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DVD Reviews For 7/27: Saturday Morning Special

by Peter Sobczynski

Sitcoms, Saturday morning staples, near-porn, actual porn and two of 2007's finest films–if you can’t find something in this week’s DVD round-up that strikes your fancy, you might as well just put your player away for good.

In compiling “Classic Musical From The Dream Factory: Volume 2,” a follow-up to their acclaimed collection of MGM musicals from last year, the people at Warner Home Video found themselves facing a predicament that inevitably had to happen at some point–they have already released virtually all of the titles in that catalogue that could legitimately be described as “classic.” As a result, the seven titles collected in this 5-disc set, all of which are making their official DVD debuts (though a couple have slipped out in shoddy editions from companies trafficking in public-domain titles), may not be the most well-known musicals ever made but while only one of them is great enough to deserve the “classic” designation, they are all entertaining enough to presumably satisfy fans of the genre as well as newcomers.

The pick hit of the set–one of the greatest musicals of all time, in fact–is Vincente Minnelli’s lavishly entertaining 1948 masterwork “The Pirate.” In this charmer, featuring songs written by Cole Porter, Judy Garland plays Manuela, a lively young woman who dreams of being swept away by the infamous pirate Macoco but who has been pledged by her avaricious aunt to marry the town’s old and rich mayor (Walter Slezak). Around this time, traveling performer Serafin (Gene Kelly) arrives in town with his acting troupe to put on a show and instantly falls in love with Manuela and when he discovers her secret crush on Macoco, he decides to pose as the little-seen pirate in order to win her love. Filled with humor, high spirits and an ingenious story, this is one of the few musicals that I can think of that would remain just as entertaining if someone went through and removed all of the musical numbers. Not that I am advocating such a thing, of course–the Kelly/Garland duet on “Be A Clown” is one of the great moments of both their careers and words cannot begin to do justice to the astonishing dance number between Kelly and the legendary Nicholas Brothers. A flop when it was originally released, the reputation of this film has grown over the years and this special edition (which also includes a commentary track from film scholar John Fricke, a featurette on its production and audio outtakes of the songs “Love of My Life” and “Mack the Black”) will hopefully allow that view to spread even further.

By comparison, 1948's “Words and Music” wasn’t considered to be a classic when it came out and the ensuing years have not offered much of a reappraisal. It purports to be a film about the lives of the legendary songwriting duo of Richard Rodgers (Tom Drake) and Lorenz Hart (Mickey Rooney) but since their real-life story (in which Hart was an alcoholic homosexual with a self-destructive streak and Rodgers was a straight-arrow type who barely tolerated his partner’s extremes) could not have possibly been told in a major feature film of that time period, it instead gave us a sanitized version in which Hart’s problems all stemmed from having his heart broken by a sexy singer (Betty Garrett). What saves the film from complete disposability is the impressive array of singers and dancers recruited to perform some of the duo’s best-known tunes: Lena Horne does “The Lady Is A Tramp,” Gene Kelly performs his famous “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” ballet and Rooney and Judy Garland, in their final on-screen pairing, do “I Wish I Were In Love Again.” Of course, if you are interested in the real lives of Rodgers & Hart, the commentary track from historian Richard Barrios will fill you in on the reality as the fictional version unfolds before your eyes. Other bonuses on this disc include a making-of featurette, a couple of vintage short subjects and a number of audio outtakes of several of the songs used in the film.

In the 1970's, at a time when interest in big-screen musicals was dying off, MGM made a bundle with “That’s Entertainment” and “That’s Entertainment Too!,” a pair of compilation films made up of the best-known musical numbers from their archives. In 1985, the studio tried to make lightning strike once again with “That’s Dancing,” a similar compilation focusing on the art of screen dancing and how it evolved from the 1930's to the 1980's. A nice idea in theory but in practice, the film doesn’t quite work for two reasons that become painfully obvious once you start watching it. The first is the inescapable fact that most of the great MGM musical numbers were already excerpted in the two previous films and the ones catalogued here, while fun to watch, kind of pale by comparison. The second is the inexplicable decision to have the four hosts (Gene Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sammy Davis Jr.)prattle on endlessly during the dance sequences–even if they had anything interesting to say (which they generally don’t), their comments only serve to distract instead of edify. Other than that, the film is okay enough as a highlight reel but you would be far better off watching the full versions of the films instead of the bits and pieces offered here.

The other two discs in the set offer up a pair of double-features with one focusing on Fred Astaire and the other presenting a couple of the vehicles created in an effort to make opera singer Mario Lanza into a movie star. The Astaire titles are “Royal Wedding,” the 1951 film about the romantic misadventures of a brother-sister act (Astaire and Jane Powell) who arrive in London to perform at the same time as the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (this is the one that contains the famous number in which Astaire dances up the walls and on the ceiling), and 1952's “The Belle of New York,” in which he plays a reckless playboy who tries to change his heedless ways when he falls head over heels for mission worker Vera-Ellen. The Lanza films are “That Midnight Kiss,” his semi-autobiographical 1948 debut in which he plays an opera-singing truck driver who becomes a musical sensation and wins the hand of Kathryn Grayson, and 1950's “The Toast of New Orleans,” in which an opera singer (Grayson again) meets a hunky fisherman (guess who) and when she discovers that he has an amazing singing voice, she brings him to New York to teach him to perform opera.

A Warner Home Video release. $59.98


ANITA–THE SHOCKING ACCOUNT OF A YOUNG NYMPHOMANIAC (Impulse Pictures. $24.95): The title for this slice of 70's-era Swedish softcore erotica pretty much says it all–a young nymphomaniac confesses her dark secrets and indiscretions to a university student and he helpfully suggests that the best way to overcome her condition is to have a real orgasm with someone she loves. Some curiosity seekers may want to check this out to see the now-well-known Stellan Skarsgard as the helpful student but I suspect that many will be too distracted by the various exertions of star Christina Lindberg (perhaps most famous for her starring role in the grindhouse revenge classic “Thriller: A Cruel Picture,” a.k.a. “They Call Her One-Eye”) to even notice.

BENSON–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.95): Remember, if enough people pick up this first-season set of the popular 1980's sitcom–a spinoff of the great “Soap” in which that show’s acerbic butler (Robert Guillaume) went East to work for a goofy governor and his wacky staff–it will ensure a release of the second season and allow us to get a brief look at Jerry Seinfeld in one of his earliest TV gigs as a short-lived second banana.

THE BOURNE FILES (Universal Home Entertainment. $22.98): For the few people who don’t already own the first two installments of the enormously popular spy movie franchise, 2002's “The Bourne Identity” and 2004's “The Bourne Supremacy,” Universal is thoughtfully releasing this three-disc set containing the previously-released DVD’s of those films and a third disc of bonus features that include information on the upcoming and incredibly bad-ass sequel “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

CASHBACK (Magnolia Home Video. $26.98): In writer-director Sean Ellis’ feature-length expansion of his Oscar-nominated 2004 short, an insomniac art student (Sean Biggerstaff) goes to work on the late shift of an all-night supermarket and imagines that he has the ability to freeze time–an ability that he utilizes to undress the comelier customers in order to sketch them properly.

THE CHAMBERMAID (MTI Home Video. $24.95): Okay, I haven’t actually seen this 2004 British thriller about an increasingly disturbing romantic triangle involving a hotel manager, a sexy chambermaid and her dangerous boyfriend. However, with a cover like that, how could I possibly resist including it in this week’s column?

THE CROW–STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: THE COMPLETE SERIES ($39.98): Quite frankly, I am as surprised as most of you presumably are to discover that there was a television spinoff of the popular 1994 action film that ran for one season in 1998-1999. I haven’t seen any episodes of the show (which reportedly tells an expanded version of the first film’s story and which stars Mark Decascos in the role made famous by the late Brandon Lee) but while they presumably don’t come close to equating the power of Alex Proyas’ visionary original film, I can’t imagine that they could be worse than any of its misbegotten sequels.

ELVIS PRESLEY MGM MOVIE LEGENDS (MGM Home Entertainment. $39.98): Hoping to get a jump on the avalanche of DVD’s that will be arriving in a couple of weeks to commemorate the King’s shuffling off of this mortal coil, MGM repackages four of their previously-released titles in this set–1962's “Follow That Dream” (in which he plays a musically-inclined homesteader whose family sets up residence off of a Florida highway) and “Kid Galahad” (in which he plays a crooning pugilist), 1966's “Frankie and Johnny” (in which he plays a tuneful riverboat gambler) and 1967's “Clambake” (in which he plays a water-ski instructor with a gift for song).

EXTERMINATING ANGELS (Genius Products. $24.95): While auditioning actresses for his sexually explicit 2003 film “Secret Things,” French filmmaker Jean-Claude Brisseau apparently asked those who were trying out to do certain things–whatever these things were, they were enough to land him a one-year suspended prison sentence and a 15,000 euro fine for sexually harassing two of them. In response, Brisseau made this even-more sexually explicit film about a French filmmaker auditioning actresses for a erotic film that he is making. Strange and pretentious but not entirely without interest, especially for those of you who want to rent a film filled with sex without venturing into that room behind the beaded curtain.

FORCED ENTRY (After Hours Cinema. $29.99): Of course, if you have no fear of that beaded curtain and prefer your erotic entertainment without subtitles or cinematic flair, you might want to check out this time capsule from 1974, a strange porno-slasher hybrid (two genres that hardly ever overlapped in the adult film industry) in which the legendary Harry Reems plays a deranged Vietnam vet who begins stalking a number of women that he meets through his job at a gas station. Not for everyone by a long shot but those with an interest in the Golden Age of Porn, the period celebrated in “Boogie Nights” when erotic filmmakers still had ambitions of making real films that just happened to have hardcore sexual material in them, should probably seek it out.

HARD-BOILED (Dragon Dynasty. $24.95): If you don’t already own a copy of John Woo’s seminal 1992 shoot-em-up (in which Chow Yun-Fat plays a cop who teams up with an undercover policeman (Tony Leung) to take out the mob in a series of increasingly elaborate gun battles), this latest re-release , which features a commentary track with HK film expert Bey Logan and a second disc of interviews and documentary featurettes, should prove more than adequate. However, if you are like me and already own the out-of-print edition put out by Criterion a few years ago, there isn’t really anything here that warrants a double-dip.

HARVEY BIRDMAN–ATTORNEY-AT-LAW : VOL. 3 (Warner Home Video. $29.98): In the third (and final) season of the hilarious Cartoon Network series (in which a third-string Hanna-Barbera superhero from the 1960's has been reimagined as a clueless lawyer defending a variety of two-dimensional clients), Birdman goes to his high-school reunion, insane boss Phil Ken Sebben (voiced by Stephen Colbert) goes to meet his maker and fellow attorney Peter Potamus wants to know if you got that thing he sent you.

THE HOST (Magnolia Home Video. $29.98): Easily the best monster movie to come along in a long, long time, this Korean gem from , in which a wildly dysfunctional family pulls itself together when their youngest member is taken from them by a giant monster that has risen from the depths of the Han River, is flat-out hilarious, strangely touching and even manages to pack a genuine jolt or two. One of the best films of 2007.

JAMES ELLROY: AMERICAN DOG (Facets Home Video. $29.95): The life and work of the celebrated author of such hard-hitting novels as “L.A. Confidential,” “American Tabloid” and “The Black Dahlia” is the subject of this fascinating documentary directed by Clara and Robert Kuperberg and narrated by Ellroy himself.

JEAN DE FLORETTE/MANON OF THE SPRING (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98): After years of substandard transfers, Claude Berri’s massive two-part epic is finally available on DVD in a form that does justice to its visual beauty. In part one, a greedy landowner (Yves Montand) and his son (Daniel Auteuil) secretly block the spring on the property adjoining theirs in an effort to destroy the livelihood of its rightful owner (Gerard Depardieu) in order to acquire it for themselves. In Part II, which takes place years later, the ruined man’s now-grown daughter (the always-amazing Emmanelle Beart) stumbles upon the blocked spring and when she discovers who was responsible, she launches her own cruel revenge on the men who destroyed her family. This double-feature is being released under the “MGM World Films” banner, a group of films that also includes such new-to-DVD titles as Michael Cacoyannis’ “Iphigenia” (1977), Jules Dassin’s “10:30 PM Summer” (1966) and two of director Zhang Yimou’s celebrated collaborations with Gong Li, “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991) and “To Live” (1994).

JOHN GRISHAM’S THE RAINMAKER (Paramount Home Video. $14.99): Thanks to a fine cast (led by Matt Damon and filled with tasty supporting performances from the likes of Danny DeVito, Jon Voight, Mickey Rourke, Virginia Madsen and many others) and the consummate filmmaking skill of director Francis Ford Coppola, this 1997 film was by far the best to date to be adapted from one of Grisham’s legal potboilers. Amazingly, Coppola essentially disappeared from the filmmaking world after the release of this one (which was a critical and financial hit) and is only now returning to the industry later this year with the release of his eagerly anticipated “Youth Finds Youth”–just to give an idea of how long that has been, consider that the notoriously slow Terrence Malick has released two films in that same space of time.

LIVE FREE OR DIE (Velocity/Thinkfilm. $27.98): No, the latest “Die Hard” film didn’t do that bad at the box-office. This is a completely unrelated caper comedy featuring such indie film icons as Aaron Stanford, Michael Rapaport, Paul Schneider and the always-watchable Zooey Deschanel.

MALPERTUIS (Barrel Releasing. $29.95): In this exceedingly strange 1971 horror fantasy from director Harry Kumel (who would follow it up later that year with the sexy vampire cult classic “Daughters of Darkness”), a young sailor (Mathieu Carrriere) is abducted and taken to a remote mansion filled with distant relatives brought together by Uncle Cassavius (Orson Welles in a fake nose) who announces that a.) they are never to leave the estate and b.) the last living one among them will inherit everything. Naturally, this is the point where people start dropping like flies while our hero tries to figure out his uncle’s secret. This disc contains two different versions of the film–an English–language version that screened at Cannes in 1972 and a new version recut and prepared by Kumel himself.

THE MONSTER SQUAD (Lionsgate. $19.98): After years of being trapped in limbo because of questions regarding the rights, Fred Dekker’s hilarious 1987 monster mash–in which the classic Universal movie monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Werewolf, the Mummy and the Gill-Man) band together to take over the world and only a group of monster-obsessed kids can possibly save the day–finally makes its long-overdue DVD debut. Although fans of the film would have been satisfied just to be able to retire their worn-out tapes, Lionsgate has given them two discs worth of bonus features including two commentaries (one with cast members and the other with Dekker and cinematographer Bradford May), a five-part retrospective documentary and a bunch of deleted scenes.

NOMAD: THE WARRIOR (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.95): So what would you do if you bought the rights to a Kazakhstan-produced action epic (in which “Hostel” star Jay Hernandez plays a young man destined to untie three warring tribes against a common enemy) only to later decide that it was all but unreleasable? Well, if you are the Weinstein Company, you let the film sit on a shelf for a couple of years and then dump it in the video market with a misleading ad campaign designed to make it look as much like the artwork for “300" (which comes out on DVD next week) as possible in order to lure in viewers who don’t pay a lot of attention at the store.

THE NUMBER 23 (New Line Home Entertainment. $28.98): In one of the least coherent thrillers in recent memory, Jim Carrey reunites with his “Batman Forever” director, Joel Schumacher, for a ridiculous tale about a seemingly normal guy who finds himself driven to the edge of madness by the allegedly mystical powers of the number 23. Virginia Madsen is kind of fun in the dual role of Carrey’s long-suffering wife and a mysterious femme fatale but other than that, this is pretty much an all-out disaster from start to finish.

PERFUME–THE STORY OF A MURDERER (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): One of the best films of 2006 that you never got to see (mostly because the studio decided to spend all of its time and energy trying to score Oscars for “Dreamgirls” instead of giving it a proper release), this sumptuous adaptation of Patrick Suskind’s 1984 novel about a strange young man (Ben Whishaw) whose advanced sense of smell allows him to discover the most beautiful scent of all–the essence of a pure young woman–and drives him to murderous lengths in order to find a way of preserving it in a creepy and darkly funny film that builds to one of the most jaw-dropping finales ever filmed. If Stanley Kubrick and Ken Russell ever teamed up to make the world’s artiest mad slasher movie, this film (which was actually directed by “Run Lola Run” auteur Tom Tykwer) might have been the result.

THE REAL MCCOYS: SEASON ONE/SUSPENSE–THE LOST EPISODE COLLECTION: VOLUME ONE (Infinity Entertainment. $39.98 each): Two old-time television classics–one perhaps familiar, the other perhaps not–make their shiny silver disc debuts in these two collections. The former is, of course, the long-running country-fried sitcom (the progenitor of such later shows as “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Petticoat Junction”) about the wacky misadventures of a rural family (led by cranky patriarch Walter Brennan and even-tempered son Richard Crenna) who have relocated from the mountains of West Virginia to California. The latter, which ran from 1949-1954, was an ambitious horror anthology series based on the popular radio show. (Since “Suspense” was done live, the episodes were never properly recorded and so the ones collected here are kinescopes–films shots off of TV screens as they were broadcast–and, as such, have a somewhat rough visual quality.)

RENAISSANCE (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.99): This is a European-made animated film that is as impossible to comprehend as it is amazing to look at and man, it is really amazing to look at. Set in 2054 Paris, it follows tough cop Daniel Craig as he searches for a kidnaped scientist (Romola Garai) who may have discovered a secret that will change mankind forever. At least that is what I think it is about–the plotting is so murky that you’ll wish that someone would come out during the reel changes to sum up what is going on. Using motion-capture technology and a striking, high-contrast black-and-white style, the end result looks like what might result if “Sin City” and “Blade Runner” got together and had a baby–a really confusing and difficult-to-understand baby.

THE SECRETS OF ISIS–THE COMPLETE SERIES:(BCI Eclipse. $39.98): In this live-action Saturday morning kid show from the 1970's, mild-mannered science teacher Andrea Thomas uncovered a mystical amulet that endowed her with the powers of the Egyptian goddess Isis–“she soars as the falcon soared, runs with the speed of gazelles and commands the elements of the sky and earth”–that allow her to fight crime and save her friends for weekly peril. Of course, in the mini-skirted guise of JoAnna Cameron (whatever happened to her?), Isis also presumably had the power to jump-start puberty in many of the pre-teen boys who turned in week after week for reasons other than the low-budget special effects or the moral lessons that would conclude each episode. Kids today may be bewildered by this collection but those who watched it back in the day (especially those now-grown boys) will probably get a nostalgic kick out of this set, not to mention a familiar funny feeling in the bathing suit area. This 3-disc collection includes every episode produced, a couple of commentaries, interviews (sadly, Cameron is M.I.A) and even a hilarious compilation of the aforementioned moral lessons that remind us that practical jokes are bad, accepting dares is stupid and how death is all part of nature’s cycle.

SHADOW PUPPETS (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.98): In what appears to be a knock-off of the cult film “Cube,” a group of eight strangers find themselves trapped in a mysterious facility and struggle to figure out how they got there and how to escape. Never released in theaters, this film is presumably aimed solely at obsessive fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (owing to the presence of James “Spike” Marsters) and “Enterprise” (owing to the presence of Jolene “Insanely hot alien chick” Blalock in little more than her underwear).

SLOW BURN (Lionsgate. $27.98): And if “Shadow Puppets” doesn’t completely satisfy your craving to see Jolene Blalock in little clothing in a barely released film, you might also want to check out this long-on-the-shelf thriller in which the political aspirations of ambitious district attorney Ray Liotta (?!) are threatened when one of his assistant D.A’s (Blalock) confesses to killing a man in what she claims was self-defense but which was anything but according to another man (LL Cool J).

WEEDS: SEASON 2 (Lionsgate. $39.98): In order to brush up for the upcoming third season of the popular Showtime series that follow the adventures of pot-dealing MILF Mary-Louise Parker, Lionsgate has thoughtfully released this collection of the show’s second season along with an array of bonus features including commentaries, deleted scenes and an A-to-Z guide of intriguing slang terms for the wacky tabaccy–purely in the name of science and research, of course.

THE WOODY WOODPECKER AND FRIENDS CLASSIC CARTOON COLLECTION (Universal Home Entertainment. $39.98): Although the single best Woody Woodpecker cartoon (1956's “Niagra Fools,” in which his attempts to go over Niagra Falls in a barrel are interrupted by a park ranger who inevitably winds up making the trip himself,) this three-disc collection includes the popular character’s first 45 cartoons from his 1940 debut “Knock Knock” to 1952's “The Great Who Dood-It” (which pretty much constitute his best films–as the years went on, he would go from being an incorrigible imp to just kind of annoying). The set also features an additional 30 shorts featuring other characters created by animator Walter Lantz (including Andy Panda and Chilly Willy) and even includes such rarities as a couple of the “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” shorts that Lantz directed for Universal after the studio wrested the rights to the character away from its creator, a then-unknown animator from Kansas City named Walt Disney.

ZODIAC (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): Considering the fact that it is arguably the single finest film to be released so far in 2007, it might come as a shock to many to learn that this DVD of David Fincher’s mesmerizing examination of the search for the mysterious killer who terrorized the Bay Area in the early 1970's is an utterly bare-bones with nary a bonus feature other than a trailer or two. Unlike the case depicted in the film, the answer to this mystery is easily solved–Fincher is working on a full-blown special edition for release next year that will reportedly include a longer cut of the film and all the bells and whistles one could hope for.

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originally posted: 07/27/07 11:58:19
last updated: 07/27/07 12:26:12
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