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DVD Reviews for 6/19: Pencil-Necked Geeks Rejoice

by Peter Sobczynski

Seriously, “Ghostbusters” is 25 years old this week? How in the hell is that even possible? While pondering that question, please enjoy this week’s column, which includes masked murderers, a plethora of cinematic classics and one of the funnier movies that you have most likely never seen.

Back in 1981, playwrights Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn collaborated on a screenplay that was loosely inspired by events that occurred in their lives and consisted entirely of an extended dinner conversation between two recently reunited friends--the worldly dreamer Andre (Gregory) and the far more pragmatic Wally (Shawn)--in which the former discusses the surreal experiences that he has taken part in over the last five years while the latter defends his seemingly ordinary live and explains that there are times when a electric blanket is more significant that total consciousness. Shot in a few days by director Louis Malle, the film became a hit with critics (Siskel & Ebert both named it as the year’s best film) and audiences alike--running for over a year in some theaters--and eventually seeped into the public consciousness as a sort of shorthand description for a certain type of refined art-house cinema product. (It even served as the basis for an exceptionally funny joke on “The Simpsons” in which one of the characters was seen playing a videogame based on the on-screen action.) One person who evidently didn’t respond to its charms was surrealist comedian Andy Kaufman and in response, he decided to make a low-budget spoof of both the film and what he perceived to be its achingly pretentious manner. The result was 1983’s “My Breakfast with Blassie,” a defiantly odd and frequently hilarious work that would also prove to be one of the last major works of one of the most ground-breaking comedians of our time before his untimely passing less than a year after its premiere.

The set-up for the film is essentially the same as that of “My Dinner with Andre”--we come along as Kaufman goes to a restaurant and has a meal and a long conversation with an old acquaintance that covers any number of subjects. This time around, however, the acquaintance is Fred Blassie, famed throughout the world through his career as a wrestler and for his novelty single “Pencil-Neck Geek, the restaurant is a Sambo’s (an actual restaurant chain that was basically like Denny’s with a more racially insensitive name) located in downtown Los Angeles and the topics of conversation revolve around such subjects as wrestling--both Blassie’s legendary career and Kaufman’s then-infamous gigs wrestling ladies (this was filmed after the notorious “Late Night with David Letterman” appearance where he was clocked by wrestler Jerry Lawler and Kaufman wears a filthy neck brace throughout as a result)--hygiene, ordering breakfast and the joys to be had in wandering around hardware stores without actually buying anything. Unlike “My Dinner with Andre,” where the only interloper was the spectral waiter who occasionally drifted by, the conversation here is interrupted by many people. There is the pregnant Asian waitress whose belly Blassie insists on rubbing as if she were a Buddha (when she walks away reasonably charmed by this, he remarks to Kaufman that now they won’t have to tip her as much). Then there is a group of women sitting at the next table who ask them for autographs--Kaufman sheepishly agrees but when Blassie refuses, it sparks a lengthy tirade from him about the invasion of his privacy that peaks when he informs the entire restaurant that he and Blassie are world-famous celebrities and that they just want to be left alone. Towards the end, there is a final intruder who insists on giving Kaufman a couple of things that pretty much break up the meal (not to mention any desire to eat for another day or two). Finally, the two part and Andy gets back on the bus to go home and while riding along, he ponders the significance of his breakfast with Blassie.

Although a title card early on purports that everything that we are about to see actually happened and that the patrons and staff of the restaurant were real people that just happened to be there, most contemporary viewers will quickly realize that some of what is on display has clearly been staged--the more hard-core fans will recognize Kaufman’s girlfriend, Lynn Margulies (played by Courtney Love in “Man on the Moon”) as one of the women at the next table (this is reportedly where the two of them first met) and longtime Kaufman cohort Bob Zmuda as the “Nosey Guy” at the end. And yet, one of the things that is so fascinating about the film even today is that even with that knowledge, it is still hard to determine what is real and what isn’t. For example, although we are supposed to assume that the entire thing is an improvised conversation between Kaufman and Blassie, there are many times when we get the sense that Blassie hasn’t been let in on the joke. Then again, he goes about his storytelling with such garrulous good cheer that he winds up more than holding his own and comes across as a legitimately intriguing personality despite his tactlessness. At the same time, Kaufman seems to be subtly trying to egg Blassie on and when he fails to do that, it drives him to such distraction that he begins acting more and more obnoxious in a failed effort to provoke him. However, there is always the possibility that Blassie was completely in on the joke and that what we are watching is something akin to a wrestling match--a completely scripted and choreographed bit of performance art designed to look as though it is spinning off the rails into chaos. The fact that a 25-year-old movie can still provoke these questions is fascinating and while this may not be the ideal entry point for newcomers to Kaufman’s peculiar brand of humor, those with a taste for bold conceptual humor should get a kick out of it. (Since it is an early example of the kind of humor that Sascha Baron Cohen would later deploy with far more commercial success, I would suggest that anyone who felt that “Borat” was a fount of originality should watch it to see where most of Cohen’s concepts originally came from.)

While “My Breakfast with Blassie” may not be the best-looking DVD that you will see this year--the project was shot very cheaply on video equipment that wasn’t exactly state-of-the-art in 1983 and time hasn’t been very kind to it in the subsequent 2 years--fans of the film and Kaufman will want to pick it up both to have a relatively decent copy of the film and to get a look at the surprisingly hefty number of bonus features on display. “Lost Footage: Andy in the Raw” consists of nearly an hour of deleted scenes, alternate takes and glimpses behind the scenes and while this much raw footage may prove to be a little monotonous to casual viewers, Kaufman buff will likely be overjoyed at the prospect of previously unseen material featuring him. “Bonus Footage: Blassie Graffiti” is a 15-mnute featurette consisting of footage of Fred Blassie taken from throughout his entire career. “Home Movies: Legendary Graffiti” spotlights Johnny Legend, the cult musician/filmmaker who co-directed the film. “Lunch with Lautrec” is a recently shot half-hour conversation between Legend and co-director Linda Lautrec that discusses how the film came to be in the first place. Finally, there is about eight minutes of what appears to be home movie footage shot at the film’s 1983 premiere. Again, for Kaufman fans, this disc is essential and if you don’t like him at all, you should give this a pass. Then again, if you don’t like him at all, why did you read all of this, ya pencil-necked geek?

Written and directed by Linda Lautrec & Johnny Legend. Starring Andy Kaufman and Fred Blassie. 1983. 68 minutes. Unrated. A Video Service Corporation release. $19.99.


THE CELL 2 (New Line Home Entertainment. $27.98): If you sat through “The Cell,” the controversial 2000 film about the hunt for a serial killer that took place largely in the recesses of his twisted mind (which seemed to have been shaped mostly by “edgy” art installations and old R.E.M. videos), and wondered what it would have been like without the admittedly astonishing visual eye of director Tarsem Singh or the presence of Jennifer Lopez, your prayers have been answered. For everyone else, this direct-to-video nonsense--in which a formerly comatose victim of a madman who repeatedly kills and revives his prey uses the psychic powers she developed from her year-long nap to enter her tormentor’s mind and uncover his hidden identity--is just as stupid and pointless as it seems. However, some of the special effects are so laughably awful, especially a botched depiction of an ax attack, that it almost works as inadvertent comedy.

FRIDAY THE 13th--EXTENDED KILLER CUT (New Line Home Entertainment. $35.99): Never entirely certain if it is supposed to be a sequel or a complete series reboot, the latest return to the screen of infamous mad slasher Jason Voorhees just proved to be another hacky horror film, albeit a little more grotesque and unpleasant than most of the recent string of genre remakes that have come along in the last few years. My guess is that longtime fans of the long-running series will be more interested in the other DVDs coming out this week to ride on this title’s coattails. For starters, there are deluxe editions of “Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter” (1984) “Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning” (1985) and “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives” (Paramount Home Video. $16.95 each) that each contain a plethora of extras ranging from the entertaining (including deleted scenes and commentary tracks--the one for “A New Beginning” feature director Danny Steinmann and various members of the cast and crew is exceptionally wild) to the superfluous (making-of featurettes that largely repeat information conveyed in the commentaries) to the utterly useless (more installments of that “Lost Tales from Camp Blood” nonsense that appeared on the previous wave of Jason DVDs and faux news reports covering the aftermath of the carnage). Those of you who prefer to have your gory mayhem presented in highest quality picture and sound will want to pick up the Blu-ray versions of “Friday the 13th Part 2” (1981) and “Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3-D” (1982) (Paramount Home Video. $29.95 each). While “Part 2” doesn’t contain anything that wasn’t previously available on the recent special edition DVD, “Part 3” has been given a new collection of extras that include the original trailer, another installment of that “Lost Tales from Camp Blood” crap and short featurettes on the making of the film, the evolution of Jason’s look and the ongoing appeal of the slasher genre. Unfortunately, the amusing commentary track for the film recorded for the box-set edition that came out a few years ago is nowhere to be heard and the 3-D version of the film included here along with the flat 2-D take is pretty much a headache-inducing wash that you will probably struggle through once and then ignore altogether.

LAST HOLIDAY (The Criterion Collection. $19.99): In this very funny 1950 comedy-drama, Alec Guinness (in one of his great performances) stars as an ordinary man who discovers that he has only a few months left to live, decides to blow his savings on a visit to a fancy resort and becomes involved in the lives of guests and hotel staffers alike. Yes, this was the inspiration for that Queen Latifah film from a couple of years ago and unless you require extra sassiness in your films, this is the superior version by far.

LOST: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON/ LOST: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $69.98 each): Okay, so I tried watching the early episodes of this enormously popular TV series when they first aired on broadcast television and couldn’t make heads or tails out of the damn thing. I then tried again when it came out on DVD and was similarly flummoxed. However, maybe now that the first two seasons are available on Blu-ray, seeing the show in high definition (along with the tons of extras on each set) will clear things up enough so that it all finally begins to make a little sense to a dope like me. At the very least, they will provide many HD-enhanced views of Evangeline Lilly and, to be quite frank, that is more than enough for me. Other TV-related DVDs hitting stores this week include “Everwood: The Complete Second Season” (Warner Home Video. $39.98), “Family Guy, Volume 7” (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98), “Murdoch Mysteries: Season One” (Acorn Media. $59.99), “Saving Grace: Season Two” (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98), “The Secret Life of an American Teenager: Season Two” (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) and “Transformers: The Complete First Season--25th Anniversary Edition” (Shout! Factory. $29.99).

MORNING LIGHT (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): In what appears to have been an attempt to transfer the drama of reality television to the big screen, this 2008 documentary follows 15 novice sailors competing for the chance to crew on the sloop Morning Light in the world-famous Transpac Yacht Race. I won’t say how the competition turns out but as for the movie, it only received a token theatrical release before being dribbled out onto DVD. Yachting enthusiasts may enjoy the shots of the ship on the high seas but other than that, there isn’t much of anything here that would inspire others to give it a look.

THE SEVENTH SEAL (The Criterion Collection. $29.95): Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 allegory on man’s endless search for the meaning of life, embodied here by the adventures of a disillusioned knight (Max von Sydow) whose journey includes visits to many different people and an exceptionally fateful game of chess against Death, is regularly cited as one of the most important movies ever made and in creating this new DVD edition, the folks at Criterion have certainly gone all out--while retaining the Peter Cowie commentary track from the previous edition, they have included an introduction to the film recorded by the late Bergman in 2003, an old audio interview with von Sydow, a video filmography from Cowie tracing Bergman’s career and a 1989 tribute from longtime admirer Woody Allen.
This week also sees the release of “Bergman’s Island” (The Criterion Collection. $19.95), a 2006 documentary from Marie Nyrerod featuring the participation of Bergman himself. Of course, if you buy the Blu-ray version of “The Seventh Seal,” you get both the film and the documentary in the same package.

THE THREE STOOGES VOLUME 6: 1949-1951 (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.98): It is all Shemp all the time in this latest installment of Sony’s program to release all the Stooges shorts in chronological order, which includes such classics as “Self-Made Maids” (in which they play all the roles) and “Scrambled Brains.” Of course, no critical comment I make here will sway anyone’s view of the trio--you either think they are stupid or you have already rushed off to pick this 2-disc set up for yourself--but I will note that while some of the shorts may lack the manic energy of the early classics with Curly (mostly due to advancing age and retreating budgets), these 24 shorts do make a solid argument for the comedic chop of the often underrated Shemp.

TYLER PERRY’S MADEA GOES TO JAIL (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.95): Lacking the quiet dignity and subtle social commentary of “Ernest Goes to Jail,“ the latest effort from the relentlessly prolific Perry finds his popular Madea character tossed into the clink, where she winds up taking a young crack whore (Keshia Knight Pulliam) under her questionable wing. If you haven’t sparked to Perry’s bizarre blend of slapstick and salvation over the course of his previous films, there is nothing here that will change your mind but if you have developed an inexplicable taste for his peculiar brand of goods, you will probably enjoy this one as well and curse me out for not getting it. If this film doesn’t satisfy your need for Perry-related entertainment--and how could it not--this week also sees the release of the latest DVD set of his TV series “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, Volume 4” (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.98).

WHAT GOES UP (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96) In the misfired attempt to recapture the serio-comic vibe of the John Hughes films of the 1980s, Steve Coogan stars as a burned-out journalist sent to a small New Hampshire town to cover the local reaction as one of their own, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, prepares to become the first civilian to ride the Space Shuttle. When he discovers that an old friend of his, another teacher, has committed suicide, he decides to look into the dysfunctional lives of his pal‘s former students, a motley group that includes a budding perv (Josh Peck), an unhappily pregnant girl (Olivia Thirlby) and a seductress (Hilary Duff. . .yes, Hilary Duff) who may have been sleeping with the guy. If you think the mere description of this particular item seems convoluted and unpleasant, it is nothing compared to the film itself.

WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY? (Image Entertainment. $19.98): In one of the earliest films of his long and usually illustrious career, Woody Allen took a mid-Sixties James Bond knock-off from Japan and transformed it into a bizarre comedy by rewriting and redoubling all the dialogue so that it now follows amiable rogue Phil Moscowitz as he tries to track down an all-important egg salad recipe. Needless to say, Allen completely disowns the film these days (perhaps due to the frequent appearances of The Lovin’ Spoonful on the soundtrack and in the movie proper) but as a goofy precursor to the likes of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” it works pretty well today thanks to a number of really inspired lines of “dialogue.” (I love the bit where Moscowitz wakes up, grabs his neck in pain and exclaims “Ow, my leg!”) Because many of the jokes are a bit on the randy side (“I’d call him a sick, sadistic necrophilia but that would be beating a dead horse”), an alternate soundtrack was prepared for television viewings and this DVD offers viewers both tracks to choose from. Alas, it doesn’t include an undoctored version of the film, “Kokusai Himitsu Keisatsu: Kagi No Kagi” (“International Secret Police: Key Of Keys”)--a shame since it looks like a complete blast based on what is shown.

New On

DR. STRANGELOVE (Sony Home Entertainment. $38.96)

FRACTURE (New Line Home Entertainment. $28.95)

GENERATION KILL (HBO Home Video. $79.98)

GHOSTBUSTERS (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95)

JOHN ADAMS (HBO Home Video. $79.98)

KICKBOXER (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.99)

MIRACLE (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.95)

SPACEBALLS (MGM Home Entertainment. $29.99)

STRIKING DISTANCE (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95)

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originally posted: 06/19/09 05:51:12
last updated: 06/19/09 07:47:37
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