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DVD Reviews for 1/18: Here's Looking At You, Id.

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic celebrates the long-awaited release of Alan Rudolph's "Investigating Sex," even if the people putting it out don't seem to feel the same way.

For fans of Alan Rudolph, the terminally underappreciated writer-director of such quirky and little-seen movies as “The Moderns,” “Made in Heaven” and “Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle,” the last few years have been especially lean times indeed. The one-time Robert Altman protégée has been making films since 1977's “Welcome to L.A.” (well, even earlier if you count the two low-budget horror films that he did a few years earlier, “Premonition” and “Barn of the Naked Dead”) and while his career (or “careen,” as he has described it) has had the occasional small-scale commercial success (such as 1984's “Choose Me,” 1986's “Trouble in Mind,” 1990's “Mortal Thoughts” and 1997's “Afterglow,” for which Julie Christie received a much-deserved Oscar nomination), he has never had the kind of big box-office breakthrough that would make financing and distributing his films any easier. In recent years, such films as the screwball mystery “Trixie,” the ambitious Vonnegut adaptation “Breakfast of Champions” and the marital drama “The Secret Lives of Dentists” have seen only meager distribution and wildly mixed reviews and over a third of his filmography have yet to appear on DVD in this country. As a final insult, his 2001 film “Investigating Sex” was denied a theatrical release altogether in this country, the result of some murky skirmish involving its financiers, and has only now been dribbled out on home video with the blandly anonymous new title “Intimate Affairs,” with absolutely no publicity and a cover design that looks like a Photoshop rush job done by someone with an obsession with Neve Campbell’s cleavage. In other words, it all but screams “Put Me Down!,” a real shame because the film itself is a delightfully oddball gem that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience than it is likely to attract with this half-assed release.

Loosely based on Jose Pierre’s “Recherches sur la sexualite archives de surrealisme,” a collection of discussion held by members of the Surrealism movement in Paris on the subject of human sexuality between 1928-1932, “Investigating Sex” transplants the action to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1929, just before the stock market crash, and stars Dermot Mulroney as Edgar, a scholar with dispassionate attitudes towards life and love and an obsession with the notion of a succubus, a demon that assumes the form of a beautiful woman to seduce men in their dreams in order to steal their semen and impregnate women. As a way of coming to grips with these notions, he hits upon the idea of doing a clinical study of male sexuality in which he will gather a few of his friends from the American avant-garde movement (including Jeremy Davies, Alan Cumming, Til Schweiger, John Light and a pre–“Hustle & Flow” Terrence Howard) to truthfully and objectively discuss their views on the subject–all of this is being funded by rich benefactor Faldo (Nick Nolte), a cheerfully gauche guy who thinks that a book on the subject could actually be a best-seller. To jot down the discussions, Edgar hires a pair of young women, the virginal Alice (Neve Campbell) and the earthy Zoe (Robin Tunney), to serve as stenographers but their presence inevitably throws things out of whack and as the weeks go by, the work becomes more and more intimate in nature until a final session in which the men, their wives and the stenographer gather together for a confab in which many of the participants progress from talking about sex to putting their theories into practice.

Anyone picking up “Investigating Sex” hoping for something along the lines of one of those silly sleazefests that play on Skinemax in the wee hours of the morning is going to come away from the film mighty disappointed–although there are numerous erotic visuals on display, the film is more interested in talking about sex than discussing it. This may sound like a unconscionable drag to many of you but in the hands of Rudolph, whose best films have been about the eternal battle of the sexes, it turns out to be strangely provocative in its own unique way. The conversations are funny, freaky (especially Nolte’s confession about his first sexual experience), studded with the kind of delightfully idiosyncratic dialogue that Rudolph specializes in. (My two favorites here are “I’ve never fallen in love. I’ve had to settle for making it.” and “Sex is in the groin of the beholder.”) and expertly played out by the game and willing cast–I especially enjoyed the performances from Nick Nolte, whose character could easily write several books of his own if he weren’t so busy supplying himself with new material, and the perennially underrated Robin Tunney, who is a real head-turner as the free and flighty young woman who unexpectedly finds herself falling in love for the first time.

The other thing that I admired about the film is the fact that it treats the subject of human sexuality in a way that is rarely seen in American films these days. Most current movies either ignore the subject altogether or timidly tiptoe around it but this one actually deals with it and does so in a refreshingly straightforward and insightful manner that is quite striking to behold. In a way, that makes the retitling and the tacky packaging even more enraging–they only promise tawdry and fleeting thrills instead of the visual and aural poetry contained in the film within. Look, I now how bad the film looks with these “improvements” but trust me, once you get past those accouterments and get into the film proper, I promise you that it will be worth your while.

Written by Alan Rudolph & Michael Henry Wilson. Directed by Alan Rudolph. Starring Neve Campbell, Robin Tunney, Dermot Mulroney, Alan Cumming, Jeremy Davies, Terrence Howard, Tuesday Weld and Nick Nolte. 2001. 102 minutes. Rated R. A Screen Media Films release. $24.95.


ALREADY DEAD (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): In yet another riff on the revenge classic “Death Wish,” the young son of ordinary dope Ron Eldard is killed during a burglary and when those pesky cops won’t arrest anyone, his therapist (Christopher Plummer) puts him in touch with a clandestine group of vigilantes that will allow him to get the revenge/justice that he deserves. Oh well, I guess it can’t be any worse than “The Brave One,” can it?

DRAGONLANCE–DRAGONS OF THE AUTUMN TWILIGHT (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): Based on the title and the fact that it bills itself as “A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Tale,” I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that this direct-to-video animated films features more than its fair share of dragons during its 90-minute running time. If you are one of those people who require name performers in your dragon-based entertainment, this film features the voices of Keifer Sutherland, Lucy Lawless and Michelle Trachtenberg as some of the valiant heroes out to save the world of Krynn from the evil goddess Takhisis and her loyal posse of flame-throwing creatures.

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS/IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95 each): No doubt anticipating a renewed interest in films involving unspeakable animals wreaking unimaginable havoc on major American cities thanks to the release of “Cloverfield,” Sony has thoughtfully re-released these two 50s-era semi-classics that are most notable for the still-impressive special-effects work from the legendary Ray Harryhausen.

FAMILY GUY–BLUE HARVEST (Fox Home Entertainment. $22.95): Always on the cutting edge, the notoriously raunchy animated show spoofs “Star Wars” in an extended-length episode that is now being released on DVD in the hopes that there are enough hard-core fans of the saga and/or the show who will immediately pick it up before realizing that if they just wait a couple of months, it will most likely be on “Family Guy: Volume 6.” And since “Family Guy” wouldn’t be “Family Guy” without extremely random pop-culture gags (which is where the “Star Wars” references usually come in on the show), this episode also squeezes in references to “The Breakfast Club” (featuring a Judd Nelson cameo), “Vacation” (ditto Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo), “Dirty Dancing” and “Gia.”

GOOD LUCK CHUCK (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.95): I’m not saying that Jessica Alba is some kind of brilliant actress but good Lord, even she deserves better than this smutty, stupid and deeply unfunny “comedy” in which she plays the clumsy romantic foil to a jerk (Dane Cook) who has supposedly been cursed with the power that any woman who sleeps with him will automatically marry the next guy she dates. Unless you are one of those sad individuals who cracks out the DVDs of “Employee of the Month” and “Waiting” every week or so, there is no reason for you to even consider looking this one up and if you are one of those people, my condolences for whatever horrors have befallen you in your past to get you to such a point that you require those films as some kind of solace.

HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS: 20th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Retromedia): What can I say–I’m a sucker for a classic.

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT: 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.98): Twice as old as “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers” and at least as good in the quality department.

JOHNNY SUEDE (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.98): In one of his first starring roles, Brad Pitt plays a wannabe rock star whose ego is as big as his pompadour and whose dreams of musical stardom are derailed by a mysterious femme fatale who loves him and leaves him. This debut effort from indie filmmaker Tom DiCillo is amusing enough but if you want an idea of his true feeling towards the film and its soon-to-be-famous lead actor, check out “Living in Oblivion,” his fairly hilarious 1995 roman a clef chronicling one long and weird day in the production of a no-budget epic in which one of the many obstacles is a preening star.

LOVE LIES BLEEDING (Sony Home Entertainment.. $24.95): In what appears to be an exceptionally blatant direct-to-video knock-off of the great “True Romance,” a couple of good-looking kids (Brian Geraghty and “Tamera” cutie Jenna Dewan) stumble upon a bag of money from a drug deal gone bad and use it to get married and hit the road for a new life, not realizing that a crazed and corrupt DEA agent is on their tail and will do anything to get the loot back for himself. Ironically, or maybe not, the bad guy is played by none other than Christian Slater, the star of the aforementioned “True Romance,” a movie that I am going to guess that you would be better off watching than this one.

MELISSA (Acorn Media. $29.99): This 1974 British television miniseries from acclaimed writer Francis Durbridge tells the story of an unemployed reporter with anger management issues who finds himself the center of a murder investigation when his ex-wife is found strangled, he turns up at the site where a second corpse is discovered and a third woman survives another assault and identifies him as her attacker.

MR. WOODCOCK (New Line Home Entertainment. $28.98): I don’t know what is more astonishing about this witless comedy about a self-help author (Seann William Scott) who comes back to his hometown and discovers that his greatest nemesis, his old high school gym coach (Billy Bob Thornton, once again milking his “Bad Santa” schtick for all that he can), is planning on marrying his mom–the fact that Mom is played by Susan Sarandon or the fact that the guy who directed it, Craig Gillespie, went on to make the wonderful (if tragically underseen) “Lars and the Real Girl.”

THE NAKED PREY (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): In a groundbreaking (and surprisingly violent) 1966 film that clearly served as an inspiration for Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” Cornell Wilde (who also directs) stars as a 19th-century safari leader whose party of ivory hunters is attacked and killed by African tribesman–because the tribesman recognize Wilde’s respect for their culture, they allow him to be set free (sans clothes or weapons) to get a head start before they begin chasing after him. Long unavailable on video, Criterion has decorated it with such trinkets as a commentary from scholar Stephen Prince and a reading by Paul Giamatti of “John Colter’s Escape,” a 1913 account of a trapper’s escape from Blackfoot Indians that served as inspiration for the film.

OSWALD’S GHOST (PBS Home Video. $24.99): Although conspiracy buffs may frown on this documentary from Robert Stone because of the way that it finally asserts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in regards to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, most others should find it to be an intriguing look at the mystery and, more importantly, the fascination that the case has for generations of Americans over the next 45 years. Among the talking heads discussing the case are Tom Hayden, Dan Rather, Gary Hart, conspiracy theorist Mark Lane and Norman Mailer in his last on-screen appearance.

POST-WAR KUROSAWA BOX (The Criterion Collection. $69.95): The latest collection from Criterion’s Eclipse line (a division dedicated to the lesser-known works of well-known filmmakers) gives us five films made by legendary director Akira Kurosawa in the immediate wake of World War II and while there may not be a “Seven Samurai” in the bunch, his fans and acolytes should find them to be fascinating. The titles include 1946's “No Regrets For Our Youth,” 1947's “One Wonderful Sunday,” 1950's “Scandal,” his 1951 adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” and 1955's atomic nightmare “I Live in Fear.”

RISING DAMP: THE MOVIE (Acorn Media. $19.99): Proving that transforming TV sitcoms into major motion pictures is neither a recent phenomenon nor something unique to us uncultured rubes in America, this 1980 film version of the popular mid-1970's British sitcom stars Leonard Rossiter, whom you may recognize from his appearances in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Barry Lyndon,” as a horny landlord–think Mr. Furley with an accent–who does battle with a con man (Denholm Elliot) for the hand of the tenant that he is not-so-secretly in love with. It is pretty dated (including a “Saturday Night Fever” gag) and not especially funny but I suppose that those with a working knowledge of the original series may find it amusing.

SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH–THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $38.99): Why is it that I always feel like I need to convince people that I am serious when a new set of episodes from this long-running TV adaptation of the popular cartoon character is released–the show was often funnier than most of the other programs that appeared during its 1996-2003 run, star Melissa Joan Hart was charming and showed nice comic timing and semi-loyal feline sidekick Salem (voiced by Nick Bakay) was the closest thing to a reincarnation of Paul Lynde that we are liable to get from a fur-bearing quadraped. I guess what I am saying is that I am not ashamed to like this show, I would cheerfully take it over anything ever written by the likes of Aaron Sorkin and if anyone has a smart-ass crack to make about these admissions, I will fight you.

SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98): Although Spike Lee doesn’t speak too fondly these days of his 1986 directorial debut, this comedy about an independent woman (Tracy Camilla Johns) who is juggling simultaneous relationships with three different men still has a certain charm to it. Even though it now seems like the odd film out in Lee’s career because of its lack of grand social statements (it seems hard to believe that when it came out 22 years ago, Lee was being hyped as the next Woody Allen), it still works today both as a low-key comedy and as a key early artifact of the burgeoning American independent film movement of the 1980's.

SUBURBAN GIRL (Image Entertainment. $27.98): In this loose adaptation of a couple of short stories from Melissa Banks’ “The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” Sarah Michelle Gellar stars as a Manhattan book editor who unexpectedly finds herself in a romantic relationship with aging billionaire Alec Baldwin. This film never made it into theaters so your guess is as good as mine. Personally, I like Gellar and Baldwin a lot but that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to see them together in any sense of the word–then again, I guess I would rather see Gellar in something like this than wasting her time and talent on yet another lame PG-13 horror film.

THE TEN (City Lights. $26.98): In this sketch comedy film from the creators of “The State” and “Wet Hot American Summer,” narrator Paul Rudd offers up a selection of ten skits that each comically illustrate one of the Ten Commandments. As is the norm for films of this type, the sketches as a whole are a fairly uneven lot but for those willing to sit through the weaker material (or hit the fast-forward button) will find some big laughs from the likes of Rudd (who is fast becoming one of the most reliable comic performers around, Gretchen Mol (whose Mexican vacation takes an unexpected turn when she meets and falls in love with. . .well, to reveal his name would blow the joke), Winona Ryder (who inevitably appears in the segment based on “Thou Shalt Not Steal”) and, believe it or not, Jessica Alba (who not only shows some genuine comedic chops but actually scores the biggest laugh with her eager-beaver request for a pony).

WEDDING DAZE (MGM Home Entertainment. $26.98): After inadvertently killing his beloved during a marriage proposal gone horribly wrong, Jason Biggs emerges from a year of depression and impulsively proposes to the first woman that he encounters and is stunned when she accepts–lucky for him, said woman is played by the always-delightful Isla Fisher. Made quite a while ago, this directorial debut from Michael Ian Black is hitting DVD just in time to coincide with the theatrical release of “Over Her Dead Body,” another comedy with Jason Biggs involving a would-be bride killed before her time and a would-be groom unable to move on–nice to see that the former pie pervert has found a new niche to slip into.

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originally posted: 01/18/08 13:47:40
last updated: 01/26/08 06:49:18
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