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DVD Reviews for 4/10: Talk About An Infinite Variety. . .

by Peter Sobczynski

You think that movies today are overflowing with sex, sin and sadism? You should see (and you will, thanks to a battery of vintage releases) the weird and kinky things that your elders were watching about 75 years ago--half-naked chorus girls, whippings, drunken debauchery and musical numbers involving the Ritz Brothers. Sure, there are plenty of contemporary films coming out this week with lots of depravity on display but despite their graphicness, they somehow seem tame compared to the still-surprising older titles found here.

Although you often hear some bluenoses bemoaning the debaucheries of contemporary Hollywood and wishing for a return to the good old days when sex, violence, vulgarity and general depravity was kept off-screen, the truth of the matter is that many of the films produced during the early decades of the film industry were actually chock-full of these very elements--perhaps not as explicitly as they are used today but oftentimes enough to still raise the occasional eyebrow (among other things) even today. In fact, things became so excessive that the industry was forced to institute the Production Code, a list of elements that could not be depicted on the screen under any circumstances, in 1934 in order to stave off complaints from viewers and financiers that things were going too far. (The Code would last for more than three decades before finally crumbling in the late Sixties, when it was replaced by the MPAA rating system.) Over the last couple of years, Warner Home Video has been digging into their archives and releasing their “Forbidden Hollywood” collections of pre-Code productions that were especially bold and daring in what they offered viewers (the latest, highlighting six films from director William Wellman, recently hit stores and is highly recommended) and now Universal Home Entertainment is getting into the act with two similar packages of their own as part of their “Universal Backlot Series” collection of classic films under their purview: “Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra: 75th Anniversary Edition,” the famed 1934 epic take on the scandalous life of the Queen of the Nile, and “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection,” a set of six lesser-known titles from that era featuring plenty of well-known performers indulging in exceptionally scandalous behavior.

“Cleopatra” was one of the very last films released by Hollywood before the Code took effect and in a way, that was appropriate because it was the excesses of one of DeMille’s previous efforts, 1932’s eye-popping Biblical epic “Sign of the Cross,” that spearheaded its development in the first place. Although he claims in the coming attractions preview that he wanted to make a film on this particular subject because he felt that the historical facts surrounding Cleopatra’s life were more fascinating than any fiction could possibly be, it quickly becomes evident that DeMille was less interested in providing a sober recitation of the known details of her life than he was in creating a highly stylized spectacle that would dazzle viewers with its combination of pageantry and half-naked women. The storyline is intensely familiar--Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) seduces first Julius Caesar (Warren William) and then Marc Antony Henry Wilcoxon) on her way to becoming one of the world’s most infamous and powerful women--but this is one of those films where the story being told is less important than how it is being told. Here, DeMille has essentially utilized the storyline as an excuse to stage one lavish and excessive scene after another in which scantily-clad people slink around sets that seem inspired more by the Art Deco movement of the Thirties than anything that might have existed back in the day--you half-expect Astaire and Rogers to suddenly pop up at some point and do a dance. The high point (or low, depending on your point of view) is the amazing sequence in which Cleopatra seduces Marc Antony with such erotic temptations as a net of “clams” that turn out to be a bevy of wet and barely-dressed women and a lion tamer whipping his cats (a couple of women in leopard-skin outfits) into submission. Of course, it is pretty much impossible to look at this film today as anything other than as camp but even so, it still works today--Colbert is a sexy wonder in the lead role (astonishingly enough, she made both this and “It Happened One Night,” the film for which she received the Oscar, in the same year), the spectacles are pretty much still spectacular to look at (though the climactic battle sequence is kind of a mess) and, unlike the more famous Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton “Cleopatra,” it is never boring for a second.

Although none of the films brought together in the “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection” are as famous or as lavish as “Cleopatra,” that doesn’t make them any less entertaining or outrageous. The set starts off with 1931’s “The Cheat,” a literally sizzling melodrama in which Tallulah Bankhead plays a socialite who gambles away a lot of money that she nicked from a charity that she is helping with and finds herself borrowing it from kinky art collector Irving Pichel--you can probably guess what he wants as collateral but even the kinkiest among you may be startled by what he demands as a default penalty. Directed by Dorothy Arzner, Hollywood’s first major female filmmaker, 1932’s “Merrily We Go to Hell” tells the story of a newly-married former alcoholic (Fredric March) who finds himself hitting the bottle again and taking up with an old flame from his sordid past--as it turns out, his wife (Sylvia Sidney) decides to do the same thing herself. In 1932’s “Hot Saturday,” good girl Nancy Carroll is branded as the town tramp after being unfairly accused of having slept with local playboy Cary Grant and decides that she will live up (or down) to those accusations by any and all possible means. 1933’s “Torch Singer” brings Claudette Colbert back into the fold as an unwed mother who is eventually forced to give up the kid--when she becomes a celebrated singer, she begins moonlighting as the host of a children’s radio show in an effort to reunite with her child. 1934’s “Murder at the Vanities” is, of all things, a musical murder mystery in which detective Victor McLaglen investigates a series of murders backstage at the new production from noted Broadway producer Earl Carroll while the show continues to go on. Finally, 1934’s “Search for Beauty” is a sexy comedy in which a pair of con men sucker a group of Olympic athletes (including Buster Crabbe) into endorsing their scandalous skin magazine. Although all of the films in this set have their charms (only “Merrily We Go to Hell” drags a little bit, though it is still a pretty fascinating work in its own right), the pick hit of the set is easily “Murder at the Vanities,” one of the strangest movies that you are likely to see from this period, if only for the infamous “Sweet Marijuana” musical number in which a singer extols the virtues of weed in front of a group of topless chorus girls while the blood from one of the murder victims drips down on them from the rafters.

Both “Cleopatra” and “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection” have been meticulously restored--they probably haven’t looked or sounded this good since their original releases. The only real deficiency in the “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection” is the lack of any substantial bonus materials--while the “Forbidden Hollywood” sets have contained commentary tracks, trailers and documentaries about the films and the times in which they were made, the only extra here is “Forbidden Film: The Production Code Era,” an informative but all-too-brief featurette about how the Production Code came into being. “Cleopatra,” on the other hand, has been given a more expansive selection of extras. In addition to a repeat of the “Forbidden Film” featurettes, there are similar shorts focusing on Claudette Colbert and Cecil B. DeMille as well as a commentary track from critic F.X. Feeney who discusses the history of the film and DeMille’s always-audacious cinematic technique.

CECIL B. DEMILLE’S CLEOPATRA: 75th ANNIVERSARY EDITION: Written by Waldemar Young and Vincent Lawrence. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Starring Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Ian Keith, Joseph Schildkraut, C. Aubrey Smith and Gertrude Michael. 1934. Unrated. 112 minutes. A Universal Home Entertainment release. $29.98.

PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD COLLECTION: A Universal Home Entertainment release. $49.98.


AMERICAN HIGH SCHOOL (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $26.97): For those of you who have been wearing out your copies of “Not Another Teen Movie” and “Extreme Movie” while waiting for someone to make another spoof of raunchy teen comedies, your prayers have been answered with this direct-to-video silliness involving overage students, kinky teachers and a perverted principal who--are you ready for this?--is also a midget. Unless you are somehow unable to obtain naked images of Nikki Ziering or Aubrey O’Day through conventional means, there is no real reason for anyone to be watching this nonsense.

BASELINE KILLER (North American Motion Pictures. $26.99): The inimitable Ulli Lommel, the auteur of such questionable endeavors as “The Boogeyman” (not the one you are thinking of) and “Black Dahlia” (not the one you are thinking of) returns with this deeply unpleasant bit of work about a group of young women who get together for some kind of reunion and find themselves being picked off one by one by some mysterious presence. Gross, stupid and borderline misogynistic, the only shocking thing about this squalid little item is that it is only the third most loathsome release hitting stores this week.

BEDTIME STORIES (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $32.99): In this surprisingly engaging family-oriented fantasy, an amiable goofball (Adam Sandler) left in charge of his sister’s kids for a few days spends his evenings spinning elaborate (and elaborately staged) bedtimes stories and then discovers to his amazement that they seem to be coming true in real life. This is complete nonsense, of course, but it does have a certain charm to it, not to mention a game and entertaining cast that includes the likes of Keri Russell, Guy Pearce, Lucy Lawless, Russell Brand (who steals his scenes as effortlessly as he did in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” although in a G-rated context) and the impossibly cute Teresa Palmer.

BEVERLY HILLS 90210: THE SEVENTH SEASON (CBS DVD. $59.98): Among the highly improbable twists and turns facing the gang in the 31 episodes collected here: Brandon gets stranded in a town full of racists, has romantic problems and is accused of car theft; Steve abandons Brandon in that town full of racists, later steals a term paper from the guy and gets all cranky when someone at the Peach Pit OD’s on the smack; Val sleeps with a married man and pretends to be carrying his baby, confesses that she was molested by her father and tries to kill herself and Donna gets herself a stalker, loses her virginity and graduates from college (in that order). Other TV-related DVD titles appearing this week include “Dynasty: The Fourth Season, Volume One” (CBS DVD. $36.98) and “The Paper Chase: Season One” (Shout! Factory. $49.99).

BRITNEY: FOR THE RECORD (Jive Records. $19.98): Originally broadcast on MTV to promote the release of her “Circus” CD and now hitting DVD to coincide with her new concert tour, this 63-minute interview finds Britney Spears reflecting on the craziness that engulfed her life over the previous couple of years and which made her a constant tabloid fixture. Look, as revelatory glimpses into the lives of pop idols go, this isn’t exactly “Don’t Look Back” (despite the promises of severe truth-telling, there isn’t anything here that the Spears camp isn’t completely comfortable with airing) but if you are one of those rooting for her to overcome her problems and straighten out her life and career (a group to which I will sheepishly admit membership), this should keep you happy until she either hits your town or slips up again, whichever comes first.

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98): Although its reputation as one of the all-time great sci-fi films had dimmed somewhat in recent years thanks to its slow pacing and overly earnest tone, Robert Wise 1951 film about an alien who arrives on Earth to warn mankind to shape up or else received some of its best reviews in decades when critics pointed how vastly superior it was to the noisy, moronic and utterly useless 2008 remake featuring Keanu Reeves as The Man Who Apparently Fell on His Head During His Trip to Earth, Jennifer Connelly as The Beautiful and Talented Actress Whose Post-Oscar Career Should Have Led to Better Stuff Than This and Jaden Smith as The Obnoxious Brat Who Causes You to Begin Rooting for the Aliens to Annihilate Mankind After All. Perhaps conceding the fact that they didn’t even come close to topping the original, Fox has chosen to include a copy of the original film in this 3-disc set that includes a handful of deleted scenes and featurettes, a commentary track from screenwriter David Scarpa and a digital copy of the film to download in case you are ever stuck in rush-hour traffic with a hankering for a poorly conceived and ineptly executed remakes. Of course, you could just buy Fox’s recent special edition of the original film and save yourself a good deal of time and money in the process.

DONKEY PUNCH (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): In what is easily the most loathsome release of the week (despite the heavy competition), a bunch of hard-partying twits on a binge in the Mediterranean hit the high seas for an orgy of sex and drugs that comes to a bitter end when some kinky sex play goes hideously wrong for one and the others begin fighting amongst each other about what they should do. Little more than a one-note knockoff of “Very Bad Things,” this is a lousy blend of sadism and situational ethics that is probably suited only for those of you who don’t need to have the title explained to them and even they may feel a little scuzzy after watching it.

DOUBT (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.99): I must confess that when I saw it upon its original release last winter, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his award-winning play (following the battle of wills that erupts in a Sixties-era Philadelphia church between traditionalist nun Meryl Streep and progressive priest Phillip Seymour Hoffman when she becomes convinced that he has taken improper liberties with an altar boy) did not really impress me much--the performances from the two leads were good (not to mention those from Amy Adams as a young nun who gets caught in the middle and Viola Davis as the boy’s mother) but the entire enterprise seemed a little too stiff and stagebound for my tastes. Obviously, others disagreed with me--Streep, Hoffman, Adams, Davis and Shanley all received Oscar nominations for their work--and I will admit that it does play a little better within the more intimate confines of DVD.

THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): In this 1938 musical extravaganza from producer Samuel Goldwyn (perhaps best remembered today for its relatively unfair inclusion in the book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time”--it may be dopey but it isn’t that bad by any stretch), flop-prone movie producer Adolph Menjou overhears sweet young innocent Andrea Leeds talking about what would make movies better and sweeps her off to Hollywood to serve as his adviser (“Miss Humanity”) as to what the public really wants to see. (In other words, if this were made today, she would be pushing for more movie featuring monosyllabic bald guys smashing cars.) Like I said, the movie is really dumb but the real enjoyment comes from the incredible cast and crew that Goldwyn assembled for this particular project--Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay, George Gershwin wrote the music, Gregg Toland did the cinematography (in Technicolor), Max Factor did the makeup, George Balanchine was in charge of the choreography (and at one point intended to stage the “An American in Paris” ballet until Goldwyn vetoed it) and the likes of Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, The American Ballet of the Metropolitan Opera, an unbilled Alan Ladd (in one of his earliest roles) and the immortal Ritz Brothers (whose musical number “Here Pussy Pussy” is the demented highpoint).
Along with this film, MGM is also releasing a couple of other musical obscurities as well for $14.98 apiece; the 1945 Sonja Henie ice-skating musical melodrama “It’s a Pleasure” and “A Song is Born,” Howard Hawks’ 1948 remake of his 1941 classic “Ball of Fire” featuring Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo and musical performances from such jazz legends as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton.

HOUSE (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $26.98): No, this isn’t the TV show about the cranky doctor and it isn’t the cheesy Eighties-era horror film in which the Greatest American Hero was being tormented by the spirit of Bull from “Night Court” while Norm from “Cheers” offered assistance. Instead, this direct-to-video entry, an adaptation of the novel by Ted Dekker & Frank Peretti, is a cheesy contemporary horror film in which a young couple on a road trip get stranded in the middle of nowhere and wind up taking shelter at a run-down inn way off the beaten path--since the inn is run by two members of the supporting cast of “The Devil’s Rejects” (Leslie Easterbrook and Bill Moseley), you don’t need to be a genius to know that this will probably not go down as one of their most brilliant ideas.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Miramax Home Entertainment. $32.99): When it was originally released on DVD a little more than a year ago (and only a week or two after it cleaned up at the Academy Awards), it was noted that the package for the Coen Brothers’ brilliant and haunting adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel (the details of which I will presume are well known to you at this point) was a little slim in regards to bonus features--just a couple of brief making-of featurettes and nothing else to speak of. In news that will presumably surprise very few of you, Miramax has gone for the expected double-dip with a new 3-disc version jam-packed with extras. As usual, the Coens have declined to do a commentary track but they do appear in several of the features on the second disc, including a couple of Q&A’s and an interview with Charlie Rose. Co-stars Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin also turn up in many of the features as well, including interviews with David Poland and the actual father of bad film criticism, Jeffrey Lyons. As for the third disc, it contains a digital copy of the film in the event that you find yourself stuck in rush-hour traffic with a hankering for dark, bloody and fatalistic meditations on the death of the American dream.

NOT EASILY BROKEN (Sony Home Entertainment. $27.96): Hollywood once again attempted to replicate the success of Tyler Perry’s string of inexplicable box-office successes with this melodrama about a married couple (Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson) who find both their marriage and their faith tested by a number of outside sources. I wouldn’t dream of revealing how it all turns out but since the film is based on a book by inspirational author T.D. Jakes, my guess is that you can probably figure out how it all turns out in the end.

SHUTTLE (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): In the second most loathsome title being released this week, a pair of young women back from a weekend jaunt in Mexico are stranded at the airport until a seemingly friendly shuttle driver offers them a ride--of course, the guy is a psycho and the trip turns into an exercise in sadism that plays like a combination of the most useless parts of “P2” and the remake of “The Hitcher.” Crudely designed and executed, this doesn’t even work as a stylistic exercise and when you get to the idiotic finale (after enduring all the nastiness and overwhelming lapses in logic), you may find yourself actually flinging things at your television.

THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Based on the acclaimed kiddie book by Kate DiCamillo, this animated fantasy tells the story of a brave little mouse (Matthew Broderick) who is banished by his fellow mice because of his refusal to join their culture of fear and becomes embroiled in adventures that find him trying to rescue a kidnapped princess (Emma Watson) and prevent soup (yes, soup) from being banished from the world forever. Although it lacks that final bit of inspiration that might have made it one of the best animated films in recent years, this is nevertheless a hugely entertaining movie for kids and adults that is filled with beautiful visual imagery, genuine excitement (perhaps a little too much for the younger kids) and an incredible voice cast that also includes Dustin Hoffman, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Ciaran Hinds, Frank Langella and Sigourney Weaver.

YES MAN (Warner Home Video. $34.99): In this fairly blatant attempt to replicate the huge box-office success of his 1997 effort “Liar, Liar,” Jim Carrey stars as a mope who turns his life around when he joins an insidious cult--okay, technically it is a self-help group--that forces him to automatically say “yes” to every opportunity or choice that comes his way. Unfortunately, the premise isn’t very funny, Carrey is clearly bored throughout--he outgrew this nonsense a decade ago and it is dispiriting to see him trapped in a project that sounds more like a Rob Schneider vehicle--and not even the merry presence of the always-welcome Zooey Deschanel is enough to save it from terminal mediocrity. (Check it out for yourself and download it On Demand HERE

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originally posted: 04/10/09 02:58:30
last updated: 04/22/09 06:27:11
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