|DVD Reviews For 2/26: "Ha. The State of Florida Against A L'il Ole Catfish! Some Case!"
|by Peter Sobczynski
The King of Comedy himself is featured in a quartet of new releases now available for your perusal to tickle your funny bone and tug at your heartstrings. Also available--a deadly half-man/half-catfish hybrid, a cat in fancy footwear, nuns bearing arms (among other things), some botched Oscar bait, one of the best films of last years and one of the most disgusting things to ever hit the big screen. All that and "Honey 2". . .
I make no bones about--I am an unabashed fan of Jerry Lewis. Sure, he has made his share of bad movies over the years and made more than his fair share of public gaffes regarding the press, the depiction of the handicapped that he fostered during his years as the public face in the battle against muscular dystrophy and his views on female comedians (though the very existence of Chelsea Handler and Whitney Cummings makes me want to go around wearing a T-shirt with their faces and a logo reading "JERRY LEWIS WAS RIGHT." On the other hand, his legitimate contributions to the world of entertainment have been extraordinary. As a comedic filmmaker and performer, he has created countless moments of pure hilarity and if there were a pantheon celebrating the best that screen comedy has to offer, his masterpieces "The Bellboy" and "The Nutty Professor" would deserve instant enshrinement. As a dramatic actor, he has more than held his own against the likes of Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway and the fact that his amazing turn in Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy" failed to earn even a nomination for Best Supporting Actor is one more reminder of the essential uselessness of that particular institution. On the technical front, he has always been an innovator--he basically developed the video playback system (in which a video monitor captures the scene being filmed so that the director can instantly see the results without having to wait for the film to be developed) that is still being used today by most filmmakers and his embrace of new technologies makes one wonder what he might have achieved if he had access to the currents advances in visual effects and CGI. Last, but certainly not least, the man is a true icon who has been an institution since the days of vaudeville and one of the last living links we still have to that era of show business.
For fans of Lewis, the next couple of months are going to be a time to celebrate thanks to the long-awaited DVD issues of some of his lesser-known titles. Most of this is do to the efforts of Olive Films, a relatively new distributor that has become a favorite for fans of off-beat cinema thanks to their rescuing and releasing of numerous intriguing films that have otherwise fallen through the cracks ranging from the Otto Preminger oddities "Skidoo" and "Hurry Sundown" to "Histoire(s) du Cinema," Jean-Luc Godard's ten-part meditation on the history of film that was one of the most significant DVD releases of 2011. For Lewis, they are releasing three films of his that have never appeared on DVD, "Rock-a-Bye Baby," "The Geisha Boy" (both 1958) and "Boeing Boeing" (1965) and have two more ("It's Only Money" and "Who's Minding the Store?") set for release at the end of March. Not only that, all of those titles are also being issued on Blu-ray as well, marking the first time that any of Lewis' films have appeared in that format. At the same time, Inception Media is issuing one of the rarer entries in Lewis' filmography--a straightforward and dramatic version of the old standard "The Jazz Singer" that he did for television back in 1959 and which has rarely been seen since. While the artistic qualities of these titles could be debated, they remain fascinating pieces of the puzzle that is Jerry Lewis and for fans and scholars of the history of America comedy, these titles are pretty much essential.
Of the comedies, the best of the bunch is "Rock-a-Bye Baby," if only because it has a stronger foundation to work from since it is a remake (albeit a loose one) of the Preston Sturges classic "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek." In it, Jerry plays a goofy TV repairman whose long-standing crush on childhood-sweetheart-turned-famous-actress Marilyn Maxwell bears strange fruit when he agrees to serve as guardian for her three infant girls so that she can continue with her career without the scandal of being an unwed mother--the real father being a bullfighter who died the day after they were secretly married. (Check out the photo of said bullfighter for an inside joke.) When he discovers that he has to be married in order to adopt the kids, he marries her younger sister (Connie Stevens) and needless to say, the complications continue to grow. Filled with silliness, numerous musical numbers (including a few songs by Jerry himself) and the strong hand of Frank Tashlin as director, this may be second-tier Lewis but entertaining neverless.
Lewis and Tashlin reteamed later that year for what would be the fourth of their eight collaborations, "The Geisha Boy." In this one, he plays an inept magician in Tokyo as part of a USO tour whose clumsiness causes him to inadvertently rain destruction upon the famous actress who is the headliner. However, this tomfoolery is witnessed by an orphaned Japanese boy who laughs for the first time since the death of his parents. The two become fast friends but when Lewis is fired and forced to return home, he tries to shoo the kid away instead of letting on that he was a failure. The kid doesn't fall for it and stows away and the two are reunited in Los Angeles and see the sights (including a trip to see the Dodgers) until he is accused of kidnapping and the kid is sent home to Japan. Many of Lewis' films have maintained a strange blend of wild slapstick and in-your-face sentiment but in this case, it tips a little too far towards the latter and it eventually becomes a little too mawkish for its own good. That said, it does have some big laughs here and there and features appearances from Suzanne Pleshette (making her big-screen debut) and Sessue Hayakawa, who starred in "The Bridge Over the River Kwai" the previous year and who can be seen here building a miniature version of that very same structure.
Of the three films, the oddest of the bunch is "Boeing Boeing," a film that Lewis took on in order to demonstrate that he could take on more adult-oriented roles. In this one, an adaptation of the hit Broadway play, Tony Curtis plays a Paris-based journalist who is simultaneously romancing three different stewardesses from three different countries whose airlines are operating on three different schedules. With the help of always-helpful maid Thelma Ritter, he is able to maintain the ruse until the advent of faster airplanes change the flight schedules and result in the stewardesses touching down in Paris at the same time. Lewis, in what is essentially a supporting part, is a colleague of Curtis' when spends a few days in his apartment, finds his lifestyle to be good and schemes to take it all over for himself by tricking his friend into taking a job in New York. The film itself is a perfectly ordinary bedroom farce of the era--more silly than smutty and one that never even threatens the bounds of propriety--but the sight of Lewis as a would-be playboy is just plain weird and disconcerting at times and while he gives it is all, he tries so hard to keep his wacky schnook persona at bay that he never quite manages to fit into the character that he is supposed to be playing. There are a few laughs here and there, largely due to the presence of the reliable Thelma Ritter, but the film as a whole, ploddingly directed by future TV veteran John Rich, is more of a curiosity than anything else.
Speaking of curiosities, the release of "The Jazz Singer" is a wholly unexpected treat, if only because it has rarely been seen by anyone outside of a fe archival screenings since its one-and-only broadcast in 1959 as part of the NBC anthology series "Lincoln-Mercury Startime." Based on the old theatrical chestnut that had previously been brought to the screen in 1927 with Al Jolson (the first full-length talking film to be released) and in 1952 with Danny Thomas, Lewis stars as Joey Rabinowitz, an ambitious entertainer who dreams of being a famous comedian-singer, much to the disappointment of his cantor father (Eduard Franz), who wants his to follow in his footsteps. Predictably, this tears the two of them apart but when Dad falls ill on the very night that Joey is about to make his big break, is there any doubt that he will indeed take over for his father? Obviously, the big draw, both then and now, was the sight of a man famous for doing virtually anything to get a laugh playing things straight and sincere. For the most part, he does a perfectly credible job and while it isn't surprising that he would stick with comedy for the next decade or so before trying again with the infamously ill-fated "The Day the Clown Cried," he has nothing to be ashamed of by his performance. (If nothing else, he beats Neil Diamond, who starred in the hilariously awful 1980 version, like a mule.) There probably isn't much of any reason for anyone outside of Lewis scholars to ever watch it more than once but in the even that they do, this DVD actually contains two different versions--a black-and-white kinescope of the broadcast and a video version of the broadcast in color (a rarity in those days) taken from a tape held in Lewis' own voluminous archives.
ROCK-A-BYE BABY (Olive Films. $24.95)
THE GEISHA BOY (Olive Films. $24.95)
BOEING BOEING (Olive Films. $24.95)
THE JAZZ SINGER (Inception Media. $19.95)
NEW AND NOTABLE
HONEY 2 (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Yeah, I am just as surprised as you are by the appearance of this direct-to-video sequel to the 2003 dance epic that most of you have presumably forgotten about completely. Oh well, if nothing else, this release has also inspired the Blu-ray debut of the original "Honey" (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98) and while that film is certainly no great shakes by any legitimate artistic standards, there are worse things that one could be watching than the sight of Jessica Alba shaking her booty, as it were, for 90-odd minutes.
THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2: FULL SEQUENCE (IFC Films. $24.98): Like this, for example. Granted, the infamous 2009 original was as repellent a bag of goods as I have ever experienced but it did have a couple of elements that kept it from complete uselessness--an admittedly audacious premise that might have transformed into something intriguing in the hands of someone like a young David Cronenberg, an arresting visual style and, of course, the singular performance from the guy who played the looney mad scientist at the heart of the story. Alas, none of those elements are on display in this sick, stupid and painfully self-conscious follow-up that even fans of the first one generally found to be without any redeeming value even as gory trash.
THE INTERRUPTERS (PBS Home Video. $24.99): Inspired by a New York Times Magazine article, James (who previously did the justifiably famous documentary "Hoop Dreams") takes his cameras to the streets of Chicago in order to follow the members of CeaseFire, a neighborhood group dedicated to keeping an eye on everything on the streets ranging from long-simmering gang feuds to stupid, impulsive arguments and try to quash things before any blood can be spilled. What makes James’ film so extraordinary is that it never traffics in the cheap sentiment or cheaper liberal pieties that one might expect from a movie of this type. It is a fascinating and engrossing film but that is because he is dealing with fascinating and engrossing people and he allows their stories to play out in a straightforward and unaffected manner that never plays for cheap sentiment with on-the-nose soundtrack choices or questionable editing choices designed to slant the material. Yes, there are long stretches of gloom and doom and moments when even the most sympathetic viewers may despair of anything good happen but James does manage to uncover those brief glimmers of hope as well and when he does, they are all the more moving because both the film and the people we are watching have earned them.
J. EDGAR (Warner Home Video. $28.98): In his latest stab at blatant Oscar bait, Clint Eastwood takes on the story of the controversial long-time head of the F.B.I. (Leonardo DiCaprio) by looking at him through several key events in both his professional and personal lives. Unfortunately, what should have been a slam-dunk historical drama is done in by a muddled screenplay that doesn't seem to have any real idea of what it wants to say about the man and his accomplishments, Eastwood's somnambulistic direction, a weirdly miscast DiCaprio and old-age makeup that only inspires bad laughs. If you really want a fascinating cinematic treatment of the life and work of Hoover, try seeking out a copy of Larry Cohen's "The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover" instead--what it may lack in technical sheen, it more than makes up for in the more important dramatic and historical areas and it is a lot of fun to boot.
LONDON BOULEVARD (Sony Home Entertainment. $35.98): Colin Farrell stars as an ex-con whose desire to start a new life for himself is severely complicated when he becomes unexpectedly entangled with an old friend from his past (Ben Chapin), a dangerous crime boss (Ray Winstone) and a reclusive actress (Keira Knightley) whom he now works for as a bodyguard. This directorial debut for screenwriter William Monahan (best known for his award-winning script for "The Departed") sounds intriguing enough and it certainly has a game and interesting cast (with David Thewlis and Anna Friel also turning up as well) but the whole thing just never comes together and the miscasting of Knightley in a role that should have been played by a much-older actress further undermines things.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): The most striking cinematic debut of 2011 by far was this haunting drama from writer-director Durkin about a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who escapes from the cult that she has been living with for the last couple of years and, while living with her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy), finds herself unable to adjust to "normal" life and unable to shake the feeling that the cult's charismatic leader (John Hawkes) is hot on her trail. Effectively blending Martha/Marcy May/Marlene's (the multiple identities are explained) present-day situation with flashbacks showing what led her to be indoctrinated into the cult as well as what inspired her departure, Durkin creates such an evocative sense of quiet dread and paranoia that most viewers will find themselves as edgy and unsure as his heroine. In the title role, Elisabeth Olsen gives one of the most remarkable debut performances in recent memory--yes, she is the sister of you-know-who but she is also an extremely gifted actress and if she is able to properly follow up on the promise of her work here, Mary-Kate and Ashley may soon be referred to as her sisters instead. One of the Ten Best Films of 2011.
NUDE NUNS WITH BIG GUNS ( Image Entertainment .$27.97): Do I really need to go on after a title like that?
PUSS N BOOTS (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): The suave kitty cat with a purr voiced by Antonio Banderas that became the only reliable source of humor in the increasingly tedious "Shrek" saga gets his own vehicle in an animated saga that finds him teaming up with a sexy cat burglar cat (voiced by Salma Hayek) and Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galafianakis) to steal the Golden Goose for some reason or another. As always, Banderas is a scream as the leche-loving feline and the opening 20 minutes or so are flat-out hilarious. However, it soon grows kind of monotonous and while it beats the "Shrek" sequels like a gong and has enough color, excitement and silliness to keep the kids occupied, older viewers will probably have less use for it.
THE RUM DIARY (Universal Home Entertainment. $30.99): Based on the only novel ever written by Hunter S. Thompson (which he wrote in the early Sixties but didn't publish until the mid-Nineties), this films finds Johnny Depp (who previously appeared in the film version of "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas")playing Paul Kemp, a semi-ambitious journalist with an already-heroic capacity for alcohol who arrives in Puerto Rico circa 1960 to work for a third-rate newspaper that is barely hanging on by a thread. Before long, his talents catch the eye of a sleazy American land developer (Aaron Eckhart) who wants to exploit Paul's talents by convincing him to write a series of pieces that will help pave the way for a massive land grab that will force thousands of locals from their homes. With the potentially volatile combination of Thompson, Depp and writer-director Bruce Robinson (the creator of "Withnail & I" making his first film in 20 years), you wouldn't think that anything they could come up with could possibly be dismissed with an indifferent shrug and a "meh" and yet, that is precisely the case here The basic story is nothing particularly fresh or original and Robinson's screenplay and direction are both curiously flat and fail to properly convey even the trace beginnings of Thompson's voice in cinematic turns. As yet another Thompson alter ego, Depp is good but all he is doing is essentially giving us a dialed-down version of his amazing turn in "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas" and the sight of him playing a younger version of the writer despite the passing of more than 13 years since that initial performance--call it "The Curious Case of Hunter S. Thompson"--is distracting at times: although it was his clout that finally got the film made in the first place, it might have been more effective if someone else had taken the part and he instead grabbed one of the supporting roles instead.
THAT SHOW WITH JOAN RIVERS (Film Chest. $24.98): In 1968, long before she became one of the top comedians in America and the first woman to host a late-night talk show, Joan Rivers had a syndicated daytime talk show in which each episode centered on a single topic that she would discuss with that day's guest. The show only lasted one year--the ratings plummeted midway through its first season with the stations broadcasting it put it up against afternoon soap operas--and subsequently faded into obscurity. This set contains 18 episodes from its run, featuring such guests as Johnny Carson, Soupy Sales, Ed Sullivan and Jerry Lewis, and serves as both a fascinating time capsule of the era and prime evidence of the wit and bravado that would make her a huge star in a few year's time. Other TV-related releases now available include "Beavis & Butthead: Volume 4" (Paramount Home Video. $22.99), "Family Matters: The Complete Second Season"[ (Warner Home Video. $29.98), "Hazel: The Complete Second Season" (Shout! Factory. $34.95), "Matlock: The 7th Season" (Paramount Home Video. $49.99) "Murder She Wrote: 4 Movie Collection" (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98), "Underdog: The Complete Series" (Shout! Factory. $69.95), "Wainy Days" (The Collection. $14.95) and "Weeds: Season Seven" (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $39.98).
TINY FURNITURE (The Criterion Collection. $29.95): In the past, I have made no secret of my general distaste for the whole so-called "mumblecore" movement--the micro-budgeted indie film offshoots that have inspired both generally dull exercises in navel-gazing produced by film-school rejects with access to a digital camera and friends who possess little talent and less shame and the career of the equally irritating Greta Gerwig. That said, I am willing to stand up for a decent one and that is exactly what this sharp-edged comedy by young writer-director Lena Dunham is. In it, she plays a recent college graduate who moves back in with her mother and younger sister while aimlessly trying to figure out some kind of direction to take with her life. Alternately hilarious and brutally confessional, this is a striking and very entertaining work that marks Dunham (who is about to debut a new series on HBO) as a talent to watch. Among the special features on display here are an interview with Dunham conducted by Nora Ephron and previous examples of Dunham's work, including a few of the shorts she made for YouTube and her first feature film, "Creative Nonfiction."
TOWER HEIST (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Thanks to the hype surrounding the fact that it featured Eddie Murphy's first major role in a non-kiddie movie in god knows how long, this Brett Ratner joint, about a group of employees at a luxury Manhattan condominium who band together to rob the Madoff-like money manager whose ill-gotten gains included their pension fund, was a big hit when it first appeared in theaters last fall. Unfortunately, in a con almost as cruel as the one perpetrated by its villain, the film turned out to be just another garish and increasingly unbelievable heist film (the "Ocean's 11" films are models of realism by comparison) and while Murphy is easily the funniest thing on display, he may actually have less screen time here than in his infamous after-the-fact inclusion in the long-forgotten "Best Defense."
TRACK 29 (Image Entertainment. $14.98): Over the years, cult filmmaker Nicolas Roeg has made some seriously strange films (including such classics as "Performance," "Don't Look Now," "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "Bad Timing") but few have been as utterly outré as this twisted 1989 melodrama featuring Theresa Russell (his former wife and star of many of his films) as a depressed woman stuck in a loveless marriage and Gary Oldman as the stranger who appears out of nowhere one day claiming to be the son that she gave up for adoption after getting pregnant as a teenager. Between their increasingly odd relationship and the presence of Christopher Lloyd as her faithless husband and Sandra Bernhard as the nurse he is having an affair with, this is one weird mama-jama of a movie and while it may not quite rank up there with his best work, the strong performances from Russell and Oldman make it worth a look.
THE WAY (Arc Entertainment. $26.99): Emilio Estevez directs dad Martin Sheen in this drama about a man who goes to Spain to collect the body of his son, killed in an accident while making the grueling 800 km trek across the Camino de Santiago and impulsively decides to make the pilgrimage himself in his honor. This is a sincere and well-meaning labor of love from Estevez and Sheen and as a result, it genuinely pains be to say that the film as a whole is kind of a slog that I could just never get interested in at all. However, I can see how some viewers might embrace it and if the description does sound interesting to you, you might get a little more out of it than I did.
WOODY ALLEN: A DOCUMENTARY (Docurama. $29.95): For years, fans of Woody Allen have been constantly disappointed by his apparent unwillingness to offer up anything in the way of bonus materials or commentaries for the DVDs of his films--at best, he may include a trailer but that is about it. Perhaps as compensation, the normally reclusive filmmaker agreed to participate in this 3 hour-plus documentary (originally produced for the PBS series "American Masters") chronicling his entire career and including interviews with countless colleagues to boot. For his legion of admirers, this is obviously essential viewings but for others, this is a fascinating look at the evolution of a genuine American artist over the past 50-odd years.
WORLD ON A WIRE (The Criterion Collection. $29.95): Long before "The Matrix" was even a gleam in the eyes of the Wachowskis, the late Rainer Werner Fassbender, one of the leaders of the German New Wave of the 1970s (along with Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders) came up with this trippy 1973 epic about a computer engineer who stumbles upon an enormous conspiracy and discovers that the world he has always known may not be real at all. Originally produced for German television and rarely seen since then, this title has been rediscovered and refurbished and while it may be a little too long and weird for more timid viewers, it deserves to be regarded as one of the great works of one of the quirkiest filmmakers of all time.
ZAAT (Film Chest. $24.95): Better known to fans of the immortal "Mystery Science Theater 3000" as "The Blood Waters of Dr. Z," this bizarre 1971 drive-in epic tells the story of a mad scientist who decides that the only way to prove his insane theories to the scientific community that has dismissed him as a deranged loon is to transform himself into a homicidal fish-man that goes around killing anyone too slow or stupefied to evade his pokey clutches. That's right--"The Magnificent Ambersons" could only manage a low-profile DVD release last fall but "Zaat" is now available as a fully-loaded Blu-ray package. Makes you think, don't it?
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Universal Home Entertainment. $39.98)
ANATOMY OF A MURDER (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)
FORT APACHE (Warner Home Video. $19.98)
MOZART'S SISTER (Music Box Films. $29.95)
THE PERFECT WEAPON (Olive Films $29.95)
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originally posted: 02/27/12 06:55:43
last updated: 02/27/12 08:02:12