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DVD Reviews For 5/4: "El Topo" on DVD? Someone Check The Temperature In Hell!

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic takes a look at the long-awaited release of a film many assumed would never be seen again and wonders if it might have been better if it hadn't.

The new Anchor Bay box set “The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky” collects the first three feature films made by the Chilean-born filmmaker along with commentaries, deleted scenes, soundtrack CDs and assorted ephemera. For many of you, this announcement will inspire little more than a shrug but for a select few, it will come as a cause for celebration because it means that hell has frozen over and “El Topo” has finally received a legal home video release in North America. You see, “El Topo” was a surrealistic western extravaganza that became an instant cult sensation when it was released on the then-thriving midnight movie circuit that existed back in 1971 thanks to the enthusiastic endorsements from such counterculture icons as John Lennon and Dennis Hopper. However, thanks to a seemingly endless battle of wills between Jodorowsky and distributor Allen Klein, both “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain,” Jodorowsky’s 1973 follow-up, were pulled from circulation and have since been almost impossible to see outside of shoddy grey-market videos. In an unexpected turn of events, it seems that Jodorowsky and Klein have finally buried the hatchet and the films have finally become readily available, along with Jodorowsky’s controversial 1968 debut “Fando & Lis,”to both older fans who have been nursing presumably hazy memories of long-ago screenings and younger viewers who have heard about them for years and are curious to see what all the fuss is about.

Ironically, the biggest draw in the set–“El Topo”–is likely to go down with viewers as the biggest disappointment. Jodorowsky himself stars as El Topo, a master gunfighter currently wandering the world with his young son in tow. One day, they encounter a remote town where nearly all of the residents have been brutally slaughtered by nearby bandits. For reasons that remain hazy, El Topo leaves his son with a group of monks and, along with beautiful local woman Mara and a mysterious Woman In Black, goes on an extended journey to find and defeat four master gunmen who are scattered throughout the desert. He pulls this off easily enough but the women then ride off together and he is left into the desert to die until he is rescued by a group of deformed people living in a cave. He becomes sort of a messiah to them but his past catches up in a climax that involves both a reunion with his son, now a monk, and a final apocalyptic bloodbath.

At the time that it came out, viewers really sparked to Jodorowsky’s crackpot blend of Eastern mysticism, western iconography, ultra-violence and decidedly surreal imagery but watching it today, the film comes across as little more than a more pretentious version of “Billy Jack” (if such a thing is possible). Yes, the film does contain a number of extraordinary visual moments the sheer strangeness of the material holds a certain fascination for a while but as it plods along, it soon devolves into one long and dull ego trip that is frequently punctuated with loads of stomach-churning brutality. For some fans, it may well hold up as a product of the times but I somehow suspect that many of those who put this DVD into their players with the hopes of experiencing (or re-experiencing) a cinematic masterpiece are going to walk away from it a couple of hour later wondering what the hell all of the fuss was about.

By comparison, both “Fando & Lis” and “The Holy Mountain” play a lot better these days than “El Topo,” possibly because they don’t have the burden of living up to such an exalted reputation. The former, loosely inspired by a play from playwright Fernando Arrabal that he directed on stage in Mexico, tells the story of a pair of young lovers searching for the mystical and peaceful city of Tar–along the way, they run into a host of adversaries before the story comes to a violent and resolutely unhappy conclusion. An instant scandal when it was released–its premiere at the Acapulco Film Festival inspired a riot and its release in Mexico ended up with the film being banned and Jodorowsky being hauled into court, labeled a heretic and nearly deported–the imagery on display is still shocking and vivid enough to knock even the most jaded of contemporary viewers for a loop. At the same time, there is a certain tenderness to the material that resonates in the mind long after the impact of the violence fades from memory.

On the other hand, “The Holy Mountain” lacks any sort of emotional core and is basically a series of bizarre blackout gags strung together by a story of a Christlike figure (played, not surprisingly, by Jodorowsky himself) who aligns himself with a mystical guide and seven wealthy industrial types who have banded together on a quest to find the fabled Holy Mountain, get rid of the gods already living there and become immortal. I couldn’t tell you what in the hell any of it is supposed to mean in the end but once again, the imagery on display is so striking (such as the famous moment in which the bloody conquest of Mexico is reenacted with bullfrogs and iguana) that I certainly couldn’t take my eyes away from it. More importantly, it has some moments (especially the sequence in which we see the weirdo wares of an arms manufacturer who eventually joins in on the quest) that offer the first tangible proof that Jodorowsky does indeed have a sense of humor. Yes it is baffling and its absolute refusal to bend to even the vaguest notions of traditional narrative will probably put off most viewers but those in the mood for something that even David Lynch himself might find puzzling should definitely check it out.

For fans who have been waiting years for even the slightest trickle of Jodorowsky-related material, this box set will come across as a treasure trove of information on their idol. All three films contain a commentary track with Jodorowsky shedding a little bit of light on what the hell is going on (the one on “Fando & Lis” is a port of the track previously heard on the long-out-of-print DVD from Fantoma). “El Topo” also contains a short interview with Jodorowsky and “The Holy Mountain” includes deleted scenes, the short film “The Tarot” and a featurette illustrating the painstaking restoration process that the film needed to undergo before its DVD release. However, the most significant extra, found on the “Fando & Lis” disc, is “La Constellation Jodorowsky,” a must-see feature-length documentary that looks at the man and his life and art, through the eyes of Jodorowsky himself as well as admirers such as Marcel Marceu and Peter Gabriel, and covers both his produced works as well as unrealized efforts such as his proposed adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic “Dune.” (“El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” are also available for purchase separately.)

An Anchor Bay Home Entertainment release. $49.98


ALICE, SWEET ALICE (Hen’s Tooth Video. $24.95): Although this 1976 horror film from New Jersey is perhaps best known for the presence of a young Brooke Shields in a supporting role (which the producers attempted to exploit by re-releasing the film after the success of “The Blue Lagoon” and her Calvin Klein ads), it was actually an unusually effective and fairly brutal thriller about a young girl (Paula Sheppard) who is suspected of a series of violent attacks on various family members. You know that some studio weasel out there is probably planning an uninspired remake as we speak, so you may as well pick this one up before its reputation can become sullied.

ALPHA DOG (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Unless you have a strange desire to see Sharon Stone clad in a wildly unconvincing fat suit, there is absolutely no reason to watch Nick Cassavetes’s smug, stupid and wildly unpleasant excursion in bully-boy filmmaking about a group of wanna-be bad-asses (including Emile Hirsch and Justin Timberlake) whose hedonistic lifestyle leads them straight into a kidnap/murder plot. Despite the already heavy competition, there is a very good chance that this monstrosity will go down as the single worst film of 2007.

THE BEST OF THE TONY AWARDS: THE PLAYS (Acorn Media. $19.99): A treasure trove for theater buffs, this disc collects excerpts from 19 acclaimed plays that were performed by their original cast members as part of the Tony Awards. In this set, you will find appearances from the likes of James Earl Jones (“The Great White Hope” and “Fences”), Gary Sinise (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), Annette Bening (“Coastal Disturbances”), Madeline Kahn (“The Sisters Rosensweig”), Joe Mantegna (“Speed-The-Plow”), Kevin Kline (“Hamlet”) and Morgan Freeman (“As You Like It”).

CAMELOT (Acorn Media. $29.99): Originally broadcast on HBO in 1982 as part of their “HBO Theatre” series–something they did from time to time in the dark ages before the likes of “Taxicab Confessions”–this film captures Richard Harris, in what would prove to be his only Broadway appearance, in a 1980 revival of the Lerner-Loewe classic about the legend of King Arthur that he made famous in the far-less-faithful 1967 film version.

DREAMGIRLS–TWO DISC SHOWSTOPPER EDITION (Paramount Home Video. $34.95): One of the most heavily hyped films of 2006, this adaptation of the popular stage musical, chronicling the rise and fall of a 1960's girl group not a million miles removed from Diana Ross and the Supremes, was an overlong and only fitfully entertaining work in which presumptive stars Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx were completely blown away by the supporting turns from Eddie Murphy (in one of his best screen performances) and newcomer (and Oscar-winner) Jennifer Hudson. For those of you who enjoyed it more than I did, this 2-disc set (a movie-only version is also available) offers up a feature-length documentary on its production, deleted scenes, screen tests, music videos and a previously unseen musical number from Hudson.

FLETCH–THE JANE DOE EDITION (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98): Though this 1985 adaptation of the Gregory McDonald best-seller about a wise-cracking investigative reporter remains one of the few genuine highlights in the career of Chevy Chase (along with “Caddyshack” and the sadly underrated “Funny Farm”), he is nowhere to be seen on any of the fairly meager bonus features on display here. Geez, if he could make time to appear in the likes of “Funny Money” and that embarrassing “Law & Order” episode, you’d think he could carve out a few minutes to talk about developing the character of John Cocktoasten or the thrill of acting opposite Joe Don Baker.

HAPPILY N’EVER AFTER (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $28.98): Sarah Michelle Gellar lends her voice to this cheapo animated fairy tale spoof–yes, another one–and lends credence to the suggestion that she has simply given up on trying to carve out a viable post-“Buffy” film career for herself. Little kids might enjoy it but with “Shrek 3" on the horizon and the delightful “Ella Enchanted” on store shelves everywhere, why bother with this uninspired knock-off.

ILLEGAL ALIENS (MTI Home Video. $19.95): Before their untimely demises, Marilyn Monroe wrapped up her film career with the brilliant “The Misfits” and Jayne Mansfield concluded hers with “Single Room Furnished” and “The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield.” While I haven’t actually seen this particular film, a direct-to-video item marking the final appearance of Anna Nicole Smith, I have read the description–she plays one of three aliens who land on Earth in the form of absurdly reconstructed babes for some damn reason or another–and based on that alone, I think I can comfortably predict that it will fail to live up to the high standards of Monroe and Mansfield’s cinematic denouements.

LITTLE CHILDREN (New Line Home Entertainment. $27.98): You know, maybe 10-15 years from now, people are going to look at this brilliant adaptation of Tom Perrolta’s novel about the dark underbelly of a seemingly picture-perfect suburban neighborhood and wonder a.) why audiences failed to show up to see it and b.) why Kate Winslet failed to nab a single award for what was easily the single best acting performance of 2006.

MAHOGANY (Paramount Home Video. $14.99): I guess if I have to say something good about “Dreamgirls” that doesn’t involve Jennifer Hudson, it is that it encouraged Paramount to finally release this 1975 camp classic, a ludicrous rags-to-riches soap opera in which Diana Ross makes her way through the seamy (in every sense of the word) world of the fashion industry. Worth the purchase price simply for the unforgettable scene in which deranged fashion photographer Anthony Perkins freaks out on Ross while speeding down the freeway.

MATTHEW BARNEY: NO RESTRAINT (IFC Films. $24.95): If you ever wondered what it would be like to look behind the scenes of a bizarre art project/feature film in which the central components were a Japanese whaling ship, hundreds of gallons of petroleum jelly and Bjork, this film, a documentary following controversial artist Matthew Barney through the production of his decidedly strange 2005 film “Drawing Restraint 9,” should hopefully satisfy you. If it doesn’t, you may be out of luck.

AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN: SPECIAL COLLECTOR’S EDITION (Paramount Home Video. $14.99): “I’m going to the back seat of my car with the woman I love and I won’t be back for ten minutes!”

OLD JOY (Kino Video. $29.95): Do not be confused–this is most certainly not the superviolent Korean revenge drama that has currently become a media scapegoat because of the possibility that the Virginia Tech killer might have seen it at some point. Instead, this is a somber mood piece about two long-separated friends who get together for a weekend camping trip in which nothing particularly significant happens. Personally, I found it to be kind of a meandering drag but plenty of other critics called it one of the finest films of 2006.

TYRONE POWER: THE SWASHBUCKLER BOX SET (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98): Although the title of this box set has clearly been designed to cash in on the mounting interest in “Pirates of the Caribbean 3," the five Power films that Fox has collected here–“Blood and Sand” (1941), “Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake” (1942), “Captain From Castille” (1948), “Prince of Foxes” (1949) and “The Black Rose” (1950)–aren’t really pirate movies at all. That said, all five are pretty entertaining and filled with enough swordplay action to keep viewers from complaining too much.

WHAT I LIKE ABOUT YOU–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Warner Home Video. $39.98): Although I could probably count the number of times I actually sat down to watch this WB sitcom about two sisters trying to live together in New York City on one hand–even Jerry Garcia’s–I must admit that the few that I did wind up catching weren’t entirely awful, thanks mostly to the charm, energy and crack comic timing of Amanda Bynes, who will presumably be seen to greater advantage this summer in “Hairspray.”

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originally posted: 05/04/07 15:13:52
last updated: 05/04/07 23:01:28
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