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DVD Reviews for 2/23: Shut Up And Watch!

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic is too flummoxed by the idea of an "Open Water 2" to come up with an appropriately glib opening paragraph.

For every good independent film that somehow beats the odds and goes on to popular acclaim, there are probably at least a dozen equally impressive films that somehow wind up falling through the cracks into obscurity. Such a film is “Apartment Zero,” a crackerjack psychological thriller that impressed audiences when it premiered at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival. Alas, this was also the year that saw the debuts of Steven Soderbergh’s landmark “sex, lies and videotape,” Michael Lehman’s controversial black comedy “Heathers” and that year’s winner of the Grand Jury Prize, Nancy Savoca’s “True Love” and as a result, “Apartment Zero” never really took off in the way that its fans thought it would.

Set in Buenos Aries, the films stars Colin Firth (a few years before achieving international stardom in the BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice”) as Adrian LeDuc, a strange young man, possibly a borderline sociopath, who runs a failing revival movie theater while caring for his insane mother. After she dies, financial problems force Adrian to rent out one of the rooms in the apartment that he used to share with her. The room is taken by Jack Carney (Hart Bochner), a mysterious and charming stranger who soon has all the other tenants of the apartment building eating out of his hand. Adrian, however, isn’t so sure and he becomes convinced that Jack is actually a government assassin who has come to town to eliminate his enemies and is responsible for the sudden upturn in dead bodies in the area. When he tries to tell his neighbors about his suspicions, they fall on deaf ears–they simply like Jack better as a person and are convinced that Adrian is succumbing to the same mental disorder that claimed his mother.

Of course, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting how this story plays out but I will say that co-writers David Koepp (who made his screenwriting debut here) and Martin Donovan (who also directed and who would basically disappear from the film world after this project) do an impressive job of maintaining a real sense of tension and mystery throughout. Instead of going for blots of blood and cheap shocks, it derives its power from its ability to get under your skin and as a result, the film stays with you longer. (Even the use of Argentina as the central location puts viewers off-balance in a small and subtle way.) Like many recent thrillers, it is a film chock-full of allusions to earlier titles (the works of Hitchcock and Polanski spring to mind) but even those make sense here since the story is, for the most part, being told through the eyes of someone whose few completely lucid moments are the ones that he experiences in front of a movie screen. (His suspicions about Jack don’t even bloom fully until he sees them literally unspool before him.) In the end, it is a film where all the story elements wind up tying together magnificently, which is ironic when you consider that Koepp’s subsequent career as a screenwriter (including “Spider-Man,” “Jurassic Park” and “Panic Room”) would consist of works with great central ideas and nice individual scenes that nevertheless wind up falling apart at the end. (If you seek further proof, check out the Koepp-penned “Bad Influence,” a glossy studio film that tells a story similar to “Apartment Zero” but without any of the thrills or creepy kinks that made the original so memorable.)

For years, “Apartment Zero” has been sitting in a strange video limbo in which the only way it could be seen was via out-of-print cassettes or DVD of dubious quality and legality. Now, Anchor Bay has given the film the special edition treatment and while the extras may not seem that spectacular on the surface, the two commentary tracks that have been supplied are worth checking out. On the first, Donovan (whose biggest post-“Zero” credit would be co-writing the screenplay for “Death Becomes Her” with Koepp) discusses the origins of the film and its production. On the second, Koepp teams up with none other than Steven Soderbergh for a film-length discussion of the American independent film scene of the 1980's that they both emerged from.

Written by Martin Donovan & David Koepp. Directed by Martin Donovan. Starring Colin Firth, Hart Bochner, Dora Bryan, Liz Smith and Fabrizio Bentivoglio. 1989. Rated R. 124 minutes. An Anchor Bay Home Entertainment release. $19.98.


49th PARALLEL (The Criterion Collection. $39.95):Made in the days before America entered World War II, this fascinating bit of anti-isolationist propaganda from the renowned filmmaking duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (if those name don’t instantly ring a bell, get thee to IMDB as soon as possible) follows the six crew members of a destroyed German U-boat as they make their way through Canada in an effort to reach the still-neutral USA. Among those that they meet during the course of their journey are Laurence Olivier (a trapper who doesn’t realize there is a war going on), intellectual Leslie Howard and AWOL soldier Raymond Massey. On the heels of their stellar treatment of such previous Powell-Pressburger works as “The Red Shoes” and “Tales of Hoffmann,” this effort from Criterion includes a commentary from film scholar Bruce Eder, a 1943 wartime short made by the duo and a BBC documentary on their illustrious careers.

AMERICAN HARDCORE (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.98): Based on the acclaimed history by Steven Blush, this documentary takes a look at the rise and fall of the American hardcore punk music scene that flourished on the underground scene during the first half of the 1980's. While it may be a little too hagiographic for its own good, it does feature a lot of choice performance footage from such seminal groups as Bad Brains, Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys.

BABEL (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): Aside from an impressive supporting performance from newcomer Rinko Kikuchi (as a deaf-mute teenager searching for love or at least something approximating it), this latest collaboration from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (whose previous efforts were the excellent “Amores Perros” and the okay “21 Grams”) was a pretentious and overwrought melodrama that ironically took almost 2 ½ hours to get to the point that people all over the world have trouble communicating with each other–a message so crashingly obvious that it came as no surprise that the people who gave “Crash” the Best Picture Oscar would give it 7 nominations.

CROSSOVER (Sony Home Entertainment. $26.98): a.k.a. “Stomp the Foul Line” a.k.a. "Does Wayne Brady Have To Choke A Ref?"

DIXIE CHICKS–SHUT UP AND SING (The Weinstein Company. $29.99): Those of you who want to continue basking in the recent Grammy sweep by the outspoken country group should probably check out this documentary about the hysteria that broke out after lead singer Natalie Maines made an on-stage comment about George W. Bush that, in hindsight, seems comparatively mild to what people are saying about him now. Surprisingly, this DVD is as stripped of special features as the Chicks are of clothes on the cover so I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear of a special edition sometime in the future.

FAMILY TIES–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $38.99): Those of you disinclined to watch the Dixie Chicks film may instead want to check out the complete first season of this popular 1980's sitcom and think back to a time when conservatives were considered adorable. If memory serves, this set includes one of Tom Hanks’s appearances, though I don’t recall if it is the Very Special Episode where he is on the run from the law or the Very Special Episode in which he is a drunk–whichever it is, I suspect his hairdo is pretty goofy. Sit, Ubu, Sit! Good dog.

FLUSHED AWAY (Dreamworks Home Entertainment. $29.99): Apparently taking the title to heart, Dreamworks inexplicably dumped this latest animated effort from England’s Aardman Studios (the creators of “Wallace & Gromit”) against the more highly publicized “The Santa Clause 3" and then severed their distribution deal with the Brits altogether. Although nowhere near as sublime as the “W&G” series (only partly because it was Aardman’s first feature-length attempt at traditional animation instead of stop-motion), this tale of a pampered pet rat (Hugh Jackman) struggling to get home with the help of a spunky sewer rat (a strangely sexy Kate Winslet) was still funnier and more charming and exciting than virtually all of last year’s animated efforts.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (Warner Home Video. $27.99): Although clearly the least of the four efforts to date from director Christopher Guest and his comedic ensemble (including Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer, Eugene Levy and Jennifer Coolidge), this spoof of Hollywood award-grubbing still contained several big laughs (mostly from the invaluable Fred Willard), many smaller ones and a brilliant central performance from O’Hara as a struggling actress who is driven to distraction after Internet gossip suggests that her performance in a seemingly undistinguished indie film may be Oscar-worthy.

GANDHI: 25th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.98): This 2-disc version of the award-winning 1982 epic offers up such extras as a commentary from Sir Richard Attenborough, a documentary charting his 20-year struggle to get the film made and a new interview with the star, Sir Ben “Bloodrayne” Kingsley. Alas, the “Gandhi II” trailer from “UHF” nor the “Celebrity Deathmatch” episode pitting the Mahatma against Genghis Kahn are not to be found here.

THE GANG’S ALL HERE (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): One of the most flat-out bizarre movie musicals ever made, this riot of color and sound from Busby Berkeley features Alice Faye as a showgirl who falls for enlisted playboy James Ellison and who is momentarily distraught when he returns from combat both a war hero and somewhat engaged to another woman. Of course, this plot is merely an excuse for some of the wildest production numbers ever filmed, such as the elaborate opening “Brazil,” the neon-infused climax “The Polka-Dot Polka” and the Carmen Miranda showstopper “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” a fruit-filled bit that simply defies description.

KEEPING MUM (Velocity/Thinkfilm. $27.98): Fans of politely naughty British comedies may find themselves amused by this twee effort about a harried family (led by goofy pastor Rowan Atkinson and dissatisfied housewife Kristen Scott Thomas) who hire a seemingly genial housekeeper (Maggie Smith) who goes to murderous extremes to keep the family happy and together. Inexplicably, Patrick Swayze turns up as a sleazy golf pro who winds up meeting a fate worse than “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.”

MAN OF THE YEAR (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Although it wasn’t quite as bad as “American Dreamz,” this inept comedy-drama about a comedian (a flailing Robin Williams) who is inadvertently elected President due to a software glitch was still another black mark in the increasingly depressing directorial career of the once-promising Barry Levinson (whose brilliant “Wag the Dog” demonstrated more smarts and wit in any one scene than this effort does in its entirety).

OPEN WATER 2: ADRIFT (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $26.98): A group of six idiots on a sailing vacation all jump overboard for a swim at the same time and only then realize that they forgot to hang out the ladder to let them climb back aboard. Originally produced and released overseas as a stand-alone film called “Adrift,” this became a “sequel” to the 2004 horror hit when Lionsgate bought the rights and renamed it in an effort to convince gullible types that it was a genuine follow-up.

THE PRESTIGE (Touchstone Home Entertainment. $29.99): Christopher Nolan pulled one hell of a rabbit out of his hat with this always-amazing thriller about the escalating battle of wills between a pair of ambitious magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) at the turn of the 20th century. The top-notch cast also includes Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, the ever-delightful Piper Perabo and David Bowie, whose mesmerizing turn as real-life scientist Nikola Tesla may be the finest and freakiest acting performance of his career.

SPEAKING OF SEX (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $14.98): Despite a cast including the likes of James Spader, Catherine O’Hara and Bill Murray, this 2001 sex comedy from director John McNaughton was never released theatrically. As one of the presumably few people who has actually seen the film–a witless farce involving a married couple (Jay Mohr and Melora Walters), a couple of randy therapists (Spader and Lara Flynn Boyle) and a pair of craven divorce attorneys (Murray and O’Hara)–I can assure you that it is as grim as its reputation would suggest and not even the efforts from Murray and O’Hara are enough to make it worth checking out.

WALKING TALL: THE PAYBACK (MGM Home Entertainment. $24.95): Bearing no connection to either the 1974 Joe Don Baker drive-in classic or the 2005 in-name-only remake with The Rock, this is a direct-to-video sequel in which another tough-but-heroic type (Kevin Sorbo) fight corruption in his hometown by beating the crap out of a lot of people.

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originally posted: 02/23/07 16:16:18
last updated: 02/24/07 03:57:46
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