DVD Reviews for 1/5: Annual M.I.A. Edition

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/05/07 16:29:02

In which your faithful scribe passes over the new releases (not that there is much to pass over) to shine a light on some of the weird and/or wonderful titles that have yet to see the light of day on DVD.

Once again, I have chosen to dedicate the first column of the new year, traditionally a dead period for DVD releases (what else can be said about a week where the biggest titles are the deadly dull craptaculars “The Covenant” and “Snakes on a Plane,” to short write-ups of ten films that should be on DVD but have not yet been released or even announced. Considering the fact that we have reached a point where even a film as instantly disposable as “Million Dollar Mystery”–a 1987 Dino De Laurentis rip-off of “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World” that is only remembered today because viewers were invited to look for clues hidden in the film and Glad trash bag boxes to find a million dollar prize hidden somewhere in the United States (despite the assumption that greed would drive people into theaters, the film bombed so badly that it didn’t even make back the prize money at the box-office)–has been issued, you may think to yourself that there are hardly any notable M.I.A. titles but you would be wrong.

While new titles arrive each and every week (in fact, one film originally slated for the article, the 1984 sci-fi favorite “Night of the Comet,” was scuttled at the last minute when I learned that it is due out in March) but there are still hundreds and hundred of fascinating films–ranging from highly acclaimed masterpieces to absurd camp classics–out there that have yet to appear and the list that follows, a combination of suggestions offered by readers as well as a few of my own, are merely the tiny tip of a very large and very strange iceberg. I can’t personally vouch for every title listed below but with the exception of “Howard the Duck” (which is pretty much the worst film ever made not named “Charlie’s Angels 2" or “Bad Boys 2"), the ones that I have seen are all at the very least interesting and often better than that and some of the ones I haven’t seen (especially “Appointment With Danger”) sound so fascinating that I am doubly annoyed with the fact that I can’t watch them right this minute.

Anyway, enjoy. Also, I have no doubt that when you finish reading this piece, you will grumble to yourself about how I passed over this or that film. Well, in that case, feel free to click on the comment link at the end of the piece and send in those missing titles and perhaps I will get to them next year.

ALL THIS AND WORLD WAR II (1976): In the mid-70's, a woman named Susan Winslow worked on a documentary on the Great Depression that consisted entirely of old newsreel footage scored to the popular music of the period. The result, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” was a success and for a follow-up, she planned something even more ambitious and, as it turned out, even more foolhardy–a film that would tell the story of World War II using clips from old 20th Century Fox films as well as actual wartime footage lashed together with a soundtrack consisting of a couple dozen then-popular musical acts (including Elton John, Tina Turner, Peter Gabriel and the Bee Gees) covering the songs of the Beatles. Apparently the results (including a montage of clips involving Hitler scored to Helen Reddy singing “The Fool on the Hill,” the D-Day invasion backed by Frankie Vali doing “A Day in the Life” and Leo Sayer crooning “I Am the Walrus” over Pearl Harbor footage cribbed from “Tora Tora Tora”) were more jarring and bizarre than anything else (almost forgot to mention that the depiction of the downfall of Germany consisted of Rod Stewart singing “Get Back” while footage of advancing German troops was shown in reverse) and the film was quickly pulled from theaters. (Only recently have bootleg videos begun to emerge on the grey market.) To be honest, I have never had an opportunity to see the film–and considering the potential nightmare of licensing all the different musical performances for any DVD release–it is unlikely that it will be appearing anytime soon but I have to admit that if it ever did appear, I would happily plunk down money to purchase it blind just to see if it lives up (or down) to its reputation. (Trivia buffs may be interested to know that an actual Beatle had a minor association with this film–John Lennon played guitar on Elton John’s cover of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”.)

BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956) I first became aware of this Nicholas Ray drama about a decade or so ago when Martin Scorsese waxed ecstatic over it in his documentary “A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies” and when I came across it a couple of years later, I was thrilled to discover that it not only lived up to expectations–it exceeded them. James Mason stars as an ordinary American husband and father knocking himself out to provide his wife and child with the trappings of the American dream until he is diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal arterial disease. He undergoes an experimental treatment involving the then-new wonder drug cortisone and while he is cured, his continual use of the medication sends him on a series of wild moods swings that sees him lambasting the PTA one moment and haranguing his kid for not learning his math homework the next. Wildly radical for its time (major American films of the time did not blatantly criticize traditional American values and they certainly didn’t deal with drug dependency) it still packs a considerable punch today for its unflinching depiction of one man succumbing to the horrors of addiction (thanks to one of James Mason’s best performances) and its climax, in which a now manic Mason calmly cites the Biblical story of Abraham and Issac to wife Barbara Rush to justify why he must kill his son, remains one of the most terrifying and intense things I have ever seen in a film. Although it has appeared on video in Europe, where Ray is suitably lionized, it has mysteriously never turned up on video here, although Fox Movie Channel has been known to show it on occasion.

BREWSTER MCCLOUD (1971) As incredible as it may seem for a filmmaker of his stature, there are still quite a few key films from the late, great Robert Altman that have yet to make an appearance on DVD. While I could easily make a case here for “Thieves Like Us” (his heartbreaking 1974 Depression-era drama about the tragic romance between small-town girl Shelley Duvall and bank robber Keith Carradine), “HEALTH” (a funny 1980 political satire that Fox should have included in its recent “Robert Altman Collection” box set instead of an old copy of “MASH” or “Streamers” (his powerful 1983 adaptation of playwright David Rabe’s Vietnam drama), I find myself leaning towards this charmingly screw-loose fable about a flight-obsessed boy (Bud Cort) who is living in the bowels of the then-new Houston Astrodome and who finds himself involved with a trio of oddball women (Duvall, Sally Kellerman and Jennifer Salt) as well as the investigation into a string of local murders headed up by a San Francisco supercop (Michael Murphy doing a hilarious parody of “Bullitt”.) While this film, made in the wake of the success of “MASH,” may not be top-shelf Altman on the level of “McCabe & Mrs Miller” or “Nashville,” its weirdo plotting, peculiar characters and absurdist sense of humor makes it a quintessential example of what made his work so unique.

CRACKING UP (1983) This incredibly obscure films deserves to be released on DVD, if only because it marks the last big-screen directorial effort to date from one of the most formally inventive of American comedic filmmakers, the one and only Jerry Lewis. In this scattershot black comedy, Lewis plays Warren Nefron, an incredibly unlucky klutz who can’t even succeed at killing himself. In desperation, he decides to visit a psychiatrist as the film turns into a series of scattershot vignettes that allow Lewis to portray several different characters from Nefron’s life. Although nowhere near as consistently funny as such certified Lewis masterpieces as “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy” and clearly a victim of some studio meddling (before refusing to release it theatrically, Warners replaced the original title, “Smorgasbord,”–a moniker that more closely suggest the film’s free-form atmosphere–with the blander “Cracking Up” so late in the game that a scene in which some characters supposedly begin watching this very film–a typically surreal Lewis gambit–in a theater that still has the original title on the marquee), it is much funnier than his previous effort, the 1981 surprise hit comeback vehicle “Hardly Working” and contains at least one sequence, a brilliant extended gag in which Lewis tries to navigate the highly polished floor of his shrink’s office, that ranks among the funniest things that he has ever done on the big screen.

INVESTIGATING SEX (2001) I could probably fill up an entire list of M.I.A. movies using nothing but the works of cult filmmaker Alan Rudolph–when will we ever see such worthy titles as “Welcome to L.A.,” “Remember My Name,” “Return Engagement,” “Trouble in Mind” or “Made in Heaven” (especially if he could include a version of the incredible-sounding original ending that he once described to me in an interview)?–but I have chosen one so obscure that it has never received any theatrical distribution in America despite a provocative title and a cast including the likes of Nick Nolte, Neve Campbell, Julie Delpy, Alan Cumming, Robin Tunney, Terrence Howard and Tuesday Weld. Granted, the premise may not be the easiest sell in the world–set in the late 1920's , it involves a group of European avant-garde types whose attempt to engage in a long and dispassionate discourse on the subject of sex becomes undone by the presence of the two sexy stenographers (Tunney and Campbell) hired to take down their words for posterity–but the combination of Rudolph revisiting the male-female dynamic that has fueled some of his strongest works (such as “Choose Me” and “The Secret Lives of Dentists”) and that cast would suggest that even if it is a failure, it is almost certainly at least an interesting failure and possibly much more.

THE KEEP (1983) In this strange adaptation of F Paul Wilson’s best-selling horror novel, set during World War II, a squad of German soldiers (led by the relatively sympathetic Jurgen Prochnow) takes possession of an ancient Romanian castle and find themselves being picked off one by one by a mysterious force within its walls. An SS squad, headed by a monstrous Gabriel Byrne, arrives on the assumption that the soldiers are being killed by locals but when they finally realize that their opponent is actually a supernatural demon, they are forced to summon a Jewish expert (Ian McKellen) and his daughter (Alberta Watson) in the hopes that he can stop it for good. Although it doesn’t sound like the type of film that you might expect from him, this was actually written and directed by Michael Mann as the follow-up to his theatrical debut “Thief” and while it is easily the least artistically successful film of his entire career–the story is choppy in a manner that suggests many last-minute edits, especially during the climax, and the mystical character played by Scott Glenn brings new meaning to the word “superfluous”–but it does contain some strong performances (especially by Byrne) and some incredible moments of visual poetry. Seeing as how Mann has used home video to fiddle with the edits of several of his previous films, I would love it if Mann of today were to take a stab at doing a director’s cut DVD to restore it to what he originally envisioned. However since that probably won’t be happening in this lifetime (even if the deleted material still existed and was usable, I somehow suspect that revisiting this particular film is pretty low on Mann’s to-do list), I would be more than satisfied with a decent copy of the theatrical edition. (And while we’re at it, how about Mann’s two made-for-TV movie efforts, the 1979 prison drama “The Jericho Mile” and the 1989 cops-and-robbers thriller “L.A. Takedown” that he would later rework into a little movie he did entitled “Heat”?)

MOVIE MOVIE (1978) Although much ink has been spilled about Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s upcoming “Grindhouse,” an homage of the seedy days of exploitation films consisting of a pair of brand-new feature films and a collection of fake trailers meant to evoke the glory days of 70's-era trash, they aren’t the first filmmakers to celebrate a bygone period of filmmaking by recreating it for a contemporary audience. Almost three decades ago, Stanley Donen (the man behind such classics as “Singin in the Rain,” “Two for the Road” and “Blame It on Rio”), along with screenwriter Larry Gelbart, did the same thing with this quirky effort that offered up an affectionate goof on the cliches of 1930's films by presenting two ersatz films, both starring George C. Scott that consciously packed in all the expected characters and cliches of their respective genres. “Dynamite Hands” skewered old boxing melodramas like “Golden Boy” with Scott as a gruff manager, Harry Hamlin as an up-and-coming pugilist, Red Buttons as the folksy trainer, Kathleen Beller as the loyal girlfriend and Ann Reinking as a femme fatale named Troubles Moran while “Baxter’s Beauties” paid tribute to backstage musicals like “42nd Street” with Scott as the gruff director, Barry Bostwick as the sweet-natured writer, Trish van Devere as the egomaniacal diva and Rebecca York as the sweet-natured ingenue who winds up going onstage as a nobody and coming back a star. As I recall, this did relatively well when it came out and it seems odd that it should have dropped so completely from view–it has played on cable now and then but I understand that some of those prints have the “Dynamite Hands” segment in color instead of the glorious black-and-white seen in the original theatrical release.

THE SILENT PARTNER (1978) In this delightfully droll Canadian-made thriller in the Hitchcockian mold (an early screenwriting effort from Curtis Hanson), mild-mannered bank clerk Elliot Gould gets wind that his branch is about to be robbed and rearranges his drawer so that he is carrying nothing but small bills while squirreling the larger ones into a safety deposit box–a foolproof crime until thief Christopher Plummer figures out what happened and begins relentlessly hounding him for the cash. Alas, despite what sounds like a sure-fire premise for a movie, it somehow managed to slip through the cracks and is generally remembered today only by those who either caught it on its original release or who stumbled upon it on cable many years ago. (Eagle-eyed viewers will be amused to notice the presence of John Candy in an early role.)

WALKER (1987) Riding high on the heat generated by his first two films, the cult hits “Repo Man” and “Sid & Nancy,” radical British director Alex Cox somehow convinced Universal, generally known as the most conservative of all the major Hollywood studios, to finance and distribute a historical epic that would chart the misadventures of William Walker, a mid-19th-century American soldier-of-fortune who was inspired by notions of Manifest Destiny to invade Central America and name himself president of Nicaragua for a time until he was overthrown and executed by firing squad. It has never been explained why the studio agreed to do the film in the first place but it is easy to figure out what happened once they got a look at the finished work and discovered to their horror that instead of a dry history lesson, Cox gave them a weird and bloody black comedy that used a series of deliberate anachronisms (such as helicopters, Coca-Cola cans and copies of “Time” and “People”) to invoke memories of Reagan’s then-current forays into the same region and not-so-subtly suggest that some things never change–they dumped the film in a couple of theaters, pulled it just as quickly and have pretended ever since that it never existed. However, with an excellent cast (led by Ed Harris in what may be his finest screen performance to date), a quirky sense of humor, a killer Joe Strummer score and an angry denunciation of American intervention that remains relevant today, this is a film that is ripe for rediscovery and if Universal won’t put it out themselves, I can only hope that they will one day lease it to a company (such as Criterion or Anchor Bay) that will give it the treatment it deserves–a commentary by Cox (whose career never fully recovered after this debacle) on the production history alone would make this a must-own DVD.

WINDOWS (1980) Because there are so many great films out there that haven’t yet been released on DVD, I have pretty much resisted the urge to include any so-bad-they’re-good camp obscurities such as “Paradise” (a cheesy “Blue Lagoon” rip-off with Phoebe Cates gamboling through a desert oasis in the altogether, albeit with Willie Aames along for the ride) or “Great White” (an Italian “Jaws” rip-off so blatant that Universal Studios successfully sued for an injunction preventing its release). However, I had to make an exception for this ultra-obscure thriller that would go down in the history books as the first American theatrical release of the 1980's and one of the very worst films of that or any other decade. Elizabeth Ashley plays a crazed lesbian whose mad crush on mousy-but-straight neighbor Talia Shire inspires her to hire a goon to attack and rape the object of her affections on the theory that she will be so traumatized by the incident that she will immediately switch to the other team. (Oh yeah, she also has the guy tape-record the whole thing so she can get off on Shire’s moans and groans.) This film marked the directorial debut of legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis and the critical and public reaction was so vehement–it was charged with being both wildly homophobic and wildly implausible (especially the sequence where Shire gets into a cab a few days after the attack, realizes that the driver is her attacker–he even asks her where he’s seen her before–and then. . . if I told you what happens next, you wouldn’t believe me)–that he never tried it again and it drifted into an obscurity so total that it has never appeared on home video in America in any form. That said, I’d love the chance to watch it again, if only to screen it as part of a double-feature with the somewhat similar current release “Notes on a Scandal.”

The following titles were others suggested for this article by friends, colleagues and readers.

LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN (1985 Matthew Robbins)
LONG GONE (1987 Martin Davidson)
THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED (2003 Kim Bartley/Donnacha O’Briain)
THE NAKED PREY (1966 Cornell Wilde)
NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970 Cornell Wilde)
ALL THE LOVIN KINFOLK (1970 John Hayes )
ALTERNATIVE 3 (1977 David Ambrose)
TRUE CONFESSIONS (1981 Ulu Grosbard)
AMERICAN HOT WAX (1978 Floyd Mutrux)
HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT (1980 James Caan)
JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971 Dalton Trumbo)
ANDERSON TAPES (1971 Sidney Lumet)
SPLIT IMAGE (1982 Ted Kotcheff)
NIGHT WATCH (1973 Brian Hutton)
FEAR NO EVIL (1969 Paul Wendkos)
KAMIKAZE 1989 (1982 Wolf Gremm)
LET IT BE (1970 Michael Lindsay-Hogg)
GHOSTWATCH (1992 Lesley Manning)
LET'S GET LOST (1988 Bruce Weber)
THE OUTFIT (1973 John Flynn)
PLAY DIRTY (1968 Andre DeToth)
PUFNSTUF: THE MOVIE (1970 Hollingsworth Morse )
ROOTS OF HEAVEN (1958 John Huston)
THE SICILIAN CLAN (1969 Henri Verneuil)
THE SPLIT (1968 Gordon Flemyng)
REFLECTION OF FEAR (1973 William Fraker)
S*P*Y*S (1974 Irving Kershner)
SUNDAY (2002 Charles McDougall)
IRISH BLOOD RELATIVES (1978 Claude Chabrol)
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME (1992 Errol Morris)
CHE (1968 Richard Fleischer)
HOWARD THE DUCK (1986 Willard Hyuck)
OUT 1 (1971 Jacques Rivette)
RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935 Leo McCarey)
ANATAHAN (1953 Josef von Sternberg)
DAISY KENYON (1947 Otto Preminger)
THE LAST MOVIE (1971 Dennis Hopper)
MY SON JOHN (1952 Leo McCarey)
SEVEN WOMEN (1966 John Ford)
MEGAFORCE (1982 Hal Needham)
YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983 Antonio Margheriti)
SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946 Harve Forster/Wilfred Jackson)
FROM BEYOND (1986 Stuart Gordon)
NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984 Sam Firstenberg)
IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD (1982 Malcolm Leo/Andrew Solt)
CRUISING (1980 William Friedkin)
FEVER PITCH (1985 Richard Brooks)
MEN DON’T LEAVE (1990 Paul Brickman)
FREUD (1962 John Huston)
THE KREMLIN LETTER (1970 John Huston)
VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955 Richard Fleischer)
10 RILLINGTON STREET (1971 Richard Fleischer)
THREE THE HARD WAY (1974 Gordon Parks Jr.)
THE DEVILS (1971 Ken Russell)
52 PICK UP (1986 John Frankenheimer)
HEROES OF TELEMARK (1965 Anthony Mann)
MINISTRY OF FEAR (1944 Fritz Lang )
NIGHT OF THE GENERALS (1966 Anatole Litvak)
WATERLOO (1970 Sergei Bondarchuk)
WILD RIVER (1960 Elia Kazan)
SOME CAME RUNNING (1959 Vincente Minnelli)
THE DEADLY AFFAIR (1966 Sidney Lumet)
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (1967 John Schlesinger)
THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990 Philip Ridley)
JACK’S BACK (1988 Rowdy Harrington)
MANDINGO (1975 Richard Fleischer)

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