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DVD Reviews for 2/8: That Is One Nutty DVD Column!"

by Peter Sobczynski

From Jean-Luc Godard to Denise Richards to "Christian Slater as Moses," this week's column includes all of the meats of the current DVD stew.

Between 1960 and 1967, French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard made no less than 15 full-length features (not to mention a nearly like number of short subjects and contributions to some of the multi-director omnibus projects that were popular in Europe at the time) that single-handedly changed the preconceptions of what could be done within the context of a film in a way that hadn’t been seen since Orson Welles dropped “Citizen Kane” onto the world. With his passion for fusing together homages to Hollywood’s storied past with new ideas of how to tell stories (utilizing stylized sex and violence, dark humor, politics and philosophy), he cranked out a stunning series of films, including such masterpieces as “Breathless,” “My Life to Live,” “Band of Outsiders,” “Contempt” and “Pierrot le Fou” that set off passionate arguments among viewers and critics and inspired future filmmakers as varied as Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Hal Hartley and Quentin Tarantino. And yet, despite the acclaim that he received for those works, the increasingly radicalized Godard grew bored and contemptuous with the conventions of cinema and decisively ended the first phase of his career with the bitter and bloody “Weekend,” a work that concluded with a card that stated that it was end of cinema. For the next decade or so, he mostly worked on obscure projects in which his radical politics and willingness to experiment with the new medium of video took precedence over telling stories and while his politics may have grown more socialist in nature, the films in which he espoused these theories became so formally obtuse that only the most elite audiences would even attempt to view them on the rare occasions when they had the chance to do so.

Around 1980, Godard shifted to a new phase in his career–one that has more or less continued to this day–in which he has attempted to meld the narrative gifts that he showed in his early films with the formally challenging techniques that he developed later on. Alas, by this time, the film culture that had once sustained someone like Godard and others who were interested in finding new ways to communicate through film had long since been replaced by one in which what was said was now less important than how much money a film made and his subsequent works are now rarely seen Stateside outside of film festivals or big-city arthouses. More distressing is the fact that the majority of American film critics, the very same people who helped make Godard such a well-known name in the first place, now either dismissed his later efforts out of hand as the pretentious works of a man past his prime and time or ignored them completely unless it came equipped with a ready-made scandal, such as when he questioningly dealt with such seemingly unassailable figures as Jesus (“Hail Mary”) or Steven Spielberg (“In Praise of Love.” However, as anyone with a taste for cinematic work that are off the beaten path can immediately tell from watching the four films that comprise the new collection “Jean-Luc Godard 3-Disc Collector’s Edition,” Godard’s gifts as a filmmaker never abandoned him and at a career point when he could have easily just lived on past glories, he was still willing to challenge and provoke both himself and his audiences with cinematic works that were as formally inventive, narratively daring and visually rapturous as anything he had previously done.

The set kicks off with “Passion,” a 1982 effort that suggests his earlier “Contempt” in the way that it deals with personal and professional relationships on a movie set as a Polish film director (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) goes through the motions of filming a boring TV movie in France while carrying on simultaneous affairs with a pair of local women (Isabelle Huppert and Hanna Schygulla) and listening for news of the crackdown of the Solidarity movement back home. Next up is 1983's “First Name: Carmen,” a crime film loosely inspired by the famous opera in which a gorgeous radical (Maruschka Detmers) seduces a cop (Jacques Bonnaffe) as part of a plan by her terrorist group to rob a bank under the guise of making a movie. (Godard himself appears as Detmers’ uncle, a film director who has committed himself to a mental institution in order to avoid making more movies). Quickly pieced together when production had to be halted on “Hail Mary” and dedicated to John Cassavetes, Edgar G. Ulmer and Clint Eastwood, 1985's “Detective” is an oddball conglomeration of genres featuring several different tales set within the confines of a Parisian hotel and liked together by the hotel detective and his assistant and including early appearances from future stars Emmanuelle Seigner and Julie Delpy. Finally, 1993's “Helais Pour Moi (Oh, Woe is Me)” is a mysterious and decidedly avant-garde take on Greek mythology in which God assumes the form of an ordinary French businessman (Gerard Depardieu) in order to seduce the man’s wife in an effort to understand the real meaning of love.

I must admit that if you have never before seen a Godard film, the four titles collected here are not the ideal place to start delving into his career–you would be better off looking up the excellent Criterion editions of such early masterworks as “Breathless,” “A Woman is a Woman” and “Contempt” and move forward from there. Those who are more familiar with his filmography will find them to be alternately brilliant and baffling works that are as audacious to watch today as they were when they debuted two decades ago. Although all four of the films in this set are worthwhile efforts, my personal pick of the litter is “First Name: Carmen,” a film in which Godard simultaneously acknowledged his past glories (the girl-and-a-gun premise was a staple of many of his early classics) and looked uneasily towards his personal and professional future with a story that was alternately self-consciously ironic (despite being inspired by one of the most famous of all operas, the music is largely supplied by a string quartet rehearsing Beethoven) and nakedly emotional (the sequence in which two lovers come together and drift apart in a hotel room to the swelling strains of Tom Waits’ “Ruby’s Arms” is one of the most beautiful unions of sound and image in Godard’s entire career). The other films are wonderful in their own ways but “First Name: Carmen” is the one that I find myself returning to time and time again.

If there is a flaw to “Jean-Luc Godard 3-Disc Collector’s Edition,” it is the fact that there are too many key titles absent from this set for it to live up to its implicit promise of serving as a summation of this period of Godard’s career–one is left wanting for such essential films as his 1980 comeback “Every Man for Himself”, his bizarre 1987 take on “King Lear” and the lovely and mysterious 1990 effort “Nouvelle Vague”–and the documentary featurette that is the set’s sole extra is hampered by the fact that it tries to sum up this entire era using only the four included films. On the other hand, this is an opportunity to own four important films from one of the world’s greatest filmmakers in transfers that far outclass any other previous domestic home-video issue and that alone is something worth celebrating. For the average moviegoer, this set may not seem to be much but for the confirmed cineaste, I suspect that this will turn out to be one of the key DVD releases of 2008.

A Lionsgate Home Entertainment release. $34.98


2 DAYS IN PARIS (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.98): Acclaimed French actress Julie Delpy made her feature directorial debut with this fairly hilarious comedy about a young couple (Delpy and Adam Goldberg) who find themselves question the nature of their relationship during the final days of an extended European vacation. Because of the premise and the presence of Delpy, some of you may assume that this is simply a variation of the beloved films “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” and while they may have similar set-ups, this is actually more along the lines of Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” in the way that it illustrates with cheerful dark humor the myriad ways in which an entire city can seem to suddenly turn on a person for no good reason.

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.98): If a junior-high school student was given 50 million dollars and the rights to 30-odd Beatles songs and asked him or her to create a multi-media project about The Sixties, it might have wound up resembling this utterly bizarre train wreck of a film from the normally reliable Julie Taymor. Too gauche to work as a real film musical and too flat to serve as camp, this is the kind of film that would make any same Beatlemaniac yearn for the relative coherence and dignity of “Magical Mystery Tour” or Paul McCartney’s solo career.

THE APARTMENT (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98): If you have seen Billy Wilder’s beloved 1960 classic about an ambitious young executive (Jack Lemmon) and the elevator operator that he secretly loves (Shirley MacLaine) even as she carries on an affair with his married boss (Fred MacMurray), you don’t need me to explain why it is considered one of Wilder’s greatest films as well as one of the greatest comedies ever made. If you haven’t seen it by now, stop reading this column right now and get a copy of it as soon as possible. You’ll be glad that you did.

THE ARISTOCATS (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): So this family walks into a talent agent’s office and. . .Just kidding, this is actually the fair-to-middling 1970 Disney animated feature in which a street-smart alley cat (voiced by the late, great Phil Harris) who helps rescue a pampered housecat (Eva Gabor) from a murderous butler after she inherits a fortune from her former owner. Although definitely a lesser Disney effort–it was one of the first films made after the death of Walt Disney–it still has a certain charm, a nice visual style and a jazzy score that will stick in your head for days.

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (Warner Home Video. $27.98): Considering that this epic-length western sat on a shelf at Warners for over a year before receiving one of the most half-assed releases of a major title in recent memory despite the presence of superstar Brad Pitt as the legendary outlaw, you might naturally assume that it was some kind of ungodly disaster. In fact, that assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth as this was one of the very best films of 2007–a gorgeously photographed and dramatically engrossing tone poem featuring great performances from Pitt and Casey Affleck, who just received a much-deserved Oscar nomination for his turn as the coward Robert Ford. Although this is the kind of film that will lose a lot of its impact on a television screen, you should still check this one out because it may well be the finest big-screen western to come along since “Unforgiven.”

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST–THE FINAL SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $50.99): Actually, this collection of the final 12 chapters of this 80's-era show should really be called “Beast–The Final Season” since Beauty Linda Hamilton decided to leave the show. As a result, the chemistry between her and co-star Ron Perlman that made it a cult sensation instantly vanished and the melodramatic plot that was developed to work around it (After giving birth to the Beast’s child, Hamilton’s character was murdered by a drug lord who kidnapped the baby and our grief-stricken hero went on a quest to find his child and get revenge) proved to be so unpopular (not to mention the attempts to spark a new romance with policewoman Jo Anderson) that the show quickly left the air for good. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the public reaction to this season, the set contain no bonus materials to speak of.

BLONDE AND BLONDER (First Look Films. $28.98): If you have spent your life wishing and hoping that someone would one day make a bald-faced knock-off of “Dumb and Dumber” starring a couple of Scott Baio’s former paramours, your time has finally come with the arrival of this barely-released showcase for the talents, comedic and otherwise, of Pamela Anderson and Denise Richards.

THE BRAVE ONE (Warner Home Video. $28.98): After suffering a violent attack in Central Park from a street gang that killed her fiancee and put her in a coma, a formerly mild-mannered NPR reporter (Jodie Foster) picks up a gun and goes on a spree of vigilante justice that makes her the toast of New York and the target of hunky cop Terrence Howard. Despite a potentially provocative premise and the seeming surefire teaming of Foster and director Neil Jordan, this turned out to be one of the worst films of 2007–a hypocritical mess that professes to abhor violent revenge while ensuring that the main character never has to pay any sort of price for her actions. Although this was often compared to the Charles Bronson classic “Death Wish” when it was released, it actually pales in comparison to the likes of “Death Wish 4: The Crackdown.”

COMEDY CENTRAL: THE BEST OF (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): Three hours of stand-up comedy from the Comedy Central archives featuring performers ranging in quality from the heights of Lewis Black and Jim Gaffigan to the depths of Carlos Mencina and Dane Cook.

DESCENT (City Lights. $26.98): In this barely-released revenge drama, Rosario Dawson stars as a college student who, after falling into a spiral of depression and addiction following her brutal rape, hooks up with a friendly neighborhood sociopath (Marcus Patrick) and plans a painful and painfully ironic bit of turnabout for her attacker..

ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): In one of the most bewildering disappointments of 2007, the key people behind the wonderful 1998 historical drama “Elizabeth” (star Cate Blanchett, director Shekhar Kapur and writer Michael Hirst) reunited to tell the further story of the reign of Elizabeth I and wound up making one of the biggest disappointments in recent memory–an unholy mass of names, dates and places that are thrown together without any dramatic resonance that is further done in by limp performances (how Blanchett managed to score a Best Actress nod for her work here is beyond me), a bombastic score and an overabundance of flashy visual tricks that fail to cover up the hollowness of the screenplay.

FEAST OF LOVE (MGM Home Entertainment. $29.99):Best described as “A Lot Of Attractive People Getting Naked While Morgan Freeman Narrates,” this comedy-drama from Robert Benton follows a disparate group of people (including Greg Kinnear, Rhada Mitchell, Alexa Davalos and Selma Blair) as they fall in and out of love and lust with each other. Not a great movie b any means but it has a game cast, some reasonably charming moments and enough on-screen nudity to make it a favorite at the offices of Mr.Skin.

GREAT WORLD OF SOUND (Magnolia Home Video. $26.98): In this low-budget festival favorite, a young man signs on for a job scouting new talent for a music company, a gig that he thinks will lead to a career as a record producer, and discovers that there is a lot more to it than that. From what I understand, the audition sequences were shot without the struggling musicians realizing at the time that it was all part of a film.

IMITATION OF LIFE (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98): Fannie Hurst’s ultra-soapy best-seller about two lifelong friends–a white widow and the black housekeeper with whom she markets a fabulously successful pancake mix–and their strained relationships with their respective daughters (the widow and her child fall for the same man while the housekeeper’s light-skinned daughter is so embarrassed by her mother that she ignore her completely while passing for white) has been brought to the screen twice and this 2-disc set includes both versions. Although the 1934 original with Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers has some interesting moments, it is Douglas Sirk’s hugely popular 1959 version with Lana Turner, Juanita Moore and Sandra Dee that is of most interest today–it does have its campy moments but despite being made during a time of extreme conformity, it said things between the lines about race and sexuality that few films of the era dared to even hint at.

JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB (Sony Home Entertainment. $26.98): Outside of a nice supporting performance from the increasingly valuable Emily Blunt (though the attempts to make her look like a plain Jane are remarkably ineffective), this adaptation of the chick-lit novel about a group of six people who form the titular group and find their lives conforming to the stories they are reading is an absolutely excruciating chick flick that would have appalled Jane Austen herself if she had somehow lived to see it.

THE JEWISH AMERICANS (PBS Home Video. $29.95): Is it possible to make a film that fully sums up the entire experience of Jews in America ranging from their initial arrival in 1654 through today? Maybe not, but this six-hour-long PBS documentary from David Grubin comes pretty close to pulling it off and while I doubt this will be appearing on Mel Gibson’s Netflix list anytime soon, most everyone else should find it a fascinating and highly relevant document about the charged subjects of immigration and assimilation regardless of your religious or ethnic background. The extras include an interview with Grubin, a Rosh Hashanah ceremony and a featurette on Jewish cooking with author Gil Marks.

MIDNIGHT EXPRESS–30th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.95): The film that taught us that all Turkish people were violent and perverted psychopaths who should be hated and feared returns to DVD in a new edition that contains a commentary track from director Alan Parker. A strangely popular film in its day (Oliver Stone even won his first Oscar for penning the screenplay), this tale of a poor innocent American boy who is sadly sent to a hellish Turkish prison just for attempting to smuggle a bunch of heroin in a country with famously strict drug laws has not aged very well–it is so luridly overblown at some points that it makes “Reefer Madness” seem calm and even-handed by comparison. On the bright side, it did inspire one of the funniest “SCTV” skits of all time in “The Midnight Express Special,” which somehow managed to simultaneously parody the film, Wolfman Jack’s “Midnight Special” TV series and, amazingly enough, “The Abbott & Costello Show.”

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 VOL 10..1 (Rhino Home Entertainment. $59.95) Pulled from shelves almost immediately after it was released in 2006 when it was belatedly determined that they didn’t have the rights to put out their take on “Godzilla Vs. Megalon”–a shame, since that episode contained two of their all-time funniest skits (a wonderfully unfair potshot at Orville Reddenbocker and the faux trailer for “Rex Dart: Eskimo Spy”)–this collection of episodes from the cult classic TV show returns to stores with the offending film replaced with their version of the schlock classic “The Giant Gila Monster.” Those of you who were smart enough to pick up the original version before it became obsolete will be relieved to hear that the new addition in the new edition is set to be sold separately as well.

PERFECT STRANGERS–THE COMPLETE FIRST AND SECOND SEASONS (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.98): Okay, so I can’t get “Strike Force” or “Square Pegs” on DVD anytime soon but I can get a hold of two seasons worth of Bronson Pinchot doing his happy dance? Thank you, TV-on-DVD gods, thank you oh so very much!

ROSEMARY & THYME: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Acorn Media. $99.99): In this popular British mystery series, a horticulturist and a former cop with a green thumb team up to form a gardening business but find themselves constantly diverted by a series of bizarre mysteries that they are able to solve using both sets of skills. This 9-disc set includes all 22 of the episodes produced during its three-year run and also includes interviews with co-stars Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris, photo galleries and a trivia quiz.

SLINGS & ARROWS: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Acorn Media. $59.99): A popular favorite in its native Canada and a cult hit when it appeared in the US on the Sundance Channel, this comedy-drama chronicled the goings-on at the New Burbage Theatre Festival as its new artistic director (Paul Gross) steers the actors and crew members through the works of William Shakespeare with surprising results. For theater buffs, this is a must as it is one of the most accurate depictions of the behind-the-scenes struggles of stage folk that I have ever seen and everyone else should check it out for its flawless combination of high comedy, poignant melodrama and fine performances (including appearances from such familiar north-of-the-border faces as Don McKellar, Mark McKinney and Sarah Polley as well as an early appearance from the then-unknown Rachel McAdams. This 7-disc set include all 18 episodes from the show’s three season run and a bonus disc including a behind-the-scenes history of the show and new interviews with the creators and the actors.

SNOW BUDDIES (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.98): In this continuation of the seemingly never-ending “Air Bud” series, a bunch of talking dogs (featuring the voices of Dylan Sprouse, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Belushi among others) make their way up north to Alaska and find themselves involved in a rugged dogsled race. Of course, the fabulous PETA babe would probably be very cross with me if I didn’t mention that the production of this direct-to-video kiddie film engendered much controversy last year for utilizing dogs that were too young to be legally transported–a move that may have led to many of them becoming so sick that they had to be put down.

SOUL FOOD–THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $50.99): The third season of the Showtime spinoff of the popular 1998 movie chronicles the further adventures of the Joseph sisters as they deal with various personal, professional and romantic conflicts. If you ever wondered what a Tyler Perry production might be like if it were competently made, this show is for you.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Genius Products. $19.99): Another go-around for the story of Moses, this time told in the miracle of cheap-looking CGI animation and featuring the vocal talents of Christian Slater as Moses, Alfred Molina as Ramses, Elliot Gould as God and Sir Ben “Bloodrayne” Kingsley as The Narrator. Rated PG “for mild peril.”

TOOTSIE–25th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Sony Home Entertainment $19.98): The part where Dustin Hoffman finally reveals that he is a man dressed as a woman in the middle of a live soap opera broadcast and Bill Murray, watching the spectacle at home, dryly remarks “That is one nutty hospital.”–call me crazy but that moment may well be the single funniest thing that I have ever seen in a film in all my years of moviegoing.

WEIRDSVILLE (Magnolia Home Video. $26.98): In what sounds like a cross between “Dazed and Confused” and “Race With the Devil,” a couple of stoners (Scott Speedman and Wes Bentley) try to dispose of the corpse of a girlfriend (Taryn Manning) in an abandoned drive-in, only to discover that a satanic cult is using the location to perform human sacrifices. The film was directed by Allan Moyle, a filmmaker whose work has ranged from the very good (“Pump Up the Volume”) to the flawed-but intriguing (“Times Square”) to the downright awful (“Empire Records”)–God only knows which one was calling the shots this time around.

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originally posted: 02/08/08 13:42:47
last updated: 02/08/08 16:06:05
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