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DVD Reviews for 6/6: Asia Major

by Peter Sobczynski

This week’s roundup includes everything from tough cops and blind starlets to talking sharks and the comedy stylings of Steven Seagal. In other words, if you can’t find something in here worth checking out, you simply aren’t trying hard enough. (Either that or you are too distracted by the accompanying photos and if that is the case, I can hardly blame you.)

There are certain performers who bring such an off-beat energy, style and charisma to whatever they do that when they make an appearance in a film, no matter how brief it might be and no matter how dreadful the rest of it has been up to that point, it forces you to sit up and take notice--their mere presence indicates that things are certain to take off and come alive for at least as long as they are on the screen and it also stands to reason that if the people making the movie had the wit, wisdom and intelligence to cast them in the first place, it is entirely possible that those qualities might reveal themselves in other aspects as well. To my eyes, Asia Argento is definitely one of those performers. Yes, she is gorgeous and yes, she is talented but it goes far beyond that--whenever she sets foot in a movie, her singular presence--half-feral and half-femme fatale--is a signal to the viewer that everything about the film is now up for grabs because she is not the kind of actress who is willing to play it safe in regards to the projects and the roles that she chooses. Take “Boarding Gate,” a bizarre blend of kinky erotica and financial skullduggery from acclaimed filmmaker Oliver Assayas that is making its debut on DVD this week after a brief tour of the art house circuit earlier this spring. It contains the kind of material that most actresses pay their agents and handlers the big bucks to keep them as far away from as possible. And yet, she embraces every strange and borderline perverse element with such zeal and commitment that she single-handedly transformed what might have otherwise been deemed an inexplicable mess (and to be fair, it could still be called that with no argument from this corner) into a strangely compelling work of genius/insanity that is almost impossible to turn away from thanks to her considerable efforts.

Here, Argento plays Sandra, an ambitious young woman who works for a Paris-based import business run by a young married couple, Lester and Sue Wang (Carl Ng and Kelly Lin) and maintains a secondary business in drug running with fellow employee Lisa (Joana Preiss). As the film opens, she is paying a surprise visit to Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen), a powerful businessman whose finances are currently in such questionable shape that he has entered discussions to turn over his interests in his security company to outsiders in order to settle his debts. Over the course of a long conversation, we gradually discover the past relationship shared by the two--he used to essentially pimp her out to potential clients, partly to get a leg up, so to speak, on them when it came time for negotiations and partly for the kinky and masochistic thrills to be had from ordering someone to do your bidding--and the reason why Sandra has dropped by--tired of hustling, she wants to open a nightclub in China and wants him to front her the money. He clearly is less interested in the proposal than he is in her and invites her to come to his apartment later on for a visit. After one of her drug deals goes spectacularly wrong, Sandra shows up at Miles’ apartment and finds that he is ready to pick up where they left off--he locks her in the apartment with him and even has a shiny pair of handcuffs that are ready to be put to good use. What happens from this point on, I leave for you to discover but I will that Sandra finds herself enmeshed in the kind of topsy-turvy narrative that so frequently yanks the rug out from under our feet that after a while, the film doesn’t even bother to replace it before the next inexplicable turn of events.

If you are a fan of Assayas, you no doubt recall his somewhat similar 2002 film “demonlover,” another oddball blend of big business and sexual perversion in which a group of cutthroat corporate types went to such extreme lengths to close their deals that even Gordon Gekko himself might have been somewhat taken aback by their methods. If you are a fan of Asia Argento’s, you may well recall her role in “New Rose Hotel,” Abel Ferrara’s surreal 1998 adaptation of the William Gibson short story in which she played a sexy young woman hired by questionable corporate types Willem Dafoe and Christopher Walken to seduce a Japanese genius to defect to their company. As it turns out, “Boarding Gate” has even more in common with those two films--it contains a plot that is virtually impenetrable even before it veers off into near-surrealism in the final reels. Every once in a while, Assayas seems ready to make some kind of grand statement about something--the evils of capitalism or the intrusion of the win-at-all-costs corporate mindset into every aspect of contemporary life or the similar emotional dynamics that exist in the worlds of high finance and kinky sex--but every time he gets ready to let loose, he throws in yet another distraction to confuse matters even further. And the less said about the performance by Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon as a mysterious businesswoman who may or may not be behind everything, the better.

And yet, these turn out to be only minor concerns because whenever Asia Argento is on the screen, she is the only thing that anyone watching “Boarding Gate” is going to be focused on. Since she is known both on and off the screen for her highly carnal, wild child persona, some have suggested that she is merely playing herself in her films and that she has no real acting chops to speak of. On the surface, this is a fairly stupid assertion because it fails to take into consideration that she has shown more than enough range in her roles, including her turns as Madame du Barry in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” and as a fiery courtesan in Catherine Breillat’s electrifying costume drama “The Last Mistress”) to prove that she is not merely portraying herself. However, even when she is theoretically playing within her comfort zone, as she is pretty much doing in “Boarding Gate,” she is not merely coasting by on a cloud of punky attitude and filmy underwear. Check out her two extended one-on-one scenes opposite Madsen and you will get a good idea of her considerable range--as those sequences play out, she goes through an astonishing array of attitudes ranging from sexual provocateur to vulnerable young woman and emotions running the gamut from playful abandon to righteous, steel-eyed fury and she nails every one of them perfectly. Even when the film threatens to bog down into total confusion (which is often), she serves as a clear-eyed and cold-hearted tour guide into a world that few of us could possibly understand and the result is a journey as strange, fascinating and compulsive watchable as its star.

Written and directed by Oliver Assayas. Starring Asia Argento, Michael Madsen, Carl Ng, Kelly Lin and Kim Gordon. 2007. Rated R. 106 minutes. A Magnolia Pictures release. $26.98


AMERICAN CRUDE (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): Working under the auspices of director Craig Sheffer (yes, the guy from “Nightbreed” and “Voyage of the Rock Aliens”), a star-studded--okay, star-sprinkled--cast (including Ron Livingston, Rob Schneider, John C. McGinley and Jennifer Espositio) goes through their paces in this direct-to-video comedy about a bachelor party that goes horribly, horribly wrong. I’d tell you what happened but to be honest, the notion of a direct-to-video Rob Schneider film frankly terrifies me beyond the capacity for rational thought.

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98): Having already seen the light of day as a not-entirely-awful 1971 film from Robert Wise, Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel, about a race against time by a group of scientists (including Benjamin Bratt, Andre Braugher, Christa Miller and Ricky Schroeder) to find a cure for a mysterious alien virus before it can kill off all of mankind, was updated for this A&E miniseries under the auspices of Ridley & Tony Scott. To judge from the advance reviews for this version, it appears that the words “not entirely” won’t be necessary this time around.

THE ANIMATION SHOW, VOLUME 3 (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): Mike Judge and Don Herztfeld have returned with a third collection of off-beat animated shorts from around the world that cover any number of styles and tones ranging from outright silliness to pure experimentalism. As with all compilations of this sort, the results are somewhat hit and miss but anyone with a genuine interest in animation should be able to find at least a few titles here worth watching (my favorites include the hilarious “Versus” and “Guide Dog,” Bill Plympton’s follow-up to his acclaimed short “Guard Dog.” As an extra added attraction, the program is introduced by none other than Beavis & Butthead.

CONTROL (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $28.95): This highly acclaimed, though little seen biopic traces the short and unhappy life of Ian Curtis, a young British bloke who helped form the New Wave band Joy Division and wrote one classic song (the mix-tape standard “Love Will Tear Us Apart”) before he left the group hanging. Although the film never transcends the boundaries of pop star biopics, this one at least contains a couple of impressive performances from Sam Riley as Curtis and Samantha Morton as his long-suffering wife and some often-stunning black-and-white cinematography from Martin Ruhe.

THE DIRTY HARRY COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $74.98): Despite the rumors that swept the Internet a few weeks ago, I think we can safely assume that Clint Eastwood’s shrouded-in-secrecy production “Gran Torino” is not, as had been suggested, the long-awaited sixth installment of his hugely popular and influential series of action thrillers featuring him as two-fisted, rule-breaking cop “Dirty” Harry Callahan. If it were, after all, I assume that we wouldn’t be seeing this new box set--including all five of the previous films in the series (1971’s brilliant “Dirty Harry,” 1973’s intriguing “Magnum Force,” 1976’s workmanlike “The Enforcer,” 1983’s hugely popular “Sudden Impact” and the fairly inconsequential 1988 swan song “The Dead Pool”) along with a slew of commentaries (none by Eastwood, though hagiographer Richard Schickel pops up on the original and “Sudden Impact” while the always-entertaining John Milius discusses his gig as the co-writer of “Magnum Force”), documentaries, interviews and trailers--until it could better serve as a promotional tie-in. Regardless, the films themselves are still enjoyable (even the weak final film has a couple of points of interest in the early screen performances from Liam Neeson and Jim Carrey and a nifty chase involving a bomb-toting remote-control car that serves as an amusing parody of the similar scene in “Bullitt”) and even though there is no reason that most of these extras couldn’t have been included when these films first hit DVD a few years ago, they are significant enough to make them worth repurchasing.

DIVA (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $26.98): French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix (who would later go on to make the scandalous cult favorite “Betty Blue” before fading from the international movie scene) made one of the most electrifying directorial debuts of the 1980’s with this highly entertaining thriller about a messenger boy (Frederic Andrei) whose adoration for an American opera star Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez) who has never allowed her work to be recorded leads him to surreptitiously tape a performance that she gives in Paris. At the same time, however, he is unknowingly also carrying around another cassette tape featuring highly incriminating recordings involving the local police chief and as a result, he finds himself being pursued by corrupt cops who want the police tape and ruthless Asian bootleggers who will do anything to get a hold of the opera tape. Sleek, stylish and highly influential (you could draw a direct line from this film to the works of Luc Besson), this is an enormously entertaining work of pop cinema and the extended sequence in which our hero is being chased throughout the tunnels of the Paris Metro remains one of the all-time great chase scenes.

THE EYE (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.98): In yet another unnecessary American remake of a perfectly decent Asian horror film, Jessica Alba plays a blind musician whose eyesight is miraculously restored after an operation--inevitably, she winds up being haunted by mysterious and troubling visions that lead her to uncover the shocking truth behind her new set of peepers. Although this one isn’t quite as bad as the “Grudge” films, it never makes a compelling case for its existence and it utterly wastes the usually reliable Parker Posey in a nothing supporting role.

FLAWLESS (Magnolia Pictures. $26.98): In this nimble and nicely executed caper thriller set in London in the post-war/Swinging ‘60’s era, an executive at a diamond firm (Demi Moore) discovers that she is about to be unfairly fired and blackballed by her male counterparts and decides to get revenge by teaming up with an unassuming janitor (Michael Caine) to exploit a temporary loophole in the security system to surreptitiously nab a few small gems to finance their retirements. Of course, things don’t go exactly as planned in a film that lacks the razzle-dazzle of “The Bank Job” or the various permutations of “Ocean’s Eleven” but makes up for it with nice performances, an intriguing setting and a screenplay that only slightly stumbles in the last few minutes as it tries to tack an unnecessary moral onto the proceedings.

GET SMART--THE COMPLETE SERIES (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.95): Don’t get too excited over that title and price--this is actually the complete run of the short-lived 1995 revival that had the good sense to bring back Don Adams and Barbara Feldon in their signature roles of Agents 86 and 99 (he is now the head of CONTROL and she is a congresswoman) and the bad sense to give much of the focus to their bumbling son, a neophyte secret agent played by Andy Dick. Although it never comes close to approximating the hilarity of the Mel Brooks--Buck Henry original, I do seem to recall that it was at least funnier than “The Nude Bomb.”

KENNY THE SHARK--CATCH A WAVE, VOLUME 3 (Genius Products. $14.99): A few more episodes of the reasonably popular animated show about a little girl from the suburbs and her pet, a talking tiger shark that gets into all sorts of mischief. Although it is no worse than most tot-themed cartoon shows airing these days, I would like to implore each and every one of you out there to buy as many copies of this as you can--if you do, it may suggest enough of an upturn in shark-based kid-oriented animation to inspire the long-awaited (by me anyway) DVD box set of “Jabberjaw.”

MAMA’S BOY (Warner Home Video. $27.98): Apparently worried that the one-two punch of “Because I Said So” and “Mad Money” wasn’t enough to make 2007 the arguable low point of her entire career, Diane Keaton apparently decided to seal the deal by signing on for this barely-released turkey in which she plays a woman whose impending marriage to a self-help guru (Jeff Daniels) is an unwelcome surprise to her grown slacker son (Jon Heder), who does everything he can to thwart the nuptials so that he doesn’t have to actually move out on his own and act like a grownup.

MANNIX--THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $49.99): In one of the coolest home video developments of the year, the first season of this classic 1967-1975 detective series is finally available on DVD. Although later seasons would feature our tough-as-nails hero (Mike Connors) working for himself, this inaugural season saw him working for a high-tech corporate detective agency known as Intertect where his two-fisted and deductive way of doing things was always at odds with his more professional colleagues and their reliance on technology over gut instincts. And yes, there are a number a familiar faces who crop up in the 24 episodes found in this six-disc set, including Kim Hunter, Tom Skerritt, Norman Fell, Karen Black and, inexplicably, Neil Young and the other members of Buffalo Springfield. One of the great action shows in the history of television and thankfully, it is still exciting and compulsively watchable.

MEET THE SPARTANS (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): I have already said everything that I care to say about this atrocious spoof from the idiots behind “Date Movie” and “Epic Movie” when I reviewed it last winter. All I care to add is that if you choose to ignore my warnings and check it out anyway, even if it is only to see if it is as bad as I have suggested, then you deserve everything that you will get as a result.

THE ONION MOVIE (Fox Home Entertainment. $26.98): As bad as “Meet the Spartans” was, it was still deemed to be worthy of theatrical release while this sketch comedy film that was produced (and then largely disowned) by the folks behind the satirical weekly sat on a shelf for nearly five years before finally hitting the direct-to-DVD market. Featuring Steven Seagal as an action hero known as “Cock Puncher,” which should give you some idea of the level of wit on display here.

REMEMBER THE DAZE (First Look. $24.98): Trying (and largely failing) to follow in the footsteps of such classic youth films as “American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused,” this comedy-drama follows a group of ultra-pretty kids (including such up-and-comers as Amber Heard, Melonie Diaz, Alexa Vega and “Gossip Girl” minx Leighton Meester) as they go through the last day and night of high school, circa 1999, in a haze of pot, pills, shrooms and sexual abandon. Strangely enough, this is exactly how my last day and night of high school, circa 1989, went about as well, provided that you substitute “pot, pills, shrooms and sexual abandon” with “waiting impatiently for ‘Batman’ to finally arrive.”

SEMI-PRO (New Line Home Entertainment. $34.98): The latest and least of Will Ferrell’s string of weirdo comedies in which he plays a clueless and egocentric idiot involved in a bizarre niche activity finds him portraying the player-coach of an inept ABA basketball team who tries to whip his team of hapless goofballs (including Woody Harrelson and Andre Benjamin) into something vaguely resembling shape when it is announced that the league is folding and the four top teams will be assumed into the NBA. There are a couple of somewhat amusing bits here and there but for the most part, this is simply one trip too many to a well that wasn’t exactly overflowing to begin with.

SHARK SWARM (Genius Products. $14.99): When greedy real-estate developer Armand Assante can’t convince the salt-of-the-sea fishermen of a quaint costal town to sell their property so that he can develop a bunch of high-priced condos, he dumps toxins into the water in order to kill all the fish and starve the fishermen out in order to buy the land cheap. Before he can get around to pondering who might be stupid enough to pay top dollar for a condo next to a toxic beach, a school of poorly rendered CGI tiger sharks are made more aggressive by the chemicals and without any fish to eat, they decide to start snacking on the locals, many of whom obligingly start falling into the water at random to facilitate the process, and only a small band of heroes (including John Schneider, Daryl Hannah and, perhaps inevitably, F. Murray Abraham) can save the day. And yeah, now that you mention it, this is sort of the same plot as the immortal “Spring Break Shark Attack.”

STUMP THE BAND (TLA Releasing. $19.99): Alas, this is not a compilation of the bit that Johnny Carson used to do with his audience and bandleader Doc Severinsen when a guest would cancel at the last minute. This is a low-budget horror film about an all-girl rock band that gets lost in the wilds of Wisconsin and runs afoul of a maniac with a very peculiar foot fetish. (No, it isn’t Quentin Tarantino.) For those of you who spend your time wondering about whatever happened to your favorite allegedly adorable little kids who were shepherded into you favorite sitcoms during their dying days in a last-ditch effort to up the cute factor, the film features appearances from Robbie “Cousin Oliver” Rist and Danny “The Kid Who Was On That Last Season of “Diff’rent Strokes” That No One Actually Watched” Cooksey.

TIME FOR MURDER (Acorn Media. $39.99): Yes, this is yet another of the seemingly endless array of British mystery shows to arrive on these shores in the last few years, though this one does have an interesting behind-the-scenes twist. Instead of adapting a popular character or the works of one specific author, the producers hired six notable English authors--Fay Weldon, Antonia Fraser, Charles Wood, Gordon Honeycombe, Frances Galleymore and Michael Robson--to each pen a new one-hour screenplay that would be filmed with actors such as Charles Dance, Jane Asher, Claire Bloom and Trevor Howard.

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originally posted: 06/06/08 06:11:31
last updated: 06/06/08 06:47:14
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