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DVD Reviews for 11/10: Special Spy Hard Edition

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful author discovers that he is in no mood to come up with a pithy opening--while filled with glee and joy over the recent midterm elections and the immediate aftermath, he is bummed that Adrienne Shelly and Sid Davis (to whom this column is dedicated) weren't around to see it for themselves. (Granted, I suspect Davis might not have been that giddy over the outcome but it is the thought that counts, after all.)

People picking up the new box set “The Marlon Brando Collection” expecting to see a group of unassailable classics are likely to be somewhat disappointed by the five films that have been included. Instead of titles on the level of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Godfather” or “Last Tango in Paris,” it instead collects a quintet of lesser-known titles that, for the most part, never received the same sort of critical or popular acclaim as his bigger films. However, no matter what the quality of the material he was working with, Brando was always one of those rare electrifying screen presences who could make even the shabbiest film (I’m looking at you, “Christopher Columbus–The Discovery”) work to a certain degree just by the sheer force of his personality. Actually, the films in this set aren’t really that bad–a couple are actually much better than their reputations might suggest–and for anyone interested in Brando’s life and work, all five are must-sees.

The most ordinary title in the bunch is clearly “Julius Caesar,” Joseph L. Mankewicz’s epic 1953 adaptation of the William Shakespeare play about the assassination of the Roman ruler and its violent repercussions with Brando as the loyal Marc Antony and James Mason and John Gielgud as the scheming Brutus and Cassius. It isn’t a bad movie by any means but it is kind of a square one–it lacks the sort of visual verve that Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles brought to their various Shakespeare adaptations. However, as a record of Brando performing the words of the Bard, it is an invaluable document–unlike many screen actors, who approach iambic pentameter as if it is some kind of strange foreign language, he takes to it beautifully and through him, the words ring loud, clear and true. This disc contains both an introduction from TCM host Robert Osbourne and a short featurette on the making of the film.

On the other hand, “The Teahouse of the August Moon” is such a strange film that most people encountering it for the first time will likely find themselves scratching their heads while wondering how it could have gotten made in the first place. A satire of post-war relations between American and Japan, the film tells the story of an Army captain who is sent to a small Okinawa village to teach them democracy and build a schoolhouse and discovers that they would instead prefer their old traditions and a new teahouse. The twist is that Brando plays not the visiting captain–that role goes to the relentlessly straight-arrow Glenn Ford–but the goofy local Sakini. It is an uncharacteristically broad comic performance from the usually serious star and while it is clear that he is having a blast under all the makeup, that sense of fun doesn’t really come through to the viewer but the sight of him playing a Japanese man is so flat-out strange that it gives the film a sort of train-wreck quality that makes it worth watching for curiosity seekers. The lone bonus here is a vintage promotional featurette.

The 1962 version of “Mutiny on the Bounty” is probably the most famous film in the set–alas, it is famous because the enormous budget overruns and the relatively dismal box-office returns were both blamed on Brando and caused him to virtually become persona non grata in Hollywood until the success of “The Godfather” a decade later. While he shouldn’t have been held accountable for all of the production problems, his presence did wind up harming the film because of his bizarre miscasting as Fletcher Christian–a part that needs to be played by a spry and idealistic young man was instead inhabited by someone at least a decade too old to pull it off. Beyond his weirdly lisping performance, which does have a sort of camp appeal, the film is not quite as bad as some have claimed–it is beautiful to look at and it does offer a glimpse of an epic style of filmmaking that would soon go out of fashion. The only true special edition of the bunch, this two-disc set contains alternate versions of the prologue and epilogue, a new documentary on the creation of the full-sized boat used in the film and several vintage promotional featurettes–alas, none delve into any of the colorful behind-the-scenes stories surrounding this infamously troubled production.

“In the loosest sense he is her husband . . .and in the loosest way she is his wife!” This was the tag line for John Huston’s 1967 adaptation of Carson McCullers’s “Reflections In A Golden Eye” and it only begins to do justice to one of the most insanely lurid films to come out of Hollywood in the 1960's. Set on an isolated Southern military base, the film features Brando as an unhappily married officer struggling to repress his latent homosexuality, Elizabeth Taylor as the shrewish wife who enjoys humiliating him by whipping him with a riding crop and carrying on an affair with fellow officer Brian Keith, Julie Harris is Keith’s nutty spouse whose response to a miscarriage was to lop off her nipples with gardening shears and Robert Forster (in his big-screen debut) as the hunky new private whose arrival causes the already overheated tensions to finally boil over into a tragic climax. Falling somewhere between grim Southern melodrama and ultra-high camp, it is one of Huston’s strangest works and while it doesn’t “work” on any normal filmmaking levels, I have to admit that it is never boring to watch. The sole extra here is some silent behind-the-scenes footage that gives us a glimpse of Brando, Taylor and Huston at work.

The last film he made before a nearly decade-long hiatus from Hollywood, 1980's “The Formula” is one of those movies (along with “Superman” and “Apocalypse Now”) in which he got top billing and huge paychecks in exchange for only a few brief appearances. George C. Scott is actually the star in this thriller in which he plays a detective who stumbles upon a case involving a secret Nazi formula for synthetic gasoline that could destroy the entire oil industry while Brando only shows up for a few scenes as an Armand Hammer-like oil magnate. It is a pretty silly movie–mostly because it takes its premise of a synthetic oil formula, which was debunked as nonsense back then, way too seriously for its own good–but the Brando scenes are pretty compelling and I guarantee that after watching it, you’ll never look at a Milk Dud the same way again.The most recent film of the collection, this is also the only one with a commentary track that features director John G. Avildsen and screenwriter Steve Shagan–I haven’t listened to it yet but considering the fact that the two had a public falling-out at the time of the film’s release, it could be an interesting listen.

JULIUS CAESAR: Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Edmond O’Brien, Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr. 1953. Unrated. 121 minutes.

THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON: Written by John Patrick. Directed by Daniel Mann. Starring Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, Machiko Kyo and Eddie Albert. 1956. Unrated. 123 minutes.

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY: Written by Charles Lederer. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Starring Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, Richard Harris, Hugh Griffith, and Tarita. 1962. Unrated. 185 minutes.

REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE: Written by Chapman Mortimer and Gladys Hill. Directed by John Huston. Starring Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Brian Keith, Julie Harris and Robert Forster. 1967. Unrated. 109 minutes.

THE FORMULA: Written by Steve Shagan. Directed by John G. Avildsen. Starring Marlon Brando, George C. Scott, Marthe Keller, John Gielgud and Beatrice Straight. 1980. Rated R. 117 minutes.

A Warner Home Video release. $59.98


BEVERLY HILLS 90210–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON/MELROSE PLACE–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $54.99 each): Flash back to the early days of these two seminal serials from the Aaron Spelling factory–a time when the former featured Shannen Doherty as America’s Sweetheart and the latter actually featured a black person or two.

CARS (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): Despite what you might have heard, this latest effort from the people at Pixar (featuring the voices of Owen Wilson, Paul Newman and Larry the Cable Guy as anthropomorphic automobiles) wasn’t that bad–it just wasn’t up to the extraordinarily high standards of their previous efforts. That said, the kids will adore it and I suspect that the inevitable replays will wear a little better on parents than the likes of “Madagascar.”

THE CHAIRMAN/ THE KREMLIN LETTER/ THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98 each): To tie in with the rise in spy movies thanks to the upcoming release of “Casino Royale,” Fox dips into their vaults to retrieve a trio of similar films. “The Chairman,” the best of the bunch, is a nutty epic in which Gregory Peck sneaks into Red China to steal an agricultural formula, not realizing that his bosses have implanted a tiny bomb in his head that will detonate if he is in danger of failing to pull off the job. “The Kremlin Letter,” one of John Huston’s lesser vehicles, has a young intelligence officer recruited into a plant to sneak into Russia to steal a CIA-penned letter promising assistance if China goes nuclear. “The Quiller Memorandum” features British secret agent George Segal (you heard me) sent to Germany to investigate a neo-Nazi underground movement.

THE FALLEN IDOL (The Criterion Collection. $29.99): The second of three collaborations between writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed (coming in between “Odd Man Out” and “The Third Man”), this haunting 1948 drama features Ralph Richardson as a humble butler accused of the murder of his horrible wife and Bobby Henrey, in one of the great children’s performances of all time, as the young boy who idolizes the man and whose efforts to help him (along with his vague grasp of the adult world) wind up implicating him instead. The disc also contains a documentary on Reed’s career and a copy of Greene’s original short story.

THE FLOWER DRUM SONG (Universal Home Video. $26.98): This largely overlooked screen adaptation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical features Miyoshi Umeki as a Chinese woman who slips illegally into America in order to marry the man she has been betrothed to, only to fall in love with both another man and her new country. Although not a particularly good movie–at 133 minutes, it goes on far too long for its own good–but the conceit of a large-scale musical with an all-Asian cast is unique enough to make it worth checking out.

GARY COOPER–THE SIGNATURE COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $49.98): Another beloved Hollywood icon is celebrated with another stellar box set from Warner Home Video. This collection is anchored by a 2-disc special edition (including a commentary, documentaries and even a Porky Pig cartoon) of the 1941 classic “Sergeant York,” the biopic of the World War I hero that made him one of the biggest stars of the day and also includes “The Fountainhead” (1949), the decidedly strange adaptation of the Ayn Rand best-seller, “Dallas” (1950), in which he plays a former Confederate soldier who tracks down the now-respectable man who once did him wrong in his days as an outlaw, “Springfield Rifle” (1952), in which he switches sides to play a Union soldier who goes undercover to prevent raids on needed shipments of horses, and “The Wreck of the Mary Deare” (1959), which sees him as the captain of a salvage ship who encounters a seemingly abandoned freighter in the middle of the ocean.

THE COMPLETE HARVEYTOONS (Sony Home Entertainment. $34.98): Although apparently not quite as complete as the title suggests, this four-disc set should provide more Casper the Friendly ghost cartoons than any rational person need be exposed to in a lifetime.

THE JAMES BOND ULTIMATE COLLECTION VOL. 1/VOL.2 (MGM Home Entertainment. $89.95 each): Just in time for the release of “Casino Royale,” MGM is once again releasing the James Bond films in super-duper mega-cool editions with each title getting the two-disc treatments with restored picture, DTS sound and extras such as deleted scenes, commentaries and other archival materials. In order to maximize their profits however, they are only releasing them in four box sets of five titles each (the next two sets are due in December) that surround one or two must-haves with some lesser entries. Volume One features 1964's “Goldfinger” (arguably the most famous of the series), 1971's “Diamonds Are Forever” (Sean Connery’s silly swan song from the series), 1974's “The Man With the Golden Gun” (in which Roger Moore does battle with Christopher Lee, Lee’s superfluous nipple and Herve Villachaize), 1987's “The Living Daylights” (Timothy Dalton doing battle with the walking chicken Kiev that is Joe Don Baker) and 1999's “The World Is Not Enough” (possibly the low point of the entire series, this was the one that tried to sell us on the idea of Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist). The more consistent Volume 2 contains 1965's “Thunderball” (arguably the most lavish and spectacular of the Connery Bonds), 1977's “The Spy Who Loved Me” (one of the best Moore entries thanks to one of the best opening sequences, one of the sexiest Bond Girls in Barbara Bach and one of the goofiest villains in Richard Kiel’s metal-mouth Jaws), 1985's “A View to a Kill” (arguably the worst of the Moore films, despite the presence of Christopher Walken and Grace Jones as the villains), 1989's “License to Kill” (a surprisingly strong entry that wound up being Timothy Dalton’s swan song) and 2002's “Die Another Day” (a film that starts off promisingly and then quickly goes down the toilet as it tries to become a star vehicle for the deeply annoying Halle Berry). My guess is that unless you are a stone Bond freak–and such people do exist–you should probably hold off until the films are available for individual purchase, which will probably occur when “Casino Royale” hits DVD in the spring.

LITTLE MAN (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.98): If you are even vaguely thinking about picking up a copy of this abysmal effort from the Wayans Brothers–in which a midget thief is somehow mistaken for a newborn baby despite having tattoos, a full set of teeth and a fuller-than-normal diaper–I am ordering you to punch yourself in the face as hard as you can.

MASH–SEASON 11 (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98): With this set featuring the final season of the spin-off of Robert Altman’s 1970 comedy classic, you will be able to relive both the end of one of TV’s longest-running shows and the beginning of an era of overly hyped and vaguely disappointing series finales. Goodbye, farewell and whatever.

OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! (Paramount Home Video. $14.95): Although the majority of his output as a filmmaker would lean towards the profoundly square and traditional, Richard Attenborough kicked off his directorial career with this strikingly surreal 1969 satirical musical about the folly of war seen mostly through the eyes of one family whose members are constantly going off to join in the fight. Though ostensibly set during the First World War, many of the messages it contains are still sadly relevant today.

PLAYBOY 2007 VIDEO PLAYMATE CALENDAR (Playboy Video. $19.98): Something must be wrong with my copy of this DVD–I keep trying to get the calendar function to work and all I keep coming up with is footage of naked women. I'd complain, but have you seen September?

POLICE SQUAD!–THE COMPLETE SERIES (Paramount Home Video. $19.95): Although this 1982 series from “Airplane!” creator Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker–which did for old cop shows the same thing that their previous effort did for disaster films–lasted for only six episodes, it remains the single funniest show to ever appear on network television. Now that it has finally been released on DVD (in a set that contains an interview with star Leslie Nielsen, screen tests and a collection of memos sent to the producers by an increasingly confused network), devoted fans can relish the beauty of the neighborhood known as Little Italy in full digital clarity while realizing just how many of the jokes were later recycled into the film spin-off “The Naked Gun!”

THE PUSHER TRILOGY (Magnolia Home Video. $39.98): Sort of the “Three Colors Trilogy” of Danish drug movies, these three highly acclaimed films from director Nicolas Winding Refn tell a series of interlocking stories dealing with various aspects of the Copenhagen drug trade. I’ve only seen the first installment but if the other parts are as dazzling and thrilling as that part, then this set is definitely worth checking out.

THE SEDUCTION (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $14.98): In this creepy 1982 stalker film, Andrew Stevens plays a nutbag who becomes sexually obsessed with a local newscaster and will do anything to possess her–seeing as she is played by an in-her-prime Morgan Fairchild, you can hardly blame him. Those of you who are sticklers for political correctness are advised to skip this one as the ending gets really perverse as Fairchild attempts to get the upper hand on her tormentor by pretending to seduce him.

TOTALLY AWESOME (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): Considering that this is a made-for-cable spoof on 1980's teen films (which were already pretty ridiculous as is) co-starring Chris Kattan, I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that the title is probably a misnomer.

TOUGH ENOUGH (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $14.98): From the director of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Amityville 3-D” and “Red Sonja” comes this reasonably engaging 1983 comedy in which Dennis Quaid plays a struggling country singer who enters a Toughman contest that requires him to defeat five boxers in one night for a $100,000 purse. Beloved character actor Warren Oates made his final film appearance here as a sleazy fight promoter.

TRANSFORMERS–THE MOVIE: 20th ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL EDITION (Sony Home Entertainment. $21.98): For any of those still convinced that life is fair and people get what they deserve, just bear in mind that perhaps the greatest filmmaker that America ever produced, Orson Welles, ended his long career by providing the voice of “Unicron” in this big-screen spinoff of a crappy kids program. Granted, it was a step up from doing Henry Jaglom films but still . . .

THE ULTIMATE FLINT COLLECTION (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): The hell with James Bond–all the smart people know that the hippest, coolest and funniest 60's super-spy was top agent Derek Flint, he of the cigarette lighter with 82 different functions (83 if you want to actually light a cigarette) and played to perfection by James Coburn. This set contains both Flint movies–1966's “Our Man Flint” and 1967's “In Like Flint”–the little-seen 1976 TV movie version “Our Man Flint: Dead On Target” (with Ray Danton replacing Coburn) and a slew of extras including vintage footage (including some original screen tests), new interviews and commentaries from historians Eddie Friedfeld & Lee Pfeiffer.

UN COEUR EN HIVER (Koch Lorber. $29.98): A few years after appearing together in “Manon of the Spring,” French stars Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Beart reunited for this hypnotic drama about a fragile emotional triangle involving an aloof violin dealer (Auteuil), his more gregarious business partner (Andre Dussollier) and the beautiful violinist (guess who?) who is seeing the latter but becomes fascinated with the former. Trust me–it is a great film and serves as further proof of Beart’s position as one of the great French actresses of our time.

WORDPLAY (The Weinstein Company. $29.98): Just a word of friendly warning: Even if you have never before had a desire to fill out a crossword puzzle in your life, this engaging documentary–focusing on both New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz and the people who daily obsess over his creations–will get you hooked on them in an instant.

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originally posted: 11/10/06 16:07:31
last updated: 11/10/06 16:22:17
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