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DVD Reviews For 4/8(ish): "Suck On This!"

by Peter Sobczynski

Sorry for the severe lateness of this collection of newly released DVDs and Blu-rays. You see, between the near-shutdown of this column due to budget wranglings in Washington, the near-breakdown suffered when the Blackhawks nearly blew their chance to make it into the Stanley Cup playoffs and the desire to check out a couple of Sidney Lumet movies in order to commemorate his recent passing (although all the obits and tributes cite "Network" and "Dog Day Afternoon" above all others, you should also take a look at such equally brilliant works as "Prince of the City," "The Verdict," "Q&A," "Night Falls on Manhattan," "Find Me Guilty" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), I just sort of fell behind. Anyway, here it is and I can only hope that it was worth the wait.

It almost seems impossible to believe but there is now at least one generation of moviegoers who have grown up to regard Robert De Niro not as the most electrifying and talented actor to hit the silver screen since Marlon Brando but as the guy from such eminently forgettable cable TV filler as "Showtime," "Hide and Seek" and the immortal "Righteous Kill." While there are still times when he is willing to put in an effort--he was quite good in the little-seen "Stone" and his 2006 directorial effort "The Good Shepard" was a complex and exceedingly well-made epic about the formative years of the CIA--most of his work in the last decade or so has been in the service of a string of lazy paycheck parts that have seen him tarnish his one-time reputation as the Great American Actor in order to appear in a film in which he is gunned down by Lindsay Lohan in nun's drag. This downward slope to his career is perfectly illustrated through a trio of recent DVD releases--one from the 1970's when he was at his peak, one from the 80's when he began to shift towards more overtly commercial fare (albeit of decent quality) and a recent effort in which his laziness and disinterest is so palpable that you can practically hear him talking to his accountants in the middle of scenes.

The first film under discussion is "Taxi Driver," the 1976 classic that marked his second collaboration with director Martin Scorsese and which went into infamy when it was alleged to have inspired a sad and mentally unfit individual to attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan in a misguided effort to impress co-star Jodie Foster. By now, the particulars of the film, written by Paul Schrader, are so well-ingrained into the national psyche that even people who somehow have never seen it more or less know the particulars of the story, the chronicle of Travis Bickle, a deeply disturbed New York cab driver whose failed efforts to reach out to a couple of people--a classy political campaign worker (Cybill Shepard) who doesn't quite realize how off he is until one of the most disastrous first dates in screen history and an underage prostitute (Foster)--set him on a downward spiral ending in a horrifying bloodbath. Considering just how dark, grim and violent--both physically and emotionally--it is fascinating to realize that the film was actually a hit when it was first released and still has the ability to attract and anger new audiences even today. This is one of those rare films where everything works perfectly--the performances from the supporting cast are all outstanding (besides those already mentioned, there are also memorable turns from Peter Boyle as a pseudo-profound fellow cabbie, Harvey Keitel as the pimp who has Foster under his spell and Albert Brooks making his screen debut as a nerdy co-wormy of Shepard's), Schrader's screenplay is astonishing in the way that it effortlessly depicts and examines the loneliness and desperation at the heart of its central character and the world he inhabits and Scorsese's direction is as strong and assured as anything that he has achieved in his remarkable career--but it is De Niro's performance that stands out above everything else. Much has been written over the years about his performance but it is impossible to properly convey everything that he does in mere words. Instead, just watch the scene about halfway through the film in which Travis sits in front of his television brandishing a gun and watching "American Bandstand" as a bunch of kids dance to Jackson Browne's "Late for the Sky"--the blank and utterly uncomprehending stare that he gives as he watches the people cheerfully dancing away without any suggestion of the demons that are eating away at him is at once one of the scariest images ever captured on film and one of the saddest as well. Everyone may talk about the justifiably famous and endlessly parodied "You talking to me?" bit but this moment is the true heart of one of the greatest films ever made.

During the first part of the 1980's, De Niro worked on a series of ambitious films that gave him complex characters to portray. Unfortunately, while many of those films--including "Raging Bull," "The King of Comedy," "Once Upon a Time in America," "Brazil" and "The Mission"--are now cited as classics, they didn't make much of an impact at the box-office and De Niro found himself gradually moving towards somewhat more commercial fare starting with high-paying supporting roles in the controversial "Angel Heart" and the enormously popular "The Untouchables." That said, some heads turned when it was announced that he would be starring in "Midnight Run," an action comedy from Martin Brest, then hot off of "Beverly Hills Cop," that saw him playing a bounty hunter charged with tracking down an accountant (Charles Grodin) accused of embezzling from a powerful mobster (Dennis Farina) who has skipped bail and bringing him back before said mobster or the Feds, who want him to testify against him in court, can nab him. On the surface, it may have looked like just another buddy comedy hoping to reap the kind of box-office returns achieved by the likes of "Lethal Weapon" a year earlier but as critics and audiences discovered to their delight when they saw it, this was much better than the high-concept nonsense that some might have feared it to be. The screenplay by George Gallo didn't reinvent the wheel but it was funny and exciting in equal measures--so good, in fact, that Gallo still gets a pass in some quarters despite having gone on to pen the unwatchable likes of "See Spot Run," "Double Take," "The Whole Ten Yards" and "Middle Men." Brest's direction is equally impressive and is completely lacking the flabbiness that marred such subsequent works as "Scent of a Woman" and "Meet Joe Black" (not to mention "Gigli"). The highlight, however, is the wonderful comedic byplay between the flustered De Niro and the seemingly unflappable Grodin--the two bounce off of each other so brilliantly that you will find yourself wishing that they had done more films together. Note: "Midnight Run" is being reissued on DVD as part of a four film "Midnight Run Movie Marathon" but don't be concerned that you somehow overlooked three sequels to such a well-known title, the other "films" are made-for-TV ventures featuring Christopher MacDonald in De Niro's role and the less said about them, the better.

From this point, the story takes its grim and unfortunate turn south. Oh sure, there would be highlights such as his last three collaborations to date with Scorsese, "Goodfellas" (1990), "Cape Fear" (1991) and the wildly underrated "Casino" (1995), the quirky and little-seen "Mad Dog and Glory" (1993), the cops-and-robbers epic "Heat" (1995) and his hilarious back-to-back turns in "Wag the Dog" and "Jackie Brown" (both 1997). For the most part, however, he would increasingly trade in his reputation on high-paying gigs that would often as not poke fun at his reputation as a serious and fearsome personality. When he did this for the first time in the mob comedy "Analyze This" (1999), it was reasonably fresh and funny but it would prove to be a trough that he would go back to far too many times over the years. One such film was "Meet the Parents" (2000), a remake of a low-budget indie comedy in which he played the fearsome potential father-in-law to the always-hapless Ben Stiller. The film wasn't particularly funny but it struck gold with audiences and when the patently unnecessary sequel "Meet the Fockers" (2004), which added Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand to the mix in lieu of any new jokes, was released, it went on to become the largest-grossing live-action comedy film ever made. Inevitably, such a bonanza inspired yet another sequel, last winter's "Little Fockers" with Jessica Alba and Harvey Keitel joining the others in picking up an easy paycheck. This time, however, audiences seemed to sense that something was amiss because while it did make a pile of money over the holidays, the gross was much lower than expected. Hell, even De Niro himself could be seen making jokes about its quality while accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes. Alas, I cannot tell you for sure if it really was exponentially worse than the previous installments or if audiences had just finally realized that they were never that funny in the first place--having writhed through the earlier films, I simply could not bring myself to sit through the same tired gags for a third time either in a multiplex or at home. After all, memories of De Niro as an acting giant are dwindling and I would prefer to preserve them for as long as possible. I'm sure you understand.

TAXI DRIVER (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95)

MIDNIGHT RUN MOVIE MARATHON (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98)

LITTLE FOCKERS (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98)


ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET CAPTAIN KIDD (Warner Archives. $19.95): The legendary comedy team and famed actor Charles Laughton play the title roles in this high seas spoof making its presumably long-awaited DVD debut as part of the Warner Archives series dedicated to making the lesser-known films in the Warner Brothers vaults available to fans. Alas, the film captures the duo a couple of years past their peak and the sight of Laughton clowning around is a bit unsettling as well. On the other hand, it is bright, colorful and decidedly unpretentious and if you are in the mood for 70 minutes of straight-up silliness, you could do worse than this and most likely have.

ANYTHING GOES (E1 Entertainment.$29.96): Frank Sinatra and Ethel Merman made their television debuts with this abridged 1954 adaptation of the Cole Porter seafaring musical comedy that was stage live as part of the "Colgate Comedy Hour" and has only been seen since then on ugly-looking bootlegs struck from worn kinescopes (a film recording of the original television broadcast shot off of the tube itself--a common practice in the days before TV shows were put on film). This version, however, was taken from a practically pristine kinescope that belonged to Merman and was donated to the Archive of American television. This isn't the best version of the show--Porter fans will be appalled by the amount of material dropped in order to get it into the TV slot and the concept of Sinatra and Merman as a romantic couple is beyond-the-looking-glass weird but as a nostalgic reminder of TV used to be like, it is sort of fun and for Sinatra fanatics, it is pretty much a must.

ARTHUR/ARTHUR 2: ON THE ROCKS (Warner Home Video. $19.98): Perhaps the only good thing that can be said about the misbegotten remake of "Arthur" currently polluting theaters and trying to sell the ill-advised notion that Russell Brand and Greta Gerwig are movie stars is that it has inspired the Blu-ray release of the still-delightful 1981 original (the first time it has appeared on home video in the U.S. in it's correct aspect ratio). Sure, some of it has dated a bit and alcoholism is not quite as funny these days as it once was but the combination of a hilarious screenplay by Steve Gordon and wonderful performances by Dudley Moore in the title role and John Gielgud as his acerbic-but-loyal butler still plays beautifully today. In a tacit admission that no sane, sober person would ever deliberately buy a copy of it on its own, the disc also includes the wildly unnecessary and painfully unfunny 1988 sequel that made "Caddyshack II" look like "Godfather I" by comparison.

BLACK SWAN (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): If you had told me a year ago that Darren Aronofsky's upcoming film, a go-for-baroque melodrama about an ambitious-but-neurotic ballet dancer (Natalie Portman in her Oscar-winning performance) whose psyche begins to crumble after she is cast in the lead role of "Swan Lake" seemingly inspired by equal parts Michael Powell, Brian De Palma and Dario Argento, would wind up being a $100 million hit, I would have thought you were nuts. Happily, that is what happened and even more happily, Aronofsky pulled it off without dialing down his always-lofty ambitions in order to gain a wider audience. Wild, beautiful, bizarre and always surprising, this is the kind of go-for-broke filmmaking that is rarely seen in these increasingly safe artistic times and even if you think that the whole thing is overheated hooey (and it does skirt that particular borderline at times), you will still come away from it feeling as though you have seen an actual movie and not just another filmed deal.

CAPONE (Shout! Factory. $19.93): No, this is not a docudrama about the infamous Chicago-based critic for Ain't It Cool News who still insists that "The Hangover" was funny. This is, in fact, a 1975 docudrama produced by the legendary Roger Corman about the infamous Chicago-based gangster who no doubt inspired countless hangovers through the bootlegging business that helped him form a massive criminal empire. Starring Ben Gazzara and a pre-"Rocky" Sylvester Stallone as flunky Frank Nitti, the film doesn't compare to a masterpiece like Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables" (except perhaps in the area of historical fidelity) but as cheapo exploitation semi-epics go, this one pretty much delivers the goods.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $29.98): I must confess that in regards to this film, the third screen installment of the C.S. Lewis fantasy saga, I have kind of slacked off. You see, I hated "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and was thoroughly bored with "Prince Caspian" and after watching a half-hour of preview footage of this one last fall, I felt absolutely no desire to see it and when I discovered that it was being retro-fitted into 3-D so as to goose the box-office, I just washed my hands of the whole thing and skipped it entirely. In other words, you are on your own on this one, though a couple of colleagues have suggested that it is a little better than the first two.

EMBODIMENT OF EVIL (Synapse Films. $29.95): Brazilian cult filmmaker Jose Mojica Marins revives his infamously brutal character Coffin Joe for the long-awaited completion of his trilogy of violent and hallucinatory horror films that began with 1964's "At Midnight, I'll Take Your Soul" and 1967's "This Night, I'll Possess Your Corpse." In it, Coffin Joe is released from prison after serving 40 years for his various perverse crimes against humanity and hits the streets with his hunchbacked assistant on a violent quest to find the woman who can bear him the perfect child while being haunted by terrifying visions of his past victims. Needless to say, this is not for the timid and if you have never seen one of Marins' whacked-out efforts before, this is probably not the best entrance to his peculiar oeuvre. For those who are familiar with his work, this isn't quite as up to snuff as the earlier films (in every sense of the word) but it does have enough arresting imagery to make it worth checking out for those with a strong stomach and a healthy taste for the absurd.

FAIR GAME (Summit Films. $22.99): Alas, this is not the long-awaited re-release/Blu-ray debut of the 1995 Cindy Crawford/Billy Baldwin classic (another version of the same published material that inspired the Stallone classic "Cobra," by the way). Instead, it is a gripping and well-made docudrama about Valerie Plame, the CIA undercover agent whose cover was deliberately blown by the Bush White House when her husband refused to sign off on the faulty information that was given as the chief rationale for invading Iraq. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are both excellent in the lead roles and director Doug Liman does an excellent job of putting forth lots of potentially confusing information in a concise and exciting manner that will keep audiences interested regardless of how much they know about the whole sordid affair going into it.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: THE FIFTH AND FINAL SEASON (Universal Home Entertainment. $39.98): You know, back in my day, a TV series broadcast a complete season and then appeared on DVD, usually just in time to help publicize the show's next run of shows. In the case of the fifth and last season of the highly acclaimed and low-rated series about the denizens of a small Texas town that revolves almost entirely around the fate of the local high school football team, it is hitting shelves just as the same episodes are beginning to run on NBC after previously appearing on DirectTV. Regardless, this was a very good show--one that definitely deserved more viewers than it ever got--and fans will want to snap this up in an instant while those who have yet to experience it are advised to check out the four previous seasons, all of which are also available on DVD and well worth the time, money and effort. Other TV-related DVDs now available include "The Civil War: 150th Anniversary Edition" (Paramount Home Video. $99.99), "Emergency: The Final Rescues" (Universal Home Entertainment. $39.98), "In Plain Sight: Season 3" (Universal Home Entertainment. $39.98), "Mad Men: Season 4" (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $49.98), "Rocky & Bullwinkle and Friends:The Complete Season 5" (Classic Media. $34.95), "Treme: The Complete First Season" (HBO Home Entertainment. $59.99), "Upstairs Downstairs: The Complete Series--40th Anniversary Collection" (Acorn Media. $199.99) and "Vegas: Season 2, Volume 2" (CBS DVD. $36.98).

I LOVE YOU, PHILIP MORRIS (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.95): After being tied up in a strange legal limbo that caused it to sit on the shelf in the U.S. even as it was opening throughout the rest of the world, this strange comedy-drama, based on the true story of a seemingly straight-laced family man who suddenly decides that he is gay, pulls off a string of elaborate cons in order to fund his new lifestyle and, once thrown in jail, pulls an even more astonishing array of cons in order to be with another priosner that he has fallen for, was only dribbled out into a few theaters last Christmas and quickly disappeared despite the participation of Jim Carrey as the con man, Ewan McGregor as his paramour and the guys responsible for "Bad Santa" behind the camera as the writers and directors. As a result, some of you may simply write this off as a bomb but this is one that you really need to check out--a witty, outrageous and oddly touching epic that contains one of Carrey's finest performances to date.

MIRAGE (Universal Home Entertainment. $14.98): Fans of the twisty works of Christopher Nolan will probably get a kick out of this 1965 mind-bender starring Gregory Peck who emerges from a blackout at the building where he works to discover that his job doesn't exist, the building now has basement levels that weren't there before, he doesn't recognize anyone, his apartment doesn't appear to have been lived in and he apparently has no memories of any part of his life beyond the previous two years. Amazingly, it gets even more complicated--yes, there are mysterious people trying to kill him while he tries to get to the bottom of what has happened--but to say any more would ruin many of the surprises in this largely unheralded but hugely entertaining thriller.

THE RESIDENT (Image Entertainment. $27.97): You would think that having two Best Actress Oscars on the mantlepiece at home would mean that one could go through the rest of their career without having to stoop to appear in silly direct-to-video horror items. Alas, that doesn't seem to be the case and as a result, we have this supremely silly effort in which Hillary Swank moves into a new apartment and gradually begins to realize that her hunky new landlord (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is more psychotic than your usual rent collector. You've seen it all before and not even the presence of Swank or genre legend Christopher Lee can do much to elevate it above the level of the utterly mundane.

TANGLED (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $29.99): IAlthough I didn't find this screwball take on the fairy tale "Rapunzel" featuring the voices of Mandy Moore as the spunky long-haired heroine and Zachary Levi as the roguish-yet-dopey thief who helps to free her from the tower in which she has been imprisoned since birth by an evil woman who craves the magical life-reviving powers contained in her luxurious locks--it struck me as being tonally all over the map and filled with songs that were both unnecessary and unmemorable--enough people did to make it one of Disney's more successful non-Pixar animated efforts to come along in recent memory. On the bright side, literally, the onetime 3-D presentation can now been seen in glorious 2-D so that the bright colors that were dulled in theaters by those stupid glasses can now be fully appreciated.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Paramount Home Video. $39.99): Red Sea, Blu-ray--what else do I have to say. This is but one of a slew of Bible epics hitting shelves in time for Easter that also includes "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.99) and "King of Kings" (Warner Home Video. $19.98).

TOPSY-TURVY (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Best known for such powerful dramas as "Naked," "Secrets and Lies" and "Vera Drake," acclaimed British director Mike Leigh took many observers by surprise when he offered up this 1999 effort that chronicled the efforts of the noted composers Gilbert & Sullivan (Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner as they put together the elements that would become one of the most famous and beloved operettas, "The Mikado." Instead of getting bogged down in period details as othe filmmakers might have been, Leigh approaches this premise in the same manner as his other work--emphasizing the emotional reality of the scene above all else--and the resulting film remains one of the best of his entire career. Long out of print, the film has now become part of the Criterion Collection and it has been refurbished with a brand-new digital transfer and granted a slew of extras that include a commentary from Leigh, deleted scenes and a 1992 short film directed by Leigh and starring Broadbent. If that isn't enough G&S for you, Criterion is also offering "The Mikado" (The Criterion Collection. $39.95), an entertaining 1939 screen version made in Hollywood in full Technicolor that was the first full-length screen version of one of their works.

TRON: LEGACY (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $39.99): For more than two decades, a certain subsection of film geeks had been clamoring for a sequel to "Tron," the 1982 Disney sic-fi epic in which computer wizard Jeff Bridges who gets sucked into the very same computer world that he helped design--a wish that seemed like a pipe dream considering the fact that it was an enormous failure at the box-office (though it would become a cult favorite over the years). Nevertheless, 28 years after the release of the original, they got their wish with a mammothly expensive and highly publicized follow-up in which the son of Bridges' character (Garrett Hudland) enters the game world himself in order to bring back his dad, who has been trapped there for years. As it turns out, the end result was a lot like the original--a somewhat weak narrative rescued by eye-popping special effects and a funny performance from Bridges (who even works a little bit of The Dude into some of his line readings). That original film, another lone long-unavailable on DVD (as people who tried to rent it last winter in anticipation for the sequel found out) is also being re-released this week and is making its Blu-ray debut as well. (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $39.99


A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (Paramount Home Video. $24.99)

ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.99)

AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (Image Entertainment. $17.97)

BABE (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98)

BENNY & JOON (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.99)[.b]

CHARLOTTE’S WEB (Paramount Home Video. $26.98)

DOGTOOTH (Kino Video. $34.95)

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF: 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (MGM Home Entertainment. $29.99)

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $20.00)

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 2 (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $20.00)

HOTEL FOR DOGS (Paramount Home Video. $26.98)

INFERNO (Blue Underground. $29.98)

INVINCIBLE (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $15.99)

JAWBREAKER (Image Entertainment. $17.97)

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.99)

LEGALLY BLONDE 2: RED , WHITE AND BLONDE (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.99)

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.99)

MYSTIC PIZZA (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.99 )

THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (Image Entertainment. $17.97)

PETER PAN (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98)

SCREAM (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.99)

SCREAM 2 (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.99)

SCREAM 3 (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.99)

THE SECRET OF NIMH (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.99)

SOYLENT GREEN (Warner Home Video. $19.98)

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES (Paramount Home Video. $26.98)

THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE (Paramount Home Video. $26.98)

TAXI (Fox Home Entertainment. $24.99)

TEEN WOLF (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.99)

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originally posted: 04/12/11 23:30:22
last updated: 04/13/11 00:55:09
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