THIS WEEK IN DVD’S – Feb 28, 2008
Pierrot Le Fou (Criterion)
This writer has never been able to warm up to Jean-Luc Godard – I won’t deny that there’s an avant-garde madness to his cinematic rhetoric that should be applauded in the halls of cinephilia – but I’ll be damned if I didn’t almost think Pierrot Le Fou was a blast. This romantic road trip of a movie starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a cranky suburbanite and Anna Karina as the apple of his eye showcases eye-popping colors (presented with razor-sharp perfection on this new Criterion DVD) gets sometimes caught up in its own formalism, but for the most part, this is one Hell of a picture.
And this Criterion set is nothing short of exceptional. With tons of featurettes, documentaries, interview footage and, again, a marvelous video transfer, this is the kind of release that makes one want to light up a cigarette, put the top down and drive off into the French countryside.
Terror’s Advocate (Magnolia)
America at War (A&E)
Pinochet’s Last Stand (HBO)
JAG: The Fifth Season (Paramount)
God bless him – Brian De Palma really goes for the jugular with Redacted, and even though he falls squarely and painfully on his ass, the fact that he gave it a shot is an endlessly laudable achievement in itself. This collage of sorts swirls around a soldier’s video diary, footage from a security camera at an army base with the kind of avant-garde aggression that De Palma is known for (check out Hi, Mom! for proof of this). But at the end of the day, Redacted is noble in thematic form, though short on emotional and intellectual delivery.
And while Terror’s Advocate is a step up in overall cinematic quality, this insane documentary on French lawyer Jacques Verges – who has defended in court a who’s who of terrorists, Nazis, serial killers and other incendiary folks – gets a bit stalled in its dependence on interview footage. Barbet Schroeder is a quietly effective documentarian – while Koko: A Talking Gorilla wasn’t exactly a masterwork, its perspective and easy-going pace made it warm and informative – and though his subject matter here is mesmerizing, the overall syntax of Terror’s Advocate ends up looking more like an extended CNN expose than a film.
America at War, though, is actually a history junkie’s dream come true. These 14 DVDs may not have the filmmaking prowess behind, say, Ken Burns’ output, but what America at War lacks in cinematic finesse it makes up for with sheer volume. These capable, involving, panoramic docs take us from Revolutionary times right up to our current complications in the Middle East with dramatic heft and a slew of stock footage that will leave military buffs clamoring for more.
On a more specific level, Pinochet’s Last Stand addresses an aspect of the wartime ethos that these other releases only hint at. With Derek Jacobi in superb form as the former Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet, this drama about the dictator’s 1998 arrest for heinous war crimes, Pinochet’s Last Stand isn’t exactly easy-going fare – while not exceptionally graphic, its mood is stern and devastating – by diving deep into the persona and gravitas of the man, it deftly reaches a sea of heart-wrenching truths about fear-mongering in times of war.
Then there’s JAG. JAG: The Fifth Season continues to showcase the hit military drama’s blend of you-are-there military action with Perry Mason-esque legal suspense, and while it’s not exactly rocket science (if you’ve seen one JAG episode, you’ve seen ‘em all), this fifth go-round has its moments: The two-part season opener “King of the Greenie Board” and “Rules of Engagement” with their Kosovo operatives and double- and triple-cross narrative mazes are particularly involving.
Lake Placid 2 (Fox)
COPS: The 20th Anniversary Edition (Fox)
The best part about Zapped! is that is showcases a ton of nudity. If you’re looking for mid-80s boobs, this one’s definitely worth a rental. But do everything in your power to squint through the deranged storyline following Scott Baio ‘accidentally’ getting ESP from a botched high school science experiment. And, oh, Willie Aames – where have you gone?
Really the only reason to bother with Lake Placid 2 is for John Schneider (yep, Bo Duke himself). The original croc-in-a-lake b-movie was goofy, inane fun – thanks in no small part to a sailor-talking supporting turn from Betty White – but this one is a turkey from frame one. And without giving too much away, let’s just say that just because there is more than one croc swimming around doesn’t mean dramatic stakes have been raised from film one in any way. Great cover art, though.
And just because Zapped! and Lake Placid 2 had me in the mood, I cruised through COPS: The 20th Anniversary Edition and found myself curiously intrigued. I never caught any COPS episodes back in the day, but this collection of white-trash drawlers and slurred-speech idiots getting nabbed after staging dumb-as-shit escape attempts and spewing gibberish at the boys in blue made me giggle with judgmental glee. Because as we all know, there’s nothing more empowering than watching someone be twice the idiot you are.
Girlfriends: The Third Season (Paramount)
Soul Food: The Third Season (Paramount)
The Comedy Central Roast of Flavor Flav (Paramount)
I stand by Gilmore Girls as one of the great TV series of all time, and there are those who think I’m full of crap because that show features some of the most unbelievable dialogue and inanely teeny-bopper plot devices that the boob tube has ever known. Well, I feel a little bit more confident about my GG adoration because I would use that exact argument against Girlfriends. This cringe-inducing comedy/soap opera about a band of young ladies – Maya, Toni, Lynn and Joan – who complain about boys, fall in love with boys, try on clothes and complain about friends in their circle they hate is enough to make one run screaming. Now I know why my brother refuses to be in a room with me when GG is on (but screw him – I love my Gilmore Girls!).
Far more instantly appealing than Girlfriends is Soul Food, and while this writer had to play a bit of catch-up with this third season (it’s good to have familiarity with the series before diving into its third go-round), I found it to be a solid if sometimes histrionic series. Vanessa Williams and Rockmond Dunbar portray the recently-divorced mother and father at the head of a family with prickly dynamism and power, and by the time this third season got around to showcasing Terrence Howard as a guest star, I was hooked. I could do without The Roast of Flavor Flav, though. These Comedy Central roasts always sport classic digs and mean sentiments (and don’t get me wrong – this one has some standout moments), but Flavor Flav? Really?
She’s Gotta Have It (MGM)
Peter’s Friends (MGM)
Dirty Laundry (Fox)
Blind Dating (Fox)
Living and Dying (HBO)
She’s Gotta Have It is the kind of picture that’s more important for what it started than what it is: This debut from Spike Lee (along with Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise) lit the fuse on an independent film generation. As a stand-alone film, the movie plays as little more than a bubbly, black-and-white romance, but as a historical document, it’s easy to be reminded that after She’s Gotta Have It, indie cinema never quite looked the same.
Peter’s Friends, on the other hand, was viewed at the time of its release as a rip-off romantic comedy, but I’ll be damned if this one doesn’t stand tall as one of the most biting, irreverent and surprisingly emotional drama/comedies of the 90s. Rita Rudner’s hideously underrated screenplay gives an exceptional cast – including Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton and Stephen Fry – a chance to not only shine, but really create a one-of-a-kind dramatic symbiosis.
Loretta Devine is a wonderfully warm and sassy presence on screen – you can never really lose with her – but Dirty Laundry isn’t a worthy vehicle for the acclaimed actress. It’s a step up from Sweet Home Alabama (a film Dirty Laundry mimics in terms of overall story structure), but the laughs are few and far between and the film’s familial sermonizing is Lifetime Channel-worthy at best. But at least it’s better than Blind Dating, the kind of American Pie-meets-Wedding Crashers tripe that dulls one’s brain if watched more than once. This tale of a blind twenty something and his doofus older brother (Eddie Kaye Thomas of American Pie fame) and their dumb-ass adventures is merely bad until Jane Seymour shows up, proving that this once-dependable actress is now in the business of only playing slutty mom-types. Ugh.
Yet even still, it stands tall above Living and Dying, a woefully cheesy faux-thriller about a pair of idiots (Edward Furlong and Bai Ling) who start off trying to rob a bank yet end up with a pair of hostages as well as the prime target of a crazy-as-blazes federal agent (Michael Madsen) intent on watching them fry. Like Natural Born Killers for the Simple Life generation, this one is brain-dead from start to finish.
Rough Diamond (Acorn Media)
Lillie (Acorn Media)
Called Diamond Geezer in its native Britain, this lackadaisical and spirited series following our deviously debonair master criminal Des (David Jason) is refreshing not because it’s simply a fine showcase for Jason’s exceptionally-tuned performance, but because it doesn’t fit snugly into the BBC-export rhetoric us Anglophiles are so used to. Bitchy where fare is usually subliminal and dark where fare is typically emotionally vague, Rough Diamond is, pardon the pun, a diamond in the rough.
On the other side of the spectrum, though, is Lillie, a nuanced and exotic take on the life and loves of Lillie Langtry, a woman famously referred to by Walt Whitman as “the essence of poetry”. And in Francesca Annis, the British miniseries finds a perfect blend of blatantly gorgeous sensuality and coy, demure playfulness (and hey – this lady had turns in both Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon and David Lynch’s Dune: Let’s give her some respect, people!).
Third Watch: The Complete First Season (Warner)
Any excuse to watch Jeffrey Wright on screen is a good excuse, but Blackout is a surprisingly one-note fantasia on a particularly bad New York City power outage and the madness that such an occurrence can inspire. Wright brings a welcome heft and steely confidence to the film that the rest of Blackout simply doesn’t manifest.
Far more of an experience as an urban drama is Third Watch, which finds its debut season finally arriving on DVD this month. This dramatic look at the 3:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m. shifts at various New York rescue operations is a compulsively watchable series that fuses raw, often sexual emotional fare with a striking suspense and edge-of-your-seat immediacy. And Bobby Cannavale’s turn as Roberto Caffey is one of the best I’ve seen in a long while. This guy’s the real deal.
Comanche Moon (Sony)
McLeod’s Daughters (Koch Vision)
Walker, Texas Ranger: The Fourth Season (Paramount)
Heading out into the west, we get a handful of nice prairie-wide fare. Comanche Moon doesn’t get close to capturing the majestic spirit of Lonesome Dove (in Larry McMurtry’s LD series, this is book two), but as a miniseries western, I’ve seen worse. Steve Zahn gives a cozy performance as young Gus McCrae, and even Karl Urban comes to bat as a youthful incarnation of Woodrow Call. This one’s for those in the Lonesome Dove fan club only, but even so, it’s a solid way to waste a few hours.
Less successful is McLeod’s Daughters: The Complete Fifth Season. This Australian import following the exploits and challenges faced by a farm run by women was an empowering blast in its first few seasons (the first three go-rounds are really quite something), but this fifth installment is heavy on the melodrama and light on substance. Also floundering in its later seasons is Walker, Texas Ranger. McLeod’s Daughters in its prime plays like The Sopranos in comparison to Walker, Texas Ranger at any time (as fun as the show used to be, it’s definitely more MacGyver than Magnum PI in the entertainment department), but this fourth season of the show is woefully underwritten. Though the “Sons of Thunder” episode showcases some of the dumbest karate-inspired dialogue I’ve ever heard on television – for camp lovers, this one’s definitely worth suffering through.
The Charlie Chan Collection: Volume Four (Fox)
The John Frankenheimer Collection (MGM)
The Joan Crawford Collection, Vol. 2 (Warner)
Tactics: The Complete Series (Manga)
In the box set department, we have The Charlie Chan Collection: Volume Four, which is little more than a pale ghost of what the already-questionable Charlie Chan series was at its heyday. There’s a shred of camp glee to Charlie Chan in Reno, but the other three films here – Charlie Chan in Honolulu, Charlie Chan at Treasure Island and Charlie Chan in the City of Darkness – are ho-hum on all fronts. The John Frankenheimer Collection fares far better, though while The Manchurian Candidate remains one of cinema’s greatest political thrillers (and arguably Frank Sinatra’s greatest on-screen performance), The Train, The Young Savages and especially the relatively recent Ronin all pale in comparison to Frankenheimer’s masterpiece.
This writer will openly admit to being a die-hard Joan Crawford fan, but while The Joan Crawford Collection, Vol. 2 showcases the star with appropriate sexiness and demure savvy, none of the films here let her be a big, bossy bitch (which is when Crawford leaps off the screen). Torch Song, Strange Cargo, Sadie McKee, Flamingo Road and A Woman’s Face are all nominal fare, and none of them give Joan room to chew scenery with her trademark fire and intensity.
And rounding out this section with a ‘one of these kids is not like the others’ moment is Tactics: The Complete Series, a four-DVD collection of one of the most famous anime series of all time. The animation here is exceptional, I’ll definitely give it that, but these tales of writer/detective Kantaro Ichinomiya and his battles with foes both dead and undead get really repetitive really fast, and I’ll admit that making it through all twenty-five of these episodes was a challenge.
But the series has the reputation of one of the format’s best, so what do I know? Hell – I referenced Under the Cherry Moon earlier. Yeah. I’m that guy.