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DVD Reviews For 6/15: Once More Into The Breach

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic catches up with one film he wishes that he saw when it came out earlier this year, confronts a couple that he wishes that he had missed and basks in the glow of cheesy sexploitation, cheesier action extravaganzas and the eternal bliss that is Gabe Kaplan telling a joke about one of his distant uncles.

Eagle-eyed readers of this column will have noticed that for the most part, I generally avoid writing at length about the DVD versions of films that have been recently released in theaters and instead prefer to concentrate on older or more off-beat titles. I assure you that this isn’t a case of trying to prove something by writing about some obscurity in order to prove just how well-versed I believe myself to be in the history of cinema. (Okay, maybe that is a small part of it.) The real reason is that, for the most part, I have already written about more recent films at length when they had their theatrical release and unless they have been significantly revamped for video (such as the director’s cut of Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven”), there isn’t really much to say that I didn’t already brilliantly expound upon a few months earlier.

However, the advantage to a column like this is that on the rare occasions when I do somehow let a film slip past without seeing it, I have a second chance to catch up with it and explore it at length. One such film is “Breach,” a true-life spy drama that came and went through theaters this past February. At the time, I wasn’t able to catch it because Universal Pictures has a tendency, as part of some strange corporate rule, to screen the majority of their movies on the Tuesday evening before they are released. The catch with such a policy is that is something happens that prevents a critic from making that particular screening–such as highly inclement weather–it means that said critic is out of luck and will be forced to play catch-up once it hits theaters. That is basically what happened to me–there was some kind of hellacious storm that prevented me from hitting the screening–but when it did appear in theaters, it was during a surprisingly busy period of screenings and by the time that this unexpected deluge finally abated, the film was pretty much gone from theaters. At the time, I regretted missing it since colleagues who did see it assured me that it was pretty good and now that I have finally caught up with it on DVD, I really regret missing it in theaters because it is actually really good–a lean, effective and powerful thriller that is one of the best American films to emerge so far in 2007.

The film tells the story of Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a moral and upright citizen who is a high-ranking member of the FBI, and Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), an ambitious surveillance whiz and wannabe agent who is recruited by fellow fed Kate Borroughs (Laura Linney) to go to work for Hanssen as his clerk and report back on everything he sees and hears. O’Neill is told that Hanssen is suspected of being a sexual deviant and that his activities need to be monitored in order to prevent word leaking out and embarrassing the agency. O’Neill agrees but as Hanssen takes him under his wing, both personally and professionally, he sees the older man less as a creep and more of a mentor–in fact, his depiction as some kind of pervert is completely at odds with the way he presents himself. Suspecting that something else is up, O’Neill confronts Borroughs and she finally confesses the truth–Hanssen has been selling classified information to the Russians for years and that he is being used as part of a plan to catch him in the act and bring him to justice. O’Neill continues with the operation with renewed ambition but that alone may not be enough to deal with Hanssen, a man who has dedicated his entire life to fooling people by hiding his real motivations.

“Breach” was directed by Billy Ray, whose previous film was the fascinating 2003 docudrama “Shattered Glass,” which told the tale of how ambitious reporter Stephen Glass betrayed the trust of his colleagues and editors by writing fabulous news articles that turned out to be wholly fictional. Beyond the fact that both deal with investigations into the dealings of professional liars whose motivations are not as clear-cut as they might seem, the two films are also similar because they tell stories in which the average audience already likely knows the outcome of the story even before the opening credits have begun to roll. As he did with “Shattered Glass,” Ray sidesteps this program by finding other aspects of the story to focus on. For starters, he likes to delve into the little details that lend an extra layer of authenticity to the proceedings–instead of artificially amped-up action scenes, we get tense moments involving people trying to produce much-needed evidence while time slowly but surely ticks away and instead of gleaming, high-tech offices, we get grim cubicles and rooms that seem almost too drab and dull for the dangerous business being done within those grey walls. He also smartly takes what could have been an action-oriented film and turns it into a character piece that allows his two lead actors to show their considerable gifts. Of course, the sight of Chris Cooper giving a standout performance is hardly a shocker–he is one of those rare actors who seems to be constitutionally unable of acting in a way that doesn’t convince you that what he is saying is the honest truth (an ability that the film milks to the hilt)–but it may come to some of you as a surprise to see that Ryan Phillippe, an actor perhaps better-known for his off-screen life than his on-screen performances, more than holds his own as O’Neill and effectively conveys the paranoia that begins to overtake him as his investigation of Hanssen goes deeper and deeper.

Although it may not be hyped as a lavish special edition, the DVD contains a couple of unusually interesting bonus features that are far removed from the fluff that most new releases receive the first time around. The short featurettes on the making of the film and Chris Cooper’s work at playing Hanssen are reasonably interesting but aren’t the kind of thing that you are likely to come back to over and over and the deleted scenes are okay but inessential as well. Far more interesting is the commentary track by Billy Ray and the real-life Eric O’Neill–the former gives the nuts and bolts of making the film while the latter fills in additional details of the real-life Hanssen and his case. There is also a 20-minute long “Dateline” segment on the case that sheds additional details on how Hanssen was able to what he did for so long in a clear and cohesive manner.

Written by Adam Mazer & William Rotko and Billy Ray. Directed by Billy Ray. Starring Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole and Kathleen Quinlan. 2007. 111 minutes. Rated R. A Universal Home Entertainment release. $29.98


52 PICK-UP (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.95): Between his heyday in the 1960's (when he was knocking off such classics as “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seconds”) and his comeback in the 1990's (thanks to a series of highly regarded cable movies and the hit thriller “Ronin”), the late director John Frankenheimer spent the Seventies and Eighties making a series of relatively unheralded films that, for the most part, play much better today than they evidently did with audiences at the time and this 1986 thriller was one of the best. Based on an Elmore Leonard novel (and co-written by Leonard himself), Roy Scheider stars as a successful businessman who is shaken down by a trio of blackmailers who threaten to release a videotape of him and his mistress (Kelly Preston) unless he pays $100,000–instead of paying, Scheider decides to track them down and turn them against each other in an orgy of sex, violence and double-crosses.

BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE (MGM Home Entertainment. $26.95): Hey, you got your gooey teen chick-flick in my somewhat-less-gooey werewolf movie! Hey, you got your somewhat-less-gooey werewolf movie in my gooey teen chick-flick! Alas, the end result is an indigestible confection that fails as a romance, a horror film and as a boost to the career of Agnes Bruckner, a gifted young actress who deserves much better than this.

BLUE MURDER–SET 1 (Acorn Media. $49.99): Man, oh man, British TV viewers sure do love their quirky murder mystery shows, don’t they. This particular offering stars Caroline Quentin (whom Anglophiles may recognize from “Men Behaving Badly”) as a police detective trying to juggle a professional life filled with bizarre murder cases (involving dead lap dancers, shenanigans at a crematorium and a murder where the only witness is an autistic child) and a personal life that sees her as the harried single mother of three children and a fourth on the way. Those with a taste for this kind of show should find this one reasonably entertaining though some of the Manchester accents may be a bit impenetrable for some viewers.

BODY ROCK (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $14.98): I could mention that this 1984 obscurity, in which a hunky dope is plucked from the streets to become a rapping/breakdancing sensation and lets stardom go to his head before the uplifting finale, was perhaps the dumbest such film to come out during that time–yes, dumber than “Staying Alive” or “Electric Boogaloo.” I could tell you that as the hero in question, Lorenzo Lamas is so completely irritating, even during his humble beginnings, that the character of the sleazy agent (played by Ray Sharkey) actually comes off as more likable by comparison. I could even mention the inescapable fact that while Lamas may look swell wearing red pants, a ripped denim vest and an open shirt (even at a job interview), he simply cannot dance. Instead, I am simply going to quote from the personal theme song that Lamas belts out during the film’s high/low point: “I’m a hard situation, I’m a sensual relation and I’m harder than a rock–I’ve got a hole in my pocket where I keep my rocket, and it shows in the way I walk!” (Personal note: at one point during the 1980's, I owned a pair of red pants not unlike the ones seen in the film and for anyone who was unwittingly exposed to such a jarring sight, I offer my most humble apologies.)

THE BRIDGE (Koch Lorber. $29.98): This controversial, slightly exploitative and not entirely uninteresting documentary from Eric Steel examines the morbid attraction held by the Golden Gate Bridge–the world’s most popular location for suicide attempts–by interspersing actual footage of people jumping (captured by cameras that Steel had positioned throughout 2004) with interviews with those who made the leap and survived and the families of those who didn’t.

CHARLEY’S AUNT (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): Hard to find on home video for years, this 1941 adaptation of the Brandon Thomas play, a trifle about two college students who persuade another pal to pose as the title character for some damn reason or another, finally hits DVD. The film itself is pretty lame but as the central character, the great Jack Benny is anything but a drag and squeezes every possible laugh out of the material and then some.

CRIMINAL LAW (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.95): In this nicely acted but thoroughly inconsequential 1989 knock-off of “Jagged Edge,” Gary Oldman (then hot off of his astonishing work in “Sid & Nancy”) plays a hotshot lawyer who gets client Kevin Bacon acquitted of a murder charge, only to discover that not only was he 100% guilty of the crime he was charged with, he is actually a serial killer who is ready to resume his murderous ways.

DAYS OF GLORY (The Weinstein Company. $28.95): In this French-Algerian WW II epic, a group of North Africans join up with the French army to fight the Nazis and while they hope to finally earn the respect and recognition of the French, they instead find that they are treated to all the typical horrors on the battlefield and the same old prejudices off of it. Although the film does meander at times and it concludes in a manner reminiscent of the worst aspects of “Saving Private Ryan,” the performances are effective (the cast collectively won the Best Actor award at Cannes last year) and it does highlight an aspect of WW II that hasn’t really been seen before on film.

DEADWOOD–THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (HBO Home Video. $99.98): Those of you looking for a fix of complex, thought-provoking, violent and foul-mouthed serial entertainment in the wake of the departure of “The Sopranos” might want to finally give David Milch’s Western epic a try. Although it never got the publicity or the ratings of its network neighbor (which would explain why it only lasted three seasons) and was perhaps most well-known because of its infamously raw dialogue, this Western epic was at least as good as that show (and frequently better) and contained, thanks to the central performance from Ian McShane, a central character just as complex, flawed and fascinating as the one given by James Gandolfini.

GHOST RIDER–EXTENDED EDITION (Sony Home Entertainment. $34.95): Not only can you relive one of the worst movies of 2007–an inept adaptation of the second-tier Marvel comic book in which a severely miscast Nicolas Cage plays a stunt driver battling the forces of Satan and his especially dorky minions while astride a flaming motorcycle–in all of its ludicrous glory, you can savor an additional 13 minutes of nonsense in this who-asked-for-it? extended version. Recommended only if you were one of those people who rushed out last week to be the first to buy the extended edition of “Fantastic Four.”

GLASTONBURY (Velocity/Thinkfilm. $24.98): This 2006 documentary would seem to be such a perfect match of subject–the long-running British music festival–and filmmaker–Julien Temple, whose previous musical films have included “The Great Rock ‘n’Roll Swindle,” “The Rolling Stones: At the Max” and videos for David Bowie, Tom Petty and Janet Jackson–that it couldn’t possibly miss. Instead turns out to be a disappointing and meandering document that has the good sense to include performance footage spanning the entire 30 year history of the festival but mystifyingly refuses to let us see more than snippets of stars ranging from the Velvet Underground and Bob Marley to Coldplay and Bjork. Devotees of the festival will no doubt find it illuminating while everyone else will likely find it to be little more than 138 minutes of frustration.

THE HARDY BOYS/NANCY DREW MYSTERIES: SEASON TWO (Universal Home Entertainment. $39.98): Although presumably being released to tie in with the new “Nancy Drew” movie opening this week, the character is actually kind of given the short shrift in this set–since the episodes with the Hardy Boys usually earned higher ratings (no doubt due to teen girls crushing on Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson), ABC cut the number of solo Nancy Drew excursions (weren’t there enough teen boys crushing on Pamela Sue Martin–I know I was and I wasn’t even a teen) and instead stuck her into crossover episodes in which she had little to do other than get in trouble and call the police. Eventually, an annoyed Martin would leave the series and be replaced by Janet Louise Johnson–a decision so popular that the show would drop the character entirely before its third and final season. If you are still interested after all of that, this set features the kids meeting Dracula, looking for Santa Claus and running into guest stars such as Rick Springfield, Valerie Bertinelli and Melanie Griffith.

THE HUSTLER/THE VERDICT (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98 each): If you are still reeling from Paul Newman’s recent announcement that he is retiring from acting, bringing to end a career that began with him appearing opposite Virginia Mayo and Jack Palance in “The Silver Chalice” (one of the silliest Biblical epics ever produced) and concluded with him voicing a Hudson Hornet in “Cars,” perhaps you can take solace in these reissues of two of his most acclaimed titles–the 1961 poolroom drama in which he first essayed the role of Fast Eddie Felson and the 1982 courtroom drama (featuring a screenplay by David Mamet) that should have won him his long-deserved Best Actor Oscar–in two-disc sets featuring commentary from Newman himself.

JAMES STEWART SCREEN LEGEND COLLECTION (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98): Five lesser-known titles from the Universal archives featuring the ever-popular actor make their DVD debuts in this set: 1936's “Next Time We Love” (Stewart and Margaret Sullivan play a married couple whose bliss is torn asunder when he becomes a foreign correspondent and she becomes a stage actress), 1948's “You Gotta Stay Happy” (Stewart is a pilot who is enlisted by neurotic newlywed Joan Fontaine to fly her back to California to avoid her wedding night), 1953's “Thunder Bay” (Stewart is an engineer who arrives in a small Louisiana town with a plan to build an offshore oil rig that arouses the ire of the local fishermen) and “The Glen Miller Story” (Stewart plays the legendary bandleader whose career was cut short by a tragic plane crash) and 1965's “Shenandoah (Stewart plays the head of a Virginia farm family who finds themselves smack-dab in the middle of the Civil War).

JOHN WAYNE SCREEN LEGEND COLLECTION (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98): Another collection of lesser-known titles from the Universal vaults featuring one of the most popular movie stars of all time: 1942's “Reap The Wild Wind” (in which manly sea captain Wayne, Southern belle Paulette Goddard and lawyer Ray Milland team up to battle vicious salvagers and an even-more-vicious giant squid under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille) and “The Spoilers (in which gold miner Wayne and financier Marlene Dietrich fight to protect their claim from unscrupulous politicians), 1967's “The War Wagon” (in which Wayne teams up with Kirk Douglas to steal a cache of gold that was stolen from him five years earlier), 1968's “Hellfighters” (in which Wayne battles oil well fires in a film loosely based on the life of Red Adair) and 1975's “Rooster Cogburn” (in which Wayne reprises his Oscar-winning role in a film that pairs him up with none other than Katherine Hepburn).

JUMPIN’ AND JIVIN’: VOLUME ONE (Acorn Media. $19.99): Back in the 1940's-50's, there were these things called “soundie” machines that were visual jukeboxes that allowed people to not only hear but also see their favorite singers and musicians at work in short films that, although technically crude, have left us with a visual record of many landmark performers at the heights of their careers and helped pave the way for music videos as we know them today. This collection brings together a number of the old soundie shorts and includes performances from the likes of the Count Basie Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa and Lena Horne.

LATE OZU (The Criterion Collection. $69.95): The latest offering from the Criterion imprint dedicated to unveiling the lesser-known efforts by some of the world’s greatest filmmakers focuses on five of the later works of the celebrated Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu: “The End of Summer” (1962), “Tokyo Twilight” (1972), “Late Autumn” (1973), “Early Spring” (1974) and “Equinox Flower” (1977).

LAURE (Severin Films. $29.95): Having helped revolutionize the world of erotic filmmaking when her best-selling book “Emmanuelle: The Joys Of A Woman” was adapted into the hugely popular Sylvia Kristel film, author Emmanuelle Arsan co-wrote, directed and co-starred in this variation in which the sexy Laure (Annie Belle) spreads her libidinous philosophy (among other things) from the streets of Manila to a remote jungle as her incredibly lucky boyfriend (Al Cliver) and an exceedingly friendly anthropologist (Arsan) look on (and occasionally join in). Another prime bit of 70's-era Eurosleaze from the fine folks at Severin Films, this DVD also includes interviews with producer Orso Maria Guerrini and co-stars Belle and Cliver.

MASTERS OF HORROR: THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $14.95): In the latest installment of the second season of Showtime horror anthology series, Joe Dante offers up a darker-than-usual adaptation of James Tiptree Jr’s short story in which a pair of scientists (Jason Priestly and Elliott Gould) race against time to find a cure to a mysterious illness that is causing all the men in the world to violently attack women when they are sexually aroused. Although not quite as memorable as “Homecoming,” Dante’s Season 1 contribution, this is a deft combination of social commentary and brutal chills and thrills that, like most of Dante’s work, stand head and tails above the bubble-headed nothingness of most contemporary genre filmmakers.

THE ORIGINAL NANCY DREW MOVIE MYSTERY COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $24.98): The first Nancy Drew book was published in 1930 and by 1938, the teen sleuth had become so popular that Warner Brothers churned out a quartet of low-budget film versions as a vehicle for studio starlet Bonita Granville–“Nancy Drew–Detective” (1938), “Nancy Drew–Reporter” (1939), “Nancy Drew–Trouble Shooter” (1939) and “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” (1939). Although none of these films are particularly memorable on their own, they are interesting curios that fans of the character, both young and old, should find reasonably entertaining.

PRIMEVAL (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): “Hotel Rwanda” meets the Sci-Fi Channel in this crappy horror film set in an African nation where the natives can choose between being slaughtered by the local warlord or eaten by the local giant crocodile. You may recall that when Disney released this bomb in theaters earlier this year, they did so with an ad campaign that tried to push it as an ordinary serial killer film instead of a giant crocodile extravaganza–perhaps realizing that audiences are growing weary of serial killer films, they have shifted the marketing once again and the beast is literally front-and-center on the cover.

STONE COLD (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): In one of the all-time great dumb-ass action movies, pro football washout Brian Bosworth stars as a loner cop who infiltrates a biker gang (led by Lance Henriksen) and has to stop them when they take the Mississippi Supreme Court hostage in order to ensure the release of a member on trial for murder. Imagine “Road House” without the subtlety or dry wit, but with many more motorcycles tearing ass, and you have this cheeseball classic in a nutshell.

THE THREE MUSKETEERS (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): Yet another romp through the Alexandre Dumas classic–this one features the old comedy team The Ritz Brothers (for those of you without long memories, imagine the potential offspring of a union between the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges) as a trio of cooks who beat the real musketeers in a drinking contest and are then forced to take their places when the all-singing, all-swashbuckling D’Artagnan (Don Ameche) needs them for a mission to recover the stolen jewels of Queen Anne (Gloria Stuart). Silly, yes, but I will say that the Ritz Brothers are at least slightly more convincing as musketeers than Charlie Sheen or Chris O’Donnell ever were.

AN UNREASONABLE MAN (IFC Films. $26.95): In a film that I can almost guarantee will not be turning up in my mother’s DVD player anytime soon, documentarians Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan train their cameras on Ralph Nader to examine how he went from being a widely admired consumer advocate to a widely vilified presidential candidate and to show how his personal attitudes and belief systems have stubbornly remained the same, for good and ill, in an ever-changing world.

WELCOME BACK KOTTER: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Warner Home Video. $29.98): Although many will want to pick up this 4-disc collection of the semi-classic 1970's high-school sitcom to get a load of Ron Palillo in his breakthrough role, I want it so that I can once again experience the hideous majesty of Gabe Kaplan’s wonderfully awful jokes about his seemingly endless supply of uncles.

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originally posted: 06/15/07 16:10:09
last updated: 06/20/07 05:58:49
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