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DVD Reviews for 9/7: Happy Birthday, Mom!

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic would like to pause before delving into this week's releases--mostly an avalanche of TV shows along with a couple of oddball feature films--to implore those of you reading these words to take a moment or two to metaphorically (or literally, via the comments section) extend to my mother a wish for her to have the happiest of birthdays today.

In the minds of most people, the American independent film movement began in 1989 when the debut of Steven Soderbergh’s landmark “sex, lies and videotape” launched a thousand would-be auteurs scrounging together the funds to make their own movies outside of the Hollywood apparatus (often as a calling card to get acceptance into that very same apparatus). Of course, there were any number of indie filmmakers calling their own shots long before Soderbergh’s opus had its first Sundance screening. There was John Cassavetes, who took the money that he made as an actor and plowed it right back into a series of idiosyncratic and deeply personal films that he made with a circle of friends including wife Gena Rowlands and fellow actors Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk. There was John Sayles, who used his earning as a screenwriter on such B-movie epics as “Piranha,” “Battle Beyond the Stars” and “The Howling” to fund his own series of earnest, thoughtful and decidedly adult dramas, a balancing act that he continues to maintain to this very day. Last, but certainly not least, there is Jim Jarmusch, the hipster Cleveland native who made a splash in 1984 with his micro-budgeted charmer “Stranger Than Paradise” and who has continued to make his own highly idiosyncratic films on his own terms ever since. With the exception of 2005's “Broken Flowers,” which he made under the auspices of a semi-studio structure, he has maintained complete control over all of his work and while that has doubtlessly harmed his chances to achieve a major commercial breakthrough (when he refused to let Miramax recut his 1995 masterpiece “Dead Man,” the studio sat on the film for months before giving it the most cursory distribution possible), it has allowed him to make the films that wants to and while some may be better than others, each of them have their unique charms and are highly recommend for anyone in the mood for something decidedly off the beaten path. This week, the Criterion Collection, which previously released a fine edition of his 1986 film “Down By Law,” has issued DVD’s of two of his better-known titles–“Stranger Than Paradise” and his 1992 anthology “Night on Earth”–in special editions that will please both hardcore fans and newcomers alike.

“Stranger Than Paradise” stars John Lurie as Willie, a New York hipster who is unexpectedly visited by Eva (Eszter Balint), his young cousin from Budapest. The two spend the next couple of weeks slowly driving each other crazy, often in the company of Willie’s oddball best pal Eddie (Richard Edson), until she finally takes off to stay with their Aunt Lotte (Cecilia Stark) in the frozen wasteland of Cleveland. A year later, Willie and Eddie, more out of boredom than anything else, drive out to Cleveland to visit them and then decide to head down to Florida with Eva in tow. They have a plan to multiply their meager poker winnings at the dog tracks and to say any more would be cruelly unfair to the surprises that lay in store.

When it was originally released in 1984, the film was hailed as an utterly unique excursion in deadpan comedy and it still feels that way after 23 years–perhaps only Wes Anderson has come close to evoking the sadly hilarious approach that Jarmusch utilizes here. The scenes are a collection of one-take master shots and while this might stultifying at first, it is a style that it completely appropriate to the story being told and one that grows strangely more beautiful as the film progresses. The performances are just as hilariously deadpan as the filmmaking style and Jarmusch’s screenplay gives all of the characters their moments to shine–my favorite bits include Willie explaining the concept of TV dinners to Eva, Eddie’s attempts to tell a joke and Eva’s unexpectedly passionate defense of Screamin Jay Hawkins (whose immortal “I Put A Spell On You” serves as the film’s unofficial theme song and mantra). Although Jarmusch may have gone on to make better and more technically proficient films throughout the years, he has yet to produce one as effortlessly charming and likable as this one.
“Night on Earth,” on the other hand, is a more problematic work in that while the conceit of the film–five short films centered on cab rides occurring at the same time throughout the world–sounds fascinating enough, the end result isn’t as impressive as the idea behind it, a problem that would later plague his narratively similar 2004 film “Coffee and Cigarettes.” In Los Angeles, a high-powered casting agent (Gene Rowlands) encounters a natural performer in her spunky young cabbie (Winona Ryder) and is stunned to discover that she has absolutely no interest in becoming a star. In New York, we witness a bizarre clash of cultures between an East German refugee (Armin Muller-Stahl) and the B-boy passenger (Giancarlo Espositio) that he is desperately trying to communicate with, a notion that grows even harder when the guy’s girlfriend (Rosie Perez) hops in as well. In Paris, there is a tense standoff between a helpful driver (Issach De Bankole) and his decidedly not helpless blind passenger (Beatrice Dalle, whose condition serves as a reminder of her unforgettable character in “Betty Blue,” a comparison that earned me a punch in the face from the fabulous-looking babe–and future PETA bigwig–that I saw it with–to be fair, I may have made said comparison in a manner slightly less thoughtful and measured than I have done here). In Rome, a motor-mouthed and wildly profane driver (Roberto Benigni) uses the priest in his back seat as a sounding board for a hilariously screwy monologue about all the sexual depravities that one can possibly describe in detail in the space of twenty minutes. Finally, in Helsinki, a group of drunks regale their driver with the incredibly sad story of their passed-out friend, only to be topped with the driver’s even more tragic tale of woe.

Although this will never be one of my favorite Jarmusch films, I must admit that it has aged better than I would have thought when I first saw it back in 1992. Although the concept as a while never amounts to much, each one of the individual tales contains elements that do work. The byplay between Ryder and Rowlands in the first segment has a lot of charm–it may well be one of Ryder’s most thoroughly underrated performances. The New York segment is hilarious because of the brilliantly hilarious manner in which Muller-Stahl and Espositio play off of each other with the crack timing of a comedy team that has been working together for years. The Paris segment is the most problematic of the bunch–the two performances are stirring enough but the segment starts off going nowhere and stays stuck in that mode for 20 minutes. As someone who normally finds Roberto Benigni to be one of the most annoying people in the world, I must admit that Jarmusch does seem to know how to handle him–he gave Benigni some key international exposure in “Down By Law”–and his unspeakable monologue is by far the funniest thing that I have ever seen him do screen. The Finn-ale, on the other hand, is an indescribably sad and moving moment that provides the film with the emotional heft that it has been otherwise lacking and ends the project on a strange and unsettling note. In my book, these are a lot of pluses and when you throw in a score from the always-welcome Tom Waits, you have a film that is well worth checking out.

Although Jarmusch is one of those filmmakers who prefers not to do audio commentaries, he and Criterion have provided both of these DVDs with enough impressive bonus features to ensure that you won’t notice their absence. “Stranger Than Paradise” kicks off with a second feature film, Jarmusch’ intriguing 1980 feature debut “Permanent Vacation,” and then goes on to include such vintage material as a 1984 German television special featuring interviews with the casts of the two films and behind-the-scenes footage of the shooting of “Stranger Than Paradise” shot by Tom Jarmusch. “Night On Earth” starts off with a commentary track featuring cinematographer Frederick Elmes (a favorite of Jarmusch and a regular contributor to the works of David Lynch and Ang Lee) and sound mixer Drew Kunin. Jarmusch himself turns up twice in the supplements–the first time in a 1992 interview done for Belgian television and the second in a newly produced Q&A in which he answers questions about his work submitted to him from fans. Finally, there is a booklet that includes essays on the film and Jarmusch as well as the lyrics to the Tom Waits songs heard on the soundtrack. These are both impeccable DVDs and I can only hope that Jarmusch allows Criterion to do the same for his other films sometime down the line–a special edition of “Dead Man” would be a thing of beauty indeed.

STRANGER THAN PARADISE: Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring John Lurie, Richard Edson and Eszter Balint. 1984. 89 minutes. Rated R. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95

NIGHT ON EARTH: Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Espositio, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Beatrice Dalle, Issach de Bankole and Roberto Benigni. 1992.. 128 minutes. Rated R. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95.


30 ROCK: SEASON ONE (Universal Home Entertainment. $49.98): Although the initial episodes of this NBC sitcom, loosely based on creator/star Tina Fey’s years as the head writer of “Saturday Night Live,” were a little shaky in terms of quality, the show soon found its footing and as the season went on, it quickly became one of the funniest sitcoms on television today. There are many reasons for this–smart writing and a game and energetic cast being the main ones–but to my eyes (and many others), the high point of the show is Alec Baldwin’s priceless supporting turn as the smoothly crazy network executive in charge of the show–if there was a scene that he appeared in where he didn’t score at least one big laugh, I must have missed it.

THE BLACK DONNELLYS–THE COMPLETE SERIES (Universal Home Entertainment): In the wake of the surprise success of the abomination that was “Crash,” NBC apparently decided that Paul Haggis, who previously worked for them as a writer on “The Facts of Life,” had the golden touch and hired him to create this series about a group of Irish-American brothers growing up in the seedy streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Proving that the success of “Crash” had less to do with Haggis and more to do with America’s desire to see Sandra Bullock take a header down a flight of stairs, the show was an instant stiff in the ratings and was pulled after seven episodes (with the rest eventually appearing on-line). For those Haggis fanatics who couldn’t get enough of it, this three-disc sets contains the entire series for you to rewatch in order to fill the time before the release of his next cinematic opus, “In the Valley of Elah,” in a couple of weeks.

BOSOM BUDDIES–THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $31.99): Although the original thrust of this sadly short-lived sitcom involved a couple of guys (Peter Scolari and some unknown by the name of Tom Hanks) who were forced to dress up in drag in order to live at an affordable-but-all-female hotel, you could pretty much tell by the end of the first season that this particular joke had run its course. Therefore, the creators kicked off this second season with an episode that essentially 86'd the gimmick for good and transformed the show into a hip workplace comedy with some of the funniest writing to be had in a sitcom in those days. (“Isn’t this guy sensitive? He makes Alan Alda look like Vlad the Impaler.”)Sadly, it didn’t help and the show was cancelled, though Hanks’ eventual superstardom would allow it to eventually resurface in syndication to be rediscovered by new legions of fans.

BUY THE TICKET, TAKE THE RIDE (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.98):This 2006 documentary takes a look at the life and work of the late writer Hunter S. Thompson using archival footage of the notorious wild man at work and play and interviews with friends and colleagues, including Johnny Depp, Harry Dean Stanton, Ralph Steadman, Art Linson, Jann Wenner and George McGovern.

DELTA FARCE (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $28.98): In this bald-faced rip-off of “Three Amigos”–not exactly the most fertile patch of comedy around–a trio of amiable dopes (D.J. Qualls, Bill Engvall and the thankfully inimitable Larry the Cable Guy) find themselves mistaken for Army Reservists and are shipped off to Iraq. The joke, however, is that they actually wind up in Mexico and don’t realize it until they inadvertently save a village from evil warlord Danny Trejo. (Hey, it is more than Ted Nugent ever did.) Like much of America, I didn’t see this one during its brief theatrical run earlier this summer but I will confess that when the trailer would play, there was one line involving a Mexican standoff that struck me as amusing.

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES–THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $59.99): After becoming one of the most-talked about shows in recent television history during its debut 2004-2005 season, most fans of this popular satirical soap opera felt let down by what was considered to be a generally lackluster follow-up year filled with half-baked subplots (remember Alfre Woodard and her weirdo family?) that went nowhere. By most accounts, the show got back on track in the 23 Season 3 episodes collected here by returning to the balance of comedy, mystery and drama that attracted fans in the first place. Of course, if you have never watched the show before or have never quite gotten into it (I confess that I fall into the latter category), this is probably not the best place to start but fans will want to pick it up to refresh their memories in time for the debut of the upcoming fourth season and delve into the extras, such as unaired storylines, deleted scenes, bloopers and a collection of the favorite moments of show creator Marc Cherry.

D.O.A.: DEAD OR ALIVE (The Weinstein Company. $24.95): In this long-on-the-shelf screen adaptation of the video-game franchise, a quartet of hotties (Jaime Pressley, Devon Aoki, Sarah Carter and Holly Valance) travel to a mysterious land to take part in a martial-arts contest run by the diabolical Eric Roberts as part of a crackpot scheme to rule the world or some such nonsense. This distaff retread of “Enter the Dragon” is as idiotic as it sounds but it is at least cheerfully idiotic (as opposed to boring idiotic) and those who only want to see a featherbrained action film involving a group of lightly-clad ladies beating people up will probably find it an adequate way to kill an evening as well as several dozen brain cells.

FRANCOIS OZON: A CURTAIN RAISER AND OTHER SHORTS (Kino Video. $29.95): This disc collects seven short films made by the always-provocative French filmmaker (best known in the states for the bizarre musical “8 Women” and the sexy mind-bender “Swimming Pool”) between 1993 and 2006. Included in the package are 1993' “Victor” (in which a young man keeps his parents around the house even after they have passed away), 1994's “Truth or Dare (in which a group of teens indulge in a round of the titular game that unsurprisingly goes bad) and 1998's “X 2000" (which follows three couples waking up in the aftermath of a millennium party.

GEORGIA RULE (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Better known for the bad off-set behavior from star Lindsay Lohan (which inspired a very public dressing-down from the film’s producer in the form of a letter recounting her unprofessional attitude that was immediately leaked to the media), this bizarre comedy-drama features LiLo as a troubled young woman whose alcoholic mother (Felicity Huffman) ships her off to spend the summer with her strict-but-estranged grandmother (Jane Fonda). Sadly, no robot hand is on display here–for that, you will have to wait for the DVD of “I Know Who Killed Me,” which, based on the box-office success of that one, should be out in another week or so.

HETTY WAINTHROPP INVESTIGATES: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Acorn Media. $149.99): In their quest to bring seemingly every BBC mystery show out on DVD in the States, Acorn Media offers up this complete 27-episode set of the popular series (seen here on PBS’ “Mystery”) about a sixtyish housewife (Patricia Routledge) who decides to use her powers of common sense and deduction to take up crime solving with the aide of her husband (Derek Benfield) and a teenaged apprentice (Dominic Monaghan in his pre-“Lost”/”Lord of the Rings” days). If that isn’t enough mystery-solving for you, this set also includes “Missing Persons,” a feature-length television movie that served as the pilot for the series.

INSPECTOR MOM (Fireside Entertainment. $19.99): Of course, if you prefer your television crime solvers to be younger and American, perhaps you might prefer this TV movie in which Danica McKellar (formerly Winnie from “The Wonder Years” and now some kind of math guru) stars as a soccer mom who begins sleuthing when her daughter’s coach turns up dead and her husband is accused of murder.

NIP/TUCK–THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (Warner Home Video. $59.98): Organ harvesting, Scientology and appearances from guest stars as varied as Larry Hagman, Rosie O’Donnell, Brooke Shields, Peter Dinklage, Jacqueline Bisset and Alanis Morrisette–all this and much more can be found in the fifteen Season Four episodes of the controversial FX series about the complicated lives and loves of a pair of plastic surgeons (Julian McMahon and Dylan Walsh).

THE OFFICE–SEASON THREE (Universal Home Entertainment. $49.98): When this Americanized version of the beloved British television series about the goings-on at a struggling paper company premiered a couple of years ago, most people assumed that it would pale in comparison to Ricky Gervais’ brilliant original. Not only has it managed to live up to the high standards of its predecessor, its third season cemented its position as the funniest live-action comedy currently on television thanks to the often-brilliant writing and the stellar contributions of an ensemble cast headed by Steve Carell, whose Michael Scott is sure to go down as one of the most endearingly clueless characters in the history of the medium. Besides the 24 episodes (including ones directed by the likes of Harold Ramis, Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams), this set includes hours of deleted scenes (which are often as funny as the stuff that made it to air), bloopers, commentaries, the “Lazy Scranton” video (a take-off of you-know-what) and a “cooking show” that explains how to make creme brulee instead of doing the work you are being paid to do.

PRISON BREAK–THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $59.98): Kind of like “24" without the strict story logic, this second season of the hit Fox serial threw viewers one demented narrative curve ball after another and while the results may have been something less than plausible, they were often entertaining in the manner of an exceptionally cheesy guilty pleasure. (That said, I am still grumpy over what they did to the always-delightful Robin Tunney, someone who I would much rather watch every week than some guy named T-Bag.)

ROBOT CHICKEN–SEASON 2 (Warner Home Video. $29.98): Seth Green and his buddies get more use out of the playthings of their childhood in this latest collection of the popular Cartoon Network sketch comedy series in which refurbished action figures are the stars of the various parodies.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.95): Proving that virtually any new series that manages to last more than six episodes will eventually get a DVD release (while the likes of “Batman” and “Strike Force” continue to languish in some vault), the first few episodes of this mid-winter CBS pickup–another sitcom about relationships focusing on a long-married couple (Patrick Warburton and Megyn Price), a brand-new pairing (Oliver Hudson and Bianca Kajilich) and their wacky-but-single best pal (David Spade)–are coming out just before its second season premieres in a few weeks. Not as much bad as it is inessential, it will likely only appeal only to hard-core Puddy fanatics and those who simply want to gawk at the gorgeous Kajilich.

RUSH TO WAR (Echo Bridge. $19.99): Yes, this is another talking head documentary about the war in Iraq, this one focusing on the policies of past presidential administrations that helped contribute to the current situation. That said, you have to give it up to filmmaker Robert Taicher for assembling a more eclectic array of said heads than normal–a disparate group ranging from such expected commentators as George McGovern and Noam Chomsky to the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Harry Knowles.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS (Acorn Media. $24.99): In this latest take on the classic Arthur Conan Doyle character, produced for British television, the beloved sleuth (Jonathan Pryce) is forced to use a group of street urchins that he has befriended (in “A Study in Scarlet”) to help him solve the murders of some policemen (for which he has been accused and placed under house arrest) and prevent a daring robbery of England’s gold reserves. Although this is the kind of film that should be all rights be pretty awful–it isn’t based on a Doyle story and the introduction of cute little kids into a familiar framework is almost always a bad idea (as those of you who remember Cousin Oliver will attest)–it turns out to be pretty good after all (though hard-core Doyle buffs will probably be appalled) because Pryce is so entertaining in the lead and because the kids aren’t too obnoxious.

STEPHANIE DALEY (Liberation Video. $28.99): A favorite on the festival circuit, though barely released outside of it, this tough 2006 drama features Amber Tamblyn as a young girl accused of murdering her newborn baby–she claims that she was somehow unaware that she was pregnant in the first place–and Tilda Swinton as a psychologist (who is pregnant herself and mighty concerned about it) who has been brought in to determine the truth behind the girl’s claims. It is unfortunate that this didn’t get a wider theatrical distribution but at least it managed to get issued on DVD without being retitled “Havoc 3.”

THE UNHOLY (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.98):In this direct-to-video bit of weirdness, Adrienne Barbeau stars as a mother whose investigation into her daughter’s suicide leads her into some kind of conspiracy involving, according to the descriptions I have found, witches, Nazis, mind control, secret government experiments involving the occult and the famous Philadelphia Experiment. I can’t vouch for the quality of this one in any way but I suppose it deserves some points just for the premise alone.

WEREWOLF IN A WOMEN’S PRISON (Phoenix Entertainment. $19.98): Do I really have to say anything more?

WIND CHILL (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): Although this barely-released spook story, in which a couple of college kids who encounter some strange events when they get stuck in a snowbank while driving home for the holidays, isn’t a complete success by any means (mostly because it devolves into a confusing mess i]n the last couple of reels), fans of the genre should try to check it out for the creepy atmosphere created by director Gregory Jacobs and the fine lead performance from the increasingly invaluable Emily Blunt.

THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (IFC Films. $19.95): Internationally acclaimed filmmaker Ken Loach took home the 2006 Palme d’Or for this drama following an idealistic young Irishman (Cillian Murphy) as he abandons his planned career as a doctor to join the freedom fighters in their violent rebellion against their British occupiers. Not one of Loach’s finest films–the subtlety of his previous works is largely missing here–but for those with only a vague knowledge of the early history of the IRA, it should serve as an eye-opener.

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originally posted: 09/07/07 14:14:56
last updated: 09/15/07 04:58:55
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