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DVD Reviews For 7/20: The Russians Are Coming--Again!

by Peter Sobczynski

That's right--our former foes have returned to wreak havoc on us all, at least in DVD form. Head for the hills, but be sure to bring the portable DVD player along to check out this week's titles--an eclectic collection of poets, prostitutes and one long-buried gem that is finally sticking its head outside of the cave it has been buried in for nearly 50 years.

In the past, I believe that I have stated that despite my peaceful and liberal-minded qualities–almost Buddha-like in nature, one might say–there lies within me an unquenchable thirst for wildly violent and decidedly right-wing entertainment from the 1980's. I have memorized the soliloquy that Charles Bronson delivers in “Death Wish 4" to justify his latest kill spree. (Don’t be too impressed–the entire thing consists of him muttering “It’s those damn drugs!”) I continue to hold out hope that once Sylvester Stallone finishes up “Rambo IV,” he will finally get to work on the can’t-miss sequel “Cobra II” (complete with Brigitte Nielsen cameo). I would gladly sacrifice all my DVD’s of “The O.C.” if it would help to get the fondly remembered Robert Stack cop show “Strike Force” (imagine “Hunter” without the light humanistic touches) released in shiny disc form. However, one title in this particular subgenre stands out above all others and that is John Milius’ still-amazing 1984 epic “Red Dawn” and this week, MGM Home Entertainment has reissued it in a two-disc “Collector’s Edition” that will thrill those who saw and loved it when it first came out and throughly confuse any viewer born after 1989.

The film kicks off with one of the most startling opening sequences ever seen in a major Hollywood film. In a small Colorado town, an early morning history class at the local high school is interrupted by a squadron of paratroopers dropping from the skies and landing on the football field. The history teacher walks out to find out what is going on and is gunned down for his troubles just before the intruders open fire on the school with machine guns and rocket launchers. A few of them manage to escape in a pickup but as they speed through the streets of their town, they find burning buildings, blocked-off streets and heavily-armed invaders on every corner. It turns out that the Soviet Union, in the throes of a massive food shortage, have launched a full-scale invasion of the United States by coming up through Mexico with the aid of communist armies from that country as well as Cuba. (From what I understand, Alexander Haig was one of the military advisors that Milius hired to map out how such an invasion of America might unfold.)

With the town locked down and most of the citizens thrown into concentration camps, a group of high-schoolers (including C. Thomas Howell, Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey) head for the mountains with some provisions and guns and form a rebel army (which they name the Wolverines after their school football team) that starts making sneak attacks on the occupiers. When they hook up with a downed American fighter pilot (Powers Boothe) who gives them some formal training, their increasingly risky maneuvers begin to inspire the populace, even when they are threatened with mass executions for every Wolverine attack, and the Russians take them seriously enough to send in a specialist (B-movie legend William Smith) to take care of them once and for all. As time goes on, however, the ranks of the Wolverines are depleted by attacks, betrayals and sheer fatigue and by the end, there are only a few left for a final standoff between the forces that stand between them and territory that has successfully repelled the invasion.

Produced and released during the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions in the 1980's (the same time in which Russia was dubbed “The Evil Empire” and Ronald Reagan, not realizing that his microphone was on, joking claimed that we would begin bombing them in five minutes), “Red Dawn” is often dismissed today (as it was back then) as nothing than ridiculously lurid right-wing propaganda–a modern-day version of such 50's-era potboilers as “Invasion U.S.A.” or “Red Nightmare” (a legendary short subject from the 1950's, narrated by Jack Webb, that purported to show us the horrors of living under a Soviet regime)–and has been lampooned on such shows as “The Simpsons” and “South Park.” While there are some giggle-worthy moments of excess scattered throughout the film (such as a shot of a bumper sticker that reads “They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers” that is followed by a shot of exactly that), the interesting thing about watching the film today is how seriously Milius (who previously directed such films as “Big Wednesday” and “Conan the Barbarian” and contributed to the screenplays of “Dirty Harry,” “Jaws” and “Apocalypse Now”) approaches his seemingly risible premise. Although he has a persona in Hollywood of being a mad crackpot (John Goodman’s character in “The Big Lebowski” is said to be based on him)–one that he has cultivated through outrageous statements in the media and his alleged demand that the payment for his screenwriting services includes a brand-new shotgun–he is a serious student of military history throughout the century and he has learned that combat in any form is not a light and frivolous thing. Throughout “Red Dawn,” he takes care to share both the physical and emotional toll that war takes on his heroes and while they do score the occasional triumphs, this is not the kind of war film where the good guys hit everything in sight while the bad guys are unable to hit the broad side of a barn. Instead, it is their losses and betrayals that weigh more heavily as the story progresses right up to its surprisingly grim finale (if you ignore an epilogue that feels as if it were hastily added at the last minute to lighten the mood). I’m not going to sit here and claim that “Red Dawn” is on the level of “The Battle of Algiers” (although Milius, who has cited that film as a personal favorite, probably wouldn’t mind the comparison), but I suspect that many people encountering this film for the first time expecting a wacky campfest are likely to be surprised with how somber the majority of it truly is.

Of course, MGM hasn’t exactly helped in the campaign to take “Red Dawn” seriously by bestowing this special edition with one of the tackiest bonus features of all time–a “Carnage Counter” that keeps track of every dead body and explosion on display, presumably to play upon the fact that the film was once cited by the “Guinness Book of World Records” as containing the most violent acts in cinema history. (It would also go on to be the first film released with the then-new PG-13 rating.) Beyond that, however, the bonus features are an interesting quartet of featurettes covering numerous aspects of the film. “Red Dawn Rising” offers a general overview of the production of the film and includes new interviews with Milius and several of the cast members. “Building the Red Menace” focuses on how the elaborate combat scenes were designed and executed. “Military Training Featurette” is just that–a brief look at the army training that the actors went through to prepare themselves for their roles. Finally, “WW III Comes To Town” revisits the small New Mexico town where the film was shot for reminisces from Milius, Swayze and several actual townspeople. What is missing, though, is a commentary track from John Milius–as anyone who has read interviews with him or heard him talk (such as on the commentaries for “Big Wednesday” and “Conan the Barbarian”) can attest, Milius is a great and passionate storyteller and it would have been a blast to hear him talk about this film at length and its absence keeps this otherwise worthwhile set from being an automatic must-own DVD.

Written by John Milius and Kevin Reynolds. Directed by John Milius. Starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Ben Johnson, Harry Dean Stanton, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, Ron O’Neal, William Smith and Powers Boothe. 1984. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13. An MGM Home Entertainment release. $19.98.


ACE IN THE HOLE (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Despite the presence of co-writer/director Billy Wilder, star Kirk Douglas and a premise later reused to effects both brilliant (a great early “Simpsons” episode) and pathetic (the grisly Dustin Hoffman/John Travolta knock-off “Mad City”), this caustic 1951 film (in which down-on-his-luck newspaperman Douglas hopes to rejuvenate his career by callously manipulating and exploiting the human tragedy of a man trapped inside a well) has been all but lost since its original release–it has only rarely popped up on cable and in revival houses and has never legally been released in any home video format. Watching it today, the film as a whole holds up as a surprisingly modern and relevant drama and Wilder’s acidic tone still packs a wallop even in these increasingly cynical times. Beyond simply owning a copy of this long-unavailable classic, Wilder fanatics will also want to snag it for the choice bonus features assembled by Criterion–the 1980 Wilder documentary “Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man,” footage of a 1986 appearance by Wilder at the American Film Institute, interviews with Douglas and co-writer Walter Newman and an introduction by avowed fan Spike Lee, who has called this one of the greatest American films ever made.

AVENUE MONTAIGNE (Velocity/Thinkfilm. $27.98): If you saw “Haute Tension” and wondered what French cutie Cecile De France might look like when she wasn’t covered with blood and wielding a chainsaw, you have your chance with this lighter-than-air French comedy about a working-class waitress who winds up affecting the lives of a trio of upper-class Parisians. Although the film is basically a lesser version of “Amelie,” it does have a certain charm and will presumably entertain viewers in the mood for something on the frothy side.

BAXTER (Lionsgate. $19.98): If, on the other hand, you prefer your French films to be darker and creepier, you might prefer this weirdo riff on the typical boy-and-his-dog saga in which a violent bull terrier finds his terrifyingly ideal match in a creepy young boy with an obsession with Hitler.

BIRDMAN AND THE GALAXY TRIO: THE COMPLETE SERIES/SPACE GHOST AND DINO BOY: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Warner Home Video. $26.98 each): For those of you interested in what Birdman and Space Ghost were up to before their hilarious Cartoon Network revivals, these two sets offer up the entire runs of their original 60's-era Saturday morning television show, complete with the supporting exploits of their long-forgotten co-stars. Today’s kids may find these shows a tad on the repetitive side but anyone old enough to remember getting up early on the weekend to watch them while scarfing down several bowls of cereal is likely to find them entertaining blasts from the past.

THE CORSICAN FILE (Synkronized USA. $29.98): One of the several comedies to pair up French actors Jean Reno and Christian Clavier (the best-known of which are 1993's “Les Visiteurs” and its 2001 American remake “Just Visiting”), this 2004 effort finds Clavier playing a detective who is set to Corsica to seek out a local mob kingpin (Reno), supposedly because of a house he has just inherited, and winds up becoming involved with international intrigue and the man’s sister (Caterina Munro, the other ill-fated megababe in “Casino Royale”).

FACTORY GIRL (The Weinstein Company. $28.95): One of the more troubled film productions in recent memory, this biopic on the life and death of cult icon Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller) underwent endless reshoots and reedits, only to be dumped with the merest token of a release once Harvey Weinstein finally realized that Miller wasn’t going to get an Oscar nomination in last year’s unusually crowded Best Actress field. This DVD offers up yet another edit from director George Hickenlooper that supposedly fits closer to his original intentions and while the film itself is still deeply flawed (Hayden Christensen as a barely-disguised version of Bob Dylan is pretty awful), this version is somewhat better than the one that played in theaters and offers a better showcase for Miller’s better-than-expected performance.

FOYLE’S WAR–SET 4 (Acorn Media. $59.95): So what do you do if you have a taste for quirky British mysteries–the kind in which quaint little towns seem to harbor the most bizarre crimes imaginable–and World War II-era stories of danger and intrigue but you don’t have time to watch both genres to your heart’s content? Using the same principle that gave us the peanut-butter cup, the producers of this popular television series from Great Britain have combined the two and this collection of four feature-length episodes (in which Michael Kitchen again reprises the role of detective chief Christopher Foyle) should satisfy fans of each genre equally.

THE HAPPY HOOKER TRILOGY (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98): For those too young to remember, Xaviera Hollander was a woman who briefly became famous in the 1970's, first for running a high-class brothel in New York and later, once she was busted for that, turned her adventures into grist for a couple of best-selling books, a long-running column in “Penthouse” and, strangest of all, a trio of silly super-soft-core exploitation films that MGM have seen fit to reissue for a new generation. The films include 1974's “The Happy Hooker” (which stars Lynn Redgrave and which fancifully charts her rise to infamy), 1977's “The Happy Hooker Goes To Hollywood” (which is more of the same and features Joey Heatherton in the lead role and George Hamilton and Ray Walston among the presumably mortified supporting players) and 1980's “The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington” (in which the role is essayed by Martine Bestwick and which also features Adam West and Phil Silvers at low points in their respective careers and Chris Lemmon at a high point in his.)

THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2 (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): Generally dismissed as the most repellent and useless horror film of 2007 when it came and went last spring (though I suspect that title has now been passed on to “Captivity”), this sequel to last year’s surprisingly successful remake of the Wes Craven horror standard, in which a group of National Guard trainees fall victim to the surviving members of the first film’s mutated cannibal family, was a grim and stupid exercise in sadism that even managed to put off the more discerning gorehounds. However, if you relished its combination of severed limbs, spurting blood, shabby plotting (courtesy of a script co-written by Craven himself) and even an exceedingly tasteless rape sequence, you will be thrilled to know that this title also comes in an unrated addition with, one presumes, even more unspeakable sights, sounds and lines of dialogue.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ALLEN GINSBERG (New Yorker Video. $34.95): The legendary poet and activist (whose landmark poem “Howl” turns 50 this year) is the subject of this fascinating documentary from Jerry Aronson that chronicles his career and his impact on the literary world through interviews with the man himself (culled from over 120 hours of footage), friends, family members and those who have been influenced by his work. This two-disc set offers up plenty of additional interview footage and “Ballad Of the Skeletons,” a 1997 Gus Van Sant-directed music video of a musical collaboration between Ginsberg and Paul McCartney.

MASTERS OF HORROR–THE BLACK CAT (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $14.98): Better known for his cinematic examinations of the works of H.P. Lovecraft (such as “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond”), Stuart Gordon shifts his focus to Edgar Allen Poe for this intriguing hour-long film (part of the Showtime horror anthology series) in which a broke and desperate Poe (Jeffrey Combs) is tormented by a mysterious black cat that simultaneously drives him mad and inspires one of his most famous literary works.

PREMONITION (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): Apparently having not gotten her fill of crappy dramas involving inexplicable riffs in the time-space continuum with “The Lake House,” Sandra Bullock decided to sign on for this thrill-free thriller about a woman who has a premonition of her husband dying and then frantically tries to prevent it from happening. I’d tell you how it all ends but I suspect that even if you don’t have any psychic abilities to speak of, you will be able to figure out what happens in this wildly predictable loser.

SURF SCHOOL (Lionsgate. $26.98): If you thought that “Surf’s Up” would have been a lot better without any of those pesky penguins, perhaps you will enjoy this barely-released comedy about some outcast kids who triumph at a surf contest under the tutelage of a spaced-out former champion. Featuring Harland Williams as Jeff Bridges and some no-namers as Shia LaBeouf and Zooey Deschanel.

VOYAGERS–THE COMPLETE SERIES (Universal Home Entertainment. $49.98): Essentially a live-action (and less funny) knock-off of the beloved Mr. Peabody & Sherman cartoons that used to appear on “Bullwinkle,” this short-lived early-80's TV series featured the memorably-named Meeno Peluce as an ordinary kid whisked away by a time-traveler (Jon-Erik Hexum) to show up at famous historical events and make sure that everything goes according to plan.

YO-YO GIRL COP (Magnolia Home Video. $26.98): In this decidedly strange action film from Japan, a feisty teenage girl is recruited by the government to go undercover at a private school to find information on a mysterious terrorist group armed with only her cunning, her wiles and a stainless-steel yo-yo.

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originally posted: 07/20/07 13:07:27
last updated: 07/20/07 14:25:38
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