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DVD Reviews For 9/15: Mods And Rockers!

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic is somewhat shocked to discover that a collection of R.E.M. videos, some lesser Laurel & Hardy films, rehashed nude footage of Jenny McCarthy and a forty-year-old obscurity from a great American filmmaker have all been given a better DVD treatment than the original versions of the "Star Wars" films

As a film critic, I know that I am not supposed to play favorites–every film should theoretically be judged on its own merits regardless of who made it (unless it was made by Henry Jaglom, in which case it can be completely ignored)–but Brian De Palma is my favorite filmmaker. This is not an opinion shared by many in my field who tend to dismiss him as one of those 1970's relics who never quite made the grade in the same way as contemporaries like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. This is pure nonsense for when De Palma is firing on all cylinders, usually on original projects such as “Phantom of the Paradise,” “Dressed to Kill” or his 1981 masterwork “Blow Out,” no one can touch his ability to provide jaw-dropping entertainment with his unique blend of horror, suspense, eroticism, dark humor and innate ability to tell a story almost entire through visual means. When he is forced to do less personal projects in order to convince the studios to allow him to make his weirdo gems, the results–“Scarface” and “The Untouchables” leap to mind–retain enough of his distinctive style to indicate that while he clearly has the technical ability to make a flashy-but-anonymous bit of studio hackwork, he has too much pride to simply sleepwalk his way to a paycheck. Even less successful efforts like “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Mission: Impossible” have their moments of glory (the former has some spiky bits of social satire and the latter, once derided for its complex plotting, now plays like a model of narrative efficiency). As for the question of whether he is washed up or not, I would simply suggest that anyone who can put together back-to-back masterpieces like “Femme Fatale” (perhaps the closest that any American director has come to the sexy, screw-lose surrealism of Bunuel’s later works and my current pick for Film Of The Decade) or the current “The Black Dahlia” still has a lot left to offer and if anything has diminished, it is the ability of certain critics and audiences to recognize top-flight cinematic storytelling when it is staring them right in the face.

No doubt to tie in with the current theatrical release of “The Black Dahlia,” Something Weird Video is giving De Palma buffs a real treat–a DVD of his first feature film, 1967's “Murder a la Mod.” Virtually impossible to see since its original release–it apparently had a brief run in a single New York theater before disappearing like so many other low-budget films of the day–the film is, not surprisingly, a horror film laced with plenty of laughs, gore and weirdo touches. Andra Ankers stars as Karen, a woman who discovers that her married lover (Jared Martin) is working in the nudie film industry for the supremely strange Otto (William Finley, who would go on to appear in subsequent De Palma films as “Sisters,” “Phantom of the Paradise” and who turns up in a key role in “The Black Dahlia.”) Karen assumes that her lover is doing it in order to make enough money to divorce his wife and decides to help him along by stealing some cash. When she goes to deliver it . . . let us just say that something happens and leave it at that.

While hardly top-shelf De Palma–the budgetary seams show throughout and the central performers, aside from the freaky Finley, are somewhat lacking–what is fascinating about watching the film today is seeing just how fully formed his vision was even when making his first feature. Many of the obsessions that he would focus on throughout his career can be found here–voyeurism, characters who aren’t what they appear to be and the queasy allure of the cinema being the chief ones on display. There are overt homages to his cinematic icons–Hitchcock, of course (especially “Psycho”) but some of the trippy fast-motion tricks recall early Godard as well. At the same time, many of the scenes seem to be rough drafts for moments that would crop up in his later work–without going into specifics, the final scene in this film will seem intriguingly similar to the haunting final moments of “Blow Out.” “Murder a la Mod” isn’t perfect but De Palma fans will not be disappointed and even non-auteurists may find it an interesting walk on the cinematic wild side.

Even though the DVD has no actual supplementary materials for “Murder a la Mod” itself, Something Weird has still managed to put a couple of extra features on the disc that are also worth your time. For starters, they have included an entire second feature, the 1963 beatnik crime thriller “The Moving Finger,” a movie that contains a standard-issue plot (a group of bohos is torn apart when they discover a wounded bank robber with 90 grand in the basement of their hangout) but which also has a nice sense of humor (“The bus tourists are here,” one hippie announces, “Start looking decadent!”) and a nifty performance from the invaluable Lionel Stander as the fraud who runs the joint. As beatnik satire, it is no “A Bucket of Blood,” but it gets the job done. There is also an extended excerpt from an apparently unreleased 60's-era nudie film entitled “An Eye For the Girls” that promises, according to the package description, “bare breasts, cowboys & Indians, stock footage and godawful jokes.”

Written and directed by Brian De Palma. Starring Andra Ankers, Margo Norton, Jared Martin and William Finley. 1967. 80 minutes. Unrated. A Something Weird release. $19.99.


BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD DO AMERICA (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): After the not-so-special edition of “Office Space” released last fall–not to mention the recent dumping of “Idiocracy”–fans of Mike Judge may have despaired of ever seeing one of his feature films getting a decent special edition DVD. Happily, Paramount has come to the rescue with a nice edition of his hilarious 1996 big-screen spin-off of his beloved MTV creations–among the extras to be found here are a commentary track featuring Judge himself and featurettes on the making of both the film and the score. Heh-heh, I said “score.”

BOTTOMS UP (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): For those of you out there who have been waiting with bated breath to see Jason Mewes and Paris Hilton team up for a direct-to-video romantic comedy about a Midwestern bartender looking for love in L.A., your prayers have been answered. Couldn’t pray for a movie in which Piper Perabo and I hook up, could you? I hope you sleep well tonight.

THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU (Tartan Video. $22.95): For those of you who prefer their hospital dramas to be a little less soap-operaey than “Medical Sluts” (see below), you might want to check out this grimly powerful drama (though with touches of jet-black comedy throughout) that follows an old man who checks into a overcrowded, underfunded and impersonal hospital and doesn’t check out

THE GREAT NEW WONDERFUL (First Independent. $26.99): a.k.a. “The Other Maggie Gyllenhaal 9/11 Movie.” Set one year to the day after the attacks, this “Magnolia”–like dramedy follows a bunch of New Yorkers as they go through the minutiae of their lives to examine the ways in which they have and haven’t changed. Oddly enough, this was directed by Danny Lenier the auteur of “Dude, Where’s My Car?” and “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.”

GREY’S ANATOMY–THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $59.99): Drunken, self-absorbed and kind of skanky–exactly the qualities that I always look for in my health-care providers. Just in time for the new season of this insanely popular hospital hit–which is essentially “Ally McBeal”with quicker access to penicillin–this six-disc set comes with all the bells, whistles and chit-chat that a fan could hope for. Besides, if enough copies are sold, perhaps Ellen Pompeo will earn enough in residuals to be able to go out and buy a sandwich.

HELLBENT (Liberation Entertainment. $24.95): Finally, proof positive that gay filmmakers can come up with a mad slasher film just as pointless, derivative and grotesque as one directed by straights. Keep chasing that rainbow!

THE LAUREL & HARDY COLLECTION–VOLUME 2 (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98): Three more films from the classic comedy team–1942's “ A-Haunting We Will Go,” 1943's “The Dancing Masters” and 1945's “The Bullfighters”–that they did during their later years at Fox. Not prime L&H by a long shot but, as with the similar box set Fox released last spring, these titles are actually a little better than their reputations suggests and demonstrate that the duo could always wring a few laughs out of even the weakest material.

LOWER CITY (Palm Pictures. $24.95):There is little in this Brazilian film that you haven’t already seen before–it gives us both a look at the desperate depths that poor young people in an impoverished country will do in order to better their stations in life and a story about two loyal pals who find their lifelong friendship coming apart when they both fall in love with the same sexy stripper after she winds up attaching herself to them. What makes this film worth checking out is the startling and sexy turn from Alice Braga as the most volatile portion of the romantic triangle–she may not be a top actress at this point in her career but she definitely has the kind of on-screen charisma that only comes along once in a while.

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (The Weinstein Company. $29.95): In the running for the title of Worst Film of 2006, this unspeakably irritating Tarantino knock-off features Josh Hartnett as an ordinary shlub who inexplicably runs afoul of mob bosses Sir Ben “Bloodrayne” Kingsley and Morgan Freeman and hit man Bruce Willis. With its all-star cast, hipster dialogue and corkscrew time structure, this craptacular desperately wants to be considered the new “Pulp Fiction” but it pales in comparison even to the sorry likes of “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.”

MASTERS OF HORROR–DANCE OF THE DEAD (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $16.98): Although not one of the high points of the recent Showtime horror series, Tobe Hooper’s contribution, an oddball take on the zombie genre that shares some intriguing similarities with “A Scanner Darkly,” has enough of his trademark dark humor to make it worth a look for genre buffs looking for an appetizer to the upcoming “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” special editions.

THE OFFICE–SEASON 2 (Universal Home Video. $54.98): Thanks to the strong writing and hilarious performances from Steve Carell (as the cheerfully clueless boss we all fear to work under), Jenna Fischer (as the office crush we all wish we had working with us) and Rainn Wilson (as the monstrous co-worker we all wind up sitting next to), this American version of the beloved Ricky Gervais Britcom has come out from under the shadow of its predecessor, the beloved Ricky Gervais Britcom, and has developed into what may be the most consistently funny workplace sitcom to hit American television since “Newsradio.”

PLAYBOY–THE ULTIMATE JENNY MCCARTHY (Image Entertainment. $19.99): Now you too can feel like Jim Carrey for a night for a mere double sawbuck.

R.E.M.: WHEN THE LIGHT IS MINE (Capitol. $24.98): Although their star has dimmed in recent years, the favorite sons of Athens, GA were once the coolest band in America and this collection of videos, spanning their 1981-1987 heyday and including such killer tracks as “Radio Free Europe,” “Fall On Me” and the breakthrough hit “The One I Love,” serves quite nicely as a reminder of why.

STAR WARS/THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK/RETURN OF THE JEDI (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98 each): Apparently in need of some quick cash to tide him over before the rumored release next year of a 30th Anniversary box set containing everything a fan could possibly want, George Lucas has taken the non-anamorphic transfers that he struck for the 1995 laserdisc versions of the unaltered Original Trilogy (complete with Han firing first and all that) and tossed them out on the market as supplements to the Special Editions that every fan presumably already owns. In other words, unless you are somehow compelled to purchase anything labeled “Star Wars,” you may as well stick with those bootlegs you bought back when Lucas claimed that the original versions would never appear on DVD.

TAPS (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): Although most of the attention surrounding this 1981 film, a drama in which a group of military school cadets seize control of the building when they hear that it has been sold to developers, focused on the presence of the venerable George C. Scott and the then-hot Timothy Hutton (in the follow-up to his Oscar-winning turn in “Ordinary People”), I suspect that most of the interest today comes from seeing the supporting turns from promising newcomers Sean Penn and Tom Cruise.

THE WILD (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): One of the low points in the recent history of feature-film animation at Disney, this was nothing more than a witless retread of “Madagascar” and “Finding Nemo” that contained nary a laugh, thrill or point. However, it does contain plenty of over-the-top line readings from the ubiquitous William Shatner, so consider this a warning.

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originally posted: 09/15/06 13:59:16
last updated: 11/13/06 09:06:11
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