DVD SPOTLIGHT: Paramount Home Entertainmentby Danny Baum, Jonathan Doyle, and Neil Karassik
Mommie Dearest(Paramount Home Entertainment, 6.6.2006)
As any crazed movie fan will tell you, some movies are simply misunderstood. I've seen dozens of horror films that are reviled, yet I revere, and I've seen dozens of critically-acclaimed "classics" that I find dull and tiresome. Generally seen as a goofy piece of camp (at best), Mommie Dearest fits in the first category (although it's only about 35% horror). It has such a bad reputation that Faye Dunaway actually refuses to talk about it in interviews. Apparently, she's oblivious to the fact that this is one of her very best performances. Okay, before going any further, I have to be very clear about one thing: I do not think Mommie Dearest is "so-bad-it's-good" or "unintentionally hilarious" or any of the other dismissive cliches that have been thrown around by its casual, guilty pleasure admirers. There should be no guilt involved in admiring a film as good as Mommie Dearest.
Having read and spoken to many people who dismiss this film, I get the impression that they miss the fundamental irony at its heart: this is the story of an abused child adapted from a book written by that child, in order to return said abuse to her mother (and her mother's legacy). As we watch Joan Crawford abuse her daughter in the film, we are also witnessing the daughter's retaliation, in the form of the movie itself. The film drags their abusive relationship beyond the grave in a way that's both mean-spirited and humane, but the diabolically comical ending is 100% mean-spirited.
This is a wonderfully literate, uncomfortable -- and yes, deliberately funny -- Hollywood biopic and that rare film that actually uses style to tell (rather than simply decorate) its story. Everyone involved reaches for such a peculiar and precise tonal register, it's impossible not to have a strong reaction to Mommie Dearest. With carefully-considered specificity, Perry uses references to movie history and, more specifically, the career of Joan Crawford to make ironic points about the anti-glamour of her real life.
I could go on for days about why I appreciate this film -- and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife, Rancho Deluxe) -- but why bother? John Waters has already done this for me. Last year, when I reviewed A Dirty Shame, I made the point that John Waters is one of the masters of the audio commentary. Well, as it turns out, this gift extends beyond discussing his own films. It's odd that a filmmaker who is so often associated with camp would be brought in to make the argument that Mommie Dearest isn't really camp -- okay, except for the scene with the rose bushes -- but he makes some extremely persuasive points and, more importantly, provides infectious enthusiasm and humor.
The disc also features a photo gallery, the theatrical trailer, and several entertaining featurettes, sans Dunaway. Her disdain for the film is briefly touched upon (by both co-writer/producer Frank Yablans and John Waters), but neither can say specifically why she hates the film so much. In any case, it's worth noting that Pauline Kael called this "a startling, ferocious performance," in spite of her mixed feelings about the film as a whole. If Dunaway was able to watch the film from a more detached, objective perspective, I'd like to think that she'd see the strengths of her performance...but that's probably just wishful thinking. In any case, this is an amazingly entertaining re-release and well worth the upgrade. Movie rating: 9/10. Disc rating: 10/10. -- Jonathan Doyle
Ring of Fear(Paramount Home Entertainment, 6.6.2006)
In recent months, Paramount has released a slew of titles from John Wayne's Batjac Production Company on DVD and, if this has taught me anything, it's that Wayne was actually quite a diverse producer. He rarely indulged in anything that could be described as "artistic" or "pretentious," but he managed to cover a wider spectrum of films than his war-and-westerns-only reputation would suggest. Hell, he even produced a circus movie that can best be described as Halloween meets The Greatest Show on Earth (if only the film was half as good as the description implies). To my knowledge, this is the only movie ever made about a homicidal maniac (Sean McClory) who escapes from a mental institution and gets a job with the circus. I think Buttons the Clown had a mysterious past in The Greatest Show on Earth, but I don't think he was homicidal.
At its best, Ring of Fear takes an almost documentary glimpse at acrobats and other circus performers in action -- widescreen 35mm has a way of making documentary footage of even the most mundane subject seem interesting and this subject isn't mundane -- but, unfortunately, the circus performances are a small part of this film. The majority of the film revolves around the cold-blooded scheming of the aforementioned maniac. It's not entirely clear who Batjac was targeting with this film...or why they were even targeting them. The material is too harsh for family-friendly viewing and even an adult-themed circus film is bound to hold little appeal for those over the age of twelve, myself notwithstanding.
As some small consolation for the mediocre film on this bare bones disc, Paramount has included a terrific anamorphic transfer. It's not without its problems but, if you're really interested in seeing this film, this isn't a bad way to do it. Overall, I'd only recommend Ring of Fear to those with a masochistic appetite for circuses and/or circus movies. Given the subject matter, those people should at least give this movie a chance to disappoint. There aren't very many circus movies and, if nothing else, this movie achieves the feat of being one of them. Movie rating: 4/10. Disc rating: 4/10. -- Jonathan Doyle
Plunder of the Sun(Paramount Home Entertainment, 6.6.2006)
Batjac comes a little bit closer to their A-game with this unsung noir mystery from 1953. Based on a novel by David Dodge (To Catch a Thief), Plunder of the Sun touches on some of the same archaeological ground as the Indiana Jones films, but in a style closer to Out of the Past or We Were Strangers. In a typically functional performance, Glenn Ford plays Al Colby, an insurance adjuster who is hired to transport a mysterious package from Havana to Mexico. Two women and a blonde-haired, sunglasses-wearing guy named Jefferson (Ring of Fear maniac, Sean McClory) know something about the package that Colby doesn't and they do everything they can to get their hands on it.
By the time John Farrow made Plunder of the Sun, he had already cranked-out nearly forty features and the experience shows in his assured direction. These scenes are expertly staged and the exotic locations (ie. Mexico, Austria) are used to impressive visual effect. Unfortunately, Farrow's visual flair isn't enough to mask some obvious script problems, namely awkward plotting and a relentless case of talkiness. Still, this is an above average effort that holds up surprisingly well, more than fifty years after its original release.
Understandably, Paramount is much more generous with the extras on Plunder of the Sun than they were on Ring of Fear. In addition to an impeccable, 1.33:1 black-and-white transfer, we get photos, trailers, roughly 18 minutes of archaeological and historical featurettes, an interesting reading of a letter Ford sent to his mother while shooting the film, and a blandly informative featurette about Batjac regular, McClory. Best of all, this disc includes a commentary by Glenn Ford's son, Peter, and film historian, Frank Thompson. Some of these features have an oddly cheap, cable access quality -- they may have originated in another format (ie. TV, video) -- but they seem to cover all the bases and convey most of the essential background about the film. In other words, this is an obvious purchase for any Plunder of the Sun fan. Others may want to rent before taking the plun-der. Movie rating: 6.5/10. Disc rating: 7/10. -- Jonathan Doyle
Schultze Gets the Blues(Paramount Home Entertainment, 8.30.2005)
When Schultze gets forced into early retirement from a dreary East German salt mine, he is obliged to face the world armed only with an accordion, cheap cigars, and absurdly high pants. As the mundane realities of his new life set in, the portly old Prussian slowly steps into a virtual wading pool of unknown pleasures and desires. Gone are the days of spit-shining yard gnomes, eating onions as if they were apples, and polka. Schultze delves into the dangerous world of jambalaya and 10 year-old Bushmills. Inspired by his bum-chums Manfred and Jurgen and late-night radio, Schultze reluctantly enters a music competition with his new squeeze-box styles. The winner of the contest (Shultze, duh) gets to go to a town in Texas and play in a semi-debaucherous festival on the bayou. Schultze's trip to America represents a turning point in his late life, as he is able to rid himself of the constraints of his past and learn how to "get jiggy wif it".
Schultze Gets the Blues is like riding a listless mule through the Serengeti. While at times it is excruciatingly slow, it is easy on the eyes and ultimately satisfying. The film serves as a reminder that, even in old age, fat German men (and maybe others) can uncover new passions and sensations in their lives. This is the directorial debut for Michael Schorr, who does a fine job in conveying a simple coming-of-old-age story without Jack Nicholson or Bea Arthur. The slow-moving waters of the Gulf of Mexico provide a picturesque setting for this feel-good tale. The movie has no points of high drama or action, yet it manages to be engaging from beginning to end. Schultze is also praiseworthy for depicting America as a convivial and unpretentious place to visit. All in all, this is an uncomplicated and refreshing picture that definitely deserves a spin.
The special features on this disc are sparse, at best. There is an interesting commentary by Michael Schorr in German, a couple of random trailers, and that's about it. Movie rating: 7.5/10. Disc rating: 3/10. -- Danny Baum
Miracle's Boys(Paramount Home Entertainment, 11.8.2005)
Based on Jacqueline Woodson's novel, Miracle's Boys focuses on the hard struggles of the Bailey brothers -- 20-year-old Ty'ree, 16-year-old Charlie and 14-year-old Lafayette -- as they try to keep the family together after the deaths of their parents, notably their mother. The first episode begins with Charlie returning home after spending a year in juvenile detention. Charlie arrives home only to discover that his older brother Ty'ree is now in charge of the household and, consequently, a nasty power struggle ensues. Together, all three siblings eventually learn to settle their differences and keep it real, despite the fact that Ty'ree is hardly a qualified adult, Charlie is on probation, and the social services are hot on their tail.
What's most remarkable about this series is its substantial dose of urban reality, all while avoiding easy narrative devices like profane language, drugs, and/or violence. Sure, you could call that a cop-out, but it works in this case. Despite the show airing on Nickelodeon's The N network, Miracle's Boys is edgy and endearing through-and-through. Shot entirely on location in Harlem, the show's first and sixth instalments were even directed by none other than Spike Lee. In addition, the show has some really decent production values, cinematography, and a really nice soundtrack that consists of more than just hip-hop. The characters have plenty of depth and their arcs are quite dynamic.
The DVD comes with two valuable special features. First up is an excellent 23-minute making-of doc with loads of insight and interviews from the cast, crew, and lots of Spike Lee. The second extra is a short (under 4 minutes) but sweet interview with Lee about the series and the novel. It is no doubt that Miracle's Boys is a cut above the rest in terms of cable-quality viewing. It's a sincere and intelligent coming-of-age story that almost anyone can appreciate and enjoy. Movie/Disc rating: 7.5/10. -- Neil Karassik
Garbage Pail Kids: The Complete Series(Paramount Home Entertainment, 4.4.2006)
At the very least, I could've given this release some kind of merit badge based on its nostalgic value alone -- the live-action film would surely fall under this category. Alas (or fortunately), Garbage Pail Kids: The Animated Series never made it onto American airwaves. Perhaps it was huge in Korea, not to diss Korea or anything. At any rate, the CBS produced, 13 episode series is utterly unwatchable. Seriously, I dare you to sit through an episode in its entirety (unless you're on some heavy duty meds). The show doesn't even possess some kind of psychedelic stoner appeal. It's not good/bad, and it's certainly not good/good...it's deplorable (and no, not deplorable/good). I truly would love to shake the hand of the man who actually shelled out hard-earned money (let alone his time) for this piece of, well, garbage.
In case you're wondering (I doubt that you are), the series plays out more like a variety show than a linear and/or coherent story. We get a smorgasbord of little vignettes that have nothing to do with one another. There is one aspect of consistency: the hijinks oftentimes take place near this local cineplex. You'd think that there would at least be one or two moderately decent jokes about movies, but that would be way too likable for a show this appalling. It's actually quite mind-blowing to think about authentic human beings sitting at desks, writing this nonsense. I'm thinking (and hoping) that drugs played some value in the creation of these 13 episodes. If not, then God help us all.
For once, I'm ecstatic not to have to watch any special features. Thankfully, there isn't one bit of extra material. But still, it would have been quite astonishing to be able to witness an audio commentary for this. That would be a trip to say the least. If there's one aspect of the show that's worth discussing, it's definitely those bizarre, incredibly incoherent opening credits. There is not one decipherable word spoken, just disturbing grunts. There's just so much insanity going on in these credits that it kind of makes me not want to throw this package into the dumpster. I wouldn't want those poor, pail-dwelling kids to endure it either. I may just incinerate this digital atrocity. Movie/Disc rating 1/10. -- Neil Karassik