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DVD Reviews for 1/2: Return of the M.I.A's
by Peter Sobczynski

Once again, the column kicks off the new year by turning away from the big new releases (the few that emerged were covered in last week's column) in order to take a look at 10 films that have yet to hit DVD in the U.S.A.

Towards the end of 2008, it was quietly announced that one of the biggest bombs in Hollywood history, the 1986 big-screen version of the cult comic book “Howard the Duck,” was finally hitting DVD, in a special edition no less. To many, this was a surprising announcement because it was widely assumed that executive producer George Lucas was so mortified by the results that he had put it up on the same dusty shelf as “The Star Wars Holiday Special” and that it would never see the light of day as long as he had a say in the matter--if true, he either had a change of heart or realized that even it might look good when compared to the likes of “The Clone Wars.” To others, it was surprising that a film as universally despised as this one could eventually earn a release when there are still so many legitimately good and/or interesting films that are still awaiting their turns for their North American debuts. (Some of them are available from other countries and DVD regions for those of you with multiregional players.) In fact, I have made it an annual tradition to use my first DVD column of each new year to highlight ten such films. Below, you will find a healthy mix of the strange, the obscure and the delightful and while each one may be different in story and tone, they all have one thing in common--I for one would definitely prefer to watch any of them over the likes of “Howard the Duck” any day of the week.

ARIZONA DREAM (1993): After striking it big on the international cinema scene during the 1980s with such films as “While Father was Away on Business” and “Time of the Gypsies,” Sarajevo-born filmmaker Emir Kusturica was invited by fellow émigré Milos Forman to come to America to teach at Columbia University and while he was there, he began conceiving an American-themed project to make and somehow convinced Warner Brothers to pony up the money to finance it and an eclectic group of actors, including Johnny Depp, Jerry Lewis, Lili Taylor, Faye Dunaway and Vincent Gallo, to appear in it. The film told the story of an aimless fish and game warden from New York (Depp) who is summoned to Arizona by his boisterous uncle (Lewis) to come to Arizona to attend his wedding to a much-younger woman (Paulina Porizkova) and to work at his car lot. Upon arriving, he becomes romantically involved with both a oddball widow (Dunaway) and her equally unstable stepdaughter (Taylor). Alas, the production didn’t go smoothly--the entire thing was shut down in mid-filming for nearly three months while Kusturica either recovered from a nervous collapse (allegedly brought on by difficulties he had with Lewis and Dunaway) or tried to slim down a screenplay said to be 265 pages at the time (according to Lewis, Kusturica returned with a script that had inflated to 294 pages in the interim)--and the studio eventually pulled the plug once enough footage had been shot to ensure that it could be completed and then stuck it on a shelf for more than a year before dumping it on video in a drastically recut edition. It’s a shame because while this visually audacious and decidedly eccentric film, at least the “director’s cut” version that played the arthouse circuit in 1995 and which is the only version I’ve ever seen, is definitely uneven and presumably only a fraction of what Kusturica had originally intended (his first cut allegedly lasted over four hours while this one clocks in at about 142 minutes), it contains any number of glories that fans of offbeat filmmaking would surely savor--the chief among them being the entirely winning on-screen relationship created between Depp and Lewis, who is quite good in a relatively serious role. If that doesn’t intrigue you, how about the notion of being able to see enfant terrible Vincent Gallo doing his one-man impression of the crop-duster sequence from “North by Northwest”? I thought I’d get you with that one.

CARNY (1980): Set amidst the bright midways and dark corners of a seedy traveling carnival, this moody drama focused on the odd romantic triangle that develops between the pair of hustlers working the dunk tank attraction--Gary Busey is the one getting dunked and Robbie Robertson (during that brief period after “The Last Waltz” when it was thought that he had the stuff to be a movie star) as the guy goading customers into hurling the baseballs at the target--and the young runaway (Jodie Foster, transitioning between the Disney films that she was famous for and the more adult roles that were in her future) who decides to join up with them. It isn’t surprising that this film failed to find an audience when it was initially released--none of the characters are especially likable and the view of carnival life it depicts is creepy enough to make “Nightmare Alley” look cheerful by comparison--but the three stars do play off against each other surprisingly well and director Robert Kaylor does an excellent job of creating a suitable air of menace. As a bonus, the score that Robertson produced for composer Alex North is a keeper as well.

CHE (1969): No, I am not talking about the epic-length two-part biopic from Steven Soderbergh that is currently in release. No, this is a bizarre stab at recounting the life and times of the controversial revolutionary leader made at the time when his death made him both a martyr and a commercially viable property. However, what emerged was a messy reprise of his greatest hits filtered through a strangely conservative point-of-view that seemed designed specifically to alienate the very people who would actually want to see a film about Guevara in the first place and which was further hampered by a general lack of historical context, some fairly hysterical dialogue (Fidel Castro tries to keep Che from leaving by wheedling “Che, Cuba needs you! I need you!”) and an embarrassingly bad performance from Omar Sharif in the title role. Why, then, would I be hoping and praying for this one to hit DVD anytime soon? That would be the identity of the man that director Richard Fleischer (hitting one of the lower points of a long and admittedly uneven career) decided was the only person who could properly embody the persona of Fidel Castro--the one and only Jack Palance. This remains one of the most epic miscasting of a historical role in cinema history and just the sight of him in his itchy beard and fake nose is enough to inspire more laughs by itself than most other comedies you could mention.

COMFORT & JOY (1984): One of the best times I had as a moviegoer in 2008 was going to Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival and catching a screening of Scottish Bill Forsyth’s wonderful 1987 comedy-drama “Housekeeping” with Forsyth, best known for the cult classic “Local Hero,” himself in attendance. Besides being a great film in its own right, it also served to remind me that Forsyth (who hasn’t directed a film since 1999’s little-seen “Gregory’s Two Girls”) has a lot of equally delightful works in his flexography that have yet to appear in this country. For me, the most glaring absence is this utterly beguiling comedy about a lovelorn radio show host (Bill Patterson) who inexplicably finds himself in the middle of a war between two Italian families who are each trying to corner Glasgow’s ice-cream market. This is one of those comedies where a mere description of what occurs barely begins to do the film justice--much of the charm and hilarity of the material comes more from Forsyth’s charmingly low-key approach to the material. Because it lacks any name stars and it doesn’t have the punchiest possible premise, it may be a long time before this one appears but if you are ever fortunate enough to get an opportunity to see this treasure, do not pass it up under any circumstances.

FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (1974): Considering the enduring popularity of movies in which a mismatched pair of cops destroy half of the city streets they are supposed to be protecting in the pursuit of the bad guys, it seems strange that this early take on the genre--a hilarious comedy in which hot-tempered James Caan and mild-mannered Alan Arkin are after a gangster with a bounty on his head--has yet to hit DVD. After all, it was quite popular in the day (it even inspired a short-lived TV series) and it used to play incessantly on television back in the day. Although I haven’t seen it in a long time, I seem to remember that this film from Richard Rush (who would later going on to make such oddball items as “The Stunt Man” and “The Color of Night”) was chock-full of politically incorrect humor that Warner Brothers may fear will inspired some kind of protests. If this is the case, I hope that they will see their way through to give it a chance because, as I recall, it is really, really funny (those who enjoyed “Pineapple Express” will probably get a kick out of its similar blend of action, violence and comedy) and besides, if “Mandingo” can hit DVD without causing an uproar, this one certainly can.

MADE IN HEAVEN (1987): It seems that when I make up one of these lists every year, I always wind up including a film from director Alan Rudolph, the one-time Robert Altman protégé who eventually blossomed into one of America’s most enchanting-if-unappreciated filmmakers thanks to such delights as “Choose Me,” “Trouble in Mind” and “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.” This year’s selection from his filmography is his trippy before/after-life saga about an ordinary guy (Timothy Hutton) who dies and goes to Heaven, meets and falls in love with an unborn spirit (Kelly McGillis) and is crushed when she is sent to Earth to be born--in the hopes of seeing her again, he makes a deal with God’s aide-de-camp (an unrecognizable and unbilled Debra Winger) to be sent back to be reborn himself with no memory of her and only 30 years in which to find her again, a journey that has him encountering an eclectic cast of characters played by the likes of Tom Petty, Ellen Barkin, Ric Ocasek, Neil Young, Tom Robbins and Gary Larson. Like most of Rudolph’s films, this one quickly disappeared from theaters and even Rudolph himself isn’t too keen on it (having had his version taken away and recut by the producers) but I find it to be an incredibly beguiling romantic fantasy in the mold of “A Matter of Life and Death” and “Heaven Can Wait” that contains a bunch of lovely performances, a story that is both hilarious and touching in equal measure and a theme song from Neil Young that is one of the sweetest things that he has ever done. A bare-bones DVD would be perfectly fine by me but if Rudolph could figure out a way to include the extended original ending that he once described to me in an interview, it could well be one of the most significant DVDs of whatever year it finally emerges in.

THE OSCAR (1966): After more than 40-odd years, this amazingly overbaked melodrama remains arguably the most unintentionally hilarious film ever produced by Hollywood--not only that, Hollywood tacitly endorsed it by allowing their most guarded symbol, the Academy Awards, to figure as a key portion of the plot. It kicks off on Oscar night as fiery young star Frankie Faine (Stephen Boyd) is anxiously waiting to see if he will win the Best Actor Oscar that he craves and the story chronicles the sleazy and back-stabbing path that he took to get there. To call this movie “overwrought” doesn’t begin to do it justice--this one goes so far over-the-top with scenery-chewing performances and hilariously purple dialogue (co-written, believe it or not, by notably prickly sci-fi author Harlan Ellison--next time he goes off on some rant about how everyone but him is an idiot, ask him if he penned the deathless line “Will you stop beating on my ears? I’m up to here with all this bring-down!”) that it makes “Showgirls” look like a Robert Bresson film by comparison. Need more convincing as to its glories? How about the fact that it marks Tony Bennett’s simultaneous debut and farewell as a serious actor? How about the fact that Bennett plays a character name Hymie Kelly (a name he got “From my father, Michael Kelly! And he got it from his father, Timothy Kelly. And my mother’s name was Sadie Rabinowitz--any more questions”)? How about the fact that many years later, it would go on to inspire one of the funniest sketches in the history of “SCTV” (“The Nobel”) without them even needing to tweak it that much for extra comedic effect?

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (1971): The men behind two of the most notable science-fiction projects of the late 1960s--“Barbarella” director Roger Vadim and “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry--teamed up for a film and while it didn’t take place in outer space, it certainly featured a wide variety of heavenly bodies. In this jet-black comedy, Rock Hudson plays a popular guidance counselor at a California high school who sleeps with a number of his lovelier students and then finds himself compelled to kill them in order to keep them quiet. That is only the beginning of the weirdness--this unapologetic and ahead-of-its-time fusion of the teen sex comedy and the teen slasher film also features Angie Dickinson as a sexpot substitute who winds up seducing one of her star pupils, Telly Savalas as the cop in charge of the investigation, Roddy McDowell as the increasingly uptight principal, James Doohan in a supporting role, a jaw-dropping climax (could a film like this have had anything but) and a song score performed by, of all people, The Osmonds. My guess is that the unabashedly sexual nature of the material (coupled with the apparent youth of many of the actresses cast by Vadim) is the reason why this one isn’t being released anytime soon but come on--wouldn’t this make for the ideal tie-in for when that new “Star Trek” movie comes out?

WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES (1958): There are many reasons that I could cite as to why this particular obscurity belongs on this list other than its complete absence from home video. I could mention that the premise--an examination of the battle of wills that developed in the early 1900’s when a craze for feathers sparked battles between poachers out to kill as many birds as possible for plumage worth up to $100 an ounce and environmentalists out to stop them and protect the birds--is as timely today as it was a half-century ago. I could mention that the presence of director Nicholas Ray (who was allegedly fired by writer/producer Budd Schulberg just before filming was completed) allowed me to make an auteurist-based argument for its worth. I could even mention that the extremely eclectic cast--including Christopher Plummer, Burl Ives, Gypsy Rose Lee and the then-unknown Peter Falk--was interesting enough to make it worth a look. Those are all viable approaches, I suppose, but there is a more important reason for its selection. Once upon a time, my beloved mother saw this movie and apparently liked it and I think that it would make her happy

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originally posted: 01/02/09 09:00:44
last updated: 01/02/09 09:45:09
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