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Moriarty's DVD SHELF! Rock Docs, SWORD OF DOOM, MST3K, And More!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

It’s been a while, of course, and I’ve let stuff stack up on my desk. In the meantime, there have been all sorts of new announcements of titles to look forward to. It’s interesting to see that studios aren’t slowing down in anticipation of Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. If anything, they’re piling even more titles onto the market every month, and I, for one, am happy to take those titles off their hands.

As always, I’ve got my entire DVD collection set up at DVD Aficionado, a great site that I’ve enjoyed working with. With very few exceptions, I’ve been able to find all my titles in their archives. You can check it out right here if you’re curious, and I’ve made sure to point out what was purchased, what was sent as a screener, and what was a gift.

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P.S. and BIRTH



SWORD OF DOOM: The Criterion Collection




I’ve got several films you guys have sent waiting for review. First up, COURAGE & STUPIDITY is a fascinating short film and, if nothing else, an announcement by director Darin Beckstead that he gives good Spielberg. He’s definitely studied Spielberg’s films, and he does nice work telling this story using the director’s own visual language as part of the joke. This is basically a peek at Spielberg on the set of JAWS as he faces the first real crisis point of his career. Beckstead got incredibly lucky when he found Todd Wall to play Steven. He’s visually perfect, looking exactly like the MAD magazine version of the director circa the late ‘70s, and he plays him nicely. Aaron Fiore is funny as George, his best friend, played here as Jiminy Cricket, Steven’s sounding board. When the two of them sneak into a storage shed to play with the animatronic shark, they end up breaking it, forcing Steven to come up with an idea that will stop his producers from pulling the plug on the film and sending him back to television permanently.

The film is shot with a loving eye for detail, playing things exactly the way Spielberg would have played it, and it should make fans of his ‘70s smile. It’s not all a big reference, though, which I feel gives this film the edge over the overrated GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE. The best scene in the film comes as the producers (William Allison and Tony Larimer doing a wicked pisstake on Zanuck and Brown) are shutting the picture down. Richard Dreyfuss (a very funny Kahil Dotay) tries to stand up for Steven, but gives up and walks off the film. Steven makes his pitch for a different version of the film, where the shark never actually makes an appearance, invoking the name of Alfred Hitchcock to make his point. Special kudos should go to whoever wrote the music (there’s no onscreen credit) for channeling John Williams perfectly. Check it out.



Anyone can point a camera at a rock’n’roll band, record footage of them playing their hits and talking about themselves, and then turn around and sell that footage to the already-converted audience of that band. A great rock documentary is something more, a film that defines why a band is worth paying attention to or that shows how the chemistry of a band comes together, a film that does more than just pimp a new record.

END OF THE CENTURY manages to be both a celebration of one of the most influential bands of the last thirty years and an angry indictment of the way radio and MTV failed the band consistently. Producer/directors Michael Grammaglia and Jim Fields used a combination of amazing archival footage and new interviews to tell the entire history of Joey, Dee Dee, Marky, Tommy, and Richie... otherwise known to fans as The Ramones.

All of the guys come across as fascinating characters here, and it’s amazing that they ever co-ordinated all of their quirks enough to be able to make music together. What’s doubly amazing is just how singular and original that sound was. You know a Ramones song from the moment it begins, that buzzsaw attack of strangled chords, and there’s never been another rock singer that sounds like Joey. It’s sad watching the band implode towards the end of the film, but it’s a miracle that it took so long for the end to come. As the film finished, my writing partner turned to me and said, “I guess I’m a Ramones fan and never knew it.” This film should work whether you’re a fan or not. Rhino did a great job on the DVD, including a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix that makes every one of the included songs sound amazing. There are lots of extra interviews included, and one of the craziest bits of trivia is revealed in one of the deleted scenes with Joey. He explains that Bruce Springsteen came to see them play one night and actually wrote “Hungry Heart” for the Ramones to record before changing his mind and doing it himself. There’s also a great bit where Tommy Ramone runs down who wrote what on every song on the first three albums.

DIG! is enormously entertaining, and I almost feel guilty about how much fun I had while watching it. There’s a lot of pain and frustration on display in the film, but there are times when it’s hysterical for that exact reason. I think THIS IS SPINAL TAP made it hard to watch rock star angst play out with a straight face. Writer/director Ondi Timoner walks a fine line all the way through this seven-year-long odyssey as she follows the careers of the Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, two bands that started at roughly the same time, but had wildly divergent career arcs. Timoner seems to have been there from the start, and god only knows what sort of prescient good fortune motivated her to start filming both bands. In the early days, it seems like The Brian Jonestown Massacre is the band that’s going to explode, thanks in large part to the manic brilliance of founder and frontman Anton A. Newcombe. He’s one of those guys who always seems a little too hip for the room, ungodly talented but also a bit of a monster. It’s obvious that Courtney Taylor of the Warhols has a total man-crush on Newcombe in those early days, and the bands would frequently play together, trading influences and ideas. There’s a really lovely idealistic attitude in the early part of the film. But then money rears its ugly head...

The Dandy Warhols get signed to a major label, and very quickly, they get caught up in the hype machine. At first, Anton and the rest of the BJM joke about it and enjoy watching what’s happening to their friends, but very quickly, things start to go sour for their band, and they start to envy the success of the Warhols. There’s a particularly brutal scene where the Warhols are supposed to do a photo shoot, and they get the idea to take a photographer to the house that all the members of the BJM are sharing as a crash pad. It’s the morning after a huge heroin party at the house, and the Warhols run around, posing in front of the detritus of decadence and treating it all like they’re at the Junkie Rock Star Disneyland. As the members of the BJM struggle back to consciousness, they grouse about how they can never take pictures in their own house now because it’ll look like they’re copying the Warhols. On those occasions where the BJM puts together an opportunity for themselves, they seem to inevitably blow it. An industry showcase turns into a startlingly nasty fistfight onstage. Anton attacks audience members at gigs. They get busted for pot as they drive cross-country on tour. They seem to exist under a black cloud. And the worse things get for Anton, the more he seems to focus on the success of Courtney and his band.

I’ll confess: I went to Amoeba and picked up TEPID PEPPERMINT WONDERLAND: A RETROSPECTIVE, a comprehensive best-of album by the BJM after seeing this film, and I’m enjoying it a lot. I think Anton’s got obvious talent, and onscreen, Matt Hollywood and Joel Gion are hilarious. Gion, in particular, steals pretty much every scene he’s in, a natural ham who seems perfectly happy to stand center stage while the chaos of the band rages around him like a storm. The combustible combination of Matt Hollywood and Anton leads to many of the most memorable fights, some brawls that are almost too ugly to believe. Courtney Taylor comes across like a likeable manipulator, a guy who loves being a frontman and who frequently pisses on his bandmates in interviews without realizing he’s doing it. For their part, Zia McCabe and Peter Holstrom come across like really decent people, particularly in the “Where Are They Now?” segments on disc two, grateful for everything they ever enjoyed and still focused on the joy of being musicians. By the time the line-up of the Brian Jonestown Massacre we get used to implodes in the film, everyone’s already walking wounded, and the scars still run deep.

Palm Pictures should be proud of the package they put together for this one. The film is beautifully reproduced on disc one, with three separate audio commentary tracks, one with the filmmakers, one with the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and one with the Dandy Warhols. Everybody gets to tell their side of the story on the disc, so no one can complain about being treated unfairly. There’s a 5.1 Dolby Surround mix, a 2.0 Dolby mix, as well as a great use of line-outs, branching extra snippets of footage you can click to when prompted while watching the film. Disc two features more than two hours of extra footage and deleted scenes, as well as music videos from the Warhols and live performances and music videos from both bands. There’s a great “Where Are They Now?” segment where the filmmakers interview everyone again, and we even see them shooting the commentary tracks. Overall, this is one of the most energizing discs I’ve seen all year, a big joyous document of the creative lives of a whole big messy sprawling cast of characters you’ll want to watch more than once. Definitely, find this one and pick it up.



Here’s a case where two promising filmmakers approached a very similar idea at the same time, but in totally different ways, and to wildly varying results. Both Dylan Kidd and Jonathan Glazer made strong first films, ROGER DODGER and SEXY BEAST, respectively, so there were expectations attached to both of these sophomore efforts when they were released. Neither one of them made much of a splash at the box-office, or in terms of general awareness, and oddly, even though I was eager to see both of these films, one thing or another kept me from them in the theater, meaning I didn’t catch up with either of the movies until now.

P.S. is based on a novel by Helen Schulman, who co-wrote the script with Dylan Kidd. Laura Linney plays Louise, the admissions director for Columbia University’s M.F.A. program. She’s divorced, but still sees her ex-husband (Gabriel Byrne) all the time. She has a strained relationship with her mother Ellie (Lois Smith) and her recovering addict brother Sammy (Paul Rudd). Her best friend Missy (Marcia Gay Harden) was once her romantic rival long ago, and it seems like Louise lives vicariously through Missy now. She’s accepted that her own life will be without love, and she seems content with that. Until, that is, a bomb is dropped in the form of an M.F.A. application from a young man named F. Scott. Louise is compelled to meet him face-to-face, not even sure why. When she does, everything changes for her. Turns out, the guy she was in love with all those years ago, the one who ruined her for everyone else, the one she fought about with Missy... well, he was also named Scott, and he was also an artist, and Louise compares everyone to this idealized version of her long-dead boyfriend. This new F. Scott (played with a mature charm by Topher Grace) rocks her out of her comfortable, cloistered existence, and she practically devours him once she sees how much he resembles the original Scott.

They fall headlong into an affair that causes Louise to redefine all the other relationships in her life. Dylan Kidd’s got a hell of a way with actors, and this entire film boils down to the chemistry between Laura Linney and Topher Grace. There’s a genuine warmth between them, and I believe the sexual chemistry. After their first overheated sexual encounter, Grace sits there stunned for a moment before a smile splits his face and he proclaims, “That was fucking awesome!” Linney’s rarely been more appealing than she is here. Ultimately, the mystery of why F. Scott resembles her dead boyfriend turns out to be not much of a mystery at all, and I liked it that way. Just be prepared... it may frustrate some viewers if they’re looking for some new-agey spiritual goopus about the dead touching the living or coming back again. Special note has to be made of the extraordinary paintings that are credited to Grace’s character in the film, but which were actually created by NY artist Bryan Leboeuf.

Overall, it’s a strong disc from CTHE, with a commentary by Dylan Kidd and his director of photography that is engaging and informative, as well as a smattering of deleted scenes. It’s a film that’s funny and painful in equal measure, and even if it doesn’t quite reach the same heights as ROGER DODGER, it’s certainly well worth seeing.

BIRTH doesn’t quite count as a sophomore slump for director Jonathan Glazer, but it’s an inconsistent, chilly movie that seems unsure about exactly what story it’s telling. That’s odd, too, since Glazer is such a confident director visually. Even when the script leaves the film rudderless, which it often does, Glazer’s got an innate sense of how to shoot a scene. He builds a great sense of disquiet right from the opening moments.

Nicole Kidman is at her most ethereal here as Anna, widowed when her husband Sean dies while jogging through Central Park. Ten years later, just as she’s finally ready to get on with her life and remarry Joseph (Danny Huston), a young boy shows up and announces that he is Sean, her husband, returned to her, and that she can’t get married, since they’re meant to be together again. Cameron Bright’s better in this film than he was in GODSEND, and he doesn’t just play Sean as a generic creepy kid. He’s just as tortured by the thoughts and feelings racing through him as Anna is. BIRTH spends most of its time on the ripple effect that occurs when Anna decides she can’t live without Sean. Joseph leaves her, and her mother Eleanor (the great Lauren Bacall) and her friends all beg her not to destroy her life, but the appearance of this boy brings back all of her grief in one sudden rush. The resolution of the film, after a fairly potent build-up, struck me as deeply unsatisfying. It barely even makes sense. The larger issue is just how unsympathetic Kidman’s character is. Her behavior seems erratic and unlikable pretty much all the way through, and she’s just too eager to transgress sexual boundaries with the kid, even if she does believe he’s her husband. She barely takes any convincing before she’s kicked out the man she was about to marry and invited the kid into her tub. The film is beautifully photographed by Harris Savides (consistently underrated despite such strong credits as ELEPHANT and THE GAME on his resume) and makes great use of music, and New Line’s done an admirable job of reproducing both sound and picture. In the end, it’s a minor misstep for Glazer, but one I still found much value in, if only for the extreme craftsmanship on display.


The film noir version of OUTBREAK. Check out the opening sequence of this film, in which a South American guy, fresh off the boat, leaves a poker game because he’s feeling sick. Blackie (Jack Palance, billed here for some reason as “Walter Jack Palance”) runs the game, and he’s livid at how much money the guy’s leaving the table with. He orders his gang to go after the guy and get the money back. The way master cinematographer Joe MacDonald shoots those dark alleys is sweaty and nightmarish from the very beginning, and director Elia Kazan makes the most of it. MacDonald shot MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, one of the greatest B&W film, among others, and his name’s all over the release schedule that Fox Home Video’s already announced for this film noir label. Blackie’s gang (including an extra-sweaty Zero Mostel) kills the South American guy, dumping him in a local canal. They don’t realize that he’s brought death with him to New Orleans. It’s up to Richard Widmark to figure that out the next day when the guy’s body gets fished out of the drink. Widmark recognizes the signs of pneumonic plague, and he realizes there’s potential for catastrophe. He’s the head of the Office For Public Health, and he launches into a race against time to contain the disease before people start dying. Kazan rachets up the suspense by cutting between Widmark as he tracks down every person who might have been exposed to the disease, and Palance, who is convinced that the police are interested in the dead man because of something he smuggled into the country. By the time it all comes together, Kazan’s got you convinced that anything can happen, so there’s genuine tension. Kazan’s career really took off with this kinetic thriller, and it finally marked him as a strong visual filmmaker. This may not be as “important” as his other films, but it’s incredibly well made.

This is one of my favorite Kazan films now, a warm-up to STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, shot on many of the same locations, and the print is gorgous. Alain Silver and James Ursini, featured on many of the new Fox Film Noir titles, contribute a commentary where they discuss Kazan, his work, and the entire noir genre. It’s strong and informative stuff. It’s a great disc overall, and Fox also included trailers for this film and other upcoming titles in their Film Noir series. Looks like Sam Fuller’s HOUSE OF BAMBOO and William Keighley’s THE STREET WITH NO NAME are next up. With Warner Bros. and Fox both digging deep for ongoing noir collections, the winner is any film fan who loves this genre. Gems like PANIC IN THE STREETS are the exact reason why.



It’s rough when you adapt material to the bigscreen that people have strong nostalgic attachments to, and it’s especially difficult when you insist on twisting the material in some post-modern spin or in taming some essential element that made it work in the first place. Fox released both of these films recently, and I can’t say either one of them is going to please fans to any degree. Take FAT ALBERT, for example.

Hey, hey, hey... it’s a pieeeeeece of shit!

How bad is this film? There’s a montage of people trying on hats set to pop music. Bold, huh? Original, huh? I guess I’m mystified as to why they felt the need to use a device as relentlessly stupid as a magic remote control that pulls cartoon characters into the real world. But then again, I’m not the ones who released GARFIELD and DR. DOOLITTLE 2 on the world, so what do I know?

At the start of the film, there’s an animated sequence (in scope) that brings to mind the old Saturday morning show and Bill Cosby’s original comedy routines at the same time. I grew up listening to Cosby’s classic albums, and it was nice to see a little bit of “Buck Buck” brought to life. That was pretty much the only thing that made me smile in the whole film, though, because as soon as it hits the real world, it turns into formulaic garbage.

How about this as an alternative suggestion for how they could have made this film? It should have followed Bill Cosby as he supervises the production of a big-screen animated Fat Albert film, and as he works on the movie, we could flash back to the realities of his early life in Philadelphia in scenes that bring those classic comedy routines to life. What Cosby did so well was taking his experiences of growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s in North Philly as an African-American, relating them in a way that made it feel universal. At their best, those stories make us nostalgic for a specific time and place even if we’ve never experienced it first-hand. It would have been amazing if FAT ALBERT could have served as a cinematic summation of one of the most significant parts of Cosby’s career, especially if it finally sorted out the truth of those stories from the invention.

Instead, in the hands of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING’s Joel Zwick, it plays as indifferent hackwork of the highest order, a clumsily cobbled together collection of scenes stolen from other unfunny, lazy comedy films. Like that montage I mentioned of Fat Albert trying on outfits in front of a mirror. That was lame when it showed up in every single mid-‘80s Touchstone comedy, and twenty years later, it’s like announcing, “Sorry, we didn’t have a single good idea, but we’ve got to fill 81 minutes of screen time so this passes as a full-length feature, so bear with us.” Same thing with the scene where Albert’s romantic rival (no, seriously) wants to humiliate Albert, so he invites him up onstage to sing. If you are even remotely surprised when Albert and the gang break into a hip-hop singalong version of “Gonna Have A Good Time (Hey, Hey, Hey),” that the entire crowd loves, you should probably get out more. By the time the film limps to a close and they offer up Cosby’s awful, unfunny cameo, a half-hearted explanation for why the magic TV was magic, and a set of cameos that I’m still not sure were actual cameos, the film’s gone from awful to deeply insulting.

The disc is nicely produced, though. If only the same amount of care had been taken with the film itself.

More and more often these days, comic book fans seem to go to see comic book movies for the primary purpose of putting together a laundry list of all the things the filmmakers got wrong. Don’t get me wrong... I’m not saying that every complaint is unfounded. I just think that, by and large, most of the Marvel films have been fun when judged on their own merits as films, even if they don’t aim for the same sort of exact adaptation that Robert Rodriguez tried in SIN CITY. Case in point... ELEKTRA. Look at the Frank Miller version of the character. Very particular. Powerful, erotic, dark. When Fox and Marvel announced their plans to spin the character off after the release of DAREDEVIL, it seemed like an easy choice. Every week, Jennifer Garner kicks ass in a parade of hot outfits on ALIAS, and this just plays out like a variation on that theme. Sure, Elektra’s a little more of a bad girl. In the film’s opening, she hunts down and kills her latest target, played by Jason Isaacs in a cameo. I wish there was more of this cold-blooded Elektra in the film, a working assassin struggling to keep her demons at bay. Instead, the film focuses on her redemption as she tries to help Euro-Clooney from ER and his teenage daughter. It’s not a great story, but there are things I liked. There’s a team of assassins who come after them who strike just the right comic book tone for me, and it ends up being the best extended sequence in the movie. I also really like the way Rob Bowman shot the film overall. He wears his Hong Kong influences on his sleeve thanks in large part to his director of photography, Bill Roe. The film’s greatest weakness, oddly, is the casting of Garner, who is in desperate need of some diversity on her resume. She’s good at this sort of thing, but at this point, it’s just too familiar.

The disc looks and sounds great with 5.1 tracks in both Dolby Digital and DTS, as well as French and Spanish surround tracks and English and Spanish subtitles. The best of the deleted scenes is the one where Matt Murdoch (Ben Affleck) shows up as a sort of waking dream. Otherwise, most extras are of the EPK variety. I’ll find a place for this on my Marvel shelf, but it’s really only for completists.

SWORD OF DOOM: The Criterion Collection

I love when I am introduced to a film that I would have otherwise never heard of, like when Criterion announced this one originally. Did you see that photo in this spring’s VANITY FAIR Hollywood issue? The one of the entire staff of the Criterion Collection gathered together? Those are some serious filmlovers, and even after being a fan of their work for fifteen years, I continue to marvel at their exception taste and their breadth of knowledge. This is a pretty major find, an unusual Toho samurai film from 1966, and I watched it twice to try and wrap my head around it.

Tatsuya Nakadai is a familiar face for fans of Japanese films, thanks to appearances in YOJIMBO, HIGH & LOW, KWAIDAN, KAGEMUSHA, and RAN, among others, but this has got to be the high watermark of his career, a primal scream of a performance. He plays Ryunosoke, a samurai who turns his back on all conventional notions of honor. In the opening moments of the film, a young girl named Omatsu is crossing the mountains with her grandfather, and they stop to rest. When Omatsu goes off to find water for them, Ryunosoke walks up and, without any apparent provocation, cuts the old man down. This sets into motion a series of events that will eventually lead to a totally batshit and unpredictable freeze-frame finish, but the path he walks before that is unrelentingly dark and awful. He accepts a challenge for a duel with a student of an opposing sword style, then humiliates him prior to the duel, leading to the man’s death. Disgraced, Ryunosoke leaves town with the dead man’s widow and becomes a mercenary, even as he works to make sure that no one will come after him for revenge. He’s not written or played as simple evil, which is what makes the film so fascinating.

In that opening scene, for example, the old man is praying when Ryunosoke finds him, asking to die so that he won’t be a burden on his granddaughter anymore. Ryunosoke just did what the old man asked, setting him free. He seems to follow his own particular code of honor, as twisted and wrong as it is, with one rule more important than any other: never apologize for your actions or backpedal once a decision’s been made, no matter what it costs you. Only one person is able to shakes Ryunosoke’s self-determination, a dojo master named Shimada, played by legendary actor Toshiro Mifune. Shimada would be the hero of the piece in a more typical film, and there’s a scene in the middle of the movie that suggests that is exactly where things are headed. The mercenaries that Ryunosoke works with attack a carriage on a snowy road. They’ve made a mistake, though, and attacked the wrong carriage, so they end up facing down Shimada. He kills at least twenty men, and during the entire fight, Ryunosoke stands off to the side, watching in a combination of fury and horror, never stepping in to help anyone else. Something Shimada says haunts Ryunosoke, and it also defined the film. “The sword is the soul. Evil sword, evil soul.” In a culture where men are defined almost entirely by their abilities with a sword, where every master teaches different styles, and where independent thought is something to be suppressed, Ryunosoke’s restless soul and his desire to define himself puts pressure on him that he’s unable to deal with. He cracks under that pressure, and turns to evil because at least he’s able to set his own rules of conduct. It’s an act of rebellion against a rigid social structure, and Nakadai does an amazing job of playing all the facets of this fractured soul.

The film’s last act is a pretty remarkable bit of misdirection. Whatever you think is going to happen, it doesn’t. Whatever showdown you think the film is building toward, it’s not. Instead, director Kihachi Okamoto takes the film internal, pushing it deeper and deeper into Ryunosoke’s psyche. The end of the movie is almost entirely impressionistic, a personal apocalypse, and it’s both unsettling and unforgettable. Even without any extra features to speak of, SWORD OF DOOM is a must-have for fans of world cinema or action filmmaking, a one-of-a-kind film that I look forward to revisiting for years to come.


There are numerous films I watch each month that don’t really demand full reviews, but which deserve some sort of mention. For that reason, I’m going to include a section like this from time to time in upcoming columns.


Y’know, I sometimes take cheap shots at Renny Harlin, and it’s not completely fair. He’s his own worst enemy as a filmmaker, sometimes phoning in empty, plastic movies like DRIVEN or CUTTHROAT ISLAND. But he’s capable of really putting it together sometimes, even if only for a scene like in DEEP BLUE SEA (Sam Jackson’s impassioned pep talk) or CLIFFHANGER (that first ten-minute sequence, so good it’s like someone else made it). I don’t root against Renny, but when he shits the bed, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised.

And, no, I’m not one of those people who are already automatically praising Paul Schrader’s EXORCIST prequel as “better,” since I haven’t seen it. I did read it, and I never really saw the point of telling Merrin’s story. All Renny did was jazz it up with special effects. John Boorman can sleep easy, though, since he still wins as “Director Of The Absolute Worst EXORCIST Sequel Ever.” Harlin’s film is mediocre more than anything, uninvolving. Probably the best moment in the film, a crazed hyena attack, is undermined by some truly questionable CGI work on the animals. It’s a good idea, though, and it’s at least nasty where the rest of the film feels toothless.

Harlin tried to make a rough and frightening film, but forgot the most important thing: interesting characters. Stellan Skarsgard plays Merrin as weary more than haunted, and there’s no suspense because Merrin’s crisis of faith is never properly established. Besides... we know he ends up becoming an exorcist. Even worse, once Harlin gets to his big crazy supernatural finale, it’s not crazy at all. It’s boring and more than a little confusing. None of it seems menacing or profane. It’ll be interesting to finally compare Schrader’s film to this one when it gets released next month, but for now, if this is the best that Warner Bros. can do, then let this franchise die. Please.


Y’know what? This one’s fun, a solid and entertaining picture that makes the most of a good ensemble cast. Color me surprised. John Moore (who made his debut with BEHIND ENEMY LINES) has a blast staging the big plane crash, and he keeps things snappy throughout. The script by Scott Frank and Edward Burns (of THE WIRE fame) nicely updates the original without reinventing it. The cast all does what they were hired to do, with Hugh Laurie, Dennis Quaid, Miranda Otto, and Giovanni Ribisi being the real standouts. I think the film’s greatest charm is that it’s not all pumped up and super high-concept. It’s just an old-fashioned yarn, told well, and Fox put together a decent overall disc. There’s a full-length commentary by the director, two producers, and the production designer, as well as deleted scenes and a making-of documentary. The film looks great, with a robust 5.1 mix for both DTS and Dolby Digital. There’s also a French surround mix and English and Spanish subtitles.


Here’s one of those titles I remembered enjoying at around twelve years old. Seeing it again, I think maybe my skull wasn’t completely hard yet. Maybe I was just an easy mark for anything with robots and spaceships. The only value this has now is for anyone who wants to see Angelica Huston run around for an entire film in a futuristic disco thong or for any sad souls who actually think Bruce Vilanch is funny. Writer/director Stuart Raffill never decides if he’s making a comedy or an adventure, and the result is a total mess that makes SPACEBALLS look like SOME LIKE IT HOT by comparison.


A guilty pleasure from when I was a kid. Writer/director Ken Shapiro worked with Chevy Chase earlier on the sketch comedy film THE GROOVE TUBE, and this movie’s uneven, to say the least. At times, it’s a sharp satire of the commitment-phobic swinging ‘70s scene in New York, but Shapiro can’t resist this sort of old-fashioned Catskills comic sensibility that really smarms things up at times. He’s not a bad director, all things considered, pulling off some very clever FX staging, like the big showdown between Dabney Coleman and Chevy at a dinner table, and the cast seems to give it 100%, including Brian Doyle Murray and Patti D’Arbanville. I’m surprised how much of this still holds up, and if you’re fond of it at all, this bare-bones cheapie DVD is probably as good a home video release as you’re ever going to get.


People pick on Paramount Home Video a lot, but they put out a lot of catalog titles, and that means I get some minor gems like this 1984 Richard Benjamin film, his follow-up to the excellent MY FAVORITE YEAR. When this film came out, I remember how fresh and exciting both Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage seemed to be, both of them doing their best to channel James Dean, co-starring as Hopper (Penn) and Nicky (Cage), best friends who are counting down the last days before they leave to join the Marines and enter WWII. Penn falls in love with a local girl, played by Elizabeth McGovern, who’s got a secret to hide, and what plays out during their last days together is sad and sweet and beautifully acted across the board. I had a huge crush on McGovern in the ‘80s, and never moreso than here. Steven Kloves, most famous now for his work on the HARRY POTTER films, wrote a great heartfelt script here, and it’s nice to finally see a worthwhile transfer. This is the perfect film to pick up for date night, since there’s a strong likelihood that you and your date won’t already be familiar with it, and seeing all of these actors so young and so pretty is just part of the thrill of this undeniably sweet romance. There’s a director’s commentary by Benjamin (maybe he explains what happened to derail him after this film) as well as three featurettes included. Nice disc.


I love Preston Sturges. Lovelovelove him. I know there’s a general sort of vague respect for him among film fans, but I don’t think most people really know his work, and availability is a big part of that problem. Any time one of his films comes out on DVD, it’s a good thing, and especially when it’s as good as this one. THE PALM BEACH STORY is pure comedy, without all that nasty plot nonsense to get in the way, an impeccably detailed romp that proves that Rudy Vallee is a very, very funny man.

Claudette Colbert plays Geraldine Jeffers, a woman who has decided that she can’t wait for her husband Tom (played with a hilarious permascowl by Joel McCrea) to make his fortune. She loves him, and she believes in his dream of building a high-tech airport, but they’re perpetually broke and in debt up to their eyes. She figures she’ll solve all their problems by hopping a train to Palm Beach and divorcing him, so she can marry a millionaire and give Tom the money to realize his project. On the train, she meets John D. Hackensacker III (Valee), one of the richest men in the world, and he falls head over heels for her. Tom tracks her down in Palm Springs, only to end up entangled with The Princess Centimillia, Hackensacker’s man-eating sister, played by Mary Astor. As they say, hilarity ensues. I love the way the film starts, with an opening title sequence that suggests a whole other screwball comedy that doesn’t pay off until the last five minutes or so of the film in a punchline so great you’ll want to watch it twice. It’s a bare-bones Universal release, but essential to any comedy collection, and if you’re a Coen Bros. fan but don’t know your Sturges, check this one out. It’s a master’s class that’s knock you on your ass.


Kathryn Bigelow’s debut feature, co-directed and co-written with Monty Montgomery, plays like what would have happened if John Waters had been an art school student. It’s a snarling little slice of rockabilly attitude that features the first performance by Willem Dafoe as a lead, and he already had the act down, cool creepy menace in black leather. He and his motorcycle gang roll into a small town, cause trouble, and bad shit happens. This one’s all about attitude, and Blue Underground’s beautiful transfer makes a compelling case for how good Bigelow was right from the start. There’s a commentary by Dafoe, Bigelow and Montgomery, casual and conversational, that adds a whole other level of appreciation as you watch.


I really dig the original TOOLBOX MURDERS, but I would never hold it up as an unassailable masterpiece of the genre. Besides, after the hyperslick and soulless TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE remake, Tobe Hooper’s allowed to remake anything he wants just this one time. It’s remake karma. Oddly, the weakest material in the film is the actual horror. There’s a murder early on, where Sheri Moon gets killed with a hammer, that’s laugh-out-loud awkward. What does work pretty well is the mystery and the character stuff involving Angela Bettis. She and her husband move to Hollywood and rent an apartment in the Lusman Arms building, a landmark that’s been around since the ‘20s. Bettis is just plain interesting, and even if this isn’t quite as deep a role as MAY, she’s imminently watchable. Hooper does some nice stuff along the way, but I don’t think we really need a “Coffin Baby” franchise. If you dug the film, there are several commentaries and deleted scenes included, and Lions Gate did a nice job with this transfer overall.


Another of Universal’s extra-cheap releases, this is a film that deserves better. Don Siegel isn’t one of those directors you hear people rant and rave about these days, but they should. He was the ultimate no-nonsense filmmaker, and when he had a great script, like this one by Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman, he made it all look so incredibly easy. Walter Matthau stars as Charley Varrick, the mastermind behind a small-town bank robbery. Things take a tragic turn, and Charley and his partner Harman (scumbag extraordinaire Andrew Robinson) have to figure out how to stay alive long enough to enjoy the cash. Joe Don Baker plays one of the cinema’s great badass characters, Mr. Molly, charged with tracking down the money and figuring out exactly who was involved in stealing it. This is one of those films where the pleasure comes from watching all the narrative threads come together at the end like the last piece of a jigsaw being pressed into place. It’s one of my favorite Matthau roles, and PULP FICTION fans need to keep their ears open for a familiar bit of dialogue. There are no extras on the disc, but the price is right.


My introduction to this film was courtesy of Harry Medved’s infamous THE FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME (which also included THE OMEN, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, and ZABRISKIE POINT), and the way he described the film made it sound like an incomprehensible train crash. Indeed, most of the reviews when the film came out were openly hostile, calling the film the end of Peckinpah’s career. I also remember when Chevy Chase made a punchline of the title in FLETCH. Even though I admire Peckinpah’s work, this particular film proved continually elusive to me until now, thanks to MGM Home Entertainment.

It’s a powerful film, a record of the alcoholic deterioration of Peckinpah’s creative impulse. Warren Oates is basically playing Peckinpah in the film, and he’s never looked more beaten by life. Essentially, this is about picking yourself up and dragging yourself through a miserable situation no matter how hard it seems, and it feels like it took the same kind of effort from the filmmaker just to get it all on film. It’s got a great set-up. A Mexican land baron freaks out when his daughter turns up pregnant, and he tortures her until she gives up the name of the father: Alfredo Garcia. He puts a million dollar bounty on the guy’s head, setting off all sorts of bad behavior by desperate men with guns. Warren Oates is a perfect pessimistic anti-hero as one of the guys on the track of Garcia. I particularly enjoyed seeing Robert Webber as another of the tough guys chasing the bounty, since he’s such a great comic foil in Blake Edwards’ films. There’s an excellent commentary on the disc featuring a panel of Peckinpah scholars who make the case for the film’s place on his filmography. The mono soundtrack is well-reproduced and it’s probably as good-looking as any print they’re going to find. It’s not one of Peckinpah’s very best, but it might well be his most personal, and it’s fascinating. If you’re a fan, check it out.


What a great skanky little thriller. It’s hard to believe that this was a Paramount release in 1964. There’s a surprising amount of violence and sexual content, and even flagrant drug use. Olivia de Havilland plays a rich woman who has an unhealthy relationship with her adult son. She’s suffering from a recently broken hip that forced her to install an elevator in her house. Her son goes away for a long weekend and de Havilland gets caught midway between floors when there’s a freak brown-out. She triggers an emergency alarm that draws the wrong sort of attention. A homeless guy with a weakness for wine (Jeff Corey) discovers she’s trapped and tries to clean the house out. He and his partner (Ann Sothern as a great boozy broad) attract the attention of three insane hoods, including a young James Caan. Caan’s an animal in this film, and things build to a genuinely nerve-wracking conclusion. It’s beautifully photographed in black-and-white, and I’ve gotta say... Walter Grauman (primarily known as a TV director who worked from the ‘50s to the ‘90s) does a hell of a job not only building suspense, but also a sustaining the feeling that anything, no matter how violent and awful, might happen any time. The script by Luther Davis (ACROSS 110TH STREET), who also produced the film, is occasionally melodramatic, but it really pays off at the end. De Havilland does an amazing job here, and she and Caan create such intense sparks that they should have packaged this malicious little film in asbestos.


Holy shit... a Brett Ratner film I genuinely enjoyed. So far, even the most genial of Ratner’s films (the RUSH HOUR flicks) have been modestly charming at best. Here, working from a script by Paul Zbyszewski and Craig Rosenberg, he’s come up with a classy, good-looking comic thriller that makes everyone involved look good. Pierce Brosnan’s perfectly cast as Max, a gifted jewel thief who works with a stunningly beautiful partner, Lola, played with the bare minimum of clothing a PG-13 allows by Salma Hayek. After one particular heist, they retire to the Bahamas, where Lola imagines that they’re going to live happily ever after. Complications start to pile up in the form of a distgruntled FBI agent named Stan (Woody Harrelson), fresh temptation from a diamond on a cruise ship, a greedy local crime boss (Don Cheadle) and the simple inertia of boredom. It’s a wee bit of a Teflon film, and you may not remember a bit of it the next day, but it’s reeeeeal easy going down. Hayek makes for outstanding eye candy, as does Naomie Harris, and Harrelson and Brosnan look like they’re having an indecent amount of fun. Ratner puts it all together well, and I like that this isn’t a remake or a sequel. He’s capable of a certain type of calorie-free commercial entertainment that he pulls off better than guys like Simon West or Shaun Levy, and I hope this is the type of film that he continues to make. New Line does their typical good job with the disc, and one extra feature in particular seemed worth noting. “Interview With A Jewel Thief” is exactly what it sounds like, Ratner talking with a guy who I assume served as some sort of technical advisor on the film. He’s a good storyteller, and Ratner seems genuinely entertained by him. Even if you don’t buy the film, it’s a damn good rental.


Anchor Bay’s going to be releasing this one sometime later this spring, and I saw a test disc of the transfer they’ll be putting out. If you’ve already decided that you don’t want to see any more zombie films right now, don’t bother, but if you’re in the mood for a slightly silly hyper-gory horror film, DEAD & BREAKFAST is a pleasant little surprise.

Writer/director Matthew Lentwyler has a good eye and handles the perfunctory exposition with a nimble wit in his rush to get to all the bloodletting. He’s helped considerably by his cast. Oz Perkins, son of Anthony Perkins, would make his father proud if he could see Oz’s work as the creepy outsider who becomes the leader of the undead. Evidently, freaky runs in the family. Jeremy Sisto, Erik Palladino, and Gina Philips all play their parts with a casual ease, while David Carradine and Diedrich Bader make cameos to good effect. The real surprise of the film for me is the work by Ever Carradine, David’s daughter, who comes across as enormously likable and attractive. It’s a little odd how much she resembles Uma Thurman, making the KILL BILL casting a little ickier in hindsight, but she’s exactly the kind of lead you want to follow through a film like this. You’ve got to root for a film that enjoys spilling this much blood while also working in one of the funniest Michael Jackson jokes I’ve ever seen. This may not transcend the genre with the same grace and wit as SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but it’s a satisfying example of why we love this genre in the first place.


When Warner Bros. released their recent screwball comedy box set, the one title included that I wasn’t already familiar with was 1936’s LIBELED LADY, directed by Jack Conway. I’m a huge fan of the THIN MAN series, so when I realized that this film stars Myrna Loy and William Powell, it became the first one in the player, no questions asked. And even if it’s not as dizzyingly brilliant as BRINGING UP BABY, it’s a worthy addition to the collection of any comedy fan.

Loy and Powell are pure pleasure together, and they’re joined here by Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy in a story about an heiress (Loy) suing a newspaper reporter (Tracy) for libel. Tracy wants to figure out a way to set her up so that she’ll have to drop the lawsuit, so he enlists the aid of his fiancée (Harlow) and a former employee of the paper (Powell). One lie after another creates an avalanche of complications, but what ultimately makes this one work is the chemistry. When Warner Bros. puts out that amazing THIN MAN COLLECTION they announced for later this year, I’ll write my full-length love letter to the comic chemistry between Loy and Powell, but much of the exact same magic is on display here. There have been very few couples in screen history that have been better at this sort of back-and-forth banter, and they make every single shared scene a delight. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included, and the B&W print is nice, if not spectacular.


Of the titles that Fox released as part of their new Film Noir series, this is probably the least impressive. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not a great one, either. It’s a plodding procedural about a newspaper reporter (Jimmy Stewart) who stumbles onto the story of an innocent man serving hard time in prison. Stewart follows the story out of cynical self-interest at first, but the public goes nuts for the story and Stewart ends up working out of a genuine drive to do the right thing. Lee J. Cobb plays Stewart’s editor. The various witnesses that Stewart interviews provide most of the color in the film, and it builds to an unusually optimistic ending for what’s being sold as film noir. Still, it’s an interesting film for fans of Stewart or Cobb, and Fox did a nice job with the disc overall.


Leave it to Dimension. They actually had a well-crafted horror film on their hands and, as usual, wiped their asses with it before half-heartedly dumping it into theaters. Director Jaume Balaguero has a remarkable eye for atmosphere, and he knows how to put the screws to the audience with merciless efficiency. It’s not a great script, but this “unrated version,” the longer international cut, at least makes sense of the various plot threads it introduces. Anna Paquin pouts her way through the film as a girl whose family moves to a new house, trying to escape the problems of their past. Her mother (Lena Olin, easily the film’s weak link, performance-wise) and her father (Iain Glen) crumble emotionally, leaving Paquin to take care of her younger brother. The house they moved into turns out to have secrets and an appetitie, and the longer they stay, the closer they get to hell. There’s a bit of Clive Barker, a dash of Guillermo del Toro, but overall, Balaguero’s got a nice voice as a horror filmmaker. BVHE is putting this out at the same time as an earlier film of his called THE NAMELESS, which I’ll review in an upcoming column. For now, I’ll just start by recommending you give this title a try.


Nope. Not the film with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short, although that is due a special edition any day now... right? RIGHT?!?

Instead, this is the sort of disc that makes me say, “Enough already.” First there was THE ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY, and then THE QUEENS OF COMEDY, and then THE BLUE COLLAR COMEDY TOUR. Basically, the formula is you round up a handful of comedians who share an ethnicity or some sort of social identity, and then you sell the film entirely based on that shared trait. It’s lazy, and there’s something vaguely insulting about the trend. Now it’s time for Mexican-American comics to get their turn, and the result feels as calculated as possible. I’ve seen Carlos Mencia live several times, and he can work an audience into a frenzy on his best nights. This particular performance is not one of his best, though, and his set seems more angry and crass than funny. Freddy Soto’s humor is primarily about his father, and he starts the film off with a pretty solid overall set. The guy who comes across the best is Pablo Francisco, who manages to avoid the easy stereotypical race-related jokes for the most part. The film is anonymously directed by C.B. Harding, and the wrap-around material is useless filler of the worst kind. Unless you’re a hardcore fan of one or more of these comics, don’t bother.


I was barred from attending any press screenings of this film at the request of director E. Elias Merhige, no doubt because he took some lasting offense at my comparison of the original Zak Penn script and the rewrite they finally shot. As a result, I didn’t see the film until Paramount sent me a review copy of the disc. I think Merhige was afraid I wouldn’t give the film a fair viewing, but he’s wrong. After all, I liked the first two films Merhige made, and I certainly wasn’t rooting for him to fail...

... but he did.

I think Ben Kingsley works his ass off in the movie to make his character both credible and interesting, but I have a memo to all of Hollywood, just for future reference: remote viewing is really fucking boring on film. Even if you’re one of those people who thinks the whole area of study is credible and fascinating, it’s still stunningly uncinematic. The film’s biggest problem is lack of focus, and it’s insurmountable. There are just too many high concepts going on in one film, and the result is an overload that causes complete disconnect for viewers. The use of the remote viewing psychic FBI guys storyline seems designed to lead us to a mindblowing SE7EN-style mindfuck of a conclusion, but it just doesn’t come together. Aaron Eckhart and Carrie-Anne Moss sleepwalk through the film. The score by Clint Mansell and the adventurous photography by Michael Chapman stand out as high points, and the transfer by Paramount showcases both nicely. The extra features on the disc all do their best to convince us that remote viewing is fascinating, but it still doesn’t belong in this movie. Overall, it’s too dull to be called a disaster, but it comes close. Here’s hoping that Merhige returns to form the next time he steps behind the camera.


I’ve written quite a bit about this film, and I’ll say this... it’s grown on me. I hardly think it’s a devastating masterpiece or the greatest American comedy of recent years. Hyperbole can work against a film once it kicks into high gear, and I know I’ve been guilty of doing it to films in the past... building them up to you guys before they come out. SIDEWAYS had been jammed up my nose by the Oscar-watch brigade of “Me, first”ers last fall before I got around to seeing it, and I still say it’s a well-observed comedy that’s elevated by some exceptional performance work. I don’t think it’s a better film than ABOUT SCHMIDT or even ELECTION, but I think it’s on par with the work that Payne and Taylor have done before. They’re consistent. I’m not going to re-review the film for a fourth time. Instead, I’ll just point out that the audio commentary by Thomas Hayden Church and Paul Giamatti is as entertaining as the film itself, if not moreso. It’s hilarious. These two guys sound so relaxed as they bust each other’s balls that it’s hard to believe they’re not lifelong best friends. This is one of those rare extra features that I think is worth purchasing a DVD for even if you’re not a huge fan of the film. I can imagine they’ll get hired for future films based solely on the commentary alone. Hats off to whatever collision of circumstance led to this particular recording. I think commentaries are so common these days that when you hear one that is special, it’s worth pointing out.


I love this film. I remember when the one-sheet first showed up at the theater where I was working in 1986, that stylized blue and black image of the four boys walking along in silhouette, with the dialogue reprinted above them: “If I could have only one food to eat for the rest of my life? That’s easy. Pez. Cherry flavor Pez. No question about it.” It stood out. It struck an almost instant chord of nostalgia for childhood without over-explaining the film. In 1986, Rob Reiner was still defining himself as a filmmaker. THE SURE THING and THIS IS SPINAL TAP were both minor successes, and interesting enough that I was starting to feel like Reiner was a name to trust. Most interesting was the way Stephen King’s name wasn’t used anywhere in any of the advertising, a decided shift from the way films based on his books had been marketed up until that point. The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Raynold Gideon & Bruce A. Evans (with uncredited rewrites by Andrew Scheinman and Reiner) is hardly typical King material, but it highlighted all the best things about his writing. His ability to call back a certain time and place, his affinity for the ‘50s, the natural way he has with character. Reiner really proved himself as a skilled actor’s director here, getting great work out of Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman as the four leads, as well as Keifer Sutherland as Ace, the scariest fucking teen thug of the entire ‘80s teen film glut. Reiner’s commentary is a little on the dry side overall, but it’s revealing to hear him talk about the impact that River Phoenix had on all of them, and how his early death still casts a shadow over the film for Reiner. The documentary they put together for the disc covers a lot of the same ground as Reiner’s commentary, but it’s more interesting in terms of presentation. The set also comes with the soundtrack album as a second disc, as well as a 32 page picture booklet that’s fairly thin, all things considered. Still... it does have a lovely full-page representation of that one-sheet, and the film’s a must-have, so if you don’t own it yet, this is definitely the edition to buy.



My next edition of the DVD SHELF will be devoted entirely to box sets of TV shows on DVD. I’ve been watching season after season of stuff lately, and I want to do one big giant round-up of all of it. I love being able to go through and really soak up a show I enjoy, especially because the DVD versions look so much nicer than the syndication prints, and because I get to watch things in order, put them in context.

COLUMBO: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON is a delight, and not only for fans of Falk as this particular character. Do you love John Cassavetes and the fiercely independent films he made with Falk as a co-star? Well, then, you’ve got to check out “Etude In Black,” in which Cassavetes plays a symphony conductor who murders a musician to cover up an affair. Watching him verbally fence with Falk is a delight, and the script by Stephen Bochco is a particularly sharp one for the series. In fact, this season seems to be more confident and have a better grasp of the COLUMBO formula than the first season. There are a number of highlights here. There’s a trip to London that is very entertaining, featuring a pair of hammy actors who are over the hill and out of control. Martin Landau plays twin brothers in a great episode, and Leonard Nimoy shows up as a surgeon with a homicidal side in another episode. Laurence Harvey, father to Domino Harvey and star of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, plays a deaf chessmaster who kills his opponent, giving a great performance. As always, the episodes start with the murder, so these aren’t mysteries. The thrill comes from watching how Columbo puts together his case when faced with these nearly-perfect crimes. Falk’s work is a marvel, one of the all-time great TV performances. I agree with Hercules The Strong, though... where’s the Henry Mancini Sunday Night Mystery Movie theme? Can’t we have the original opening titles? They include Mancini’s credit in every episode, so let’s hear it. Otherwise, Universal did an amazing job with these.

I only have one small complaint with Rhino’s MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 box sets, too, but it’s out of their control and I know it. I wish we were getting comprehensive libraries of this show, season by season, but the rightsholders to the original films have pretty much permanently cock-blocked that from ever happening. Thanks to appearing on MST3K, some of these films are now too expensive to ever appear on one of these collections. Still, they’re getting some of the very best episodes out there, and I’m so deeply in love with this show, even now, after it’s been off the air for so long, that I’ll take whatever I can get. This time around, you’ll get some “DEEEEEEP HURRRRRRRTING” as they offer up four films: HERCULES UNCHAINED, KILLER SHREWS, HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN, and the godawful PRINCE OF SPACE. There’s a bit of Mike and a bit of Joel, so fans of both camps will be happy. I wish I could get extra features and commentaries and new interviews and all sorts of stuff on here, but somehow, I suspect that’s just not in the cards. If we’re seven volumes into the collection, then I’m guessing there’s a reason that no one’s stepped up to spearhead some deluxe tricked-out releases. Maybe no one wants to do commentary. Maybe they’re just tired of reliving the MST3K experience. Whatever the case, I can respect the choice. Like I said... seeing these episodes look this good and without commercials is a blessing for any fan who still has a stack of moldering videotapes stacked in a closet. I’ll just keep chipping away, adding these boxes to the shelf, and enjoying what we get.

That’s it for now. I’ve got my CORPSE BRIDE and WATCHM... er, other secret London report on the way for you before Monday, as well as a piece about digital 3D and much more. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

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