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DVD Reviews For 10/30: “What Is This--A Homicide Or A Bad B-Movie?”

by Peter Sobczynski

In this week’s column, watch your faithful critic celebrates this weekend’s notable holiday--the birthday of Piper Perabo--with the DVD debut of one of his all-time favorite films and the Blu-Ray debut of one of his all-time favorite TV shows.

When French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix arrived at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983 for the world premiere of his second film, “The Moon in the Gutter,” he was still riding high on the international success of his debut work, the ultra-stylish 1981 thriller “Diva.” Made for a pittance, it was an enormous hit around the world and gave the fledgling director the kind of rapturous critical notices that most of his peers would never see in the entire duration of their careers. Of course, the one flaw of being a director whose initial effort is such a critical and popular smash is that they eventually have to make a follow-up film and they can be assured that it will heavily scrutinized by viewers who are eager to dismiss him as the flavor-of-the-last-month if it doesn’t live up to their now-absurdly inflated expectations or just simply out of jealousy. Inevitably, that is exactly what happened when “The Moon in the Gutter” finally screened--although it received some small pockets of support, most of the people who saw it dismissed it as a pretentious and wildly over stylized mess that buried a not-particularly-interesting story under tons of production design in an attempt to camouflage its shortcomings.

Not only did the outcry pretty much kill the film’s commercial prospects, it more or less derailed Beineix’s entire career--although he would have another hit a few years later with the scandalous “Betty Blue,” he would never again hit the heights that he seemed destined to achieve and indeed, a film of his hasn’t received commercial play in America in more than 20 years and while he has dabbled in short films (including a documentary on the man who inspired “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) hasn’t made a feature since 2001. This is a shame, of course, but what makes the whole debacle even sadder is the fact that “The Moon in the Gutter,” which has finally been released on domestic DVD as part of Cinema Libre’s plan to finally release al of his films on video in America, not only isn’t a bad movie at all, it is actually one of the grand treasures of French cinema of the 1980’s--a gorgeously decadent bauble of a film that serves as Beineix’s love letter to the cinema in general and the joys of the film noir genre in particular. Although even the finest home theater system can’t possibly begin to recreate the impact that the film must have when seen on the big screen, the mere fact that it is finally available domestically in a cleaned-up version and in its proper aspect ratio is, at least in my mind, one of the true DVD events of the year.

Based on a novel by acclaimed pulp novelist David Goodis and transferred from Philadelphia to Marseilles, the film stars Gerard Depardieu as Gerard, a dockworker still reeling from the brutal rape and subsequent suicide of his younger sister seven months earlier. Since then, he virtually ignores his live-in lover, Bella (Victoria Abril), and spends his evenings in the area where his sister was attacked and later took her own life (her blood still apparently staining the sidewalk) in an obsessive hunt for the identity of her assailant. While prowling the deliriously lurid local bars for information, he makes the acquaintance of the cheerfully debauched Newton Channing (Vittorio Mezzogiorno) and through him, he meets Newton’s sister Loretta (Nastassja Kinski), a sexy siren who likes to prowl rough neighborhoods in her vintage car while photographing the various denizens, particularly the hunky ones. The two fall passionately in love (then again, this is the kind of film in which every action is performed passionately) and for Gerard, it seems that Loretta may be the key to freeing him from his obsession with his sister’s death so that he can pick up the pieces of his own life. Naturally, this doesn’t set very well with Bella and when her warnings about Loretta are ignored, she hires a couple of thugs to go after him. At the same time, Gerard gets a lead that he think may lead him to the identity of his sister’s rapist and has to decide if his desire for revenge is worth the possible loss of Loretta.

It is true, I suppose, that the plot of “The Moon in the Gutter” is its least interesting aspect but it is pretty apparent from the outset that Beineix isn’t really interested in the story for its narrative purposes. Instead of making a traditional film noir, he has made a film about film noir in which all of the traditional ingredients--conflicted anti-heroes, dangerous dames, sleekly designed surroundings and heavy atmosphere--have been wildly inflated and placed front and center in order to celebrate the glorious artificiality and sensuality of the genre. The result may not be particularly realistic but it certainly captures the eye--you could pause the film at any given point and the image left on your television could easily be framed and hung on your wall--and some of the effects that he comes up with are absolutely breathtaking. (Our first full glimpse of Kinski, for example, is such a knockout that it rivals Grace Kelly’s initial appearance in “Rear Window” as the sexiest entrance in screen history). And yet, and this is the element that most of the critics at the time inexplicably overlooked, there is a genuine human element at the center of the film that keeps it from just being an exercise in overwhelming style and that comes from the three main performances from performers whose overwhelming physical presences cannot complete mask the vulnerabilities within. When we first see Depardieu, for example, he is manliness personified but as the film progresses, he allows us to see the sadness and insecurities of his character in a way that will remind many of Marlon Brando at his peak. (I seem to recall reading somewhere that Beineix told Depardieu to base his performance on a still of Brando from “A Streetcar Named Desire.”) Likewise, Kinski appeared in this film at a time when she was arguably the most lusted-after actress in the world and while her every appearance will inspire male viewers to react in ways not normally seen outside of the oeuvre of Tex Avery, she also does much more than simply model her way through--she creates a character that lets us understand what it is that attracts her to Gerard in the first place and what keeps her coming back for more. Likewise, the then-unknown Abril (whose character gets an introduction that rivals Kinski’s for sheer seductiveness) makes her character into more than just a sexpot slattern and makes her eventual actions all the more understandable in the end.

“The Moon in the Gutter” is a film that was essentially ahead of its time when it was originally released and in many ways, it still is because when a filmmaker does something as wild and audacious as this in the service of something that is not necessarily a ready-made blockbuster, there is a tendency to simply dismiss it as being pretentious and self-indulgent. Therefore, it is likely that many contemporary viewers--the ones who readily eat up those blockbusters without a second thought and recoil from anything that smacks of having a personal touch--will be just as hostile towards it now as they were back in 1983. However, my guess is that true film fans--the ones who thrive on bold and daring visions from bold and daring visionaries--will find it to be a true cinematic treasure whose rediscovery is an event worth celebrating.

Written by Jean-Jacques Beineix and Olivier Mergault. Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix. Starring Gerard Depardieu, Nastassja Kinski, Victoria Abril and Dominique Pinon. 1983. 137 minutes. Rated R. A Cinema Libre release. $19.95.


THE ART STAR AND THE SUDANESE TWINS (Indiepix. $24.95): In this intriguing, though often squirm-inducing documentary, filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly follows around performance artist Vanessa Beecroft as she goes to Darfur in the hopes of adopting two motherless children from the region that she was photographed nursing in a well-documented photo. However, this is not the cut-and-dried inspirational story that it may sound like as Brettkelly captures her subject veering between selflessness and selfishness while suggesting, as one observer does, that celebrity adoptions along these lines could be considered a high-end version of slavery.

THE BUTCHER (Palisades Tartan. $19.99): In this international slice of torture porn from Korean filmmaker Jin Won Kim, a group of strangers are abducted and left bound and gagged on a slaughterhouse floor so that they can be tortured to death by a group of snuff-film producers, through whose cameras we witness all the action. Yes, it has been made with a certain degree of skill but I suspect that most viewers will be too taken aback by its sheer and unrelenting unpleasantness to notice.

CRIMINAL WAYS (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): Several years ago, an Australian comedy entitled “The Wannabes,” following the misadventures of a group of inept thieves posing as children’s entertainers in order to rob a billionaire while performing at his kid’s birthday party with unexpected results, was released to little acclaim or success. However, it turns out that the actress in the supporting role of the hero’s girlfriend was none other than Isla Fisher and now that she has attained some level of international fame--at least more so than anyone else involved--the film is finally coming out on DVD in America with a new title and a cover that makes it look as if she is actually the star. Oh well, it can’t be worse than that “Confessions of a Shopaholic” nonsense, can it?

FEAR(S) OF THE DARK (IFC Films. $19.98): In this hallucinatory horror anthology film from France, a group of top animators bring to life a series of short tales of terror involving bloodthirsty dogs, a young girl trapped in a nightmare and, in the most effective story of the bunch, a shy young student finds the girl of his dreams and watches as it all goes horribly and icily wrong. Although visually striking (the black-and-white animation is both exceptionally beautiful and exceptionally creepy), most of the stories ramble on a little too long and the fragmentary nature in which most of them are told grows a little irritating after a while. However, if you are just looking for something stylish to trip out on, this will more than satisfy you.

ICE AGE 3: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): In the latest installment of the depressingly popular animated film franchise, Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) “adopts” a bunch of dinosaur eggs and is taken away by their mother, sidekicks Manny the mastodon (Ray Romano) and Diego the tiger (Dennis Leary) inexplicably set off to rescue him and that goddamn squirrel thing is still chasing after an errant acorn. If your wee ones enjoyed the first two “Ice Age” films, they will probably like this because it is the exact same thing but anyone else is liable to be bored stiff by it--not even Simon Pegg’s contributions as a crazed weasel are enough to juice the material beyond the level of tepid.

IL DIVO (IFC Films. $27.98): Italian politics are the focus of this acclaimed biopic on the life and career of Giulio Andreoti (played by Toni Servilo), a man who may not be known to you but who has been a leading and controversial figure in his home country for over 50 years, a time that saw him elected prime minister seven different times despite constant rumors of his alleged involvement with the Mafia.

LEFT BANK (IFC Films. $24.98): Borrowing elements from such genre classics as “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Tenant” and “The Wicker Man,” this horror entry from Belgium starts off innocently enough--after temporarily being forced out of competition after an injury, a track star passes the time by plunging into a passionate love affair with a new boyfriend that culminates with her moving into his secluded high-rise on Antwerp’s left bank. Once she discovers that the previous tenant disappeared under mysterious circumstances and that her lover is the head of a strange organization that has been around since medieval times, she decides to investigate and uncovers all sorts of horrifying secrets.

MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY (IFC Films. $19.98): In this micro-budgeted indie romantic comedy from director Barry Jenkins, a couple (Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins) wake up after a one-night stand (with him completely besotted and her anything but) and follows them over the course of one long day on the streets of San Francisco as they gradually come to understand one another while dissecting what it means to be young and black in America today. It sounds like just another example of the irritating mumblecore subgenre but this one is actually pretty entertaining thanks to its smart and enlightening screenplay and the engaging performances from the two leads.

MONTY PYTHON’S ALMOST THE TRUTH (Vivendi Entertainment. $29.99): Over the years, there have been an endless array of documentaries and books that have covered the history of the legendary British comedy troupe from their humble beginnings to their landmark 1969-1974 televisions series to their cinematic exploits and beyond. Although I am certain that more will come in the future, I can’t imagine any improving on this six-hour epic that covers the entire story in exquisite detail and with new interviews from all the surviving Pythons, along with a number of impressive bonus features to boot. For students of comedy in general and Python fanatics in particular, this set is an absolute must. This week also sees the release of “Monty Python: The Other British Invasion” (A&E Home Video. $19.95), a 2-disc set comprised of two hour-long documentaries, one on the pre-Python achievements of the group and the other about how they came to conquer America in the Seventies through the wonders of public television, that originally appeared as bonus features in last year’s mega-sized DVD set of the original series--both are actually pretty interesting and there is surprisingly little overlap between the material found here and on “Almost the Truth.”

NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): In Fred Dekker’s campy, ironic and self-aware gorefest (in which all the characters are given the last names of famous genre filmmakers), alien parasites that landed on Earth in the Fifties take over the bodies of unsuspecting college kids as the result of an ill-advised prank (don’t ask) and turn them into murderous zombies. Yes, this is essentially the same film as “Slither” but this one has the benefit of not being bad, mostly thanks to the very funny lead performance from Tom Atkins as the no-nonsense cop who gets to deliver one of the all-time great B-movie lines to a gaggle of sorority gals: “The good news is that your dates are here. The bad news is that they’re dead.”

ORPHAN (Warner Home Video. $28.98): In the latest horror film that tries to get its transgressive kicks from the sight of little kids doing horrible and monstrous things to people because they are pure evil, Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard play a dopey couple who, after suffering a stillbirth, decide to adopt a child and wind up picking out a nine-year-old Russian girl (Isabelle Fuhrman) who seems to be the perfect child. Before long, Farmiga begins to suspect that something is a bit off about her new charge and even though we know she is right--the kid subtly terrorizes her new siblings, injures a school bully by pushing her off a slide and seems to be deliberate driving a wedge between her new parents--she is unable to convince anyone that the girl is some kind of monster. It sounds like cheerfully deranged junky fun, I suppose, but it just never quite comes together, either as a horror movie or as a goofy campfest. It takes forever for the lurid stuff to kick in, the story essentially requires everyone in it to act like a complete idiot to get from one scene to the next and the entire thing hinges on a plot twist that is authentically Looney Tunes but which is telegraphed too early to be truly effective. The biggest problem, however, is that it is nowhere near as tasteless and grotesque as it clearly wants to be--every time it threatens to go completely off the rails into utter derangement, it reels itself back in without realizing that in a film along these lines, the more outrageous, the better.

THE PRISONER--THE COMPLETE SERIES (A&E Home Video. $99.95): Ever since it first aired over forty years ago, this short-form British TV series, about a secret agent (Patrick McGoohan, who also served as producer) who is spirited away to a remote land known as The Village and fights to protect his humanity and sanity against those who will go to any lengths to discover why he abruptly resigned his position, has been baffling viewers on both sides of the pond. While the mysteries surrounding The Village and those in charge of it are as murky as ever, the show itself has never looked better than it does in this HD iteration. Throw in a ton of special features--all of the ones created for its previous DVD incarnations (commentaries, documentaries, scripts, production galleries and the like) as well as a couple of new featurettes and a promo for the upcoming TV remake of the series with Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellan--and you have one of the very best TV-related DVD sets of the year.

Other TV-related DVDs hitting stores this week include “The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Volume 1” (E1 Entertainment. $39.98), “Battlestar Galactica: The Plan” (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98), “The Eleventh Hour: The Complete Series” (Warner Archives.), “The Fugitive: Season 3, Volume 1” (CBS DVD. $39.98), “The Guardian: The Complete Series” (Warner Home Video. $49.98), “Mannix: The Third Season” (CBS DVD. $49.99), “On the Road with Charles Kuralt, Set 1” (Acorn Media. $39.99), “Patton 360: The Complete Season One” (A&E Home Entertainment. $34.98) and “Tales from the Dark Side: The Second Season” (CBS DVD. $36.98).

THE SAM FULLER COLLECTION (Sony Home Entertainment. $79.95): The creator of some of the indelible works of cinematic pulp fiction gets his box set due with this collection of seven titles from the Sony library that he was involved with throughout his long career. The bad news is that of the films, five of them (1937’s “It Happened in Hollywood,” 1938’s “Adventure in Sahara,” 1943’s “Power of the Press,” 1949’s “Shockproof” and 1952’s “Scandal Sheet”) were based on things that he wrote and were actually made by others. The good news is that the two films here that he actually did make, 1959’s “The Crimson Kimono” (in which a pair of detective investigating the murder of a stripper in the Japanese section of L.A. both fall for the same witness) and 1961’s “Underworld U.S.A.” (in which Cliff Robertson plays a man plotting his revenge against the now-powerful mobsters who killed his father in front of his eyes two decades earlier), are such quintessential examples of Fuller at his finest--broad, brash and filled with tons of lurid behavior and dialogue so hard-boiled as to be nearly poetic--that it is worth purchasing the entire set in order to have them. There are a number of featurettes included with testimonies from such well-known fans as Martin Scorsese, Tim Robbins and Curtis Hanson, but considering the amazing career that Fuller had (which he recounted in his must-read autobiography “A Third Face”), they don’t begin to really do justice to the man or his work.

SAUNA (IFC Films. $19.98): In this medieval-era horror film, two brothers working as part of a group marking the Finnish-Russian border are haunted by the spirit of a young girl whom they left to die in a singularly unpleasant manner. Eventually, they come across a sauna that supposedly has the power to wash sins away. . .I think you can pretty much see where this is going.

TINKER BELL AND THE LOST TREASURE (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): In the latest direct-to-video adventure featuring everyone’s favorite animated pixie, Tink winds up getting into trouble and learns valuable lessons about taking responsibility for one’s actions and the importance of friendship and loyalty. Essentially, this is aimed at the youngest possible viewers and no one whose age is in the double digits needs to apply. That said, I must admit that from a technical angle, it is far more impressive than the usual direct-to-video animated dross--if I didn’t know for certain that it wasn’t, I would have assumed that it was an actual theatrical release.

WHATEVER WORKS (Sony Home Entertainment. $27.96): In the 40th film to date from writer-director Woody Allen (based on a script that he supposedly penned for the late Zero Mostel more than 30 years ago), Larry David plays a suicidal misanthrope whose life takes an unexpected turn when he unexpectedly marries the ultra-naïve Southern runaway (Evan Rachel Wood) who turns up on his doorstep one night with no place to go. Although not as good as such latter-day Allen triumphs as “Mach Point” or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” let alone any of his all-time classics, this is one of his better recent efforts thanks to a bunch of inspired one-liners and funny performances from David (channeling Allen’s angst through his own particular persona) and the always-reliable Patricia Clarkson as his aghast mother-in-law who takes her own walk on the wild side when she arrives to bring her daughter home. As per usual for Allen, there are no special features to be had here, unless you count seeing Larry David in shorts in the crystal-clear clarity of HD video to be a special feature.

Z (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Loosely inspired by actual events, Costa-Gavras’ Oscar-winning 1969 film about a judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) whose investigation into the assassination of a popular left-wing politician (Yves Montand) runs up against a massive government cover-up has been widely regarded as one of the great cinematic political thrillers almost from the day it was released and is still sensationally effective today. Previously issued on DVD a few years ago, it now returns in a new special edition including a commentary track from critic Peter Cowie, new interviews with Costa-Gavras and cinematographer Raoul Coutard and archival talks with Costa-Gavras, co-stars Montand, Trintignant, Irene Papas and Jacques Perin and Vassills Vassilikos, the author of the book on which the film was based.

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originally posted: 10/30/09 06:15:46
last updated: 10/30/09 06:37:39
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