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DVD Reviews for 8/1: Back to Shell Beach

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful scribe investigates the phenomenon known as “The Hills” for the first time and lives (barely) to tell the tale.

As I suppose is the case with most film critics, I am occasionally asked if I have ever changed my views towards a movie after I have already set my opinion down in print for everyone to see. Although I’d like to suggest that my opinions were rock-solid and unyielding in their absolute correctness, I have to admit that there have been a few instance in the past where I have found myself reevaluating my initial thoughts on the occasion of multiple viewings. For example, when I first saw “Ishtar” during its brief and disastrous theatrical run, it didn’t work for me at all but when I came across it again a few years later, the mixture of “Road to Morocco”-style knockabout farce and sly political satire finally clicked with me and I now regard it as one of the great American comedies of the 1980’s and beyond. On the other hand, while I joined in the praise for “American Beauty” when it first came out, a second viewing a few months later revealed that it was actually a flimsy and vaguely offensive hymn to the joys of narcissism that was as smug, shallow and self-absorbed as any of the characters that it was supposedly indicting. (Alas, this revelation came to me at a screening where I was scheduled to lead a post-film discussion of its merits that was held a week after it swept the Oscars.) And while I enjoyed the “South Park” movie when I saw it, the sheer onslaught of vulgarity was a little exhausting and it was only later that I began to realize just how brilliantly conceived and executed it really was.

However, one of the most notable reversals that I have ever performed involved the 1998 sci-fi epic “Dark City.” When I first saw Alex Proyas’ mindbender of a movie, it just didn’t work for me--in my defense, I think I saw it at the end of a long day of screenings--and it just struck me as a visually flamboyant but dramatically incoherent knock-off of such clearly superior films as “Blade Runner” and “Brazil.” Although it quickly disappeared from theaters, it did begin to generate a small but loyal cult following (largely on the basis of Roger Ebert’s initial rave review and his later assertion that it was the year’s best film) and when it hit DVD a few months later, I decided to give it another chance and picked up a copy. Finally, it all seemed to make sense and what originally felt like a confused narrative made up of pieces of other, better films now seemed to me to be an utterly original and dazzlingly complex work that paid homage to its genre ancestors while still boldly going off in new and different directions. It would appear that enough other people have begun thinking the same way and as a result, New Line Home Entertainment has given us the “Dark City Director’s Cut” DVD, a package that offers up a brand-new cut of the film and a nice selection of supplements that will appeal to both the film’s hard-core fans as well as those who have yet to experience it for the first time.

Explaining what happens in the film is a bit difficult--partly because this is not one of those stories that can easily be summarized into a couple of punchy sentences and partly because it is the kind of film whose surprising twists and turns are so effective in part because of how unexpected they are. What I will say is that it opens up as a man named John Murdock (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in the bathtub of a filthy hotel room with no memory of who he is, how he got there or why there is a dead body in the room as well. To add to his confusion, he receives a strange phone call from someone named Dr. Schreber (Keifer Sutherland) that causes him to flee with a group of strange, silent and deathly pale people in black trench coats in pursuit. Meanwhile, weary cop Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) is doggedly investigating Murdoch’s apparent connection to the murders of a string of prostitutes, a case that somehow led his predecessor (Ian Richardson) to become obsessed with the notion of a bizarre and elaborate conspiracy theory that all but destroyed his life and career. I will not say anything more about this except to note that Jennifer Connelly appears as a nightclub singer who is also Murdoch’s estranged wife and that a place known as Shell Beach holds a very important part in the hearts and minds of all the characters, even if they can’t quite put their fingers on the reasons why.

Because the story is so complex and because the visuals are so stunning to behold (it uses the classic iconography of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” as a jumping-off point before adding any number of touches that are all its own), many people who saw it when it first came out dismissed it as an especially overt case of style over substance. However, when you give it a second viewing, the story begins to reveal itself more clearly than before and its complex notions of fantasy and reality begin to take hold in fascinating ways in ways that dazzle the mind as well as the eye. As for this director’s cut, it is about fifteen minutes longer than the original version, though most of the additions involve extensions of previously existing scenes that any brand-new sequences--we discover that the prostitute who helps Murdoch out of a jam at an Automat and who winds up paying dearly for that act of generosity now has a daughter who was never seen or referred to in the original cut. Other changes are more subtle, such as the restoration of Jennifer Connelly’s own voice for the two songs that we hear her character performing. However, the most significant change is actually a deletion that occurs right at the top. When the film was originally released, it opened with a narration from Keifer Sutherland’s character that essentially explained the entire movie in a move that I suppose was designed to help ward off the confusion that it would have otherwise engendered (not that this move helped the film’s clarity issues). This time around, that narration has been removed so that the surprises are allowed to be revealed in due time instead of being spoiled right up front. Of course, this won’t matter much to those who have already seen the movie and who know what is going to happen (the obvious target audience for this release) but those who have never seen the film before in any incarnation might want to consider watching the theatrical version first before checking out this variant take.

When “Dark City” was first released on DVD in 1998, it was generally regarded as a high point for the early days of the format in terms of special editions because it included two commentary tracks--a standard production history featuring Proyas, co-writers Lem Dobbs and David Goyer and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos and a critical commentary from Roger Ebert, one of its most adamant supporters--a comparison between the film and “Metropolis” (including a review of that classic penned by none other than H.G. Wells) and a baffling “Find Shell Beach” game that was as baffling as the movie it was celebrating but without anything close to a satisfying payoff. For this new edition, New Line has come up with a new slew of supplements that, like the new cut, allow you to go deeper into the film than was previously possible. There is a lavishly illustrated gallery of production photos, many of which were taken by Rufus Sewell. There is a three-part documentary that delves into the creation of the film through the eyes of many of its key participants. Most significantly, there are three commentary tracks that combine elements of the one recorded for the first DVD with additional material keyed specifically to the new stuff--one is a solo track with Proyas, another features Dobbs and Goyer and the third, which evidently must have been recorded a couple of years ago, has Roger Ebert offering further elaborations on the film and his feelings for it. The new Ebert contributions are a bit of a shock at first (you can easily tell the difference between the old and new material from the sound of his voice) but to be able to actually hear him once again as he passionately enthuses about a film that he has truly taken to his heart is, like the DVD it is featured on, is an unexpected and entirely welcome treat.

Written by Alex Proyas and Lem Dobbs and David Goyer. Directed by Alex Proyas. Starring Rufus Sewell, Keifer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson and William Hurt. 1998. Unrated. 111 minutes. A New Line Home Entertainment release. $19.98


THE BAND’S VISIT (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): In this charming comedy-drama, a musical group consisting of eight Egyptian police officers arrives in Israel to perform at the opening of a new Arab cultural center in the town of Petah Tikvah but get on the wrong bus and wind up in the remote town of Beith Ha-Tikvah, a place that local restaurant owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) assures them doesn’t even have culture, let alone a cultural center. As it also lacks a hotel, she arranges for the band members to stay with locals for the night until the next bus comes along the next day. Although many assumed that this film would be a front-runner for this year’s Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, it wound up being disqualified because too much of its dialogue was in English, the only language that both the Egyptian and Israeli characters could communicate freely in.

BEVERLY HILLS 90210--THE COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $59.99): Another collection of episodes from the long-running series (just in time for its brand-new incarnation next month on the CW or whatever the hell they are calling it this season) in which the world’s oldest teenagers confront such Important Topics as anti-Semitism (against it), drug rehabilitation (for it), cults (against them) and infidelity (for it, though only as a plot device). Alas, this was the first season after the highly-publicized departure of Shannen Doherty from the fold and while the producers were thoughtful enough to truck in Tiffani-Amber Thiessen as the new troublemaking trollop in town, it just wasn’t the same.

CENTENNIAL (Universal Home Entertainment. $59.98): In what was considered to be a landmark production for its time, and one whose sheer size and scope is still impressive today, this 1978 miniseries brought James Michener’s epic novel about how the American West was settled to the small screen in a production that ran 26 ½ hours and featured over 100 speaking roles. Those roles, by the way, are filled by the likes of Richard Chamberlin, Barbara Carrera, Robert Conrad, Timothy Dalton, Chad Everett, David Janssen, Alex Karras, Dennis Weaver, Pernell Roberts, Gale Sondergaard, Stephanie Zimbalist and James Best. Oh yeah, according to IMDB, even a young George Clooney pops up at some point as an extra, though unless you happen to actually be George Clooney (and if that were the case, I would certainly hope that you would have better things to do than read this nonsense), my guess is that you are probably not going to be able to spot him right off the bat.

DADDY DARLING (Retro Seduction. $19.95): In this 1970 effort from exploitation king Joe Sarno, a 19-year-old girl’s cheerful existence with her beloved father is thrown into turmoil when he remarries. When our heroine catches the two of them in bed together, she runs away and cooks up a scandalous (and need I say sexy) plot to disgrace the interloper and win back her father by any means necessary. Yeah, if you do decide to pick this one up, you probably should be ashamed of yourself for doing so.

THE DEAL (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.98) Three years before they reunited for the international hit “The Queen,” writer Peter Morgan, director Stephen Frears and co-star Michael Sheen collaborated for this fascinating look at the beginning of Tony Blair’s ascent to the world stage that centers on the deal that he and fellow Labor Party member Gordon Brown (David Morrissey) supposedly reached that prevented intramural warfare when both were considered to run for Prime Minister left vacant after the sudden death of former party head John Smith. Although it lacks the emotional juice of their later collaboration, political junkies are likely to find it to be a fascinating view of a series of events whose repercussions are still being felt today.

DOOMSDAY (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): After being bandied about in certain circles as the next big thing in genre filmmaking on the basis of the somewhat overhyped “Dog Soldiers” and the wildly overhyped “The Descent,” British filmmaker Neil Marshall pretty much pissed away all of that goodwill with this ridiculous and painfully derivative post-apocalyptic thriller that pretty much steals huge chunks of “Escape from New York,” “28 Days Later,” “Lord of the Rings” and “The Road Warrior” and mashes them into one incoherent tale that is not even redeemed by the considerable physical presence of ass-kicking heroine Rhona Mitra as The Woman Who Would Be Snake Plissken.

FORBIDDEN ZONE (Legend Films. $19.95): One of the freakiest cult movies to emerge in the 1980’s--a hallucinatory and often-inexplicable musical-comedy homage to the oddball cartoons produced by Max Fleischer in the 1930’s featuring such sights as frog butlers, musical numbers by Oingo Boingo and Herve Villachaize as the relentlessly horny King Fausto--returns to DVD in a new special edition featuring such bonus features as a pop-up trivia track, deleted scenes and a Japanese promo reel. However, the biggest innovation of this edition is that the film, originally produced in black-and-white, has been colorized by the people at Legend Films (the ones behind similar refurbishing of films like “Reefer Madness” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” Although director Richard Elfman claims on the package that he always wanted to see the film in color, the visual additions, though not bad from a technical perspective, kind of ruins the live-action cartoon aspect that originally made it so appealing.

HAROLD & KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY (New Line Home Entertainment. $34.99): In this fitfully amusing sequel to the 2004 cult favorite, the multi-ethnic pothead duo encounter any number of oddball situations when they run afoul of Homeland Security after a case of mistaken identity while aboard an airplane. There are some funny things here and there (mostly courtesy of Rob Coddry as the clueless government goon on their trail and Neil Patrick Harris in a reprise of the debauched self-parody of himself that was the highlight of the first film) but if you are in the mood for a good pot-based comedy, you should probably hang on a few more days and wait for “Pineapple Express.”

THE HILLS: THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $39.98): You know, while I have heard plenty of talk about this wildly popular MTV “reality” show over the last few months, I never actually sat down to watch any of it until this collection of all 28 episodes of its third season (not to mention interviews, deleted scenes, commentaries and something called “The Virtual Hills”--something that each member of the show’s central quartet appear to be sporting, if you know what I mean) arrived and I popped in a couple of episodes. My word, these bubbleheads are so emotionally and intellectually bankrupt that they make the twerps from “American Teen” seem soulful by comparison and watching them prattle on with their utterly empty and vacuous existences has got to be one of the most soul-crushing things that I have ever witnessed. On the other hand, that Audrina seems like she might be a bit of fun.

THE LOST BOYS: THE TRIBE (Warner Home Video. $27.98): Since I have never really been able to work up much enthusiasm for Joel Schumacher’s ultra-stylish and ultra-empty 1987 teen-vampire epic, I certainly don’t feel qualified to say anything about this much-ballyhooed direct-to-DVD sequel in which a new generation of hunky/hot bloodsuckers and vampire killers (including Keifer Sutherland’s brother, “The O.C.” refugee Autumn Reeser and, perhaps inevitably, Corey Feldman and Corey Haim) do low-budget battle with each other. If you are the type who is willing to sit through any vampire-related entertainment, you might as well try this one as well, if only to be able to do your small part for helping to keep the Coreys safe, healthy and off the streets.

NEVER BACK DOWN (Summit Films. $32.99): In what was no doubt pitched to producers as this generation’s “Karate Kid” (although based on the tepid critical and popular response, it felt more like this generation’s “The Karate Kid III”), tough but troubled new kid Sean Faris runs afoul of psychotic rich kid/mixed-marital-arts fanatic Cam Gigandet and begins studying under wizened instructor Djimon Hounsou to learn enough to beat his rival to a pulp and win the heart of blonde bombshell Amber Heard. Yep, this is another one of those movies that teaches us that we learn the techniques of martial arts so that we may never have to use them--that is, of course, until the end credits are about to roll and then it is pretty much anything goes.

PHINEAS & FERB: THE FAST & THE PHINEAS/ THE WIZARDS OF WAVERLEY PLACE: WIZARD SCHOOL (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $19.99 each): Proving that not even Disney can survive entirely on the cash cow that is “Hannah Montana” (which is especially important since she seems to be developing those troubling independent thoughts that helped bring down the “Lizzie Maguire” empire a few years ago), they now present us with DVD best-of samplers from two of their other popular Disney Channel offerings. The former is an amusingly quirky animated series about a pair of stepbrothers who get involved in new and unusual adventures for each day of their summer vacation--at the same time, their beloved pet platypus, who is evidently a secret agent of some kind, is constantly saving the world from the nefarious Dr. Doofenshmirtz. The latter, which appears to have been designed to answer the question “What would happen if Hannah Montana enrolled at Hogwarts?” feature budding tween star (and target of Miley Cyrus’ YouTube-enabled venom) Selena Gomez as a young girl with supernatural powers who, along with her similarly endowed brothers, goes to a special school to hone her talents where she gets involved in all sorts of G-rated mischief. Of course, if you have a kid in the target demographic for these shows, it is likely that you are more intimately familiar with them than I am--hell, you probably already have these discs on constant rotation in the backseat DVD player.

PRIVILEGE (New Yorker Video. $29.95): In the not-too-distant future, an incredibly charismatic pop star becomes the tool of craven politicians who wish to exploit his influence over his enormous fan base for their own increasingly totalitarian ends. No, this isn’t the latest John McCain attack ad--it is, in fact, a fairly rare and scarily prescient 1967 faux-documentary from British filmmaker Peter Watkins that has a lot to say about media manipulation and blind celebrity worship that is still startlingly relevant even after more than 40 years.

ROBIN OF SHERWOOD: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Acorn Media. $99.99): This 10-disc set brings together all 26 episodes of the highly acclaimed TV adaptation of the classic tale of derring-do that was broadcast around the world to great acclaim in the 1980’s. This take features Michael Praed as the heroic Robin of Loxley for the first 13 episodes and Jason Connery (yes, Neil’s nephew) as his successor, Robin of Huntingdon, for the final 13. The show also includes appearances by a young Ray Winstone as Will Scarlett and Nickolas Grace as the Sheriff of Nottingham and soundtrack contributions from the popular Irish band Clannad. Besides the episodes, the set includes a quartet of retrospective documentaries, outtakes and a feature focusing on Clannad as they put together the show’s score.

SHINE A LIGHT (Paramount Home Video. $34.99): When I first saw this highly anticipated concert film in which Martin Scorsese captures the Rolling Stones as they blast through a two-hour set of classic tunes from the intimate confines of New York’s Beacon Theatre, I enjoyed it a lot but found myself wishing that the two could have collaborated during a more fruitful period in the band’s long history than the end of the tour promoting one of their weakest albums (2005’s “A Bigger Bang”). However, subsequent viewings (including one especially memorable one in the glory that is IMAX) demonstrated without a doubt that while the results may not have been especially ground-breaking for either Scorsese or the Stones, their respective gifts as a filmmaker and as a live band (especially Mick Jagger’s astonishing stamina) are on such stunning display here that the lack of innovation hardly seems to matter anymore. There are plenty of highlights here--killer run-throughs on hits like “Sympathy for the Devil” and the title tune, the duets with special guests Jack White (“Loving Cup”), Buddy Guy (“Champagne and Reefer”) and Christina Aguilera (“Live With Me”), and the solo turns from Keith Richards on “Connection” and “You Got the Silver”--but the best of the bunch is probably their take on the “Some Girls” album cut “Faraway Eyes.” Without giving too much away, Scorsese manages to brilliantly capture the entire rocky history of the Jagger-Richards partnership within the performance of one four-minute song. If you are still thirsting for more after this film comes to an end (and if you have even the slightest interest in the history of rock music, you will), the DVD offers up bonus performances of “I’m Free,” “Paint It, Black,” “Little T&A” and “Undercover of the Night.”

TINY TOON ADVENTURES, VOLUME ONE (Warner Home Video. $44.98): Shoot me as a heretic, but as entries in the wave of hyperactive and pop-culture savvy television cartoon shows produced by Warner Brothers in the early 1990’s under the auspices of Steven Spielberg go, I always preferred “Animaniacs” to this one, which featured a group of young and rambunctious toons learning the tricks of the trade from old sages like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest. If you feel differently, you’ll want to grab this four-disc set, which contains the first 35 episodes of the show and a featurette on the show’s development and the artistic and comedic influences of the old Looney Tunes shorts on its own brand of humor.

TWO FAT LADIES: THE COMPLETE 4-SERIES COLLECTION (Acorn Media. $59.99): In one of the stranger cooking shows to emerge from the ongoing onslaught of televised food porn, two oddball British women (Clarissa Dickson Wright and the late Jennifer Paterson) tool around the British Isles on their Triumph Thunderbird in order to stop off at far-flung locations to whip up feasts that would probably kill most nutrition-minded people in their tracks (venison cooked in bacon fat, anyone?) but which look so good that you’ll want to try them for yourself. Perhaps anticipating that, this four-disc set, in addition to including ever episode of the show’s four-season run, thoughtfully provides you with a booklet containing many of the recipes featured in some of the episodes.

WARGAMES: 25th ANNIVERSARY EDITION/WARGAMES: DEAD CODE (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98/$26.98): The film that taught a nation that the game of Global Thermonuclear Warfare was one in which the most intelligent move is not to play returns in a new anniversary edition featuring various featurettes on the making of the film and the world of computers circa 1983 and a commentary track featuring director John Badham and writers Walter F. Parkes & Lawrence Lasker. Of course, this re-release is basically a promotion for this week’s other big direct-to-DVD sequel to a classic teen hit from the 1980’s, this one involving, surprise of surprises, a brilliant young hacker who inadvertently begins WW III after busting into a government computer and must evade pursuing FBI agents while trying to stop the machine from literally going ballistic.

WITCHBLADE: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Warner Home Video. $69.98): As someone with a horrible and inexplicable fascination for TV shows involving ass-kicking babes doing battle with the forces of evil, be they run-of-the-mill bad guys or supernatural behemoths, I naturally couldn’t wait to get my hands on this seven-disc set containing all 24 episodes of the short-lived series (based on the comic book) in which comely New York City detective Yancy Butler does battle with the forces of evil, both run-of-the-mill bad guys and supernatural behemoths alike, with the aid of a magical weapon known as the Witchblade that she has been entrusted with. Yeah, it is pretty much crap but if you have a taste for this kind of thing as I do, it may be hard to resist and besides, it is better than that "Painkiller Jane" nonsense.

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originally posted: 08/01/08 02:06:28
last updated: 08/01/08 13:38:44
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