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DVD Reviews for 8/18: "The Horror . . ." (no, not "RV")

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic posts his list--including a couple of all-time masterpieces of the cinema, a couple of ultra-cheesy DTV items and jokes so bad that even he is slightly mortified by them--earlier than usual in order to attend to some snake/plane related business.

When Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now” first hit DVD in late 1999, during the early years of the format, fans of the film were thrilled to actually own the thing but were somewhat disappointed by the lack of extras–no deleted scenes (save for some footage of the destruction of Col. Kurtz’s compound that originally played over the end credits), no commentary (aside from Coppola’s comments explaining the compound destruction sequence), no nothing. When Coppola’s 2001expansion “Apocalypse Now Redux,” in which he added in 49 minutes of footage that he deleted from his original cut for various reasons, appeared on DVD a few years later, it was also pretty much a bare-bones affair as well. For years, people have been hoping that Coppola, who has done special edition DVDs for many of his films in the subsequent years, would put out some kind of definitive version that would do justice for one of the most discussed and influential of all American films. Finally, their wishes have been more or less answered with this week’s release of “Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier,” a 2-disc set that brings together both the 1979 and 2001 cuts of the film along with a wealth of supplemental materials in a collection that, while perhaps not definitive, should satisfy even the most obsessive of fans.<

As I am working under the assumption that anyone with enough of an interest in film to have read this far has seen “Apocalypse Now” before, I see no particular reason to recount the particulars of the story. (If, for some inexplicable reason, you haven’t yet seen it, I would advise you to stop reading this and watch it as soon as humanly possible–trust me, your time will be better spent doing that than reading this column.) Suffice it to say, Coppola is one of those rare directors who tends to flourish when working on a large-scale production and this trippy mix of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” agonies over the Vietnam War and pure psychedelic imagery were the paints that he used to comprise his most elaborate canvas to date. Seen today, it may not hold together in terms of narrative drive–the last third, in which Marlon Brando’s Captain Kurtz holds endless discourses on the follies of war (“the horror”) for the benefit of Martin Sheen’s imprisoned Captain Willard, seems a little too slow after the tremendous forward momentum of the previous two hours–but the strange rhythms of the film still enshroud the film with a sense of mystery. (This is one of those films that you can see a dozen times and yet still never be sure what is coming around each bend of the river.) And even if you consider it to be little more than a collection of scenes in search of a movie to tie them together, they still work because many of them are among the greatest scenes ever filmed and still retain their power even after decades of rip-offs, homages and parodies: Sheen’s opening freak-out in the hotel room, the unblinking righteousness of Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore, the terror of the sampan massacre, the weirdness of water-skiing to the tune of “Satisfaction,” Brando’s monologue about the inoculated arms and, of course, the Wagner-scored Air Cavalry attack on the Vietnamese village, a creation of co-writer John Milius that manages to show the cold brutality of modern mechanized warfare while still satisfying that primal urge within all of us to see stuff blow up real good.<

All of these sequences, it should be noted, appeared in Coppola’s original 1979 cut and while both versions of the film have their merits, I still find that leaner original cut to be the more effective of the two. The “Redux” version adds four major sequences–a extended scene after the village attack in which Willard’s men steal Kilgore’s prized surfboard, a bit in which the crew meet up with a stranded group of “Playboy” Playmates (the same ones seen earlier in the USO sequence) and trade fuel for sex, the much-discussed “French Plantation” sequence in which Willard and his men stumble upon a rich French family--holdovers from the day when the French controlled Vietnam who refuse to leave and a Brando monologue in which he derisively reads from a “Time” account of the war. I am glad to have the chance to see these scenes (any opportunity to see fresh Brando footage is to be treasured) but I have to admit that Coppola was pretty much correct when he removed them in the first place. The Kilgore scene is just plain silly and winds up subverting the power of his original exit line by turning him into a full-on goofball. The Playmate sequence, as Coppola has admitted, was never completed as originally conceived in the screenplay and, as a result, it feels curiously unfinished. The Brando monologue is impressive enough but it doesn’t really add anything new to the character or how we see him. The French Plantation is the most ambitious of the bunch and perhaps the most disappointing as a result–the conceit of the segment (to illustrate how America’s blunders in Vietnam were essentially an echo of those made by the French years earlier) is intriguing and it fills in one key gap (namely what eventually happens to the young soldier played by Laurence Fishburne) but it goes on for so long (including a romantic interlude between Willard and lovestruck French housewife Aurore Clement) that it basically derails the film at precisely the moment that it needs to move onward. “Redux” has its place, and it might not be a bad idea for newcomers to approach it first, but I am pretty sure that when I want to watch “Apocalypse Now” in the future, I will continue to stick with the 1979 version.

Considering that “Apocalypse Now” has been under the microscope of public scrutiny ever since Coppola began shooting it nearly 30 years ago–at the time, it was one of the most expensive movies ever made and stories of its troubled production were regular features in the news even back in those pre-“Entertainment Tonight” days–and has been endlessly studied and analyzed since the moment of its original release, you might think, not without reason, that there wouldn’t be much left to bring to the table that hadn’t already been seen or heard somewhere before. Amazingly, Coppola and disc producer Kim Aubry have somehow managed to do just that with the supplemental materials gathered hear. The 2 versions of the film are spread over both discs and both contain an exemplary commentary track from Coppola–an endlessly fascinating discussion in which he chronicles the turbulent history of the project, the areas in which he feels he succeeded and failed and even offers up a tantalizing new nugget or two (such as the revelation that one scene, sadly unshot, was originally designed to feature a cameo appearance from none other than Terrence Malick). Disc one also contains a couple of short featurettes on some of the technical aspects of the film (including cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s explanation for the difference in aspect rations between the theatrical and DVD versions), a strange and haunting deleted scene, dubbed the “Monkey Sampan,” that offers Willard’s crew encountering a boat filled with monkeys and one nasty surprise (and which would have offered us one of our first glimpses of Kurtz), 26 minutes of footage trimmed from existing scenes and 17 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage that are played with a recording of Marlon Brando’s full rendition of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” Disc 2 contains a series of featurettes that focus on the extensive post-production period and show how over 1.5 million feet of exposed footage was transformed into the finished film (including amazing footage of Martin Sheen recording his narration), how an army of musicians (including Grateful Dead member Mickey Hart) put together the hypnotic percussion-based score and how a few technicians reinvented the way in which movies sound with their revolutionary efforts. Other bits focus on the “Redux” period and include Storaro discussing his efforts towards restoring the picture to its original brilliance, a reunion of the men who played Willard’s crew (Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms and Albert Hall) and Coppola’s reflections on putting the new version together.

Although stuffed with material, “The Complete Dossier” still doesn’t quite live up to its name. For starters, as many have observed, there is the obvious absence of “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Journey,” the stunning 1991 documentary that chronicled the production of the film using present-day interviews and incredible behind-the-scenes footage shot by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor. (Depending on who you believe, this film has yet to be released on DVD either because of a conflict involving the rights or because Coppola has suppressed it because he felt certain scenes made him look bad.) Beyond that, I would have liked to have seen and heard more from some of the other participants such as Sheen, Duvall and Hopper and also gotten a look at some of the other footage that was shot that has never seen the light of day–who wouldn’t want to see some of the scrapped scenes shot with Harvey Keitel as Willard before being replaced by Sheen? Those quibbles aside, “Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier” is a must-own set for any serious student of the cinema.

Written by Francis Ford Coppola & John Milius. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, Laurence Fishburne and Dennis Hopper. 1979/2001 Rated R. 154 minutes/202 minutes. A Paramount Home Video release. $19.99.


THE CLARK GABLE COLLECTION: VOL. 1 (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98): Frankly, my dear, it’s a trio of second-tier films that Gable made for Fox over the years–a 1935 adaptation of “The Call of the Wild,” the 1955 adventure “Soldier of Fortune” and the 1955 western “The Tall Men.”

DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK?/MASTERS OF HORROR: JENIFER (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.98/$16.98): Although the standard rap on Italian horror maestro Dario Argento is that his latter-day output pales in comparison to such acclaimed 1970's productions as “Deep Red” and “Suspiria,” these two recent efforts show that he can still provide his share of gory thrills and grisly laughs when he makes the effort. The former, a 2005 film made for Italian television, is an amusing homage to you-know-who about a film student who becomes convinced that the two women in the apartment across the street may be conspiring to commit murders for each other. The latter, one of the high points of the Showtime “Masters of Horror” series, is a jaw-droppingly lurid tale of sex and gore in which detective Steven Weber saves a mysterious woman with a disfigured face and a killer body from being murdered and winds up discovering too late that her would-be assailant may have some very good reasons for his actions. Fans of one of Argento’s other acclaimed 1970's productions–daughter Asia–will also want to check out “The Asia Argento Pack” (Shriek Show. $19.95), a reissue of two of her more notable vehicles–her mind-blowing, semi-autobiographical directorial debut “Scarlet Diva” and the flashy Euro-vampire film “Love Bites.”

HEART LIKE A WHEEL (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.98): If you had cable in the mid-1980's, you probably saw this entertaining biopic on the life of Shirley Muldowney (Bonnie Bedelia in one of her best roles) and her struggles to make it as the first woman drag racer a hundred times or so. Now you can revisit it in shiny-disc form with the added bonuses of a commentary with director Jonathan Kaplan and interviews with Muldowney herself. Think of it as being like the Danica Patrick story, only with someone who wins her races.

HENRI LANGLOIS: PHANTOM OF THE CINEMATHEQUE (Kino Video. $24.95): Cinephiles should definitely check out this extensive documentary on the life and work of the founder of the prestigious Cinematheque Francaise, a man whose work as a restorer saved and preserved any number of classic films and whose canny skills as a programmer helped to influence the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle and other members of the French New Wave to go out and make their own films.

HONG KONG PHOOEY–THE COMPLETE SERIES/MAGILLA GORILLA–THE COMPLETE SERIES (Warner Home Video. $26.98/$44.98): And yet, here I sit--still patiently waiting for Warner Home Video and Hanna-Barbera to get off of their collective duffs and put out “Captain Caveman–The Complete Series.” (Not for me, of course, but such a set would make my mother happy and when she’s happy, I’m happy.)

HOOT (New Line Home Entertainment. $27.98): Though it tanked in theaters when it was released earlier this summer, I kind of liked this off-beat family film (based on a children’s book by Carl Hiassen) about a trio of kids trying to save a family of owls from developers determined to plant a pancake house on their nesting spot.

I’LL ALWAYS KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): a.k.a. “Sony Would Do Anything For Love (But She Wouldn’t Do This)” Apparently too overwhelmed with her duties on “Garfield 2"–remember that one?–Jennifer Love Hewitt is nowhere to be seen in this DTV attempt to restart one of the lamer horror franchises of recent years. Instead, we are treated to a new cast of idiots (played by no one you’ve heard of) who accidentally kill someone, vow to keep it a secret and are then picked off one by one by a mysterious killer.

THE JAMES STEWART SIGNATURE COLLECTION/ THE RONALD REAGAN SIGNATURE COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $49.98): Two more star-driven collections from the seemingly bottomless vaults at Warner Brothers. The Stewart collection includes 1949's “The Stratton Story” (which chronicles the life of baseball pitcher Monty Stratton and his efforts to get back into the game after losing a leg in an accident), 1953's “The Naked Spur” (a great Anthony Mann western in which he obsessively pursues charming outlaw Robert Ryan), 1957's “The Spirit of St. Louis” (a chronicle of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic that may be the least cynical film of director Billy Wilder’s career), 1959's “The FBI Story” (an epic-length and cheerfully propagandist look at the origins of the title organization through the eyes of one of its agents) and a western double-bill of 1968's “Firecreek” (in which he plays a low-key lawman trying to bring in brutal outlaw Henry Fonda without resorting to violence) and 1970's “The Cheyenne Social Club” (a silly comedy in which he plays an amiable dope who inherits a bordello so sweet and clean that the top prostitute is none other than Shirley Jones). The Reagan set contains 1940's “Knute Rockne, All-American” (in which he plays the key supporting role of George Gipp, who gets to die and inspire Pat O’Brien’s Rockne to “win one for the Gipper”), 1942's “King’s Row” (a weirdo small-town melodrama that is usually considered to be Reagan’s finest film, though I would lean towards either “Bedtime for Bonzo” or “The Killers” myself), 1949's “The Hasty Heart” (in which he plays a soldier in the days immediately after WW II trying to cheer up a dying comrade), 1951's “Storm Warning” (in which he plays a liberal district attorney trying to prosecute the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan) and 1952's “The Winning Team” (another sports biopic–this one starring him in the role of pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander).

THE L.A. RIOT SPECTACULAR (Image Entertainment. $19.99): Sure, it took almost 14 years but at last, someone has finally taken the initiative to make a film that dares to look at the lighter side of the 1992 riots sparked by the Rodney King verdict. Who knows–it might even be funnier than “Crash.”

ROME–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (HBO Home Video. $99.98): Imagine an extra-long version of Bob Guccione’s infamous “Caligula” containing all the sex and violence and talent but without the whole sucking factor. Wait, let me rephrase that . . .

RV (Sony Home Entertainment. $27.95): Here’s a new drinking game to play–everyone take a shot each time Robin Williams humiliates himself in this lame comedy about a family taking a disastrous vacation in an enormous mobile home.

SCARY MOVIE 4 (The Weinstein Company. $29.95): I’ll be honest–even though I know I saw this latest installment of the surprisingly resilient spoof series (this time mocking “War of the Worlds” with sideswipes at “Saw,” “The “Grudge,” “The Village,” “Brokeback Mountain” and Shaquille O’Neal’s failures at the free throw line) and I vaguely recall being amused by some of it, I can’t actually recall anything specific that I thought was funny.

THE SIMPSONS–THE COMPLETE EIGHTH SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98): We all have our lists of all-time favorite “Simpsons” episodes and I suspect that no two of them are exactly alike. However, if your list doesn’t contain “You Only Move Twice” (in which Homer goes to work for an easy-going super-villain voiced by Albert Brooks), the musical spectacular “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(ANNOYED GRUNT)cious” or “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase”–all three of which can be found among the 25 episodes and extensive bonus materials collected here–I will be forced to fight you.

SIX MORAL TALES BY ERIC ROHMER (The Criterion Collection. $99.95): If you are familiar with these witty and erudite charmers from the acclaimed French filmmaker–“La Boulangere de Monceau,” “La Carriere de Suzanne,” “La Collectionneuse,” “My Night at Maud’s,” “Claire’s Knee” and “Chloe in the Afternoon”–you surely don’t need any inducement to go out and pick up this latest Criterion Collection box set. If you haven’t seen any of them, I would heartily recommend them to anyone who enjoyed Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” a pair of films that captured the same vibe that Rohmer did here. For the rest of you, I guess I could point out the questionable fact that Chris Rock is currently doing a remake of “Chloe in the Afternoon.”

SNAKES ON A TRAIN (Asylum Entertainment): Based on the title alone, I would have to say that this DTV knock-off of you-know-what is about one Freudian symbol away from a complete set. In other words–close but no cigar. Good luck trying to buy it, though–as of now, I have seen it only on the rental shelves of a certain bottomlessly evil nationwide rental chain that shall remain nameless.

SURFACE–THE COMPLETE SERIES (Universal Home Entertainment. $49.98): Must resist urge to make jokes about wanting to spend some time on Lake Bell . . .

THE WEIRD AL SHOW–THE COMPLETE SERIES (Shout Factory. $34.95): Though admittedly somewhat derivative of the legendary “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” Weird Al Yankovic’s stab at the Saturday morning television market was an agreeable enough mix of his off-beat humor (which extended to the presence of such guests as Emo Philips and Judy Tenuta) with the Valuable Lessons that had by then become a staple of kiddie television. Along with all 13 episodes, this 3-disc set also contains production art, a karaoke version of the theme song and commentaries featuring Yankovic and friends–as anyone who gave a listen to his commentary on “UHF” knows, this is indeed a good thing.

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originally posted: 08/18/06 06:33:38
last updated: 08/25/06 05:45:04
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