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DVD Reviews for 4/4: Pies, Pervs and Penelope

by Peter Sobczynski

Although somewhat lacking in big-name titles, this week's DVD roundup is certainly an eclectic one indeed--a couple of films involving unwitting cannibalism, some musically inclined vermin and box set celebrating one of Hollywood's most famous actresses and one of the most infamous filmmakers.

Most movie stars would be hard-pressed to come up with enough worthwhile films to make up one decent DVD box set. That is definitely not the case with the legendary Bette Davis–having already been the focus of two previous acclaimed collections of her most notable work for Warner Brothers, the studio has once again dug into their vaults and come up with “The Bette Davis Collection, Vol.3,” a six-disc set comprised entirely of films that she made for the studio between 1939 and 1946, a period when she was one of their biggest stars. Each one of the films collected here is making its DVD debut and each one contains numerous bonus features, including commentary tracks from film scholars and shorts, newsreels, cartoon and trailers that you might have seen playing alongside each film when it was originally released. While the six titles featured here may not be as instantly recognizable as some of the ones in the earlier sets (such as “Now, Voyager,” “Dark Victory” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”), it is unlikely that any Davis fan is going to come away from these selections feeling disappointed, especially if they have a taste for lurid soap operas featuring tempestuous romances, shocking scandals and the kind of cheerfully bizarre plot twists that a film couldn’t possibly hope to get away with these days. In fact, my only criticism with the set is that the studio couldn’t find room to include the deliriously trashy “Beyond the Forest” (in which Davis delivered the immortal line “What a dump!”) Oh, well, there is always Volume 4.

The set kicks off in grandly gaudy style with the 1939 sudser “The Old Maid.” In this one, Miriam Hopkins plays a snooty lass who spurns her true love when he proposes marriage. Shattered, the guy finds solace in the arms of her sweet-natured cousin (Davis) before going off to fight and die in the Civil War. Alas, it turns out that he left Davis a little something to remember her by in the form of a child and when Hopkins discovers this on the eve of her own wedding, she decides to take the child and raise it as her own while Davis is forced to stand by the sidelines and watch as her own daughter regards her as nothing more than her frumpy old aunt. Based on the novel by Edith Wharton, this film is melodramatic to the extreme but it somehow never veers off into outright camp thanks to the relatively level-headed performances from Davis and Hopkins. The extras here include a pair of cartoons (“The Film Fan” and “Kristopher Kolumbus”) and shorts on the subjects of Abraham Lincoln (which was shot in Technicolor) and swordfishing.

Next up is Anatole Litvak’s 1940 period piece “All This, and Heaven Too.”. Here, Davis plays Henriette, the new governess at the home of the Duc de Praslin (Charles Boyer) and his crabby wife (Barbara O’Neil). Inevitably, the nobleman and the servant fall for each other and while the wife is none too pleased to discover this, she is soon found dead under gory and mysterious circumstances. Inevitably, suspicion arises that the Duc killed his wife and that Henriette helped, but when he also falls to a mysterious fate, the possibility that Henriette is not as innocent as she seem begins to rise. Although the plot sounds like it has all the elements for an especially lurid sudser, it actually plays things relatively straight and is all the better for it and Davis is especially good in a more refined and romantic role than she was usually associated with. This disc includes a commentary from historian Daniel Bubbeo, a newsreel, the short subject “Meet the Fleet,” cartoons featuring Daffy Duck and Porky Pig and a radio adaptation of the film featuring all of the original stars.

1941's “The Great Lie” is essentially a retread of the formula that worked so well in “The Old Maid.” This time around, Mary Astor stars as a chic concert pianist who is unhappily married to pilot George Brent. When he discovers that their marriage isn’t legal, he leaves her
and takes up with true love Davis. When Astor learns that he impregnated her before taking off, she goes off to find him and discovers that he is presumed dead in the jungles of South America and that the now-widowed and childless Davis would very much like to keep Astor’s child for herself. Yeah, this one is pretty cheesy but it is fun to watch Davis and Astor go head to head with each other. That said, it comes so close to “The Old Maid” at times that it might have been a better idea to save one of them for another box set in order to prevent a certain sense of repetition from setting in. The extras this time around include the short subjects “At the Stroke of Twelve,” “Kings of the Turf” and “Polo With the Stars” and the cartoon classic “Porky’s Pooch.”

By far the most over-the-top title in the set (despite stiff competition), 1942's “In This Our Life” tells a story so screwy that it is amazing to learn that it was actually taken seriously when it first came out. This time around, Davis play all-around bad egg Stanley Timberlake and as the story opens, she is not only bailing on her fiancee just before they are to be married, she runs off with the husband of sister Olivia de Haviland.. After a while, the ex-fiancee and the sister fall in love and decide to get married but just before the big day, the now-widowed Stanley returns to town and is determined to reclaim her former love at all costs. This one is melodramatic to the extreme and any soap opera fan will feel right at home with its deliciously depraved twists and turns while auteurists will no doubt be interested as well since this was John Huston’s first film after making his legendary directorial debut a year earlier with a little thing that we like to call “The Maltese Falcon.” Film historian Jeanine Basinger contributes a commentary track and you will also find a newsreel, the shorts “March On, America!” and “Spanish Fiesta” and the cartoon “Who’s Who in the Zoo.”

Based on the 1941 stage play by Lillian Hellman (who worked on the screenplay along with her lover, the acclaimed mystery novelist Dashiell Hammett, 1943's “Watch on the Rhine” sees Davis taking a less-showy role that the ones that fans are accustomed to seeing her in. Here, she plays the wife of German underground leader Paul Lukas. After 18 years in Europe, Davis and her family return to her home in Washington D.C. to begin a new life, only to discover that Nazi operatives in the states have discovered their whereabouts and are closing in fast. Lukas, who appeared in the original stage version, takes center stage here and his efforts resulted in his winning the Oscar that year for Best Actor, beating out Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” The extras here include the cartoon “The Wise-Quacking Duck” and the musical short subject “Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra.”

The final film in the set is 1946's “Deception,”which reunited Davis with her “Now, Voyager” co-stars Paul Henreid and Claude Rains and director Irving Rapper. This time around, Davis plays a pianist who begins an affair with wacko composer Rains when she fears that her true love, cellist Henreid, was killed in Europe during World War II. When Rains unexpectedly returns, she goes back to him and tries to keep her affair a secret from him–alas, Rains doesn’t want to be pushed aside and his refusal to leave quietly pushes her to the point of no return. In writing about this film when it was first released, critic Cecilia Ager famously described it by saying “It’s like grand opera, only the people are thinner.” and more than 60 years later, I can’t think of a better way of summing up this especially lurid melodrama that gets additional juice from the score from Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The special features collected here include a commentary track from film scholar Foster Hirsch, the shorts “Facing Your Danger” and “Movieland Magic.” the cartoon “Mouse Menace” and the trailers for both this film and the equally soapy Davis vehicle “A Stolen Life.”

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


ALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): Well, thanks a lot, America–you really did it this time. You took one of the more unpalatable ideas for a feature film–a full-length adaptation of the novelty record-cum-Saturday morning cartoon about the misadventures of musically-inclined vermin featuring grisly-looking CGI chipmunks, embarrassed-looking flesh-and-blood performers like Jason Lee and David Cross and plenty of poop jokes–and transformed it into a surprise smash hit whose astronomical grosses (upwards of $200 million in ticket sales alone) have all but assured that we will be inundated with sequels, spinoffs and repackaging of previously-released Chipmunk material for the next few years. Seriously–what the hell were you thinking?

THE CHIPMUNK ADVENTURE/THE CHIPMUNKS GO TO THE MOVIES (Paramount Home Video. $14.99 each):See, this is exactly what I am talking about, America. Do you think that we would be getting these reissues of old Chipmunk-related material–a cheapo animated film from 1985 that my generation had the good taste to not make into a blockbuster hit and a collection of episodes from their TV show in which they re-enact scenes from some well-known movies (sadly, “Salo–The 120 Days of Sodom,” “Suspiria” and “Hostel–Part II” are not among them)–if you hadn’t once again made them into a viable commercial product?

THE COOK (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.98): In a direct-to-video item that sounds like what the Herschel Gordon Lewis classic “Blood Feast” might have been like sans the whimsy and dignified good taste, a group of sorority girls get so involved with their plans to party away a long holiday weekend that they fail to recognize that their house’s new chef is planning on having them all for dinner, if you know what I mean and I suspect that you do.

THE CUTTING EDGE–CHASING THE DREAM (MGM Home Entertainment. $26.98): Essentially an inverted remake of the reasonably popular 1992 romantic comedy favorite, a male ice skating champion (Matt Lanter) loses his partner (and ex-girlfriend) to a freak accident just before an important international competition and replaces her with a female hockey player (Francia Raisa) with the expected results. Fans of the previous direct-to-video sequel will be delighted to note that Christy Carlson Romano’s character returns to serve as the hard-bitten coach/mentor to the pair, though the more sensitive ones may be put off to discover that the true love she found at the end of that one apparently ended in a bitter divorce in the interim between films. [br]

FATHER KNOWS BEST–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Shout! Factory. $34.99): The white-bread adventures of Jim, Margaret, Bud, Kitten and Princess finally hit DVD in this collection of episodes from the first season of the classic 1950's sitcom. Fans of the show should be exceptionally pleased with the extras that Shout! Factory has gathered together for this four-disc set–interviews with the surviving cast members, behind-the-scenes footage shot by star Robert Young, the pilot episode for Young’s next series, “Window on Main Street,” and “24 Hours in Tyrantland,” a rarely-seen and extra-campy episode created especially for the U.S. government in which Mom and Dad spend an inordinate amount of time and energy teaching their kids about the evils of Communism.

THE GOOD NIGHT (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96):Depressed over an unfulfilling job and a rocky personal life, a man (Martin Freeman) constantly retreats to the world of his dreams where he finds himself in the middle of a passionate affair with Penelope Cruz. In other words, welcome to my world, although my world doesn’t have the budget or connections to get the likes of Danny DeVito, Simon Pegg and Gwyneth Paltrow (whose brother Jake makes his directorial debut here) involved as well.

HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE: EXTREME UNRATED VERSION (New Line Home Entertainment. $19.98): I have no idea what makes this unrated edition of the 2004 cult stoner comedy different from the unrated edition that was previously released a few years ago. However, if you do pick up this new edition, you will receive both a ticket for one admission to the upcoming sequel “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” (which is presumably the reason for the existence of this disc in the first place) and the feeling of well-being that comes from giving a few of your hard-earned dollars to a now-defunct studio to help them pull themselves out of the massive financial hole they placed themselves in after wildly overestimating the cinematic appeal of gay, alcoholic talking polar bears.

HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT II (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): Perhaps realizing that nothing could possibly top the raw horror of Leslie Nielsen disco-dancing, the makers of this sequel to the 1980 slasher movie (which is getting its own pointless remake in a couple of weeks) didn’t even bother to try to create a straightforward sequel. Instead, they took several dozen pages from the likes of “Carrie,” “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Exorcist” to create this silly tale about a nasty 1950's teenager who was accidentally burned to death just before being named prom queen whose spirit returns three decades later to take over the body of another girl in order to finally win the all-important title of prom queen and to kill those who were responsible for her death as well as anyone else who gets in her way. Why yes, now that you mention it, this film is as dumb as it sounds.

JOHN FROM CINCINNATI–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (HBO Home Entertainment. $59.98): Judging from the harsh critical reception that this bizarre series from “Deadwood” creator David Milch–something about a mysterious person, who may be either an alien or the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, who arrives in a sleepy California beach town and becomes involved in the lives of a dysfunctional surfing family (including Rebecca de Mornay as the resident GILF)–it would seem that the word “first” could be struck from the title of this package without damaging its accuracy a bit. I never caught this show when it appeared on HBO last summer but judging from the outraged complaints of many of those who did see it, I may have to check it out just to see what all the fuss was about.

THE LASCIVIOUS WORLD OF A.C. STEPHENS & ED WOOD JR. (Image Entertainment. $29.98): When he could no longer get the money to make his own films, the legendary Ed Wood Jr. made ends meet by teaming up with filmmaker A.C. Stephens (a.k.a. Stephen Apostolof) on a series of bizarre soft-core sex films that he wrote and Stephens directed and this set rounds up two of them, along with a solo Stephens outing. They include 1969's “Lady Godiva Rides” (the Stephens-only joint which gives us the sight of lovers Lady Godiva and Tom Jones–not the singer–make their way to the U.S.A. where she winds up working in a brothel and he winds up in a duel over her honor in a film featuring nudie queen Marsha Jordan and future John Waters player Liz Renay) and the 1974 entries “Drop-Out Wife” (in which an abused housewife finds happiness elsewhere, if you know what I mean) and “Fugitive Girls” (one of those films where there is really nothing much else to say beyond the title, except to mention that Wood himself makes his final on-screen appearance as a gas station attendant who runs afoul of our heroines). Exploitation buff will surely get a kick out this set, but would it have killed Image to include the most famous Wood-Stephens collaboration, the truly deranged nudie horror epic “Orgy of the Dead”?

THE RETURN OF SWAMP THING (Lightyear Video. $14.98): In this largely forgotten sequel to the 1982 Wes Craven adaptation of the cult comic book, our moss-laden anti-hero (Dick Durock) returns to save horticulturist Abigal Arcane (Heather Locklear. . .yes, Heather Locklear) from the clutches of her evil stepfather, the mad Dr. Arcane (Louis Jourdan. . .yes, Louis Jourdan) before he can kill her as part of a plan to devise an immortality serum. Believe it or not, I actually saw this film in a theater during its super-short 1989 theatrical run, though I seem to have repressed virtually every memory of the experience.

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (Paramount Home Video. $34.99): In Tim Burton’s long-awaited and lavishly-produced adaptation of the smash Stephen Sondheim musical, Johnny Depp portrays the mad barber out to get straight-edged revenge on all of London in general and the hateful judge (Alan Rickman) who robbed him of his life, wife and child in particular and Helena Bonham Carter takes on the role of the lovestruck proprietress of the pie shop downstairs who comes up with a novel method for simultaneously helping him dispose of his victims and reviving her own fortunes via the sudden arrival of her strangely tasty meat pies. Although Depp and Carter’s vocal talents do leave a little something to be desired, both acquit themselves surprisingly well here and Sascha Baron Cohen steals the entire film with his brief-but-hilarious turn as a rival barber. Be warned, this film is really bloody–there is more spurting blood on display here than in most current horror efforts–but if you can stomach the gore, you will be rewarded with one of the best live-action movie musicals of recent years.

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originally posted: 04/04/08 13:43:44
last updated: 04/08/08 07:46:59
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