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DVD Reviews For 7/3: Milla In, Nash Out!

by Peter Sobczynski

Although you should make time during this holiday weekend to sit down and watch the greatest 4th of July-themed film ever made, a little thing called “Jaws,” there are plenty of other things available this week to watch as well--a new DVD release of one of the great films of our time, the latest Uwe Boll joint, fenderheaded action extravaganzas, a couple of things for the kids and even an early appearance by the one and only Ms. Jovovich.

It seems almost impossible to believe but it was 20 years ago this week that “Do the Right Thing,” the incendiary third feature film from Spike Lee, made its tumultuous debut in theaters. From the moment it made its world premiere at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, this observation of a street in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and how the seething racial tensions among its wildly mixed populace eventually explode over the course of the hottest day of the year, the film courted controversy--at the Cannes press conference after its debut, Lee was asked flat-out if he felt it would inspire riots and American critics like David Denby expressed similar fears that it would incite viewers (well, African-American viewers) to violence. Even today, it remains a powerful moviegoing experience and one of the crowing achievements of contemporary American cinema. To commemorate this anniversary, Universal Home Entertainment is issuing “Do the Right Thing: 20th Anniversary Edition,” a two-disc set that ports over some of the key supplements from the elaborate version issued by Criterion a few years ago--a commentary track featuring Lee, co-star Joie Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson and production designer Wynn Thomas, an hour of behind-the-scenes footage shot by Lee during the film’s production, an hour-long making-of documentary and footage of that tumultuous Cannes press conference--along with a newly recorded commentary from Lee, a reunion Q&A featuring members of the cast and crew and about 15 minutes worth of deleted scenes.

As a public service, let me offer up a few reasons as to why this film continues to maintain its power and vitality more than two decades after its release and why you should make plans to see it immediately if you have somehow never gotten around to seeing it before.

1. Although he would go on to make any number of interesting movies (as well as a few inexplicable clunkers as well), “Do the Right Thing” shows Lee at the peak of his artistic powers. This film is a high-wire act from start to finish and even the tiniest misstep could have turned it into either a mawkish plea for everyone to get along or an ugly collection of caricatures that could have inspired legitimate anger from moviegoers of all backgrounds. Happily, he never makes a single false step and the result is a genuine provocation that forces everyone who sees it to reconsider their own positions and prejudices.

2. Throughout his career, Lee has been known as a director cheerfully willing to make bold stylistic choices--some of them brilliant (the “Baba O’Reilly” montage in “Summer of Sam”) and some questionable (the bizarrely distorted visuals on display during an extended sequence in “Crooklyn”). “Do the Right Thing” is filled with such devices, ranging from the dramatic visual scheme provided by Dickerson throughout to the nervy mid-film pause in which a wide variety of people give voice to their inner prejudices via a rapid-fire montage that is alternately humorous and horrifying--and they all somehow work perfectly. I suppose that if he had wanted to, Lee could have easily told this story in a manner far more direct and far less flamboyant but if he had, we probably would still be talking about it today.

3. Although times have changed in the last 20 years, most notably in regards to the current occupant of the White House (who took his future bride to see this film on their very first date, it is said), the film is just as relevant in its observations about contemporary race relations today as it was back in 1989.

4. It is just so damn entertaining to watch. Most people writing about the film tend to get hung up on the racial politics and forget the significant fact that it is a blast to watch. It is a colorful and vibrant slice of life filled with energy, great performances and lots of humor before things turn darker in the final reels. And yet, when the tone does begin to shift, he pulls it off in such a way that you don’t even realize that the characters have gone beyond the point of no return until it is too late.

5. The ending of the film, which I won’t describe on the off chance that you haven’t yet seen the film, is extraordinary in the way that it still inspires passionate arguments even today. Instead of lecturing viewers on how they are supposed to react to the events that they have just witnessed, Lee forces them to examine what they have seen and come to those conclusions for themselves. By refusing to give viewers any easy answers, this forces them to engage with the material in a more direct way than they might have otherwise by debating with themselves and others about what they have seen.

6. Frankly, the film has giving me more material to work with than “The Karate Kid 3” or “Great Balls of Fire,” the two would-be blockbusters that came out on the same day as “Do the Right Thing” and which were supposed to leave it in the dust in the eyes of many industry observers. BTW--when was the last time you gave any thought to “The Karate Kid 3” or “Great Balls of Fire”?

7. It gave us “Fight the Power,” the electrifying anthem from Public Enemy that served as the film’s theme song and would go on to become one of the all-time great rap songs.

8. It gave us Rosie Perez, the one-time Fly Girl who would go on to become one of the more reliably entertaining actresses of our time. More importantly, it helped inspire two decades of memorable talk show appearances from Ms Perez, who can liven up even the dullest panel with her irrepressible nature.

9. It serves as yet another reminder that the greatest films are rarely recognized as such in their time. Although many felt that it would win the top prize at Cannes that year, it lost out to “sex, lies and videotape”--a decision that led Lee to allegedly offer to introduce jury foreman Wim Wenders to the business end of a baseball bat. Later on, when that year’s Oscar nominations came out, it only received nominations for Best Original Screenplay (where it lost to “Dead Poets Society”) and Best Supporting Actor for Danny Aiello (who lost to Denzel Washington for “Glory”). The Best Picture winner that year? “Driving Miss Daisy,” a film whose rose-colored view of race relations would have seemed utterly alien to the characters in “Do the Right Thing.”

10. Deep down, I suspect that the film still scares the piss out of David Denby and that is always a good thing.

Written and directed by Spike Lee. Starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez and John Turturro. 1989. 120 minutes. Rated R. A Universal Home Entertainment release. $19.98.


12 ROUNDS (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): On the surface, the premise of this action flick--lunkhead New Orleans cop John Cena is forced to undertake a number of increasingly implausible tasks at the behest of a disgruntled Irish terrorist (Aidan Gillen) because he was vaguely involved in the death of the guy’s girlfriend while arresting him a year earlier--sounds like it is right up director Renny Harlin’s alley (even if it does essentially turn out to be little more than a bald-faced rip-off of “Die Hard With a Vengeance”) but it contains none of the grubby glee, excitement or even the creative violence found in his best work, such as “Die Hard 2“ or “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.” Despite consisting almost entirely of one action sequence after another, a sense of weariness and exhaustion permeates virtually every scene and Harlin never manages to snap either himself or his film out of their respective doldrums. (Granted, he isn’t helped much by his star, who appears to have studied acting under the tutelage of Kathy Ireland--no matter the situation, the only emotion he can offer is dull surprise.) For fans of old-school action epics, it is hard to know what is more depressing--the fact that Harlin, formerly one of the top dogs in the action field, is now reduced to making vanity projects for the WWE’s film division or the fact that he can’t even seem to pull something like that off anymore.

THE BETRAYED (MGM Home Entertainment. $26.98): In this direct-to-video thriller, Melissa George plays a woman who wakes up in a warehouse after a car accident with a thug telling her that if she ever wants to see her child again, she will help him recover millions of dollars in drug money stolen by her heroin dealer husband. Making this slightly difficult is the fact that she has no idea of what the guy is talking about and the possibility that he may have actually grabbed the wrong woman.

DARK STREETS (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): In this exceedingly odd little film--imagine a cross between “Streets of Fire,” “The Cotton Club” and the Enron scandal--Gabriel Mann plays a struggling 1930’s nightclub owner who finds his life and business in jeopardy when he decides to investigate the mysterious death of his wealthy and powerful father and uncovers a web of corruption spreading to the highest corridors of power and which seems to involve everyone he knows from old flame Bijou Phillips to new squeeze Izabella Miko). Although enormously flawed--the story is predictable to the extreme and there is perhaps no actor out there less suited to play a noir anti-hero than Mann--the sheer strangeness of the whole enterprise, not to mention its lavish style and array of beautiful women dancing around in period lingerie should be enough to make it worth a look for curiosity seekers.

THE HUMAN CONTRACT (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): Apparently having put that rock band nonsense to the side, Jada Pinkett Smith expands her artistic horizons by writing, directing and co-starring in this drama about a straight-laced corporate type (Jason Clarke) whose entire world is turned topsy-turvy when he meets and becomes obsessed with a seductive stranger (Paz Vega). I don’t want to come right out and say that the film is pretty much a failure on all counts but the cover art for the DVD is far more compelling and erotic than anything in the movie proper.

THE JONAS BROTHERS CONCERT EXPERIENCE (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.95): No doubt launched into production approximately five minutes after the record-breaking release of the 3-D Hannah Montana concert movie, the freakishly popular pop trio run through some of their biggest hits before adoring crowds (most of whom will presumably be embarrassed by the entire thing in a few years) and with the help of fellow tween icons Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift (who was dating one of them at the time--sadly, the relationship couldn’t survive the theatrical-to-DVD window). Both the DVD and the Blu-ray editions feature an extended version of the film (you heard me, parents--it is now longer than before), a couple of additional bonus songs and a brief behind-the-scenes featurette offering a further glimpse of the brothers on tour. Of course, to get the full experience--the “full experience” in this case being a 3-D version of the film and a set of four cardboard glasses--Blu-ray is the way to go.

PARKER LEWIS CAN’T LOSE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Shout! Factory. $49.99): Wait a second! Who is that playing the new girl in school in the pilot episode for the “Ferris Bueller” knock-off that became a cult favorite when it aired on the then-fledgling Fox Network back in the early Nineties? It might be. . .it could be. . .it is none other than the one and only Milla Jovovich in an early performance. As a result, this DVD set automatically becomes essential viewing for one and all--and yeah, the rest of the show was pretty good as well (at least until Fox ironed out all the oddball touches in the third season in a move that caused its small but passionate audience to abandon it in droves). Other TV-related DVD sets on sale this week include “Apollo 11: A Night to Remember” (Acorn Media. $24.95), “Blue Murder: Set 4” (Acorn Media. $39.95), “Eastbound & Down: The Complete First Season” (HBO Home Video. $29.98), “Entourage: The Complete Fifth Season” (HBO Home Video. $39.98), “Number 10” (Acorn Media. $49.99) and “The Secret Diary of a Call Girl: Season 2” (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.98).

PRINCESS PROTECTION PROGRAM (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.95): In a film that will no doubt equally delight 10-year-old girls, middle-aged perverts and Disney stockholders praying for a new phenomenon now that “High School Musical” appears to be over for the moment (assuming that these groups are mutually exclusive, of course), real-life best pals/Disney stablemates Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez star in this wacky comedy about a princess (Lovato) who is relocated into the home of a normal small-town girl (Gomez) after her country is overthrown with the expected results--she becomes more of a regular person while the other girl gets to unleash her inner princess. For those in the mood for such a thing--imagine “Missing” with a fun touch--the DVD includes a featurette on the legendary friendship between Lovato and Gomez and a music video featuring the two of them tackling a song that sounds suspicious like a Hannah Montana reject. I have only one question about this utterly innocuous film--why is it that it is rated “G” in the US but rated “PG” in Canada?

SEA BEAST (Genius Products. $14.95): If you make it through the entire “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” set (as opposed to simply putting the pilot episode on an endless loop), you may find yourself wondering whatever happened to star Corin Nemec. By an amazing coincidence, he turns up here in this direct-to-video extravaganza in which he helps defend a fishing village--and presumably the world, by extension--from an attack by creatures with the ability to turn invisible whenever the budget needs lowering.

STREET FIGHTER--THE LEGEND OF CHUN LI (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): On the one hand, this big-screen version of the popular video game franchise is as bad as any other such adaptation (at least those not featuring Milla Jovovich in any capacity) and for many of he same reasons--it is sloppily made, badly miscast (unless you find it easy to believe in the sight of Kristen Kruek as some kind of martial-arts queen) and boring beyond belief. On the other hand, Chris Klein turns in a supporting performance as a tough-as-nails cop that is so hilariously overwrought that it almost makes the whole thing worth seeing just to bask in its screwball glory for yourself.

TOKYO (Liberation Entertainment. $24.95): In the tradition of “Paris, je t‘aime” or “New York Stories,” this anthology film brings together three internationally acclaimed filmmakers to offer up short stories set in the title city--of course, by recruiting such decidedly unique talents as Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), Joon-ho Bong (“The Host”) and Leos Carax (“The Lovers on the Bridge” and “Pola X”), the results are slightly stranger than usual. Although admittedly uneven, like most films of this type, it is worth checking out for Carax’s bizarre take on the monsters-attack-Japan motif in which a strange man (Carax regular Denis Lavant) emerges from the underground tunnels to wreak havoc among the populace.

TUNNEL RATS (Vivendi Entertainment. $26.99): The infamous Uwe Boll breaks away from videogame adaptations for this Vietnam War epic about a band of American soldiers who are charged with infiltrating an elaborate tunnel system devised by the Vietcong and killing or capturing anyone that they find, only to find themselves being picked off one by one through an array of grisly booby traps. While I must admit that I haven’t yet seen this film, I should point out that I have seen some reviews from those who have that suggest that it is a step up from his usual nonsense and is actually a relatively tense and gripping thriller.

TWO LOVERS (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $29.98): In the latest film from James Gray (“The Yards” and “We Own the Night”), Joaquin Phoenix plays a somewhat troubled young man who finds himself equally drawn to two very different women--a sweet, normal and down-to-earth type (Vinessa Shaw) and a wildly impulsive type with her own set of problems (Gwyneth Paltrow). While there are some good things on display here--Gray has a good eye for presenting a convincingly low-key atmosphere and Shaw turns in a very nice performance in the least developed role--they are overshadowed by the epically bad miscasting of Phoenix and Paltrow, neither of whom are convincing for a single second. Yes, this is the film that Phoenix was supposed to be pushing when he made that freakish talk show appearance opposite David Letterman and no, that bit of instant TV history is nowhere to be found on this DVD--instead, the extras consist of a commentary with Gray, some deleted scenes and a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

UNDEFEATABLE (Henstooth Video. $19.95): In this 1993 martial-arts extravaganza that has gone on to become some kind of underground classic among bad film buffs (so underground, in fact, that I had never even heard of it until reader Ryan Kenner dropped me a line asking why I neglected to cover it when it hit DVD a couple of weeks ago), Cynthia Rothrock plays a gangbanger-turned-waitress who goes back into the world of street fighting in order to raise the necessary funds to send her younger sister to medical school. Unfortunately, her sister is brutally murdered and she goes out in pursuit of her killer, a psychotic kung-fu master who inexplicably stores the eyeballs of his victims in a fish tank. Like I said, I have not seen this film but based on the description (not to mention the clips that can be found on YouTube), you can be sure that I will keep an eye out for it.

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originally posted: 07/02/09 03:46:17
last updated: 07/02/09 04:05:48
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