DVD SPOTLIGHT: Image Entertainment
by Mark Devitt and Jonathan Doyle
Flesh, Trash, and Heat
(Image Entertainment, 10.11.2005)
As incredibly shallow movies go, these three efforts directed by Paul Morrissey, produced by Andy Warhol, and starring Joe Dallesandro are pretty fascinating. Morrissey doesn't have any particular talent for filmmaking but there's a conceptual audacity to his work. Shot primarily on weekends -- in a documentary style with no crew -- each film is comprised of improvised conversations between hustlers, prostitutes, thieves, movie stars, and even some boring normal people. And oh yeah, Joe Dallesandro spends about 70% of the films' collective running time naked.
As you can tell from the comments Morrissey makes on each disc, he's not the most informed or sophisticated cineaste and his confusion about the medium shows in his work. On one hand, he's trying to create a lurid, voyeuristic experience for the audience, which is apparent from the behind-closed-doors nature of the dialogue and behavior on display. On the other hand, he stages the scenes in an extremely flat, presentational manner (much like a play) and encourages the actors to ham it up with all kinds of flamboyant, theatrical touches that remove any sense of authenticity or urgency from the proceedings.
The first film in this unofficial trilogy, Flesh, is also the roughest and most amateurish. Almost every cut is accompanied by a flicker and buzz sound, as Morrissey probably hadn't mastered the art of cutting with synch sound at this point. Still, the film has a bizarre fascination, owing primarily to Dallesandro's mysterious performance. Surrounded by bizarre New York underground types who continually pick and prod at his manhood, Dallesandro keeps a cool, calm attitude throughout. While there's no real narrative, the film has something to do with a male hustler (Dallesandro) trying to raise $200 for a friend's abortion.
In spite of some memorable moments, the second film in the series, Trash, is the least engaging. It follows the structure and style of Flesh exactly -- the striking opening credits (on an electronic ticker) are identical but run diagonally, not horizontally, this time -- but with some minor story differences. In Trash, Dallesandro plays a drug addict who everyone in New York wants to sleep with. Unfortunately, as a result of his drug problem, he can't deliver the goods. But don't fret Dallesandro fans, he's still naked for most of the film.
My favorite film in the trilogy is, oddly enough, also the most conventional. Heat is not dramatically different from its predecessors in execution, but its soap opera narrative -- a fading movie star (Midnight Cowboy dog-lover, Sylvia Miles) falls in love with a young aspiring actor and her daughter attempts to break them up -- brings something refreshing to Morrissey's formula. Taken out of the aimless New York underworld of Flesh and Trash and re-located to the California mansion circuit, Morrissey's style has a little more vitality in Heat. If John Cassavetes re-made Sunset Boulevard, I'm guessing it would look something like this (and it would be better).
As fans of these films undoubtedly know, Image Entertainment released bare bones DVD editions back in 1998. While the 1.33:1 transfers on these discs aren't substantially different from the earlier discs, they look just fine. However, somebody should have probably told Morrissey to check for hairs in the gate, while he was shooting these films (actually, the half-assed technical work is part of the fun when you watch these borderline home movies).
While Morrissey hasn't recorded complete commentaries for these new discs, we get an adequate series of mini-commentaries: all three discs include roughly 10 minutes of outtakes and/or extended scenes available with commentary. Each disc also includes a 3-minute photo gallery with commentary by Morrissey. In addition to these features, Heat includes three silent (and instantly forgettable) Morrissey shorts from the '60s that play more like camera tests than films. Again, these shorts are accompanied by Morrissey commentary.
Unfortunately, Morrissey (now 67) comes across as jaded and disgruntled. He dismisses most other filmmakers and films, particularly any film that aspires to drama and isn't fundamentally a comedy, adding that it's a mistake to explore the internal workings of characters. While I can't agree with everything Morrissey says, I think he's on to something when he asserts that all great filmmakers prioritize comedy in their films. I can think of few examples that contradict this. In any case, he's utterly convinced that his films are important works of art and repeatedly makes note of their success in Europe.
If you're a fan of Paul Morrissey, it's a good time to be you. In addition to these three discs, Image has released new editions of Women in Revolt, Blood For Dracula, and Flesh For Frankenstein in recent months. The latter two include new anamorphic transfers, as well as the features from their original Criterion incarnations (this is a rare occurrence, but Image recently bought Criterion...so they can do whatever they want). Really adventurous fans should also check out the recent DVD release of Morrissey's The Hound of the Baskervilles, the mainstream comedy he made in 1978 with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (for more on that comic duo, see Friday's update). -- Jonathan Doyle
The Twilight Zone: Season Four
(Image Entertainment, 10.18.2005)
During its original five season run, The Twilight Zone ran 30-minute episodes for all but one season. The one anomaly was season 4 (the episodes were extended to a full hour) but, due to the perceived failure of this strategy, the show quickly switched back for season 5. Since the episodes in season 4 are twice as long as the episodes in previous seasons, there are also half as many episodes.
These longer episodes play more like feature films than TV shows and they occasionally drag. It's also worth noting that half as many episodes means half as many twist endings and, as a result, less of the show's overall time is spent on its trademark: mind-bending surprises. While this makes for a slightly less satisfying helping of The Zone, this was always one of the most political, philosophical, and surpirisng shows on network TV, even during its lesser seasons.
There's a particularly eclectic selection of episodes in season 4. If it weren't for Serling's voice-over, there'd be no obvious connection between some of these episodes and you'd be hard-pressed to identify what show you're watching. While many episodes exhibit the deadly serious sci-fi emphasis that the show was known for -- "In His Image," "The Parallel," and "Death Ship" come to mind -- some of this material comes right out of left field.
The most overtly atypical episode is "The Bard," an amusing look at a struggling TV writer's efforts to craft a pilot about black magic. Somehow, his research causes him to accidentally conjure the ghost of William Shakespeare, the solution to his writing woes (full disclosure: I conjured Shakespeare and asked him to write this review but, as you can tell, he declined). The mythical dramatist fires out a brilliant script but the execs at the network have some notes...and they want a Marlon Brando-like method actor (Burt Reynolds) to play the lead. Scored like an episode of The Flintstones, "The Bard" is essential viewing for fans of Reynolds and wacky Brando impersonations alike.
Another slightly uncharacteristic story is told in the genie/magic lantern episode "I Dream of Genie." Its play-on-words title refers to Allan Dwan's film from 1952 and pre-dates the Larry Hagman yuckfest of the same (differently spelled) name by two years. Fans of The Twilight Zone sometimes refer to this episode as a tear-jerker, which is a bit of a stretch, but it has a Capra-esque respect (as opposed to sympathy) for the working man that's kind of heartwarming. It also features an unusual take on the genie genre: rather than show several elaborate wishes come true, we see the imagined outcomes of several possible wishes. Given only one wish, the protagonist considers all the possibilities. He wants his wish to be original. And it is.
In addition to all 18 episodes from season 4 -- looking as good as they've ever looked -- Image has provided a wide variety of supplements. We get 9 interviews, 5 Twilight Zone radio dramas (featuring actors such as Blair Underwood, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Jason Alexander), 2 commentaries, some color scenes from the show's syndication run, a Rod Serling blooper, promos and commercials, photos, billboards, and isolated scores on 16 of the 18 episodes. We also get a pdf of The Twilight Zone comic and a memorable (but not particularly funny) spoof of the show from Saturday Night Live, featuring Dan Aykroyd as Serling. -- Jonathan Doyle
Nowhere Man: The Complete Series
(Image Entertainment, 12.27.2005)
I know many people who don't watch television, but simply buy DVDs of television shows. They are tired of commercials, erratic schedules, and preemptions. Vast DVD sales have seen shows return to the airwaves and DVD sets of television shows seem to crowd most stores, seemingly pushing movies to the lower shelves. Nowhere Man, which aired in 1995 on UPN, joins the list of TV series' that have re-emerged on DVD.
Photographer Thomas Veil is a controversial artist. His photographs depict the horrors of war and the atrocities taking place in third-world countries. While celebrating the success of his work, Thomas is suddenly thrust into a world that no longer makes sense: no one knows who he is and no one believes him. Locks are changed, credit cards cancelled, his friends wind up dead, and even his wife denies having ever known him.
Veil tries to understand what has happened to him and is placed in a mental institution. Demonstrating paranoid delusions, he soon believes that this is more than an accident and that everyone is in on the con. Fearing that he is being stifled by the government because of one of his photographs, Veil escapes the institution and begins running from his unknown enemy at the same time trying to unravel the mystery and get his life back.
Image Entertainment has put together a 9-disc, 19-hour DVD set with all 25 episodes. Features include audio and video commentaries, interviews with creator Larry Hertzog, star Bruce Greenwood, and others involved in the series, deleted/extended scenes, promotional spots, outtakes, and two featurettes.
The show is typical television fare. Bruce Greenwood's confused look is plastered on his face like a mask, and supporting performances are equally stilted. Explosions and car chases abound, but Nowhere Man does consider some important issues. How quickly can we "be erased"? How much of our identities are created by society? How can those on the outside of society survive within it? The series considers the fragility of our identities and is all the more potent today when we consider our digital world and the tenuous grasp we have on our privacy. -- Mark Devitt
Just for Laughs: Stand-Up and Just for Laughs: Gags
(Image Entertainment, 11.1.2005)
The Just for Laughs comedy festival is the largest and most prestigious comedy event in the world. The streets of Montreal become a playground of fun for two weeks every summer. For over 20 years, the festival has featured great comedians and has jump-started careers and given many their big break. Though the Just for Laughs franchise has been active for many years with tours and television, these releases are the first products to be released on DVD in the United States.
The first volume of the stand-up series, The Best of the Uptown Comics, features many of today's most well-known comedians. This DVD includes breakthrough performances by Dave Chappelle (in 1992) and Steve Harvey (in 1993). It also includes Chappelle's year 2000 return to the festival, as well as sketches by Sinbad, Mitch Hedberg, Dave Atttell, Lewis Black, Wanda Sykes, Bruce Bruce, David Allan Grier and many, many others.
The DVD presents each comedian's routine on the stages of the festival. A giant stage in a huge hall doesn't give the most intimate of experiences, but comedians know the value of a good show at Just for Laughs and their performances are very entertaining. Also included are behind-the-scenes footage and a featurette on the annual festival.
Just for Laughs Gags preys on the unsuspecting, as performers engage in well-orchestrated practical jokes. Hidden cameras capture the reactions of passersby to bizarre events like a policeman kicking a plush toy dog and a dancing troupe that chases pedestrians. One marvels at the complexity of some of the gags, while laughing at (and empathizing with) the targets.
Both Just for Laughs: Stand-Up and Just for Laughs: Gags have been a part of Canadian television for years and these DVDs are presentations of those shows. Comedy fans will enjoy watching these performances at the famous festival and there are a lot of laughs on these discs, but there isn't terribly much here that you can't catch on specialty comedy channels. -- Mark Devitt