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DVD Reviews for 3/27: "Well, To Be Perfectly Honest, There Was This Girl In Philadelphia. . ."

by Peter Sobczynski

Bond is back and this column has him, along with a collection of naughty movies from the early 1930's, more "Watchmen" stuff and a Kristen Stewart movie that isn't that "Twilight" nonsense.

For fans of the James Bond series, this is sure to be an expensive week in terms of DVD purchases. For starters, it marks the release of “Quantum of Solace,” the 22nd installment in the long-running series that was an enormous worldwide hit when it was released last fall. In addition, a few of the earlier films are making their Blu-Ray debuts, including the one generally regarded as the best of the bunch (1964’s “Goldfinger”) and the one often cited as one of the very worst (“Moonraker”). Howcever, for real Bond fans, the most interesting title to appear this week is a full-fledged special edition of “Never Say Never Again,” the unsanctioned alternate 007 film that saw Sean Connery returning to the role that he made famous 12 years after vowing to never do another one after 1971’s “Diamonds Are Forever.” Despite being an enormous hit when it was released, it has since gone down in film history as some kind of bizarre aberration best ignored by Bond fans and when it first appeared on DVD a few years ago at a time when the regular Bond films were receiving the lavish special edition treatment, it was not only tossed out in a bare-bones version with no extras beyond a spectacularly tacky trailer, some early pressings apparently were missing a few minutes of footage (including the moment when Connery says, presumably for the last time, “My name is Bond. . .James Bond”). Now it has returned to DVD in an edition that includes a number of bells and whistles that reveals, at least in part, how the whole thing came to exist in the first place.

Once upon a time, there was an author by the name of Ian Fleming who, in the late 1950’s, was having some degree of success with a series of novels chronicling the exploits of British secret agent James Bond. However, he was not having very much luck in convincing Hollywood to bring them to the screen--some have suggested that those earlier novels were particularly cinematic while others suspect the problem was the inability to get a known actor to sign the kind of extended contract that a studio would require in order to justify launching a series of this type. Anyway, in another effort to attract the interest of the film industry, Fleming got together with two other men, writer Jack Whittingham and producer Kevin McClory, and between them, they hashed out a treatment for an original Bond story designed specifically for the big screen involving stolen nuclear warheads. However, when McClory took this treatment around to the studios, they still showed little interest in the project. At that point, Fleming took this treatment and transformed it into a novel titled “Thunderball” but neglected to give any credit to either McClory or Wittingham for their contributions. By this time, of course, the film series had been launched and the screen rights to all of Fleming’s novels (save for “Casino Royale,” which had been purchased a few years earlier and which had bounced around until finally emerging as a big-budget 1967 spoof) had been purchased by Eon Productions. Needless to say, McClory sued Fleming and won his case and as part of the settlement, he received the rights to remake “Thunderball” (which by this time had been made and become a massive worldwide hit) after a period of ten years.

Of course, no one probably expected that McClory would ever actually exploit those rights, especially since the official Bond series was still going strong even after Connery left the role for good, and most probably expected that he would sell the rights to Eon for a hefty sum and move on. And yet, when that ten-year period finally lapsed in 1976, McClory announced plans to do his own Bond film based on the “Thunderball” material. Not only that, he began actively pursuing none other than Sean Connery himself to return to the role--even going so far to ask the actor to contribute to the screenplay being written by novelist Len Deighton. What they came up with a project known as “Warhead” and based on descriptions of the screenplay from those who have read it, it probably would have gone down as one of the wildest of all the Bond films thanks to such elements as evil organization SPECTRE bringing down ships in the Bermuda Triangle, robot sharks patrolling the sewers of New York City and an all-out assault on the Statue of Liberty for a climax. Alas, getting all of this spectacle on the screen was going to cost a lot of money and since there were still some questions about what McClory’s rights really allowed him to do and what Eon might do in response, the project eventually fell apart. A few years later, an entertainment lawyer named Jack Schwartzman (the husband of actress Talia Shire and the father of future “Rushmore” star Jason Schwartzman) determined that McClory was indeed free and clear to remake “Thunderball” and the two not only managed to arrange financing for the films but even managed to lure Connery back into the fold as well. Even more startling, the production decided to go head-to-head with the latest official Bond film, “Octopussy,” in what the press would immediately dub “The Battle of the Bonds.”

As the film opens, we learn that under the directions of a new M (Edward Fox), the 00 unit of the British Secret Service has pretty much been phased out and that James Bond now spends most of his time teaching instead of being out in the field doing what he does best. After a field training exercise goes wrong, M orders Bond to go to an exclusive health clinic in order to purge his body of “free radicals” and to whip himself back into shape. While there, he happens to notice a sexy nurse (Barbara Carrera) slapping around her charge, American Air Force pilot Jack Patachi (Gavin O’Herilhy) before having him use a strange machine that scans his eye. Before he can investigate further, he is discovered and the next day, a goon tries to bump him off at the clinic. It turns out that Bond has inadvertently stumbled upon the latest plan by evil organization SPECTRE to take over the world--the “nurse” is SPECTRE agent Fatima Blush and she, along with billionaire businessman Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), are using Patachi as a pawn in a plan to steal two nuclear warheads and ransom them to the governments of the world in exchange for billions of dollars. Naturally, Bond is put on the case and heads to the Bahamas to track down the warheads and save the world. Just as naturally, doing so involves gun battles, chase scenes and bedroom romps with both Fatima (who makes it a point of pride to make love to the person that she is about to kill) and Domino Petachi (Kim Basinger in one of her first major roles), who is both the sister of the doomed Air Force pilot and the lover of the wildly possessive Largo.

When “Never Say Never Again” was released in October of 1983, it was a big hit with audiences and critics who were willing to overlook its flaws because a.) it was better than the fairly mediocre “Octopussy” and b.) they were so excited to see Sean Connery playing James Bond again that they didn’t care about anything else. However, watching the film today, 25 years down the line and divorced from all of the controversy that surrounded its production and release, it is a little more difficult to ignore the numerous rough spots. For starters, the plot hews so closely to “Thunderball” (mostly because Eon threatened to sue if the story drifted too far from what McClory had to work with) that most of the suspense and excitement is drained away as a result. It even makes the same mistakes that “Thunderball” did, such as the boneheaded decision to end the film with an extended underwater battle in which it is virtually impossible to tell who is who or to understand what is going on except empirically. The film also makes the gave error of getting rid of the most engaging non-Bond character, the deliciously flamboyant Fatima Blush, way too early in the proceedings--when she goes, she leaves a void that it is never quite able to fill. Finally, “Never Say Never Again” features musical contributions from composer Michel Legrand that are so egregiously awful that they make you long for the days of silent cinema--the score is both painfully bad and wildly inappropriate for an action film of this type (it seems more suited for the kind of piddling Europudding romance that never quite makes it to these shores) and his title song is so terrible that it actually ruins the fairly exciting scene that it plays over during the opening credits.

And yet, despite these flaws, there is still a lot to like about “Never Say Never Again.” Despite having what has been described by many as an incredibly chaotic production, director Irving Kershner (who made this his follow-up to a little thing called “The Empire Strikes Back”) manages to keep the increasingly convoluted plot moving along quickly enough and, aside from the draggy final act, does a good job of handling the various action set-pieces (the mid-film chase sequence is especially impressive). While the screenplay itself may be a mess at times, it does contain a bunch of nifty touches (such as updating the initial casino confrontation between Bond and Largo from an ordinary game of chance to a still-awesome-looking videogame) and funny lines of dialogue (“Your brother is dead--keep dancing!”) The film also contains two of the best villains in the entire history of the series--as Largo, Klaus Maria Brandauer finds a way of creating a character that is a power-hungry megalomaniac while still making him out as a recognizable human being and Barbara Carrera is a scream as Fatima Blush, a woman for whom the phrase “over-the-top” is merely a starting point. Speaking of Carrera, it should also be noted that she and Basinger are also two of the most beautiful women to ever appear in a Bond film--the latter may not have much to do in the film but she looks so good not doing it that most viewers will hardly notice. Of course, the best thing about the film is the presence of Sean Connery returning to the role that made him famous--despite the 12-year gap since his previous Bond performance, he immediately slips into the character with such ease that it hardly feels as if any time had passed. He could have easily coasted through the film just to collect his hefty paycheck but all the way through, he is always making an effort--albeit in the most effortless way possible--and it is largely because of his efforts that “Never Say Never Again” succeeds as well as it does.

As for the special features, they are a bit of a mixed bag. There is an audio commentary featuring Kershner and Bond historian Steven Jay Rubin that occasionally touches on the film’s curious backstory, rocky production history and behind-the-scenes dish (we learn that Sean Connery’s wife turned up on the set to keep an eye on her husband when he was shooting his love scene with Barbara Carrera and that Kim Basinger’s then-husband was secretly adding his own input to her performance before being booted off the set) but which spends too much time offering up the usual stuff about how wonderful everyone was to work with and the like. (That said, Kershner has nothing kind to say about that awful score as well.) There are also three behind-the-scenes featurettes but they essentially repeat information heard in the commentary and are hampered by the fact that McClory and Schwartzman are no longer around to tell their side of the story and that Connery, Basinger and Brandauer apparently declined to be interviewed for the project. (It should be noted, however, that Barbara Carrera does turn up in these featurettes and is looking as hot as ever.) Finally, there is a small photo gallery and the return of the unbelievably garish original theatrical trailer, a piece of work that was evidently slapped together by people who assumed that it didn’t matter what they did as long as it included the words “Sean Connery is James Bond.” Yes, they were correct in that assumption, but still. . .

Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. Directed by Irving Kershner. Starring Sean Connery, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Max Von Sydow, Barbara Carrera, Kim Basinger, Bernie Casey, Alec McCowen and Edward Fox. 1983. Rated PG. 134 minutes. A MGM Home Entertainment release. $19.98


ANDY RICHTER CONTROLS THE UNIVERSE: THE COMPLETE SERIES (CBS DVD. $39.98): When it premiered on Fox in the spring of 2002, this delightfully daffy sitcom following an office drone (Richter) who constantly fantasizes about replaying the events of his day-to-day life with different choices (and hilarious results) was considered by many to be one of the funniest and most original shows to hit the airwaves in years. You know what that means--Fox had no idea what to do with it and cancelled it after only a few week. However, there is a happy ending to this tale--all19 episodes (including five) that were produced but never aired) have been collected on a 3-disc set that also includes a couple of featurettes that are almost as funny as the shows themselves. Who knows--if this sells as well as it deserves to, maybe it will inspire the release of Richter’s other cancelled-before-its-time gem, the hilarious detective parody “Andy Barker: P.I.” Other TV-related DVDs being released this week include “In Treatment” (HBO Home Entertainment. $59.95), “Midsomer Murders: Set 12” (Acorn Media. $49.95), “The Riches: Season 2” (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99), “Room 222: Season One” (Shout! Factory. $34.99), “Sidney Sheldon’s Master of the Game” (CBS DVD. $29.958), “Star Wars: The Clone Wars--A Galaxy Divided” (Warner Home Video. $19.98) and “A Woman Called Golda” (CBS DVD. $29.98).

BIG STAN (Warner Home Video. $24.98): Rob Schneider directs and stars in this direct-to-video comedy as a con man who manages to delay his prison sentence so that he study martial arts from a wise master (David Carradine) so that he can fight back against the convicts who are, he believes, just waiting to sexually violate him around the clock. Yeah, I kind of drifted off after the first five words of this description as well.

BOLT (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $32.99): In Disney’s latest animated feature, a pampered performing pooch (John Travolta) is convinced that his beloved owner (Miley Cyrus) has been kidnapped by bad guys and goes on a cross-country trip to rescue her, only to discover that he doesn’t actually possess any of the super powers that he has on the TV show on which he stars. Although a little more ambitious than most of the recent non-Pixar Disney films, it lacks that final burst of inspiration that would have transformed it from an amiable time-waster into something special. As with a number of their recent releases, Disney is putting this out in a 3-disc DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack that includes two Blu-Ray discs containing the movie and a bunch of bonus features (featurettes, commentary track, deleted scenes and a music video of the end credit duet between Travolta and Cyrus) and a third containing a standard DVD edition of the film for those of you who either want to watch it someplace other than on your home entertainment center or who haven’t yet made the upgrade but who plan on doing so in the near future.

THE CAKE EATERS (Universal Home Entertainment. $22.98): Mary Stuart Masterston makes a fairly impressive directorial debut with this ensemble drama about two small-town families that are drawn together when the daughter of one, a terminally-ill teenager (Kristen Stewart) who wants to experience love in all its many facets before she expires, sets her sights on the younger son (Aaron Stanford) to make her final dreams come true. Yeah, this probably won’t do as well as the other DVD featuring Kristen Stewart that is debuting this week but if you want proof that she really is a good actress, you’ll want to check this one out.

CAREFUL (Zeigeist Video. $29.99): Like all of Guy Maddin’s other films, such as “My Winnipeg,“ “Brand Upon the Brain” and “The Saddest Music in the World,” this 1991 effort (his third) pretty much defies all attempts at summarization--suffice it to say, it takes place during the 19th century in a remote mountain village in which the sexually repressed townspeople are forced to keep their passions (not to mention their voices and footsteps) as restrained as possible to avoid causing an avalanche. And like all of Maddin’s other films, it is a strange, audacious, darkly funny and visually stunning work that will shock and amuse you while you watch it and then haunt you for weeks afterwards. This special edition contains both a 1997 documentary on Maddin narrated by Tom Waits and a new commentary track from Maddin and screenwriter George Toles.

FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD COLLECTION, VOLUME 3 (Warner Home Video. $49.98): In their latest collection of obscure and surprisingly racy films made before the development of the Production Code in the mid-Thirties (which controlled what Hollywood could and couldn’t show regarding sex, drugs, murder and other forms of bad behavior), Warner Home Video has brought together six films directed by the great William Wellman (whose other credits include such classics as “Public Enemy,” “Nothing Sacred” and “The Ox-Bow Incident.” The films here include “Other Men’s Women” (in which Grant Withers and Regis Toomey play a couple of railroad workers whose friendship is torn asunder when the former falls in love with the latter’s wife, played by Mary Astor), “The Purchase Price” (in which troubled singer Barbara Stanwyck hopes to leave her past behind by becoming a mail-order bride for farmer George Brent), “Frisco Jenny” (Ruth Chatterton stars as a woman who goes from being orphaned by the great San Francisco earthquake to becoming the owner of a highly successful house of ill repute), “Midnight Mary” (in which murder defendant Loretta Young looks back on her life and the mistakes she made while awaiting the jury’s verdict), “Heroes For Sale” (in which Richard Barthelmess plays a soldier who returns home from fighting in World War I only to suffer even greater hardships than he did on the battlefield, including drug addiction and unemployment) and “Wild Boys of the Road” (featuring a group of Depression-era boys who leave home so as to help ease the burden on their families and who struggle to find work for themselves). In addition to the films, this set also includes two documentaries on Wellman and his career--one produced in the early 1970’s as part of Richard Schickel’s “The Men Who Made the Movies” series and a newer one produced for Tuner Classic Movies.

THE LAST METRO (The Criterion Collection. $39.99): In this 1980 romantic melodrama from Francois Truffaut (who would go on to make only two more films before his untimely passing in 1984), Catherine Deneuve stars as an actress struggling to keep her Jewish husband’s theater going during the days of the German occupation of France--complicating matters significantly is her growing affection for the actor/Resistance member (Gerard Depardieu) that she hires to star opposite her in the troupe’s latest production and the fact that her husband is actually hiding out in the theater’s basement. Over the years, Criterion has certainly done well by Truffaut in presenting his work and this edition (also available on Blu-Ray) is no exception--in addition to a gorgeous transfer, this two-disc set includes two commentaries (one from scholar Annette Insdorf and the other featuring historian Jean-Pierre Azema, Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana and Depardieu himself), a deleted scene, vintage television interviews with Truffaut, Depardieu and Deneuve, new interviews with members of the supporting cast and crew, a discussion with famed cinematographer Nestor Almendros about his numerous collaborations with Truffaut and, most exciting of all, “Une Histoire D’Eau,” a 1958 short film that Truffaut co-directed with a former friend of his by the name of Jean-Luc Godard.

LILO AND STITCH: 2-DISC BIG WAVE EDITION (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $29.99): I have to admit that when I first saw this 2002 Disney animated feature about a destructive alien creature from a distant planet who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a feisty little Hawaiian girl when it crash-lands on Earth, I didn’t think that much of it--while I appreciated its attempts at breaking the standard Disney formula that was getting a little tiresome by that point, it seemed like it was trying too hard to provide the kind of knockabout comedy that the studio has traditionally never been very good at pulling off. That said, it plays a lot better these days in my opinion and I would actually go so far as to rate it as among the best non-Pixar Disney animated films of the last decade or so. This two-disc set includes such extras as deleted scenes and a look at the making of the film aimed at animation buffs and various games and music videos for the wee ones

THE ODD COUPLE: CENTENNIAL COLLECTION/TO CATCH A THIEF: CENTENNIALCOLLECTION (Paramount Home Video. $24.99 each): For the latest additions to their “Centennial Collection” series of reissues of some of the most famous titles in their back catalogue, Paramount is now offering up new two-disc sets commemorating the classic 1968 Neil Simon comedy with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as hilarious mismatched roommates and the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock romantic thriller with Cary Grant as a supposedly reformed jewel thief in Monaco who becomes embroiled in both a new string of robberies that match his former M.O. and finds himself wooing adventurous heiress Grace Kelly. Both films have been given significant visual upgrades and both have been granted numerous bonus features that include commentary tracks and behind-the-scenes featurettes. These extras are entertaining enough but the real treats here are the films themselves and if you have never gotten around to picking them up before, now is most definitely the time.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE (MGM Home Entertainment. $34.98): Playing more like a wisely deleted fourth act to 2006’s brilliant James Bond reboot “Casino Royale,” 007 (Daniel Craig) goes gunning for the people responsible for the death of his beloved Vesper Lynd and stumbles upon a conspiracy involving a seemingly swell eco-billionaire (Mathieu Amalric) who is cooking up a plan to seize control of South America’s water supplies through a series of artificial droughts. It has a few good thing going for it--such as the opening chase sequence, a nifty set-piece in an opera house crawling with bad guys and the presence of Gemma Arterton as the secondary Bond girl (who becomes even more important than usual since the main babe, Olga Kurylenko, is little more than an exceedingly gorgeous lump)--and it confirms that Craig is the most effective actor to play Bond since Sean Connery. However, the story is a mess, director Marc Forster has no idea of how to put an action scene together and the bad guy, despite being played by someone as talented as Amalric, is kind of a drag. Although this two-disc set contains numerous extras--mostly behind-the-scenes featurettes and the music video for the fairly lame Jack White/Alicia Keys theme song--it isn’t as fully packed as other Bond DVDs, suggesting that a more elaborate package may be appearing at some point down the line.

TWILIGHT (Summit Entertainment. $32.99): Even though I decimated this ridiculous (and ridiculously successfully) teen vampire romance when it hit theaters last fall, I decided to give it another spin when the DVD arrived in the mail to see if maybe it contained some hidden virtues that I was unable to detect in the wake of all the hype surrounding its release. Turns out that there wasn’t--this is still one of the silliest things that I have ever seen and I suspect that in a few years time, many of its most ardent fans are going to look at it again and be absolutely mortified at the thought that they once considered this monstrosity to be some kind of masterpiece. Until they get to that point of self-realization, fans of the film will most likely be thrilled with this two-disc set containing such extras as a commentary featuring hack director Catherine Hardwick and co-stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, music videos featuring songs from the equally irritating soundtrack album, deleted scenes (which are just as bad as any of those left in the actual film), a seven-part documentary on the film’s trip from the page to the screen and footage of the chaos that erupted during the panel dedicated to the movie at last year’s Comic-Con convention.

WATCHMEN: TALES OF THE BLACK FREIGHTER/UNDER THE HOOD (Warner Home Video. $27.98): In bringing the massive narrative of “Watchmen” to the screen, many of the side stories that gave the original series a lot of its flavor and intrigue were cast aside so as to keep the focus on the main storyline and to keep the running time under three hours. Two of the most egregious deletions were “Tales of the Black Freighter,“ a comic book within the comic book about a sea captain who ship is destroyed by pirates and whose efforts to return home to warn his people transform him into something monstrous, and “Under the Hood,“ a tell-all biography by the original Night Owl that gave information about the early days of superheroes and the formation of the Minutemen, a group of costume wearers that later inspired the formation of the Watchmen. Conceived as a supplement to the feature film, this DVD includes a fully animated rendition of “Tales of the Black Freighter” featuring the voice of Gerard Butler as the doomed captain and conveys much of the “Under the Hood” material in the guise of an extended TV interview with the original Night Owl, Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie) on the occasion of the publication of his book in 1975 that also features contributions from Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino) and Moloch the Magician (Matt Frewer) and faux-period commercials. Hard-core fans will no doubt want to snatch this up immediately but other should know that “Watchmen” director Zack Snyder is reportedly planning a super-sized DVD version of the film that may incorporate all of this material into the story proper.

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originally posted: 03/27/09 07:02:01
last updated: 03/27/09 08:29:32
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