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DVD Reviews for 3/28: Mob Rules

by Peter Sobczynski

Those with a taste for films about the wrong side of the law will be overjoyed with this week's titles--a ton of classic gangster epics from the Golden Age of Hollywood, one of the most controversial and ground-breaking crime movies ever made, a bizarre neo-noir from one of our most dependably demented directors and one of the sickest murder weapons that you have ever seen. All that and Plinko too!

Back in the good old days of Hollywood in the 1930's, the major studios used to have individual identities and specialized in certain types of filmmaking–MGM came up with slick, glossy entertainment, Paramount specialized in knockabout comedies and Universal sent shivers up moviegoers spines with their run of immortal monster movies. For Warner Brothers, their bread-and-butter during this period tended to be hard-edged gangster dramas that usually featured storylines torn from the headlines of the day and included then-shocking levels of sexuality and violence (at least before the Hays Code was instituted). Those films were enormously popular back then and made stars out of the likes of Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and most of them are still pretty entertaining to watch today–what they may now lack in immediacy is more than made up for by the skill, energy and wit that they possess. This week, the folks at Warner Home Video have gone into the vaults and have come up with “Warner Gangster Collection, Vol. 3,” a new box set consisting of six crime movies that the studio released during their 1930's heyday, While the six films collected here may not be as immediately well-known as such previously released titles as “Little Caesar” and “Public Enemy,” it is unlikely that fans of the genre are going to come away from this set feeling disappointed.

The set kicks off with 1931's “Smart Money,” a title that is perhaps most notable for being the only time that Edwards G. Robinson and James Cagney appeared together in the same film. In it, Robinson plays a small-town barber who believes that he has the skills to be a top gambler. Convinced of his prowess, his friends help him raise $10,000 so that he can go off to the big city, accompanied by friend/bodyguard Cagney, and make a killing. Alas, he also has a weakness for blondes and inevitably, one leads him astray into a crooked card game where he loses everything. Burning with the desire for revenge, he scrapes together another nest egg and uses it to try to beat the people that scammed him at his own game. The basic story is pretty entertaining in its own right but what really gives the film a punch today is the surprising sexual content–at one point, a woman essentially offers to sleep with Robinson in order to work off a debt and there is an unmistakable homosexual undercurrent to the scenes between Robinson and Cagney. Okay, it may not be a gangster film in the strictest sense of the word but it is still pretty entertaining all the same. (Eagle-eyed viewers may be able to spot an early appearance from Boris Karloff, who pops up as a dope dealer early on in the proceedings.)

Cagney returns in “Picture Snatcher,” a briskly paced 1933 drama in which he plays a gangster who decides to turn over a new leaf when he gets out of prison and gets a job as, of all things, a photographer for a sleazy newspaper. At the same time, he is also wooing the daughter of the man who put him in jail in the first place and trying to convince his potential father-in-law that he has indeed changed even when he causes a stir by sneaking a photo of an execution. (This was inspired by the real-life incident in which a New York Daily News photographer secretly grabbed a photo of convicted killer Ruth Ellis as she was being electrocuted for her crimes.) Oddly enough, this story involving tabloid journalism that occasionally goes too far in its efforts to get a hot story feels surprisingly fresh and relevant today, even if it is unlikely that a tabloid photographer would turn out to be the hero if this story were told today. It isn’t one of Cagney’s great films but as a slick, quick and unpretentious B-movie item, it gets the job done with a minimum of muss and fuss.

In what may be my favorite film of the entire collection, 1933's “Lady Killer,” Cagney stars once again in a breezy comedy that deftly pokes fun of his image as a big-screen tough guy. In this one, he plays Dan Quigley, a con man who gets into trouble, goes out to Hollywood in order to lie low and inadvertently becomes a movie star–this is fun for a while, of course, but his high profile eventually catches the eye of the people he was trying to evade in the first place and they come to Tinseltown in order to blackmail him. As you can probably tell, the film is a goof but it is a hugely entertaining goof nevertheless, mostly because of the Hollywood satire that takes up a good percentage of the running time. Cagney’s early adventures as a lowly extra are a scream (those of you who speak Yiddish will get an extra kick out of the scene where he is dressed as a Native American and he is asked what his name is supposed to be) and I suspect most audiences will cheer the moment when he confronts a critic who slammed one of his performances and literally makes him eat his words. Mae Clarke, Cagney’s co-star in “Public Enemy,” makes an appearance here and the film even includes a couple of sly in-jokes referring to that movie’s infamous grapefruit scene. This film is entertaining enough for anyone but if you have a special fondness for the Golden Age of Hollywood, this title is a must.

1933's “The Mayor of Hell,” on the other hand, is probably the weakest title in the set. Although James Cagney gets top billing, he essentially has a supporting role and doesn’t even appear for the first time until the film is well under way. The story involves a group of young delinquents who are sentenced to an especially harsh reform school that is ruled by the cruel and hard-bitten Warden Thompson (Dudley Diggs). Cagney plays a criminal whose ties to the corrupt local political machine score him the plum job of Deputy Commissioner of Corrections. However, once he sees the conditions that the kids are being forced to live in, he decides to join forces with the school’s nurse (Madge Evans) and fight for better treatment for the inmates. This one isn’t really that bad but the only truly interesting character is Cagney’s and whenever he isn’t on the screen, the film inevitably sags a bit. Other than him, there really isn’t much of anything here that genre fans haven’t seen done much better in other films.

On the other hand, 1937's “Black Legion” is easily the darkest title of the films collected here. In it, Humphrey Bogart stars as an ordinary working stiff in a factory who gets angry when he feels that he was passed over for a promotion in favor of a Polish co-worker. Eventually, he joins a secret society known as the Black Legion, a hate group dedicated to getting rid of minorities and immigrants by any means necessary. With his new-found friends, he drives his rival’s family out of town for good and gets the job that he wanted–unfortunately, those new-found friends refuse to leave him alone and drives a wedge between him and his own family. This was one of Bogart’s first breakthrough roles–until then, he had mostly been seen in supporting roles–and he does an excellent job of portraying a seemingly decent man who allows himself to be used and manipulated by others as a way of advancing their own twisted agendas without having to get their own hands dirty. Beyond that, this is a grimly effective bit of cinematic muckracking and the still-resonant premise and the surprisingly grim ending make it a film that is still pretty potent today.

Besides “Lady Killer,” the most goofily entertaining film in this set is the decidedly odd 1940 comedy “Brother Orchid”–while it may Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart in one of their five on-screen pairings, this is anything but a traditional crime drama. Instead, it is a cheerfully silly comedy in which Robinson plays a mob boss who returns from a trip to Europe and discovers that tough guy Bogart has taken over his gang. When his former cohorts make an attempt on his life, Robinson takes refuge in a monastery and pretends to be studying to become a monk while plotting his retaliation. Inevitably, the simple life and the kindness of the monks begins to grow on him and he decides to join up with them and renounce his former life, though not before lending his new brothers a hand when his former gang tries to knock them out of the flower business through which they raise money. I know it sounds gruesomely sanctimonious–kind of like the “Sister Act” of its day–and gangster devotees expecting a typical action drama are probably going to be disappointed, the film does work against all odds for a couple of reasons. For one, it is really funny, especially when Ralph Bellamy arrives as the new suitor of Robinson’s former moll, Ann Sothern. For another, it actually earns its sentimental moments–even the most hard-bitten cynic will find it difficult not to be moved when the monks take the money they planned to use for their one indulgence, a watermelon for dessert, and use it to buy shoes for a poor child. The film also allowed Robinson to show a softer side than he was usually allowed to display and it resulted in one of his more memorable performances.

A Warner Home Video release. $59.98 (BUY IT TODAY!) (Check Out the Official Site)


ALAIN DELON SET–FIVE FILM COLLECTION (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $39.98): The French screen idol gets the box set treatment with this collection of five titles from his acclaimed career. Although such classics as “Purple Noon,” “Le Samourai” and “The Concorde–Airport 1979" are nowhere to be found here, fans should be happy with the likes of 1967's “Diabolically Yours” (in which he plays a man who tries to piece together the mystery of his life after suffering amnesia in a suspicious car crash), 1968's “La Piscine” (in which he and Romy Schneider play lovers whose vacation becomes strained after the unexpected arrival of her former lover and his jailbait-age daughter), 1971's “The Widow Couderc” (where he plays a mysterious stranger who becomes involved with war widow Simone Signoret, not to mention the widow’s sister-in-law and her jailbait-age daughter), 1975's “Le Gitan” (in which he plays a gypsy who becomes involved with gangsters) and 1984's “Notre Histoire” (an odd melodrama from Bertrand Blier in which he plays an alcoholic who pins his few remaining hopes on a strange woman he meets on a train).

APRIL FOOL’S DAY (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): After a nasty prank at a lavish April Fool’s Day party (do people actually have these?) leads to the grisly demise of a pretty young thing, a group of friends are reunited one year later in order to be picked off one by one by a mysterious killer. In other words, it doesn’t really have much of anything to do with the 1986 slasher spoof that was one of the more underrated horror movies of the 1980's beyond the title and people being killed at a lavish April Fool’s Day party. (Seriously, are these the same people who send Thanksgiving cards?) My guess is that you may as well avoid this one unless you are the type of person who is eagerly anticipating that upcoming “Prom Night” remake.

BEST OF THE PRICE IS RIGHT (BCI/Eclipse. $39.98): Plinko fans will be ecstatic over this 4-disc collection of episodes from the eternally popular game show that includes the first and final shows of Bob Barker’s 35-year run as host and also features episodes from an earlier version of the program (then hosted by Bill Cullen) that appeared on NBC in the late 1950's. And remember–have your pets spayed or neutered after every episode.

BONNIE AND CLYDE: TWO-DISC SPECIAL EDITION (Warner Home Video. $19.98): The groundbreaking 1967 docudrama about the notorious Depression-era bank-robbing duo was an enormously controversial film when it debuted because of its then-shocking levels of violence and remains an enormously entertaining work to this day because of Arthur Penn’s skillful direction and the incredible performances from Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the central characters, not to mention great supporting turns from Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard, Estelle Parsons (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, one of the two awards the film received) and Gene Wilder (making his screen debut). Although a marked improvement over its previous DVD incarnation, this special edition isn’t quite the home run that one might have been hoping for–although all of the key participants (aside from co-writer David Newman) are still alive, the film doesn’t include a commentary track (which might be considered a blessing if you have ever heard Warren Beatty stammer his way through an interview) and while they all show up for the three-part documentary included on the second disc, the history of the film’s genesis, production and aftermath presented somewhat pales in comparison to the account given in Mark Harris’ fascinating new book “Pictures of the Revolution.” Beyond that, the disc also contains a History Channel documentary on the real-life Bonnie and Clyde, a couple of deleted scenes (sans soundtrack) and Beatty’s original wardrobe tests.

FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD 2 (Warner Home Video. $49.98): In the days before the institution of the Hays Code (which governed what could and couldn’t be shown in American motion pictures), Hollywood came up with films that were incredibly racy for the time and which still have the power to raise an eyebrow or two and this set collects five titles from the Warner vault filled with plenty of sex and sin and relatively little salvation. They include 1930's “The Divorcee” (Norma Shearer learns that her husband has been repeatedly unfaithful to her and vows to match him infidelity for infidelity), 1931's “A Free Soul” (drunken lawyer Lionel Barrymore successfully defends gangster Clark Gable in court, only to discover that he is putting the moves on daughter Norma Shearer), 1931's “Night Nurse” (a wild work in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a trashy-but-dedicated private nurse who discovers that her two young charges are being starved to death as part of a plan by sleazy chauffeur Clark Gable to marry their nympho mother and claim their fortune for himself), 1932's “Three on a Match” (in which Joan Blondell and Better Davis play school friends who try to help third pal Ann Dvorak when she abandons her husband for a life of booze and drugs and falls under the spell of monstrous kidnapper Humphrey Bogart) and 1933's “Female” (with Ruth Chatterton as the boss of an automobile factory who makes free use of her male employees and then ships them off to Canada when she tires of them).

JIMMY CARTER–MAN FROM PLAINS (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): In his latest documentary effort, Jonathan Demme follows the former president as he embarks on an extensive tour to promote his highly controversial book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Unlike most ex-presidents, who spend their post-presidential careers soaking up as much money on the lecture circuit as possible, Carter has continued to try to make a difference in the world and regardless of where you stand politically, you will come away from this film with a newfound respect for the man and his efforts to make the world a better and more just place.

KINGS OF THE SUN/SOLOMON AND SHEBA/TARAS BULBA (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98 each): A trio of epics starring the late Yul Brynner make their DVD debuts courtesy of MGM. In 1963's “Kings of the Sun,” he plays the leader of a Mayan tribe that leaves Mexico to form a community up north and run afoul of another tribe led by George Chakiris. 1959's “Solomon and Sheba,” sees him enacting the famous Biblical story opposite Gina Lollobrigida. (Trivia note: Brynner was actually a replacement for Tyrone Power, who shot about half the movie before collapsing and dying a few minutes after shooting the dueling sequence). 1962's “Taras Bulba” is an action-filled soap opera in which he plays a Cossack who sends his son (Tony Curtis) to be educated in Poland (who then rules over the Cossacks) so that he may learn enough about his enemy to one day defeat them–this plan falls apart when the son falls for a Polish girl and choose her over his heritage.

THE KITE RUNNER (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): This was Marc Forster’s adaptation of the Khaled Hosseini best-seller about an Afghani refugee who returns to his homeland to atone for a cruel betrayal that he did to his best friend when they were children that altered both their lives forever. On the one hand, it is a well-made, well-acted and well-meaning tale of guilt and redemption that tells its story in a simple and direct manner that only rarely lapses into the kind of melodramatic excesses that are often found in movies of this type. On the other hand, while there is nothing really wrong with the film, there is nothing really right about it either–it simply doesn’t have the overwhelming emotional impact that a story like this needs if it is to have any hope of connecting with audiences.

LOST HIGHWAY (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98): After receiving a series of mysterious videotapes of the inside of his own home, a cuckolded jazz musician (Bill Pullman) is arrested for the grisly murder of his faithless wife (Patricia Arquette) and then mysteriously disappears from his jail cell, which is now occupied by an amnesiac car mechanic (Balthazar Getty) who works for a ruthless mobster (Robert Loggia) and who unwisely begins an affair with the mobster’s mistress (Arquette in what may or may not be a second role) that leads to murder, betrayal and the occasional appearance of an extra-creepy Robert Blake. I probably don’t even need to mention that this 1997 film comes from the reliably demented mind of David Lynch and while it doesn’t quite hit the rapturous heights of “Mulholland Drive” or “Inland Empire,” it is as gorgeous to look at and listen to as anything he has made before and contains hilarious moments of dark humor (such as Loggia’s rather unique lesson on the rules of the road) and some of the most ravishingly erotic imagery of his entire career.

MIDSOMER MURDERS–SET 10/MIDSOMER MURDERS–THE EARLY CASES COLLECTION (Acorn Media. $49.99/$159.99): Fans of British television’s quirky series of murder mysteries inspired by the books from Caroline Graham will find themselves in hog heaven this week–after watching the four recent episodes collected in Set 10–“Second Sight,” “Hidden Depths,” “Sauce For the Goose” and “Midsomer Rhapsody”–they can move on to the massive “Early Cases Collection,” a 19-disc behemoth featuring the first 18 installments (which include before-they-were-famous appearances from Orlando Bloom and Emily Mortimer) and a documentary charting the show’s first decade.

THE MIST (The Weinstein Company. $32.95): In adapting Stephen King’s novella about a strange mist that arrives in a small Maine town and brings with it a horde of bizarre and deadly creatures, Frank Darabont did such a good job of approximating the look and feel of B-level monster movies from the 1950's that it seemed kind of a shame that it wasn’t filmed in black-and-white. Happily, among the standard bonuses on this two-disc edition (commentary, deleted scenes, making-of featurettes and the like), Darabont has given us a second version of the film presented in glorious black-and-white. To further recreate the illusion that you are seeing an old drive-in extravaganza, be sure to disable the right speakers on your stereo system before viewing.

PAINKILLER JANE–THE COMPLETE SERIES (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $49.98): In this short-lived series based on the comic book of the same name, Kristanna “Bloodrayne” Loken stars as a DEA agent who goes to work for a shadowy government agency that chases down dangerous mutants and discovers that she has the power to quickly heal from any injury. Yeah, it sounds pretty silly and the fact that it was produced for the Sci-Fi Channel is enough to give one serious pause but as I do have a soft spot for shows involving ass-kicking babes, I may have to give this one a look, if only to see what it was that kept Loken from appearing in “Bloodrayne 2.”

SHROOMS (Magnolia Home Video. $26.98): Sadly, this is not a remake of the immortal and not-that-bad Japanese monster movie “Matango: The Fungus of Terror” (better known Stateside as “Attack of the Mushroom People”). Instead, it is a horror film about a group of dopey American teens on vacation in Ireland who go off into the woods to trip on psychedelic mushrooms and begin having gory visions that may or may not be real.

THE SISTER OF URSULA (Severin Films. $29.95): In this jaw-dropping giallo thriller from Italy, a pair of sisters arrive at a hotel in search of their long-lost mother in regards to an inheritance and discover that the female guests are being murdered by a killer with a motivation that will be familiar to horror buffs (anyone who has sex is a goner) and a murder weapon that is so wildly over-the-top that I will leave it for you to discover. God bless the good people at Severin Films for uncovering another prime piece of Eurosleaze and unleashing it in all its uncut glory.

SUBURBAN SHOOTOUT (Acorn Media. $24.99): In this wild and decidedly dark comedy series made for British televison (and broadcast in these parts on the Oxygen Channel), an innocent woman moves into a nice London suburb and inadvertently finds herself caught between two gangs of rival housewives who will stop at nothing in their efforts to rule the neighborhood. It sounds dumb but trust me, there is some really funny stuff on display here and I would personally take the eight episodes collected in this set over the likes of “Desperate Housewives” in a heartbeat.

WRISTCUTTERS–A LOVE STORY (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $26.98): In this quirky-but annoying dark comedy, a trio of recent suicides (Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon and Shea Whigham) go on a road trip through a strange afterlife where everything is a little grimmer than reality. The film gets a few bonus points for casting the always-compelling Tom Waits as a mysterious character who may be God, the Devil or someone in between, but loses them immediately for failing to give him, or anyone else in the cast, anything interesting to do..

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originally posted: 03/28/08 14:14:32
last updated: 04/03/08 09:52:50
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