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DVD Reviews for 10/20: Painting The Column Reds

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic looks at the arrival of a long-overdue classic, finally remembers to post a couple of long-overdue blurbs and prattles on again about the babes from "Charmed."

Although no one could have realized it at the time, the release of Warren Beatty’s “Reds” in 1981 essentially marked the end of the line for the big-screen epic. Oh sure, jumbo-sized movies pop up every couple of weeks at the multiplex but they are films designed to make a lot of money while dazzling the eye with impressive special effects while numbing the brain with plots that have been either been slavishly adapted from current best-sellers or slavishly ripped off from last year’s successes. No, the kind of epic that I am talking about–the kind the “Reds” exemplifies–is the kind where the storyline and emotions are as sweeping as the visuals and populated by three-dimensional characters who are allowed to be intelligent, complex and flawed human beings instead of cartoon characters who exist only to be stuck inside one special effects sequence after another. Although such movies were immensely popular for a while with critics and audiences (“Lawrence of Arabia,” perhaps the pinnacle of the genre, is regularly found near the top of most all-time best lists), they were wildly expensive to produce and finally fell out of fashion when studios began drifting towards films aimed at younger viewers who wanted to see dumb comedies, dumber horror films and a never-ending string of sequels, retreads and adaptations of TV shows. Therefore, watching “Reds” today is kind of a bittersweet experience in the way that it now serves as a last gasp of a kind of filmmaking that will never be seen again.

A dream project of Beatty’s since he first conceived of it in 1969 (though it would take nearly a decade as one of Hollywood’s top stars–culminating in the massive success of 1978's “Heaven Can Wait”–to build up the kind of industry goodwill needed to find the necessary backing), “Reds” tells the story of John Reed, the American journalist/political activist who became obsessed with the cause of socialism in the early years of the 20th century. Early on in the film, he meets and falls for Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), a struggling writer who decides to leave her husband for Reed and his circle of friends, including playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and radical Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton). Before long, Bryant finds herself at a professional and personal crossroads–she realizes that she isn’t much of a writer and finds herself playing second fiddle to Reed’s increasing interest in leftist politics–and begins an affair with O’Neill that leads to the end of her relationship with Reed. Ironically, this gives her the inspiration she needs to become both a stronger writer and a leader of the then-burgeoning feminist movement and when she and John meet again a few months later, it is more of a meeting of equals. This leads them to form a writing partnership and they journey to Russia to witness first-hand and report on the 1917 Russian Revolution, an event that leads Reed to hope that the same thing can happen in America.

It sounds like an ungainly mix–part soapy love story and part history lesson regarding events that American audiences of the time may have had little interest in (remember, the film was released less than a year after Reagan took office and at a time when tensions with the Soviet Union were once again rising)–but Beatty, who co-wrote the film (along with Trevor Griffiths) and made it his solo directing debut (after sharing the duties with Buck Henry on “Heaven Can Wait”) pulls it off beautifully without ever letting the two approaches clash. The romantic triangle between Reed, Bryant and O’Neill is not just played for melodrama–it is instead a heartbreaking collision between three smart and highly articulate people who are nevertheless flawed and unsure when it comes to matters of the heart. (Nicholson is especially good in the kind of quiet and restrained performance that he does every few years to remind us that there is a powerful actor behind the shades and the maniacal grin.) The political stuff is equally fascinating because it doesn’t try to reduce the scope of what is happening to a series of easy-to-understand moments in which John is the character of central importance. The key to this can be found in Beatty’s bold gambit of using modern-day interviews with real-life contemporaries of Reed as a way to structure the narrative–the speakers are lucid, passionate and fascinating to listen to and since many of their revelations are contradictory, they also serve as a reminder that history can be an arbitrary and contradictory thing depending on who is relating it. (The interviews are so compelling that you’ll wish that Beatty had made a companion documentary that would feature the interviews in their entirety.)

“Reds” has been on the DVD wish lists of many film fans for a long time now and this 2-disc set should satisfy the majority of them. Some have noted with disappointment that Beatty did not elect to do a commentary track–of course, if you have ever heard Beatty stammer and pause his way through an interview, you might consider this absence to be a blessing in disguise. Instead, we are given “Witness to ‘Reds’,” a seven-part documentary from Laurent Bouzerau (who has done similar things for DVDs from commentary-shy directors such as Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma) that chronicles in fascinating detail the entire history of the production and features new interviews with virtually ever major living participant aside from Diane Keaton (Nicholson’s speculation as to her absence is virtually worth the price of the disc itself). The other feature is a trailer for the DVD itself, which seems kind of odd considering that it is trying to sell you on a movie that you are presumably already watching–I would have much preferred to get a look at the original 1981 trailer to see how the suits at Paramount tried to push the film beyond the memorable image of Reed and Bryant embracing. That quibble aside, “Reds” remains a grand achievement in American moviemaking (one that somehow lost the Best Picture Oscar to the twee twaddle of “Chariots of Fire,” though Beatty did take home the Best Director prize) and a film that remains as powerful and relevant today as it did 25 years ago.

Written by Warren Beatty & Trevor Griffiths. Directed by Warren Beatty. Starring Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Maureen Stapleton, Paul Sorvino, Edward Herrmann and Jerzy Kosinski. 1981. 194 minutes. Rated PG. A Paramount Home Entertainment release. $19.95


ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: VOLUME 2 (Universal Home Entertainment. $39.98): The second season of the classic TV series makes its DVD debut. Of the 39 episodes collected here, four (“Wet Saturday,” “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret,” “One More Mile to Go” and “The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater”) were directed by Hitchcock himself–the pick of that bunch is “One More Mile To Go,” a hilarious black comedy in which a man driving around with his wife’s body in the trunk sees her perfect crime undone by a fluky tail light and an extremely helpful traffic cop.

AMERICAN DREAMZ (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Although Mandy Moore is pretty amusing as a fame-obsessed small-town girl who will do anything (or anyone) to be a star, this bizarre stab at political satire (in which a Iraqi contestant on an “American Idol”-type show is tapped to serve as a suicide bomber when the clueless U.S. President agrees to appear as a celebrity judge) is otherwise so bad, so confused and so desperately unfunny that it almost makes “Man of the Year” look competent by comparison.

BEHIND ENEMY LINES II: AXIS OF EVIL (Fox Home Entertainment. $26.98): Torn from the pages of a five-year-old screenplay for an Owen Wilson thriller that no one particularly liked the first time around, this DTV thriller drops a quartet of soldiers in North Korea and sends them on a mission to destroy a nuclear missile site in prime “Team America” style.

BIG LOVE–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (HBO Home Video. $99.98): Hot steamy polygamist loving–Bill Paxton style.

BILLY WILDER SPEAKS (Kino Video. $24.95): In this film shot for Austrian television in 1988, the legendary director sits down with acclaimed filmmakers Volker Schlondorff to discuss his life and career. For fans of Wilder (and what movie fan isn’t?), this documentary makes an interesting companion piece with Cameron Crowe’s book-length interview “Conversations With Wilder.”

THE BREAK-UP (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Boy, I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I am to learn that Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn are still together and haven’t really broken up. I also can’t begin to tell you how amazed I am by the coincidental fact that this rumor popped up just a few days before this dreadful comedy-drama–in which a obviously mismatched couple break up and spend two hours of screen time being as unpleasant to each other as possible–made its DVD debut.

CHARMED–THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $49.99): Every time I mention a new collection of episodes from this spectacularly silly supernatural series in this column, I usually start off trying to say something pithy and end up drooling over the cover photo. This time around, I’m just going to cut directly to the drooling.

CLEAN, SHAVEN (The Criterion Collection. $29.95): One of the creepiest and most disturbing movies ever made, this is a haunting exploration from filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan of a schizophrenic (Peter Greene) who is trying (and largely failing) to pull his life together enough to regain custody of his daughter even as he becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. Dark, uncompromising and definitely not for the squeamish (thanks to a horrifying moment involving Greene doing some impromptu work on his fingernail) but those with the stomach for it aren’t likely to forget it anytime soon.

DEADFALL/THE MAGUS/PEEPER (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98 each): Perhaps anticipating the buzz surrounding his nice supporting turn in the current “The Prestige,” Fox has released this trio of relative obscurities starring Michael Caine. “Deadfall” (1968) is a weird and occasionally kinky thriller in which he plays a cat burglar who becomes embroiled in a plot to steal millions in diamonds from a neighbor of his accomplices. Based on the John Fowles novel (and adapted to the screen by the author himself), “The Magus” (1968) is a head trip in which he plays a teacher who arrives at his new job on a remote Greek island and becomes involved in a series of strange mind games with local magician Anthony Quinn. “Peeper” (1975) is a lighter comedic mystery in which Caine plays a London private in L.A. whose latest case finds him embroiled with a pair of sexy sisters, played by Natalie Wood and Kitty Winn.

FEAST (The Weinstein Company. $29.95): Not quite direct-to-video (it was afforded a couple of midnight screenings at a few theaters last month), this third (and presumably final) film to emerge from the “Project Greenlight” reality show is a gory horror film about a group of people holed up in a bar who fend off icky monsters. Can’t be any scarier than “Stolen Summer,” can it?

HARVEY BIRDMAN, ATTORNEY AT LAW–VOLUME TWO (Warner Home Video. $29.95): In the latest collection of episodes from the single funniest show in the history of the Cartoon Network (yes, even better than “The Powerpuff Girls”), second-rate cartoon superhero-turned-third-rate cartoon attorney Harvey Birdman goes to court to represent the likes of Quik Draw McGraw (busted for carrying a concealed guitar), the Jetsons (who travel back in time to sue us for messing up the planet in the future), Wally Gator (busted for being a redneck), Secret Squirrel (arrested when his tendency to whip gadgets out of his trenchcoat marks him as a flasher), Morocco Mole (accused of being a spy and sent to a military prison at Guantamole) and Captain Caveman (whose son is forbidden to learn about evolution at school). In his spare time, he gets sucked into an alternate dimension, deals with cost-cutting measures at work, guides legal aide Peanut through a very special time in his life, loses his magical crest in a poker game and gets many things sent to him by colleague Peter Potamus. If that weren’t enough, the 2-disc set also features commentaries, deleted scenes and shows us what the show is like before the animators get around to putting clothes on the characters. A must-own set, whether you go out and buy it or purloin it from someone else. Ha-hah . . .loin!

ICONS OF HORROR–BORIS KARLOFF (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): Although most often associated with Universal Pictures, for whom he made such landmark films as “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy” and “The Black Cat,” Boris Karloff made films for other studios as well and this set contains four titles that he made for Columbia Pictures around that time–“The Black Room,” “The Man They Could Not Hang,” “Before I Hang” and “The Boogie Man Will Get You.”

MASTERS OF HORROR–PICK ME UP (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $16.98): In this installment of the Showtime series, directed by cult favorite Larry Cohen (“It’s Alive,” “Q” and “The Stuff”), Michael Moriarty is a psycho truck driver with a taste for killing hitchhikers, Warren Kole is a psycho hitchhiker with a taste for killing people who pick up hitchhikers and Fairuza Balk plays the innocent (?) woman who gets caught in the middle of their showdown. A clever premise but one undone by a screenplay (curiously, one not written by Cohen) that evidently shot its wad on the initial idea and had nothing else to give for the rest of the story.

THE OMEN (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): Among the promised bonus features for this pointless remake of the 1976 smash hit, in which a couple (Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles, both looking embarrassed as all get out) who begin to suspect that their adopted son is the spawn of Satan, is a so-called “alternate ending.” Now considering that the entire film was essentially a shot-for-shot remake of the original, I somehow doubt that this version is going to be all that radically different from the one that played theatrically.

OVER THE HEDGE (Dreamworks Home Entertainment. $29.99): Although somewhat better than the likes of “Barnyard” or “Open Season,” this wacky animated film about a group of wacky animals (voiced by the likes of Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, Steve Carrell and Avril Lavigne) who get involved in wacky scrape while scrounging for food in the suburbs is just another serving of the same old thing. It will keep the kids occupied for 90 minutes but that is about it.

THEY ALL LAUGHED (HBO Home Video. $19.95): This is the film where director Peter Bogdanovich met and began an affair with co-star Dorothy Stratten that ended when her estranged husband brutally murdered her before killing himself. When no studio wanted to touch it–not surprisingly since one of the plot threads involves a Bogdanovich-like detective (John Ritter) who is hired to follow a woman suspected of infidelity (Stratten) and winds up falling for her–Bogdanovich decided to release it himself and lost everything in the process. Now, a quarter-century down the line from all the sordid publicity, it can finally be seen for what it always was–a modestly charming romantic comedy with a lot of nice performances (Stratten is sweet and funny throughout while Ben Gazzara and Audrey Hepburn strike sparks on the screen–as well as off–as the film’s other detective-mark couple) making up for a lack of any real originality.

TICKETS (Facets Home Video. $29.95): Every few years, a group of directors get together with the bright idea of doing an omnibus film–the results are usually uneven at best (recall “New York Stories” with its brilliant Martin Scorsese segment, its middling contribution from Woody Allen and an effort from Francis Ford Coppola that still ranks with “Jack” as the nadir of his career) but this attempt from world-renowned filmmakers Ermanno Olmi (“The Tree of Wooden Clogs”), Abbas Kiarostami (“Taste of Cherry” and “The Wind Will Carry Us”) and Ken Loach (“Riff-Raff” and “The Wind That Shakes The Barley”) is more consistent than most. All set on a train heading for Rome, Olmi’s follows an aging businessman who becomes intrigued and distracted with a younger woman that he meets, Kiarostami’s deals with a young man who is caught between two women of his own and Loach’s involves a trio of Scottish kids on their way to a football match who learn that there is more to life than a game. The disc also includes detailed liner notes discussing the careers of the three filmmakers and a documentary chronicling the film’s production.

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originally posted: 10/20/06 13:40:28
last updated: 10/25/06 09:34:46
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