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DVD Reviews for 2/20: Another Paul Newman Quintet

by Peter Sobczynski

A collection of relatively obscure films starring the late, great Paul Newman highlight this week’s DVD releases, which also include more direct-to-video sequels, a few pieces of Oscar bait, the conclusion of the most important trilogy of our times and yes, the long-awaited release of the Dakota Fanning rape movie.

Presumably in the wake of the attention surrounding the death of screen icon Paul Newman last fall, the people at Warner Home Video have dug into their archives and emerged with five new-to-DVD films featuring him either in front of or behind the camera that are being released as “The Paul Newman Film Series.” The good news is that for fans of the actor, these releases will allow them to finally fill some glaring gaps in their DVD collections. The bad news is that, for the most part, the films themselves aren’t very good--they certainly don’t rate anywhere near his peak screen moments and one turned out so badly that Newman himself actually took out ads in the trade papers in order to apologize for his performance--but for anyone in the mood to watch one of the last true movie stars in action once again in movies that have been relatively difficult to see in recent years, this quintet of discs is definitely worth checking out.

Newman made his big-screen debut in the 1954 Biblical epic “The Silver Chalice” and unfortunately, the results were so dire that he wouldn’t return to the big screen for another two years. (Luckily for him, that belated follow-up would turn out to be “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and the rest, as they say, is history.) In it, he plays Basil, a Greek slave and sculptor who is commissioned to devise a chalice worthy of containing the cup the Christ drank from at the Last Supper. Perhaps realizing that this was not exactly the most gripping premise for a Cinemascope spectacular clocking in at 142 minutes, the film also offers up the singularly bizarre sight of Jack Palance as Simon the Magician, a con man out to create illusions that will make people forget all about that Christ guy and follow his brand of black magic. For the most part, the movie is pretty terrible and unfortunately, Newman is a key reason as to why it doesn’t work--if ever there was an actor who was never meant to walk around in a toga in a film set in Biblical times, it was Newman and his modern and naturalistic style of acting is a complete mismatch with the rest of the material. Outside of the incredibly fruity performance from Palance (which is terrible but at least has some life to it), the best thing about the film is the striking and startlingly modernistic art direction from Boris Leven (who would go on to work on films ranging from “Giant” to four projects with Martin Scorsese) and production design by Rolf Gerard--it may not be a good movie by any means but it is certainly an interesting-looking one. And yes, this is the film for which he took out his apology ad before it was to air on television in 1966--as a result, ironically, it wound up doing quite well in the ratings.

After seeing Newman bounce back from the disaster of “The Silver Chalice” with “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” Warner Brothers did what any studio in their position would do--they stuck Newman in yet another period film for which he was uniquely unsuited. This time around, the film was “The Helen Morgan Story,” a film that traced the rocky career of the popular singer (played here by Ann Blyth) from her early days singing in carnivals and speakeasies through her triumph on the Broadway stage in “Showboat” to the alcoholism and failed romances that helped to hasten her decline. This film was clearly designed follow in the footsteps of such similar biopics as “Love Me or Leave Me” and “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” and Newman only turns up in a supporting role as Larry Maddux, a bootlegger and con man who is one of the two men that Helen finds herself torn between (the other being a New York lawyer played by Richard Carlson.). Although the character he plays has some of the anti-heroic qualities that he would later mine successfully in his career, he once again seems out of odds with his surroundings and if it weren’t for his presence, it is likely that no one would remember this particular film today as anything other than another failed biopic.

Over the next few years, Newman would become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after personalities and one key relationship that he formed was with director Martin Ritt, with whom he worked on the 1961 musical drama “Paris Blues” and the 1963 classic “Hud.” Alas, when they collaborated for a third time a year later, the resulting film, an English-language, Mexican-set remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Rashomon” called “The Outrage” was pretty much a disaster on every level. The premise is pretty much the same as the original--the assault of a married couple (Claire Bloom and Laurence Harvey) by a wandering bandit (Newman in the role made famous by Toshiro Mifune) is recounted in strikingly different ways by each of the participants as well as an impartial observer (Edward G. Robinson) who saw the whole thing. Even if the film had turned out to be a masterpiece, it still would have suffered in comparison to the original but if there is one thing that can be said about it (other than the fact that its title was unusually apt), it is that it is most assuredly not a masterpiece. Between Newman’s questionable Mexican accent, Robinson’s scenery-chewing and the presence of none other than a pre-“Star Trek” William Shatner in the supporting role of a local preacher, this is a film that offers viewers nothing other than a few inadvertent laughs and a crash course in just how badly a foreign film property can turn out when it gets adapted for American audiences.

Like many of his contemporaries, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood being chief among them, Newman eventually drifted into directing as well. However, instead of choosing a showcase vehicle for himself as his debut behind the camera, he instead chose “Rachel, Rachel,” a 1968 drama designed to show off the talents of wife Joanne Woodward. Based on the novel “A Jest of God,” the film stars Woodward as a repressed Connecticut schoolteacher who has arrived at a crossroads in her existence--her father has just died, she still lives at home with a domineering mother, she takes care of other people’s children while silently yearning for one of her own and fears that it may be too late for her to do anything to change her life. Things begin to change for her when an old schoolmate (James Olson) returns to town from New York and they begin a tentative affair that allow her to feel emotions that she never knew existed and while the romance is short-lived, it gives her the motivation to try to start her life anew. Although the idea of watching a spinster teacher trying to get her groove on may feel familiar to some, the power of Woodward’s Oscar-nominated performance and Newman’s impressive work as a director keep it from turning into a mawkish soap opera and both still hold up quite well today. (Newman would go on to direct five more films--the ambitious adaptations of “Sometimes a Great Notion” (1971), “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” (1972), “The Shadow Box” (1980) and “The Glass Menagerie” (1987) and the fairly unspeakable 1984 melodrama “Harry and Son,” about which the less said, the better.)

The final film in the set, 1980’s “When Time Ran Out,” is primarily remembered today for being the last big-screen production from the infamous Irwin Allen and the last gasp of the disaster movie genre that he helped popularize in the Seventies through such films as “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno.” Alas, by the end of the decade, such films (including Allen’s infamous killer bee epic “The Swarm”) had fallen out of favor with audiences and when this one rolled around, hardly anybody turned out to see it. If they had shown up, however, they would have witnessed arguably the dumbest entry of the entire genre--a completely nonsensical compendium of clichés involving a resort hotel on a South Pacific island that is threatened when careless oil drilling causes a still-active volcano to pop its top and spew lava everywhere. Filled with a cast that seems to have been recruited entirely from other disaster films--Newman (who only did the film because he was still under contract to Allen) and William Holden essentially play the exact same roles that they did in “The Towering Inferno” while familiar faces like Red Buttons, Jacqueline Bisset, Ernest Borgnine, Pat Morita, James Franciscus, Burgess Meredith, Alex Karras and Barbara Carrera also turn up, inept plotting and some of the cheesiest disaster effects ever put on the screen, this is a dream movie for bad film fanatics everywhere and a nightmare for practically everyone else. Curiously, although the film played in a much longer version when it used to air on television (the better to turn the broadcast into a two-night “event”), only the shorter theatrical version has been made available here--this is a bit odd since the DVD of “The Swarm” contained its extended version and it is especially odd when you consider that Warner already released the long version on videocassette several years ago.

THE SILVER CHALICE: Written by Lesser Samuels. Directed by Victor Saville. Starring Paul Newman, Virginia Mayo, Pier Angeli and Jack Palance. 1954. 142 minutes. Unrated. A Warner Home Video release. $19.98.

THE HELEN MORGAN STORY: Written by Nelson Gidding and Stephen Longstreet and Dean Riesner and Oscar Saul. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Ann Blyth, Paul Newman, Richard Carlson, Gene Evans and Alan King. 1957. 118 minutes. Unrated. A Warner Home Video release. $19.98.

THE OUTRAGE: Written by Michael Kanin. Directed by Martin Ritt. Starring Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, Laurence Harvey, Edward G. Robinson and William Shatner. 1964. 97 minutes. Unrated. A Warner Home Video release. $19.98

RACHEL, RACHEL: Written by Stewart Stern. Directed by Paul Newman. Starring Joanne Woodward, James Olson, Kate Harrington, Estelle Parsons, Donald Moffat and Terry Kiser. 1968. 101 minutes. Rated R. A Warner Home Video release. $19.98.

WHEN TIME RAN OUT: Written by Carl Foreman and Stirling Silliphant. Directed by James Goldstone. Starring Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset, William Holden, Edward Albert, Red Buttons, Barbara Carrera, Valentina Cortese, Veronica Hamel, Alex Karras, Burgess Meredith, Ernest Borgnine, James Franciscus, Sheila Allen and Pat Morita. 1980. 121 minutes. Rated PG. A Warner Home Video release. $19.98.


ALICE IN WONDERTOWN (First Run Films. ($24.95): Loosely inspired by the Lewis Carroll classic, this controversial 1991 Cuban film tells the story of an idealistic drama teacher who visits a bizarre little town and discovers that it is populated entirely by fired government officials and that neither she nor they seem to have the power to leave. Although acclaimed throughout the world, this film didn’t go over too well in its home country--it was banned by the government almost as soon as it was released and led to a general crackdown on the Cuban film industry as a whole.

ALIEN RAIDERS (Warner Home Video. $24.98): IN what appears to be a vague knock-off of “The Mist,” this direct-to-video sci-fi/horror hybrid offers up a battle between deadly aliens and deadlier mercenaries that plays out within the confines of a remote Arizona grocery store.

BODY OF LIES (Warner Home Video. $34.99): Despite possessing a storyline torn from today’s headlines (dealing with covert U.S. attempts to uncover terrorist plots in the Middle East), plenty of slickly crafted action sequences, a pair of big-name stars (Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio) tearing into the screenplay and each other with obvious relish and a master filmmaker (Ridley Scott) at the helm to bring them all together, none of these ingredients jelled particularly well this time around. There are some real virtues on display (both of the leads are very good and Scott one again shows himself to be a true virtuoso of the large-scale action set-piece) but for the most part, this is a thriller about the importance of intelligence that fails to provide enough of its own to make it worth watching.

CHANGELING (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): In this ambitious but deeply flawed true-life melodrama from Clint Eastwood (the first of his two servings of Oscar bait in 2008), Angelina Jolie plays a working mother whose son has been kidnapped and whose insistence that the child that the LAPD have returned to her isn’t hers threatens the very power structure of the city and lands her in a mental institution. Unfortunately, like too many of Eastwood’s recent directorial efforts, the strain of trying to make a Great Movie has resulted in a slow-moving museum piece that goes on far too long (most of the last half-hour could have easily been excised) and which is nowhere near as impressive as it is striving to be. Even Jolie’s performance doesn’t quite work here--she always seems far too strong and self-possessed to really be believable as a woman at the end of her rope--though John Malkovich is surprisingly effective and subtle as a radio preacher who becomes involved with the case.

CHOKE (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.98): In Hollywood’s first attempt to bring the work of cult novelist Chuck Palahniuk to the screen since the 1999 classic “Fight Club,” Sam Rockwell stars as a sleazy sex addict whose efforts to help save the life of his dying mother (Anjelica Huston) reveal some potentially mind-blowing details about his own conception. Rockwell is excellent in the lead and there are a few caustically funny scenes sprinkled here and there but, as viewers will quickly discover, debuting writer-director Clark Gregg is no David Fincher and those scenes never pull together into a coherent or entertaining whole.

DEAD LIKE ME: LIFE AFTER DEATH (MGM Home Entertainment. $26.98): Oftentimes when a cult TV series is cancelled before its time, there is talk about maybe producing a TV movie or two that will either continue the story or bring it to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. Most of the time, these turn out to be empty promises (“Carnivale,” anyone?) but in the case of the defunct and defiantly quirky Showtime series about a group of somewhat grim reapers going about their daily business of harvesting the souls of the dead, such a continuation (in which the ordinarily regimented reapers begin to slowly rebel against the rules governing their conduct in defiance of their new boss) has actually seen the light of day. Of course, all of this is pretty much meaningless unless you have actually seen the series--lucky for you, this week also sees the release of “Dead Like Me: The Complete Collection (MGM Home Entertainment. $69.98). Other TV-related DVDs appearing this week include “The Beverly Hillbillies: The Official Third Season” (CBS DVD. $49.98), “Murder She Wrote: The Complete Ninth Season” (Universal Home Entertainment. $49.98) and “Sabrina The Teenage Witch--The Fifth Season” (CBS DVD. $39.98).

FEAST 3: THE HAPPY FINISH (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.98): Following in the fine tradition of “Feast” (the low-budget horror epic whose creation was captured on the final season of “Project Greenlight”) and “Feast 2: Sloppy Seconds,” this direct-to-video completion of the trilogy finds the few survivors of the previous installments once again doing battle with the man-eating creatures that have been reducing them to gory pulp. This time, however, they have a couple of tricks up their shredded and blood-soaked sleeves in the forms of a knife-wielding, ass-kicking karate expert and a strange man who seems to have the ability to control the monsters.

FLASH OF GENIUS (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): In this misfired bit of true-life Oscar bait, Greg Kinnear plays a small-time inventor and family man who devises the intermittent windshield wiper in his garage, finds himself left out in the cold when Ford Motors steals his design and spends the next couple of decades doggedly trying to get both the money that he is entitled to and, more importantly, acknowledgement that it was his creation. Although earnest and well-intentioned as all get out, this stab at the little-guy-bucking-the-system drama just isn’t very compelling--the whole thing is like an extended “New Yorker” article that you never quite get around to finishing.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $34.99): The dirty little secret behind the enormously popular “High School Musical” franchise is that they actually aren’t that bad--they may be cheesy and silly as all get out but they are energetically staged and good-natured bits of froth that don’t hurt too badly as they go down. Although this entry in the franchise, the first to get a theatrical run, doesn’t break any new ground and goes on maybe a little too long for its own good, it is still far more entertaining than most tweensploitation junk and unless you are a complete cynic, it is impossible to watch without at least slightly succumbing to its charms, the chief one being the always-hilarious Ashley Tisdale as the always-scheming Sharpay.

HOBSON'S CHOICE (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): In one of the last small-scale films that he would make before embarking on the series of jumbo-sized epics that he would be most remembered for (including “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Dr. Zhivago”), David Lean directed this charming and low-key 1954 comedy about an arrogant Victorian-era boot shop owner who decrees that none of his daughters shall marry so that he won’t have to shell out for their dowries. Needless to say, this decision doesn’t set to well with his oldest daughter (Brenda De Banzie) and she plots to find someone to marry and a way to secure dowries for her younger sisters, two plans that may have a common answer in a shy but immensely talented shoemaker (John Mills). This disc also includes a commentary track from Alain Silver and James Ursini, who co-wrote the book “David Lean and His Films,” a 1978 BBC documentary on the life and work of Laughton and an essay from the always-interesting Armond White.

HOUNDDOG (Hanover House. $19.95): Doomed to go down in history as “the Dakota Fanning rape movie,” this is a laughably overwrought and painfully symbolic slab of Southern Gothic goofiness about a sexually precocious 12-year-old girl who is abused or ignored by practically everyone she meets and whose only joy in life comes from listening to the music of Elvis Presley. Writer-director Deborah Kampmeier seems to have no idea of what kind of story she is trying to tell and the result is a film that has more bad scenes than you can shake a snake at and too few good ones for its own good. Oh yeah, after listening to Fanning singing it approximately 791 times during the course of the film, you will never want to hear “Hounddog” again for as long as you live.

HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND IRRITATE PEOPLE (MGM Home Entertainment. $27.98): The only thing more disastrous than British journalist Toby Young’s brief stint working at “Vanity Fair” in the mid-1990’s, a period of personal and professional embarrassment that he chronicled in a best-selling memoir, is the film adaptation of said memoir with the far-too-likable Simon Pegg in the lead role. The film doesn’t know whether it wants to be a broad comedy or an incisive satire on the contemporary cult of celebrity and winds up failing at both. The only thing that works here is Jeff Bridges’ hilarious performance as the film’s faux-Graydon Carter--unfortunately, he all but disappears from the second half in order to make room for a tiresome subplot involving Pegg’s character being torn between slutty starlet Megan Fox and good-girl Kirsten Dunst.

THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $28.98): This adaptation of the Clive Barker short story, in which a photojournalist (Bradley Cooper) becomes obsessed with pursuing a silent serial killer (Vinnie Jones) who pursues his prey late at night on a New York subway train with inevitably icky results, caused a bit of a stir among horror fans last summer when Lionsgate, supposedly as part of a desire on their part to move away from the gory horror product that built them up in the first place, decided to scuttle its planned nationwide release at the last minute and instead dumped it in a handful of bargain theaters with virtually no publicity. While it probably didn’t deserve to be dumped in such a manner--it is better than any of the “Saw” movies that the studio has been slapping together every year--it is far from being the unsung masterpiece that some have claimed it to be, mostly due to some incoherent plotting and the terminally bland performance from Cooper in the lead role. Fans of Barker will probably want to check this disc out for the bonus material--he appears on a commentary track with director Ryuhei Kitamura (who also did the weirdo zombie film “Versus”) as well as a featurette that follows him around his studio as he discusses his artistic process.

QUARANTINE (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.96): Based on the Spanish horror favorite “Rec,” Jennifer Carpenter stars as an ambitious TV reporter who finds herself, along with her camera crew (through whose lenses the entire story unfolds a la “Cloverfield”), sealed inside a dilapidated apartment being with a small group of residents who are slowly and messily turning into blood-crazed zombies. Outside of a couple of brief moments (including an elevator attack that is the film’s high point), this is pretty much a shot-for-shot recreation of the original--in other words, it is okay if you have never seen the earlier film but completely superfluous if you have.

RELIGULOUS (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.95): Vaguely condescending, aesthetically off-putting and eschatologically threadbare, this “controversial” documentary featuring Bill Maher traveling the world to challenge people about their religious beliefs starts off as a penetrating look at religion and the ways that it has been twisted and perverted throughout the centuries in the pursuit of power and money and ends up as a vehicle to show everyone just how smart and smug the former star of “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death” can be. Some of it is very funny--I can’t remember the last time I laughed as much at a film that I didn’t really like--but after a while, both he and the film become more than a little tiresome. If your tolerance for Maher is higher than mine, feel free to check out the bonus features that include a commentary featuring him and director Larry Charles and a handful of deleted scenes (including a meeting with some polygamist wives that probably should have been left in the film).

SCREAMERS: THE HUNTING (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): Although I don’t know of anyone who was actually anticipating a follow-up to the largely forgotten 1995 sci-fi film (adapted from the short story by Philip K. Dick) about a group of settlers on a distant planet being decimated by a horde of robotic killing machines, it would appear that enough such people exist to warrant this direct-to-video continuation. This time around, a distress signal coming from that supposedly deserted planet captures the attention of a rescue party who head out to investigate--will they find actual human survivors or have the robots figured out how to order out for fresh meat? Perhaps the fact that the film is rated R for “Sci-Fi Creature Violence and Gore” will help you figure out the answer.

STILL WAITING. . . (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.98): Wait just a damn minute! You mean to tell me that the gross, stupid and utterly irredeemable 2005 piece of shit about the allegedly amusing and completely repulsive goings-on behind-the-scenes of a Bennigans-type restaurant--a work so bereft of humor that both Ryan Reynolds and Dane Cook appeared in it and one so odious that not even the presence of the usually reliable Anna Faris could redeem it--was popular enough to warrant a sequel, albeit a direct-to-video one featuring only a couple of the members of the original cast in token cameo appearances? That’s it--this column is over for the week. What’s next--”Ace Ventura Jr.”?

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originally posted: 02/20/09 02:30:48
last updated: 02/20/09 02:32:58
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