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DVD Reviews for 7/25: If You Have To Ask, You’ll Never Know!

by Peter Sobczynski

Having spent the last few days locked in extended, intense and ultimately fruitless negotiations with the weasels at Disney Television about the possibility of taking over whatever it is that the “Ebert & Roeper” show is mutating into this fall (the whole thing fell apart over their deal-making insistence that I change my first name to “Ben,” a moniker that would be acceptable only if I were a wispy-voiced alt-rocker or a balding Renaissance man hell-bent on stealing credit for the invention of the bifocal lens), I didn’t really have time to slap together a pithy opening for this week’s column. Then again, when you are dealing with a week that includes a couple of all-time classics from two of the all-time great directors, the long-awaited domestic arrival of a British cult classic, a 7 ½-hour-long epic from Hungary, a handful of jazz-related titles and a starring vehicle for the one and only Sharpay, do you really need one?

If you live in the Chicagoland area and are interested in the more eclectic areas of the world of cinema--the kind of person who has responded to virtually every one of this summer’s multiplex offerings (with the exception of “The Dark Knight,” which gets an exemption because of the presence of Christopher Nolan) with some variation of “Meh,” “Feh” or “Are you kidding--I’d rather jab a red-hot hatpin directly into my eardrum than listen to two hours of ABBA covers”--then you are no doubt familiar with the glory that is Facets Multimedia, a mecca for the celebration of the past, present and future of filmmaking in all its forms. Their screening room is dedicated to an eclectic program of films old and new from all over the world and their video store carries a collection of titles that is so expansive and eclectic that after only a few minutes of browsing, you will never again even contemplate setting foot inside your local Schlockbuster for as long as you live. And for those who don’t live in the vicinity, they also have their own DVD label that has spent the last several years distributing a wide and varied collection of titles--obscurities from the past and critically hailed contemporary works from both America and abroad--for viewers in the mood for something off the beaten path. This week, Facets Video is releasing three new titles into the marketplace that pretty much cover that gamut and for true film fanatics, each one is well worth picking up.

Kicking things off is “American Slapstick 2,” a three-disc set that is composed of 30 shorts from the silent era (okay, 28 silents, one of them a near-full-length 1925 version of the warhorse “Charley’s Aunt” and two sound interlopers, 1932’s “Hollywood Runaround” and 1937’s “Playboy Number One”), none of which have ever appeared on home video before and many of which were assumed to have been lost forever until they turned up in the possession of private collectors. For those whose knowledge of silent comedy begins and ends with Charlie Chaplin will probably be disappointed to discover that none of his films are on display here, though there are a few featuring some of the Chaplin impersonators that flourished during the time and a couple even star Chaplin’s half-brother Syd. Instead, the set is more interested in the more obscure highways and byways of short silent comedy--outside of five early efforts from comedy titan Harold Lloyd and a couple of appearances here and there from the then-unknown likes of Oliver Hardy, Bebe Daniels and Snub Pollard, it is unlikely that those viewers familiar with the period will have any working knowledge of the likes of Lloyd Hamilton, Billy West or Louise Fazenda. That said, any qualms about the obscurity of the performers is quickly quashed by the sheer entertainment value provided by their films--they may be long-lost historical artifacts of a bygone time but they are also really funny as well. If you have a kid who enjoyed the largely silent “WALL*E,” you might want to try sitting them down and showing them a few of the shorts--they may fidget at the black-and-white photography and the weird appearance of the performers but if my cards are right and your kids have any taste at all, I suspect that those initial apprehensions will soon dissolve into peals of delighted laughter.

The next film is “Troubadours,” a 2007 coming-of-age tale that appeared at a few small film festivals in the Midwest but which never made it out of that limited ghetto. Ordinarily, such films would simply disappear into the mists of time, never to be heard from again, but with this DVD release, it will hopefully get more attention and viewers than it might have otherwise received. The film stars Tom Galassi (who co-directed the film with Adam Galassi and Tom Snyder) as Art, a would-be drummer in the big, bad city with no money, no job and, as the film opens, no girlfriend. Throwing in the towel, he decides to return to his rural hometown and go to work for his father at the family farm. Upon returning, he re-establishes old friendships, forges a few new ones and struggles to come to terms with his existence. It may not sound like much on the surface but this is one of those quiet little films that sort of sneaks up on you in such a way that you don’t realize how fully engrossed you have become in it until it is over. If you are a fan of Cameron Crowe’s blend of quirky humor, sincere sentiment and nifty music (the soundtrack features a couple of contributions from My Morning Jacket), you should make an effort to give this one a look.

However, the big news of the week--indeed, one of the major DVD events of the year--is the long-awaited release of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr’s 1994 epic “Satantango.” Clocking in at 435 minutes and comprised of approximately 150 separate shots (many of which last as long as 10 minutes without a single cut), the film, based on the novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, is set in a run-down Hungarian village in the 1980’s where the only real industry, a factory, has shut down and the endless rainy season is about to begin. The few remaining townspeople are about to receive a modest cash settlement and each of them plan to take the money and leave for good (unless they can figure out a way to steal the shares of their fellow townspeople, of course). Suddenly, the town is rocked by the return of Irimias, a con man who was once a part of the town and who was pronounced dead many years ago. Now he has come back and convinces them to pool their money together and live and work as one on a communal farm--of course, he will control the money and wield all the power, conditions that the seemingly mesmerized people eagerly and foolishly agree to. Admittedly, this film is not for everyone and the slow and deliberately meditative pacing (which Gus Van Sant later appropriated in such films as “Elephant” and “Gerry”) may drive some viewers out of the room at the end of the 10-minute opening shot of a herd of cows walking slowly through what remains of the town. However, once you get used to the peculiar rhythms of Tarr’s filmmaking approach, you will find that the film is anything but boring and that some of the imagery (such as the way that the sunlight of a new day slowly illuminates the contents of a bedroom) is as haunting and majestic as anything captured on celluloid. If you have the time to sit through the film (which should be easier in the confines of your home) and a desire to see something wholly unlike anything that you have ever seen before, “Satantango” will prove to be an unforgettable viewing experience for those willing to take a chance on it.

AMERICAN SLAPSTICK 2: A Facets Video release. $34.95




21 (Sony Home Entertainment. $34.95): When this film, in which a group of callow young twerps from M.I.T. trying to use their math skills to break the bank in Vegas by counting cards in blackjack, was released back in March, I called it as the worst film of 2008 to date and described it as “a slick, soulless nightmare of a film with the moral center of a porno flick (not to mention the same narrative drive) and a central character so shallow, loathsome and uninteresting that you keep hoping that the guys from “Funny Games” will show up and give him exactly what he deserves.” Although several months have passed since then and many awful films have come and gone, I continue to stand behind those statements.

BIRD/BLUES IN THE NIGHT/PETE KELLY’S BLUES/ROUND MIDNIGHT (Warner Home Video. $19.98 each): Warner Home Video digs deep into their vaults and offers up a quartet of jazz-themed films for your groovy delectation. “Bird” is, of course, Clint Eastwood’s well-meaning but fairly stultifying 1988 biopic on the life and work of legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker (Forest Whittaker in one of his best performances). “Blues in the Night” (1941) is an odd melodrama in which the members of a jazz combo run into all sorts of traumas and difficulties when they are befriended by a gangster who hires them to play at his club in New Jersey. “Pete Kelly’s Blues” (1955) stars Jack Webb (who also directed) as a bandleader who agrees to take on the girlfriend (Peggy Lee) of a local mobster (Edmond O’Brien) as a singer--a move that inspires all sorts of problems for the group and threatens his relationship with girlfriend Janet Leigh. “Round Midnight” (1986) is French filmmaker Bernard Tavernier’s love letter to the world of jazz and features real-life jazz musician Dexter Gordon in an acclaimed performance as a down-on-his-luck saxophonist who gets an invitation to play in Paris and befriends a young fan who desperately tries to save his hero from the demons that have fueled his art while destroying his life.

THE BOSTON STRANGLER (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.98): David Faustino portrays Albert DeSalvo in this direct-to-video film that suggests that while he did confess to being the serial killer that haunted Boston in the early 1960’s, he may not have actually committed any of the crimes and he was actually passing on information related to him by a cell mate with an intimate knowledge of the details of the case. Hmmmm. . .a Bundy as a serial killer? Just doesn’t sound right to me.

BRUTAL MASSACRE: A COMEDY (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.97): In a mockumentary that seems as though it could have been shot after hours at a mid-level sci-fi/horror convention (the cast includes such stalwarts of the circuit as Ken Foree, Gunnar Hansen and the female stars of “The Evil Dead”), a down-on-his-luck director (David Naughton) tries to jump-start his career with a new horror film whose production is plagued with any number of gruesome incidents.

COMEDY CENTRAL TV FUNHOUSE (Paramount Home Video. $26.98): In this bizarre and understandably short-lived spoof of a form of television that had essentially died out long before it hit the airwaves in 2000, Robert Smigel plays the host of a kiddie show who is generally left to introduce a series of strange cartoons by himself when his menagerie of puppet co-stars (including none other than Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, leave him in the lurch week after week in order to travel to Tijuana and Atlantic City, rescue one of their own from the clutches of a cult or volunteer themselves for the seemingly glamorous world of laboratory testing. Crude, strange, often tasteless and frequently hilarious--just do not allow your young children to get their hands on it under any circumstances.

CELINE: THE UNAUTHORIZED LIFE STORY OF CELINE DION (Monarch Video. $19.95): And yet, the immortal “Madonna: Innocence Lost” still languishes on a shelf somewhere gathering dust. It ain’t fair, I tells ya!

HIGH AND LOW (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): In one of Akira Kurosawa’s best and most underrated films, Toshiro Mifune stars as a wealthy businessman on the verge of a major business takeover who is informed one morning that his son has been kidnapped and that the ransom amount is just about everything that he needs to pull off the merger. The catch, however, is that he soon discovers that the kidnappers have actually taken the son of his chauffer. As a police thriller and as a moral and ethical drama, the film is top notch and contains one of Mifune’s finest and most understated performances ever.

L.A. INK: SEASON ONE (Genius Products. $24.95): In this highly educational reality series from the good people at The Learning Channel, celebrated tattoo artiste Kat Von D. flees Miami in order to return to her hometown of L.A. and open up her own shop with a crew of kooky co-workers helping her to mortify the flesh of all the would-be hipsters that happen by. As body art-based entertainments go, this one is okay (reality shows are always a little more palatable when they focus on people actually doing things instead of acting like schmucks in order to look good for the cameras) but you can get just as much entertainment value featured on this set simply by putting on a copy of “At the Circus” and listening to Groucho Marx croon about the miracle that was Lydia the Tattooed Lady, who had eyes that men adore so and a torso even more so.

THE LAST WINTER (IFC Films. $19.95): In the latest fascinatingly oddball horror effort from indie filmmaker Larry Fessenden (whose previous efforts have included “Habit” and “Wendigo”), a team from an oil company (including Ron Perlman, James LeGros and Kevin Corrigan) arrives in a remote region of Northern Alaska to begin setting up a drilling operation, only to find themselves succumbing to mysterious and unexplained forces that leave each of them either dead or insane. Although some genre buffs may bemoan the lack of truly visceral thrills or gore, those in the mood for a more creepy and cerebral kind of horror film would be well advised to check this one out.

PICTURE THIS (MGM Home Entertainment. $26.98):Ashley Tisdale, who appears to be the only Disney Channel starlet remaining not embroiled in some type of scandal or another (unless you count the nose job), steps away from Sharpay in order to play an ordinary school girl who utilizes her snazzy new camera phone to convince her father that she is still at home (where she has been grounded) instead of making her way to the big party that the cutest boy in class has invited her to. A warning for all kids who may be inspired by this film to try similar tricks of evasion with their phones--whatever you do, do not accidentally drop your phone in a glass of Dr. Pepper. Don’t ask me how I know this--just trust me on this one.

ROBOT CHICKEN: STAR WARS (Warner Home Video. $14.98): For those of you who just can’t wait until the full Season 3 set of the reasonably amusing Adult Swim animated series to get their hands on their episode dedicated to spoofing the sci-fi perennial, the entire half-hour has now been issued on its own DVD for your perusal. Although it might seem like a bit of a rip-off to some people, the deal has been sweetened a bit by the large amount of bonus material that has been included here and the fact that it is more consistently amusing than the similar “Family Guy” episode that also received its own DVD a few months ago.

SPACED: THE COMPLETE SERIES (BBC America. $59.98): Those sounds of anguish that you just heard were the wails of thousands of grey-market DVD dealers who have just realized that one of their most consistent sellers in recent years--the complete run of the hilarious high-octane BBC comedy series that was the first major collaboration between Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the guys who would go on to create the cult favorites “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”--has just been made irrelevant with this three-disc set that collects all of the episodes and all the commentaries, deleted scenes, outtakes and assorted bric-a-brac that one could hope for. And even if you are one of those smarty-pants who bought this set as a import a few years ago for viewing on your region-free player, you still might want to pick up this version for such new extras as a 2007 Q&A with Pegg and Wright and new commentaries featuring such notable fans of the show as Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Patton Oswalt, Matt Stone and Diablo Cody.

TRANSFORMERS CYBERTRON: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION (Paramount Home Video. $59.98): If you are one of those people who are eagerly awaiting next summer’s “Transformers 2” with bated breath (and not simply as a further opportunity to ogle Megan Fox), you will no doubt want to pick up this seven-disc set composed of all 50 episodes from the 2005 revival of the original TV series that became a cult hit when it aired on the Cartoon Network. If, on the other hand, you are one of those people for whom such an idea sounds like the cruelest torture imaginable, I daresay that there is nothing in the 1144 minutes of animated mayhem on display here that will change your opinion anytime soon.

VAMPYR (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): In one of the strangest and most lyrical horror films ever made, a young student of the occult is staying at a remote inn in which any number of bizarre incidents occur that cause him to eventually flee. When he takes shelter at a nearby home, he discovers that the owner has been killed, his daughter is suffering from mysterious wounds and a local doctor insists that the only thing that will save her is a transfusion. Yeah, it is a vampire film but it is utterly unlike any such thing that you have ever seen before thanks to the haunting imagery brought forth by filmmaker Carl Theodore Dryer--although his “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is his unquestioned masterpiece, this brilliant work of silent cinema is a pretty close runner-up for the title. This two-disc set includes a commentary from scholar Tony Rayns, a feature-length documentary on Dreyer’s life and work, a visual essay on his influences in regards to this film and a 1958 radio broadcast featuring the man himself talking about the art of filmmaking.

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originally posted: 07/25/08 11:59:08
last updated: 07/25/08 14:01:08
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