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DVD Reviews for 5/16: Start Spreading The News--Frank's On DVD

by Peter Sobczynski

This week's roundup of releases includes everything from a couple of western classics making their DVD debuts to Leelee Sobieski running around in fetishwear. However, Ol' Blue Eyes dominates the proceedings with a plethora of box sets dedicated to his long screen career.

Although Frank Sinatra is justifiably hailed as arguably the single greatest musical entertainer to emerge in the 20th century, he also managed to carve out a fairly impressive career on the silver screen during that time as well. Sure, there were plenty of movies that he just coasted through with an absolute minimum of energy and enthusiasm (although there are numerous examples one could cite at this point, I will merely point you in the direction of the fairly woeful “Dirty Dingus McGee” in order to illustrate my point). However, when he was working with material that truly engaged him, he was perfectly capable of turning in a performance in front of the cameras as rich and detailed and vibrant as any that he gave behind a microphone. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of his passing, Warner Home Video has decided to celebrate Sinatra the actor with a quartet of box sets featuring many of the highlights of his screen career. Because they are owned by rival studios, two of his most famous films--1953’s “From Here to Eternity” (the film for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and 1962’s deliriously dark political thriller/black comedy/surrealistic nightmare “The Manchurian Candidate”--are not to be found here. However, the titles that have been selected offer a good cross-section that shows off his skills as both a singer and an actor.

“Frank Sinatra--The Early Years Collection” excludes Sinatra’s two earliest screen appearances (1941’s “Las Vegas Nights” and 1942’s “Ship Ahoy,” both of which he appeared in as a member of Tommy Dorsey’s band) but otherwise provides an interesting cross-section of his early steps at transforming his gifts from the recording studio to the big screen. 1943’s “Higher and Higher,” his first screen credit, is a silly romantic comedy in which he finds himself mixed up in a plot by valet Jack Haley to marry off scullery maid Michele Morgan to a rich husband when their former employer loses his fortune. 1944’s “Step Lively” was a musical remake of the stage warhorse “Room Service” (which had been filmed a few years earlier with the Marx Brothers) that gave Sinatra his first lead as a producer trying to rehearse his upcoming show from his hotel while trying to avoid both the manager and the enormous bill that he and his company have run up. “The Kissing Bandit” (1948) offers up the questionable site of Sinatra as the son of a Mexican family who would like to see him follow in the family tradition and become the notorious “Kissing Bandit.” Finally, 1951’s “Double Dynamite” sees him paired up with Groucho Marx in a farce in which he plays a bank teller whose plans to marry his sweetheart (Jane Russell, presumably the inspiration for the film’s title) are upended when he becomes embroiled in an embezzlement plot. None of the titles in this collection are essential viewing for anyone other than hard-core Sinatra devotees but if I had to pick one, I would probably go with “Double Dynamite” simply because of the decidedly odd teaming of Sinatra and Marx.

More familiar territory is covered in “The Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection,” a set bringing together three previously released musical favorites co-starring the two legends. First up is 1945’s “Anchors Aweigh,” in which they play a couple of sailors who find themselves falling for the same woman (Kathryn Grayson) while on leave for a few days in Hollywood. In 1949’s “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” they are baseball players who find themselves trying to elude gamblers and woo Esther Williams, who just happens to be the team’s new owner. Following in the footsteps of “Anchors Aweigh,” 1949’s “On the Town” features the two of them (along with third wheel Jules Munshin) as sailors who find themselves involved in whirlwind romances while on a 24-hour pass in New York City. Picking just one of these three titles as a highlight is nearly impossible--all three are well worth seeing--but if forced to choose, I would have to pick “Anchors Aweigh” simply because it is the one that features the classic scene of Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the Mouse.

While the first two collections highlighted Sinatra’s facility for musical comedy, his dramatic chops are given a full workout in “Frank Sinatra--The Golden Years.” Oddly enough, the set kicks off with the incredibly frivolous 1955 effort “The Tender Trap,” in which he plays a theatrical agent wooing young actress Debbie Reynolds while married best pal David Wayne finds himself enamored with his friend’s current girlfriend (Celeste Holm). Perhaps recognizing that he needed to do something more substantial in order to capitalize on the acclaim that he received for his serious turns in “From Here to Eternity” and “Suddenly,” he took on the role of a former heroin addict who is trying to avoid relapsing after being released from prison in Otto Preminger’s controversial 1995 adaptation of Nelson Algren’s “The Man with the Golden Arm.” In 1958, he teamed up with Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine and director Vincente Minnelli for “Some Came Running,” but this is not the frivolous musical comedy that such a teaming might indicate. In fact, it is an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical James Jones novel in which Sinatra plays a writer who returns to his Indiana hometown after serving in WW II and becomes involved in the lives of his best pal (Martin), his successful-but-bored brother (Arthur Kennedy), a schoolteacher who loathes him personally but loves his work (Martha Hyer) and a good-hearted floozy (MacLaine) who isn’t much to talk to but who loves him unquestioningly. 1965’s “None But the Brave” saw Sinatra take his first and only stab at directing with a familiar World War II tale of a group of American and Japanese soldiers trapped on the same tiny island who are forced to forge an uneasy alliance in order to survive. The set closes off with 1965’s “Marriage on the Rocks,” a silly comedy in which he goes down to Mexico to celebrate his wedding anniversary to wife Deborah Kerr and accidentally gets a divorce instead--if that weren’t enough, she winds up accidentally marrying best pal Dean Martin. With all due respect to “The Man with the Golden Arm,” the pick of this collection (indeed, the pick of all the DVDs being released this week) is the long-overdue release of the masterful “Some Came Running”--with the exception of “The Manchurian Candidate,” it is easily the best and most powerful film that he ever made(especially the shattering and surreal finale) and his performance is arguably the best that he ever gave in front of a movie camera.

Outside of “The Manchurian Candidate” and “From Here to Eternity” (the film that won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1953), the most famous films that Sinatra ever made were probably the so-called “Rat Pack” extravaganzas that he did with pals likes Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and others in the early 1960’s and those films are collected in the final Sinatra set, “The Rat Pack Ultimate Collector’s Edition.” It starts off with the most famous title of the bunch, the 1960 caper classic “Ocean’s Eleven,” in which he gathers together a bunch of old Army buddies (including Martin, Davis, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Henry Silva and Norman Fell) to knock off a casino on New Year’s Eve with an elaborate plan that involves Frank wooing Angie Dickinson and wearing some of the ugliest sweaters ever seen on film while Dean sings “Ain’t That A Kick in the Head” approximately 719 times. (The film, of course, was later transformed into the money-spinning Clooney-Pitt-Damon-Soderbergh franchise of the same name and also inspired the hilarious SCTV sketch “Maudlin’s Eleven.”) Next up is 1962’s “Sergeants 3,” a loose comedy-Western remake of “Gunga Din” in which the boys play cavalry men trying to quell an Indian uprising led by Henry Silva. To call 1963’s “Four for Texas” is a bit of a stretch--only Sinatra and Martin appear in it as a couple of rival gamblers who join forces to open a riverboat casino--but it is hard to resist any movie in which the female leads are played by Anita Ekberg and Ursula Andress, the bad guys are Charles Bronson and Victor Buono and the comedy relief is supplied by the Three Stooges. Happily, the whole gang (minus Peter Lawford, who was bumped from the group after John F. Kennedy, who was related to Lawford by marriage and who Sinatra idolized, wound up staying at Bing Crosby’s house instead of Sinatra’s during a West Coast visit) was reunited for 1964’s “Robin and the Seven Hoods,” a musical version of the Robin Hood story set in Prohibition-era Chicago with Sinatra as Robin, Martin as Little John, Davis as Will Scarlett, Barbara Rush as Maid Marian and Bing Crosby in the role that was once slated to be played by. . .Peter Lawford. (Burn!) Although “Ocean’s Eleven” is a hugely entertaining bit of piffle that I try to watch every New Year’s Eve if possible, I think I have to give the edge to “Robin and the Seven Hoods” and not just because I am a Chicago boy--I give it the edge because it was the only Rat Pack musical (including the classic tune “My Kind of Town”) and because Peter Falk is hilarious as Sinatra’s chief gangland rival.

FRANK SINATRA--THE EARLY YEARS COLLECTION: A Warner Home Video release. $39.98


FRANK SINATRA--THE GOLDEN YEARS COLLECTION: A Warner Home Video release. $39.98.

THE RAT PACK ULTIMATE COLLECTOR’S EDITION: A Warner Home Video release. $59.98


AMATEUR PORN STAR KILLER 2 (Cinema Epoch. $19.99): Well, considering that there were so many unanswered questions at the end of the original “Amateur Porn Star Killer,” I guess that it was only a matter of time before there was a follow-up to the grisly 2007 underground film about a sicko who picks out a young woman at random to bring back to his place for a little bit of sex topped off with her grisly demise, all of it captured on his video camera. I suppose that if you are one of those people who has been eagerly awaiting the release of “The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” this should help you pass the time.

THE BIG TRAIL (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): This 1930 western from Raoul Walsh about a scout attempting to lead a party through hazardous terrain so that they can settle out west was forgotten in the mists of time for decades but has received a new critical appraisal in recent years for a couple of reasons. For one, it was one of the first films to be shot in the super-impressive 70mm format that would go on to be a staple for large-scale entertainments in subsequent decades. For another, it was one of the first films to topline a then-unknown performer by the name of John Wayne.

BON COP BAD COP (BFS Entertainment. $24.98: In this action-comedy that became an enormous box-office hit in its native Canada, two wildly mismatched police officers--a by-the-book Toronto cop who only speaks English (Colm Feore) and a rough-and-rumble French-speaking Quebecois (Patrick Huard)--are forced to join forces when a corpse is discovered on the border separating Quebec and Ontario. In other words, it is pretty much like every other buddy cop movie you can think of, only much more polite.

BOTCHED (Warner Home Video. $19.98): After messing up a heist big time, professional thief Stephen Dorff is sent off to Russia by his boss to steal an antique cross from the penthouse floor of a skyscraper. Alas, like most intricate heists masterminded by the likes of Stephen Dorff, it all goes to hell and he and his bumbling associates are forced to take hostages on the building’s unused and possibly haunted 13th floor.

CAN I DO IT. . .TILL I NEED GLASSES? (BCI/Eclipse. $14.98): The late 1970’s saw a string of sketch comedy movies--of the bunch, “Kentucky Fried Movie” was easily the best--and this 1977 effort, a sequel to 1975’s “If You Don’t Stop It. . .You’ll Go Blind,” was certainly one of them. The film is essentially a crudely executed string of moldy old burlesque gags brought to something vaguely resembling life and with plenty of nudity to help pass the time. The most interesting thing about this particular film is what happened with it after it was unleashed on a public that really did nothing to deserve it--a year or two later, the producers realized that a couple of sequences that they had filmed and deleted featured performances from the hottest new star of the era, Robin Williams, and immediately reinserted the scenes in order to re-release the thing as “Robin Williams’ first movie.”

THE CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION ULTIMATE COLLECTION (Universal Home Entertainment. $59.98): Previously released in a pair of long-out-of-print collections sold exclusively through Best Buy, Universal has reissued ten genre favorites from the 1940’s and 1950’s in one big set for fans who didn’t get a chance to pick them up the first time around. They include 1940’s “Dr Cyclops” (a mad scientist shrinks his test subjects to one-fifth their normal size), 1955’s “Cult of the Cobra” (a group of soldiers stumble across a mysterious cult of women who can transform themselves into snakes) and “Tarantula” (an experimental growth hormone causes the titular creature to grow to enormous size and wreak havoc--look for Clint Eastwood as one of the military pilots charged with bringing the beat down), 1956’s “The Mole People” (pretty much self-explanatory), 1957’s “The Deadly Mantis” (a giant praying mantis is woken up from its Arctic slumber and goes on a rampage), “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (the beloved Jack Arnold Adaptation of the Richard Matheson story), “The Land Unknown” (a scientific expedition gets lost in a crater thousands of miles below the Earth’s surface and stumble upon a perfectly preserved prehistoric world) and “The Monolith Monsters” (a collection of rocks from outer space arrive on Earth and petrify anyone who comes in contact with them), 1958’s “Monster on the Campus” (a college professor accidentally ingest the blood of a prehistoric fish--don’t ask--and regresses himself into primitive savagery in an odd precursor to Ken Russell’s 1980 cult classic “Altered States”) and 1960’s “The Leech Woman” (an aging socialite discovers the formula for eternal youth and finds that each dose requires a fresh human sacrifice for it to work).

THE COTTAGE (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.94): Continuing the thread of DVDs involving botched criminal activity that appears to be a theme this week, a pair of bumbling British kidnappers (Andy Serkis and Reece Shearsmith) and their ultra-feisty victim (Jennifer Ellison) hole up in a remote cabin and discover a little too late that their next-door neighbor is an axe-wielding psychopath.

DNA (Acorn Media. $39.99): Essentially a British riff on shows like “CSI” and its ilk, this series stars Tom Conti as a forensics expert with a troubled past who returns to work and uses his expertise to bring the bad guys to justice.

DRAWN TOGETHER--THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $26.98): In the third and final season of this animated spoof of reality shows--the gimmick is that a group of stock cartoon characters are forced to live together a la “The Real World”--Captain Hero forms his own fraternity, Ling-Ling takes up cockfighting, the entire gang participate in a singing contest not a million miles removed from “American Idol” and a Very Special Episode lets us see them all as toddlers. If you have never watched an episode of this show before, none of what I have written presumably makes any sense whatsoever. If you have watched it before, you have most likely already gone to the store to pick up your own copy

FOX CLASSIC WESTERNS (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): Like the title suggests, this set consists of three classic westerns making their long-awaited DVD debuts. Of the three, the pick hit is 1950’s masterful “The Gunfighter,” in which Gregory Peck plays a world-weary gunfighter who returns home in the hopes of patching things up with his estranged wife and child and finds only a number of hotshots hoping to make names for themselves by besting him in battle. (This, by the way, is the film that Bob Dylan is singing about in his hallucinatory 1986 epic “Brownsville Girl.”) However, the other two titles aren’t exactly shabby either--1951’s “Rawhide” is an intriguing noir-like oater in which Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward try to elude a gang of thieves who have taken the occupants of a stagecoach station hostage as part of a plot to steal a shipment of gold that is arriving the next day and 1954’s “The Garden of Evil” finds Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark leading a group hired by Susan Hayward to rescue her husband (Hugh Marlowe) after he is badly injured and trapped inside a remote gold mine.

FRONTIER(S) (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.98): Thanks to films like “Haute Tension” and the recent “Inside,” France has been making a stand for itself as the new home for ultra-gory horror epics and this one certainly carries on in that grisly tradition. This time around, a few dopes take advantage of riots in the streets of Paris to pull off a heist and head for the hills--alas, they wind up taking refuge at a remote inn run by inbred neo-Nazi torture freaks who go to work on them with a variety of nasty implements.

INDIANA JONES--THE ADVENTURE COLLECTION (Paramount Home Video. $59.98): As you have probably heard by now, there is a new Indiana Jones movie coming out in a few days and this is the inevitable double-dip re-release of the previous three films complete with new special features, including introductions to each film by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and several short futurities on topics ranging from the female characters seen in the series to how the infamous melting face from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was achieved. Alas, these new additions aren’t that special and, proving that there is nothing that we can possess that Paramount cannot take away, they have deleted the best extra from that first box set--a highly informative two-hour documentary chronicling the production of all the films--and haven’t provided anything substantial to replace it. Of course, if you never got around to picking up that earlier set, this set is essential but otherwise, there is no real reason to spend money on this unless you are truly obsessive.

LA CHINOISE/LE GAI SAVOIR (Koch Lorber. $29.98 each): What better way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the May, 1968 riots that galvanized Paris by watching a couple of new-to-DVD films from around that time made by the great Jean-Luc Godard as he was shifting from conventional narrative (or as conventional as he would allow himself) to a more dialectically-driven form of filmmaking. (Okay, you could spend the time watching Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” an admittedly excellent chronicle of the time that also features the gorgeous Eva Green in a large number of sexually explicit scenes--that said, is it that hard to just play along with me for just a little bit?) In 1967’s “La Chinoise,” a group of middle-class college students (including Jean-Pierre Leaud and Anne Wiazemsky) form a Maoist collective and decide to spark their own revolution by resorting to urban terrorism. Leaud returns in 1969’s equally radical “Le Gai Savoir,” in which he and fellow militant Juliet Berto come to the conclusion that language is the central weapon utilized by the establishment to inspire confusion and chaos amidst those seeking revolution and so choose to fight back by deconstructing sound and image in order to communicate through them instead. Admittedly, these two films are not the best entry point for newcomers to the world of Godard but for those who have studied his work for a while, these two relative rarities are well worth snapping up. While “Le Gai Savoir” has no extras to speak of, the “La Chinoise” disc includes a new intro by Godard biographer Colin McCabe along with footage of the press conference that followed the film’s debut at the Venice Film Festival along with vintage interviews with Godard and Wiazemsky.

THE LOVERS (The Criterion Collection. $29.95): Quite scandalous when it was released in 1959 (and still a bit of an eyebrow-raiser today in parts), this early effort from Louis Malle reunited him with Jeanne Moreau, the star of his 1958 breakthrough “Elevator to the Gallows,” for this erotic drama about a woman who, after growing bored with both her husband and her current lover, finds passion in the arms of the hunky young man (Jean-Marc Bory) who gave her a lift when her car broke down when she was coming home from an assignation. This disc also includes samples of the promotional material used during its controversial U.S. release and vintage interviews with Malle and Moreau, along with co-star Jose Luis de Villalonga and screenwriter Louise de Vilmorin.

MAD MONEY (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $29.98): In what can only be described as this generation’s “How to Beat the High Cost of Living” (and how about that for an obscure reference?), Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes star in this weak caper comedy about a trio of down-on-their-luck employees of the Federal Reserve who hatch a plot to steal a good chunk of the million dollars in worn-out bills that are slated for destruction every day. At this point, I would recommend that you skip this one and curl up with a copy of the infinitely funnier “Who’s Minding the Mint?,” the 1967 comedy in which an employee of the U.S. Mint (along with several associates) is forced to break into the place in order to reprint some money he inadvertently destroyed. Alas, while “Mad Money” is now available to on and all on DVD, that film mysteriously has yet to be released.

MAN OF THE WEST (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): In one of the all-time great Westerns (and certainly one of the darkest made during the genre’s heyday), this 1958 classic from Anthony Mann stars Gary Cooper (in one of his best performances) as a reformed outlaw who stumbles upon his old gang and is forced by its leader (Lee J. Cobb) to help pull off one last job--unfortunately, Cooper isn’t really into it and his former partners, who still resent his leaving him and suspicious about his sudden reappearance, find themselves plotting against him. Dark, brutal and utterly devoid of cheap sentiment or catharsis, one can easily draw a line between this tough little gem and such later revisionist oaters as “Unforgiven” and the various efforts of Sam Peckinpah. If you are still in the mood for a western fix after checking this one out (and this is arguably the best title to come out this week), you might also want to check out the DVD debuts of 1940’s “The Westerner” (a more traditional effort starring Cooper) and the 1967 Kirk Douglas-Robert Mitchum vehicle “The Way West.”

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE--THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $49.99): It is rumored that when the original “Star Trek” series was being cast, Martin Landau was offered the role of Spock and turned it down to star in another television series that was starting up at the same time, a little thing called “Mission: Impossible”--the role, of course, went to Leonard Nimoy. Three years later, Landau quit “Mission: Impossible” and guess who the producers hired to replace him in the new role of a magician known as Paris? That’s right--Leonard Nimoy, whose planned five-year voyage on the Starship Enterprise had just come to an abrupt ending with two years to spare. Isn’t learning fun?

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE--THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Universal Home Entertainment. $69.98): Among the sights you will see in what is arguably the single most consistently funny season in the history of the long-running sketch comedy show--the network debuts of Jake and Elwood Blues, Steve Martin performing “King Tut,” Nick the Lounge Lizard singing the little-known lyrics to the “Star Wars” theme, the adventures of “Stunt Baby” and the studio being attacked by giant lobsters, musical guests such as Meat Loaf, Jackson Browne and Elvis Costello (in his infamous moment when he hijacked the airwaves by halting the song he was supposed to do in order to perform the unapproved “Radio Radio” and a lineup of guest hosts including Hugh Hefner (who opens his show with a rendition of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”), prodigal son Chevy Chase (who got into a backstage fistfight with Bill Murray just before going onstage), O.J. Simpson (who tries to put a hex on Walter Payton) and Miskel Spillman, the winner of the show’s first “Anyone Can Host” contest. (The winner of the second? Paris Hilton.)

TOBOR THE GREAT (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $14.98): In this intriguing bit of low-budget sci-fi pulp fiction from 1954, a professor devises a robot to be utilized in manned space flights and he and his grandson are kidnapped by foreign spies who want the plans in order to build an army of killer bots--luckily, the original robot (cleverly named Tobor--spell it backwards) arrives in the nick of time to save the day for one and all. Granted, the film walks an uneasy line between Cold War paranoia and kid-movie shtick but Tobor himself is so cool-looking that most sci-fi fans will be willing to overlook its other flaws.

UNTRACEABLE (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.98): Diane Lane is utterly wasted in this deeply unpleasant and deeply idiotic cyber-thriller in which she plays a cyber-cop on the trail of a cyber-psycho who is not only torturing people to death via the Internet, he has rigged up a special website that accelerates the deaths of his victims as more people log in. Not even worth watching via illegal download.

WALK ALL OVER ME (Genius Products. $19.95): Leelee Sobieski plays a troubled young woman on the run who hides out with Tricia Helfer, a babe who used to be her babysitter and who now makes ends meet as a professional dominatrix. Inevitably, Leelee snaps on some rubber herself and winds up causing more trouble for everyone else in a direct-to-video enterprise that is, not surprisingly, nowhere near as good as it might sound. That said, the sight of Sobieski in fetish gear is enough to make the film her artistic high-water mark of the year to date--then again, when you have also appeared in “In the Land of the King” and “88 Minutes” during that same time, I suppose there is nowhere to go but up.

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originally posted: 05/16/08 13:25:06
last updated: 05/16/08 14:13:39
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