DVD Reviews for 5/15: Really--another "Grudge" film?
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/15/09 04:58:31
A quartet of semi-obscure biopics, a trio of werewolf/vampire craptaculars, a pair of unnecessary direct-to-video sequels and one of the most singular films ever made from one of the most singular filmmakers who ever lived--those are among the titles on display in this week’s column.
By the time that Hungarian refugee Alexander Korda arrived in England in 1930 to begin making films, he had already made a name for himself by producing and directing films all over the world. However, it was there that he made his biggest splash in the industry--after a few false starts, he produced and/or directed a string of highly acclaimed films (including “That Hamilton Woman,” “The Thief of Baghdad” and “The Third Man”) that were so popular throughout the world that he was more or less single-handedly responsible for the creaution of the British film industry as a whole. (He also gave early breaks to such soon-to-be-famous figures as Laurence Olivier, Michael Powell, Carol Reed and David Lean.) Though he dabbled in any number of film genres over the years, he had a special fondness for historical melodrama that never let such mundane things as facts get in the way of a good story. That is the focus of “Eclipse Series 16: Alexander Korda’s Private Lives,” the latest multi-title collection from the Criterion Collection offshoot dedicated to shining a light on more obscure films and filmmakers. Although the four titles here lack the bells and whistles one might ordinarily expect from a top-of-the-line Criterion release, the films themselves are all shamelessly entertaining and just the fact that they are available in reasonably good editions after years of being more or less unavailable is a gift in itself.
The set starts off with what is probably the best-known film of the set, 1933’s “The Private Life of Henry VIII” featuring Charles Laughton, in the role that made him a star, plowing his way through wives and roast chickens with equal abandon over the course of his life. As history, the film is nonsense, it makes the strange decision to virtually ignore his first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, even though they were the most interesting of the bunch and the whole thing feels a bit draggy when seen today (even though it only runs for a relatively brief 94 minutes). However, it still works reasonably well today for a number of reasons--the lavish production values are still impressive to view today (even though the liner notes suggest that it was produced on a fairly modest budget), the supporting cast includes such reliable players as Elsa Lanchester (whose scenes as Anne of Cleves are among the best moments), Binnie Barnes and, in smaller roles, Robert Donat and Merle Oberon and, of course, the landmark performance from Laughton in his Oscar-winning turn as the screen’s most iconic version of Henry VIII. Yes, Laughton is either chewing scenery or chicken throughout the film (and manages to do both in the famous scene in which he lectures people on the importance of table manners while acting as if he had never heard of such things) but it is the kind of outrageously outsized performance that actually works beautifully within the parameters of a film of this type.
Korda followed up the huge international success of “The Private Life of Henry VIII” a year later by producing another saga about a historical figure infamous for having huge appetites--“The Rise of Catherine the Great.” This time around, the mentally unsound Peter III (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) becomes heir to the Russian throne after the passing of his aunt, the Empress Elizabeth (Flora Robson) and is essentially forced into marrying Catherine II (Elizabeth Bergner) to solidify his claim. However, Peter’s increasing instability alienates him from much of the monarchy and Catherine uses this knowledge in order to gain power for herself as the future Empress of Russia. Generally overlooked today in favor of the other big Catherine the Great film of 1934, Josef von Sternberg’s ultra-trippy “The Scarlet Empress,” this film plays more along the lines of a curio today but an interesting curio nevertheless. In an intriguing move, Korda and director Paul Czinner have approached the material almost as a screwball comedy and the exchanges between Peter and Catherine have the bite and wit of a Tracy-Hepburn vehicle than anything else. The film is also enlivened considerably by the lead performances from Fairbanks and Bergner (who was married to Czinner at the time)--both play wonderfully off of each other and make what could have been a dreary slog into something compulsively entertaining to watch.
At the same time he was producing “Catherine the Great” with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Korda was off making “The Private Life of Don Juan” with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in what would prove to be his big-screen swan song as well as one of his most memorable performances. In the film, Fairbanks plays the legendary lothario who has grown weary of his ability to woo any woman he wants by simply coasting on his reputation rather than by putting any real effort into his seductions. When a young punk pretending to be him is killed by a cuckolded husband, Don Juan sees it as an opportunity to break from his past for good and moves to the country under an assumed name to lead a quieter existence. Alas, that last about six months and when he returns to town looking for love, he finds that seducing women without his famous name isn’t as easy as he thought it was. Although filled with any number of nifty moments (especially the opening sequence in which a bevy of beauties take to their balconies in the hopes of catching the eye of Don Juan), Fairbanks is pretty much the whole show here, even more so than Laughton was in “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” and his performance walks the tightrope between genuine pathos (as in the scene when he discovers that the only person willing to accept his attentions after his “death” is an old lady that he never would have given a second thought to in his heyday) and a witty self-parody of his own long-gone days as a matinee idol. The result is a real charmer and arguably the most entertaining of the films collected here.
The final film of the set is 1936’s “Rembrandt,” a biopic of the legendary Dutch artist that reunited Korda with Charles Laughton. A markedly darker film than the other titles under discussion here, it starts off with Rembrandt at the height of his career and follows him as he plunges into a decade of despair following the death of his beloved wife that causes him to change his artistic style in a manner that no longer finds favor with the public. Eventually, he finds both love and a new muse in the form of a new maid (Elsa Lanchester) but her own frail health could trigger another tailspin. Although a little too grim at times, this film shows that Korda was capable of directing material that was a little more serious minded than the gaudy spectaculars that he was better known for at the time and it demonstrated that Laughton could still be a captivating performer even without relying on the scenery-chewing bluster that made him famous
A Criterion Collection release. $59.95.
NEW AND NOTABLE
CURIOUS GEORGE GOES GREEN (Universal Home Entertainment. $16.98): Everyone’s favorite mischievous monkey gets into the whole tree-hugging thing with this compilation of eight environmentally-themed episodes from the animated PBS series. Alas, none of them feature George engaging in a monkey knife fight with Greenzo, that other environmental beacon of hope, for the hearts and minds of toddlers everywhere--hopefully they are just saving that for a follow-up.
GALAXY QUEST--DELUXE EDITION (Paramount Home Video. $14.98): In this very funny and largely underrated 2000 comedy, a beleaguered alien race mistakes reruns of a long-cancelled sci-fi TV series for actual historical documents and brings the actors (including Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman), now eking out a meager living on the convention circuit, to their planet to help them fight off an evil overlord. Granted, it may not have had the most original premise but it works so well here that you will hardly notice--the script manages a perfect balance between broad comedy and inside humor, the performances are all spot-on (even the usually annoying Tim Allen is aces here) and it pulls off the not inconsiderable task of both mocking and celebrating fandom weirdness in all its forms. (Fun fact--my brother once claimed that he actually teared up during the scene in which the aliens discover that their presumed saviors are nothing more than actors.)
THE GRUDGE 3 (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): In the first of this week’s trio of largely unnecessary sequels featuring virtually none of the original participants, this direct-to-video continuation of the useless American remakes of the overrated J-horror series involves another group of dopes who find themselves cursed after being exposed to vengeful spirits in Chicago and Japan and who struggle mightily to uncover the secret of what is going on before it is too late. Expect plenty of cheapo “Boo!” moments, plenty of stringy-haired Asian kids trying to look creepy and plenty of incoherence from the screenplay.
HIGH HOPES (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $26.98): No, this is not the wonderful 1988 working-class comedy from internationally acclaimed filmmaker Mike Leigh. This is a direct-to-video comedy about an aspiring filmmaker who hits upon a brilliant idea to raise funding for his first project--he and his buds (that will be funnier in a few seconds) will steal a cache of government-issue marijuana (see?), turn it in for the reward money and use that to finance the movie.
HOW IT ALL WENT DOWN (E1 Entertainment. $24.98): By an amazing coincidence, this week also sees the release of this direct-to-DVD drama about, believe it or not, an aspiring filmmaker who returns to the mean streets of his old neighborhood to sell cocaine in order to raise the funds to make his own movie. Seriously, what are the odds that two separate films about two aspiring filmmakers who turn to selling drugs in order to raise the money to shoot their projects? Is there some kind of untapped market for this kind of thing that I am not aware of.
PASSENGERS (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): Barely released in theaters last fall after months of delays, this supernatural thriller stars the always-fetching Anne Hathaway as a rookie psychotherapist assigned to counsel the traumatized survivors of a hideous plane crash and grows exceptionally close (you know what I mean) with passenger Patrick Wilson. Before long, however, the survivors start to mysteriously disappear and she finds herself trying to unravel the truth about what is really going on. Perhaps fittingly, considering that it tangentially involves the airline industry, my review copy has not arrived as of yet and I therefore cannot really review it. However, according to some that I know who have seen it, Hathaway is pretty good but the film itself is little more than an extra-long “Twilight Zone” episode in which all of the twists are pretty obvious.
PERSONAL EFFECTS (Universal Home Entertainment. $24.98): In this direct-to-video drama, Ashton Kutcher plays a wrestler grappling with the brutal rape and murder of his twin sister who joins a therapy group for the families of victims of horrible crimes and begins an affair with a similarly bereaved widow played by Michelle Pfeiffer. In other developments, I hate Ashton Kutcher.
S. DARKO (Fox Home Entertainment. $22.98): Considering the fairly decisive manner in which the first one ended, you may be wondering exactly how it is that there could be a sequel to the 2001 cult favorite “Donnie Darko.” Well, this one takes place seven years after the first one and centers on Donnie’s younger sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase) as she leaves home with her best friend (Brianna Evigan), becomes stranded in a desert town that is the site of a meteor crash and discovers that unless she confronts her own strange past and the bizarre visions that have been haunting here, the entire world may come to an end. In other words, it is less a sequel than an half-hearted remake and while it may not be quite as bad as it sounds, it is never less than utterly pointless and fans of the original are going to hate it like poison. (It should probably be noted here that Richard Kelly, the writer and director of “Donnie Darko,” had nothing to do with this film and has publicly disowned it.)
TAKEN (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98): Liam Neeson throat-punched his way into the hearts of audiences around the world with this hugely entertaining revenge drama from writer-producer Luc Besson in which he plays a former CIA operative who kicks ass all across France when his teenage daughter is kidnapped by white slavers. Although the action sequences are top-notch throughout--tough and brutal while still remaining more or less plausible--the thing that really sells the film is the quietly impressive performance by Neeson in the lead role: he sells the action-oriented material in such a way that we actually believe that this ordinary man can bust such extraordinary moves while simultaneously offering enough depth to his character so that he comes across as a real person instead of as an implacable superhero. And that scene where Neeson confronts his daughter’s abductor over the phone--an instant classic if ever there was one.
UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): In this prequel to the film franchise that proved that an epic, centuries-old battle between werewolves and vampires could somehow be paralyzing boring, we get to see how the conflict began as the result of the forbidden love that develops between bloodsucking babe Rhona Mitra and hunky werewolf slave Michael Sheen (yeah, the same guy who played Tony Blair in “The Queen” and David Frost in “Frost/Nixon”) under the disapproving eye of vampire leader Bill Nighy. On the one hand, it is just as boring, incoherent and poorly staged as its predecessors. On the other, it contains just enough bad laughs (especially the ultra-goofy sex scene) to make it the best of a very bad series. If you doubt this, you can also pick up “Underworld Trilogy” (Sony Home Entertainment. $47.95), a set containing all three films, and see for yourself.
A VILLAGE AFFAIR (Acorn Media. $24.99): Hey kids, what would it take to get you interested in a British television adaptation of the Joanna Trollope novel about an heiress who befriends the new couple in town and finds herself increasingly captivated with the unhappy wife, a relationship that eventually becomes the scandalous talk of the town? What if I told you that Keira Knightley was in it? Okay, I guess I should warn you that the film actually stars Kerry Fox and Sophie Ward in the lead roles and that the then-9-year-old Knightley is actually seen in one of her very first roles as one of Ward’s daughters. That said, it is still a fairly well-done drama that manages to be sexy and thoughtful without ever crossing the line into soapy trash. Other TV-related DVD releases for this week include “The Dana Carvey Show” (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.99), “The Jeff Foxworthy Show--The Complete Second Season” (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.94), “Penn & Teller Bullshit: The Complete Sixth Season” (CBS DVD. $29.98), “Seth McFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy” (Fox Home Entertainment. $22.97) and “Two and a Half Men: The Complete Fifth Season” (Warner Home Video. $44.98).
WISE BLOOD (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): At an age when most longtime filmmakers are usually content to either offer slight variations of past successes or hit the Lifetime Achievement award circuit, veteran director John Huston was making some of the finest and most challenging works of his long and distinguished career--“The Man Who Would Be King,” “Under the Volcano,” “Prizzi’s Honor” and “The Dead” among them (and yeah, I know that this period also included the likes of “Phobia,” “Victory“ and “Annie“--why don‘t you just hush up)--and while this 1979 work may be the most obscure of his output during that time, it could well be the best of the bunch. Based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor, this decidedly bizarre satirical drama (for lack of a better term) stars Brad Dourif as a poor and distrustful former GI in a small Georgia town who decides to become a preacher and form his own religion, Ned Beatty as an old timer who thinks he can exploit this newcomer in order to make some money, Harry Dean Stanton as a con man pretending to be a blind preacher and Amy Wright as his daughter, who might be a genuine prophet after all. Impossible to properly summarize, this is the kind of film that is better experienced than explained and even if you wind up disliking it (especially during the extremely dark turn it takes in the last third), it is such a bold and brave work that I guarantee that you will never forget it.
BIG (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98)
BLACK SHEEP (Paramount Home Video. $29.99)
CSI: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (CBS DVD. $89.99)
DODGEBALL (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98)
FARGO (MGM Home Entertainment. $29.99)
FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE (MGM Home Entertainment. $29.98)
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (MGM Home Entertainment. $29.99)
THE GRUDGE (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95)
LICENCE TO KILL (MGM Home Entertainment. $34.98)
MAJOR LEAGUE (Paramount Home Video. $29.99)
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (MGM Home Entertainment. $34.98)
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98)
WAYNE’S WORLD (Paramount Home Video. $29.99)
WAYNE’S WORLD 2 (Paramount Home Video. $29.99)