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DVD Reviews for 7/17: Telling You About The Rabbit.

by Peter Sobczynski

Tom Smothers tap-dancing, Keira Knightley taking a bath with Sienna Miller, Leelee Sobieski wielding a cleaver, $240 worth of pudding and Kristin Cavallari trying to act--these are just some of the things highlighted in this week's column.

Before getting on the usual nonsense, I would like to take a moment to touch on an entirely unrelated subject. One of my critical colleagues in Chicago, Nathan Rabin, the head writer for the “A.V. Club” section of “The Onion,” has just published his first book, ”The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture” (Simon & Schuster. $25.00), a fascinating look at a life saved, shaped and skewed by the seemingly disposable artifacts of contemporary popular culture from someone who has experienced it both as an observer nand as a participant. Unfortunately, while discussing one exceptionally surreal episode of his career, he briefly alludes (right there on page 230) to my own brief participation in it, something so silly and personally shameful (though not as silly and shameful as they would eventually become, as I learned after reading further) that I have hardly even alluded to it in the ensuing years to anyone other than a couple of family members and a couple of exceptionally close friends. Therefore, I am in the process of gathering my legal hounds together for the purpose of suing Mr. Rabin back into the Stone Age with the added demand that every copy of the book be pulped at the hands of legendary entertainment journalist Zorianna Kit. Of course, the wheels of justice turn slowly so while I go about getting all of my legal ducks in order, you should probably rush out and grab a copy--it is a fun read and if my suit holds up, your copy could be worth a lot of money one day.

And now, back to the usual nonsense. . .

Although it may seem as though every film ever made has made the DVD rounds at least once--I just got an announcement about a 2-disc 10th Anniversary edition of “The Tigger Movie”--the truth is that there are thousands of films out there that have yet to see the light of day in the format--in many cases, they never even earned a VHS or laserdisc release either. We aren’t just talking no-name duds here--many of these movies feature some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, though for the most part not in the roles that made them famous. The problem is that while there are a number of cineastes out there who would love to see these long-forgotten films, the reality for the studios is that whatever money that they might earn in sales of such titles would be eaten up by the expense of preparing even a bare-bones edition for DVD and the added costs of releasing and promoting them. Recently, however, some studios (perhaps realizing that they can’t simply re-release the same classic titles ad infinitum) have begun looking at creative ways of getting some of these titles to consumers by streaming them online or by licensing them to smaller video companies that would be able to give them more attention (as which happened last year when Paramount licensed a number of titles to Legend Films). A few months ago, Warner Home Video began the Warner Archive Collection, an ambitious program in which they are slowly making available their previously unreleased titles through a system in which one orders a title directly from their website for $19.95 and it is pressed and sent out on an individual basis instead of going through normal retail channels. Currently, there are a couple of hundred titles available--with around twenty new titles introduced each month--spanning the studio’s entire history.

Granted, the DVDs are bare bones and they haven’t received the lavish remastering of their more highly publicized titles but for those eager to replace ancient VHS tapes or questionable bootlegs with something a bit more presentable. More importantly, it allows film buffs to finally fill in some conspicuous holes in their collections. For example, Francis Ford Coppola’s haunting road movie “The Rain People” (1968) and Robert Altman’s space drama “Countdown” were among the initial wave of titles made available. Fans of old musicals were no doubt thrilled to finally be able to own a copy of the obscure Busby Berkley/Al Jolson fantasia “Wonder Bar” (the trailer for which was one of the most talked-about portions of that massive “Jazz Singer” set from a couple of years ago. From a personal standpoint, I was delighted to see that two of the favorite films of my wildly misspent youth--the Peter Fonda-Susan Saint James musical chase film “Outlaw Blues” and the wild Alan Arkin-James Caan buddy cop comedy “Freebie and the Bean.” However, the most significant Archive title from my admittedly skewed perspective is “Get to Know Your Rabbit,” a largely forgotten comedy that was briefly released in 1972 to little acclaim and which would no doubt be completely forgotten today if it weren’t for the fact that it marked the major studio debut of a promising indie filmmaker by the name of Brian De Palma.

At the time, De Palma was considered an up-and-coming young director based on the strength of “Greetings” (1968) and “Hi Mom!” (1970), a pair of outrageous counter-culture satires that he made with a then-unknown actor by the name of Robert De Niro. Although neither one was a huge commercial hit, they attracted the notice of the studios, who were then desperate to cash in on the youth market that made “Easy Rider” such a surprise success, and he was hired by Warner Brothers to make what was clearly meant to be a similar film, only with a larger budget and more familiar actors. In the film, Tom Smothers plays Donald Beeman, an ordinary office drone who hates wasting away his days in the corporate world and especially hates his loathsome boss, Mr. Turnbull (John Astin). One day, he finally musters up the nerve to quit his job, studies the art of prestidigitation under the tutelage of the mysterious Mr. Delassandro (Orson Welles) and decides to make his living as a tap-dancing magician. For a while, Donald is happy with his decision to drop out of society--especially once he meets the fabulous babe known as The Terrific-Looking Girl (Katherine Ross)--but things change when he encounters the now-destitute Mr. Turnbull. Watching Donald’s act, Turnbull figures out a way to once again exploit him by building another corporation off of his magic work that leaves him feeling as trapped and alienated as he was before dropping out.

Unfortunately for De Palma, his first experience within the studio system was not a pleasant one--he argued with both his star, whose concerns about his own abilities to carry a feature film were transposed onto his director, and the studio, which didn’t like his more off-beat stylistic choices and hated his idea for an ending (in which Donald would destroy the corporation that had been built upon him by performing a trick on national TV that makes it appear that he has bloodily mutilated a cute bunny rabbit--and he would eventually be fired and replaced by a studio functionary who shot a day’s worth of footage and changed the ending to something more “acceptable” (a.k.a. completely forgettable) and even after that, it would sit on a shelf for two years before its brief theatrical release.. Needless to say, it is arguably the weakest work of his entire career and would be his last attempt at flat-out comedy until 1986’s underrated “Wise Guys.” (He wouldn’t work at Warner Brothers again until he was hired to direct “Bonfire of the Vanities,” another broad social satire that was beset with massive studio interference.) And yet, while most viewers will find it to be dated and not especially interesting, fans of De Palma will most likely find some interest in this particular title--one that they have no doubt heard about but which haven’t had a chance to see. For starters, it is interesting to watch De Palma gradually developing the visual style that he would become famous for in his later work--although not as slick as his future efforts, you do get to see him playing around with the form in admittedly arresting ways. While he obviously didn’t get along with Smothers particularly well, he does get fine performances from John Astin (who is pretty hysterical throughout) and Orson Welles (at a time when he was blatantly coasting from one paycheck gig to the next, Welles actually seems to have respected De Palma enough to turn in a focused and energetic turn instead of simply going through the motions). Most intriguingly, it is kind of amusing and fascinating to see a young filmmaker trying to break into the studio system with a film that is largely an attack on the corporate mindset that would eventually grow to dominate Hollywood over the next couple of decades. Since De Palma would essentially do the same thing in his own career that his lead character does here--abandon the corporate world to march to the beat of his own drummer by switching to the suspense genre that would afford him his greatest success--it is tempting to look upon “Get to Know Your Rabbit” as the cinematic bloody rabbit that would eventually help him buy his freedom.

Written by Jordan Crittenden. Directed by Brian De Palma. Starring Tom Smothers, John Astin, Katherine Ross and Orson Welles. 1972. 91 minutes. Rated R. A Warner Home Video release. $19.95


12 (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.96): Hey kids, who wants to watch another version of that dramatic warhorse “12 Angry Men”? Who wants to watch another version of that dramatic warhorse “12 Angry Men” that runs a full hour longer than the 1957 original? Finally, who wants to watch a version of “12 Angry Men” that runs an hour longer than the original film and is in Russian to boot? If the answer to all of these questions is “§Õ§Ñ §Õ§Ñ, §ä§í§ã§ñ§é§Ñ §Ó§â§Ö§Þ§Ö§ß §Õ§Ñ,” then you will want to check out Nikita Mikhalkov’s take on the tale, this time focusing on a group of Russian jurors debating the fate of a Chechen boy on trial for killing his stepfather. As these things go, it isn’t too bad but the various additions to the material (such as the boy flashing back to horrible moments from his war-torn youth) don’t really add much to the storyline.

[REC] (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): Seen entirely through the viewpoint of a TV news camera, an ambitious young reporter tagging along with a crew of firefighters on a distress call to an old apartment building finds herself quarantined inside along with the residents as they succumb one by one to a mysterious force that transforms them into hideous zombie-like creatures. If you are thinking to yourself that this sounds exactly like last year’s “Quarantine,” that is because this is the original Spanish-language version that Sony bought and then shelved in order to pursue an English-language remake. The two films are identical but if I had to pick one, I’d go with this one--it moves quicker, it is a little creepier and since none of the players are particularly familiar, the this-is-really-happening conceit plays a little better than it did in the American version.

BEACH KINGS (MGM Home Entertainment. $26.98): In what could be the screen’s most compelling depiction of the sport of beach volleyball since “Side Out,” a one-time college basketball phenomenon that left the limelight due to the mental torment reappears after a decade with the hopes of becoming a champion on the beach volleyball circuit. Yeah, I haven’t seen this one yet either but with a cast that includes David “Baywatch” Charvet, Kristin “Laguna Beach” Cavallari and Jaleel “Urkel” White, how could it possibly go wrong?

THE EDGE OF LOVE (Image Entertainment. $27.98): This barely-released biopic centers on the complicated real-life relationship that developed between poet Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys), his free-spirit wife (Sienna Miller) and the long-lost childhood sweetheart (Keira Knightley) who winds up bonding with both of them in a sort of bohemian bonhomie until her square husband (Cillan Murphy) appears on the scene to screw everything up. It isn’t that great of a movie--for the most part, it plays like a reheated version of the brilliant “Henry & June”--but it does have its moments, especially the one featuring Keira and Sienna sharing a bath.

ELDORADO (Film Movement. $24.95): In the opening scenes of this decidedly dark comedy/road movie from Belgium, an antique car dealer catches a junkie in the process of robbing his home. Through a series of strange circumstances, the two wind up hitting the road together on a long and somewhat eventful drive into oblivion. Definitely not for all tastes but those in the mood for something a little twisted may get a kick out of this.

GREY GARDENS (HBO Home Video. $26.98): Ordinarily, most attempts to take a documentary and retell its story with actors within a more conventional narrative framework turn out to be disasters because regardless of how good or bad they are, they can never quite live up to the real versions. (Anyone wanting to disprove that theory is invited to watch and compare “Dogtown and Z-Boys” and “Lords of Dogtown” sometime.) That said, this dramatic take on the bizarre lives of two distant cousins of Jackie Kennedy who retreated from high society (and sanity) to virtual isolation, previously the subject of the 1975 cult classic of the same name, was a surprisingly strong effort, thanks mostly to the excellent and eerily accurate performances from Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as Big and Little Edie Bouvier Beale.

THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $34.98): I was always under the impression that if you were an underrated movie star whose career was given an unexpected, though entirely welcome, second act thanks to a hit movie and subsequent Oscar nomination, you got a free pass out of the Grade Z movie ghetto for at least a few years. Therefore, can someone please explain to me why the always delightful Virginia Madsen is doing in this deeply lame horror film--”Based On True Events”--in which she plays the mother of a family who moves to a rustic Victorian home in Connecticut that used to be a funeral parlor that was the site of unspeakable rituals--unspeakable enough for the spirits involved to return to haunt the new owners. Trust me, this mystery is a lot more compelling than anything on the screen but if this is your cup of meat, the DVD features an unrated version of the film, deleted scenes, commentaries and numerous documentary featurettes that struggle to convince you of the reality of it all.

HORSEMEN (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $27.98): In what is an exceptionally blatant knock-off of a certain modern-day movie classic from the “creative” auspices of Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company, Dennis Quaid plays an embittered and widowed cop trying to track down an elusive serial killer whose crimes are inspired by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Of course, a bigger mystery is the question of why, despite the involvement of such people as Bay, Quaid and Ziyi Zhang, this one only received an exceptionally token theatrical release before hitting the video market but after only a few minutes, you should be able to puzzle that one out easily enough.

MENAGE (Image Entertainment. $24.98): In this exceptionally outr¨¦ 1986 comedy from the reliably outrageous Bertrand Blier (whose other works have included “Going Places” and “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs”), Gerard Depardieu plays a bisexual burglar who happens upon a quarreling married couple in a bar and proceeds to seduce first the wife (Miou-Miou) and then the husband (Michel Blanc). This is complicated enough, of course, but it becomes even more so when he then brings them both into his world of crime.

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VAN WILDER: FRESHMAN YEAR (Paramount Home Video. $29.98): When you sit around watching the gross-out college comedy “Van Wilder” (assuming that one does such things these days), do you ever ask yourself “What would it be like if someone made a low-budget prequel that showed us the origins of the character in a way that didn’t involve any of the participants?” If you do, then you will no doubt be thrilled to get your hands on this direct-to-DVD item in which young Van (Jonathan Bennett) enters a college run by a crusty dean and populated by a bevy of babes who have taken a vow of chastity for some reason or other. Naturally, he takes it upon himself to take care of both of these obstacles and win the heart (and other parts) of the girl of his dreams (Kristin Cavallari--is she in everything this week?)

NIGHT TRAIN (National Entertainment Media. $24.98): In this fusion of “Shallow Grave” and the late, lamented TV classic “Supertrain,” a trio of disparate people (conductor Danny Glover, med student Leelee Sobieski and traveling salesman Steve Zahn) happen upon a dead body on board the largely deserted train they are riding on. When they discover that the corpse was in possession of something incredibly valuable, they decide to keep it for themselves and I think you can pretty much figure out what happens from there. The movie isn’t much but for some strange reason, the sight of Leelee Sobieski wielding a cleaver thrills me in ways I cannot fully explain. That said, none of what transpires is nearly as terrifying as trying to take a normal commuter train after the conclusion of a Cubs-White Sox inter-league game--now that is some scary stuff.

RIVER OF WASTE: THE HAZARDOUS TRUTH ABOUT FACTORY FARMS (Cinema Libre. $19.95): If the current documentary “Food Inc.” hasn’t already put you off your dinner with its disturbing depiction of factory farms and what exactly goes into the produce and livestock before it hits your dinner table, this equally eye-opening look at how such farms and their questionable practices adversely affect both the food we eat as well as the environment.

ROSELYNE & THE LIONS (Cinema Libre. $19.95): In this delirious 1989 romantic fantasy from Jean-Jacques Beineix, his follow-up to the cult classic “Betty Blue,” a young man (Gerard Sandoz) drops out of school to pursue both a career as a lion tamer and a beautiful fellow apprentice (Isabelle Pasco). Like virtually all of Beineix’s films, this one is pretty much nuts from start to finish but it is so fascinating in its nuttiness--stylishly made and told with complete sincerity even as it get stranger and stranger--that it is impossible to tear your eyes away from it. Also included in this two-disc set are “The Grand Circus,” a feature-length documentary on the making of the film and an interview with the director conducted by Moviemaker Magazine. For those with a pronounced taste for Euroflash, this is essential viewing.

SHARK WEEK: THE GREAT BITES COLLECTION (Image Entertainment. $29.95): Now every week can be Shark Week with this two-disc set of Discovery Channel programming exposing the myths and realities of nature’s perfect killing machine. $29.95--for that, you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing. . .

THE STATE: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Paramount Home Video. $79.99): For years, fans of this 1993-1995 MTV sketch comedy series (from the people who would later give you such things as “Reno 911” and “Wet Hot American Summer”) have been patiently waiting for it to hit home video so that they could finally get rid of their well-worn videotapes. The good news is that this 5-disc set includes all 24 episodes and a slew of bonus materials that include the original pilot episode, unaired sketches and other bric-a-brac. The bad news, which is only conveyed on an insert that you can’t access until you have already bought and opened the thing, is that the vast majority of the music heard in those original episodes has been removed and replaced (sometimes quite obviously) with other tunes that presumably weren’t as expensive to license. Other TV-related DVDs appearing this week include ”American Gladiators: The Original Series (The Battle Begins)”(Shout! Factory. $29.99), ”Bewitched: The Complete Eighth Season” (Sony Home Entertainment. $39.95), ”E.R.: The Complete Eleventh Season” (Warner Home Video. $49.98), ”G.I. Joe A Real American Hero: Season 1.1” (Shout! Factory. $29.99), ”Leverage: The Complete First Season” (Paramount Home Video. $39.98), ”Mad Men: Season 2” (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $49.98) and ”Peyton Place: Part 2” (Shout! Factory. $39.99).

WAITING FOR DUBLIN (Cinema Libre. $24.95): In this strained bit of whimsy, a Chicago lad (Andrew Keegan) out on the town on New Year’s Eve 1944 before shipping off to fight in the war as a pilot bets a guy $10,000 that he can shoot down five enemy aircraft--only later does he realize that the guy’s uncle, who witnessed the bet, is none other than Al Capone. When he crash-lands in a remote Irish village with the war ending and with only four downed planes to his credit, the colorful locals band together to help him win his wager. If it were me, of course, I would have merely pointed out the fact that in 1944, Al Capone was currently dying of syphilis while in prison on tax evasion charges and therefore in no position to witness such a wager in the first place.

Also On

FOR ALL MANKIND (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)

I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DI D LAST SUMMER (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95)

THE TOWERING INFERNO (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98)

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originally posted: 07/16/09 01:31:23
last updated: 07/16/09 02:05:26
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