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DVD Reviews for 5/30: “The Nightmare Has Already Begun!”

by Peter Sobczynski

If you are looking for something to do this weekend that doesn’t involve sitting through the “Sex and the City” movie--and if you have any taste or common sense, you are doing just that--there are plenty of interesting DVDs out this week to help you pass the time, including one of the great fantasy films of all time, a television cult classic with plenty of appeal for new generations of viewers, some gratuitous Ione Skye and the perfect bargaining chip for any guy in danger of being forced to watch the misadventures of Sarah Jessica Parker and company.

Before getting on to the usual nonsense, I would like to briefly acknowledge the passing of two significant members of the entertainment world, Sydney Pollack and Harvey Korman. While I could easily fill up an entire column discussing their contributions--Pollack for his work behind the camera as the director of such diverse films as "The Yakuza," "Three Days of the Condor" and "Tootsie" and in front of it as a performer who made memorable appearances in the likes of "The Player," "Death Becomes Her," "Husbands and Wives," "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Michael Clayton" and Korman for his work on the small screen with Carol Burnett and on the big screen with Mel Brooks--I think that the best way to celebrate their work would be to experience it first hand. To that end, please enjoy these two clips that show them at their best and which just happen to be among the funniest things ever seen in the history of American film.

Sydney Pollack
Harvey Korman

With the summer movie season kicking into high gear, moviegoers can expect a seemingly never-ending string of effects-heavy epics trying to dazzle viewers with any number of awe-inspiring sights and sounds. Some of them will be good (“Iron Man”) and some of them will be awful (“Speed Racer”) but while they will most likely divert undiscriminating multiplex droves for a couple of hours, how many of them do you think will wind up standing the test of time to the degree that people will still be watching them with breathless excitement decades from now? Well, the new Indiana Jones movie might sneak in simply because of its association with the unquestioned classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Dark Knight” might make it as well if Christopher Nolan has indeed managed to make a film that actually lives up to its awesome-looking trailer. Beyond that, I seriously doubt that future generations will be looking upon this year’s crop of would-be dazzlers with the same kind of amazement that you can experience for yourself by watching the new Criterion Collection edition of the 1940 classic “The Thief of Bagdad,” a sumptuous work of fantasy cinema that is just as entertaining and awe-inspiring to experience today as it must have been for audiences who saw it when it was first released.

Loosely inspired by the famous story collection “Thousand and One Nights,” the film starts off by introducing us to a blind beggar and his mangy mutt, a king and a princess trapped in an eternal sleep inside the house of a wealthy merchant and then backtracks to show that there is more to them than meets the eye. The blind beggar, we discover, is Ahmad (John Justin), the former king of the land. One day, his chief advisor Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) convinced him to go out amongst his people anonymously in order to get to know them better. What Ahmad didn’t realize, sadly, was that Jaffar was a power-hungry monster who wanted to rule the world and while Ahmad was away learning of a prophecy that a young boy, “the lowest of the low,” would one day free them from a tyrant, Jaffar usurped the throne and had the incognito Ahmad thrown in prison and sentenced to death. On the night before Ahmad’s execution, a young thief named Abu (Sabu) is locked in the same cell and he quickly sets both of them free. The two make their way to Basra, where Ahmad meets and falls in love with a beautiful princess (June Duprez) and the two pledge everlasting love, as was the custom in those days. Alas, the princess’ father already pledged her hand in marriage to Jaffar in exchange for a mechanical flying horse and she runs away, only to wind up in the hands of the merchant where she falls into a deep, grief-stricken sleep. Ahmad and Abu are arrested and have a curse placed upon them by Jaffar that makes Ahmad blind and transforms Abu into a dog--the only way the curse can be broken is when Jaffar finally gets to hold the princess in her arms.

I don’t want to say anything more about the storyline, partly because it is the least successful aspect of “Thief of Bagdad.“ Perhaps as the result of the film’s convoluted production history--it was shut down at one point by producer Alexander Korda in order to devote his resources to producing a propaganda film to aid in the British war effort and contained contributions from three credited directors (including the great Michael Powell, who would go on to be one of England’s leading filmmakers) and several uncredited hands (including Korda and famed production designer William Cameron Menzies)--or from its willingness to slip in as many elements of the “Thousand and One Nights” tales as possible, the storyline is unnecessarily cluttered and complicated when it should be as streamlined as possible. Imagine if “The Wizard of Oz” had begun with Dorothy and her friends arriving at the Wizard’s palace and then explaining how they came to be there. It becomes especially confusing at first glance because while the initial scenes lead you to believe that Ahmad will be the central character, it soon turns out that Abu is really the central character that drives the story while he is essentially relegated to the background for the last half.

However, once you see the film, the convoluted structure winds up ironing itself out in your mind to the degree that it winds up playing as a much more straightforward tale in your mind than it does on the screen. More importantly, most viewers will find themselves more or less ignoring the narrative complexities because they will be too busy being dazzled by the astounding sights and sounds on display. Simply put, the film contains some of the greatest images in the history of fantasy film in the form of the various things that Abu encounters in his journey to help his new friend--the appearance of the genie (Rex Ingram) that emerges from a bottle to grant him three wishes, the giant spider he must defeat in order to claim the all-important All-Seeing Eye and the magic carpet that he takes flight on in the climax that allows him to both rescue his friend and inspire an uprising that brings that aforementioned prophecy to life. These effects, and many others, stunned audiences back in 1940 (especially in their ravishing Technicolor hues) and while they would hardly be considered state-of-the-art by today’s standards, they still have the power to capture the imagination in much the same way that the original “King Kong” does. Beyond the visual effects, there are plenty of other things to admire about the film--the rousing Miklos Rozsa score, the vivid cinematography from George Perinal, the swift pace of the story once all of the background details are finally explained and the great performances from Conrad Veidt as the evil, yet somewhat sympathetic Jaffar and Sabu as the high-spirited Abu. Put them all together and you have the kind of timeless cinematic classic that will never fail to cast a hypnotic spell on anyone who encounters it.

In the past, Criterion has offered up any number of beautiful editions of Powell’s works--their editions of “The Red Shoes,” “Peeping Tom,” “Tales of Hoffmann” and “Black Narcissus” belong in the collections of any true film fanatic for their presentations as well as for the bounty of supplemental materials--and their take on “The Thief of Bagdad” is as impressive as any of their previous efforts. The first disc of the 2-disc set is largely given over to the film itself, which has been given a beautiful new transfer with a gloriously gaudy color scheme that is almost eye-popping at certain points. However, the disc also features the original theatrical trailer, an isolated music and sound effects track that allows you to more fully appreciate Rozsa’s stirring contributions and two commentary tracks--one from historian Bruce Eder that goes into the historical background of the production and offers a wealth of details about its creation and one from a couple of little-known filmmakers by the names of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who spend their time simply geeking out on the film while talking about how it helped to influence their own efforts over the years. The second disc kicks off with “Visual Effects,” a documentary in which noted effects wizards Ray Harryhausen, Dennis Muren and Craig Barron discuss the film’s still-impressive special effects, the 1940 propaganda film “The Lion Has Wings,” which producer Korda made during the time when “The Thief of Bagdad” was in the midst of a production hiatus, audio recordings of Powell dictating portions of his wonderful autobiography “A Life in Film” dealing with the film’s production, a recording of a 1976 radio interview with Rozsa and a still gallery. With a bounty like that, even the most adept genie would be hard-pressed to come up with something better for fans of this classic.

Written by Miles Malleson. Directed by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan. Starrring Conrad Veidt, Sabu, June Duprez, John Justin and Rex Ingram. 1940. 106 minutes. Unrated. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95


ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS--ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING (BBC Warner. $129.98) If you want to spend this weekend watching the misadventures of drunken and trampy female friends who are slightly past their shelf dates but have the weird idea that they should be funny and entertaining, then dive into this 9-disc collection that consists of every episode of the immensely popular 1990’s British comedy series, all the specials that stars Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders did after it ended and a slew of bonus features including commentaries, deleted scenes and outtakes. At this time, I would just like to add that my crush on the adorable Saffron (Julia Sawahla) continues unabated to this day.

THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA (BBC Warner. $29.98): Based on the Hanif Kureishi novel of the same name and directed by Roger Michell (the two would later collaborate on “The Mother“ and “Venus“), this 1993 miniseries stars future “Lost” star Naveen Andrews in an early role as a young half-Indian/half-British man making his way through the increasingly racist British society of the 1960’s while struggling to make it as an actor. Highly acclaimed in its home country, this title is probably best known here in certain circles because of the soundtrack from an up-and-comer by the name of David Bowie

CASSANDRA’S DREAM (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $24.95): In Woody Allen’s latest film, two British brothers (Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor) with money troubles ask a well-to-do-uncle for enough money to bail them out--he agrees on the condition that they do a little favor for him and it is that favor that proves to be their undoing. Although the film contains some excellent performances (from the aforementioned actors as well as newcomer Hayley Atwell as a sexy actress who turns McGregor’s head), it turns out to be one of Allen’s lesser efforts because the themes that he is dealing with here (guilt, sin and retribution) are ones that he explored to far greater effect in films such as “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point”--while it never sinks to the depths of “Anything Else” or “Scoop,” there is not much of anything here for anyone other than the most hard-core Allen fanatics and even they may come away from it somewhat disappointed.

CLEANER (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): Having already made some of the silliest movies to achieve a commercial theatrical release in the last few years (“Exorcist IV,” “Mindhunters,” “The Covenant”), Renny Harlin finally hits the world of direct-to-video releases with this item featuring Samuel L. Jackson heading a surprisingly strong cast (including Ed Harris, Eva Mendes, Luis Guzman and Robert Forster) as a former cop who now works for a service that cleans up violent crime scenes whose realization that he may have inadvertently destroyed evidence during one particular job leads him into a web of mystery and deceit. I guess this means that Harlin really is Finnish in Hollywood after all. (I realize that I have probably used some form of this unforgivable pun before--however, it was just so appropriate that I simply couldn’t help myself.)

DARFUR NOW (Warner Home Video. $4.99): In this well-meaning but fairly dry 2007 documentary, the horror of what is going on in Darfur is examined through the viewpoints of six different people--an American activist trying to call attention to the tragedy, a woman from the region who has joined up with the rebel forces, a prosecutor at The Hague who despairs of ever getting those responsible for the countless atrocities to stand trial for their crimes, a U.N ambassador working in the Sudan, a relief worker in a West Darfur refugee camp and actor Don Cheadle, who recruits buddy George Clooney to use his celebrity to help convince people to take a look at the problem.

THE DARIO ARGENTO BOX SET (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $49.98): On the eve of the release of the jaw-dropping “Mother of Tears,” the long-awaited completion of his legendary “Three Mothers Trilogy,” Anchor Bay is reissuing five remastered DVDs of films from Italian horror maestro Dario Argento and while the set doesn’t include any of his finest efforts (such as “Deep Red,” “Opera” or previous “Mother” entries “Suspiria” and “Inferno”), the majority of the titles are well worth examining for anyone interested in wild and wooly Eurohorror at its gaudiest and goriest. 1982’s “Tenebrae,” in which Tony Franciosa plays a horror novelist who is being stalked by a killer who is murdering people in ways inspired by his books, is the best of the bunch--a knockout example of the giallo genre with some beautifully choreographed set-pieces and gallons of the red stuff. 1985’s “Phenomena,” on the other hand, may well be the most bizarre thing that he has ever done--a strange salad of a film involving a schoolgirl (a distressingly young and gorgeous Jennifer Connelly) who can communicate with insects, a mad slasher who is slaughtering her classmates at a Swiss boarding school, a mad scientist (Donald Pleasance) and a razor-wielding monkey. 1993’s “Trauma” marked Argento’s second attempt (after “Two Evil Eyes,” his 1990 collaboration with George Romero) to work within the American film industry and while the tale of an anorexic junkie who finds herself pursued by a maniac killing people with a portable guillotine in order to avenge a long-ago wrong, was a definite step below his best work (which may be why he went back to Italy after this one) but it does have its interesting elements, including a couple of nifty death scenes (the best one involving Brad Dourif and an elevator shaft) and a nice early performance from Argento’s daughter Asia in the lead role. 2004’s “The Card Player,” however, is the single worst thing that Argento has ever made--a dull-as-dishwater cyber-thriller about a maniac who challenges the police to games of Internet poker with the lives of his victims at stake that doesn’t even have any instances of his normally flamboyant visual style to help move things along. Finally, “Do You Like Hitchcock?,” which he made for Italian television in 2005, is a silly but entertaining homage to you-know-who in which a film student cramming for an exam about the Master of Horror becomes convinced that a couple of sexy babes in the apartment across the street have killed one person and are about to do it again.

GRACE IS GONE (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $24.95): John Cusack stars as a befuddled father of two adorable young daughters who impulsively takes them on a road trip from their home in Minnesota to an amusement park in Florida in order to postpone telling them that Mommy has been killed fighting in Iraq. Just as crass, cloying and manipulative as it sounds, the film is unspeakably awful as a road film, a family bonding film and as an examination of our role in Iraq and the fact that it won both the Audience Award and the best Screenplay prizes at last year’s Sundance Film Festival year only proves that one should always be wary of any film that does well at that particular festival.

THE GRAND: COMPLETE COLLECTION (Acorn Media. $59.99): No, this isn’t the recent poker-themed mockumentary that managed to co-star both Werner Herzog and Shannon Elizabeth (which must have made for the greatest wrap party ever). This is actually a box set collecting all 18 episodes of the 1997-98 British-made short-run television series from writer Russell T. Davies (whose credits include “Doctor Who” and the British version of “Queer as Folk”) that observed the dramatic and occasionally shocking ins (no pun intended) and outs of a lavish Manchester hotel though the eyes of the seemingly well-to-do owners and the lower-class employees as well as the myriad guests. Yeah, it is essentially a high-toned soap opera but with all the English accents, it just seems somehow classier.

THE INVADERS--THE FIRST SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $36.98): Before going on to become the writer-director of such cinematic cult classics as “It’s Alive,” “Q-The Winged Serpent” and “The Stuff,” Larry Cohen developed this hugely entertaining (though sadly short-lived) 1967 television series that combined the best elements of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Fugitive” and would go on to become a key influence on “The X-Files.” Roy Thinnes stars as an architect who inadvertently discovers that aliens from a dying world have landed on Earth and assumed perfect human forms (save for their quaintly deformed little fingers) in an effort to conquer the planet. Alas, Thinnes can’t convince anyone of his claims--the aliens disintegrate when they are killed--and each episode finds him going from town to town in order to investigate mysterious phenomenon and find the proof that he needs to back up his claims while dodging attacks from the creatures. A marvelous bit of paranoid fun that holds up might fine today, this 5-disc set includes all 17 episodes from the first season, the original 60-minute version of the pilot, a commentary on the key episode “The Innocent” from Cohen and a new interview and episode introductions from Thinnes.

THE LATHER EFFECT (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.98): A group of high-school pals from the 1980’s reunite 20 years later for a retro party and wind up reminiscing about who they used to be and pondering who they became. Normally, the idea of watching a “Big Chill” knockoff in which the nostalgic characters are the same age as I am would strike me as unspeakably depressing. However, I am willing to cut it some slack due to the fact that the cast includes the always-welcome sight of Ione Skye alongside such lesser lights of Eric Stoltz, Peter Facinelli and Tate Donovan. (Yes, lesser than Tate Donovan.)

LIPSTICK JUNGLE--THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): In what can presumably only be described as an astonishing coincidence, Universal has chosen this week to release the DVD of this mid-season replacement series from “Sex and the City” creator Candace Bushnell involving--you guessed it--three high-powered career women (Brooke Shields, Kim Raver and Lindsay Price) brashly and boldly (though not too boldly as this was for commercial television instead of premium cable) dealing with life and love on the streets of New York.

NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE (Facets Home Video. $24.95): In this companion piece to Japanese filmmaker Sino Sono’s grisly 2002 horror film “Suicide Club” (which kicked off with the eye-opening sight of 54 schoolgirls committing mass suicide by leaping in front of a subway train on orders of a youth cult they belonged and went on from there), a young girl with an unhappy home life whose only solace is another girl she meets on line with similar problems--when she runs away to meet her e-pal, she discovers that it is actually a woman who is running a cult that grows more and more ominous as time passes. Although nowhere near as icky as “Suicide Club,” this is still a fairly creepy film that may actually be superior to the not-too-shabby original as is definitely worth checking out for fans of Asian horror who are looking for something more than another piece of junk involving stringy-haired ghosts making weird noises.

RAMBO--THE COMPLETE COLLECTION (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $54.98): All four of the Sylvester Stallone action epics are collected together for the first time. Of the four, 1982’s “First Blood’ remains the best of the bunch, a tough-as-nails action epic that actually have some intelligent things to say about the plight of Vietnam vets who were unable to readjust to contemporary society after experiencing the horrors of combat. The enormously popular 1985 film “Rambo: First Blood Part II” is a pretty schizoid experience as the often-exhilarating action sequences (courtesy of then-unknown co-writer James Cameron) co-exist uneasily with crackpot political commentary (courtesy of Stallone). The 1988 flop “Rambo III,” in which he finds himself in Afghanistan helping the rebels in the mountains (in other words, the Taliban) defend themselves against Soviet invasion, was a bad movie 20 years ago and is now only interesting as a curio because of the ick facto that developed around the premise in the wake of 9/11. As for the recent “Rambo,” whose release is the impetus for this set (and which is also sold separately), it pretty much comes across as a more incoherent version of “First Blood Part II” that goes so over-the-top in terms of its sadism and bloodshed that it almost plays more like a self-parody than as a genuine attempt to revive a long-dormant franchise in the way that Stallone managed a couple of years ago with the unexpectedly winning “Rocky Balboa."

SUSPENSION (Warner Home Video. $19.98): In this direct-to-video sci-fi film, a man copes with the aftermath of a car accident that claimed the lives of his wife and son in that most time-honored of ways--he rebuilds the son’s video camera, discovers that it now has the power to freeze time whenever the “pause” button is used and uses this contraption to come to the aid of a woman whose new husband was yet another victim of the crash.

THE TAKE (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96) In this direct-to-video action-drama, John Leguizamo stars as an armored car driver and family man (his wife is none other than the irrepressible Rosie Perez) who barely survives a hijacking of his truck and who sets of in search of his attackers before they can somehow frame him for their crimes.

THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION, VOLUME 2: 1937-1939 (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): In what has got to be one of the shrewdest DVD marketing tie-ins in recent memory, Sony has chosen to release this second installment of its ambitious plan to release every single Stooges short in chronological order--24 nicely remastered and restored titles spanning the trio’s key years of 1937-1939 and including such classics as “Three Dumb Clucks,” “Playing the Ponies,” “Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb,” “Violent is the Word for Curly” and “Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise”--during the exact same week as the appearance of the omega to its alpha, that “Sex and the City” nonsense, just in time to be used as a key bargaining chip. (“Sure I’ll go to the movie, honey, but then you have to watch this with me.”) On behalf of men everywhere, I would like to take this opportunity to say “Thank you, Sony Home Entertainment! Thank you very much!”

THE WALKER (Thinkfilm. $27.98): Writer-director Paul Schrader returns from the decidedly unpleasant experience of “”Dominion” with this riff on his earlier hit “American Gigolo” in which Woody Harrelson plays a well-heeled escort to the socially elite women of Washington D.C. who finds himself in a lot of trouble when he tries to help one (Kristin Scott Thomas) from being implicated in an especially sordid scandal. While it won’t go down as one of Schrader’s essential works as either a writer or a director, it is nevertheless a reasonably intriguing riff on some of his favorite themes and the central performance from Woody Harrelson is definitely a keeper.

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originally posted: 05/30/08 12:05:27
last updated: 05/31/08 02:26:19
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