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DVD Reviews for 4/18: "Slowly I Turn. . ."

by Peter Sobczynski

I don't want to say that there are some questionable titles coming out on DVD this week. However, I will note that thiis is the first time that I can recall where a new Uwe Boll film was not the weeks' weakest selection.

Before beginning this week’s helping of lame jokes, snippy commentary and occasionally useful recommendations, I would like to go off on brief tangent by briefly acknowledging the fact that on this weekend, my cousin, Beth Kribble, will be pledging her troth to one Bryan Baker in the calm and bucolic setting that is the Las Vegas area. Alas, I am pretty much barred from Vegas for life for a litany of sins that would have made the Joe Pesci character in “Casino” blush in shame--counting roulette balls, taunting the animals in Siegfried & Roy’s act until they began screeching, taunting the animal in Celine Dion’s act until it began screeching (when I belatedly realized that it was actually Celine Dion) and constantly interrupting tense games of Texas Hold ‘Em with exclamations of “go fish!”--and so as to avoid winding up with my head in a vise, I will be unable to attend the ceremony. (After reading the above, I’m sure the bride and groom are really broken up to learn that I won’t be there.) Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Beth & Bryan on what I hope to be a long and happy union, inform them that their decorative ketchup & mustard containers will be on their way soon and to remind them to never double-down on anything over 12.

And now, back to the usual zaniness.

If one were to rank the major cartoon characters that emerged from the golden era of animated films, I suspect that most viewers over the age of 10 or so would list Woody Woodpecker, the erstwhile creation of animator Walter Lantz, would probably rank pretty low on the totem pole. Although his off-the-wall zaniness did provide some amusement early on in his long screen career, he and his screen adventures lacked the character detail of the films of Bugs Bunny, the breathless hilarity that one found in the works of Daffy Duck or Droopy Dawg or the visual splendors that often appeared in the films of the Disney and MGM animation departments. His cartoons were the ones that you kind of suffered through on television after school while waiting for the good ones to come on and I suspect that many of those who have endured his antics over the years found themselves hoping from time to time that one of the various people that he tormented over the years would finally just snap and tear him limb from limb. Hell, I know I did.

As you may have guessed from the previous paragraph, I am not exactly the biggest Woody Woodpecker fan and as a result, you might also guess that I would not exactly be recommending that you rush out right now and purchase “Woody Woodpecker And Friends Classic Cartoon Collection, Volume 2,” a 3-disc collection that brings together the 45 cartoons featuring the character that were produced between 1952-1958 along with 30 additional cartoons produced by Lantz during that time featuring the likes of Chilly Willy, Andy Panda and the like. These were not the golden days for Woody—after 1954, his films were mostly directed by Paul J. Smith, an animator who tended to be more concerned with doing things fast and cheap than in making them good or distinctive—and a quality bar that wasn’t exactly set high to begin with soon dipped precipitously to the point where even the character’s most devoted fans found his films to be nearly unendurable. And yet, I have to suggest that not only should you go out and purchase this collection, you should rush out and do so right now for one simple reason—while most of the 45 cartoons are pretty bad, a couple (such as “Bunco Busters” and “Tree Medic”) are fairly good and one of them is arguably one of the funniest cartoons that I have ever seen in my life.

The cartoon in question is 1955’s “Niagara Fools” and like so many of his other cartoons, it involves him wreaking havoc on the life of some poor sap whose only crime in life was to be in the area when Woody decided to wreak his patented brand of limited-animation tomfoolery. This time around, Woody arrives at Niagara Falls and when he hears from a park ranger about the dangers of going over the falls in a barrel, he immediately decides that he needs to do it for himself for unknown reasons. Perhaps not recognizing the menace that he is dealing with, the good-hearted ranger tries to prevent him from doing it and in the struggle, he winds up taking the plunge himself while a crowd of well-wishers along the sides of the waterfall cheer him on. For the next five minutes, this basic set-up is repeated over and over until the end credits finally roll.

On the page, none of this may sound especially amusing but there is something about the whole thing that cracks me up from beginning to end every time I see it. Maybe it is the exquisite timing of the short—there is not a single wasted minute and it rushes at such a breakneck pace that you never have time to resent the fact that the film is simply telling the same joke over and over. Maybe it is the resigned look on the ranger’s face each time that he goes over the barrel even though you would think that he would either be enraged at this creature that is endangering his life or overjoyed at having cheated death so many times. Maybe it is the punctuation supplied by those milling throngs along the sides of the waterfall cheering every single one on the plunges. Maybe it is the last-minute change of scenery, in which the ranger finds himself at the North Pole (don’t ask) and rushes back halfway across the world to postpone Woody’s final attempt, all the while yelling “Mush,” regardless of his means of conveyance. Whatever the reason, I find myself reduced to helpless laughter whenever I watch it and no, this isn’t just an example of empty-headed nostalgia for something from my childhood that would prove to be unbearably embarrassing when seen today—I just saw it again a couple of weeks ago and it is still a joy to behold. In fact, I watched it dubbed into Portuguese, of all things, and that almost made it funnier. I cannot understand my fondness for “Niagara Fools” nor can I presume that you, dear rational reader, will respond to it with anything remotely resembling the enthusiasm that I have for it. All I know is that it is now available on DVD and I couldn’t be happier.

A Universal Home Video release. $39.98.


THE ADAMS CHRONICLES (Acorn Media. $59.99): More than three decades before HBO’s acclaimed miniseries “John Adams” revived interest in our second president, this 13-part miniseries (starring George Grizzard, William Daniels, David Birney and Nancy Marchand) chronicled 150 years in the history of the Adams clan from the early days of the Revolutionary War to the heights of the Gilded Age. For those who want to do a little more reading on the subject, this set also includes a 12-page program guide featuring contributions from historians C. James Taylor and Neil Horstman.

ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98): It seemed like an impossible task—could Hollywood make an “Alien vs. Predator” sequel that was actually worse than the infamously terrible 2004 original? Alas, it turns out that our friends at Fox (the same people who brought you such recent pinnacles of artistic achievement as “John Tucker Must Die,” “Alvin & the Chipmunks” and “Meet the Spartans”) proved to be up for the challenge and the result, some drivel about Aliens and Predators wreaking barely discernible havoc on a small Colorado town, was a film so bad that it probably single-handedly killed off the “Alien,” “Predator” and “AvP” franchises in one fell swoop. This edition contains a director’s commentary (which had better consist of 90 minutes of continuous apologies), deleted scenes (yes, there was apparently footage that was at one time considered to be not good enough to appear in the likes of “Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem”) and a digital copy of the film that can be downloaded onto your computer, though hopefully your firewalls will make short work of it.

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (Image Entertainment. $27.98): In one of the very best films of his career, veteran director Sidney Lumet brings us a brilliant heist-gong-wrong drama featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as a pair of mismatched brothers whose financial problems lead them to mastermind a seemingly foolproof crime that turns out to be anything but, Marisa Tomei as the woman who is married to one while fooling around with the other and Albert Finney, in his best performance since “Miller’s Crossing,” as the father of the two brothers who finds himself involved as well. If you didn’t see this in the theater when it was released last fall (where it essentially got buried under an avalanche of lesser films with larger publicity budgets), you owe it to yourself to check it out right now.

BLAST OF SILENCE (The Criterion Collection. $29.95): In one of the happier DVD developments of 2008, Criterion has seen fit to give the bells-and-whistles treatment to this obscure-but-fascinating 1961 noir effort, narrated by none other than gravelly-voiced wonder Lionel Stander, that follows a hitman going about his work on the seedy streets of New York City during Christmas. I first read about this low-budget and largely forgotten gem in the invaluable reference guide “Incredibly Strange Films” about 20 years ago and when I finally caught up with it a few years later, I was delighted to discover that it more than lived up to the hype. Besides a new digital restoration and transfer (making it look better than it probably ever has in its entire existence), the DVD also includes a retrospective making-of documentary, photos taken during the actual shooting, a view of what the locations seen in the film look like these days, the original theatrical trailer and a four-page graphic-novel adaptation from artist Sean Phillips. Essential cinema.

CLIVE CUSSLER’S SEA HUNTERS: VOLUME 2 (Acorn Media. $39.99): The noted author and deep-sea expert returns to the drink for another series of episodes from his cable TV series in which he goes off in search of undersea wrecks, including a ship containing artworks intended for Catherine the Great, a Confederate raider and a liner that helped rescue survivors of the Titanic, and takes us on guided tours of their remains.

THE FINAL SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $26.96): Ah yes, another true-life inspirational sports melodrama for your perusal. This time around, a small-town Iowa high school baseball team with 19 consecutive championship seasons under its belt finds its bid for a twentieth stymied by the school board’s decisions to remove the long-time coach (Powers Boothe) for his untested assistant (Sean Astin) and to close the school altogether. Don’t worry—I wouldn’t dream of spoiling how it turns out.

I REMEMBER NELSON (Acorn Media. $39.99): No, this is not a VH-1 rockumentary spotlighting fans of the briefly popular metal duo from the late 1980’s. In fact, it is actually a four-part “Masterpiece Theatre” presentation about Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (Kenneth Colley) that goes into his heroic public feats, such as his successful defense of England against Napoleon’s invading forces, along with his scandalous personal life, including taking up with a friend’s wife and fathering her child.

I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH (IFC Films. $19.99): Comedian Jeff Garlin made a surprisingly strong debut as a screenwriter/director with this effectively low-key comedy-drama in which he plays an aspiring actor struggling with problems ranging the gamut from the professional (his agent has just dumped him and he can’t get an audition for a remake of “Marty” that he thinks he would be perfect for) to the personal (he still lives with his mother and has a tendency to drown his sorrows in junk food). Among the friends and colleagues who pop up in this Chicago-set charmer are Bonnie Hunt, Richard Kind and a pre-Matt Damon Sarah Silverman as a tart-tongued ice-cream girl with whom Garlin begins a peculiar relationship.

IMPULSE (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): Former pop tart, current "Pants-Off Dance-Off” host and future Anna Nicole Smith impersonator Willa Ford stars as a married woman who tries to spice up her humdrum love life in ways that inevitably backfire in all the expected ways. Wasn’t this a Shannon Tweed direct-to-video sexploitation item from the early 1990’s? Hell, wasn’t it every single Shannon Tweed direct-to-video sexploitation item from the early 1990’s?

IN THE NAME OF THE KING: A DUNGEON SIEGE TALE (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.98): Time to give the legendary Uwe Boll, the anti-auteur whose previous epics (including “House of the Dead,” “Alone in the Dark” and “Bloodrayne”) have landed him the title of World’s Worst Filmmaker, a little bit of credit—with “Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem” also coming out, he cannot be said to have made the worst film hitting DVD this week. That’s not to say that he didn’t give it the old college try—although the first half of this cut-rate medieval epic is merely run-of-the-mill boring, the second half (including such redoubtable sights as a pseudo-Cirque de Soleil troupe of deadly lesbian wood nymphs, ridiculous battle scenes, even more ridiculous death scenes and Ray Liotta portraying a mystical wizard while wearing what appears to be his wardrobe from “Goodfellas”) and bizarre casting (including Jason Statham, Leelee Sobieski, Claire Forlani, Matthew Lillard and Burt Reynolds) kicks up the lunacy levels to the point where it threatens to make the likes of “Alone in the Dark” look staid by comparison.

INSIDE (The Weinstein Company. $19.99): In this decidedly icky French horror thriller, an extremely pregnant woman, recently widowed by a car accident that almost caused her to lose her child, finds herself under attack from a deranged woman (almost inevitably played by Beatrice Dalle, France’s go-to psycho-girl since making her debut in “Betty Blue”) who insists that she will be taking possession of the unborn child by any means necessary. At this point, I would like to kindly suggest to my dear friend Paula Mathieu, who is currently great with child herself, that she remove this particular title from her Netflix list as soon as possible. For everyone else, especially those with a taste for grueling terror, this is one of the better genre efforts to emerge from France in recent years and ironists might get a kick out of programming it alongside the next selection in this column for an exceptionally odd natal-themed double-bill.

JUNO (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): I won’t even bother to again elucidate the details of this wonderfully acerbic comedy about a snarky teenager (Ellen Page in her starmaking role) who unexpectedly finds herself pregnant and unexpectedly to let a childless and seemingly perfect Yuppie couple (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, both of whom are great) adopt it, a decision with profound and unexpected ramifications for all involved—those who have already fallen for its charms know how great it is and the cabal of naysayers that sprung up in the wake of its unexpected box-office success will simply never understand. I will, however, point out that this set includes a commentary track featuring director Jason Reitman and Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, a number of deleted scenes, 20 minutes of screen tests featuring Page and assorted odds-and-ends featuring the often shirtless Rainn Wilson.

KINKY KILLERS (And Justice For All Films. $19.99): It stars Michael Pare, but with a title like that, I suspect you pretty much already guessed as much.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (MGM Home Entertainment. $27.98): If you see only one DVD this week about an odd young man who falls in love with a life-size female doll, please make it this unexpectedly winning and touching comedy-drama from director Craig Gillespie (single-handedly atoning for the cinematic sin that was “Mr. Woodcock”) in which a shy and awkward young man (Ryan Gosling in the best performance that he has given to date) finds his soul mate in a lifelike sex doll (not that he uses it for that particular purpose). What transpires is something that I will leave for you to discover, though I will note that the entire film is one long high-wire act in which a single false move—a bad laugh here, an unfortunately creepy moment there—could completely destroy it and yet Gillespie and his wonderful cast (including Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson and Kelli Garner) never make a single false step. I’ll put it this way—as bad as “Mannequin” (see below) was back in the day, that is how good this film is.

LOCH NESS TERROR (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): No, this isn’t a last-ditch attempt by Sony to recoup some of the money they tossed away on “The Water Horse” by repositioning it as a cheesy horror film. Instead, it is a straightaway cheesy horror film in which Nessie, along with her offspring decide to spend their summer vacation traveling to Lake Superior (don’t even ask) and snacking on the resident snot-nosed teens.

MANNEQUIN/MANNEQUIN 2: ON THE MOVE (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): Yeah, I had forgotten that this particularly lame 1987 romantic comedy, in which a regular dummy falls in love with a genuine dummy that comes to life when only he is around, was actually popular enough in the day to warrant a sequel, albeit one that was barely seen by anybody. The first film stars James Spader at a low point in his career, Andrew McCarthy at a high point in his and Kim Cattrall sporting nearly the same amount of lacquer and varnish as the title character as she later would on “Sex and the City.” The follow-up features a post-“Deadly Friend”/pre-“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Kristy Swanson in the title role (the mannequin, not “2” or “On the Move”) and a bunch of lesser dopes whose names I am too lazy to look up, a move that will probably inspire much love and devotion from them.

THE MINUS MAN (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $14.98): Sadly overlooked when it was released in theaters in 1999, this quiet and moody meditation on the serial killer genre stars Owen Wilson as a pleasant young man who drifts into a small town and makes a bunch of friends (including the likes of Brian Cox and Janeane Garofalo) who gradually begin to suspect that there is more to him than meets the eye when the local death rate begins to mysteriously spike. If nothing else, this film from Hampton Fancher (the co-writer of the classic “Blade Runner”) deserves mention because of the absolutely brilliant trailer that was devised to promote it—check it out for yourself on YouTube and see if you don’t agree that it is one of the great coming attractions trailers of all time.

A PASSAGE TO INDIA (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): David Lean marked the end of one of the most astounding directorial careers of all time (this is, after all, the guy who not only made such classics as “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” but did them back-to-back-to-back during a single eight-year span) with this impressive 1984 adaptation of the E.M Forster novel, set in 1920 India during the time when the British still ruled the land, in which tensions come to a head when a well-mannered native doctor (Victor Banerjee) befriends an elderly British tourist (Dame Peggy Ashcroft in her Oscar-winning role) and is invited to accompany her and her traveling companion (Judy Davis) on a visit to some local caverns—the latter returns in a disheveled state and claims that the doctor raped her and he soon finds himself up against the entire colonial establishment when he is put on trial. Although the film does have its dodgy moments here and there, it is nevertheless an impeccably staged and handsomely mounted effort that showed that even in his late 70’s, he was still in full control of his directorial gifts.

]A SHOT AT LOVE WITH TILA TEQUILA—THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $39.98): For the sake of all involved, let us hope and pray that said shot contains plenty of penicillin. For those of you with a genuine interest in this particularly rancid example of the “reality” dating shows currently plaguing the airwaves, this includes every episode of the VH-1 series as well as a collection of deleted scenes with such titles as “Foam Party,” “Strip Club,” “Brandi and Vanessa Shower” and “Waxing.”

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originally posted: 04/18/08 11:54:30
last updated: 04/18/08 14:55:52
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