DVD Reviews for 8/8: If You're A Kraut (Or Not), This Column Will Knock You Out!!!
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/08/08 11:14:38
If you are looking for something to watch that doesn't involve the Olympics, you should be able to find something to satisfy you in this week's list of DVD releases--swarms of deadly pests, plenty o' sex and violence, some TV favorites from the 1960's and arguably the most famous war movie that you have never seen.
While the international film scene has always been filled with people trying to cash in on the latest cinematic trend by cranking out movies that blatantly rip off the plots of proven box-office successes, few have ever taken that particular approach to the boldly bizarre extremes displayed by the purveyors of the Italian exploitation film industry. (Okay, maybe the Turks, though we shall leave that debate for another day.) Whenever a movie captures the imagination of the audiences of the world (not to mention the contents of their collected wallets and purses), the Italians have always been right there to instantly crank out a dozen or so knock-offs that would generally follow broad outlines of the original work to a T and then fill it in with the kind of outrageously lurid details that serve to delight fans of junk cinema and annoy/sicken/bewilder everyone else. When Sergio Leone reinvigorated the Western genre with “A Fistful of Dollars,” it opened the floodgates for a countless number of so-called spaghetti westerns. After George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” (which was co-produced by Italian horror icon Dario Argento) proved to be a huge success at the box-office, it also kicked off a flood of ultra-gory zombie films such as “Zombie,” “The Beyond” and too many more to mention here. And when the sci-fi/horror hybrid “Alien” proved to be popular throughout the world, it also inspired a string of copycats, perhaps none more bizarre the soft-core monster mash-up known as “The Beast in Space.” Another such film making its official DVD release this week (after years of grey-market obscurity in less-than-complete forms) is the 1977 World War II epic “Inglorious Bastards,” a riff on Robert Aldrich’s 1967 hit “The Dirty Dozen,” and what it may lack in originality, it more than makes up for with its energy and cheerfully sleazy and overblown excesses--not the easiest thing in the world to pull off since Aldrich’s original was anything but a model of tact and restraint itself.
As the film opens, a small American soldiers stationed in Germany, headed up by B-movie icons Bo Svenson and Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson, are being loaded into a transport convoy that will ship them off to military prison where they will stand trial for a number of serious infractions (though not too serious so as to threaten audience identification--Williamson killed a racist sergeant and Svenson used his plane to surreptitiously fly off to London to see his sweetheart). Along the way, the convoy is strafed by German bombers and everyone but the five prisoners are killed in the attack. Realizing that they will be killed on sight by the Germans or arrested on sight by the Americans if they are captured, the men decide that the best way to save themselves is to embark on a dangerous trek to neutral Switzerland led by Adolph, a German that they discover hiding out in a barn. Along the way, they run across a group of German soldiers and effortlessly slaughter them, only to realize later on that their victims were actually Allied soldiers who were in disguise in order to pull off an incredibly dangerous and important mission. When our anti-heroes meet the French Resistance people who the dead Allies were supposed to meet and discover what they have done, they strike a bargain--they will perform the mission themselves (which involves sneaking onto a heavily fortified German train, stealing some precious rocket equipment and bringing it back without getting killed by either Allied troops or the Nazis) and they will get their immunity.
The film, also known as “The Deadly Mission” and “G.I. Bro” (“If You’re A Kraut, He’ll Take You Out!”) was directed by the incredibly prolific Enzo G. Castellari, a filmmaker not exactly known for his blazing originality (his 1981 “Jaws”-alike, variously known as “Great White” and “The Last Shark,” hewed so closely to the original that Universal Pictures managed to get an injunction barring it from being released in this country because of its perceived copyright infringement) and while he pretty much sticks to the “Dirty Dozen” blueprint for the most part, he gooses the material in such crazily excessive ways that you find yourself ignoring the fact that you literally have seen it all before in order to see what lunacy he comes up with next. The characters are all tougher than nails--even in the moments when we are meant to look upon them sympathetically, they still act as if they would be more than willing to snap your spine in an instant just to see the look on your face. The battle scenes cram so many bombs, bullets and gallons of blood into its relatively brief 99-minute running time that it feels as if our heroes have single-handedly killed more Nazis than were killed the actual war. And on the rare occasions when Castellari does dare to come up with something that we haven’t seen before, the results are suitably jaw-dropping--in arguably the most infamous scene of the film, the guys come across a group of sexy frauleins skinny-dipping in a nearby river and join them for some naked horseplay that comes to an abrupt end when the women reveal themselves as SS officers and open fire on the guys while still completely naked. Imagine what might have transpired if Russ Meyer had somehow gotten the job of directing “Where Eagles Dare” and you have the general idea behind the scene, one of those classic B-movie moments that makes the entire film worth watching all by itself.
If you are not a student of admittedly trashy war films and the title “Inglorious Bastards” still sounds vaguely familiar to you, it may be because it has been cited as a key inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s long-gestating WW II film of the same name. No doubt recognizing the publicity value of such a connection, Severin Films, a specialist in the world of Euro-exploitation DVDs that has been cranking out killer special editions of once-obscure cult titles for a couple of years now (their two box sets of “Black Emanuelle” films were among the finest DVDs to be released last year), has made sure to play up that connection in this 3-disc special edition. In fact, the most highly publicized special feature in the set is a 39-minute conversation/interview between Tarantino and Castellari and while it doesn’t exactly rival the legendary Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews, Tarantino manages to strike a decent balance between serious film analysis and fanboy giddiness by offering up a mix of gushing adoration and surprisingly interesting questions to his subject. Castellari also appears on the other significant extra on the first disc, a full-length commentary that does a pretty good job of going into detail about the film’s production history. The second disc is dominated by “Train Kept-A-Rollin’,” a newly produced feature-length documentary on the making of the film featuring new and informative interviews with Castellari, co-stars Williamson, Svenson and Massimo Vanni, co-writer Laura Toscano, Fillipo De Masi, the son of composer Francesco De Masi, producer Roberto Sbarigia and special effects technician Gino De Rossi. This disc also includes “Back to the War Zone,” a shorter featurette in which Castellari takes us on a guided tour of the locations where the film was shot back in 1977. Finally, the third disc is a CD that contain about 20 minutes of Francesco De Masi’s score that is apparently all that remains of what he originally composed--what happened to the rest is discussed by his son in the making-of documentary.
Written by Sandro Continenza, Sergio Greico, Romano Migliorini, Laura Toscano and Franco Marotta. Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Starring Bo Svenson, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Peter Hooten, Michael Pergolani, Jackie Basehart and Ian Bannen. 1978. 99 minutes. Unrated. A Severin Films release. $29.95.
NEW AND NOTABLE
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA’S GUEST (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $26.98): Loosely based on one of Stoker’s short stories and evidently loosely inspired by “Adaptation,” of all things, this cheapo effort follows struggling writer Bram Stoker (Wes Ramsey) from London to Transylvania in pursuit of his beloved Elizabeth (Kelsey McCann) after she is kidnapped by Count Dracula (Andrew Bryniarski) as a way of forcing a confrontation with her father over some damn thing or another. In the long and not-exactly-illustrious history of dorky vampire extravaganzas, this would appear to be one of them.
CARMEN (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.98): Acclaimed Spanish filmmaker Vicente Aranda becomes the latest person to tackle the famous Prosper Merimee story about the tempestuous affair between an impulsive beauty (Paz Vega) and a naïve soldier (Leonardo Sbaraglia) that. . .yeah, I’m am distracted by that cover as you are.
THE COUNTERFEITERS (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.96): Despite the existence of such wonderful titles as “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Persepolis,” “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days” and “The Band’s Visit,” this year’s Foreign-Language Film Oscar went to this predictable German WW II melodrama that tells the true story of a group of imprisoned Jewish printers, artists and bank officials who are pressed by their captors to create millions of dollars in bogus foreign currency as part of a plan to wreak economic havoc upon the enemies of the Third Reich.
THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG: DIRECTOR’S CUT (CBS DVD. $19.99): In what remains one of the most electrifying performances of his long and celebrated career, Tommy Lee Jones portrays killer Gary Gilmore in this haunting 1982 TV adaptation of the acclaimed Norman Mailer best-seller (for which he also penned the screenplay) chronicling the last few months of his life and his insistence that he be put to death via firing squad for his crimes rather than spend the remainder of his life in jail. Also featuring a strong early performance from a then-unknown Rosanna Arquette as Gilmore’s girlfriend, the film continues to be a startling and thoughtful meditation on violence, guilt and penance that is as powerful to watch today as it was when it was first broadcast.
FOYLE’S WAR--SET 5 (Acorn Media. $49.99): Seeing as how my father is a total sucker for both quirky British mystery-dramas and anything involving World War II, this series of TV movies from England featuring quirky Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (Michael Litchen) solving murders in a quaint British coastal town while the war rages around them is like a televised Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of joy for him. Alas, he may be distraught to learn that the last of the three full-length film collected here appears to be the last one--it takes place as the war is ending--but seeing as how the previous set concluded with Foyle supposedly retiring for good, there may still be hope for him after all. By the way, I would just like to note that Honeysuckle Weeks, who plays one of Foyle’s intrepid assistants, has what may be, with the sole exception of Ione Skye, the greatest name that I have ever heard in my entire life.
GET SMART--THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (HBO Video. $24.98): Call me a slave at the altar of synergy and send me to Hell--wouldn’t it have made a little more sense for HBO Home Video to put this collection out closer to the beginning of the summer (you know, around the time when the big-screen version with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway was due to be released) instead of towards the end (long after it departed from most multiplexes)? Whatever the reason for the delay, this four-disc set is completely worth it--for the surprisingly low price, you get all 30 of the first season episodes (including the original pilot that was shot in black-and-white) and a pair of commentary tracks on two key episodes, one from series creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry and the other from co-star Barbara Feldon. Oh yeah, the show--a nifty combination of Borscht Belt shtick and super-spy spoofery--is still funny as ever (one of those rare shows that seems to have come right out of the gate firing on all cylinders) and beats the gong out of most contemporary sitcoms.
THE HIVE (Genius Products. $14.95): When a swarm of 200 million poorly-rendered CGI flesh-eating army ants storm their way through the jungles of Brazil as part of a mission that, if successful, could well destroy the entire planet, who would you call in the hope of saving the day? If you answered “John Schneider,” I would have to respond (using my best Lionel Stander voice) “Close.” Now if you said “Tom Wopat,” you are obviously the target audience for this bit of direct-to-video nonsense. Oddly enough, the film was co-written by T.S. Cook, who received an Oscar nomination once upon a time for co-writing a little thing called “The China Syndrome.”
HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS--20th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Infinity Entertainment. $14.98): The 1980’s saw plenty of low-budget movies that tried to bestow instant cult status upon themselves by coming up with the most over-the-top titles imaginable (remember the likes of “Assault of the Killer Bimbos,” “Hell Comes the Frogtown” and “Killer Klowns from Outer Space”?), but the most (in)famous was probably the one applied to this 1988 epic from self-styled B-movie maven Fred Olen Ray in which a private detective (Jay Richardson) hits the mean streets of L.A. in search of a runaway teen (the long-past-her-teen-years Linnea Quigley) and runs afoul of a strange religious cult of Stihl-wielding prostitutes who are chopping up people right on the orders of their leader, played by none other than one and only Gunnar Hansen. If you responded to that last statement with “Gunnar who?,” just set this one aside and move on. However, if you immediately recalled that Hansen was the original Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” then you are probably the target audience for this 20th anniversary edition DVD, featuring the original theatrical trailer (wait, this played theatrically?), a making-of documentary and a commentary track featuring Ray and co-writer T.L. Lankford.
HOTEL BABYLON--SEASON 2 (BBC America. $39.98): Another collection of episodes from the popular BBC series about the strange, bizarre and occasionally randy goings-on involving the guests and staff of a posh British hotel. Yeah, it is silly and soapy trash but with all those accents on display, it somehow seems a little more dignified and respectable, don’t you think?
I LOVE THE 80’s COLLECTION (Paramount Home Video. $14.98 each): This is essentially a repromotion of 40 films from the Paramount library released during the 1980’s (with titles ranging from “Top Gun” to “American Gigolo” to “Friday the 13th”) with the same transfers and bonus features as in their previous editions but with a four-song CD sampler of music from the era to sweeten the deal. Alas, as far as I can tell, Paramount didn’t bother to put together more than one compilation of music (featuring “Lips Like Sugar” from Echo & the Bunnymen, “Chains of Love” from Erasure, “Need You Tonight” by INXS and “Take on Me” from a-ha), so if you buy more than one of these reissues, you are going to be collecting a stack of them--great if you are the world’s biggest a-ha fanatic but significantly less so if you aren’t.
MISS CONCEPTION (First Look Films. $24.98): In yet another one of the middling direct-to-video efforts that Heather Graham’s career seems to have unfortunately devolved to in recent years, a British yuppie type discovers that she has only a month to conceive a baby before she becomes infertile and sets off on a madcap hunt (with best pal Mia Kirshner) to find the perfect mate before time runs out. Yeah, I know she looks a little young to be facing such a problem but I suspect that the filmmakers were hoping that viewers would be too distracted by her dodgy British accent to notice.
NIM’S ISLAND (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): Jodie Foster returns to the kid-flick genre where she first made her mark with this silly bit of fluff involving a precocious little girl (Abigail Breslin) living on a remote island who enlists the aid of an agoraphobic writer of adventure novels (Foster) to help her find her missing scientist father (Gerard Butler) when he disappears at sea during a storm. If you are over the age of 10, the film isn’t much of anything (especially when it transforms into a tropical “Home Alone” towards the end when Breslin does battle with an unexpected onslaught of tourists) but Foster’s game and plucky performance does provide some measure of entertainment for viewers old enough to remember her from the days of such childhood frolics as “Freaky Friday,” “Candleshoe” and “Taxi Driver.”
ROGUE (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $29.95): After making some waves in horror circles with his controversial 2005 debut feature “Wolf Creek,” director Greg Mclean returns with a tale of a group of tasty-looking tourist party traveling downriver through the Australian outback who find themselves being pursued and snacked upon by a relentless and ginormous crocodile that has developed a taste for the sweet gamey tang of human flesh. Although the fact that it practically went straight to video after a theatrical run so token that it made “Midnight Meat Train” look like “The Dark Knight” by comparison, some who have seen it have suggested that it is pretty good after all and its fate is due less to its quality and more to the inability of the Weinstein Company to open anything in a competent manner these days.
ROUTE 66: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Infinity Entertainment. $49.98): Seeing as how Martin Milner, the co-star of this popular 1960’s series in which he and George Maharis drove around the titular roadway and got involved in the lives and problems of the various people that they would meet every week, hates my guts with a blind passion (it is a long and dull story that we need not go into here--suffice it to say, if you ever get the chance to host a film festival, try not to mortally offend one of the honored guests five minutes before you are to do an onstage Q&A with them--I suppose I should probably recuse myself from commenting on this particular DVD release in order to avoid showing any unfortunate bias. That said, if you are a fan of the show (or want to introduce it to a new generation of potential fans, this 8-disc set containing all 30 episodes in all their uncut glory.
SESAME STREET: COUNT ON SPORTS (Genius Products. $14.95): If there just aren’t enough sports-related things on TV right now to satisfy you or your children, you might want to check out this compilation of bits from the beloved TV series in which the Count golfs and races in the Transylvania 300, Grover and Vince Carter discuss why some people are short while others are tall, Prairie Dawn does gymnastics with Dominique Dawes and Elmo wipes the floor with Venus Williams in a round of imaginary tennis (which would suggest that Elmo is a big fan of “Blow-Up,” of all things.) At this point, I was about to make an ugly joke about how it might have made more sense for Grover and Carter to discuss firecracker safety until I remembered that it was former Mets player Vince Coleman who once chucked lit firecrackers at some fans. Sorry about that--all I can say is that it is really hot out and my capacity to remember sports-related ugliness from the early 1990’s is reduced considerably in the withering heat. As I now have no killer conclusion to this blurb, perhaps we should just move on and pretend that this never happened.
SHADOWS LIGHT (Ever After Media. $24.95): Good and Evil meet up for their latest bout in this direct-to-video horror thriller in which the former is represented by Father Cuth Abelard, a burned-out priest who returns to his hometown to recuperate after participating in an exorcism gone wrong, and the latter takes the form of one Ashton Legares, a multi-millionaire businessman with dark and shadowy ties to a candidate for the U.S. Senate. I won’t tell you how this skirmish ends but I will mention that when the two do finally get ready to rumble, their respective arsenals appear to include light sabers.
STARSHIP TROOPERS 3: MARAUDER (Sony Home Entertainment. $27.96): The ongoing battle between man and bug takes some terrifying turns in this second direct-to-video sequel to Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant 1997 adaptation of the Robert Heinlein classic--while a small team of soldiers (including “Enterprise” vixen Jolene Blalock) do battle with the creatures on a distant planet, the begin to realize that their enemies may possess a new weapon that could destroy mankind once and for all. Alas, little of the searing satire or the lavish special effects of Verhoeven’s film have made it into this sequel, though Casper von Diem does make a return as lantern-jawed and lunk-headed hero Johnny Rico.
STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES--SEASON TWO (CBS DVD. $84.98): When CBS/Paramount begin double-dipping the season sets of the perennial sci-fi classic, complete with newly remastered picture and sound, new extras and even some new special effects to juice up some of the dodgier visual moments, it was designed to highlight the superior technological capabilities of the HD-DVD format that Paramount had aligned itself with in the early days of the format wars. Of course, HD-DVD has gone the way of the 8-track and while this set of 26 Season Two episodes, which includes classics like “Amok Time” and “The Trouble with Tribbles,” oddities like “Mirror Mirror” (where the entire crew undergoes a Bizarro World-like change of personality) and “The Doomsday Machine” (whose basic concept would eventually serve as part of the inspiration for “Star Trek-The Motion Picture”) and goofball dregs like “Who Mourns For Adonais?” and “Catspaw” (both of which almost need to be seen to be disbelieved), includes all those bells and whistles, those who bought the first reissue will no doubt be displeased to discover that it is only available in the standard DVD format. Don’t worry, I am fairly certain that between now and the release of the new “Star Trek” film next summer, you will be given a chance to purchase the series yet again.
TOKYO DECADENCE (Cinema Epoch. $24.98): Will you enjoy this strangely sexy 1992 film following the life of a submissive Japanese prostitute as she goes about her business of pleasuring a series of businessmen (both legal and otherwise) by appealing to their kinkiest quirks, mostly involving B&D? Beats me. (Look, I apologize for the lameness of the joke--like I said before, it is just too damned hot out and I didn’t feel like expending the energy to come up with a good one.)
WASTED (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.98): Set in 1996, this coming-of-age comedy-drama follows three best friends in their twenties (Eddie Kaye Thomas, Kip Pardue and Josh Cooke) who return to the small town where they grew up to attend the funeral of another high-school pal and to make sense of their lives. Lucky for them, the town has the requisite number of fabulous-looking babes (including Kaley Cuoco, Marisa Coughlin and Alexandra Holden) to offer assistance with the latter.