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DVD Reviews for 5/2: Reeling All Over the World

by Peter Sobczynski

There is an international flavor to this week's column, with titles highlighting the sights and sounds of locales ranging from Japan to Mexico to Rome to the backwoods of Utah.

The last few weeks have not been kind to parents looking for something for their younger offspring to watch that isn’t completely off-putting to anyone whose age has reached into the double digits. There have been precious few theatrical release so far this year aimed squarely at young viewers and none of those titles (such as “Horton Hears a Who,” “Nim’s Island” and that Hannah Montana thing) were particularly memorable while the DVD world of late has been dominated by utter junk like the abysmal “Alvin & the Chipmunks.” Happily, this week sees the release of a couple of notable kid-oriented classics that will entertain and edify audiences of all ages, offer younger viewers a look at countries and cultures different from their own and, perhaps best of all, serve as a good distraction from all that nonsense over Miley Cyrus getting in touch with her inner “Pretty Baby.” (And yes, now that you mention it, I do feel icky and sordid for having said that.)

It seems almost too bizarre to believe these days but there was once a time when the U.S. government was actually interested in building relations with foreign countries by means of cultural exchanges. In the early 1940’s, in an effort to strengthen ties to Central and South America, the government turned to a number of American filmmakers with proposals to make films down there that would introduce those countries to American moviemaking while giving U.S. citizens a fresh look at our neighbors. One of those asked to participate was Walt Disney and since the cost overruns on films like “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” had left his studio in dire financial straits and the war in Europe had cut off an increasingly valuable market for his work, he leapt at the chance to take part and make some films that would be cheaper to produce than normal and would expose his work to a then-untapped audience. He and some of his animators made the journey down south and came back with 1942’s “Saludos Amigos” and 1944’s “The Three Caballeros,” two fascinating short films that blend together a few animated cartoons with live-action footage that now serve as an intriguing time capsule of the region during that time. Rarely seen in their original versions since their initial releases (though the individual cartoons would frequently appear on television), the two films have been put together onto one DVD in the new release “Classic Caballeros Collection” along with a short documentary on the history of the films, an excerpt from a interview with Walt Disney himself on the films and two additional animated shorts, “Don Donald” and “Contrary Condor.”

“Saludos Amigos” divides its running time between travelogue footage of the animators on their journey and the four animated cartoons inspired by what they saw. “Lake Titicaca” features the ever-popular and ever-frustrated Donald Duck as a tourist who finds himself butting heads with an especially stubborn llama. “Pedro” tells the tale of a little mail plane and its struggles flying over the treacherous Andes mountains (and yes, it does have a slightly happier ending than “Alive”). “El Gaucho Goofy” is pretty much self-explanatory as Goofy portrays an American cowboy learning the ways of his comrades in Argentina. Finally, Donald returns for “Aquarela do Brazil,” in which he turns up in Rio to take in the sights of Carnival along with local parrot Jose Carioca. Even though the film runs only about 42 minutes, it does drag at times, mostly during the live-action segments, and it does have a tossed-together feeling that is impossible to ignore today. However, the animated segments are pretty amusing, especially the ones involving Donald Duck, and since it is likely that most people watching it today will be fast-forwarding to those segments and ignoring the rest, the film’s flaws are likely to be overlooked by many.

While “Saludos Amigos” is relatively straightforward in its ambitions, “The Three Caballeros” remains one of the most bizarre films ever put out by the studio . This time around, Donald takes center stage and the premise is that he has received a trio of birthday presents from his south of the border buddies that serve as reminders of the things the regions has to offer. The first is a film projector that allows him to watch various shorts involving flying donkeys and penguins struggling to stay warm. The second is a magic book that Donald is able to enter in order to join old friend Jose Carioca for another tour of Brazil. Then the film takes a turn to the downright bizarre with the opening of the third gift, which turns out to be the pistol-packing rooster Panchito, who proceeds to take Donald and Jose on a mind-blowing tour of Mexico that sees Donald flirting with Carmen Miranda’s real-life sister (who appears in live-action footage) and the three birds being chased by cactus monsters and belting out the famous title song in a riot of sound and image that comes close to making the admittedly surreal “Fantasia” seem almost staid by comparison.

1942/1944. 113 minutes. Rated G. A Buena Vista Home Entertainment release. $19.99


27 DRESSES (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): In one of the more stridently annoying romantic comedy trifles to come along in a long time, the increasingly irritating Katherine Heigl plays a serial maid of honor who launches a pity party for herself when the first man of her dreams (Edward Burns) becomes engaged to her younger sister and the second (James Marsden) turns out to be a two-fisted and hard-bitten wedding columnist out to expose to the world that. . .well, that she has been a bridesmaid many times and has a lot of goofy-looking dresses in her closet. With its lame jokes and retrograde attitudes towards women--the notion that a woman is somehow incomplete without a man once again rears its ugly head--this is the kind of flimsy excuse for entertainment that even Doris Day might have turned down for being too insubstantial and not even the usually reliable presence of Judy Greer as the wacky best pal can save it from a case of terminal mediocrity.

THE ADVENTURES OF YOUNG INDIANA JONES, VOLUME 3 (Paramount Home Video. $129.99): Continuing the buildup for the eagerly awaited “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Paramount releases the final set of episodes from the series of TV movies that aired in the early 1990’s that purported to show the formative years of the good doctor as he traveled all over the world, encountered many a famous historical face (and sometimes a soon-to-be-famous face playing said historical figures--among those popping up here are Jeffrey Wright, Anne Heche and a surprise guest about whom I will only say is that his presence here is quite welcome and that he once starred in a film with Anne Heche) and got involved in all sorts of made-for-TV mayhem. This time around, he gets mixed up with such historical characters as Al Capone, Edith Wharton, T.E. Lawrence (better known to you as Lawrence of Arabia) and Dracula. As with the previous volumes, each of the films includes several historical documentaries that provide viewers with the true facts behind what they have been watching and as with previous volumes, these documentaries are usually more interesting that stories they are supporting.

ALL MONSTERS ATTACK/TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (Classic Media. $16.98 each): For those of you whose jones for seeing movies in which unexplained creatures suddenly arrive to wreak havoc on our major cities was not sated with last week’s release of “Cloverfield,” perhaps these two classic Japanese monster mashes from the 1960’swill satisfy your hunger for man-in-suit-related catastrophe.

THE BEAST IN SPACE (Severin Films. $29.99): Fans of sleazy European exploitation films from the mid-1970’s will recall ‘s “The Beast,” a sexually charged and highly graphic take on “Beauty and the Beast” from the decidedly odd Walerian Borowczyk involving virginal lass Sirpa Lane being repeatedly and messily seduced (let us just say that a good chunk of the budget presumably went to purchasing gallons of plain yogurt) by a hugely endowed creature. This unofficial 1980 sequel, with Lane again in front of the camera but without Borowczyk behind it, is essentially a remake of the original that has been reset in, as you may have guessed, in outer space. I don’t know how the good folks at Severin Films managed to keep uncovering Eurosleaze obscurities like this one--even I had never heard of it before--but I hope they never stop.

BERNARD AND DORIS (HBO Home Video. $26.98): Despite the star power provided by co-stars Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes, this drama about the decidedly unconventional relationship that developed between heiress Doris Duke and penniless recovering drunk Bernard Lafferty when he is hired to be her exceedingly loyal butler bypassed theaters and premiered on HBO last winter. Don’t be put off by the direct-to-cable tag, though, because it is a pretty entertaining film that is buoyed along by the two lead performances.

BEVERLY HILLS 90210--THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $59.98): Drugs, virginity, pregnancy, attempted marriage, completed marriage, catfights and fraternity hi-jinks--this season of the long-running 90’s teen soaper (for you younger viewers, it was sort of like the “Gossip Girl” of its day, only not quite as blatantly tawdry) pretty much had it all. Alas, the one thing that the show wouldn’t have after this season was star Shannen Doherty, who left under mysterious circumstances, which means that my enthusiasm for future DVD sets has waned considerably, though it will no doubt perk up once we get to the ones featuring the then-unknown Hilary Swank.

THE BIG GAY SKETCH SHOW, VOLUME 1 and VOLUME 2 (Paramount Home Video. $26.98 each): What can I say about these two collections of episodes from the cable comedy series (executive-produced by Rosie O’Donnell) that you can’t already grasp from the title? Well, most of the sketches are loud, one-note and kind of obvious (as you can tell with titles such as “The Gay Honeymooners” and “The Gay Facts of Life”) but they are no worse than the stuff that you typically come across on “MAD TV” or “SNL” these days.

CHEERS--THE COMPLETE NINTH SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $39.98): In the ninth season of one of the most remarkably consistent long-running sitcoms ever produced (it never had the nosedive in quality that usually strikes similar shows in their last few seasons), Sam (Ted Danson) gets the urge to have a baby (encouraged by the ghost of Elvis), Rebecca (Kirstie Alley in the days before she became unbearable) deals with the sudden change in her personal and professional relationships with Sam and the sleazy Robin Colcord (Roger Rees) and the adorably naïve Woody (Woody Harrelson) tries to prevent his sweetheart from being swept away from him by the sleazy Frenchman Henri.

CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE (Retro-Seduction. $29.98): From the good old days of the adult film industry (the 1970’s) when some filmmakers had the crazy idea of including plots along with the pudenda comes this odd 1978 effort from Joe Sarno (one of the artier directors to toil in skin flicks) about a repressed housewife (Jennifer Welles) who gets lessons in the ins-and-outs of the sexual revolution from her swinger daughter and son-in-law. Yes, there is an “ick” factor here but it is considerably tempered by the fact that Welles was, at most, maybe only a year or two older than the person playing her child.

DIAMOND DOGS (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): Dolph Lundgren is David Bowie in this startling big-screen version of the classic 1974 album and tour inspired by George Orwell’s “1984” and featuring the killer “Rebel Rebel.” Wait, I have just been handed an announcement--this is actually just another one of those silly direct-to-DVD movies that Lundgren has been making over the years to keep food on the table while waiting for someone to pick up his option for “Masters of the Universe 2.” Sorry about the confusion.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.99): After given us fairly impressive but relatively straightforward biopics on the lives of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (“Basquiat”) and poet Reinaldo Arenas (“Before Night Falls”), filmmaker Julian Schnabel sets his sights on bringing to the screen a property that was deemed to be unfilmable--Jean-Dominique Bauby’s attempt to write a memoir using only the eyelid that was the only part of his body not permanently paralyzed by a massive stroke--and managed to create a film that was not only brilliantly acted (how Mathieu Almaric’s portrayal managed not to receive a Oscar nomination for Best Actor is beyond me) and nothing like the kind of uplifting treacle the premise might suggest, but was also one of the most visually ravishing films of 2007 thanks to Janusz Kaminski’s groundbreaking cinematography and the army of gorgeous women brought in to play the women in Bauby’s life. One of the best films of 2007 and one that is not to be missed.

DON’T GO INTO THE WOODS--25th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (BCI/Eclipse. $14.99): Proving that even the obscurest horror movies can attract enough of a cult following to inspired a special edition DVD, this low-grade bit of slasher schlock from 1981--a quartet of dopey campers go into the mountains of Utah for a relaxing weekend and find themselves preyed upon by a machete-wielding lunatic--that even gorehounds tend to look upon disparagingly has received the bells-and-whistles treatment with enough extras (commentaries from director James Bryan, star Mary Gail Artz and avowed fan Deron Miller, new interviews with the cast and crew and a vintage talk show appearance promoting the film) to hopefully make you forget that the package missed the actual 25th anniversary by a couple of years.

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (The Weinstein Company. $39.98): Hot on the heels of the long-awaited DVD release of the epic Samuel Bronston production “El Cid” comes this equally elaborate 1964 saga chronicling the greed, betrayal and hubris that let to the titular event. Although not one of the great epics--some of the dialogue is cheesier than usual and Stephen Boyd is pretty much a blank as the lead--but it does have some impressive set-pieces (especially the harrowing chariot race) and a cast including the likes of Sophia Loren, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer and, perhaps inevitably, Omar Sharif. This three-disc set includes a restored version of the film, commentary from Bill Bronston (Samuel’s son) and Mel Martin (Sam’s biographer), a promotional short made to hype its original release, newly produced documentaries on the making of the film, the actual events that inspired the film and the career of composer Dimtri Tiomkin and even a collection of educational films that were shot for school usage that reused the elaborate sets.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS (New Line Home Video. $34.98): Already reeling from a long string of expensive duds that were roundly ignored at the box-office, New Line Pictures decided to risk everything by betting over $200 million on the idea that American moviegoers would flock to see a hugely expensive family-oriented fantasy epic with a plotline considered by many to be anti-Catholic, a cast featuring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig in the first on-screen match-up since “The Invasion” and a gay, alcoholic, talking polar bear.

HOW SHE MOVE (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): Although the ads made it look like just another dumb-ass programmer in which attractive teens discover that there is no problem in the world that cannot be solved with a dance-off, this was actually an interesting take on the formula that added flesh-and-blood characters and realistic concerns to the proceedings in order to make it more thoughtful and entertaining for the teen audience. Inevitably, that very audience repaid the favor by ignoring it in droves for the fairly moronic “Step Up 2 The Streets.” Bad teenage audience--no cookie for you!

INTELLIGENCE--SEASON ONE (Acorn Media. $59.99): The mean streets of Vancouver are the setting for this Canadian crime drama about the murky alliance that develops between a large-scale drug smuggler (Ian Tracey) who is afraid of competition from new gangs moving in on his territory and the ambitious cop (Klea Scott) who heads the local organized crime unit who is equally paranoid about her own rivals.

KARAOKE TERROR: THE COMPLETE JAPANESE SHOWA SONGBOOK (Synapse Films. $24.95): This Japanese black comedy, courtesy of the writer of the infamous “Audition,” chronicles the increasingly violent battle of the sexes that erupts between two gangs (one male, one female) of karaoke freaks after a member of one kills a member of the other after a failed pick-up. Of course, I’m guessing that you didn’t really require that description--you probably stuck this on your Netflix list as soon as you read the title.

NANKING (Thinkfilm. $27.98): The story of one of the most infamous war atrocities in recorded history--the invasion of the Chinese city in 1937 by the Japanese and the subsequent slaughter of 200,000 citizens and the rape of nearly 20,000 women--is told through the testimony of still-living survivors and the letters and diaries of Westerners who were there (whose words are read by the likes of Woody Harrelson and Mariel Hemingway).

PADDLE TO THE SEA/THE RED BALLOON/THE WHITE MANE (The Criterion Collection. $14.95 each): Criterion aims for the kid market with these three highly-acclaimed short films from around the globe. “Paddle to the Sea” is a Canadian item from Bill Mason which chronicles the long journey of a hand-carved toy Indian canoe as it makes its way from Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean via all the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal while fending off attacks from humans, animals and the implacable fury of Mother Nature herself. “The Red Balloon” is, of course, the beloved 1956 French film from Albert Lamorisse (the winner of that year’s Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) about the friendship that develops between a young boy and a balloon that seems to have a mind of its own. “The White Mane” is a lesser-known Lamorisse effort from 1953 in which a young boy befriends a wild horse that refuses to be captured and tamed by ranchers and the two set off on a journey for peace and freedom that concludes in a decidedly surprising manner that may well inspire some slightly uncomfortable questions from younger viewers. Although the films vary in terms of technical quality (“The Red Balloon” and “The White Mane,” which were restored and re-released in theaters last year, look nice while “Paddle to the Sea” is a bit on the beaten-up side) and lack any extras of note, the films themselves are wonderful works that deserve to be seen by viewers of all ages. (However, considering that the films are thematically linked and are each on the short side, why didn’t Criterion simply package them together in one set instead of putting them out on three separate, though admittedly low-priced, discs?)

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originally posted: 05/02/08 13:16:33
last updated: 05/02/08 14:22:19
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