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DVD Reviews for 10/19: You Ain't Read Nuthin' Yet!

by Peter Sobczynski

Although most self-respecting film fans will no doubt spend this weekend firing up their DVD’s of “From Here to Eternity” and the original “Ocean’s Eleven” in order to pay tribute to the recently departed Deborah Kerr and Joey Bishop (to whom this week’s column is respectfully dedicated), there are plenty of other new releases out there to occupy the time as well, including one of the year’s biggest and most undeserved hits, a couple of the year’s biggest and most undeserved flops and, to kick things off, the long-awaited release of one of the most famous titles in film history.

The mark of a truly great film is the way that it manages to transcend time in such a way that it feels just as fresh and vital to viewers today as it did when it was first released. “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” “2001: A Space Odyssey”–these are films that were made at a specific time in history and yet are so timeless that they could have been made yesterday (although it is doubtful that films as smart as those could have possibly gotten through the contemporary studio system unscathed). 1927's “The Jazz Singer,” however, is not one of those film. Oh sure, it is one of the most famous films ever made but that has little to do with its artistic qualities and more because of its stature as the first motion picture to utilize sound recording. (Even that isn’t true–the first feature to utilize sound was actually “Don Juan,” a John Barrymore title that premiered a year earlier.) At the time, the sight and sound of vaudeville performer Al Jolson plying his trade for all to see and hear on the big screen was an immediate sensation and it made the film an enormous success but anyone trying to watch it today is likely to find it an outdated museum piece that is only remembered today because of an accident of history.

Jolson stars as Jakie Rabinowitz, a man who has been torn since childhood between his dreams and his heritage. Since he was a young child, he has always wanted to become a popular entertainer but his cantor father (Warner Oland) insists that he follow family tradition and become a cantor himself instead of wasting his gifts on coarse and undignified jazz music. Eventually, father and son have it out and Jakie storms off and vows never to return. Before long, he changes his name to Jack Robin and begins his own musical career. Thanks to a friendship with famous stage star Mary Dale (May McAvoy), Jack gets his big break–a booking on Broadway–and uses it as an excuse to try to mend fences with his estranged family. Needless to say, it doesn’t work and Dad kicks him out once again, only to fall gravely ill immediately after. It is suggested that if Jack takes his father’s place and sings at a celebration of the High Holy Days, it might be enough to help the old man pull through. Alas, the celebration is the exact same night as Jack’s big Broadway debut, forcing him once again to choose between fame and family.

Needless to say, “The Jazz Singer” is a product of its time and as a result, it can be pretty hard going for contemporary audiences–the story is rank sentimentalism at its most cloying, Jolson comes off as more abrasive than anything else and let’s not even get into the whole blackface thing. Perhaps realizing that the current commercial appeal for the film would be questionable at best–even film scholars tend to write it off these days as little more than a novelty film–Warner Home Video has given the film a DVD release so lavish and overstuffed with bonus features that the main feature almost comes across as an afterthought. Disc One includes the feature film in a presentation that probably hasn’t looked or sounded this good since its premiere, an informative commentary track on the history of the film and Al Jolson from Ron Hutchinson, an expert on the history of Vitaphone, the sound process utilized for the film, and bandleader Vince Giordano, a collection of short films and trailers featuring Jolson (as a result, I for one now have my appetite thoroughly whetted for a special edition of 1934's “Wonder Bar”), a radio adaptation of the movie and “I Love To Singa,” a hilariously spot-on 1936 animated parody of the film from Tex Avery that actually packs more entertainment value in its six-minute running time than the movie that it goofs on. Disc Two starts off with “The Dawn Of Sound: How Movies Learned To Talk,” a excellent documentary focusing on the details of how sound was gradually introduced into the film industry, and goes on to include a collection of five short films also focusing on the talkie revolution and a couple of brief surviving excerpts from the 1929 feature “Gold Diggers of Broadway.” (I understand that some copies of the set have inadvertently replaced one of these sequences with an equally rare ballet excerpt from the otherwise lost Laurel & Hardy musical “The Rogue Song.”)

All of the aforementioned features are impressive enough but they pale before the treasures found on Disc Three. Here, you will find twenty-odd short subjects, totaling nearly four hours in length, produced by Vitaphone between 1926 and 1936 and featuring many of the top vaudeville acts of the era. Considering that most of these shorts were thought to have been lost as recently as a few years ago, the mere fact that they still exist is enough to give film fanatics cause for celebration. What makes them even more valuable from a historical perspective is that these shorts offer us some of the only visual records that we now have of this bygone era–ironically, the art form that helped bring an end to vaudeville would wind up being the very thing that would help preserve its memories for future generations. Although most of the acts on display will be unknown to those of you who aren’t experts in the history of vaudeville, a couple of familiar faces to crop up in a few of the shorts. (Those of you watching “Baby Rose Marie, The Child Wonder” may be surprised to discover that the young girl at its center would grow up to be the acerbic second-banana from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” while “Lambchops” offers us a glimpse of George Burns & Gracie Allen at the height of their popularity.) Both as a historical document and as entertainment, this final disc is absolutely invaluable and it transforms an otherwise above-average package of a below-average film into a leading contender for the title of the best DVD set of 2007.

Written by Al Cohn. Directed by Alan Crosland. Starring Al Jolson, May McAvoy and Warner Oland. 1927. Unrated. 88 minutes. A Warner Home Video release. $39.95


THE AMITYVILLE COLLECTION (Lionsgate Entertainment. $29.98): Don’t get too excited–this is merely a repackaging of three direct-to-video titles with only the most tenuous connection to that most infamous piece of New York real estate. “Amityville 1992: It’s About Time” (1992) revolves around a haunted clock that is acquired by an unsuspecting family, “Amityville: A New Generation” (1993) revolves around a haunted mirror that is acquired by an unsuspecting family and “Amityville: Dollhouse” (1996) offers up the deathless tale of a haunted dollhouse–a replica of you-know-where–that is acquired by an unsuspecting family.

BELIEVERS (Warner Home Video. $24.98): Daniel Myrick, one of the guys who stood the independent film world on its head with a little thing called “The Blair Witch Project,” returns to filmmaking with this direct-to-video effort about a couple of paramedics who go out to a remote area in response to a distress call and wind up being abducted by a doomsday cult set on bringing about the end of the world.

CARLOS SAURA FLAMENCO TRILOGY (The Criterion Collection. $44.95): The latest release from Criterion’s Eclipse line, one dedicated to lesser-known films from well-known directors, focuses on the flamenco-flavored works of the acclaimed Spanish filmmaker. “Blood Wedding” (1981) gives us a backstage glimpse at the life of a dance troupe that culminates with a rehearsal of “Bodas De Sangre.” 1983's “Carmen,” perhaps his best-known work, is a blend of on-and–offstage drama in which the story of Bizet’s immortal opera begins to seep into the lives of the dancers performing it. “El Amor Brujo” (1986) is perhaps the most traditional film of the set–a straightforward adaptation of the Manuel de Falla ballet shot entirely on a soundstage.

CASSHERN (Paramount Home Video. $26.99): Based on a popular Japanese anime from the 1970's, this 2004 animated epic from Kazuaki Kiriya offers us a glimpse of a late-21st-century Earth while telling the story of the discovery of a genetic secret that an evil corporation uses to create a race of homicidal mutants and the lone warrior that stands between them and the complete destruction of all mankind.

CLASS ACT (Arts Alliance America. $24.98): Morgan Spurlock, the man who gave us the muckraking expose “Super Size Me,” presents this documentary from Sara Sackner that uses the story of drama teacher Jay W. Jensen in order to illustrate the impact of the loss of arts education in the current American school curriculum.

CRAZY LOVE (Magnolia Home Video. $26.98): In what is essentially a big-screen version of an article from the late, great magazine “Spy,” this document chronicles the bizarre relationship of Burt Pugach and Linda Riss–a story of boy-meets-girl, boy-falls-in-love-with-girl, girl-gets engaged-to-another-man, guy-hires-thugs-to-throw-acid-in-girl’s-face and boy-and-girl–well, I wouldn’t want to give away what happens next in a tale so twisted that if someone had proposed it as a fictional narrative, it would have been rejected for being too unbelievable for anyone to swallow.

EXPERIMENT IN TORTURE (Lionsgate Entertainment. $26.98): Sure to be instantly added Nikki Finke’s Netflix list, this direct-to-video item offers us the charming tale of a wealthy artist who hires a bunch of strippers to come to his secluded mountain hideaway so that he can drug them, tie them up and torture them with an array of nasty implements. You don’t think that this was inspired by “Hostel” or “Saw” in any way, do you?

GRINDHOUSE: PLANET TERROR (The Weinstein Company. $29.95): Although clearly the lesser of the two films that played together earlier this year as “Grindhouse,” Robert Rodriguez’s zombie epic was an agreeably amusing bit of goofy, gory fun and the sight of sexbomb Rose McGowan saving the day with her machine-gun leg is definitely one for the ages. Although fans will have to wait a while longer to replicate the full “Grindhouse” theatrical experience in their homes, this two-disc set does at least include Rodriguez’s hilarious fake trailer for “Machete” among the other bells and whistles.

THE HOAX (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.99): In one of the loosest and funniest performances of his entire career, Richard Gere stars in the true-life story of Clifford Irving, an ambitious writer who perpetrated one of the all-time great literary hoaxes when he wrote a book that he claimed was the authorized biography of notorious recluse Howard Hughes and which turned out to be a complete fraud. For further edification, try watching this film back-to-back with Orson Welles’ stunning “F For Fake,” his mind-bending semi-documentary that used the Irving case as a launching point for an extended meditation on the thin line between art and truth.

THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE (Paramount Home Video. $12.99): In this holiday perennial from 1972 (a favorite of Mary Katherine Gallagher, if I recall correctly), Jason Robards plays a curmudgeonly old man who is still so embittered about the loss of his wife, who passed away given birth to their daughter, Addie (Lisa Lucas), that he refuses to allow a Christmas tree into his home. Of course, Addie wins a tree in a school contest and tries, with the help of her grandmother (Mildred Natwick), to get Dad to reconsider and embrace the holiday season.

ICE SPIDERS (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): Come on. . . with a title like “Ice Spiders,” do you really need to know anything else about it? Okay, how about that it tells the shocking story of a group of giant spiders who escape from a military lab (where scientists are attempting to harvest their super-strong silk in order to create body armor for soldiers) and begin feasting upon dopey vacationers from a nearby ski lodge? If that isn’t enough to sway you one way or another, consider the fact that it was originally produced for the Sci-Fi Channel and was widely considered to be pretty silly and cheesy even by their less-than-stellar standards.

ICONS OF HORROR COLLECTION–SAM KATZMAN (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): This collection offers up four bits of Fifties-era cheese from one of the most prolific purveyors of B-grade entertainment of that time period. “The Creature With the Atom Brain” (1955) gives us a former Nazi scientist who is hired by an exiled gangster to utilize his army of radio-controlled and radioactive zombies to help return the man to the top of his criminal empire. “The Werewolf” (1956) tells the tale of a man who is saved from a car wreck by a pair of scientists who inject him with a serum whose side effects are cleverly hidden in the film’s title. “The Giant Claw” (1957) features Jeff Morrow and Mara Corday mustering their best straight faces to fend off an attack from what appears to be a giant prehistoric turkey suspended from the most hilariously visible wires imaginable. Finally, “Zombies From Mora Tau” (1957) offers up a group of zombie sailors who went down with their ship 60 years earlier and who will go to murderous lengths to protect the wreck from treasure hunters seeking a collection of diamonds that went down with the ship.

THE INVISIBLE (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): In this flop teen-oriented supernatural thriller, the spirit of a high-school student (Justin Chatwin) who has been beaten and left for dead returns in order to convince one of the people responsible–the cute girl, naturally–to come clean about what happened so that he can rest in peace.

MEDIUM–THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $54.99): Everybody’s favorite psychic MILF, Patricia Arquette, returns for another season of helping the cops solve seemingly baffling crimes (occasionally before they even occur) with the aid of her extra-sensory powers. In the episodes collected here, she deals with a pesky poltergeist (played by Thomas Jane, her real-life husband), becomes possessed by the spirit of another woman, befriends Neve Campbell only to discover that she is the next target of a serial killer and, most frighteningly of all, appears in an episode directed by brother David.

A MIGHTY HEART (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): Continuing one of the most eclectic filmmaking careers in recent memory, British director Michael Winterbottom switches gears again with this gripping docudrama about the search in Pakistan for missing American journalist Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) as seen mostly through the eyes of his devoted and pregnant wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie). Although the grim outcome of the story will presumably be known to virtually anyone who sits down to watch this film, it remains an uncommonly tense and involving work thanks to Winterbottom’s consummate filmmaking skill and the searing central performance from Jolie, one of the very best that she has ever given.

MY BEST FRIEND (IFC Films. $24.95): French filmmaker Patrice Leconte (whose greatest work, the masterful romantic fantasy “The Girl On the Bridge,” has yet to appear on DVD) returns with this sly comedy about a slick and unlikeable businessman (Daniel Auteuil) who insists, contrary to appearances, that he has plenty of close personal friends–when he is forced to produce one as part of a bet, he enlists the aid of a garrulous cab driver (Dany Boon) to take on the role.

NORMAL ADOLESCENT BEHAVIOR: HAVOC 2 (New Line Home Entertainment. $19.98): Pay attention to the following description–there will be a quiz. Once upon a time, writer-director Beth Schacter wrote and directed a film entitled “Normal Adolescent Behavior,” a drama about a group of close-knit high-school pals who have chosen to avoid the pitfalls of random hookups and romantic heartbreak by sleeping exclusively with each other–trouble naturally ensues when one member of the group (Amber Tamblyn) falls for an outsider. When it played on the festival circuit, it garnered good notices and was picked up by New Line Cinema, the guys who gave you such gems as “Snakes on a Plane” and “Mr Woodcock.” When they couldn’t figure out a way to market the film, they decided to send it straight-to-video and changed the title so that it would appear to be a sequel to “Havoc,” another sexually-charged indie drama about teens (probably best known as the film that Anne Hathaway repeatedly took her shirt off in) that they picked up and subsequently sent to the straight-to-video market.

THE REAPING (Warner Home Video. $29.98): After winning her first Oscar for “Boys Don’t Cry,” Hilary Swank subsequently squandered much of the goodwill she had accumulated by appearing in such complete dogs as “The Affair of the Necklace” and “The Core” before making a comeback with “Million Dollar Baby,” which earned her a second Oscar. It doesn’t appear as if she learned much of anything because she decided to follow up that victory with this craptastic religious-themed horror flop about an agnostic debunker of so-called miracles who travels to a town that appears to be in the throes of a repeat of the plagues of Egypt.

RETURN TO THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (Warner Home Video. $27.98): In this direct-to-video sequel to the pointless 1999 remake of the cheerfully cheesy 1958 William Castle gimmick movie, another group of idiots (including Amanda Righetti, Cerina Vincent and Erik Palladino) find themselves trapped inside the titular abode and discover that it has no plans to let any of them leave alive. If you are compelled to actually watch this film, I understand you should definitely stick around through the end credits for a little surprise.

STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP–THE COMPLETE SERIES (Universal Home Entertainment. $59.98): When this series premiered a year ago, it was easily the most heavily hyped show of the 2006-2007 season and with good reason–with an undeniably appealing premise (a behind-the-scenes look at the production of a late-night sketch comedy show not unlike “Saturday Night Live,” an attractive and high-powered cast (led by Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet and Matthew Perry, the latter marking his return to television after his long stint on “Friends”) and the presence of creator Aaron Sorkin, the guy whose last TV series was a little thing called “The West Wing,” how could it possibly fail? Well, it did fail, spectacularly, in fact, and the reasons why it failed were glaringly obvious to most anyone who actually watched it–it was smug, self-righteous, condescending and spent more time trying to convince viewers how intellectually superior it was to everything else on television without ever supplying any tangible proof of such an assertion. Oh yeah, the glimpses of the sketch comedy bits that we were privileged to see–the cutting-edge humor that the brave people in the show were fighting tooth and nail to put on every week–were the kind of unspeakably dull, dated and unfunny schtick that would have landed in the reject pile on “MAD TV,” let alone “SNL.”

TRANSFORMERS (Dreamworks Home Video. $36.99): Arguably the dumbest film of the summer of 2007 (despite still competition for the title) and certainly the noisiest of the bunch, Michael Bay’s loud, shambolic and aggressively stupid big-screen adaptation of the Hasbro toy franchise–a film that tantalized audiences with the promise of enormous robots pounding the wiring out of each other and then forced them to sit through over 90 minutes of nonsense involving impossibly twerpy high-schooler Shia LaBeouf, impossibly hot classmate Megan Fox, impossibly blustery Secretary of Defense Jon Voight and impossibly over-the-top Fed John Turturro before getting to the carnage–arrives on DVD in a package just as overstated as the film itself. For those of you who came away from the film inexplicably wanting more, this 2-disc set offers up a commentary from Bay and a number of documentary featurettes covering virtually every aspect of the production, including an interview with executive producer Steven Spielberg and a couple of astonishing bits in which representatives of the Department of Defense (who apparently had nothing better to do with their time a few months ago) proudly discuss the ways in which they consulted the filmmakers in order to make things more “realistic” and show off the various bits of military hardware that they loaned to the production.

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originally posted: 10/19/07 13:11:04
last updated: 10/19/07 14:26:45
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