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DVD Reviews for 4/20: No Flipping!

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/20/07 16:02:26

In which your faithful critic looks at several films with teachers who inspire their students (in one way or another), a bunch of fairly obscure gems and the triumphant return of a lesser-known work from one of America's greatest directors.

When Robert Altman passed away last November, it was an event that inspired an avalanche of tribute articles that all pretty much said the same two things at some point. First, they pointed out that Altman was a one-of-a-kind innovator whose work will continue to influence the world of cinema for as long as such a beast exists. Second, they would inevitably bemoan the fact that for a director of his stature, it was a shame that a good number of his works were still either missing in action entirely on DVD or only available in depressingly inadequate bare-bones editions. The silver lining in all of this is that the resurgence of talk about Altman’s work brought on by his passing seems to have encouraged studios to put more of his films out on the market. The first real beneficiary of this renewed interest is “Thieves Like Us,” a 1974 drama that may not be as well-known to average moviegoers as some of his other works but which remains one of the most powerful and moving works of his entire career.

Set in Depression-era Missouri, “Thieves Like Us” stars Altman regular Keith Carradine as Bowie, an amiable young dreamer who, as the story opens, is locked up in the state prison for having killed a man. (“He has a gun and it was either him or me” is his plain-spoken explanation.) Before long, Bowie breaks out of jail with a couple of older crooks–the happy-go-lucky T-Dub (Bert Remsen) and hard-drinking troublemaker Chicamaw (John Schuck)–and the trio begin a profitable string of bank robberies with the plan of accruing enough so that each one can go off and start a new life. For a while, things go swell (with the exception of Chicamaw’s drinking and grumbling) until their plans are upset by a couple of significant events. One is perhaps not unexpected–one of their robberies goes wrong and the law begins to close in on them. The other is a complete surprise–while hiding in a remote farmhouse, Bowie meets the sweetly naive Keechie (Shelley Duvall) and the two instantly fall for each other and dream of a future together even as Bowie’s past is hot on his heels.

“Thieves Like Us” was the sixth of eight feature films that Altman directed in the years spanning 1970-1975, a run that started with “M*A*S*H,” ended with “Nashville” and also included such essential titles as “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “The Long Goodbye” and fascinating curiosities as “Brewster McCloud,” “Images” and “California Split.” That was an almost unprecedented string of films from one man in such a relatively short period of time and it goes a long way towards explaining a work that would have been a high-water mark for most filmmakers is relatively unknown today. Taken on its own, however, it is impossible to dismiss and I would even go so far as to make a case for it as one of his best films. Without resorting to genre cliches, it quietly and effectively demonstrates the grasp that criminals had on the minds of people suffering through the Depression who saw such people as folk heroes who were merely taking back what was taken from them in the first place (while conveniently ignoring the bloodshed that would usually accompany their misdeed). As a chronicle of the times, Altman captures the flavor of the period to an uncanny degree–everything about this film from the Coca-Cola ads inside the prison to the old-time radio programs that provide the soundtrack (as well as ironic counterpoint)–that everything about it feels authentic. Most of all, the doomed-from-the-start romance between Bowie and Keechie is perhaps the most believable and touching romance in Altman’s entire canon–the sweetly awkward chemistry between Carradine and Duvall is so dead-on that you will find yourself hoping against hope that they can find the idealized love of their dreams even when you know deep down what is most likely going to happen to them.

The problem with MIA Altman films suddenly appearing on DVD is that he is no longer available to bless them with one of his always-endearing commentary tracks that were often as dense, dazzling and enjoyable as the movies themselves. In the case of “Thieves Like Us,” however, film lovers have caught a break–Altman recorded a commentary track for the laserdisc release about a decade or so ago and MGM has reissued it for the DVD. While it may not go down as one of the all-time great commentaries, it is a breezy and highly enjoyable track that is, of course, essential for any true Altman fan. Besides, its mere existence will serve as a poignant reminder of what the film world lost with his passing and what can be gained from revisiting his work.

Written by Calder Willingham and Joan Tewksbury & Robert Altman. Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, John Schuck, Bert Remsen and Louise Fletcher. 1974. 123 minutes. Rated R. An MGM Home Video release. $14.95.


NEW AND NOTEWORTHY

BRUTE FORCE (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): If you like prison movies–and not just the ones featuring Sybil Danning as the sadistic guard–this 1947 melodrama from Jules Dassin is a must-own. Set within the walls of the brutal Westgate prison, the film chronicles the battle of wills between an indomitable inmate (Burt Lancaster) and a sadistic guard that comes to a head when the former attempts to break out in order to get his girlfriend a much-needed operation and despite the melodrama, it still packs a pretty hard punch (especially the bit in which a stoolie gets what is coming to him).

BYE BYE BRAZIL (New Yorker Video. $29.95): Perhaps best described as a South American version of Clint Eastwood’s “Bronco Billy” (although director Carlos Diegues beat Eastwood to the punch by a full year), this sexy and beautiful-looking fable about a traveling carnival that travels from town to town even while the advent of television threatens to make it obsolete.

THE CHOCOLATE WAR (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): Actor Keith Gordon–best known for playing the budding scientist in “Dressed to Kill” and the put-upon nerd behind the wheel of “Christine”–shifted to directing with this fascinating 1988 adaptation of the highly metaphorical Robert Cormier novel about a new student in a Catholic high school who threatens the powers-that-be when he refuses to take part in a fundraising candy bar sale.

FREEDOM WRITERS (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): Despite my adoration for Hilary Swank and my admiration for writer-director Richard LaGravenese, I never quite got around to catching up with this true-life teacher about an idealistic teacher who inspires her troubled students to break from their cycles of violence and despair. That said, many of the people I talked to who did see it suggested that while it may not have broken any new ground, it was a more than respectable entry in the seemingly indestructible Inspirational Teacher genre.

GEORGE AND THE DRAGON (First Look Pictures. $24.98): Under normal circumstances, I would devote all the space I have for this long-on-the-shelf item–some nonsense involving the Crusades, a missing princess and a seemingly fearsome dragon–to fawning over the notion of the ever-delightful Piper Perabo as the princess in question. However, the sight of that hairdo atop of Patrick Swayze’s coconut on the cover is so bizarre that even her always-fetching presence winds up paling in comparison. (I have no idea what Michael Clarke Duncan is doing in it either, though I suspect that it may be a case of the Moor, the merrier.)

THE HISTORY BOYS (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.98): At one point, this adaptation of Alan Bennet’s Tony Award-winning play about a group of British students preparing for their exams under the tutelage of a pair of radically different teachers (Richard Griffiths and Stephen Campbell Moore) was been touted as a sure-fire Oscar contender, only to wind up hardly causing a ripple during its brief release last winter. Having missed it myself, I can’t say whether it deserved its fate or not but considering that the film reunited virtually all the important players from the stage version (including director Nicholas Hytner, whose previous collaboration with Bennet was “The Madness of King George”), it is probably at least worth a look.

LA HAINE (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Although best known in the U.S for portraying Audrey Tautou’s would-be suitor in “Amelie” and directing the Halle Berry craptacular “Gothika,” Matthieu Kassovitz first became known on the international film scene for this hard-hitting 1995 drama about three young immigrant friends in Paris who are pushed to the brink of violence after another friend is nearly killed by a cop during an interrogation. Although perhaps a little too overwrought for its own good, fans will enjoy the extras that Criterion has put together here–a new documentary reuniting the cast and crew, old behind-the-scenes footage and deleted scenes and an introduction by Jodie Foster, an early fan who presented the film when it was shown in America.

LARRY KING–THE BEST INTERVIEWS (Warner Home Video. $34.98): This 3-disc collection celebrates King’s half-century of puffball interrogation by collecting some of his most famous and notorious celebrity Q&A’s. Even if you think King is nothing more than a phlegmatic hack, this set is still worth the purchase price because of the inclusion of his infamously deranged session with Marlon Brando, a conversation so bewildering that I have often thought that someone should get a transcript of the talk and stage it as a one-act play.

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Forest Whitaker pretty much deserved every single accolade that he received for his mesmerizing turn as the infamous one-time Ugandan ruler General Idi Amin. Too bad that the rest of the film, a fairly turgid soap opera that diminishes a potentially powerful story by filtering it through the eyes of twee Brit twit James McAvoy, didn’t make as much of an effort to entertain and educate as its star clearly did.

LIVE AT WEMBLEY (LaFace Records. $19.98): Pop princess Pink blows the roof off the joint in this 2006 concert featuring new hits like “Stupid Girls” and “U + UR Hand,” old favorites like “Get the Party Started” and “Just Like a Pill” and 16 other tunes. I mention this title because a.) as contemporary pop froth goes, her efforts are pretty damn entertaining and b.) she scares me deep down to such a degree that I fear that if I ignore it, she may hunt me down and beat the crap out of me (although I must admit that such a scenario does have a certain appeal). I’m not sure what bonus materials, if any, appear here but since her previous concert DVD included a documentary featuring a scene in which she had her nipple pierced in front of her non-plussed mother, I suppose that anything is possible.

MASTERS OF HORROR–FAMILY (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $14.98): For his second installment of the Showtime horror anthology series, John Landis offers up a gruesomely goofy exercise in black comedy in which George Wendt plays a seemingly friendly chap who goes to extremes in order to create the perfect family and Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar are the new neighbors who may wind up being brought into the clan. Not a masterpiece by any means but definitely a step up from Landis’s frankly silly “Deer Woman.”

NOT JUST THE BEST OF THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW (Sony Home Entertainment. $49.95): Because of reported problems involving music clearance issues, there have been rumors that there may never be any more full-season sets of Garry Shandling’s critically adored meta-sitcom about the behind-the-scenes weirdness at a late-night talk show. To make up for that, Shandling has put together this must-own 4-disc set that includes 23 especially notable episodes (including the pilot and the finale) and a host of penetrating and personal (sometimes uncomfortably so) interviews with some of the well-known faces (from relatively unknown regulars like Janeane Garofalo, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Sarah Silverman and Jeremy Piven to the more famous likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Sharon Stone) who appeared on the show over the years.

NOTES ON A SCANDAL (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Don’t be fooled by the high-profile cast and the multiple Oscar nominations for this adaptation of Zoe Heller’s acclaimed novel. This film–in which a bitter spinster teacher (Judi Dench) crushes on a sexy and free-spirited new co-worker (Cate Blanchett), discovers a shocking indiscretion involving the newcomer and a student and uses that knowledge for her own personal gain regardless of the cost to everyone else–is actually an over-the-top spectacle of lesbian-themed camp of a kind not seen since the likes of “The Legend of Lylah Clare” or “Windows.”

OVERLORD (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Rarely seen since its original 1975 release, Stuart Cooper’s fascinating film chronicles the journey of a young British soldier from basic training to Normandy by seamlessly blending authentic documentary footage of the war with newly-shot narrative material in order to create a fictional story that nevertheless maintains a startlingly authentic feel throughout. On this disc, Cooper explains, via audio commentary and featurettes, how this was all achieved and the set also includes vintage propaganda films and a tribute to the cinematographers that shot them at great personal risk.

PULP (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): Virtually forgotten today, this 1972 crime thriller–a reunion for star Michael Caine and director Mike Hodges, whose previous collaboration was the 1971 classic “Get Carter”–is a neat little film about a two-bit writer (Caine) who agrees to ghost-write the biography of a legendary Hollywood star (Mickey Rooney) and winds up getting embroiled in a murder. Nowhere near as good as “Get Carter,” of course, but still a pretty nifty work in its own right.

SMOKIN ACES (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): On the other hand, here is a crime thriller that deserves to be virtually forgotten–a shrill, noisy and decidedly unpleasant exercise in faux-Tarantino bloodshed in which a group of colorful assassins battle each other to score a million-dollar hit on a stoolie magician (Jeremy Piven). Despite the quirky cast (including Ben Affleck and Alicia Keys as two of the potential killers and Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds as a couple of Feds out to stop them) and ultra-stylized filmmaking approach, this is little more than slickly made junk that is only vaguely tolerable if you read the whole thing as a strange metaphor for writer-director Joe Carnahan’s experiences as one of the many directors hired and fired for “Mission: Impossible 3.”

SPIDER-MAN 2.1 (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.95): Apparently afraid that people might not be aware that “Spider-Man 3" is coming out in a couple of weeks, Sony has thoughtfully decided to jog their memory with a new version of “Spider-Man 2" that includes several minutes of previously unseen footage reinserted into the narrative and a coupon for a few bucks off of the ticket price for the new one.

TRUE CONFESSIONS (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): If you loved Brian De Palma’s unjustly maligned “The Black Dahlia,” you might be interested in this 1981 adaptation of the John Gregory Dunne novel that was inspired by the same case featuring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall as estranged brothers–one is a priest and the other a cynical cop–whose worlds collide during the investigation of the brutal murder of a prostitute. Not as flamboyant as De Palma’s work but a fascinating variation nevertheless, mostly thanks to the strong and relatively unflashy performances from De Niro and Duvall.

THE VENTURE BROTHERS–SEASON 2 (Warner Home Video. $29.98): If The Cartoon Network really had to spin off one of there properties into a feature film, I kind of wish that they had put “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” aside and instead tried to launch an extended version of this hilarious riff on old adventure cartoons like “Johnny Quest”–it is as funny and bizarre as anything on the Cartoon Network not named “Harvey Birdman” and even has the kind of intricate storylines and nuanced characterizations that would lend themselves more handily to an extended narrative format. Well, until that day comes, I guess we’ll just have to pass the time with this two-disc set containing all 13 Season Two episodes–a collection that starts with an opener that wraps up the Season One cliffhanger (in which the title characters were killed) and ends with an epic story featuring an appearance from none other than David Bowie.

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