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DVD Reviews for 7/11: If It Makes You Happy

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic takes a look at some of the most significant works of one of the great filmmakers in the world of avant-garde cinema. Of course, if that is a little too heavy for you, we also have films involving traumatized soldiers being sent back to Iraq, the violence of the Balkan states, portraits of two rock stars who tragically perished before their times and Brian Austin Green stalking a volleyball-playing beach babe. Enjoy.

With their heady brews of high-brow intellectualism, low-brow camp and other elements strange enough to leave even confirmed art-house habitués scratching their heads in utter confusion, the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman was the kind of original whose work was so unique that even if you hated the results, you found yourself feeling a certain amount of admiration for the man for having the nerve to even attempt such things in the first place. After getting his apprenticeship by serving as a production designer for the equally flamboyant and mystifying Ken Russell on two of his wildest films, “The Devils” and “Savage Messiah,” he struck off on his own with “Sebastiane,” a 1976 gay-themed love story that was told entirely in Latin and which reportedly featured the first erect penis on display in a British film. He followed that up with the equally controversial and radical 1977 film “Jubilee,” in which Queen Elizabeth I traveled through time and wound up in modern-day England at the height of the punk rock movement that was sweeping the country as a response to the oppressive socio-economic climate and the celebration of Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. From that point on until his death in 1994, he would continue to make a string a challenging and thought-provoking works and while the closest he would come to mainstream success (if you don’t count his frequent collaborations with the then-unknown Tilda Swinton, who served as his muse for years) with the music videos that he did for groups like The Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys, his works were hailed throughout the world for their provocations and for the sheer cinematic skill that he brought to them and even when he was diagnosed with the AIDS virus, it served as a catalyst for some of his most moving later works, such as 1990’s “The Garden” and his final film, 1993’s “Blue,” which he managed to complete despite being left blind and ravaged by the disease that would take his life a year later.

Now Zeitgeist Video has issued “Glitterbox: Derek Jarman X 4,” a 4-disc set comprised of four of his more notable films along with a slew of bonus material that sheds new light on both the man and his work. Granted, these are hardly the kinds of films that most people would pop into their DVD players to watch during a relaxing evening at home or at your next party. However, if you are in the mood for something decidedly provocative and unusual, even by the standards of art-house fare, you should consider checking them out--you may walk away from them confused or even irate but I can assure you that you won’t be bored by any means. Below are descriptions of the four films and the extras featured on each disc--each one comes highly recommended.

CARVAGGIO (1986): Arguably the most accessible film of the four, this is a biopic of the famed Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) that finds the artist on his deathbed reflecting back on his life and work. The central thrust of the story deals with the triangle that develops when he takes on a handsome young boxer (Sean Bean) as his muse, a relationship that disturbs the latter’s girlfriend (Tilda Swinton in her debut performance) until she begins to provide Carvaggio with inspiration as well. Although somewhat shaky from a historical perspective (Jarman freely indulges in any number of deliberate anachronisms throughout) but it is such a formally beautiful work that the mundane matter of accuracy pales in comparison. The disc includes new interviews with Swinton, Terry and production designer Christopher Hobbs, a commentary from cinematographer Gabriel Beristain (whose work throughout is stunning), galleries of storyboards, sketches and production photos and, most valuable of all, the presence of Jarman himself in the form of a one-hour audio interview recorded in 1986 after a preview screening of the film and a 1989 video in which he discusses his filmmaking approach.

WITTGENSTEIN (1993): In his final narrative feature, Jarman went back to the world of surreal biopics with this highly theatrical look at the life and times of 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (played by Clancy Chassay in his younger years and by Karl Johnson as an older man) as he pursued the connection between language and logic despite being the type of person who was more comfortable watching a Carmen Miranda musical than in discussing philosophy. It may sound like heavy lifting but this is actually a surprisingly light and irreverent work and contains nifty supporting performances from Michael Gough as Bertrand Russell, Tilda Swinton as Russell’s lover, Lady Ottoline Morrell and John Quentin as John Maynard Keynes. This disc kicks off with an introduction by British film critic Ian Christie discussing the film and the curious reception that it received when it was released. After that, there is another collection of interviews featuring Swinton, Johnson and producer Tariq Ali--if you ever wondered what kind of person would sink good money into a film as odd as this, here is your chance. Next up is about a half-hour of raw behind-the-scenes footage of the production and things are wrapped up with “The Clearing,” a 1994 short from Alex Bistikas that features Jarman in a small role.

THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION (1985): Although the films I have already discussed could hardly be described as middle-of-the-road entertainment, they seem almost positively staid when compared to this decidedly avant-garde effort that Jarman himself often claimed as his personal favorite of all his works. There is no real plot to speak of--the entire film consists of Judi Dench reading 14 Shakespeare sonnets on the soundtrack while fragmented images relating to love, desire and purity and centering on two young men in the throes of passion play out on the screen. While watching this film will be a challenge for most viewers--not so much because of the homoerotic content as because of the singular visual style that Jarman employed (he shot the film in 8mm and blew it up to 35mm, giving the visuals a grainy texture as a result, and filmed several sequence utilizing a sort of live-action stop-motion animation that lends a dreamlike quality to the proceedings)--but those able to wrap their heads around it are likely to find themselves deeply moved by it. This extras seen here include a 32-minute video interview with Jarman talking about his career and new interviews with production designer Christopher Hobbs and producer James Mackay discussing the film’s genesis and production.

BLUE (1993): During the production of “Wittgenstein,” Jarman’s health took a turn for the worse and the AIDS that he had been suffering from for years would eventually rob him of his eyesight. In response to that most cruel form of sensory deprivation for a visual artist, Jarman created what would not only be his final film but arguably the finest and most moving work of his entire career. The entire film consists of 75 minutes of nothing to look at but a blue screen while we hear Jarman’s musings on life, death, art, spirituality and his struggle with the disease that would kill him a year later as vocalized by Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry, John Quentin and Jarman himself. It may sound unbearably pretentious and slightly self-exploitative (especially in the moments when we can hear the hospital equipment keeping Jarman alive on the soundtrack) but it really is a memorable melding of cinema and philosophy that contains more profundity and intelligence in its 75 minutes than you will find in every self-help tome at your local bookstore. The sole bonus here is arguably the most valuable extra of the entire set--the 1994 film “Glitterbug,” an hour-long compilation consisting of Jarman’s Super-8 movies, behind-the-scenes footage and assorted odds and ends that was assembled by friend after his death in 1994, scored by Brian Eno and broadcast on British television to great acclaim. Like Jarman’s own work,, this film is alternately haunting and heartfelt and once you see it, you won’t forget it for a long time.

A Zeitgeist Films release. $74.99


BEFORE THE RAIN (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Shot amidst the violence of the Balkan states in the early 19990’s, this acclaimed 1994 film (the first to be made in the Republic of Macedonia) from filmmaker Milcho Manchevski provides a glimpse of the chaos of the time as seen through the eyes of a monk (Gregoire Colin), a Macedonian war photographer (Rade Serbedzija) and a British photo agent (the late, great Katrin Cartlidge). Hitting DVD for the first time, this disc includes a commentary track featuring Manchevski and critic Annette Insdorf, a 1993 documentary short on the making of the film, a new interview with Serbedzija and even the acclaimed music video that Manchevski directed in 1993 for the Arrested Development hit “Tennessee.”

CANNON: SEASON ONE, VOLUME ONE/JAKE AND THE FATMAN: SEASON ONE, VOLUME ONE (Paramount Home Video. $36.98 each): Sick and tired of watching endless TV shows in which pretty-boy cops solve their cases with chase scenes and feats of astonishing physical derring-do? If so, you should definitely check out these two cop shows featuring the sight of the legendary William Conrad busting heads and breaking hearts and bread in order to bring the bad guys to justice. Of the two, “Cannon” is the more entertaining of the bunch in the way that cheesy 70’s cop shows always are--by comparison, “Jake and the Fatman” is just a little too slick and self-satisfied for its own good, though it must have seemed like an amusing corrective to the likes of “Magnum P.I.” and “Miami Vice” in its day.

DUNGEON GIRL (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $26.98): Having already made a terrible film version of the Zodiac killings and a terrible version of the Black Dahlia murder (and if anyone out there is feeling the urge to make some kind of smart-ass comment, let it be known that I will be forced to punch you in the throat if you do), Uli Lommel--Germany’s other legendarily incompetent filmmaker--returns with another barely coherent true-crime story, this one centered on the ordeal suffered by a young woman who was abducted by a lunatic and held captive in his basement for six years.

FASTLANE--THE COMPLETE SERIES (Warner Home Video. $59.98): In between making his feature-film directing debut with the moderately entertaining big-screen version of “Charlie’s Angels” and following it up with what may well be the worst movie ever made, the inexcusable “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” the auteur known as McG put together this wildly expensive, ultra-flashy and fairly incoherent TV series about a couple of undercover cops (Peter Facinelli and Bill Bellamy) who go undercover to bust the most glamorous and lightly-dressed criminals around with the aid of millions of dollars in confiscated goods and on the orders of their tough-as-nails boss, played by none other than Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, who seems to have been cast for no other reason than to appear in the inevitable we-need-ratings-by -any-means-necessary episode in which she poses as a lesbian to ensnare hottie criminal Jaime Pressly. Alas, the gimmick didn’t quite work and the combination of low ratings and exorbitant production costs doomed the series after one season. Those of you who still recall the show can rejoice with this collection of all 22 episodes, though your joy may be tempered slightly by the knowledge that much of the original soundtrack has been replaced by cheaper soundalike tunes.

FLAKES (IFC Films. $19.95): No, this is not a documentary following Zooey Deschanel’s managers and advisors as they convince her that it would be a brilliant career move to appear in “The Happening.” Instead, this is a quirky indie comedy in which she plays a young woman who becomes so fed up with her slacker boyfriend wasting all his potential by working at a funky neighborhood restaurant that serves nothing but cereal that when a corporate knock-off of the concept comes to town, she joins up with them in the hopes of driving the local joint out of business for good. No, I do not make up the plots or descriptions for these things--I merely report them.

THE GITS (Adrenaline Records. $19.99): At the same time that bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were bringing focus to the Seattle music scene in the early 1990’s, the all-female punk rock group The Gits was likewise making a name for themselves with critics and audiences until their rise was cut short in 1993 by the brutal murder of their lead singer, Mia Zapata. This documentary charts the rise of the group (including interviews with band members and Joan Jett, who toured with a post-Zapata version of the group called Evil Stig--read it backwards), Zapata’s murder and the callous manner in which it was investigated by local police and how it was eventually solved years later. While this is essential viewing for fans of the group, anyone interested in the alternative music scene of the time should check out this homage to a group and a performer who deserved better than they got.

IMPACT POINT (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): In this direct-to-video thriller, swimsuit model Melissa Keller plays a young woman whose determination to be the best at her chosen field--the tense and gripping world of beach volleyball--is challenged when a new man (Megan Fox castoff Brian Austin Green) enters her life at just the same time that strange things begin happening to her loved ones. At this point, I would once again like to stress the fact that I do not make up any of these titles or descriptions, I merely report on them.

JOE STRUMMER--THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.98): The late leader of the greatest punk-rock band of all time, The Clash, gets his due in this documentary that charts the ups-and-downs in his decidedly interesting personal and professional lives through archival footage and new interviews with friends and colleagues. Although a little too fawning at times to really work as a revealing document on the man and his art for anyone who is unfamiliar with him, there is enough priceless performance footage and killer music on display here to make it a must-see for fans.

THE MUMMY--UNIVERSAL LEGACY SERIES (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98): Although it tends to get lost in the shuffle when compared to the likes of “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and “The Wolf Man,” this moody, atmospheric and surprisingly touching 1932 Boris Karloff film is quite simply one of the best of the Universal horror classics of the era and arguably the only one that still retains some of the punch that it delivered to audiences 75 years ago. Although this film has been issued on DVD before and this iteration exists almost entirely to tie in with the new Brendan Fraser “Mummy” movie (the first two of which are also being reissued in special editions as well), even those who have previously purchased it before might want to contemplate a double-dip because of the significant new extras--a newly recorded commentary track featuring such fans of the film as genre expert Bob Burns and make-up genius Rick Baker and documentaries on the history of Universal’s horror output and on Jack Pierce, the man who developed many of the still-impressive make-up effects seen in those films.

THE RUINS (Paramount Home Video. $34.99): a.k.a “The Happening” with tan lines. In this terrible adaptation of the fairly effective best-seller from “A Simple Plan” author Scott Smith (which is odd since Smith actually did the adaptation himself), a quartet of hot young American idiots on vacation in Mexico go off to do some sightseeing at a remote Mayan ruin and discover the kind of horror that can work wonderfully on the page (where the details are left up to your imagination) but which tend to look pretty stupid when they are literalized on the big screen. The unrated DVD carries an extended version of the film featuring newly reinstated sequences that were best left on the cutting-room floor (unless you think that that the hand job sequence is truly integral to the plot) and an alternate ending that is only marginally less stupid than the one seen in the brief theatrical release (which is available as one of the deleted scenes) but which is nowhere near as effective as the book’s grim finale.

SOUNDSTAGE: SHERYL CROW LIVE (Koch Vision.): Quite frankly, the title pretty much says it all--the popular rocker drops by the long-running music series to play a collection of her best-known hits ( “Leaving Las Vegas,” “All I Wanna Do,“ and “Everyday is a Winding Road”), newer tunes (“Let’s Get Free,” “Safe and Sound” and “Sweet Rosalyn”) and even throws in a cover of the Nick Lowe classic “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” for good measure.

STOP-LOSS (Paramount Home Video. $34.99): After a nearly nine-year layoff since making her directorial debut with the haunting “Boys Don’t Cry,” filmmaker Kimberley Peirce finally returned with this drama about a decorated soldier (Ryan Phillippe) who rebels when he learns that the military is sending him back to Iraq as part of a controversial program in which soldiers are returned to duty even after their hitch is over. Although it contains a few good performances (especially by Abbie Cornish as the local girl who helps Phillippe out and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a soldier who is having difficulties adjusting to life back at home) and is as sincere and heartfelt as can be, it never quite manages to be as powerful and hard-hitting as it would clearly like to be.

SUPERHERO MOVIE (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $29.95): The good news about this spoof on the recent wave of superhero-themed entertainment (okay, basically a spoof of the “Spider-Man” movies with a smattering of “X-Men” and a few others tossed in for good measure) is that it is funnier than such recent parody misfires as “Epic Movie” and “Meet the Spartans”--I think I smiled or chuckled maybe four or five times during its 83-minutes running time. The bad news is that it is still bad enough to make the “Fantastic Four” movies seem almost watchable by comparison.

TOXIC (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.98): The plot of this direct-to-video title looks especially incoherent--after her own father orders a hit on her, a mega babe mental patient goes on a crazy-go-nuts kill spree--but if nothing else, it should be applauded for bringing together one of the more eclectic casts in recent memory, featuring the likes of Master P, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, Bai Ling, Susan Ward, Dominique Swain, Costas Madylor and Ron Jeremy. Alas, there are no bonus features to be had--can you imagine what the cast commentary track or the behind-the-scenes documentary might have been like for this one?

THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS (Thinkfilm. $27.98): Ellen Page may have plenty of cinematic skeletons in her closet that are about to see the light of day thanks to her newfound celebrity but I can’t imagine that any of them could possible be as awful as this one--a pretentious and incoherent bomb in which she plays an angst-filled teenager coming to grips with the various traumas in her life as she scours the streets looking for her missing younger brother. If that doesn’t sound bad enough for you, consider the fact that the entire thing is shown in multiple split-screen images presumably meant to suggest the heroine’s troubled psyche but which actually comes across as a last-ditch effort by director Bruce McDonald to cover up the utter hollowness of the material. Page acquits herself as well as she can but my guess is that she would be mighty pleased if you were to give this one

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originally posted: 07/11/08 14:28:17
last updated: 07/11/08 23:23:51
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