DVD Reviews for 10/10: Welles And Seagal--Together Again--Again!
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/10/08 03:54:24
No pithy opening paragraph this week--there are just too many titles of note to waste time on such nonsense.
With the exceptions of “Citizen Kane” and his underrated screen adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” virtually every one of the completed fiction films directed by Orson Welles in his lifetime was compromised in some way--either he ran out of money and wound up cobbling things together as best as he could or the films were taken away from him by producers or studios who re-edited them, and even shot new footage in some cases, in an effort to make them seem more straightforward and palatable to audiences. While the films usually retained enough of their original brilliance despite these “improvements” (“The Magnificent Ambersons” lost nearly 40 minutes of footage after R.K.O. took it away from him after a dismally received preview and it is still regarded as a masterpiece.), studying them can be an exercise in frustration because with the exception of “Kane” and “The Trial,” none of his films currently exist in the way that he originally intended them to be seen and in the case of a couple of his films, there have been multiple versions floating around that have muddied the waters even further.
A couple of years ago, in putting together their edition of his 1955 thriller “Mr. Arkadin,” the Criterion Company hit upon the next best thing to having a single definitive version of the film--they brought together three different and distinctive cuts (two that had been around for years and a new recut) into one package with enough background material to allow viewers to understand the tangled history of the production and to see for themselves the similarities and differences found in each of its incarnations. Taking a cue from this groundbreaking DVD set, Universal Home Entertainment has taken a similar tack with another Welles work that exists in multiple versions and the result, “Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition,” is simultaneously a boon for Welles scholars, an eye-opening look at how even the slightest changes in a film can affect the end result and one of the landmark DVD sets of the year.
To briefly summarize the plot, “Touch of Evil” opens with Mexican narcotics agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) crossing the border into Mexico with his new American wife (Janet Leigh) for a quick honeymoon trip before testifying in court against the head of the feared Grande family of drug runners. No sooner have the happy couple set foot in Mexico than their idyll is shattered by a car bomb that kills a rich American land developer. Because Mexican nationals are suspected in the crime, Vargas inserts himself into the case and finds himself up against Hank Quinlan (Welles), a legendary U.S. cop with a reputation for always getting his man through whatever means necessary. When Vargas catches Quinlan planting evidence on a suspect whose guilt he cannot otherwise prove, he threatens to expose Quinlan’s dirty ways and in order to prevent that, Quinlan strikes a bargain with the Grande clan to neutralize Vargas by trapping his wife in a Grande-run motel and subjecting her to a series of tortures designed to make her look like a junkie tramp. Of course, this is not the sort of thing that one does to anyone married to Charlton Heston and it leads to a battle of wills in which Quinlan’s self-righteous brand of justice comes back to haunt him while Vargas is forced to sacrifice all of his previously-held ideals in order to get his man.
The reason we have three versions of the film today stems from the fact that when Welles turned in the film, which was his first effort for a major studio in over a decade and one which he undertook largely to reestablish his name as a reliable director to the Hollywood community, Universal Studios discovered that instead of the modestly priced and straightforward crime programmer that they had presumably been expecting, Welles had instead presented a brilliantly lurid spectacle that was both an especially twisted film noir and a thoughtful morality piece about the bad lengths that some people will go to in order to seemingly do good. In an effort to make it less confusing and more palatable, the studio spent a couple of days filming new scenes with Heston and Leigh (who both did so under protest) and inserted them into the film. After seeing a rough cut of this version, Welles responded with a 58-page memo explaining in detail the changes that he wanted to make as well as his reasons for doing them. Unfortunately, Universal decided to largely ignore the memo and made an additional 13 minutes or so of cuts before releasing it to theaters in a 96-minute version. Nearly two decades later in 1976, a copy of the 109-minute preview version that was somewhat closer to Welles’ original concept (though nowhere close to being completed) was discovered in Universal’s vaults and released to the public under the misleading banner of a “director’s cut.” Finally, in 1998, a group of people, including film restorer Rick Schmidlin, editor Walter Murch and Welles historian Jonathan Rosenbaum convinced Universal to allow them to go back and reconstruct the film in the manner suggested by Welles in that 58-page memo.
Although “Touch of Evil” as a whole is a masterpiece--to my eyes, it supplants even “Citizen Kane” as my favorite Welles film--there is no real way in which any of the three versions in existence can really be considered the truly definitive version; the restored version comes closest, of course, but it is impossible to know whether Welles would have done exactly what he suggested in that memo or if he would have made additional changes as well. To that end, Universal (who previously issued only the restored version on DVD about a decade ago) has made the smart decision on this two-disc set to give each cut of the film the same weight in terms of presentation by providing each one with an audio commentary that stakes a claim for each version’s importance in the twisted history of the film. Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore, who contributed an extremely informative commentary on the “Mr. Arkadin” disc, do the same thing here for the preview version, and film critic F.X. Feeney pops up on the theatrical version to reaffirm its importance despite being the version the furthest away from Welles’ intentions. The restored version, on the other hand, gets two commentaries--a newly recorded one with restorer Rick Schmidlin and one featuring Schmidlin and co-stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh that was apparently recorded for that initial DVD and was apparently dropped at the last second for mysterious reasons. Each discussion is fascinating, although the most valuable of the bunch is obviously the one featuring the now-deceased Heston and Leigh.
In addition to those audio treasures, “Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition” has a few more valuable extras up its sleeve. The first is “Bringing Evil to Life,” a documentary on the making of the film that, like the Heston/Leigh commentary, was originally scheduled to appear on the earlier DVD until it too was scrapped at the last minute--Heston and Leigh both make appearances here as well. “Evil Lost and Found” focuses largely on the restoration of the film and offers a concise look at the differences between the three versions. Finally, as a print supplement, there is a reproduction of that infamous 58-page memo of changes proposed by Welles the day after seeing the preview version--it is a fascinating document that offers a more detailed look into Welles’ artistic process than any biography or critical speculation could possibly supply. Put all of these elements together and you have what is easily one of the must-own DVDs of the year.
Written and directed by Orson Welles. Starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marlene Dietrich. 1958. 96/109/111 minutes. Unrated/PG-13. A Universal Home Entertainment release. $26.98
NEW AND NOTABLE
30 ROCK--THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Universal Home Entertainment. $39.98): Despite a strike-shortened second season, Tina Fey’s sitcom about life behind-the-scenes at a comedy show not at all unlike “Saturday Night Live” went on to win 7 of the 17 Emmy awards that it was up for and frankly deserved more. Simply put, there is not a single dud among the 15 episodes collected here and there are a few moments here (such as the Alec Baldwin-Tracy Morgan therapy scene in “Rosemary’s Baby” and virtually all of the season-closer “Cooter”) that are as funny as anything I have seen on television in years. To make up for the relative lack of episodes, this set also includes audio commentaries with the cast, crew and guest stars Tim Conway, Will Arnett and Fred Armisen, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes look at Tina Fey’s return to “SNL” last spring, a table read of the award-winning season finale “Cooter” and a video of a live performance of the show done by the cast as a fundraiser during their strike-induced hiatus. Other TV shows hitting DVD this week are “Brotherhood--The Second Season” (CBS DVD. $39.98), “How I Met Your Mother--Season Three” (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98), “Keeping Up With the Kardashians: Season 1” (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.98) and “Midsomer Murders: Set 11” (Acorn Media. $49.99).
THE ALICE FAYE COLLECTION, VOLUME 2 (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98): One of the biggest stars on the Fox lot during the Thirties and Forties, the musical comedy star gets a second box set dedicated to her oeuvre. “Rose of Washington Square” (1939) features her as an ambitious singer whose road to stardom is jeopardized by her romance with a con man (Tyrone Power) with a weakness for gambling. “Hollywood Cavalcade” (1939) takes a look at the early days of Hollywood with Faye as a stage actress who heads to California to make it in the movie industry. “The Great American Broadcast” (1941) is pretty much the same thing as “Hollywood Cavalcade” with the focus changed to the early days of radio. “Hello Frisco Hello” (1943) finds Faye as a member of a dance-hall quartet who find themselves getting mixed up with the well-to-do set of the newly-emerging city of San Francisco. Finally, “Four Jills in a Jeep” (1944) finds Faye in a guest-starring role as herself in a story about the adventures of the first four female performers to join the U.S.O. as part of Jimmy Dorsey’s band.
THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES--THE OFFICIAL SECOND SEASON (CBS DVD. $49.98): Although generally scorned by critics back in the day, this long-running sitcom about a hillbilly family who move to Beverly Hills following an oil strike and. . .why am I bothering to explain this to you since it is all perfectly laid out in the opening theme song that you probably already have memorized regardless of whether you have ever seen a single episode before in your life or not. Anyway, what I meant to say is that while the show was scorned by tastemakers, it was one of the most-watched shows in the history of the medium and for once, the public may have been right because while the humor may be low-brow and cornball as all get out, it made up for its modest ambitions by being really funny and most of the jokes still hold up pretty well today. Classic TV fans will also want to note that this week sees the release of “Mission: Impossible--Season Five” (CBS DVD. $49.99), in which the M:I squad (including Peter Graves, Peter Lupus and Leonard Nimoy) found themselves battling drug kingpins and welcoming new member Lesley Ann Warren into the fold.
BOY A (Genius Products. $24.95): You probably didn’t seen this low-key British drama about a young man struggling to rejoin society after having spent several years of his childhood in prison as the result of his participation in a shocking crime when it played the art-house circuit earlier this year. That said, you should probably rectify that oversight now, if only to experience the impressive central performances from Andrew Garfield as the young man and Peter Mullan as the corrections officer whose dedication to ensuring that his charge gets a second chance at life ironically winds up having tragic consequences for all involved.
CYBORG SOLDIER (First Look. $24.98): In what looks and sounds strikingly similar to a certain Jean-Claude Van Damme film, rassler Rich Franklin plays a Death Row inmate who has been transformed into the title character--a half-human, half-robot assassin that a clandestine military group is planning on using for nefarious purposes. In an attempt to expose the program to the world, our hero-bot breaks loose and tries to let the world know the shocking truth with the help of the police deputy that he takes hostage. Oh, did I mention that the deputy is played by none other than Tiffani Amber Thiessen? In other news, sometimes I love my job.
THE EDGAR WALLACE COLLECTION, VOLUME 2 (Infinity Entertainment Group. $19.98): Although best remembered today for his contributions to the screenplay for the original “King Kong,” Edgar Wallace was an insanely prolific British crime writer (including 175 novels and 24 plays) whose work has inspired over 160 screen adaptations to date and this DVD offers up two of them in all their lurid glory. “Curse of the Yellow Snake” (1963) features a group of people trying to prevent a wicked Asian cult from acquiring an idol that may help them to control the world while “Phantom of Soho” (1967) features a masked killer stalking the strippers of London’s Soho district.
FEAST 2: SLOPPY SECONDS (Genius Products. $19.98): Picking up pretty much exactly where the first film (which was the subject of a memorable season of “Project Greenlight” before being dumped to video after only a handful of midnight screenings), the grotesque flesh-eating monsters leave the bar and attack a small nearby town and it is up to a motley group of individuals--a couple of survivors from the first film, townspeople, a female biker gang and a bunch of Mexican wrestlers--to band together in an effort to stay alive. Having somehow missed the first film, I can’t say whether this gory follow-up is an improvement or a letdown but I can say that the title is arguably the most clever thing about it.
HALLOWEEN--THREE DISC COLLECTOR’S EDITION (Genius Products. $24.95): Considering that John Carpenter’s original 1978 horror classic has been one of the most constantly reissued DVDs in the history of the format, it probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to discover that Rob Zombie’s soulless and grotesque remake is following in its footsteps with a new 3-disc edition coming less than a year after the original. For those interested, the chief new selling point is “Michael Lives: The Making of Halloween,” a 4 ½-hour-long documentary covering every aspect of the film’s production. Just as a side note, does anyone else think that it is kind of amusing that Genius Products is releasing this title on the same day as “Boy A”?
THE HAPPENING (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): A.K.A. “Mark Wahlberg Talks To Plants.”
HOLIDAY IN HANDCUFFS (Gaiam Video. $19.98): Although it sounds like an alternate title for that rarely seen special “An Irving Klaw Christmas,” this is actually a made-for-TV holiday frolic in which Melissa Joan Hart plays a dateless goof who finds herself kidnapping a strange man (Mario Lopez) and bringing him home to spend Christmas with her family under the ruse that they are a couple. In other news, I am now insanely jealous of Mario Lopez.
JOY RIDE: DEAD AHEAD (Fox Home Entertainment. $26.98): Oh joy, another direct-to-video sequel to a film that you probably haven’t given a second thought to since it first came out. This time around, the film in question is a follow-up to John Dahl’s 2001 knockoff of Steven Spielberg’s 1971 masterpiece “Duel” in which maniacal and presumed-dead psycho-trucker Rusty Nail sets off against another group of hot-but-stupid youngsters who raise his ire on the road.
KILL SWITCH (First Look. $24.98): In the latest DTV atrocity from the one and only Steven Seagal, he stars (well, if you don’t count the obvious body doubles for most the fight scenes and the equally obvious voice doubles for a good chunk of his dialogue) as a tough-as-nails homicide detective pursuing a maniacal killer through what the DVD box describes as “the dark, depraved Memphis underworld of street sex and senseless violence.” In other news, sometimes I really love my job.
LE DOULOS (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): In one of the greatest French crime films ever made (and one that Quentin Tarantino would cite as a key influence on “Reservoir Dogs), a recently-released criminal (Serge Reggiani) plots an elaborate robbery but when it all goes wrong and leaves him wounded and on the run from the cops, he becomes convinced that his friend (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a known informant, ratted him out to the cops and plans revenge. Of course, there is a lot more to Jean-Pierre Melville’s beautifully constructed film than that, but I will leave its considerable surprises for you to discover. If you like this one, and I can’t see how you couldn’t if you have even the slightest amount of taste, you might also want to check out “Le Deuxieme Souffle,” (The Criterion Company. $39.95), another gripping crime drama from Melville that Criterion is also releasing this week.
MOBILE (Acorn Media. $39.99): Anyone with a certain degree of loathing towards cell phones and their more obnoxious users will likely find themselves immediately intrigued with this four-part British TV miniseries in which the murders of several people talking on their phones are only the tip of a massive iceberg of corruption and terrorism. Everyone else, on the other hand, will be taken in by the engrossing plotting and the way that the storyline continually keeps you off-guard until the very end.
PARANOID PARK (IFC Films. $19.99): Although I have liked the previous installments in Gus Van Sant’s exceedingly minimalist series of true-death films involving pretty young things annihilating themselves or each other (“Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days”), even I can’t work up much enthusiasm for his tale of a vacant young skateboarder Gabe Nevins who finds himself wandering around the neighborhoods of Portland in a slightly more uncomprehending daze than usual after inadvertently causing the grisly demise of a security guard in a trainyard. Like most of Van Sant’s films, this has been gorgeously photographed (by the renowned Christopher Doyle) but the whole thing is told at such a cool remove that it becomes impossible to care about any of it after a while. It should be noted, however, that plenty of respected critics feel differently and if you are a Van Sant fanatic, you might still want to check this one out. For everyone else, you might just want to hang on a couple more months for the release of his returning to mainstream filmmaking, the highly-anticipated “Milk.”
THE SIMPSONS--THE COMPLETE ELEVENTH SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98): This is the season that is usually cited by naysayers as the one where the normally high level of quality began to slip (for one reason, many of the key personnel had moved on to help get “Futurama” launched) and when you watch such weak efforts as “Saddlesore Galactica” (the one where Bart and Homer found themselves up against a group of crazed jockeys after getting into the racing game), “Bart to the Future” (the future tale in which Lisa is President) and “Kill the Alligator and Run” ( in which the family winds up on a Florida chain gang after killing an alligator), it isn’t hard to argue with that assessment. That said, while it was the first of what would be several uneven seasons, there are a few gems in the 22 episodes seen here--the best one being “Behind the Laughter,” a spot-on spoof of VH1’s “Behind the Music” that dishes all the behind-the-scenes dirt of everyone’s favorite four-fingered family. Other animated TV titles being released this week include “Care Bears Flurries of Fun” (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98), “Robot Chicken: Season Three” (Warner Home Video. $29.98), “South Park: The Cult of Cartman--Revelations” (Paramount Home Video. $26.98) and “Strawberry Shortcake Holiday Dreams Collection” (Fox Home Entertainment. $26.98).
SLACKER UPRISING (Brave New Films. $9.95): In 2004, Michael Moore embarked on a tour of college campuses in which he tried to coax students into registering to vote with bribes of Ramen noodles and underwear in an effort to help defeat Bush in the presidential election. Obviously, the effort didn’t quite work and judging from the fact that the documentary he made chronicling it is only appearing on video now after making its debut on the Internet, it would seem that the movie doesn’t either.
SLEEPING BEAUTY--50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): Walt Disney’s elaborate 1959 adaptation of the classic fairy tale--one of the most expensive films ever made at the time of its original release and one of the most visually stunning works of his entire career--returns to DVD in a newly souped-up edition featuring a brand-new digital transfer and a slew of extras ranging from valuable items like a storyboard treatment of an alternate opening scene, an extensive documentary on its long gestation and an audio commentary featuring Disney historian Leonard Maltin, animator Andreas Deja and “Toy Story” director John Lassseter to froth like the “Enchanted Dance Game” and a music video for the song “Once Upon a Dream” as performed by “Hannah Montana” star Emily Osment. If you have the previous 2003 edition, the new transfer is enough of an improvement to warrant a repurchase. If you don’t have that version, this edition is a must-own.
THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION, VOLUME 4: 1943-1945 (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): The only thing that is even better than Sony’s ambitious and long-overdue plan to release every one of the shorts produced by the celebrated comedy trio in chronological order with beautifully remastered versions that look and sound better than ever before is the speed in which they are doing it--this collection of 21 titles is the third such release to appear this year. Fans of the trio will especially want to pick up this set because it marks the conclusion of their most fertile creative period--it was towards the end of the era chronicled here that Curly Howard began suffer the myriad health problems that would force him to leave the group in 1946--and because eight of the shorts (including the still-outrageous wartime farces “They Stooge To Conga” and “The Yoke’s On Me”) have never been issued on DVD before. If you can watch the six hours worth of shorts collected here without laughing at least once, I am not sure that we can be friends anymore.
THE VISITOR (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $29.97): In his follow-up to the 2003 indie hit “The Station Agent,” writer-director Tom McCarthy tells the story of an emotionally isolated college professor (Richard Jenkins) who finds himself reengaged with the world again when he becomes involved in the lives of a pair of illegal immigrants (Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira) that he discovers living in a barely used New York apartment that he owns. Yes, it sounds like a lot of touchy-feely dreck, but it is considerably better than that, thanks mostly to a wonderful performance from Richard Jenkins that I believe you will be hearing more and more about as we get further and further into Oscar season.
WICKED LAKE (Media Blasters. $19.99): In this low-budget horror item, a group of fabulous babes go up to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend getaway and are set upon by a group of rural thugs who take them hostage in order to perform unspeakable depravities upon them. Unfortunately for the drooling hicks, their would-be victims have a supernatural secret that gets unleashed at midnight with gruesome results. Yeah, it sounds like a load of sleazy fun but trust me, it is nowhere near as good as it sounds.
YOU DON”T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN (Sony Home Entertainment. $34.95): As those of you who read my regular film reviews may recall, I was only able to review the first twenty minutes or so of this bizarre Adam Sandler comedy, in which he portrays a feared Israeli soldier who fakes his death in order to come to America to live out his dream of being a hairdresser, after a massive projector snafu at the preview screening that I attended. However, in the interest of fairness, I did go back a few days later and watch the entire thing from start to finish and as it turns out, I didn’t really miss that much when I walked out the first time around--outside of a couple of amusingly weirdo gags (none of which I can recall now) and a premise that sounds more ambitious than it turns out to be, this is just another helping of crude nonsense from the Sandler factory line that will presumably appeal to his core audience (and even they didn’t seem that enthused with it) and no one else.