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DVD Reviews for 10/24: Run On The Bonds

by Peter Sobczynski

Instead of wasting time with a pithy introduction this week, I would like to ask everyone reading this to briefly pay tribute to the late, great Rudy Ray Moore, to whom this week’s column is dedicated, by going to the nearest window or door and yelling out in your best “Avenging Disco Godfather” manner, “Attack The Wack!” Trust me, you’ll be glad you did and so will he.

Every couple of years, a new James Bond hits theaters and at the same time that the producers of the long-running series are luring you into seeing the elaborate spectacles they have conjured up this time around, they are equally driven on the home-video front to repackage, remaster and reissue all of the previously released films in the series with just enough new bells and whistles to simultaneously convince the hard-core fans to once again go out and repurchase films they already own and DVD columnists to put together new articles about films that they have presumably already written about at length. To tie in with the latest Bond film, the upcoming “Quantum of Solace,” the shelves of your local video are fairly choked this week with Bond titles galore.

All of the older films are finally being reissued in the full 2-disc versions that were previously available only to those who bought the four “Ultimate Collection” box sets a couple of years ago. “Casino Royale,” the 2006 film that revitalized the franchise and revealed Daniel Craig as the best Bond to come along since the glory days of Sean Connery, returns this week as well with “Casino Royale: Collector’s Edition” (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.95 a 3-disc set that offers up the bonus features from the previous edition, a pair of audio commentaries featuring just about all the key behind-the-scenes personnel, numerous featurettes chronicling the making of the film and even a handful of deleted scenes.

For those of you who have made the upgrade to Blu-Ray, this week also sees the format debuts of six films from the series; “Dr No,” “From Russia With Love,” “Thunderball,’ “Live and Let Die,” “For Your Eyes Only” and “Die Another Day.” Any of these releases would make a perfect subject for an article but I won’t be writing at length about any of them. Instead, I would like to shift focus to the other Bond-related title appearing this week and that is “Casino Royale: 40th Anniversary Edition,” a one-year-late special edition of the bizarre 1967 Bond spoof that is pretty much the red-headed stepchild of the series--shunned by hardcore fans for its silly nature, ignored by historians because it isn’t an official part of the series and largely unwatched by audiences since the time of its original success.

Since the story of how this film came into existence is just as convoluted and confusing as anything that appears on the screen, I will recount only the broad outlines of the tale. Back in 1955, soon after the publication of “Casino Royale,” the first James Bond book, author Ian Fleming sold the film rights to a producer named Gregory Ratoff who died before he could do anything with them. A few years later, producer Charles K. Feldman, who had made such successful films as “The Seven Year Itch” and “What’s New Pussycat?” acquired the now valuable rights from Ratoff’s widow with the idea of producing a straightforward adaptation that would compete with the official series. Feldman even reportedly went so far as to offer the lead role to Sean Connery himself but when Connery, not surprisingly, turned him down, he began to realize that a serious version probably wouldn’t work because audiences simply wouldn’t accept another actor in the role. At that point, he decided to transform the entire project into an elaborate version of the low-budget Bond spoofs that had begun to proliferate here and abroad at that time. A huge cast was assembled--David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress, Deborah Kerr, Orson Welles, Daliah Lavi, William Holden and many, many more--and the film began shooting under top-secret conditions. However, right from the start, the production was a disorganized mess and as it grew bigger and bigger, it quickly spiraled out of control. Behind the scenes, the screenplay was constantly being rewritten by an army of screenwriters ( although officially credited to Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers, the script reportedly contains contributions from the likes of Billy Wilder, Ben Hecht and “Catch-22” author Joseph Heller and possibly Woody Allen--he denies it but some of the lines sound as if they could have only come from his mind) and things eventually grew so chaotic that the final product credits no fewer than five directors (John Huston, Kenneth Hughes, Val Guest, Robert Parrish and Joseph McGrath) and by the time it finally wrapped, the final cost was estimated to be about $12 million, more than any of the official Bond films had cost up to that point. Things were just as chaotic in front of the camera as well--Peter Sellers was reportedly in one of his crazed moods at the time and refused to act opposite Orson Welles during their big scene together (the actors were shot separately and the resulting scene was cobbled together) and eventually left the production altogether.

The film opens as the heads of the world’s major intelligence agencies arrive at the remote estate of the long-retired Sir James Bond (David Niven) to press him into returning to service to investigate the mysterious uptick in the murders of agents from around the world. At first, Bond refuses--he is still upset that his last mission forced him to lure his lover, Mata Hari, to his death and he is appalled that the agent know working under the Bond cover is a ruthless thug who is more interested in women and gadgets than in actually spy work--but after a surprise attack kills M and the others, he changes his mind and returns to London to become the head the British Secret Service. When he discovers that most of the field agents have been killed off by the female members of SMERSH, an evil organization run by the mysterious Dr. Noah and that the current James Bond is now working in television, Bond hits upon a plan to rename all agents James Bond in order to confuse the enemy and recruit new people with special skills that can help defeat the bad guys. Among those recruited are Cooper (Terrence Cooper), a tough-as-nails type who is specially trained to be irresistible to women while remaining resistible to them himself, Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress), the world’s richest and most beautiful secret agent, Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers), a baccarat expert whose skills can be used to defeat SMERSH ally Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) and Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen), the nerdy nephew of Bond who went missing after escaping from a firing squad in Central America. Eventually, the entire story devolves into chaos as the secret identity and plans of Dr. Noah are revealed and everyone starts running around in a series of scenes that make the antics of the Keystone Kops look dignified and restrained by comparison.

As you can probably tell, “Casino Royale” is a complete mess from start to finish Even if you didn’t know about the film’s convoluted production history (which the disc covers in detail via a commentary from Bond experts Steven Jay Rubin and John Cork and a five-part documentary), you would quickly discern that something must have gone wrong along the way because of its bizarrely fractured style. It really looks and feels as though the whole thing was being made up as it went along--virtually every scene seems to come from a different movie and in many instances, the actors seem just as confused with the goings-on as we are. More problematic, the sheer enormity of the film’s scale winds up working against the attempts at humor by weighing everything down to such a degree that the laughs wind up getting buried. And yet, if one is willing to ignore these major flaws, there are a number of compensations to be had. The lavish Pop-Art visual stylings (to which the “Austin Powers” film would pay tribute to three decades later) are pretty trippy to experience today--the whole film now has the sheen of an especially odd LSD hallucination. Speaking of enticing visuals, it also contains arguably the largest collection of beautiful women to ever appear in a single film--the combination of Andress and Lavi alone would have been enough for most people but they are joined by the likes of Joanna Pettet, Barbara Bouchet, Tracy Reed, Angela Scoular, Gabriella Licudi, Caroline Munro (who would later appear in “The Spy Who Loved Me”) and Jacqueline Bisset in the role of Miss Goodthighs. And if you aren’t too distracted by the women and the production design, you may begin to notice that there are some funny moments scattered throughout--the various scenes with Woody Allen (which mostly occur during the second half) are especially amusing. Most importantly, and this cannot be stressed enough, for all of its noisiness, waste and other considerable flaws, “Casino Royale” is still better than the likes of “Moonraker” or “Die Another Day.”

Written by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers. Directed by John Huston, Kenneth Hughes, Val Guest, Robert Parrish and Joseph McGrath. Starring Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, David Niven, Joanna Pettet, Orson Welles, Daliah Lavi and Woody Allen. 1967. Unrated. 131 minutes. $19.98.


ANACONDA 3: OFFSPRING (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): In this direct-to-video sequel to the camp classic that gave viewers the unforgettable sight of a regurgitated Jon Voight (oddly enough, this is not his most embarrassing on-screen moment, as anyone who saw “Baby Geniuses 2” or “An American Carol” can attest), a tough mercenary and his team go in search of a couple of enormous anacondas that have escaped from captivity and which are heading for a nearby city to wreak deadly CGI-style havoc on the populace. Oh, did I mention that said mercenary is played by none other than David Hasselhoff? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again--sometimes I love my job.

BIRDS OF AMERICA (First Look Studios. $28.98): A fairly strong cast (including Matthew Perry, Ben Foster, Ginnifer Goodwin, Lauren Graham and Hilary Swank) is largely wasted on this fairly weak comedy-drama about a man (Perry) whose life begins crumbling around him when he agrees to take in his screw-up younger siblings (Foster and Goodwin), a move that jeopardizes both his career and his marriage.

DYNASTY--SEASON 3, VOLUME 2 (CBS DVD. $34.98): Under normal circumstances, this is the kind of TV-related DVD that I would not spend too much time on--I never watched the show when it first aired, I have no particular affinity for it now and if I want to get my fill of Pamela Sue Anderson in her prime, I would lean more towards my DVDs of “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries” or, more likely, “The Lady in Red.” That said, I suppose I should highlight this particular release because among the 13 episodes collected here is the one featuring the infamous swimming pool catfight between Linda Evans and Joan Collins. I know, those currently obsessed with the likes of “Gossip Girl” may wonder what all the fuss is about but trust me, this was big stuff back in the day. Other TV-related DVDs coming out this week include “According to Jim: The Complete First Season” (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $39.95), “Family Guy, Volume 6” (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.95), “L.A. Ink: Season 1, Volume 2” (Genius Products. $24.95), “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.-The Complete Series” (Warner Home Video. $199.92), “Minotaur’s Island” (Acorn Media. $24.99) and “Rain Shadow: Series One” (Acorn Media. $39.99).

FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON (IFC Films. $24.95): Using the classic French short “The Red Balloon” as a jumping-off point, acclaimed filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien tells the story of a puppeteer (Juliette Binoche) who is so absorbed with her work (only in France) that she hires a film student from Taiwan to help take care of her seven-year-old son.

GUNNIN’ FOR THAT #1 SPOT (Oscilloscope Pictures. $29.95): This documentary from Adam Yauch follows eight of the top-ranked high school basketball players in the country as they prepare to show their stuff in the first annual “Elite 24 Hoops Classic,” an all-star game staged at Harlem’s Rucker Park, a court that previously showcased the likes of Dr. J, Wilt Chamberlin and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And since Yauch is better known to most of you as one of the members of the Beastie Boys, he was able to back their stories with a fabulous wall-to-wall hip-hop soundtrack featuring everyone from Jay-Z to M.I.A.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (Universal Home Entertainment. $34.98): Although this three-disc edition of the latest big-screen adventures of everyone’s favorite green-skinned rageoholic contains all sorts of extra features--a chunk of deleted scenes (including an alternate opening that, if I am not mistaken, includes a brief appearance from another noted superhero), numerous making-of featurettes, a digital copy of the film and other assorted bric-a-brac--it doesn’t contain any real justification for the existence of this noisy and silly desecration of Ang Lee’s sublime 2003 take on the material. Okay, Liv Tyler is cute as a button and there is a certain amusement in watching such notable actors as Edward Norton, William Hurt and Tim Roth attempting to lend a sense of gravitas to a silly comic-book story but the fact that the only thing that really stood out for most audiences was the brief cameo from Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark should indicate just how much the film failed on other levels.

KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN (City Lights Home Video. $34.98): The first independent film to score Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor and Adapted Screenplay, this 1985 adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel about the unusual friendship that develops between a flippant homosexual (William Hurt, who won the Oscar for his performance) and a revolutionary (Raul Julia) when they are placed together in the same Latin American jail cell. This two-disc set also includes “Tangled Web: Making Kiss of the Spider Woman,” a feature-length documentary chronicling the long and strange history behind its journey to the screen and featurettes on Puig and the highly successful Broadway musical version of the story that debuted a few years later.

THE LAZARUS PROJECT (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): Paul Walker, the other white meat, stars in this direct-to-video thriller in which he plays an ex-con who, mostly through his own stupidity, winds up receiving a lethal injection for his part in a bungled robbery arranged by his brother. However, he wakes up from this in a psychiatric ward and has to figure out for himself whether he has managed to cheat death or if he is the victim of an elaborate conspiracy. Speaking of conspiracies, maybe someone out there can tell me why an actress as talented, charming and adorable as Piper Perabo has seen her career reduced to dividing her time between schlock like this and playing opposite obnoxious dogs in the likes of “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.”

LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION, VOLUME 6 (Warner Home Video. $64.98): The good news is that this latest 4-disc collection of cartoons from the Warner Brothers vault is just as impressive as the previous editions--60 remastered shorts broken up into four themed discs (dedicated to the studio’s best-known stars, their World War II output, the early days of their cartoon output and their one-shot efforts), a set of bonus cartoons dedicated to veteran animator Friz Freleng’s early days as an animator at MGM, a documentary on the late, great voice artist Mel Blanc and a couple of the Bugs Bunny TV specials that blended together classic cartoons with new animation. The bad news, however, is that Warner Home Video has announced that this will be the final “Golden Collection” set--hopefully, this only means that they will be shifting to smaller and more frequent 2-disc releases like they did with the “Popeye” cartoons. Let me put it this way--that had better be what they are planning on doing.

SIX IN PARIS (New Yorker Video. $29.95): One of the numerous anthology films produced in France in the Sixties consisting of short works from some of the country’s most notable, this one consists of six tales that are each set in a different Paris neighborhood and utilizes the talents of Jean Douchet, Jean Rouch, Jean-Daniel Pollet, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol. Of them, my favorite is probably the Godard contribution, a brief morality tale about a young woman with two lovers who fears that she has mixed up the notes that she has just mailed to them in order to arrange future assignations.

SOLD OUT: A THREEVENING WITH KEVIN SMITH (Genius Products. $19.98): Some people spend their 37th birthdays at home with the family, others get drunk in a seedy bar and still others go out to see “The House Bunny.” Eschewing those options, filmmaker Kevin Smith instead chose to do one of his long, raunchy and very funny Q&A performances before an adoring hometown crowd eagerly lapping up every silly and shocking detail of Smith’s candid discussions about everything from the production of “Clerks II” and his brief appearance in “Live Free or Die Hard” to how his attempts at serving on a jury were brought down by hemorrhoids. For those of you waiting for the release of his next film, the very funny “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” this should help pass the time in the most amusing way possible.

THE STRANGERS (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Although made with a certain amount of style, there is nothing in this horror film, in which a pretty young couple (Scott Speedman and, making her second appearance this week, Liv Tyler) find themselves under siege from a trio of masked psychopaths over the course of one long and violent night, that you haven’t seen before, especially if you happened to catch the French shocker “Them.” This is supposedly based on a true story but the fact that a sequel was recently announced suggests that this particular revelation might just be a little bit of what we in the business like to refer to as “hooey.”

WARNER GANGSTERS COLLECTION, VOLUME 4 (Warner Home Video. $59.98): Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart get the lion’s share of the screen time in this new collection of crime-related titles from the vaults at Warner Brothers. “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse” (1938) is an amusing comedy about a doctor (Robinson) fascinated with crime and criminals who joins a gang led by the fearsome Rocks Valentine (Bogart) in order to get a better idea of how the criminal mind works. “The Little Giant” (1933) is another Robinson comedy in which he plays a former bootlegger who decides to spend his post-Prohibition years among the high-society set in Santa Barbara and discovers that they are as ruthless and devious as the criminals he used to deal with. “Larceny Inc.” (1942) features Robinson as a recently-released gangster who decides to go straight and run a dog track--since he doesn’t have the funds, he and his cronies open up a luggage store and use it as a front while tunneling into the bank next door (and yes, this is pretty much the same plot as Woody Allen’s “Small Time Crooks”). Shifting into a somewhat darker mode, “Invisible Stripes” (1939) features Bogart and George Raft as a pair of recently paroled criminals who vow to walk the straight and narrow after their releases but who find themselves driven by circumstances back to their former lives. Finally, “Kid Galahad” (1937) finds Robinson and Bogart as rival fight promoters in a boxing melodrama that also features Bette Davis as the girl in love with the guy Robinson is grooming for the championship and direction from the legendary Michael Curtiz. In addition, this set also includes the full-length documentary “Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film,” commentary tracks from genre experts. Vintage short subjects and radio programs and no fewer than 13 classic Warner Brothers cartoons.

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originally posted: 10/24/08 06:22:48
last updated: 10/24/08 06:47:52
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