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DVD Reviews For 11/6: Blu-Skye Indeed

by Peter Sobczynski

Three all-time classics hit Blu-ray for the first time this week, an event so momentous that it almost makes up for the fact that two of the very worst films of 2009 have turned up as well.

Since finally making my initial foray into the world of Blu-ray a few months ago, I have been faced time and time again with the question that has been haunting home-video collectors since the earliest days of the format--which titles in my relatively massive collection will I repurchase in order to take advantage of all the technical upgrades and which ones will I just stick with the perfectly serviceable standard DVDs? With certain titles, such as the works of Stanley Kubrick and some of the James Bond films, the decision to pick up the Blu-ray versions was a no-brainer but once those obvious choices are made, I suspect that most of my decisions in this regard will be driven more towards my personal feelings towards the films themselves than their technical aspects. For example, this week sees the Blu-ray debuts of three personal favorites of mine and while I could go on and on about how superior they look and sound in the format (and they do) and how nifty the new bonus features are, the main reason that I am recommending them is because they are all great works of cinema and if you consider yourself to be any kind of real film fan, you should definitely have them as part of your collection.

After the relative lack of public interest in his neo-realist true-crime project “The Wrong Man” and his dark psychological drama “Vertigo,” Alfred Hitchcock decided what always did when he needed to reestablish his standing as a commercial filmmaker--he embarked on a quintessentially Hitchcockian project that would give viewers exactly what they wanted in a film from him that would include enough twists, turns and technical challenges to keep him interested as well. The result, 1959’s “North by Northwest,” may not have been one of his best or most profound works by a long shot but it remains one of the most sheerly entertaining films of his entire career in the way that it juggles many of the elements that had served as his cinematic obsessions over the years--an innocent man on the run over a crime that he didn’t commit (Cary Grant at his most Cary Grantish), an icy blonde (a never-sexier Eva Marie Saint), colorful villains (including James Mason and Martin Landau), astonish set-pieces set in unusual locations (including the United Nations, Mt. Rushmore and a seemingly innocent cornfield), a domineering mother (Jesse Royce Landis), plenty of bizarre humor and cheeky innuendo and a storyline that moves at such a breakneck pace that it is only long after the film has ended that you realize that none of it makes a bit of sense. (Seriously, if you ever want to experience utter futility, try to explain the plot of the film to someone in enough detail so that all the dots are connected sometime.) While my tastes in regards to Hitchcock tend to lean more towards such darker works as “Vertigo,” “Psycho” and “Marnie,” this one is still a blast from beginning to end and I cannot recall it ever looking better than it does in this restoration taken from the original VistaVision elements. As for the bonus features, the disc includes the material produced for the previous edition--including a commentary track from now-deceased screenwriter Ernest Lehman and a documentary on the making of the film--along with the newly-produced doc “The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style,” a featurettes looking at the film’s technical innovations and the influence that it would eventually cast over the thriller genre and “Cary Grant: A Class Apart,” a feature-length look at the life and career of the legendary actor.

After spending a few years in America making such acclaimed films as “The American Friend,” “The State of Things” and “Paris, Texas,” German-born director Wim Wenders returned to his homeland in the mid-1980’s and created 1987’s”Wings of Desire,” a love letter to his homeland that is perhaps the most gorgeously realized and hauntingly beautiful work of his entire career. Filmed in Berlin only a couple of years before the city would change forever in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the film stars Bruno Ganz as Damiel, an angel who hovers over the city silently observing the people below while listening to their thoughts, hopes and dreams as they go about their daily routines. Of course, he can only be a passive observer but when he encounters a beautiful-but-troubled trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin, who would die way too young of heart failure in 2007 at the age of 45), he is so taken by her that he is willing to renounce his immortality and return to Earth as a mortal man in the hopes of truly being with her. Although the premise may sound a little smarmy (as it proved to be when it was remade in America as the fairly woeful “City of Angels”), Wenders handles the material beautifully by transforming it into a thoughtful and touching meditation on life, love and what it means to be human that never delves into cheap sentimentality. Throw in stunning cinematography from Henri Alekan (whose past credits include the likes of Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “Topkapi”) and an engaging supporting turn from Peter Falk as himself (sort of) and you have one of the most beguiling films to emerge in the 1980’s. This loaded special edition includes a commentary track featuring Wenders and Falk, a 2003 documentary featuring interviews with them, co-stars Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander (all of whom would reunite a few years later for the delightful follow-up “Faraway, So Close!”), screenwriter Peter Handke and composer Jurgen Knieper, an episode of a 1987 French television program focusing on Wenders and the film’s production, deleted scenes, an archival interview with Alekan and a booklet including essays by Wenders and Handke.

God knows that the 1980’s were a time clogged with films chronicling the various romantic misadventures of American teenagers but the best one by far only arrived at the tail end of the decade. That would be “Say Anything,” Cameron Crowe’s extraordinary directorial debut following the ups and downs of the unusual relationship that develops between an amiable slacker (John Cusack) and the beautiful class brain (Ione Skye) that begins when he finally works up the nerve to ask her out on a date on the last day of school. What separates this particular effort from the pack is that it contains a wise and witty screenplay that treats all of its characters--including the adults (such as John Mahoney’s as Skye’s protective father)--as smart and distinctive individuals instead of turning them into two-dimensional clichés, excellent direction from Crowe that effortlessly veers between bright comedy, touching drama and heartbreaking romance without ever stumbling once and brilliant performances from Cusack and Skye as two of the most likable and believable representations of American teen hood to ever grace the screen. Oh yeah, there is also a certain sequence involving an emotionally devastated Cusack, a boom box and a recording of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” that has gone on to become one of the most iconic moments in contemporary cinema. This Blu-ray is being released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its initial theatrical release and while the notion that the film is now 20 years old may be incredibly depressing to viewers of a certain age, perhaps the number of solid extras provided will take some of the sting out of that revelation. All of the features from the previous DVD have been ported over--a commentary with Crowe, Cusack and Skye that is so jam-packed with information that it actually goes on for about 20 minutes before the film starts, a trivia track and nearly an hour of deleted, extended and alternate scenes--along with such new items as a retrospective featurette with new interviews from the principal players, an additional interview with Crowe and a brief item in which people like Weird Al Yankovic express their love for the film.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION: Written by Ernest Lehman. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Martin Landau and Leo G. Carroll. 1959. 136 minutes. Unrated. A Warner Home Video release. $34.99

WINGS OF DESIRE: Written by Wim Wenders and Peter Handke. Directed by Wim Wenders. Starring Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois and Peter Falk. 1987. 127 minutes. PG-13. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95

SAY ANYTHING: Written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Starring John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney, Lili Taylor and Joan Cusack. 1989. 100 minutes. PG-13. A Fox Home Entertainment release. $34.99.


ALIENS IN THE ATTIC (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): Anyone who grew up watching the string of fantasy films produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment during the 1980’s is likely to experience a certain sense of déjà vu while watching this film about a group of kids discover that a group of aliens have crash-landed on the roof of their vacation home in the hopes of digging up a communication device that will allow them to signal their fellow creatures to begin an all-out planetary invasion. Naturally, it falls to them to figure out a way to save the world without letting their parents know what is happening and, in a development that will no doubt shock many of you, they manage to save the day through the virtues of teamwork and family (although befriending one of the aliens and facilities with videogames and potato guns also play a part). The chief flaw of the film is that, unlike the better Amblin vehicles, this film is aimed strictly at the younger audiences and as a result, any real sense of danger or menace has been ruthlessly removed and as a result, the entire things comes across as what “Gremlins” might have been like if my mother had directed it instead of Joe Dante. However, if you can accept the child-like nature of the story, it does have a few compensations--there are some funny lines here and there, the kids aren’t too obnoxious and it moves quickly enough so that it never quite wears out its welcome.

THE ANSWER MAN (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): In this indie comedy-drama, an author (Jeff Daniels) who became a recluse in the two decades after the publication of his enormously popular spiritual self-help book (modestly entitled “Me and God”) finds himself reconnecting with the world once again when he unexpectedly crosses paths with a comely single mom (Lauren Graham) and a young man (Lou Taylor Pucci) who is fresh out of rehab and seeking the meaning of life. Despite the presence of a strong and likable cast (Olivia Thirlby and Kat Dennings make appearances as well), this film is pretty much an all-out disaster that suggests what “As Good As It Gets” might have been like without the skilled hand of James L. Brooks guiding it along.

BEFORE THE FALL (MPI Films. $24.98): If you ever wished that someone would get the brilliant idea of cross-pollinating the disaster film with the psycho-killer films, this Spanish import from producer Antonio Banderas should be right up your alley. In it, mankind succumbs to chaos and anarchy when it is revealed that a giant meteorite is going to collide with Earth in 72 hours--however, one man hardly notices this in his efforts to protect his family from a serial killer who has escaped from prison and who has vowed revenge up the guy’s family. Man--and you thought Marjoe Gortner was bad in “Earthquake”. . .

THE CHRISTMAS STORY (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.97): No, this is not yet another reissue of the overrated holiday chestnut that reminded us of the inherent dangers of BB guns and swearing with earshot of the old man. Instead, this is a live-action family film from Finland (dubbed into English by the likes of John Turturro) that traces the story of how a little orphan boy grew up to become Santa Claus. Essentially, this is a modern-day version of those weird foreign films that entrepreneurs like K.Gordon Murray would buy and redub on the cheap to show at holiday matinees to entertain kids while their parents were out shopping and while it isn’t necessarily awful, it is certainly no “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” in my opinion.

THE CLAUDETTE COLBERT COLLECTION (Universal Home Entertainment. $49.98): The legendary movie star gets her box set due with this collection of six of the more notable titles from her long and celebrated career. “Three Cornered Moon” (1933) features her as one of the daughters of a formerly rich family who is forced to find work after her fortune is wiped out by the Depression. “Maid of Salem” (1937) is a period drama set during the time of the Salem witch trials in which she plays a young woman accused of practicing witchcraft by her neighbors. “I Met Him in Paris” (1937) is a whimsical romantic comedy in which she finds herself being wooed by three men while on a ski vacation. Directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” (1938) has Colbert discovering that her fiancé (Gary Cooper) has been married and divorced on seven separate occasions and deciding to teach him a lesson. “No Time for Love” (1943) features her as a fashion photographer who causes a strain in her relationship with the newly unemployed Fred MacMurray when she hires him to work as her assistant. In “The Egg and I,” (1947), Colbert and MacMurray reunite as a newlywed city couple who decide to move out to the boondocks to run a chicken farm amongst neighbors that include a sexy country girl and Ma & Pa Kettle (whose appearance here was such a hit that they received their own series of low-budget films).

COLUMBIA PICTURES FILM NOIR COLLECTION, VOLUME ONE (Sony Home Entertainment. $59.95): Fans of the film noir genre will be delighted with this collection of five choice titles that making their long-awaited DVD debuts in newly remastered editions. “The Sniper” (1952) is a tense police procedural following the manhunt for a loner whose inability to succeed with women has driven him to begin picking off people with his high-powered rifle. Arguably the best of the bunch, 1953’s “The Big Heat” finds cop Glenn Ford whose desire to rid his town of mobsters (including Lee Marvin in one of his earliest roles) transforms into outright obsession when a car bomb meant for him kills his beloved wife instead. “5 Against the House” (1955) features a group of college friends who plan and execute the robbery of a casino in Reno just to prove that they can do it--complications arise when one of them suddenly decides that he would rather not return the money after all. Don Sigel’s “The Lineup” features Robert Ryan and Eli Wallach as a couple of thugs who are assigned to collect souvenirs filled with heroin that have been brought over the border from Mexico by unwitting tourists--complications arise when it turns out that a little girl discovered the dope in her doll and used it as face powder for her toy. Finally, “Murder by Contract” (1958) stars Vince Edwards as a seemingly pleasant man who works as a hit man because it is an easy way to make a living--complications arise when he falls for the woman whom he needs to bump off before she can testify in court against his boss.

FOOD INC. (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): In yet another one of those documentaries designed to put you off of eating forever, filmmaker Robert Kenner, with the aid of the likes of “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser, gives us a penetrating look at the numerous hoops that the food you eat on a daily basis goes through in order to wind up on your plate. The main flaw with the film is that much of the information on display here will seem more than a little familiar to those of you who have seen such recent works of muckraking cinema as “Super Size Me,” “King Corn” and “The Corporation.” That said, the material has been put together in an engaging and informative manner and those who haven’t seen those other films are sure to have their eyes opened by what they discover here.

GI JOE: RISE OF THE COBRA (Paramount Home Video. $34.98): Watching this big-budget big-screen adaptation of the long-running toy line is like being slapped across the face with utility-grade meat for two hours and for all I know, that is exactly what the people involved with its production did to get themselves in the proper frame of mind during the filming. The story doesn’t make a lick of sense for a minute, there isn’t a single line of dialogue that anyone with even the slightest bit of taste would want to quote with anything other than contempt, the battle scenes go on forever without generating any real excitement and the characters are so uninteresting that by the time the damn thing mercifully ended, I still didn’t know the names of half the characters that I had just spent the last two hours watching. Frankly, the best thing that one could possibly say about this insult to the senses is that it is slightly better than “Transformers 2” and that is only because it is about a half-hour shorter and because it features Sienna Miller and Rachel Nichols strutting around in outfits of a fetishy nature for most of its running time.

I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.98): In this absolutely atrocious teen-oriented comedy, a graduating nerd (Paul Rust) professes his love for the school hottie (Hayden Panettiere) in the midst of his valedictorian speech and finds himself spending the night with her and her friends getting into all sorts of allegedly wild hi-jinks that force him to see his dream girl as a real person . . . In theory, of course. Oddly enough, the film was made by Chris Columbus, who kicked off his directing career with another teen romp, the stupid, brash, annoying and borderline racist “Adventures in Babysitting,” but if you think that he has anything new or interesting to say about the genre that gave him his start, you are sorely mistaken--there is no comedic rhythm on display, the jokes are as ugly as the visuals and the nicest thing that you can say about it is that it never quite gets around to being racist. Still, a total disaster and probably the worst comedy of 2009.

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION--ULTIMATE COLLECTOR’S EDITION (Warner Home Video. $39.98): I have to admit that this 1989 comedy featuring Chevy Chase trying to give his extended family the best Christmas ever with the inevitably disastrous results, which has since gone on to become a modern-day holiday perennial, has never really been a particular favorite of mine--it is a little too gaggy for its own good and the John Hughes screenplay lacks the bite of the original “Vacation” film. That said, it has a good heart, it does contain a few inspired moments and it is the kind of holiday film that is pretty much perfect to have on in the background while wrapping gifts or trimming trees because you can dip in and out of it without worrying that you are missing anything important. This new gift set contains the previously released special edition of the film, featuring a commentary track from co-stars Randy Quaid, Beverly D’Angelo, Johnny Galecki and Miriam Flynn, director Jeremiah Chechik and producer Matty Simmons, and a collection of trinkets that include a Santa hat, a packet of Instant Snow Powder, a set of drink coasters and a button reading “I Survived a Griswold Family Christmas”--purchasers of the Blu-ray edition will also get a miniature Marty Moose Mug replica.

THE SHIELD--THE COMPLETE SERIES (Sony Home Entertainment. $159.99): Considering the fact that this intense cop series featuring Michael Chiklis as a corrupt cop on the edge, which recently wrapped up its seven-season run on FX, was one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the decade, I suppose that it is slightly embarrassing to admit that I never actually managed to catch an episode of the show until this behemoth of a box set--28 DVDs containing all 88 episodes along with numerous commentary tracks, deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes featurettes--arrived on my doorstep. However, if the series as a whole lives up to the promise of its memorably intense pilot episode (and virtually everyone I have spoken to has assured me that is the case), it looks like I have a lot of top-notch viewing ahead of me. Other TV-related DVDs appearing this week include “The Donna Reed Show: The Complete Third Season” (Virgil Films. $39.95), “Edge of Darkness: The Complete BBC Series” (BBC. $34.98), “G.I. Joe--A Real American Hero: Season 1.2” (Shout! Factory. $29.99), “Here’s Lucy: Season Two” (MPI Home Video. $29.98), “Mission Impossible--The Final Season” (CBS DVD. $49.99), “The Rockford Files: Movie Collection, Volume 1” (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98) and “Star Wars: The Clone Wars--The Complete Season One” (Warner Home Video. $44.98).

THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.95): In making this redo of the semi-classic 1974 drama about a quartet of thieves who bring New York City to a standstill after taking a subway train hostage his own, uber-hack Tony Scott pretty much did everything that one might expect--he miscast the main roles with big stars (Denzel Washington and John Travolta stepping in for Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw), he added in numerous plot twists and developments that only served to distract from the formerly clean and ruthlessly efficient narrative and he replaced the original’s clever and witty conclusion with a chase and a shoot-out. Considering the fact that the first film is readily available on DVD at this moment, there isn’t much of a reason for you to waste any of your time or money on this one.

[WALT DISNEY TREASURES: ZORRO--THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON/WALT DISNEY TREASURES: ZORRO--THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $59.99 each): For the latest wave of annual limited-edition releases of rarely-seen material from their vaults, Disney has chosen to focus on their beloved 1957-1959 series featuring Guy Williams as the infamous masked swashbuckler who fought for truth, justice and equality south of the border with the help of his sword, whip and loyal horse Tornado. Surprisingly, the shows have more or less stood the test of time and while there is a certain cheesiness to the proceedings, it will serve as a welcome shot of nostalgia for people who breathlessly watched it when they were kids and it is entirely possible that once their kids and grandkids get used to the lack of elaborate special effects and the black-and-white cinematography, they may find themselves getting into it as well. Each six-disc set contains two “Zorro”-centric specials originally broadcast on the “Walt Disney Presents” series, introductions by Leonard Maltin and a lapel pin--Volume One includes a documentary tracing the history of the character and Volume Two has featurettes focusing on Williams and stunt double Buddy Van Horn.

WHO IS K.K. DOWNEY? (Indiepix. $24.95): If you thought that the literary scandals involving James Frey and J.T. Leroy were the stuff of high comedy, then you will probably get a kick out of this Canadian film about a pair of fame-seeking pals who try to jump-start their careers by having one of them reframe his seedy novel about truck-stop prostitutes into an “autobiography” and the other dressing up in drag and claiming to be the author who actually lived out the sordid events contained in the book. Though more than a little obvious, this is kind of funny in parts, though not nearly as funny as James Frey’s infamous nationally televised dressing-down on “Oprah.”

WILL FERRELL: YOU’RE WELCOME, AMERICA--A FINAL NIGHT WITH GEORGE W. BUSH (HBO Home Entertainment. $19.97): The day that George W. Bush left the White House in January, Ferrell opened up on Broadway with this one-man show showcasing the impression of the man that he developed over the years on “SNL.” Ironically, the end result as seen here--in a performance shot during its run for a live HBO special--is much like an average “SNL” episode in that it combines moments of genuine hilarity with long stretches that seem to drag on forever. No, it probably won’t be appearing on Bush’s Netflix list anytime soon but if it is any comfort to him, it would seem, based on the box-office results of “Land of the Lost,” that Ferrell’s approval ratings are about as low as his these days.


FORREST GUMP (Paramount Home Video. $39.99)

HOWARDS END (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (Paramount Home Video. $29.99)

LOVE ACTUALLY (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98)


STARGATE: 15th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.99)

TWO GIRLS AND A GUY (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99)

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originally posted: 11/06/09 08:27:31
last updated: 11/06/09 08:58:17
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