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DVD Reviews For 3/13: The Worst Worst Movie Returns.

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful scribe points you in the direction of several of last year’s best films, one all-time classic and a few intriguing obscurities while to deal with the fact that one of the very worst things ever produced by Hollywood has finally been unleashed on DVD as well.

For a budding film enthusiast (okay, perhaps far beyond the budding stage) entering his 15th year of existence in the heartland of America, the summer of 1986 was actually a pretty good time to be a moviegoer. Oh sure, the fascist-minded twaddle that was “Top Gun” was the biggest hit of the season and the multiplexes were often choked with utterly forgettable dreck like “American Anthem” and “Armed & Dangerous.” On the other hand, this period of cinema also offered up a few films that would go on to become all-time classics (“Aliens,” “The Fly” and “Manhunter”) and several instant cult favorites (such as “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2,” “Back to School,” “Absolute Beginners” and the immortal “Big Trouble in Little China.” ) If you were a horndog with access to a theater specializing in arthouse fare, you could try to sneak in to see “Betty Blue”--at least the first two minutes of “Betty Blue.” (At this point, to avoid raising the ire of the PETA goddess, I must reiterate that I do like “Betty Blue.”) If you were from Chicago, you even got a chance to savor the sight of the greatest city on Earth on the big screen in such films as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Running Scared” and “Nothing in Common.” Hell, even that year’s entry in the long-running “Friday the 13th” franchise, “Jason Lives,” was slightly better than normal.

However, if you were like me, there was only one movie that inspired the level of intense anticipation that used to mark the big even movies back in the days before such things began coming out every other week. It was based on one of the very few comic books that I ever read with any sense of regularity outside of “Richie Rich” (no, I don’t understand that one either). The advanced hype in magazines like “Starlog” ensured a spectacular package featuring the weirdo humor of the original comic fused together with eye-popping special effects. The advance trailers, although they didn’t reveal much, helped to boost my interest even further with the delights that they promised. Most significantly, it was produced by a person who, at that time, had been the person responsible for some of the most significant moviegoing experiences of my life to that point--if anyone could do justice to this particular property by bringing it to the screen as it was meant to be seen, it was this man and the hand-picked associates that he hired to do the actual writing and directing. Surely, there was no way that this particular film could fail and when it finally opened in theaters on a warm August day, I, along with my father and my younger brother, went to the local theater with the biggest screen and best sound, stood in a long line and after a while, I was finally able to utter the words that I had been waiting for what seemed like forever to say.

“One please for ‘Howard the Duck’”

Well, if you have actually seen “Howard the Duck,” you pretty much know how this story turns out. For those who haven’t, I will be mercifully brief. Suffice it to say, my excitement level began to dip a little bit in the opening seconds as we got our first look at the home of the title character, an anthropomorphic duck living in a galaxy far away, featuring walls covered with movie posters for films like “Breeders of the Lost Ark” and “My Little Chickadee” and the new copy of “Playduck” lying on a coffee table. After playing coy for a couple of minutes by not giving us a clear look at our hero, it finally relented and gave us what we had all come to see--our first full-on glimpse of Howard the Duck in all of his big-screen glory. After all the hype and all the waiting and all the anticipation, what do you suppose we were presented with? Some kind of animatronic robot? A sophisticated animated creature along the lines of what would be coming along in a couple of years in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”? Some kind of creation so ultra-advanced and mind-blowing that it didn’t even have a name yet? No--it turned out that Howard was being represented by a midget in a duck suit. Not even a good duck suit, mind you, but the kind of cheap-looking thing that might have seemed lame if someone wore it at a supermarket opening. It was at that point that I realized to my horror that not only was this not going to be the masterpiece that I had been waiting for, there was a very good chance that it could well be one of the worst things ever created. (It was also at this time that it finally dawned on me that I should have suspected that something might be up when I realized that most of the people standing in that line with me were going to see “Aliens” next door.

Amazingly, the film actually managed to get worse as it progressed. The screenplay, put together by Lucas pals Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz (who had co-written “American Graffiti” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and whose previous effort had been “Best Defense,” a Dudley Moore comedy that turned out so bad that they wound up shooting a few irrelevant scenes with the then-red-hot Eddie Murphy in the hopes of saving it at the box-office), was a noisy and insipid spectacle--something involving Howard being beamed to Earth as part of an experiment gone wrong, hooking up with punk singer Lea Thompson and nerd Tim Robbins and doing battle with some Dark Overlord hoping to destroy the planet--that replaced all of the hilarious satire of Steve Gerber’s original comic books with unimpressive special effects orgies, lame jokes and an amazingly off-putting episode where it appears that Lea Thompson and Howard are about to hook up--if I recall correctly, a ducky rubber (get it?) even makes an appearance. After about 20 minutes or so, the first audience members began walking out and this began a parade that lasted throughout the rest of the screening. Although I almost never walk out on a film personally, even before watching them became my profession, I seriously considered joining the exodus but was stopped by an exceptionally cruel twist of fate--the only two people in the rapidly dwindling crowd who actually appeared to be enjoying the film were my father and brother. Needless to say, the film was a critical and commercial disaster and Lucas quickly pulled it from theaters and tossed it into the dark closet at Skywalker Ranch where he hides all of the other failed ideas that he wants erased from the collective consciousness (such as “The Star Wars Holiday Special” and Gary Kurtz).

It has been nearly 23 years since that fateful day--a moment when I made a personal vow never to get overly excited by an upcoming summer blockbuster (unless the name “Stanley Kubrick” was attached somewhere) --and in all that time, I have never had an occasion to watch “Howard the Duck” again. This stance was made much easier by Lucas’ apparent desire to pretend that it never existed; it was barely mentioned in his biographies, it rarely popped up on cable and while it was released on DVD overseas, no domestic issue of the title was ever announced or even rumored outside of April Fools Day pranks. And yet, in a move that many felt would never happen, Universal Home Video has not only finally released “Howard the Duck” on DVD, they have given it the special edition treatment by including a bunch of supplemental material. That’s right--the studio that couldn’t be bothered to include any special features when releasing a masterpiece like “The Heiress” decided that “Howard the Duck” was worthy of such treatment. Alas, while my idea of a proper bonus feature for this film is an audio commentary consisting of all the creative personnel apologizing profusely for their sins while being beaten with bamboo rods, that is sadly not the case here. There are a number of vintage featurettes from the time of its theatrical release focusing on the stunts and special effects as well as the music by Thomas Dolby. Next up is “A Look Back at Howard the Duck,” a newly produced documentary detailing the film’s origins and production history--although it reveals that John Cusack and Martin Short were among those who auditioned for the role of Howard’s voice, it mysteriously doesn’t mention the equally astonishing fact that Lea Thompson’s part nearly went to a then-unknown singer by the name of Tori Amos.

Last and most astonishing is “Releasing the Duck,” a second documentary in which the participants admit that the film got terrible reviews, only to insist that the poor critical reception was because critics took it too seriously and because they were looking to take George Lucas down a peg instead of considering it on its own merits. Even more astonishingly, they insist that in the ensuing years, “Howard the Duck” has gone on to become, to quote the packaging, “a cultural phenomenon” and a beloved cult classic. Look, I have often revisited legendary movie failures and found good things to say about them--just yesterday, I found myself once again defending “Heaven’s Gate” against naysayers--but I have never in my life heard anyone describe “Howard the Duck” as either a cultural phenomenon or as a cult classic. At one point in “Releasing the Duck,” producer Gloria Katz claims that Lucas told her that this was the kind of film that would only be fully appreciated 25 years after it came out and at that time, everyone would recognize its brilliance. If that were the case, then how come Lucas is nowhere to be seen or heard on any of the supplemental materials except for some brief clips dating back to the original production--is he just waiting two more years for it to fully ripen?

As for the film itself, I sat down to watch it again for the first time since that long-gone summer and I can honestly say that it is just as shrill, annoying and painful to endure today as it was back then. The jokes are just as stupid, the story is just as incoherent and the spectacle is just as noisy and ugly as it was back in 1986. For practically everyone involved (with the exception of co-star Jeffrey Jones), it remains both a personal and professional low point and it is so wretched that it doesn’t even work on the level of camp. The only thing that has really changed is that I no longer consider it to be the single worst film ever made--I would now rank it as the third worst. Just think--in the last 23 years, I have only seen two films that were actively worse than this one. In other words, unless you are somehow compelled to watch “Charlie’s Angels 2” or “Bad Boys 2” this weekend, there is no way that you can possibly rent or purchase a film that is worse than “Howard the Duck.”

Written by Willard Hyuck & Gloria Katz. Directed by Willard Hyuck. Starring Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones, Tim Robbins and a guy in a creepy and unconvincing duck suit. 1986. 111 minutes, Rated PG. A Universal Home Entertainment release. $14.98


42nd STREET PETE’S NIGHT OF PERVERTED PLEASURES (Secret Key. $19.98): All you have to do is supply your own raincoat and sticky floor and you can recreate an evening at the grindhouse with this triple-feature of sleazy sexploitation films featuring the immortal Uschi Digard. In “Marriage American Style,” she offers counsel (among other things) to a blonde friend unable to deal with the loutish behavior of her husband. “Love Me or Leave Me” is pretty much the same thing with the only difference being that the lovelorn blonde spills her tale of erotic woe to her lawyer, who offers counsel (among other things). Finally, in a film that should play intriguing in today’s economic climate, “Bull’s Market” features a company on the financial ropes that is save when the blonde associate suggest paying shareholder dividends in sex instead of cash. (Insert your own IOU/IUD joke here.)

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.99): In this painfully earnest and painfully obvious wartime story, the sheltered eight-year-old son of a loyal Nazi official (David Thewlis) and an ask-no-questions type (Vera Farmiga) move from Berlin to a place in the country that is comfortably situated next to what the kid believes is a farm. While exploring, he meets a kid his age sitting behind the barbed wire surrounding the farm and as the two strike up a friendship, our naïve hero becomes curious as to why the other boy is always wearing striped pajamas with a number and what exactly they are burning in the giant smokestacks that smells so odd. For most of its running time, this tale is turgid, predictable and slightly exploitative but towards the end, it takes a turn that is so insanely preposterous that it almost, but not quite, makes this disaster worth seeing just to see how bad it is. (Imagine “Jakob the Liar” without the subtlety.)

DARK REEL (North American Motion Pictures. $26.99): In this direct-to-video item, an ordinary horror film fanatic (Edward Furlong) wins a bit part in a movie produced by a low-budget studio that is then plagued by a series of killings that may have something to do with the unsolved murder of a starlet a half-century earlier. Ah, if only this could have happened during the production of “Sex and the City”. . .

ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN/RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $19.99 each): Instead of wasting your time and money on the inferior remake opening this weekend, you would be much better off picking up and watching these reissues of both the 1975 original and its lesser 1978 follow-up. The first one is still a pretty effective work that will entertain and excite viewers of all ages and while the sequel is nowhere near as good, any film featuring Bette Davis and Christopher Lee as the villains is worth checking out in my book.

GROOM LAKE (Koch Vision. $19.98): In his first time in the director’s chair since the infamous “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” the immortal William Shatner gives us the decidedly low-budget tale of a couple of teens (Amy Aker and Dan Gauthier) who stumble upon a weird town housing a top-secret military base near Area 51 where experiments and secret missions involving an actual alien are being conducted. When the government shuts the base down and kidnaps the extraterrestrial, the kids and the base commander (Shatner) team up to rescue it. I don’t want to say that this film isn’t very good but even the most hard-core of Shatner fanatics--the kind who are still pining for a “T.J. Hooker” revival--will find this cheapo nonsense to be rough going.

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.99): In 1993, internationally-renowned filmmaker Mike Leigh gave us “Naked,” a corrosive work in which an embittered young man raged against the world over the course of one long and dark night. In his latest work, he gave us a central character who is the complete opposite--a young woman named Poppy (Sally Hawkins in one of the year’s best performances) whose relentless good cheer in the face of everything (when she discovers that her bike has been stolen, she only regrets that she didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to it) enchants some and drives others to distraction, specifically the grumpy driving instructor (Eddie Maran) that she is taking lessons from. It sounds excruciating, I know, but somehow it worked wonderfully and the result was Leigh’s most engaging work since “Topsy-Turvy” and one of the best films of 2008.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $29.98): Every year, it seems that at least one foreign-made horror film emerges to become a hit on the festival circuit with fanboys eager to get on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing. Most of the time, these films rarely live up to the advanced hype but in the case of this Swedish-made take on one of the great horror myths--in which a lonely boy embarks on a sweet and mutually beneficial friendship with the strange girl who moved in next door that isn’t at all affected by the fact that she is a vampire--it more than lives up to the considerable advance word that it has been receiving. Inevitably, Hollywood has already announced that the film will be remade by some of the people behind “Cloverfield”--do yourself a favor and see the original while you have the chance.

L’INNOCENTE (Koch Vision. $24.98): In what would prove to be the capper of a career that brought us such masterpieces as “White Nights,” “Rocco and His Brothers” and “The Leopard,” the late Luchino Visconti brought us this lush adaptation of the Gabrielle d’Annunzio novel about a sleazy aristocrat (Giancarlo Giannini) who abandons his devoted wife (the goddess known as Laura Antoinelli) for his sexy mistress (Jennifer O’Neill). When she finally spurns him after a few months, he returns home to his wife and discovers to his shock that she has decided that what is good for the oca is good for the gander.

MARIE AND BRUCE (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $24.95): In this adaptation of the 1979 play by Wallace Shawn (who co-wrote this screen version with director Tom Cairns), Julianne Moore and Matthew Broderick portray a deeply dysfunctional married couple--she hates him and he can’t be bothered to even notice--whose adventures over the course of one long day reveal both why they can’t stand each other and why they can’t bring themselves to part. Definitely not for the faint-of-heart (this could be the worst first date film since “Hardcore”), this darkly funny and emotionally wounding work is saved from becoming totally repellent and unwatchable by the fiercely committed performances from Moore and Broderick.

MAX FLEISCHER’S GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (Koch Vision. $14.98): After witnessing the incredible success of Walt Disney’s first animated feature, 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” chief competitor Max Fleischer (whose studio was behind the animated adventures of Popeye, Betty Boop and Superman) decided to take a stab at the format with this extremely loose translation of the Jonathan Swift classic. While the result isn’t much as an adaptation--it only covers the stuff involving his encounters with the tiny people of Lilliput and then junks most of that for some nonsense over their conflict with another tiny tribe over whose national anthem will be sung at a wedding designed to unite the two camps--and the animation lacks the distinctiveness of Fleischer’s best shorts, animation buffs should find it intriguing on a historical basis if nothing else.

MILK (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): After years of failed attempts by Hollywood to bring the story of gay activist Harvey Milk to the big screen, director Gus Van Sant and star Sean Penn, working from the Oscar-winning screenplay from newcomer Dustin Lance Black, managed to pull it off with a stirring and heartbreaking look at the life and legacy of an ordinary businessman who managed to become a national symbol of gay pride and power before his murder in 1978 at the hands of a co-worker (Josh Brolin). While there are many things to praise about this biopic, the main one is, of course, the electrifying central performance from Penn as Milk--even though I still think that Mickey Rourke deserved the Best Actor Oscar for “The Wrestler,” the power of Penn’s work, one of the best turns of his already impressive career, cannot be denied for a second.

PINOCCHIO (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $35.99): In an attempt to lure purchasers who may not be equipped with Blu-Ray players as of yet, the folks at Disney have bestowed this 70th (okay, 69th) anniversary edition of their animated classic with a 3-disc package that includes two discs of Blu-Ray goodness--including tons of behind-the-scenes material, games, documentaries and a commentary track featuring animation buffs Leonard Maltin, Eric Goldberg and J.B. Kaufman and a third featuring a standard DVD version of the film so that it can be watched on non-Blu-Ray players. The only problem is that this was the version that they sent out for review and as I don’t have a Blu-Ray player as of yet (feel free to contribute to the cause in care of this column), I can’t yet examine all of those special features. However, I’m not sure that it matters that much because the film itself is the most important thing here--a funny, scary and heartwarming masterpiece that will live on for as long as movies are seen and discussed, regardless of what format they are viewed in--and even on a regular DVD, it looks more spectacular now than it has in decades, probably since it first came

PRIMAL FEAR: HARD EVIDENCE EDITION (Paramount Home Video. $14.98): Of all the films in Paramount’s vaults that could use a special edition reissue, why would they choose to give this fairly boilerplate 1996 legal thriller such treatment, even going so far as to make it now seem like a “CSI” clone, right down to packaging it in a faux evidence bag? It isn’t that it a bad film by any means--it is well-made and features a good performance from Richard Gere as a cynical lawyer charged with defending a sweet-faced altar boy accused of brutally murdering an arch-bishop and a great (and Oscar-nominated) one from then-unknown Edward Norton as his client--but outside of Norton‘s performance, there isn‘t anything here that you didn‘t see a lot of on the big screen during the Nineties. Norton’s casting, complete with clips from his screen test, is the focus of one of the three featurettes that, along with a commentary track from director Gregory Hoblit and key behind-the-scenes personnel and the original trailer, make up the bonus features.

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.96): Having spent the year’s since the triumph of “Silence of the Lambs” making a series of increasingly bland feature films (including “Philadelphia,” “Beloved” and the fairly unnecessary remakes “The Truth About Charlie” and “The Manchurian Candidate”) offset by the occasional fascinating documentary, Demme was artistically reborn with this exquisite comedy-drama about a perennially rehabbing drama queen (Anne Hathaway in one of the year’s great performances) who returns home for the wedding of her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) and nearly upstages everything with her own personal turmoils. Featuring a gallery of wonderful supporting performances (including Bill Irwin as the well-meaning dad and a ferocious Debra Winger as the estranged mom), a screenplay by Jenny Lumet that never takes the easy way out and a killer soundtrack, this was Demme’s best and boldest work since the classic “Something Wild” and easily the directorial comeback of the 2008.

ROLE MODELS (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play a couple of goofball energy drink salesmen who find themselves becoming better people when they are forced to do community service by serving as mentors to a couple of equally screwed-up kids--a fatherless troublemaking kid and a nerdy teen who prefers participating in a life-sized medieval fantasy game to real life. While the jokes may not be especially sophisticated--many of them are dependent on the concept that vulgarity is somehow funnier when it either comes from the mouths of young children or is deployed within their proximity--a lot of them are really funny, especially the strange little one-liners and observations that slip in from out of nowhere and pretty much blindside you, and Rudd and Scott make for an enormously winning comic team as well. The only major flaw--director David Wain (who previously did the brilliant “Wet Hot American Summer”) was smart enough to hire the frequently amusing Elizabeth Banks as the female lead and dumb enough to fail to actually give her anything funny to do.

SOUTH PARK: THE COMPLETE TWELFTH SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $49.95): In these 14 hilarious episodes featuring everyone’s favorite group of foul-mouthed Colorado kids, Cartman contracts AIDS, begins teaching a classroom of troubled students and indulges his inner Jack Bauer, Britney Spears is grotesquely disfigured after a failed suicide attempt, Indiana Jones is cruelly violated by his creators and the kids find themselves involved in parodies of “Heavy Metal,” “High School Musical” and “Twilight.”
[Other TV-related DVDs arriving this week include “The Best Years: The Complete First Season (Koch Vision. $49.98), “Caroline in the City: The Second Season” (CBS DVD. $39.98), “Cracker: The Complete Collection” (Acorn Media. $119.99), “Family Ties: The Fifth Season” (CBS DVD. $39.98), “Get Smart: Season 2” (HBO Home Video. $24.98), “The Girls Next Door--Season 4” (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98) and “The Starter Wife: Season 1” (Universal Home Entertainment. $34.98).

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.96): Having written some of the most acclaimed screenplays of recent years, such as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the always-intriguing Charlie Kaufman makes his directorial debut with a work so complex and baffling that it makes his previous efforts look like child’s play by comparison. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theater director whose life is slowly coming apart--his wife (Catherine Keener) has taken his beloved daughter and abandoned him in order to pursue a career as a painter in Berlin, a new romance with another woman (Samantha Morton) has fallen apart almost before it has properly started and he is suffering from any number of physical maladies. When he becomes the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, he moves his theater company into an airplane hanger-like structure in order to stage a mammoth work in which they are asked to recreate the details of their daily lives--as the years go by and the concept expands, fiction and reality begin to blend in bizarre and unexpected ways. At least I think that it what is going on here--this is one of those films in which it is almost impossible to fully grasp what is going on until you see it at least a second time. For a directorial debut, this is an incredibly ambitious work and Kaufman should be commended for the sheer audacity of his accomplishment but as it goes on and on and on, you may find yourself wishing that a more disciplined director like previous collaborators Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry had been in charge to give it a little more focus.

TRANSPORTER 3 (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $34.98): Jason Statham gets behind the wheel for a third go-around of the Luc Besson-produced action franchise, this time driving around a Russian babe (Natalya Rudakova in a performance so bad that you suspect that her name translates into “Malin Akerman”) who is a central piece of an elaborate scheme by American industrialists to dump tons of toxic waste in the waters off Odessa or something like that. While it is definitely the weakest of the series to date, it has enough good things working for it (a couple of nifty stunt sequences and another appealingly low-key performance from Statham) to make for a pain-free evening of viewing for fans of large-scale eye candy.

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originally posted: 03/13/09 04:47:56
last updated: 03/13/09 05:19:39
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