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DVD Reviews for 5/29: Mega Rourke Vs. Giant Cuba!

by Peter Sobczynski

Nuns, martyrs, demons, hippies, Christians, strippers, auteurist misfires and a Mega Shark--if you can’t find something of interest here, you just aren’t trying hard enough.

In the filmographies of virtually every well-known filmmaker, there lurks at least one or two titles that failed to make much of an impact with either critics or audiences at the time of their release and which haven’t yet received any kind of substantial reevaluation from film historians Although most people--including the filmmakers themselves, are content to let these misfires fade away, I have always had a fascination with such misbegotten works and often find myself gravitating towards them instead of the better-known films--if I were reading a biography of Billy Wilder, for example, I would go to the section on “Buddy Buddy” long before the ones on “Sunset Boulevard” or “Some Like It Hot.” This week, Warner Home Video has released a quartet of such films (a fifth, Hal Ashby’s 1982 gambling drama “Looking to Get Out” has been rescheduled for a late June release) and while they may admittedly not be amongst the greatest works of their respective filmmakers, each one has some merits and most are deserving of a second look.

First up is “Beyond Rangoon,” John Boorman’s 1995 drama, inspired by real-life events, designed to call attention to the human rights abuses going on in Burma. In the film, Patricia Arquette plays a doctor who descends into a near-catatonic state of grief following the murders of her husband and child. Hoping to snap her out of it, her sister (Frances McDormand) brings her along on a sightseeing tour of Burma. Before long, she is swept up into the brutal nature of the repressive government in charge, befriends a group of students and freedom-fighters as they attempt to make the perilous journey to freedom in Thailand and winds up rejoining the world of the living as a result. At the time it was released, many objected to Arquette’s zombifed performance and while it isn’t one of her best, it isn’t a deal-breaker by any means. (That said, I suspect it might have been more interesting if McDormand had taken on the lead role instead.) Regardless, what makes this movie work today, beyond the fact that the story sadly hasn’t dated at all, is Boorman’s impeccable craftsmanship--his depiction of the jungle is both beautiful and brutal and the basic premise of the story, an outsider arrives at a strange land, attempts to learn the local customs and rules in order to change things and largely fails in the end, fits in nicely with such previous efforts as “Deliverance,” “Zardoz” and “The Emerald Forest.”

Although I would consider David Cronenberg to be the best of the filmmakers covered in this collection of DVD releases, the said truth is that his contribution, 1993’s “M. Butterfly,” is by far the weakest of the lot. When it originally came out, it was largely assumed that this adaptation of the award-winning David Henry Hwang play, in which diplomat Jeremy Irons throws everything in his life away in his erotic pursuit of a Chinese opera diva who has a couple of secrets up her sleeves (such as the fact that “she” is played by John Lone), failed because it was released a few months after the superficially similar “The Crying Game.” Alas, the real problem is that, unlike his other adaptations of other people’s work, Cronenberg never figures out a way to make the material truly his--this is by far the most anonymous work of his career and the only one that could have been made by any other director with little difference in the end results. It isn’t a complete washout--the performance from Irons is fairly magnificent and many of the scenes are well-done on an individual level--but it is the least necessary film to date from one of our most necessary directors.

Perhaps best remembered today in certain quarters for its unwarranted inclusion in the book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time” (along with the likes of “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” “Ivan the Terrible” and “Last Year at Marienbad”), 1970’s “Zabriskie Point” came into being when Michelangelo Antonioni, then riding high on the international success of his still-baffling “Blow Up,” was hired by MGM to come to America and make virtually anything that he wanted to make--they didn’t understand “Blow Up” either but they knew it made money and if he could do that, they wanted to be in business with them. One can only begin to imagine how they reacted when they finally saw what he gave them--a strange and bitter indictment of American society in which a campus radical (Mark Frechette) on the run for allegedly killing a cop during a student riot and a with-it secretary (Daria Halprin) meet cute in Death Valley and spend the day doing hippieish things before returning to face their respective fates in an orgy of violence, explosions and orgies. Unfortunately for Antonioni, he was preceded by any number of anti-establishment films and when this was finally released, he was excoriated for wasting everyone’s time and $7 million of MGM’s money. This is definitely a problematic film in many ways--the screenplay (featuring contributions from Sam Shepard) is virtually non-existent, the two leads were clearly cast for their physical beauty as opposed to the dramatic and the social observations on display are of the kind usually made by seventh-graders who aren’t especially quick on the uptake. And yet, if you can ignore all of that--and that is a bit of a chore--this is still a pretty amazing film in some ways. Visually, it is always extraordinary and contains some of the most striking compositions found in any of his films. The soundtrack is also pretty impressive--Antonioni was able to solicit tracks from many of the key bands of the era, such as Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead. There are also some stunning individual scenes as well--the Death Valley orgy may strike some as silly at first but it soon becomes a thing of abstract beauty and the infamous finale in which a lavishly appointed house, Antonioni’s crude symbol for America’s material waste, is repeatedly blown to smithereens to the strains of Pink Floyd, is one of those things that you will never forget (and may have served as an inspiration for the similarly explosive finale of Brian De Palma’s “The Fury” with John Cassavettes playing the role of the house).

Alas, the most intriguing title of the bunch is the one that I have not yet been able to screen for myself and that would be “Revolution: Revisited,” a recut version of “Revolution,” the 1985 Revolutionary War epic that helped stall the careers of star Al Pacino (who stayed away from the screen for four years after this one flopped) and director Hugh Hudson (whose career never recovered from this stumble despite having made the Oscar-winning smash “Chariots of Fire” only four years earlier). Back then, the film, in which Pacino plays a trapper reluctantly dragged into the American Revolution when his young son is conscripted into the Continental army, was kind of a mess filled with miscast actors (including Nastassja Kinski as a socialite who takes up the cause and begins an on-off affair with Pacino and Donald Sutherland as a sadistic British general), an incoherent plot and a plodding pace. Over the years, Hudson has claimed that in the rush to make his Oscar-qualifying release date, he never had a chance to properly finish the film. To that end, he has gone back and reedited the entire thing into a version that runs 10 minutes shorter and even managed to convince Pacino to come in and record a new narration meant to clarify things further. I’m not sure if these changes will completely help as some of the flaws--such as Pacino’s silly accent--can’t be fixed with just a trim or two. However, I am curious to check out this new edition to see how it works and besides, even in its original version, I’d take it over “The Patriot” any day of the week.

A Warner Home Video release. $19.98 each


AU BONHEUR DES DAMES (Facets Video. $39.95 ): Generally regarded as one of the last masterpieces of French silent film, this 1930 adaptation of the Emilie Zola novel from director Julien Duvivier (who later went on to make such classics as “Pepe le Moko” and “Flesh and Fantasy”) stars screen icon Dita Parlo as a sweet young orphan who comes to Paris in order to work in the small shop owned by her uncle. However, she winds up taking a job instead at the big new department store (a novelty at the time) that opens up across the street in the hopes of driving out all of its competitors. Although it has been largely forgotten in recent years, this is a fascinating film to watch today--partly because of its stunning visual style, partly because of the always-compelling presence of Parlo and partly because the story still resonates strongly today.

THE DEVIL’S TOMB (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): Having spent years working as an actor in such classics as “Wishmaster 3,” “Mary-Kate and Ashley In Action!” and “Smallville,” Jason Connery--yes, the nephew of Neil--branches out into directing with another direct-to-video item starring Cuba Gooding Jr. This time around, Gooding plays the leader of an elite military unit who leads his men on a mission to find a scientist who disappeared while working on a top-secret archaeological dig in the Middle East and who eventually run across some form of ancient evil waiting to be released into the world. Speaking of that, when the hell is Paramount going to bite the bullet and release Michael Mann’s superficially similar 1983 horror film “The Keep” on DVD?

DIANA KRALL: LIVE IN RIO (Eagle Rock Entertainment. $24.98): Filmed last November, this concert video catches the Bride of Elvis (Costello) performing an assortments of standards and original tunes from her bossa nova-inspired album “Quiet Nights” in the land that originated the bossa nova. In other news, I think I may have found the ideal Father’s Day present for my dad--thankfully, he doesn’t read this column.

FALLING DOWN (Warner Home Video. $19.98)
: Even after all these years, this 1993 drama in which Michael Douglas stars as a seemingly normal Everyman type who snaps and goes on a day-long rampage of violence is an incredibly frustrating experience. For roughly the first two-thirds, director Joel Schumacher (in one of his best efforts) effectively mines the material for suspense and dark humor and gets a gripping and scarily convincing performance from Douglas. Unfortunately, the film completely falls apart in the last couple of reels by turning into a standard psycho-killer movie and by trying to suggest that Douglas was nutso all along instead of being an ordinary man pushed to the breaking point.

HARLAN ELLISON: DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH (Docurama. $26.95): The legendarily cranky author is the subject of this fairly interesting documentary that looks at his life and a career that has included such highlights as co-writing one of the most hilariously awful films ever made (the 1966 classic “The Oscar”), penning what may be the most famous “Star Trek” episode of all time (“The City on the Edge of Forever”) and antagonizing countless individuals in the film and publishing worlds over the years. Adding additional commentary are such high-profile friends as Ron Moore, Neil Gaiman and, I fear, Robin Williams.

INQUIRING NUNS (Facets Video. $29.95): In this absolutely fascinating documentary from 1968, a pair of young nuns wander the streets of Chicago and ask those that they run into along the way--an eclectic group that includes hippies, sociologists and even Stepin Fetchit--the simple question “Are you happy?” and record the responses ranging from touching to tragic to hilarious. An excellent early effort from Kartemquin Films, the Chicago-based production group that eventually helped produce a little thing called “Hoop Dreams,” that serves as a fascinating snapshot of a bygone era while still feeling as fresh and vital as it presumably did when it was made.

KILLSHOT [i[(The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.99): Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, this suspense drama stars Diane Lane and Thomas Jane as a couple who witness a botched mob hit and are placed into the Witness Relocation program for their own safety--unfortunately for them, the killer in question (Mickey Rourke in another compellingly strange performance) doesn’t like leaving loose ends and, along with his psychotic sidekick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he sets off in pursuit of them. If you are wondering why you haven’t heard of this film before, it is because it was another in a long line of films that Harvey Weinstein decided to “improve” with an endless series of recuts (including the removal of an entire character played by Johnny Knoxville) and helped delay its release for nearly three years before it was finally dribbled out in a few theaters in Arizona last January. The hell of it is that it isn’t that bad of a movie--the worst thing about it is that you can tell that it has been messed around with throughout.

LABOU (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98): The winner of the top prize at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, this animated item tells the story of a trio of young friends who venture into the swamps of Louisiana in search of the lost treasure of the feared Captain LeRouge and wind up encountering a friendly swamp creature, a father-and-son duo bent on destroying the swamp in order to drill for oil and the ghost of Captain LeRouge himself.

MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS (Asylum Home Entertainment. $24.95): With a title like that, do I honestly need to say anything more? Well, I probably should mention the fact that it stars Lorenzo Lamas, Deborah Gibson and, judging from the trailer that has been making the online rounds over the last few weeks, two of the silliest CGI creatures ever created for entertainment purposes. Needless to say, I cannot wait to get my hands on this one and now that the Red Wings have defeated the Black Hawks, I am totally rooting for Mega Shark to kick Giant Octopus’ ass.

THE MOD SQUAD: SEASON 2, VOLUME 2 (CBS DVD. $39.98): Everyone’s favorite made-for-TV hippies, Linc, Pete and Julie, return to DVD with another 13 episodes of the famous cop show that finds them. . .sorry, I was too busy gawking at the glory that was late 60’s Peggy Lipton to actually notice the plots, except for the one where Sammy Davis Jr. turns up as an ex-addict whose job at a halfway house is at risk when he is accused of statutory rape. Other TV-related items hitting DVD this week include “The Closer: The Complete Fourth Season” (Warner Home Video. $39.98), “Designing Women: The Complete First Season” (Shout! Factory. $44.99), “Gunsmoke: Season 3, Volume 2” (CBS DVD. $36.98), “The Invisibles: Series 1” (Acorn Media. $39.99), “Land of the Lost: The Complete Series (Universal Home Entertainment. $59.98), “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit--The Eighth Year” (Universal Home Entertainment. $59.98) and “Murder Most English” (Acorn Media. $49.99).

NEW IN TOWN (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.95): Whatever residual audience goodwill that Renee Zellweger was still maintaining from the days of “Jerry Maguire” was squandered once and for all on this unspeakably awful “Local Hero” rip-off in which she played a Miami-based corporate type who is sent off to the frigid wilds of Minnesota to supervise the closing of a plant and winds up developing a fondness for all the slack-jawed Marge Gunderson wannabes in town in general and surly local dope Harry Connick Jr. in particular. There have been plenty of dreadful romantic comedies to emerge so far this year (such as “Bride Wars,” “Confessions of a Shopaholic” and “He’s Just Not That Into You”) but this one remains the worst of the lot to date.

POWDER BLUE (Image Entertainment. $27.98): Destined to go down in screen history, at least in certain quarters, as the film in which uber-hottie Jessica Biel appeared naked for the first time, this miserable and often ludicrous rip-off of the likes of “Magnolia” and “Crash” follows the lives of a group of disparate-but-miserable souls (including cancer-ridden Ray Liotta, emotionally traumatized stripper Biel, suicidal ex-priest Forest Whittaker and a bizarrely bewigged Patrick Swayze) who wind up crossing each others paths in unexpected and uninteresting ways. Trust me, not even the celebrity nudity is enough to make it worth slogging through this pretentious dud.

THE PRINCESS OF NEBRASKA/A THOUSAND YEARS OF GOOD PRAYERS (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $29.98): After spending the last few years making a string of increasingly bland and formulaic studio pictures (including “Anywhere But Here,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Last Holiday”), Wayne Wang returned to his roots by making these two indie dramas in tandem dealing with the contemporary Chinese experience in America--the former revolves around a Chinese-born college student who puts a hold on her studies and moves from Nebraska to San Francisco when she discovers she is pregnant and while the later deals with a 40-something woman who moves from China to America to make a fresh start only to be confronted by he past when her recently divorced father comes to visit. While neither of these films come close to approaching Wang’s best work, such as “Chan Is Missing” and “Smoke,” but they are more deeply felt than anything he has done in a while and they beat the likes of “Maid in Manhattan” like a gong.

QUO VADIS (Facets Video. $24.95): If you are familiar with this Biblical epic, it is likely from watching the well-known, if slightly boring, 1951 version that featured a cheerfully over-the-top performance from Peter Ustinov as Nero and not much else. If you liked that one (or even if you didn’t), you might want to give this 4 ½ hour Polish-language version from 2002, one of the most expensive movies in that country’s history and the final work of acclaimed director Jerzy Kawalerowicz, a try. Even though it runs nearly twice the length of the 1951 version, it has a much better pace and some of the images on display are fairly spectacular to boot.

THE REAL JOAN OF ARC (Facets Video. $39.95): Long before column favorites Milla Jovovich and Luc Besson teamed up to make the glorious and sadly underrated “The Messenger,” I have had this strange interest with movies about the life and martyrdom of Joan of Arc, though I have never had much interest in her as a historical figure. That said, I was pretty much fascinated with this 2008 French documentary that looks back on her life and suggests that perhaps she wasn’t burned at the stake after all.

New On

CHILDREN OF MEN (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98)

CINDERELLA MAN (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98)

FIELD OF DREAMS (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98)

INSIDE MAN (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98)

ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (Warner Home Video. $28.99)

SEABISCUIT (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98)

SKY CRAWLERS (Sony Home Entertainment. $27.96)

SPY GAME (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98)

TRUE ROMANCE (Warner Home Video, $28.99)

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originally posted: 05/29/09 05:24:04
last updated: 05/29/09 06:29:50
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