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DVD Reviews for 3/20: "Yes, We Have Nosferatu!"
by Peter Sobczynski

Can’t write. . .March Madness! (No comments from the peanut gallery.) Luckily, the studios seem to have taken the attitude of “Can’t release. . .March madness” because this week’s pickings are mighty slim, though fans off Japanese cinema, offbeat animation and classic slapstick comedy will find a few things of interest.


AZUR AND ASMAR: THE PRINCES’ QUEST (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.98): As wonderful as Henry Selick’s “Coraline” was (and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should do so right this minute), it wasn’t the first great animated film to be released in 2009. That would be this brilliant work from Michel Ocelot (who previously did the fairly extraordinary “Kirikou and the Sorceress”) about two children--one the son of a nobleman and the other the offspring of the former’s nanny--who reunite years after being separated in order to track down and free an imprisoned fairy. This description may not sound like much on the surface but between the engaging characters, gripping story and stunning animation, this is one of the best family films to come along in a long time. Since it only played on the art-house circuit (which is about all you can expect these days from a foreign-made animated film without the involvement of any big names or a major studio), it is likely that few of you have heard of this one but I guarantee that it worth a look, even if you don’t have any kids.

DODES’KA-DEN (The Criterion Collection. $29.95): Made during an exceptionally difficult time in his long and celebrated career--he was finding it increasingly difficult to fund his own projects within the Japanese film industry and his attempt to work within the American studio system as the director of the Japanese-centered scenes for “Tora Tora Tora” fell apart when he was fired amidst rumors of mental instability--Akira Kurosawa’s 1970 drama following the lives of a group of people living in a Tokyo garbage dump is largely overlooked these days, especially in comparison to such late-period epics as “Kagemusha” and “Ran,” but it is fascinating work nevertheless, especially for its bold and beautiful use of color (which, astonishingly enough, Kurosawa was utilizing for the very first time). Alas, despite winning the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language film, this proved to be Kurosawa’s first box-office failure (which sent him into a tailspin that would culminate in a 1971 suicide attempt) and it would be five years before he would return with the Russian-financed “Dersu Uzala.”

ECLIPSE 15: TRAVELS WITH HIROSHI SHIMIZI (The Criterion Collection. $59.95): Although highly respected in Japan during the 1930’s, the work of filmmaker Hiroshi Shimizi has largely gone overlooked in the ensuing decades, especially in the U.S., where it is largely assumed that the Japanese film industry began and ended with Kurosawa. In an effort to bring new attention to his work, Criterion, through their Eclipse specialty label dedicated to lesser-known films and/or filmmakers, are offering up this 4-disc collection featuring some of his finest films. The titles include 1933’s “Japanese Girls at the Harbor” (a silent drama about two longtime friends who are torn apart when one is driven to criminal behavior because of jealousy), 1936’s “Mr. Thank You” (a charming comedy-drama following a bus driver and his passengers as they make their way from Izu to Tokyo), 1938’s “The Masseurs and a Woman” (which tells the story of a pair of blind masseurs working at a remote mountain resort and what occurs when one finds himself falling for a woman who may be a bit on the shady side) and 1941’s “Ornamental Hairpin” (in which a soldier who has injured his foot on a errant hairpin finds himself instantly smitten by its owner). Although those expecting the flash of a Kurosawa are likely to come away from these decidedly low-key works feeling a little disappointed, those with an interest in Japanese culture should definitely seek out these relatively rare and fascinating works to see what was going on in that country’s cinema in the period immediately preceding World War II.

ELEGY (Sony Home Entertainment. $27.96): This adaptation of the 2001 Philip Roth novella “The Dying Animal” chronicles the relationship that develops between a self-absorbed academic (Sir Ben Kingsley) with a fondness for string-free affairs and a much younger former student (Cruz) who makes the mistake of genuinely falling for the guy. Despite an excellent performance from Penelope Cruz (which was almost immediately overshadowed by her equally strong work in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona), this fairly turgid melodrama doesn’t really do anything other than demonstrate once again that Roth’s fiction doesn’t travel very well from the page to the screen since the one element that makes his work so memorable--his distinctive authorial voice--is inevitably the first thing to disappear in the process.

GOAL 2: LIVING THE DREAM (Genius Products. $19.95): In news that will no doubt thrill my brother to death, this second part of a planned trilogy of films (the first one was an enormous hit everywhere in the world but the U.S., which explains why this one is hitting video after an extremely brief theatrical run) following a small town soccer player (Kuno Becker) throughout the rise of his professional career has finally arrived. This time around, our hero is traded to Real Madrid and is forced to up his game considerably while playing alongside the likes of such superstars of the sport as David Beckham and Ronaldo. I know--this is probably of little interest to most of you but I assure you, my brother couldn’t be giddier about this.

JAG--THE EIGHTH SEASON (CBS DVD. $55.98): In news that will no doubt thrill my father to death, mostly so that he can admire the cut of Catherine Bell’s jib, the 24 episodes comprising the eighth season of this long-running military procedural series has finally arrived on DVD in a six-disc set that includes a gag reel and the two special episodes that served as a pilot for the equally popular spin-off series “NCIS.” Other TV-related DVDs appearing this week include “Barney Miller: The Complete Third Season (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.95), “Head Case: Season 1” (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.97), “Mr. Belvedere: Seasons 1 & 2” (Shout! Factory. $44.95) and “The Nanny--The Complete Third Season” (Sony Home Entertainment. $39.95).

MURNAU (Kino Video. $99.95): No doubt inspired by the acclaim received by Fox’s recent DVD box set collecting the works of F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage, Kino has gathered together the Murnau-directed titles in their possession, Kino is now offering up their own box set of six Murnau films from their own collection, including three of his most famous works--1922’s “Nosferatu,” 1924’s “The Last Laugh” and 1926’s “Faust”--along with such lesser-known gems as 1921’s “The Haunted Castle,” 1924’s “The Finances of the Grand Duke” and 1925’s “Tartuffe.” Each film contains numerous bonus features--documentaries, commentaries and the like--but even if they were only bare-bones editions, the importance of these films alone would make this collection a must-own for every serious student of the cinema.

MY ZINC BED (HBO Home Video. $26.98): Based on the play by David Hare and originally produced for British television, this short film (clocking in at a little over 70 minutes) stars Paddy Considine as a recovering alcoholic poet who goes to work for a rich and powerful businessman (Jonathan Pryce) and finds himself attracted to the man’s wife (Uma Thurman), a recovering cocaine addict. From what I understand, this was meant to be a drama examining various types of addictions but to judge from the reviews that it inspired when it was first produced, it may have missed its mark.

PORTRAIT OF PETULIA CLARK (Infinity Entertainment. $14.98): Originally produced for television in 1969, this special (shot all over the world) finds the pop star belting out such tunes as “My Love,” “My Funny Valentine” and “You and I” (a tune from the disastrous musical version of “Goodbye Mr. Chips”) that was also released around this time) and performing duets with Andy Williams on “Visions of Sugar Plums” and the immortal “You Can’t Roller-Skate In a Buffalo Herd.” Interviews with Clark and Williams also appear in the bonus features section along with a couple of additional performances from Clark.

PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $34.98): The third time wasn’t the charm with this latest effort to establish the hyper-violent vigilante comic-book character as a legitimate big-screen property (after such failed efforts as a 1989 version with Dolph Lundgren and the 2004 flop with Thomas Jane smacking around John Travolta). Perhaps realizing early on that this was not going to be another “Dark Knight,” director Lexi Alexander has taken the opposite approach by transforming the film into an deliberately over-the-top gorefest and while that is admittedly amusing for a couple of minutes, the non-stop splatter and monosyllabic performances quickly grow monotonous. That said, it does have one of the more inspired closing lines of dialogue in recent film history.

THE ROBE (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): In one of those jumbo-sized Bible epics that were all the rage in the 1950’s, a Roman tribune (Richard Burton in his first major movie role) sent to Jerusalem to supervise the crucifixion of Christ wins the savior’s robe while gambling and undergoes a series of hallucinations that inspire him to convert to Christianity himself. Best remembered today as the first film to be shot in CinemaScope, this is still worth watching simply as an elaborate visual spectacle but anyone looking for anything else is likely to find themselves disappointed by the combination of plodding direction and over-the-top acting. (What else can you say about a film where the most subtle performance comes courtesy from none other than Victor Mature, who turns up as Burton’s slave/sidekick?)

THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION, VOL. 5: 1946-1948 (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): The 25 shorts that comprise this fifth volume of digitally remastered and chronologically ordered shorts featuring the classic slapstick comedy trio covers their first major transitional period since achieving stardom--after suffering a stroke on the final day of filming 1947’s “Half-Wits Holiday,” Curly Howard left the group and was replaced by brother Shemp (who had been a member during their early days until he left in 1932 and was replaced with Curly), a position that he held until his death in 1955. Although he lacked the physical chops and deliriously manic edge that made his brother famous, Shemp (who by this time had become a familiar supporting player in films like the W.C. Fields classic “The Bank Dick”) was a gifted comedian and the best of his shorts (such as “Sing a Song of Six Pants” and “Brideless Groom”) are classics in their own right. This set also features “Hold That Lion,” a 1947 short that was the only one in the entire series to feature Moe, Larry, Shemp and a cameo appearance from Curly, complete with a full head of hair.

WALLED IN (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.97): In this week’s bit of direct-to-DVD horror nonsense, Mischa Barton plays a member of a family demolition team that goes off to a remote area to destroy a building that became notorious 15 years earlier when 16 bodies (including that of the architect) were found cemented into the walls. Inevitably, things take a supernatural turn, Barton takes a terrifying bath and you probably tuned out the minute you read the phrase “Mischa Barton plays a member of a family demolition team,” didn’t you?

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originally posted: 03/20/09 07:18:21
last updated: 03/20/09 07:45:54
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