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DVD Reviews for 2/22: Walker Hard--The Alex Cox Story

by Peter Sobczynski

One of the most underrated films of the 1980's gets a second chance on DVD this week, along with a group of Iraq-themed films that you skipped seeing theatrically last fall, a couple of Oscar contenders, a look at a true American icon and a newly-on-the-market pop tart doing the direct-to-video horror thing.

If you are an emerging director whose initial works have struck a chord with both critics and audiences, there are any number of career paths that you can follow. For example, you can immediately sell out your artistic principles by taking on a number of enormously lucrative for-hire projects that demonstrate none of the qualities that made your early work so memorable in the first place. On the other hand, you can cling to those principles like grim death and refuse all offers sent your way in order to work on your own willfully obscure personal projects. Then again, you can always try to find a way to negotiate a healthy balance between the two by working on films that allow your artistic sensibilities to flower within the framework of commercially viable subject matter. In the case of the cheerfully iconoclastic filmmaker Alex Cox, let us just say that he decided to choose an alternate path for himself. In the wake of the resounding critical and reasonable commercial success of his first two film, the wild cult classic “Repo Man” (1984) and the powerful Sid Vicious biopic “Sid & Nancy” (1986), he found himself anointed Hollywood’s Next Big Thing and was in a position to more or less get any project that he wanted to make off the ground just on the basis of his participation.

Taking full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he spurned an opportunity to direct “The Three Amigos” and somehow convinced Universal, arguably the most conservative of the major movie studios at that time, to give him a few million dollars to go down to a war zone in Central America in order to make “Walker,” a film that would utilize dark humor, savage violence and self-conscious anachronisms in order to simultaneously tell the tale of an especially shameful, if little remembered, chapter of American history and point out the unmistakable parallels between those long-ago events and America’s then-current meddlings in the exact same region a little over a century down the line. Inevitably, once the studio finally got a look at what they had paid for, they drastically scaled back their distribution plans and merely dumped the film in a handful of theaters. At the same time, critics–the kind of people who you would think would have known better–were horrified by the violence, humor and flippant attitude and either wrote the nastiest reviews imaginable or ignored the film entirely. Inevitably, no one showed up at the few theaters that the filmed played in (the mass audience was too busy basking in the goodness that was “Three Men and a Baby” at the time) and Universal quickly yanked from distribution, stuck it on their most out-of-reach shelf and pretended that the entire thing never happened. As for Cox, his reign as the Next Big Thing came to a crashing halt and he would go on to carve out an interesting career as both an independent filmmaker and a film commentator for British television but, with the exception of a brief and ill-fated period when he was slated to co-write and direct an aborted version of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas,” his career as a big-time filmmaker would never recover from his involvement with the project.

“Walker” told the little-remembered story of William Walker, an ambitious American renaissance man who dabbled in medicine, journalism, politics and the law before fully embracing the notion of Manifest Destiny that swept America in the 1850's in a series of moves that would see him become the President of Nicaragua from 1855-1857. After an abortive attempt to invade Mexico and seize Sonora as an independent republic, the film opens as Walker (Ed Harris) is hired by American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle) to go to Nicaragua and bring stability to the region so that his shipping concerns can continue without interruption. With a rag-tag bunch of misfits, miscreants and refugees trying to avoid the yoke of slavery, Walker amazingly manages to pull the task off and installs himself as the president of the country. Alas, his overwhelming ambition and lust for power soon gets the better of him and leads him to abandon all of his core principles (formerly a devout abolitionist, he would eventually bring introduce slavery into the region as a way of gaining support from powerful people in the southern United States) in his desire to expand his horizons. Eventually, he is overthrown and winds up on the wrong end of a Honduran firing squad but, as a end credit montage of America’s misadventures in the same region a century later reveals, the notion of the United States meddling in the affairs of Nicaragua would not die with him.

If that final montage had been the only time in the film that Cox explicitly compared the historical past with the then-present day, it is likely that the film wouldn’t have outraged as many people as it did. However, Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (an all-time cult favorite for his contributions to “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid”) made the bold decision to underscore the parallels all the way through with a number of deliberate anachronisms deployed bring the past and present together–as the film progresses, we see modern cars and bottles of Coca-Cola representing the outstretched tentacles of American capitalism in the region, copies of “Time,” “Newsweek” and “People” that breathlessly report on his activities without questioning the motivations behind them and even a CIA helicopter that arrives during the climactic burning of Granada in order to bring all U.S. citizens home in a sequence that designed to fuse together the fiction of the burning of Atlanta from “Gone With the Wind” with the fact of the fall of Saigon. In theory, this may sound like an exceptionally ham-fisted way of comparing the two eras but in practice, it plays beautifully–instead of rubbing your nose in these anachronisms, Cox deploys them in such a deft manner that you don’t even notice them at first. More importantly, it helps him to more effectively make the point that nothing really changed between the 1850's and the 1980's.

Most of the negative critical response to “Walker” came from people who were unable to wrap their heads around these anachronisms and it is too bad because if they had been able to put these complaints aside, they might have noticed that the film had more to offer viewers than ersatz issues of “Time” magazine. They might have noticed how Cox manages to beautifully balance the tone between surreal humor, exciting action (despite the relatively low budget of the entire enterprise, the various battle scenes are shot with the kind of bloody balletic grace normally associated with the likes of Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone) and a genuine sense of rage, anger and sorrow towards the plight of the Nicaraguan people at the hands of outsiders who refuse to stop meddling in their affairs. They might have noticed the stirring music composed by former Clash member Joe Strummer–an incredible melange of musical styles that was one of the best film scores to emerge in the 1980's. Most of all, they might have noticed the volcanic lead performance by Ed Harris as William Walker–something about this role must have touched something deep within him because it resulted in a forceful and finely detailed portrait of a steely-eyed messianic madman that remains the most powerful performance of his entire career.

As you can probably guess, the stories behind the making of “Walker” are just as fascinating as the one captured in the film and fans will be delighted to know that not only did the people at Criterion manage to convince Universal to give it its long-overdue DVD release, they also managed to cobble together an impressive collection of supplemental materials to tell those stories. For starters, Cox and Wurlitzer have gathered for a insightful and detail-packed commentary track in which they discuss the history of the film and the adventures they had in bringing it to the screen. Next up is “Dispatches from Nicaragua,” a newly produced and absolutely fascinating hour-long look at the film’s production that has been culled from hours of never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage. “On Moviemaking and the Revolution” is an 11-minute audio monologue in which one of the film’s extras discusses the making of the film from his particular perspective two decades after the fact. In addition, the disc also includes a couple of photo galleries, a copy of the trailer that Universal made to try to sell the film to audiences before giving up on it and a booklet that includes appreciations from critic Graham Fuller and actress Linda Sandoval as well as excerpts from a book on Walker that was released as a tie-in to the film that includes bits of the screenplay, commentary from Wurlitzer and bits from the diaries of both Ed Harris and the real William Walker.

The only supplement that doesn’t quite work is a brief video in which Cox goes through a collection of the largely negative reviews that greeted its release. The idea isn’t a bad one in theory but Cox dwells more on minor details (he lambastes anyone who mentions the phrase “blood-spattered” and takes Roger Ebert to task for a headline that he most likely didn’t write in the first place) in a way that comes across as more petty than informative–this might have been better as a text-based supplement in which we could read in full what the naysayers were saying back then. However, that is the only weak spot in an otherwise exemplary set that is a must-have for fans of the film (such creatures do exist) and die-hard Cox cultists and definitely worth at least a rental for anyone looking for something to watch that is off the beaten path. “Walker” may have had a long and bumpy ride but it is finally getting the ending that it deserves–one of the most criminally underrated and undervalued films of the 1980's has now become what is sure to be one of 2008's best DVDs/

Written by Rudy Wurlitzer. Directed by Alex Cox. Starring Ed Harris, Richard Masur, Rene Auberjonois, Peter Boyle, Miguel Sandoval and Marlee Matlin. 1987. 94 minutes. Rated R. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95


AFTER SEX (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.98): Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Jane Seymour are among the people who pop up in this comedy-drama featuring the post-coital discussions of eight different couples. I know–you want me to make some cheap joke about how co-star Bai Ling steals the movie but I am simply too dignified and principled to take the bait.

AMERICAN GANGSTER (Universal Home Entertainment. $34.98): In news that will no doubt shock movie fans around the world, the infamously revisionist Ridley Scott has taken his acclaimed 2007 docudrama about a Harlem drug kingpin (Denzel Washington) and the cop obsessed with bringing him to justice (Russell Crowe) into the editing room and re-emerged with a new cut of the film that is approximately 17 minutes longer than the not-exactly-brief original. However, purists will be pleased to know that this 3-disc set includes both cuts of the film, along with additional deleted scenes and plenty of other extras.

BLACK WATER (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.98): The bad news–you are traveling the rivers of Northern Australia when your boat violently capsizes in the middle of a flooded swamp. The worse news–the capsizing is the doing of a giant crocodile that chase you and your friends up a tree and then waits patiently below for you to lose your grip and become its dinner. Those are the twin fates that befall a trio of tourists in this direct-to-video item that claims to be based on a true story.

CATACOMBS (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $27.98): After being summoned by her sister (Alecia Moore a.k.a. Pink) to an illegal party being held in the mysterious catacombs located underneath Paris, American girl Shannyn Sossamon bops herself unconscious and when she comes to, she realizes that she is lost and that she may not be alone down there. Hmmm. . .Shannyn Sossamon and Pink wandering around through an endless series of mysterious tunnels–if Sigmund Freud were alive today and had a taste for direct-to-video horror movies, my guess is that he would be all over this one.

FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO (First Run Pictures $24.95): This acclaimed 2007 documentary tackles the touchy subject of homosexuality and religion, specifically what the Bible may or may not say in regards to the topic and how those things have been deliberately misinterpreted over the years, by presenting looks at five deeply religious families who have managed to reconcile their faith with having children who are gay or lesbian

HELEN MIRREN AT THE BBC (BBC Home Video. $79.98): Before starring in such films as “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” and “National Treasure 2,” Helen Mirren appeared in numerous television projects for the BBC and this five-disc set brings together nine of them (including works by George Bernard Shaw and Dennis Potter) that she did between 1974-1982 and also includes both a vintage Q&A that she did for British television in 1975 and a newly-shot interview in which she discusses the years covered here.

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (Warner Home Video. $27.98): Although nowhere near as bad as his previous effort, the absurdly overpraised and virtually unwatchable “Crash,” Paul Haggis’ follow-up film, in which Tommy Lee Jones searches for his son after he disappears shortly after returning home from Iraq, once again demonstrates that whatever his skills as a filmmaker may be, subtlety is not one of them and his relentless determination to hammer his points home long after even the densest viewers have caught on winds up rendering his points null and void after a while. That said, Jones is pretty extraordinary here (and snared a Best Actor Oscar nomination to boot) and manages to almost, but not quite, make it worth checking out just to see his exemplary work.

LILLIE (Acorn Media. $59.99): Originally produced for British television in 1979 and previously broadcast in the US on “Masterpiece Theatre,” this 13-episode miniseries recounted the extraordinary life of Lillie Langtry (Francesca Annis), an independent and fiercely ambitious woman who rose from humble beginning to become one of the best-known women of the Victorian era because of her beauty, her work as a model and actress, her relationships with everyone from George Bernard Shaw to the Prince of Wales and her extraordinary influence on British popular culture–she would become one of the first stars to dabble in what would eventually become known as product endorsement, she served as a model for Irene Adler, the only woman to put one over Sherlock Holmes and she would serve as the inspiration for the classic Who song “Pictures of Lily.”

LUST, CAUTION (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): In the latest effort from the wildly eclectic Ang Lee, a shy young Chinese actress (Wei Tang) is recruited to seduce a wealthy and traitorous businessman (Tony Leung) as part of an assassination plot and finds herself developing genuine feelings for her target. This is a story that wants to blend NC-17-level sexual explicitness with emotional reticence and while that may be a nervy conceit for an erotic drama, Lee winds up giving us too little lust and too much caution and the result is a visually stunning but dramatically inert slog. Trust me, you will be better off checking out Paul Verhoeven’s amazing “Black Book,” a film that tells a similar story to this one that has the advantage of being incalculably more exciting, dramatic, poignant and erotic.

MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): In one of 2007's most unpleasant movies, a vain and self-absorbed writer (Nicole Kidman) arrives with her son for the wedding of her awkward sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to an out-of-work musician (Jack Black) and spends the entire weekend running the nuptials into the ground, making everyone’s lives miserable and then trying to paint herself as the aggrieved party. Like “The Squid & the Whale,” the previous film from writer-director Noah Baumbach, this film has some good performances (both Kidman and Leigh are excellent) but the characters they are playing are so shallow and hateful that spending 90-odd minutes in their company will prove to be excruciating for all but the most committed masochists.

MICHAEL CLAYTON (Warner Home Video. $28.98): In this throwback to the intelligently crafted and socially committed popular entertainments of the 1970's, George Clooney plays a fixer for an elite law firm who is brought in to clean up a mess caused by his mentor–who was defending a corporation in a class-action suit involving a defective weed killer until he seemingly lost his mind–and discovers that the guy may not have been crazy after all and that the client really is guilty of gross negligence. While there is no doubt about the direction of its social and political leanings, it doesn’t merely spend two solid hours of hitting you over the head with them. Instead, it wraps them within the context of an undeniably gripping drama that will keep you on the edge of your seat while watching it and continue percolating in your mind for days after you’ve seen it thanks to Tony Gilroy’s screenplay and direction and the great performances from Clooney, Tom Wilkinson as the truth-teller and Tilda Swinton as the corporate counsel who will do anything to keep the truth from being told.

MR. WARMTH: THE DON RICKLES PROJECT (Visual Entertainment. $26.99): From the stages of Las Vegas, where he became a legendary comedian through his ability to hilariously insult anyone who came into his path, to the cast of “Toy Story,” where he provided the voice of Mr. Potato Head, Don Rickles has had a long and amazing career and this documentary from John Landis explores it utilizing vintage clips from television appearances, footage from his recent stage appearances and interviews with friends, colleagues and fellow comedians as well as with the many itself. If you have any interest in the history of stand-up comedy, you should pick this DVD up immediately, ya hockey puck!

PIERROT LE FOU (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Another one of the masterpieces cranked out by Jean-Luc Godard during his legendary 1959-1967 hot streak, this 1965 effort was a romantic crime drama in which a bored member of the bourgeois class (Jean-Paul Belmondo) abandons his cushy life and flees with a sexy babysitter (Anna Karina) for a series of adventures that culminate in a literally explosive finale. One of the key Godard films of this period–the one that bridged the gap between the comparatively conventional narratives of his early works and the radical politics and storytelling techniques that he would embrace in the next few years–it has been given the two-disc treatment by Criterion in a set that includes a video program about the film’s history and influence, archival interviews with Godard, Karina and Belmondo, a new interview with Karina in which she discusses working with Godard, to whom she was married at the time, and a new documentary that explores all of their collaborations.

REDACTED (Magnolia Home Video. $26.98): Like a number of recent films, the latest work from Brian De Palma deals with the war in Iraq but unlike those other examples, it doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the subject by either paying intellectual lip-service to the subject or by ignoring the realities in order to transform the material into a more commercially viable piece of product. Instead, he brings the ugliness and insanity of war to us by recounting a lightly fictionalized version of a actual and well-documented atrocity in a manner that eschews his celebrated cinematic style for a deliberately harsh and jagged cinema verite approach that indicts everyone–the soldiers who committed the crime, the military that tacitly allowed such a mindset to develop through their shoddy planning for the conflict, the enemy combatants whose own savagery is not to be underestimated and a media corps that has allowed itself to become a toothless joke–as being equally responsible for what transpires. The result is a shattering and angry work of socially committed cinema that is one of the most emotionally devastating films of De Palma’s entire career and easily the best non-documentary film inspired by our current misadventures in Iraq–the fact that the results managed to outrage people on both sides of the question of the war should suggest just how good it really is.

RENDITION (New Line Home Entertainment. $28.98): Of course, if “Redacted” is too much for you, maybe you will be more satisfied with this convoluted melodrama involving an Egyptian man who is nabbed by the CIA and submitted to torture after being fingered as a terrorist, the man’s American wife (Reese Witherspoon) who is trying to find out what happened to him, a newbie CIA agent (Jake Gyllenhaal) who begins to think that maybe he and his cohorts aren’t doing the right thing and a high-ranking government official (Meryl Streep) making the case for torture on the basis that the ends justify the means. Like most of the recent Iraq-themed films, this one quickly came and went from theaters but even the critics dismissed this one as well.

SPIRAL (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.98): In this direct-to-video psychological thriller, a oddball telemarketer (“The Hottie and the Nottie” co-star Joel David Moore, who also co-directed with “Hatchet” auteur Adam Green) finds himself irresistibly drawn to draw his sweet new co-worker (and you can’t really blame him since she is played by Amber Tamblyn) but, in a move that probably won’t surprise too many people, this idyll is short-lived when voices from his past drive him to disturbing distraction.

TERROR’S ADVOCATE (Magnolia Home Video. $26.98): Having already trained his cameras on such unusual subjects as Charles Bukowski (“The Charles Bukowski Tapes”), Idi Amin (“General Idi Amin Dada” a.k.a. “No One Can Run Faster Than a Bullet”) and a talking gorilla “Koko, A Talking Gorilla”), director Barbet Schroeder found an equally fascinating character to base his latest documentary around in Jacques Verges, a lawyer who has become infamous the world over for his willingness to defend such seemingly undefendable clients as Klaus Barbie and Carlos the Jackal.

WALKER: TEXAS RANGER–THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $49.99): Let me see–I could mark the occasion of the release of the fourth season of the long running series in which Chuck Norris delivered roundhouse kicks to the head of anyone who crossed his path by reciting some of those once-hilarious “Chuck Norris Facts” that made the rounds a few months ago. I could make some snide remark about this set appearing on Mike Huckabee’s Netflix list. I could even simply mention the fact that the 25 episodes collected here find our hero battling mobsters, corrupt politicians, psycho killers, Commies and an evil medicine man who has risen from the dead. Instead, I will merely mention that this show was co-created by the one and only Paul Haggis and in many ways, it remains the high-water mark of his entire career.

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originally posted: 02/22/08 14:46:19
last updated: 02/25/08 07:43:48
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