Tuesday, 17 Dec. 2002
The Year in Review: We're dimming the lights at DVD Journal headquarters for our annual holiday break, but we will be back on Monday, Jan. 6 with a stack of new DVD reviews. Before we go, we offer our top ten DVDs of the past 12 months:
On the Street: There's a wide mix of titles on the street list this week, including a couple of blockbusters. It seems like folks have been waiting since 1997 for this one, and the entire Back to the Future trilogy is now on the street from Universal. Also certain to move a few copies is DreamWorks' two-disc Minority Report, which we considered to be one of the best films of this year. Fox has a real treat on the board with Martin Scorsese's often-overlooked but nonetheless brilliant The King of Comedy, as well as Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. Family fare can be found in MGM's The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course and Disney's The Country Bears. And Kevin Smith fans will want to look for Columbia's An Evening with Kevin Smith, featuring a handful of the director's appearances on college campuses nationwide. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Happy holidays. We'll see ya soon.
Monday, 16 Dec. 2002
Disc of the Week: There seems to be two schools of thought about Invaders from Mars, a semi-legendary low-low-budget 1953 story of a young boy who sees a spaceship land near his back yard, after which his parents and others transform into possessed, soulless saboteurs with tiny control devices implanted in their necks. One school regards this peculiar little film as dreck of the cheapest sort, a kiddie matinee of paperboard sets, oaken dialogue, actors who'd be more at home in local car lot commercials, an irksome reliance on stock footage, and silly Martian "synthetic Mutants" costumed in green velour footy pajamas with visible zippers up their backs. Pure Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder. On the other side of the aisle, there are those who honor it as the ur-Hamlet of Cold War paranoia alien infiltration psychodramas, as a flawed yet mesmerizing masterpiece of expressionist design and symbol-rich photography, a movie that spins its meager resources into a metaphorical dream-state tapping universal childhood fears of otherness and personal powerlessness. Dr. Caligari with rayguns. And you know what? They're both right.
Invaders from Mars has acquired quite a reputation over the years, thanks to the hand of its director/designer William Cameron Menzies, whose bona fides included a designer's Academy Award for Gone With the Wind and impressive director credits such as Things to Come and The Thief of Bagdad. With a budget less than $300,000, he and cinematographer John F. Seitz (Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend) used minimalist sets and forced perspective to lift otherwise merely juvenile claptrap into something if not extraordinary, then at least by no means ordinary. Menzies' idea that we see everything from a small boy's dream point-of-view offers such striking compositions as a child's idea of a police station (stark and stretched, as if designed by Dali), of a scientist's lab (towering test tubes frame the image like jail-cell bars), and of the principal set, an oddly foreshortened grassy knoll, on the far side of which loved ones are taken body and soul. The boy, David (Jimmy Hunt), is around 12 years old and says "Gee!" a lot, but he's a smart and observant amateur astronomer who wakes to a world where all of the supposedly safe adults (even policemen) are dangerous enemies. Of course, the U.S. army rolls in brandishing tanks (and WWII film clips) to attack the Martians' underground lair, but it's David who finally saves the day.
Those who've looked beneath the occasionally Ed Wood-like surface of Invaders from Mars report seeing sideshow mirror-distorted reflections of America's Red Scare fears. The national phobia of a subverting Communist menace, of enemies hidden within normal-looking people, rattled at fever pitch through the 1950s and found its most famous expression in Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56), a classic owing more than a little to Invaders from Mars. Or is David, as some suggest, an abused child? That interpretation sees this "dream" manifesting a textbook subconscious playing-out of trauma filtered through an imagination fueled by what his mother derides as "those trashy science fiction magazines." The people who populate his nightmare (or is it? Cue weird music) are an odd assortment. Mom (Hillary Brooke) is plastic and passive even before she's taken over; the Martian-controlled dad (Leif Erickson) is belligerent and physically violent and threatens the boy to keep silent about it. David's saviors are outsiders: astronomer Dr. Kelston (Arthur Franz) whose magic telescope and bizarre all-knowing prescience have already divined the scheme behind the "synthetic mute-ants" near the "hush hush" rocket base where Dad works and beautiful Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter), a protector who's not a parent and therefore can be simultaneously safe, lovingly physical, and chastely sexy (that off-the-shoulder rip in her dress is telling). David's parents are telepathically controlled by the trippy "Martian Intelligence," a disembodied green head with tentacles encased in a glass globe. It wordlessly puppeteers the adults and several hulking pop-eyed, green-pajama mutants (the chubby one is good for a chuckle) until its destruction comes in a drawn-out, hallucinatory climax that defies all reason except dream logic. When David wakes only to see the spaceship land in his backyard again just as in the dream, has he experienced a precognitive vision of things to come, or is he trapped in an ever-looping nightmare forever? Either way, it's a suitably weird cap on a series of weirder off-kilter scenes. Invaders from Mars really is laughably camp and an often goony 79 minutes, but if that was its totality it would be utterly dismissed like so many of its kin today. Instead, to many viewers especially those who first saw it at the age of eight or so its effect is life-long unnerving, eerie, and memorable. Thanks to Menzies, this deliriously stylized snapshot of early-1950's ideas and attitudes is good for any suitably impressionable eight-year-old, or for indulging the eight-year-old (or "media studies" student) within you. (For an informed aficionado's in-depth exploration of Invaders from Mars, we recommend with enthusiasm our esteemed colleague DVD Savant's exemplary essay on the movie.)
Image Entertainment's new Invaders from Mars: 50th Anniversary Special Edition delivers the best home version of the movie yet released. The source material is scratchy and blemished, but it's made from the original 35mm Cinecolor print master and is far superior to the dreadful 1998 DVD from UAV. Color, contrast, and detail are quite good. The audio is an exceptional monaural Dolby Digital 2.0. Extras include the movie's full alternate British release, which cuts the "dream" ending quite awkwardly, and an eight-page booklet featuring a terrific essay on the movie (discover why decorating a Martian tunnel with hundreds of inflated condoms is a good idea). A sub-par photo gallery and the theatrical trailer are also on board. Invaders from Mars is on the street now.
Box Office: Four new films arrived in theaters over the weekend, and all managed to score high on the box-office chart. Doing battle for the top spot was Sony's Maid in Manhattan and Paramount's Star Trek: Nemesis Maid, starring Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes, barely edged ahead in the box-office estimates, taking $19 million and giving J.Lo her best debut to date. Nemesis managed a similar $18.7 million, but it was in fact the weakest debut of any Trek flick over the past several years. Making a strong appearance was Fox's Drumline, which took third place with $13 million, while Buena Vista's comedy The Hot Chick tied for fourth place with $7.5 million. Drumline received several positive notices from critics, while the other three debuts earned mixed-to-negative reviews.
MGM's Die Another Day was the strongest film of the frame in continuing release, tying for fourth place with $7.5 million and $131.6 million to date the best ever gross for any Bond film while Warner's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is now in sixth place with a monstrous $222.4 million cume. Slipping a few notches was Warner's Analyze That starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal, which managed just $5.3 million in its second weekend. And things don't look good for Disney's Treasure Planet, as the animated feature has garnered just $27 million in three frames. Meanwhile, headed for DVD prep is Buena Vista's The Ring, which will finish above $125 million, while Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile will clear $115 million for Universal.
The holiday season is well underway, and new movies will be arriving all week in cineplexes this Wednesday is The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Thursday will see the debut of Spike Lee's 25th Hour starring Edward Norton, and Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York goes nationwide on Friday. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: D.K. Holm has posted a sneak-preview of DreamWorks' Minority Report, while Greg Dorr is on the board this morning with Fox's The King of Comedy. New reviews this week from the rest of the gang include Unfaithful, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, A History of Britain: The Complete Collection, Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie, Cherish, Invaders from Mars, and Half a Loaf of Kung Fu. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page or use our search engine to rewind into some DVD reviews from months past.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 10 Dec. 2002
On the Street: It's not a long-street list this week, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few new things to pick up. Film buffs will certainly want to get their hands on Criterion's new release of Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 Contempt, a two-disc set that offers a beautiful transfer. Also of note are two small films, Cherish and Human Nature, out from New Line. Mainstream titles today include Paramount's submarine thriller K-19: The Widowmaker, while family fare includes Fox's charming Like Mike and Columbia's Stuart Little 2. And if you're looking to get spooked, you might want to spin Halloween: Resurrection, out from Dimension/Buena Vista. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
We'll see ya next week.
Monday, 9 Dec. 2002
Disc of the Week: If you're going to call a movie "the ultimate film" and "the essence of all great comedy" written and directed by a "genius" particularly one by a first-time director/screenwriter, cast largely with unknowns, budgeted under $1 million, and opening in a handful of theaters then you'd better be able to back up such a decree. If you're Peter Sellers, you back it up by taking out a full-page proclamation in Variety stating all of the above. In that very public endorsement, which appeared when The Producers opened under timid distribution in 1968, Sellers also said "Those of us who have seen this film and understand it have experienced a phenomenon which occurs only once in a life span." In that one respect we are pleased to disagree with the estimable Mr. Sellers. The Producers is a broad, bawdy, sharp, and above all funny farce, and remains so more than once in a lifetime. Almost 35 years later, the picture is a gold standard of comedy, particularly in our current movie culture, which heralds in-your-face, tasteless humor.
The catch-phrases "creative accounting" and "when you got it, flaunt it" began in The Producers, a story of Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel, bigger than life with a comb-over to match), a once-was theatrical producer on the skids. A chance remark by mild-mannered accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder, in his first major screen role) gives Bialystock a bald-faced criminal scheme secure $2 million by seducing wealthy old ladies, produce a play so awful it's guaranteed to bomb by page six, and then head to Rio before the investors come to collect the 25,000 percent of the profits sold. Bialystock convinces Bloom to dance on the bold side of life for a change, and before long "Bialystock & Bloom, Theatrical Producers" hire a pneumatic Swedish receptionist, Ulla (Lee Meredith), for whom "go to work" means go-go dancing in a yellow minidress. Cracked ex-Nazi Kenneth Mars, love-lorn for the Führer only he knew ("He vas a terrific dancer"), provides the play "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolph and Eva at Berchtesgaden." Addled flower child Dick Shawn gets the part of Hitler. It's a foolproof plan until the outrageous Busby Berkeley-styled musical that is "Springtime for Hitler" proves to be the biggest hit on the Great White Way.
Just try cataloging the memorable moments and snappy lines in this ageless satire/horseplay/lampoon. In Bialystock, stage icon Zero Mostel embodies an ungovernable force of nature, his every word and deed super-sized with ferocious gusto to Zeus-like proportions. There's the randy granny Hold Me Touch Me (Estelle Winwood, who puts more horny joy into the line "Let's fool around" than any woman born in 1883 should). There's Wilder's "I want everything I've ever seen in the movies!" punctuated by the ejaculatory Lincoln Center fountain. One cannot forget the cross-dressing director and his fussy "secretary" (fun with gay stereotypes is just one of a dozen reasons why The Producers couldn't possibly be a new studio product in these hypersensitive times). Dick Shawn's groooovy audition number "Love Power," followed by one of the greatest punch-lines in movie history. Leo's blue blanket, or the transformed milquetoast's sweet-natured courtroom testimonial. Everything Kenneth Mars utters. Topping it all is the "Springtime for Hitler" production number, with its goose-stepping Rockettes forming a choreographed swastika to a Broadway score orchestrated with gunfire and dropping bombs. It's so hysterical that you don't need to be a war vet to feel the glee as the movie invites us to dance on Hitler's grave. Mel Brooks had been a stand-up comic in the Borscht Belt, and The Producers is a culmination of his experience in, and profound respect for, the Catskills Jewish showbiz world that shaped him. But even he feared that fellow Jews might see only offense in what he was doing. The Third Reich was just 23 years gone by 1968, and one can imagine the day's moviegoers slackjawed or outraged by this movie. On the other hand, Roger Ebert (who saw it that year) says that being there was to "witness audacity so liberating that not even There's Something About Mary rivals it." Now and then we need a splash of liberating audacity.
MGM's new Special Edition release of The Producers shows off all things good about the DVD medium. The splendid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is clean, with rich color and crisp detail it looks as if it was shot last month (a full-screen version is also on board). Audio options include the original monaural mix and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 track both are clean, with fine dynamic range, although the somewhat richer DD 5.1 offers a nice soundstage across the front as well as slight use of the surrounds. Extras start with a new hour-long "making-of" documentary. In new interviews, Brooks, Wilder, Mars, Meredith, and others recall the movie's conception, casting, and filming. Further supplements include a production-design sketch gallery; an alternate version of the playhouse explosion scene; a photo gallery; actor/director Paul Mazursky reading Peter Sellers' published praises; the theatrical trailer; and a promo for the recent Broadway cast CD. The Producers is on the street now.
Box Office: The box-office flip-flops just don't stop the latest Harry Potter flick managed to fall and relcaim the number-one spot on the chart last week, and this time around MGM's Die Another Day got its own bit of deja vu, winning the frame with $13 million and building its total receipts to $120.4 million after three weeks. The win managed to edge out the weekend's strongest debut, Warner's Analyze That starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal, which garnered $11.3 million. Last week's other new arrival, Universal's Empire starring John Leguizamo, scraped up $6.3 million for fourth place on the list.
In continuing release, Warner's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is still riding high in third place with $213.9 million after its first month. Buena Vista's The Santa Clause 2 also is a certified holiday-season hit with $120 million to date, while DreamWorks' The Ring and Universal's 8 Mile are century club members as well. But stumbling out of the gate is Disney's Treasure Planet, which cleared just $5.6 million over its second weekend and is fading with $23.8 million overall. Even more disappointing is Steven Soderbergh's Solaris, which has fallen out of the top ten after one week and looks to finish well under $20 million.
New movies opening this Friday include Star Trek: Nemesis, Maid in Manhattan starring Ralph Fiennes and Jennifer Lopez, Drumline with Orlando Jones and Nick Cannon, and The Hot Chick starring Rob Schneider. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: D.K. Holm has posted a sneak-preview of Criterion's two-disc Contempt, while new stuff this week from the rest of the team includes K-19: The Widowmaker, Halloween: Resurrection, Like Mike, Body of Evidence, Human Nature, Amy's O, The Producers, and Innocence. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page, while our DVD reviews database features more than 1,800 additional write-ups.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 3 Dec. 2002
On the Street: Shagadelic! Today's street-list has several good picks, including New Line's infinifilm release of Austin Powers in Goldmember, Buena Vista's Lilo & Stitch, and a pair of catalog items from Paramount, Serpico and The Duellists. MGM's catalog dump this morning includes such classics as The Producers, The Thief of Bagdad, The Children's Hour, and A Kiss Before Dying, and those of you interested in animation from bygone days have three new "Walt Disney Treasures" titles to choose from. And we're not quite done yet, Trekkies Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season Six is now here, which will be followed by the seventh and final box at the end of this month. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 2 Dec. 2002
And the winner is: Jason Glover of Fountain Valley, Calif., wins the free Sum of All Fears DVD from our November contest. Congrats, Jason!
Our totally free DVD contest for the month of December is up and running, and we have a copy of New Line's Austin Powers in Goldmember up for grabs. Be sure to drop by our contest page to send us your entry, and don't forget to take our monthly DVD poll while you're there.
Disc of the Week: Al Pacino: Is he not America's greatest working actor? Pacino broke on to the screen in the early '70s, with his debut in 1971's Panic in Needle Park, followed directly by Coppola's 1972 The Godfather the latter put him in the spotlight as an actor who could hold his own against Marlon Brando. But The Godfather was labeled a Brando vehicle (the rest of the cast was largely unknown at the time), and it would take 1974's The Godfather Part II to establish Pacino on the American cinema's center stage. Avoiding typecasting, he took a variety of roles after the first two Godfather films (1975's Dog Day Afternoon being a notable turn), later starring in Cruising and Scarface in the '80s, films that since have gained cult followings. Certainly, most Pacino pictures during the decade were a blight or a blur, but he emerged in the '90s as one of Hollywood's elder statesman, earning his first Oscar for Scent of a Woman, collaborating with Michael Mann in Heat and The Insider, taking supporting parts in Glengarry Glen Ross, Donnie Brasco and even pulp like Devil's Advocate. Pacino currently is delivering better work than such contemporaries as Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, and he hasn't succumbed to the comic buffoonery of Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro. It's 30 years into his career, and we're still watching him closely.
Which may be why it's such a treat to revisit Sidney Lumet's 1973 film Serpico a full blast of Pacino at his height in the '70s. Based on a true story, Pacino stars as NYPD undercover cop Frank Serpico. Opening as he is taken to a hospital after being shot, the story then backtracks to reveal why Serpico took a bullet in the head. An honest cop who wanted to earn a promotion to Detective, Serpico found he could get closer to the street just by looking like an average citizen, rather than the clean-cut NYPD plainclothesmen that perps could spot a mile away. But once assigned to detective work, Serpico learns that every cop on the beat is taking bribe money naturally, he's supposed to be in on the take as well, since no cop will trust him unless he gets his hands dirty. Frustrated, Serpico turns a friend who can prod the higher-ups in the system, but the return message simply is that the top brass doesn't care about bribe-money in fact, their main concern is keeping Serpico from contacting "outside sources" on the matter. Uncorrupted, he finds himself alienated not only from his partners, but his girlfriends as well. And eventually, Frank Serpico gets pushed too far.
Made directly between the first two Godfather films, Serpico is a genre piece, and for that it's not entirely unique. Cops and corruption have been the grist of many films noir, but what Serpico brings to the screen is Pacino's intensity, as well as New York street-smarts. The further Serpico finds himself enveloped by corruption, the more he looks like a cross between a peacenik hippie and Jesus Christ, further alienating him from every straight-looking cop on the force. It's a smart gag for a '70s film, although Pacino has one pal in the straight-looking but oddly demeanored Bob Blair (played by Woody Allen regular Tony Roberts) nevertheless, it's Pacino's movie, as he's in every single scene. Serpico utilizes its New York locations to offer a realistic tone, which adds to the overall credibility. William Friedkin achieved something similar in The French Connection (1971), making The Big Apple every bit as important as the characters. In Serpico, the setting flatters Pacino, who remains completely watchable for more than two hours, commanding the screen with his poker-faced eyes. There are some quintessential touches from the decade that was trying to free itself from the Vietnam war and deal with social changes at home Frank Serpico is pushed around by cops who think he a homosexual or a criminal, and he finds the system protects those who don't try that hard to do their jobs. The reason the movie holds up is simply due to the fascinating central performance.
Paramount's new DVD release of Serpico offers a strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and the original mono (which has also been remastered). The source-print appears well cared for, and the overall good quality is what we've come to expect from Paramount. Extras include three short documentaries: "Serpico: From Real to Reel," which interviews producer Martin Bregman and director Lumet (10 min.), "Inside Serpico," which also includes Lumet and Bregman (13 min.), and "Serpico: Favorite Moments," which interviews Bregman and Lumet (3 min.). Also included is a stills gallery with commentary from Lumet and the theatrical trailer. Serpico is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Several new films arrived over the long Thanksgiving weekend, but moviegoers decided to stick with reliable franchise titles and Warner's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets found its way back to the top of the chart after getting bumped last week by MGM's Die Another Day. Chamber now stands at $200.2 million after just three weeks, but 007 also is performing well, as the latest Bond film picked up $32 million since last Friday and has cracked the century with $101.6 million. Among debuting films, Disney's Treasure Planet was the best of the bunch with $16.5 million since Wednesday, while the remainder did modest business: Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights ($15.1 m), Solaris ($9.4 m), and Wes Craven Presents: They ($8 m). All new arrivals received mixed-to-positive reviews with the exception of Eight Crazy Nights, which was widely panned.
In continuing release, Buena Vista's The Santa Clause 2 was another franchise item that survived the Thanksgiving invasion, holding down third place with $12.3 million and a $113.9 million gross. New Line's Friday After Next held on for a second weekend with $25.6 million to date, and Universal's 8 Mile is another century-breaker with $107.5 million after one month. Meanwhile, headed for a DVD near you is Paramount's Jackass: The Movie, which will finish well above $60 million a tally that won't please the movie's vocal detractors.
New pictures hitting cineplexes this Friday include Analyze That starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal, as well as Empire starring John Leguizamo. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend (all figures Friday through Sunday):
On the Board: D.K. Holm has posted a review of Criterion's two-disc Solaris (1972), while Dawn Taylor is on the board this morning with Paramount's The Duellists. New reviews from the rest of the team today include Austin Powers in Goldmember, The Thief of Bagdad, Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season Six, The Road to Hong Kong, Serpico, and My Neighbor Totoro. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page or use our search engine to rewind into some DVD reviews from months past.
Back tomorrow with this week's street discs.