DVD Reviews For 4/29: "It's A Good Scream"
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/30/11 02:01:37
Although this week is rather light on new releases, a whole slew of cult favorites are hitting Blu-ray, including one that I consider to be among the greatest films ever made.
As the 1980's rolled around, filmmaker Brian De Palma found himself in a somewhat odd position. Although he was usually lumped in with the other hot young directors who had revolutionized the American film industry during the previous decade, he had yet to achieve the kind of mammoth commercial success of the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas or the critical hosannas that had been afforded to Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. He first made a name for himself with "Greetings" and "Hi Mom," a pair of edgy anti-establishment comedies (both featuring a then-unknown actor by the name of Robert De Niro) that he shot independently. He was then hired by Warner Brothers to make a film for them with the same kind of sensibility but the resulting film, the Tom Smothers vehicle "Get to Know Your Rabbit," was pretty much a failure all around and De Palma was removed from the project before its bride and unsuccessful release. From there, he went back to the indie world and scored a hit with "Sisters," a creepy little film that announced him as a major new presence on the horror scene. Despite his success in that genre, he decided to go elsewhere and while his next two projects, the musical satire "Phantom of the Paradise" and the "Vertigo" homage "Obsession," were both excellent films, neither one made much of an impact at the box-office and the reviews were split between those who adored De Palma's increasingly stylish cinematic approach and those who found his work to be cynical, heartless, crude and derivative.
Things began to turn around for him when he signed on to direct a film based on the first work by a promising young novelist by the name of Stephen King, a dark tale about a gawky and eternally bullied high school girl with telekinesis who unleashes her powers on her tormentors after being the butt of an exceptionally cruel prank on prom night. The film, of course, was "Carrie" and it was both a financial and critical success and co-stars Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie even earned Oscar nominations for their performances, a feat almost unheard of at the time for a horror film. After following up that success with "The Fury," a slick-but unessential thriller involving more teens with strange powers that he did when another project fell through and "Home Movies," an ultra-low-budget item that he made with students at Sarah Lawrence University as part of a school project, he scored another big hit in 1980 with "Dressed to Kill," a stylish, scary and darkly funny riff on "Psycho" that proved to be a blessed relief for horror fans who wanted something from the genre other than the clunky mad slasher epics that were glutting theaters at the time in the hopes of emulating the box-office returns of "Halloween." Although the success of "Dressed to Kill" did not come without its share of controversy--feminist groups accused him of misogyny and denounced his film for depicting women being stalked and killed by a lunatic and some critics decried him for what they felt were his blatant thefts from the films of Alfred Hitchcock (a charge that was likely fueled by both the passing of Hitchcock only a couple of months earlier and an ad campaign that called De Palma "The New Master of Suspense.") Nevertheless, De Palma finally found himself in a position where he could more or less write his own ticket and that ticket would prove to be a new project that would combine all of the various personal obsessions that he had been exploring throughout his career into one dark and head-spinning package. Amazingly enough, despite its bleak tone, he actually managed to get it made just as he wanted, helped in part by the participation of John Travolta, who had co-starred in "Carrie" and who was still riding his first wave of enormous popularity in the wake of "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease." Even more amazingly, that film, 1981's "Blow Out," would prove to be a genuine masterpiece--a haunting, thrilling and heartbreaking epic from a master filmmaker working at the peak of his powers that not only remains his finest film to date but is also (in my view, at least) one of the finest American films ever made.
Travolta stars as Jack Terri, a sound expert who used to do things for the Philadelphia police department but who now works as a sound effects editor for a cheapo exploitation movie outfit. Charged with recording some new sound effects to replace his overused tracks, Jack goes out to capture the ambient sounds of the evening and witnesses a car plunging off a nearby bridge into the water below with a man and a woman inside. He jumps in and is able to rescue the woman but the man winds up drowning. At the hospital, Jack is visited by a couple of official-looking types who inform him that the man was the governor of Pennsylvania, a man expected to be the man to beat in the next presidential election, and that the woman, Sally (Nancy Allen), was most certainly not his wife. They ask Jack to keep quiet about both his involvement and Sally's in order to spare the governor's wife and family from undue embarrassment. Going over his recording of the accident, Jack becomes convinced that he can hear a noise before the blow out of the car's tire that sounds suspiciously like a gunshot. With the reasonably sweet and innocent Sally in tow, Jack begins to pursue his own investigation and without going into too much detail, I will only mention that doing so raises the attention of two other individuals, a sleazy detective (Dennis Franz) who knows a little more about what happened on the bridge than he is willing to let on and a psychotic political operative (John Lithgow) who knows a lot more about what happened on the bridge and is willing to go to murderous lengths to keep those details under wraps.
Over the years, Brian De Palma has found himself both celebrated and vilified by critics and audiences alike for his heady cinematic brews filled with sardonic humor, shocking violence, wild plot developments and astonishingly elaborate and detailed cinematic set-pieces in which all those elements come together with astonishing precision or lunatic abandon, depending on how one looks at them. In this regard, "Blow Out" is of a piece with his other films. Like most of his other self-generated projects, De Palma's screenplay deals with things that he has been exploring to various degrees throughout his entire career--voyeurism (or at least its audio equivalent), assassination, political conspiracies, a jaundiced attitude towards contemporary entertainment, deeply flawed heroes struggling for some form of redemption, modern technology and how those who blindly put all their faith in it are doomed to failure and the plight of the righteous man trying to expose a web of complex and frightening corruption to a world that either doesn't want to know about it or, even worse, knows about it but doesn't really care--but brings a new intensity to them by dealing with them in the service of a screenplay that serves as a complete narrative instead of simply working as a laundry line to connect the aforementioned knockout set-pieces.
This is not to say that he slacks off in that regard here because "Blow Out" contains some of the most dazzling and inventive sequences of a career that even De Palma's detractors will admit has been chock-full of such things. The opening sequence, which I won't reveal, is a particularly inspired bit that serves as both an impressive technical feat (utilizing De Palma's first deployment of the now-ubiquitous Steadicam) and as a mercilessly funny spoof of the kind of slasher movie junk that was clogging up theaters at the time it was made and which the infinitely more stylish and intelligent "Dressed to Kill" was unfairly lumped together with by shortsighted naysayers. In the most famous sequence, a magazine prints a series of photos taken of the crash by another bystander and, in a spellbinding example of pure cinema that also serves as a beautiful testimony to the allure of filmmaking itself, Travolta uses those photos and his soundtrack to create a mini-movie that will prove that it was no accident after all. In another bit, Travolta flashes back to the tragic end of his days with the police when a malfunction of the equipment he used to wire an undercover cop led to a tragedy. (This sequence appears to be De Palma's surreptitious homage to "Prince of the City," a docu-drama about police corruption that he worked on for months with writer David Rabe before being replaced by Sidney Lumet--Lumet's 1981 version was brilliant but based on this segment, it seems that De Palma might have knocked it out of the park as well. Finally, there is the astonishing climax in which Travolta hurtles his way through the crowded streets of Philadelphia, filled with people celebrating the anniversary of the ringing of the Liberty Bell in order to rescue Sally from the deadly trap into which he has unwittingly sent her.
What separates "Blow Out" from practically every other entry in De Palma's filmography is that for once, he has placed all of his considerable filmmaking skills in the service of a mature and serious narrative largely free of the jokiness or show-off moves that he has always indulged in. While the story does owe of a debt to both Michaelangelo Antonioni's "Blow Up" and Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," two films in which isolated men with a particular skill set (photography and wiretapping, respectively) inadvertently stumble on murder plots, De Palma merely uses them as a stepping-off point in order to get to his own unique take on the premise. Although the storyline is as dense and complex as can be, De Palma handles it in a straightforward and graceful manner that allows viewers to be able to keep up without succumbing to the need to dumb it down. And while his previous films tended to center on people who served more as pawns to be moved around like pieces on a chessboard (with the sole exception of Sissy Spacek in "Carrie"), he gives us a pair of fully fleshed-out lead characters who are so engaging despite their flaws that it is impossible not to like them, a move that helps to make viewers actually care about them for once and which gives the finale the kind of powerful emotional punch that would not have otherwise possessed.
Also adding to the impact of "Blow Out" are a quartet of superlative performances from a quartet of actors who had previously worked with De Palma and with whom he was presumably comfortable enough with to entrust them with this more elevated material. John Travolta (who appeared in a supporting role in "Carrie" just before super-stardom hit) has delivered any number of good performances over the years but not even his standout work in things like "Saturday Night Fever" and "Pulp Fiction" improved on what he did here. Neatly suppressing the natural charm that made him a star but which would have been all wrong in this context, he instead plays Jack as a cynical and detached cold fish who has willingly removed himself from the world around him in order to avoid getting hurt again and does it so beautifully that he still manages to engage viewers almost in spite of himself. Nancy Allen (making the last of four appearances in films from De Palma, to whom she was married at the time) is so incredibly sweet and charming as Sally that it seems impossible that she could have been played by the same person who portrayed the uber-bitch in "Carrie." Together, the two play off of each other so beautifully that if it weren't for the grim and dire circumstances surrounding them, I could almost see a nifty romantic comedy developing around them. As the bad buys, Dennis Franz is a scream as the sleaze private eye and John Lithgow is a scream of an entirely different kind in his role as the dirty tricks expert--fans of "Dexter," where Lithgow played a serial killer for a season, will find intriguing parallels between his justly celebrated performance there and his terrifying turn here.
While "Blow Out" might have done well if it had been released a few years earlier, a time when a complex political thriller for adults could still thrive at the box-office, it had the misfortune to come out in the middle of the summer of 1981, a time when audiences were flocking instead to the comparatively weightless likes of "Raiders of the Lost Ark<" "Superman II" and other movies aimed at less discriminating audiences (as I recall, it opened opposite the deathless "Zorro, the Gay Blade") and as a result, it sank like a stone.Subsequently, De Palma would bounce back and forth between slick and overtly commercial films on which he was a hired gun ("Scarface," "The Untouchables" and "Mission: Impossible"), off-beat personal endeavors (Raising Cain," "Femme Fatale" and "Redacted") and the occasional curiosity ("Wise Guys," "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and "Mission to Mars"). However, with the exception of his muddled Vietnam drama "Casualties of War," he would never again attempt anything as formally and emotionally mature and resonant as he did here. This is a shame because even though I have admired virtually all of De Palma's films to one degree or another, there is still a part of me that wishes that he would take another chance on the type of material that he did here. Though his stock has plummeted in recent years, De Palma is still one of the best and most formally inventive American filmmakers working today and "Blow Out" is the film that proves that once and for all.
Previously issued on DVD in 2002 by MGM in a no-frills edition that disappointed fans for the lack of bonus features of the type included in their then-concurrent special edition releases of "Carrie" and "Dressed to Kill" and which has been out of print for a while, it is now being released on DVD and Blu-ray in a beautiful new set from Criterion that offers up both a gorgeous new transfer and a slew of impressive extras. De Palma is famous for not doing commentary tracks on his films but he does the next best thing here by sitting down for an hour-long interview in which he talks about every aspect of the film from its inception to shooting difficulties (such as when a good chunk of the footage shot for the complex Liberty Bell sequence was stolen and needed to be reshot) to its tumultuous reception at the box-office. (Curiously enough, the interview is conducted by Noah Baumbach, a curious choice that seems to have been made solely to piss off noted De Palma defender Armond White.) There are additional interviews with Nancy Allen and Garret Brown, the Steadicam operator who talks about how he utilized the contraption in the film, most notably during the opening sequence. If that wasn't enough, the disc includes a bonus feature film in "Murder a la Mod," the 1968 low-budget thriller that marked De Palma's feature directorial debut and which has been covered previously in this column. All in all, Criterion has at long last provided "Blow Out" with the truly special special edition that it has long deserved.
The Criterion Collection. $39.95)
NEW AND NOTABLE
THE BOYFRIEND/SAVAGE MESSIAH (Warner Archives. $19.95 each): Although one of the more talked-about filmmakers of the 1970's thanks to a string of audacious and hallucinatory works--so much so that his over-the-top screen adaptation of The Who's rock opera "Tommy" is one of his more staid efforts by comparison--the films of Ken Russell have not been particularly well-served on DVD over the years; many have gone out of print while others have never even been released in the format at all. Thanks to the Warner Archives program of releasing the more off-beat titles from their vaults via made-to-order DVDs, his 1971 adaptation/deconstruction of the 1954 musical that made Julie Andrews a star in its Broadway run and his occasionally nuts 1972 biopic on the life of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska are finally available for new generations to gaze upon and ponder how he ever got people to actually put up money for such weirdness. Hey, Warner Archives--while you are at it, could you possibly get around to unleashing the unexpurgated version of his controversial 1971 hit "The Devils" and his certifiably crazy 1975 Franz Liszt biopic "Lisztomania" as well? Another oddity from the Warner Archives now in release is "Hold On!" (Warner Archives. $19.95), a silly 1965 vehicle for the then-popular rock group Herman's Hermits that finds them chasing girls and singing forgettable songs on a U.S. tour while being shadowed by a NASA scientist trying to determine whether the group deserves to have a rocket ship named after them.
DEMENTIA 13 (Virgil Films. $15.99): Francis Ford Coppola got his first big break as a filmmaker when B-movie legend Roger Corman hired him to write and direct a low-budget horror film in which the members of a generally loathsome family who have gathered at their ancestral home in Ireland for inheritance-related business discover that there is a killer amongst them doing their best to speed the process along. Yes, the film is cheap and silly and not even the most finely attuned auteurist radar could detect any hint of the man who would go on to make "The Godfather," "Apocalypse Now" or "Youth After Youth." That said, Coppola does manage to come up with a couple of reasonably effective scare sequences and as a whole, the film is still better than "Jack," though maybe not quite as terrifying. Another infamous Corman production hitting DVD/Blu-ray this week is "The Terror" (Virgil Films. $15.99), a weirdo ghost story starring Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff that is most famous for all the people who directed scenes for it in an attempt to wrestle it into something coherent--among those behind the camera were Corman, Coppola, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman and even Nicholson. It doesn't make a bit of sense but it is interesting to watch today as a curiosity item if nothing else.
DINOSHARK (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.97): Another week, another cheapo monster movie involving a poorly rendered CGI creature wreaking havoc on actors whose careers clearly didn't pan out in the way that they had presumably hoped. This time around, a prehistoric dinosaur-shark hybrid is awakened from its frozen tomb thanks to global warming and decides to thank mankind by heading to the beaches of Puerto Vallatra and chowing down on tourists, sailors and all-female water polo teams.
THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (Synapse Films. $29.95): This 1982 effort is a fairly standard-issue entry into the mad slasher genre that was already beginning to wind down by the time it was released--a bunch of comely co-eds stay on their virtually deserted campus over a holiday break and find themselves being knocked off one by one by a mysterious psycho--and is probably best remembered today for featuring an early appearance by Daphne Zuniga as one of the girls.. (If you are about to ask "Who's Daphne Zuniga?," I would advise you to hold your tongue and get thee to a copy of "The Sure Thing" as soon as possible.) Although the film itself isn't especially interesting unless you are an extra-devoted student of the genre, this Blu-ray package is because not only does it include the film as it played in theaters and on home video, it also includes the long-unseen original cut when it was known as "Death Dorm" and when it featured numerous bits of blood and gore that needed to be dropped in order to get an "R" rating from the MPAA. While I am not entirely certain that a film as non-essential as this deserves the kind of lavish treatment that one might expect to be afforded to the likes of "Citizen Kane" or "Tron: Legacy," I tip my hat to the good folk at Synapse for making the considerable effort.
FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Ever since the late, great Hunter S. Thompson published his landmark 1971 book chronicling his drug-fueled journey in search of the American Dream, people had been trying without success to figure out a way to bring it to the screen. Finally, the project fell into the hands of visionary filmmaker Terry Gilliam and the result was a work just as funny, angry and mind-bendingly brilliant as its source material, thanks in no small part to the astounding central performances by Johnny Depp as Thompson's alter ego Raoul Duke (which I would still argue is his finest acting turn to date) and Benicio del Toro as his fearsome 300-lb Samoan attorney. This Criterion blu-ray includes all of the extras from their DVD edition from a few years ago (including deleted scenes, documentaries and commentary tracks featuring Gilliam, Depp, del Toro and even Thompson himself in all his screaming glory) and while there are no new features to be had, the picture upgrade alone is well worth the double-dip for this instant cult classic. [br]
MOGULS & MOVIE STARS (Warner Home Video. $39.98): This three-disc set contain all 7 episodes of the acclaimed seven-part documentary, originally aired on Turner Classic Movies last year, chronicling the American movie industry from its earliest incarnation in the late 1800's to the waning days of the studio system in the Sixties, complete with an extra hour of material not included in the original broadcast. Film buffs will find a lot of this to be familiar but as history lessons go, this swift, compact and well-researched project certainly gets the job done in an entertaining manner.
POOR PRETTY EDDIE (Cultra. $19.99): From the "I Can't Believe This Film Actually Exists" department comes this jaw-dropping slab of 1970's-style exploitation filmmaking at its strangest and seediest. Leslie Uggams stars as a big city singer who is plunged into a nightmare of racism, violence and sexual depravity when her car breaks down in a rural Southern town and she falls prey to its twisted denizens, embodied by the likes of Shelly Winters, Ted "Lurch" Cassidy and Dub Taylor. Believe me, this movie is way out there and is definitely not for the faint of heart but if you were able to make it through such grindhouse epics as "Fight for Your Life" and "Mandingo," you should have no trouble wrapping your warped little mind around this bit of weirdness.
TRACY & HEPBURN: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $59.98): Titles don't get more self-explanatory than for this box set that brings together all nine of the on-screen teamings of Spencer Tracy & Katherine Hepburn--"Woman of the Year"(1942), the new-to-DVD "Keeper of the Flame" (1942), "Without Love" (1945), the new-to-DVD "The Sea of Grass" (1947), "State of the Union" (1948), "Adam's Rib" (1949), "Pat & Mike" (1952), "Desk Set" (1957) and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"(1967)--along with the Hepburn-narrated retrospective documentary "The Spencer Tracy Legacy" and various cartoons, short subject and other ephemera tied into each title. Fans of the duo may resent having to repurchase old favorites like "Adam's Rib" again in order to get a hold of the newer titles (which are arguably the least of their films together) but for those who have yet to acquire any of these in their previous incarnations, this set is pretty much indispensable.
UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS (BBC America. $34.98): For those of you who haven't quite gotten your fill of all things Brit-related, you may enjoy this remake of the landmark BBC miniseries from the Seventies set in a lush mansion and following the lives of the upstairs people who glide through their lives of luxury and the downstairs servants who quietly keep things moving along. Othe TV-related DVDs now available include "Growing Pains: The Complete 2nd Season" (Warner Home Video. $29.98), "The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Third Season" (Shout! Factory. $34.95) and "South Park: The Complete Fourteenth Season" (Warner Home video. $54.95).
BETTY BLUE (Cinema Libre. $29.95)
DAYLIGHT (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98)
DON'T LOOK BACK (New Video. $39.95)
EL TOPO (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $34.98)
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $34.98)