DVD Reviews For 1/7: The M.I.A. M.I.A.-DVD Column Is No Longer M.I.A.
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/08/10 08:10:07
Yes, this is arriving a few days late but ask yourself--did you want it on time or did you want it to be good. What--you wanted it to be on time and good. Jeez, aren’t you the greedy type.
As this particular column is running particularly late, I will be mercifully brief in my opening remarks. Although it would seem as though every movie that could possibly be released on DVD has been, there are literally thousands of films that have never been released in that or, in many cases, any home video format at all. In recent years, some distributors have made inroads into releasing some of their more obscure properties--Warner Brothers and MGM have both instituted programs to make their lesser-known holdings available through burned-to-order discs (yes, you too can now own the immortal “Under the Rainbow,” though I wouldn’t recommend it)--but there are still tons of films, many featuring well-known names on both sides of the camera, still languishing in obscurity. Every year, during the first week of January (when normal DVD releases tend to be in their post-holiday lull), I like to highlight ten films that have yet to appear on DVD in America (though some may be available in other parts of the world) that I would personally like to see come out for one reason or another. Hopefully you will find these choices to be interesting and if not, I can only apologize and assure you that things will be back to normal here next week.
AT LONG LAST LOVE (1975): Riding high on the critical and financial success of such hits as “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up Doc?” and “Paper Moon,” filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich decided to fully indulge his love for classic Hollywood by making a lavish tribute to the musicals of the 1930’s that fused together a wisp of a plot (something about two couples who become friends and gradually find themselves falling for each others partners) with the glorious songs of Cole Porter. Needless to say, it all went horribly wrong--beginning with Bogdanovich’s bizarre decision to cast the film with actors who, for the most part, weren’t known for their musical abilities (including Burt Reynolds, Madeline Kahn, Dulio de Prete and Bogdanovich’s then-girlfriend Cybil Shepard) and to shoot the production numbers live, a process that hadn’t been utilized since the 1930’s and which was cumbersome, expensive and highlighted the cast’s general inability to carry a tune. The result was, perhaps inevitably, a complete disaster and began Bogdanovich’s precipitous downward fall and while it is pretty terrible throughout, it does have a few charms. The Art Deco look of the film is beautiful throughout, Eileen Brennan and John Hillerman are pretty funny as the comedy relief couple and Kahn’s romp through “Primitive Man” is good enough to suggest what the film could have been like in the proper hands. Between its notorious reputation and the presumed expense involved with the Cole Porter songs, this probably won’t hit home video for a long, long time, though it does pop up on cable once in a great while.
DEEP END (1971): I must admit at this point that I have never actually seen this 1971 drama from Jerzy Skolimowski about a 15-year-old British lad (John Moulder-Brown) who takes a job at a local bathhouse, becomes obsessed with a beautiful and older colleague (Jane Asher) and goes to outrageous and tragic lengths to scuttle her relationship with her fiancée and have her for himself. However, ever since I first read about this film in the page of Danny Peary’s seminal book “Cult Movies,” I have been fascinated with seeing it one day. Unfortunately, it may be too obscure for a major company to invest the time and money needed to release this on DVD, though it would seem to be ideal for a company like Criterion. Happily, it will be airing on Turner Classic Movies on January 15 (along with another Skolimowski obscurity, 1978’s “The Shout”), so I will finally have my chance to see it. Just to be on the safe side, could all of you record it for me as well in case some disaster strikes on my end? Thanks much.
FAST BREAK (1979): While corralling potential titles for this list a couple of weeks ago, I was reading “The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy,” a very funny examination of the history of the sport by Bill Simmons and in its pages, he makes several references to this raucous sports comedy about a New York b-ball enthusiast (Gabe Kaplan) who is hired to head up the program at a small Nevada college for the munificent sum of $60 a victory, puts together a surprisingly successful team of misfits, hustlers and a girl(!) and challenges the #1 ranked team to an exhibition match that will put his players on the map for good. At the same time, it showed up in a couple of reader requests that I received as well, so I almost feel obligated to include it. It certainly isn’t the most original sports comedy ever made--it couldn’t be more of a hybrid of “The Bad News Bears” and “Slap Shot” if it tried--and it proves that Kaplan’s charms as an actor tend to wear thin after a while. That said, it does contain a number of big laughs (many of which probably wouldn’t pass muster in these politically correct time) and as obscure basketball-related comedies from the late 1970’s go, it beats “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” like a gong.
THE FORTUNE (1975): In this weird period black comedy, a sleazy-but-married con man (Warren Beatty), unable to consummate his relationship with his mistress (Stockard Channing in one of her first major big-screen roles) because of the recently instituted Mann Act prohibiting transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes, recruits his sleazy-but-unmarried pal (Jack Nicholson) to marry her himself so that they can all travel together free and legal. When it turns out that she is actually the heiress to a fortune and threatens to give it all away once she discovers their greediness, the two then plot to murder her with equally incompetent results. Despite the presence of such superstars as Nicholson and Beatty working under the direction of none other than Mike Nichols, this was a major bomb--essentially the “Ishtar” of its time--and all involved have done everything in their power to ensure that it remains forgotten for as long as possible. The film is a mess--at only 88 minutes, it feels as if many scenes were cut out at random and the ending is practically non-existent--but it is fun to see Nicholson and Beatty playing dumb sleazes and Channing is hilarious throughout. Oddly enough, the Coen Brothers have cited this as one of their favorite films and I suppose you can see its influence in the likes of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “The Ladykillers” and “Burn After Reading.”
JUST IMAGINE (1930): In this largely forgotten sci-fi/musical-comedy hybrid, an ordinary man (once-popular ethnic comedian El Brendel) lands in a coma after being stuck by lightning in 1930 and wakes up in the mysterious and ultra-modern world of 1980 New York City, a time when the government arranges marriages (without a public option, naturally), reproduction is done via test tube, food comes in pill form, cars have been replaced by airplanes and names have been replaced with numbers. While trying to make his way in this brave new world, our hero--now dubbed Single-0--tries to help his new friend win the girl of his dreams (Maureen O’Sullivan in an early role) and travels to Mars, which is populated by more leggy chorus girls than one might expect. If you can get past the relentlessly unfunny capering of its star (it is impossible to understand how audiences back then could have stood for a guy whose entire act consists of acting like a dope while speaking in a Swedish accent broad enough to make the Swedish Chef seem dignified by comparison), the odd blend of music, comedy and science-fiction is not uninteresting and its retro-future look has undeniable appeal, as does its admittedly optimistic view of what the world was going to be like 30 years ago.
THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (1968): Kim Novak stars as an unknown starlet whose eerie resemblance to a famous movie star of the Thirties who died on her wedding night under mysterious circumstances earns her the lead role in a biopic of the actress’s life to be directed by the late star’s husband (Peter Finch). Unfortunately, the girl becomes so consumed with the role that history begins to repeat itself with tragic consequences for all involved. Although director Robert Aldrich was never known for his subtle and delicate touch (this was the guy who made such blatantly in-your-face epics as “Kiss Me Deadly,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and “The Dirty Dozen”) but he managed to outdo himself with this corrosive indictment of Hollywood that remains one of the most wildly over-the-top melodramas that I have ever seen--the best way to describe it is to think of it as the bastard child of “Vertigo” and “Showgirls.” Filled with histrionic performances (what else can you say about a film where the closest thing to a subtle acting turn is given by Ernest Borgnine?), profoundly purple dialogue (“She’s tame enough now, Lewis, but will she turn into a slut like the last one?”) and ridiculous plot twists, the film is almost compulsively watchable, if only to see if it can keep up the crazy all the way through. (The answer, as you will discover in the incredible last shot, is a definite “yes!”)
THE MEDUSA TOUCH (1978): By the late 1970’s, audiences had begun to grow a little weary with the glut of supernatural thrillers that sprung up in the wake of “The Exorcist” and the string of disaster movies inspired by the likes of “Airport” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” Nevertheless, someone hit upon the idea of combining the two and the result was one of the most bizarre entries in either genre. A French police detective investigates the near-fatal beating of a writer (Richard Burton) and discovers through the man’s psychiatrist (Lee Remick) that he is convinced that he has the power to cause horrifying disasters to occur simply with his mind and that the guilt he feels about this has driven him insane. The trouble is, as the investigation continues, it seems that he may actually have those powers after all and not even his being in a coma may be enough to prevent further tragedies from occurring. Again, this is one of those movies that starts off on such a nutty note that you can’t imagine that it can continually top itself in terms of its sheer insanity and sure enough, it manages to somehow pull it off. Throw in an overblown performance by Burton--this was done during a period where he was clearly working for Scotch--and you have a trash epic that has to be seen to be disbelieved.
SIMON (1980): Having collaborated with Woody Allen on the screenplays for “Sleeper,” “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” Marshall Brickman struck off on his own with this satire about a group of bored think-tank scientists who, just because they can, brainwash a nebbish colleague (Alan Arkin) into thinking that he is an alien as part of a plan to record mankind’s reaction to such a discovery. Before long, however, he escapes from their confines and eventually falls in with a TV-worshipping cult and uses their power to try to communicate with the world through his own network. Granted, this is one that I haven’t seen in a very long time and for all I know, much of the humor may be on the dated side (as the stuff about the then-outrageous idea of a fourth network might suggest), but from what I recall, Arkin is pretty hilarious throughout (there is one great bit in which he spontaneously invents his own language) and some of the early scenes with the think tank are amusing as well.
THE TWONKY (1953): Produced during the time when the movie industry feared that it might go the way of vaudeville and laserdisc in the wake of this new-fangled invention called television, this goofy tale from director Arch Oboler tells the story of a TV-hating professor (Hans Conreid) who is nevertheless gifted with one by his wife to keep him company before she leaves on a long trip. However, this is no normal TV--the machine is alive and can do anything from light his pipe and counterfeit money to control what he reads and writes and zap anyone that gets in his way. That’s right, it is a Commie TV. . .okay, actually a normal TV that has been possessed by a Commie alien species but really, is there that much of a difference? Yes, I realize that this year’s list has been inexplicably leaning heavily towards dated sci-fi satires and yes, I realize that this film isn’t quite as wild as I may have made it sound but the idea of watching it via the miracles of hi-def television and Blu-ray strikes me as amusing.
WELCOME TO L.A. (1977): Alan Rudolph, a name no doubt familiar to fans of these MIA DVD columns, made his official directorial debut (assuming that you don’t count “Premonition” and “Barn of the Naked Dead,” two low-budget horror films that he made a few years earlier) with this sprawling drama, a thematic precursor to such films as “Short Cuts” (it was produced by Robert Altman, with whom Rudolph had worked on the likes of “Nashville” and “Buffalo Bill and the Indians”) following the interacting lives and loves of a group of disparate denizens of the City of Angels over the course of a few days, including Keith Carradine as a songwriter in town to record a new album , Denver Pyle as his disapproving businessman father, Harvey Keitel as the businessman’s right-hand man, Sissy Spacek as a maid who does her vacuuming in the nude and Sally Kellerman as a real-estate agent who attracts the attentions of both Carradine and Keitel. Although the film has gotten a bum rap for a long time from people put off by Rudolph’s filmmaking approach that favors loosely plotted affairs featuring actors spouting mock-poetic dialogue (“I love Greta Garbo” “Yeah, she’s nice when you are by yourself.”) and by the songs by Richard Baskin that tie the storylines together, I have always had a soft spot for Rudolph’s dreamy brand of cinema and even though this was his first official movie, his distinctive style is already in place. For those not already in tune with Rudolph’s visions, the film (for which prints no longer exist, according to Rudolph, though it does occasionally hit the more obscure cable channels) does boast a gallery of fine performances (the best coming from a never-sexier Spacek and an amusingly subdued Keitel) and a score that does sort of grow on you after a while.