsed pick-up groups that had been backing him for years of fairly perfunctory live performances. Director Taylor Hackford came along to film both the concert and the intensive rehearsal period as well as interviews with the notoriously elusive Berry, several of his contemporaries (including Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Roy Orbison among others) and some of those whose own work was influenced by his efforts (such as Clapton and Bruce Springsteen).

The resulting film is almost an embarrassment of riches and the background material is so strong and effective that the actual concert footage almost comes across as an afterthought. (Berry is in fine form–though we learn in some of the bonus material that many of his vocals were redubbed later–and most of the guest stars turn in spot-on performances, though the presence of Julian Lennon, who gets to do the immortal “Johnny B. Goode,” is as inexplicable today as it was in 1987.) Springsteen tells a hilarious story about the time early in his career, just after the release of his first album, when he and the E. Street Band wound up serving as one of those unrehearsed back-up groups at a show where they shared the same bill–as he tells his tale, Hackford includes contemporary footage of Berry preparing for a typical gig that shows that his routine hadn’t changed much over the years. Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley sit around a piano and discuss the racism they faced in their careers in a manner both candid and humorous. We get a look at Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s long-time piano player and someone who may have had a larger impact on the history of rock music than previously believed. Best of all, we are treated to some extraordinary behind-the-scenes footage of Richards and Berry engaging in a fearsome battle of wills while working out an arrangement of “Carol”–Berry forces Richards to redo a small guitar part endlessly (“If you wanna get it right, let’s get it right!”) until it looks as if Richards may actually whack his idol upside the head with his guitar. This is great stuff and it is through scenes like this–rather than his tight-lipped interview segments (in which he refuses to discuss anything controversial and cuts off an interview with his wife after one question)–that lets the real Berry shine through. Despite his attempts to convince us throughout that music is just a business to him, there is still an artistic side to him that can still rise to the occasion when provoked and Richards and Hackford should be Hailed! Hailed! for doing just that.

“Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll” is available in two separate editions–a two-disc standard version as well as a four-disc behemoth. The former features the film on the first disc, with both the original soundtrack and newly remixed 5.1 and DTS tracks, and the second contains a documentary chronicling the various adventures that went into pulling off both the concert and the film and over an hour of rehearsal footage that contains a killer performance from Etta James and a thrilling guitar jam involving Berry, Richards and Clapton. The mega-sized edition contains all of the above and throws in several additional hours of material shot by Hackford–full-length versions of the interviews seen in bite-sized clips throughout the film proper and a section in which Berry and Robbie Robertson go through the historical treasure held within the pages of Berry’s scrapbook. Whichever version you go for, you need to get a hold of this as soon as possible for it is that rarest of documentaries–a film that tackles an enormous and seemingly impossible subject and manages to do it full justice.

Directed by Taylor Hackford. Starring Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Etta James, Julian Lennon, Linda Ronstadt and Johnnie Johnson. 1987. 120 minutes. Rated PG. An Image Entertainment release. $29.98 (2-disc version)/$49.98 (4-disc version).

NEW AND NOTABLE

THE BOY AND THE PIRATE/THE CRYSTAL STONE (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.95): So let me see if I have this straight–movie studios are so eager to put any of their pirate-related titles on the market to cash in on the “Pirates of the Caribbean 2" publicity that even these two titles–a pair of silly kiddie flicks from schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon–can get a DVD release but Roman Polanski’s cheerfully deranged “Pirates” still sits on a shelf somewhere? What can I say, except “Aarrrrgh”?

CACHE (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): A bourgeois French couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) find their lives turned upside-down when a series of mysterious videotapes shot outside their home cause the gradual reveal of long-hidden memories. A controversial art-house hit from Michael Haneke, this film contains incisive observations of the folly of trying to bury the past (whether you are a single person or an entire country), one of the most startling bits of violence ever put on a movie screen and a haunting final image that will have you reevaluating the entire film long after you shut off your player.

THE CANDY STRIPERS (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): In another tale of an HMO program gone horribly wrong, this direct-to-video tale tells the story of a group of candy stripers at a small-town hospital (featuring several former Playboy Playmates among their ranks) that are possessed by aliens hell-bent on seducing the male patients as part of a diabolical breeding plot.

COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF: THE INAUGURAL EDITION (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): Unfortunately for all involved, the only Commander-in-Chief that this failed series, featuring Geena Davis as the first female President and Donald Sutherland as the evil usurper, called to mind was William Henry Harrison.

FAILURE TO LAUNCH (Paramount Home Video. $29.95): In this inexplicable popular romantic comedy, Matthew McConaughey plays a studly twit still living at home and Sarah Jessica Parker plays the woman hired by his parents (Terry Bradshaw and Kathy Bates) to pretend to fall for him as part of a plan to get him to move out. (And you thought that “The Candy Stripers” had an unlikely premise.) The only spark in this film comes from the always delightful Zooey Deschanel but she is unfortunately stuck in the kind of wacky pal role that I thought she outgrew several movies ago.

FEAR FACTOR–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Okay, so the premise of this infamously disgusting reality series is to show a bunch of shameless dolts competing in feats that allow them to confront and overcome common fears and phobias. If that is true, how many times have you suffered from a crippling fear of eating rotting meat or slimy internal organs outside of a trip to McDonalds?

FIND ME GUILTY (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.98): Thanks to an incredibly shoddy effort on the part of its distributor, hardly anyone got a chance to see this Sidney Lumet film, a real-life story in which Vin Diesel played a amiable mid-level gangster who elected to defend himself in a massive court case against his mob family that resulted in the longest criminal trial in U.S. history. This was especially a shame since it turned out to be the best work done by Lumet or Diesel in years–a film that the former could proudly rank among his other courtroom efforts, including “12 Angry Men,” “Prince of the City” and “The Verdict,” and which contained a performance from the latter that finally suggested a real actor lurking behind the muscles.

GWENDOLINE (Severin Home Video. $29.98): Better known to American audiences under its domestic title, “The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak,” this decidedly weird bit of mid-1980's softcore Eurosleaze–though considered a kinky rip-off of both “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Emmanuelle” (director Just Jaeckin was also responsible for that Sylvia Kristel classic) even though it was based on a 1950's-era European comic book–makes its domestic DVD debut in a surprisingly loaded special edition that features the unrated European version (containing more nudity, if such a thing is possible), a commentary and extended interview with Jaeckin, a recording of an interview that “Gwendoline” creator did for the Kinsey Institute back in 1961 and a photo layout that Jaeckin shot for “Lui” magazine with star Tawny Kitaen. Silly, sleazy and utterly devoid of any socially redeeming value and yes, I already have my copy.

IMAGINE ME AND YOU (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.98): You know, Piper, I keep trying to do just that but when you keep making weak movies, such as this failed stab at a Richard Curtis-esque romantic comedy in which you play a bride who finds herself attracted to a female florist (Lena Heady), it just gets a little harder.

MADEA’S FAMILY REUNION (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $29.98): Following up the stunning success of “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” the one-man-band that is Tyler Perry returned to the screen (along with his bewildering Madea character) for another unholy blend of slapstick, sadism and sanctimony. For this effort, Perry made his directorial debut with results so shabby that he begs comparison to Ed Wood–and not just because of their similar tastes in wardrobe.

MASTERS OF HORROR–JOHN LANDIS/LUCKY MCKEE (Showtime Home Video. $16.98 each): Of these two latest installments of last year’s Showtime horror anthology series, the contribution from the relative newcomer–McKee’s “Sick Girl”–is the superior effort, a silly, sexy and occasionally icky romp about a couple of babelicious lesbians (Angela Bettis, better known to some as the star of McKee’s astonishing “May,” and Erin Brown, better known to some of you as DTV queen Misty Mundae) who find their new relationship interrupted by a strange bug intent on making it a threesome. Landis’s effort, on the other hand, is the relatively uninspired “Deer Woman,” a weak vingette in which a detective (Brian Benben) investigates a series of mysterious killings that may have been perpetrated by the title character.

PRIVATE RESORT (Sony Home Entertainment. $14.98): A fairly inane mid-80's slab of brain-dead T&A that is distinguished only by the presence of Johnny Depp in an early screen appearance. Oh well, I suppose it is still marginally better than “The Libertine.”

ROCK AND ROLL NIGHTMARE (Synapse Video. $24.95): A hair metal band goes off to record in an abandoned farmhouse that is, if I recall, conveniently located in the vicinity to the doorway to hell. After the various band members and groupies are picked off by mysterious forces, it is left to the lead singer –the immortal Jon-Mikl Thor–to save the day in a battle between the forces of Good and Evil in which Good inexplicably resembles a roadie for Ratt. For those of you with a taste for surreally silly 80's horror trash, this disc is essential–especially since Synapse has packed it with such extras as a commentary track from Thor and director John Fasano, behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot and a featurette entitled “Revelations of a Rock’n’Roll Warrior–The Life of Jon-Mikl Thor.”

STRANGERS WITH CANDY–THE COMPLETE SERIES (Paramount Home Video. $55.99): Before seeing the big-screen version of the Comedy Central series spoofing old After-School Specials, in which a 40ish malcontent (Amy Sedaris) decides to go back to high school and learns any number of Valuable Lessons, you might want to refresh your memories with this collection containing every episode of the show, along with deleted scenes, interviews and other goodies. Of course, having actually seen the movie, I can confidently suggest that you just stick with these DVDs and skip the film altogether.

ULTRAVIOLET (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): Ignore the fact that Sony could only dredge up one positive quote from some unknown hack to adorn the box for this sci-fi thriller from Kurt Wimmer–this future cult classic is a visually dazzling throwback to such oddball 1960's head-trips as “Barbarella,” “Modesty Blaise” and “Danger: Diabolik” that features Milla Jovovich in prime ass-kicking mode as a genetically-enhanced superwoman out to protect a young child (Cameron Bright) who carries either the salvation or the destruction of mankind within him. Jovovich also supplies a cheerfully goofy commentary track discussing the challenges of making the film–although her over-reliance on the phrase “rad” may drive some up the wall, her explanation for the rationale behind her brief nude scene alone is worth the price of admission.

WHY WE FIGHT (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): If you ever wondered what “Fahrenheit 9/11" might have been like with someone less polarizing than Michael Moore at the helm, Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary “Why We Fight” more than fits the bill. Borrowing its title from the series of famous WW II propaganda films directed by Frank Capra, Jarecki uses Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address to the nation, in which he warned of the potential dangers of what he called “the military-industrial complex,” as a framework to illustrate just how completely his fears would be realized over the next 45 years. While unlikely to sway viewers who don’t already basically agree with its basic idea–that corporations and government are working together to create a climate of fear that will allow them to continue their business–those who dismissed Moore’s film simply because of his presence will find it much harder to blow off the case that Jarecki quietly and compellingly makes here.

YELLOWBEARD (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.95): Considering all of the comedic talent involved–including members of Monty Python (Graham Chapman plays the title role and John Cleese makes a brief cameo) and Mel Brooks’s stock company (including Marty Feldman, who died during its production), this 1983 pirate comedy should have been a hell of a lot funnier than it actually is. However, those with an unreasonable amount of affection for sheer nonsense should get a few laughs out of it.

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