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DVD Reviews For 11/17: Slay Bells Ring

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic examines might robots and killer Santas, contemplates the glory of an al-ainging all-dancing Hasselhoff and looks at DVDs that reveal both who held back the electric car and who made Steve Guttenberg a star

When “Forbidden Planet” made its debut in 1956, it caused a stir because it marked one of the first times that a major studio (MGM) devoted a substantial budget (over a million dollars) on a large-scale, full-color original science-fiction film, a genre that at the time was usually left to the producers of cheap exploitation pictures. Despite the passing of a half-century since its original release, the film still has an impact today because it serves as a perfect example of the genre. In fact, if you went to a supercomputer and asked it to create a movie that would utilize ever single aspect that one thinks of when it comes to sci-fi films of the period–lavish special effects, hilariously straight-faced pseudo-scientific dialogue, stalwart heroes (okay, Leslie Nielsen in this case but at the time, he was considered to be hot stuff), sexy dames from another world who desperately wanted to learn about this strange thing called “love,” oddball villains, ray guns, trippy special effects, mysterious monsters and giant robots, to name only a few–the results would probably wind looking a lot like “Forbidden Planet.” While its quieter and more contemplative nature may have faded somewhat in popularity in the wake of noisy space operas like “Star Wars,” it remains a favorite of genre fans and Warner Home Video’s long awaited two-disc special edition of the film should go a long way towards winning a new generation of admirers as well.<

Loosely based on, of all things, Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” “Forbidden Planet” opens in the not-too-distant future as a spaceship, under the leadership of Commander John J. Adams (Nielsen), is sent from Earth to the distant planet of Altair IV in order to investigate what happened to the people who were sent there to colonize the land and who have fallen out of contact. When the crew arrives, they are warned by one colonist, Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), to go away. Nevertheless, they land on the planet and are met by Robby the Robot (playing himself) who takes them to Morbius’s relatively lavish home. Morbius informs them that there is a mysterious force on the planet that brutally killed every one of the settlers except for him and his daughter, Altaria (Anne Francis). He also tells them that the planet was once inhabited by an advanced race known as the Krell–while they were all killed off thousands of years earlier, most of their astonishingly advanced technology remains and Morbius has spent most of the last twenty years gaining an understanding of it. However, it seems that Morbius knows more than he is willing to let on to anyone, even his beloved daughter, about the Krell and that mysterious force and those secrets could well lead to the destruction of them all.<

Unlike many sci-fi films of the period, “Forbidden Planet” still works today as a legitimate movie and not just as a camp artifact. The screenplay by Cyril Humes is rooted more in the psychological than the technological in a way that gives it a more timeless feel (even if it does mean that we have to witness the sight of Leslie Nielsen lecturing us on the id and superego) that still resonates today. This is an intelligently conceived movie in every way–so much so, in fact, that if you stripped away all the futuristic aspects, it would still hold up as a reasonably compelling drama. That isn’t to slight the technological aspects of the film in any way–the special effects (especially the legendary Robby the Robot) are still impressive to look at today and the groundbreaking avant-garde electronic score from Louis and Bebe Barron adds an eerie tone to the proceedings. Of course, not all the special effects in the film are of the high-tech variety–I suspect that the sexy sight of Anne Francis in a variety of alluring outfits has launched many an unsuspecting lad into early puberty over the decades.

Previously released in a no-frills edition in the early days of DVD, “Forbidden Planet” has been given the deluxe treatment this time around and the resulting set should thrill the film’s legion of fans to no end. Disappointingly, there is no commentary track to be had here–I would have loved to hear either memories of the film’s production from Nielsen and Francis or discussions of its lasting impact from a genre authority like Bill Warren or Joe Dante. However, Disc One does give us a collection of brief deleted scenes, some trippy test footage involving some of the revolutionary special effects, a collection of trailers for Fifties sci-fi films and, most bizarrely, an episode of the little-remembered 1950's televison adaptation of “The Thin Man” in which Nick and Nora Charles (Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk) become embroiled in a mystery involving none other than Robby the Robot. Disc Two gives us a trio of documentaries–one produced for TCM on the history of 1950's sci-fi films, one on the production of “Forbidden Planet” and one centering on Robby the Robot himself. The most unexpected bonus is an entire second feature film, 1957's “The Invisible Boy,” that was created in part to reuse Robby the Robot in order to justify the expense that went into building him. In the film, which was primarily at the Saturday kiddie matinee market, young Timmie (Richard Eyre) falls under the power of a supercomputer hell-bent on world domination with the aid of Robby the Robot. It is pretty silly stuff but as kiddie fluff, it isn’t too bad and as a little-known adjunct to one of the most famous genre films of all times, it should have a good deal of appeal for fans and curiosity seekers alike.

Written by Cyril Hume. Directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox. Starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Earl Holliman and Robby the Robot. 1956. 96 minutes. Rated G. A Warner Home Video release. $26.98.


49 UP (First Run Films. $29.95): In 1964, Michael Apted began a documentary project in which he interviewed a group of 14 seven-year-old British schoolchildren from different backgrounds and revisited them every seven years to see how their lives have evolved. This is the latest installment and for those who have seen the previous installments, a viewing of this film is essential. While newcomers are advised to check out the earlier ones first to get the full effect, this one works perfectly well as a stand-alone film. In the disc’s chief extra, Roger Ebert, one of the greatest champions of the series, conducts an interview with Apted about the project and how it has evolved over the decades.

ACCEPTED (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): In this campus comedy from director Steve Pink (who co-wrote “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “High Fidelity”), a group of kids who didn’t get accepted into college wind up creating their own school to appease their parents and find it taking on a life of its own when hundreds of kids in similar situations arrive to broaden their horizons. Though the ads are positioning it as just another dumb stoner comedy, this is actually far smarter and funnier than it looks.

THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN–SEASONS FIVE AND SIX (Warner Home Video. $39.98): Kicking off a virtual avalanche of DVDs relating to the Man of Steel, Warners offers up a four-disc set comprising the final two seasons of the beloved George Reeves television series. Although the show was clearly on its last legs during these 26 episodes–the production values are cheaper than ever and the actors can barely disguise their boredom–but on some dumb and fundamental level, they are still pretty watchable today.

THE BEDROOM WINDOW (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $14.95): In this early effort from Curtis Hanson, Isabelle Huppert is in the midst of a clandestine rendezvous with lover Steve Guttenberg (Hey, it was made in 1987–these things happened back then) when she witnesses a brutal crime–since she can’t say what she saw without admitting to the affair, Guttenberg tells the cops that he actually saw what she saw and gets into a lot of trouble as a result. Brought to you through the kind participation of the Stonecutters.

BROTHERS OF THE HEAD (IFC Films. $24.95): Yet another one of those mockumentaries about British conjoined twins who form a punk rock band in the mid-1970's and get swept up in sex, drugs and rock and roll before eventually splitting up.

CHRISTMAS EVIL (Synapse Entertainment. $24.95): This deranged holiday horror film predates “Silent Night Deadly Night” by about four years and is one of the strangest and freakiest things that you will ever encounter. Brandon Maggart (perhaps best known for contributing some of the genetic material that would result in Fiona Apple) stars as a toy factory worker whose obsession with Santa Claus drives him to spy on people to see who is naughty and nice and crawl around on rooftops on Christmas Eve. Inevitably, things go wrong, blood is shed and it concludes with one of the most demented sequences I have ever seen. John Waters, a professed fan of the film (which should give you an idea of the weirdness level) contributes a commentary in which he explains his affection for a Yuletide classic that makes “White Christmas” look like a boring musical by comparison.

THE DA VINCI CODE (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): Not even the pixie charms of the eternally adorable Audrey Tautou were able to rescue Ron Howard’s sluggish adaptation of the inexplicably popular Dan Brown best-seller. If you actually dug this mishmash of crackpot conspiracy theories and New Age nonsense, this two-disc set should satisfy your jones for Grail-based entertainment. Strangely, there is no commentary track to be had here, no doubt because Sony couldn’t find anyone able to discuss the project in depth without breaking out into derisive giggles.

FAMILY GUY VOLUME 4 (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98): Wow, another collection of the seemingly indestructible TV series–this reminds of the time that I was the leader of Megaforce. (Cue the shot of me in a lame jumpsuit riding on a flying motorcycle with Persis Khambatta by my side.)

THE GREEN MILE: SPECIAL EDITION (Warner Home Video. $26.98): No, Frank Darabont didn’t find a way of making his already-overlong 1999 adaptation of the Stephen King’s Depression-era prison melodrama. Instead, he has helped put together a new edition of the film that includes extensive behind-the-scenes features including a documentary covering the production.

JEKYLL & HYDE–THE MUSICAL (Image Entertainment. $19.99): Hasselhoff Sings! Need I say more?

JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): In this dumber-than-usual teen comedy, three high-school girls (Ashanti, Sophia Bush and Arielle Kebbel) discover that they are all dating the same guy and retaliate by sending in a fourth (Brittany Snow) to woo him and then break his heart. Just one of the many films put out by Fox this year that they deemed more worthy of your time than the infinitely funnier “Idiocracy.”

KING KONG–EXTENDED EDITION (Universal Home Entertainment. $34.98): For those of you who thought that Peter Jackson’s remake of the monster movie classic was just too short, this three-disc edition adds 13 minutes of footage to the running time as well as extra deleted scenes. The other features include a commentary by Jackson and a comprehensive three-hour documentary on the making that includes some of the material generated for Jackson’s aborted 1996 attempt.

LEONARD COHEN–I’M YOUR MAN (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $27.98): No doubt in an attempt to correct the chief complain surrounding this documentary focusing on the career of the legendary Canadian crooner of gloom and doom as well as a 2004 tribute concert featuring his tunes performed by an array of famous fans–that too many of the performances were abbreviated by the filmmakers–this DVD includes a deleted scenes section that includes several extended performances.

LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION–VOLUME 4 (Warner Home Video. $64.98): Another November, another overstuffed four-discer of animated gems from the vaults at Warner Brothers. Disc one focuses on Bugs Bunny (and includes the Oscar-winning classic “Knighty Knight Bugs”), disc two offers a retrospective of the works of acclaimed director Frank Tashlin, disc three collects no less than 15 Speedy Gonzalez toons and disc four gives us a group of shorts featuring feline favorites such as Sylvester. Add in the usual bonanza of extras–the 1975 documentary “Bugs Bunny Superstar,” commentaries, music-only tracks and bonus cartoons–and you have another must-have set

MANIAC COP: SPECIAL EDITION (Synapse Entertainment. $24.95): New York is plagued by a series of brutal murders committed by someone in a cop uniform and man-god Bruce Campbell plays the honest officer who must solve the case when he is framed for the crimes. This slice of B-movie heaven is elevated by a darkly funny screenplay by Larry Cohen and a cast including such cult favorites as Tom Atkins, Richard Roundtree, Robert Z-Dar and William “Big Bill” Smith.

THE PAUL NEWMAN COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $59.98): Seven of Newman’s films–“Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956), “The Left-Handed Gun” (1958), “The Young Philadelphians” (1959), “Harper” (1966), “Pocket Money” (1972), “The Mackintosh Man” (1973) and “The Drowning Pool” (1975)–make their long-awaited DVD debuts as my mother rejoices.

WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? (Sony Home Entertainment. $26.96): POSSIBLE SPOILER WARNING: It was the Stonecutters, right?

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originally posted: 11/17/06 16:42:06
last updated: 11/17/06 16:59:18
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