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page added: 6/23/04

6/23/04 Weekly Release Roundup

Okay, I lied. My pants are all on fire. As it turns out, this week is just as dead as last week. But you Japanese film fans out there will be happy with a major Criterion/Kurosawa release, as well as two cult faves from Home Vision. Other than that, we only have two major studio releases... and one of them, sadly, I didn't get because Disney just don't love me. (sniff) Oh, well. At least Criterion still does.

Let's take a gander at the horribly short list of releases this week.

Secret Window Secret Window

The big studio release for the week (that I actually got for review) is Secret Window. The film, based on a short by Stephen King, follows a writer played by Johnny Depp, who's holed up in his lake house trying to write off a broken marriage and severe depression. In the middle of a bout of writer's block, he's visited by a stranger with a Southern drawl, an Amish hat and a worn copy of a story he wrote, that he claims was stolen by Depp years prior. He then proceeds to wreak havoc on Depp's life, refusing to stop unless Depp "fixes his ending." Although the twists and turns are obvious if you know how King's mind works, writer/director David Koepp makes the paper thin story work with the help of great acting all the way through and some really neat camera effects inspired by his working relationship with David Fincher on Panic Room. Secret Window isn't a great film, but it's certainly not a waste of time either. Still, if you're worried you might be on the fence, this one is better left as a rental. The DVD looks gorgeous and sounds pretty good for a heavy dialogue track. Extras include a fun and informative commentary by Koepp, three featurettes looking at the production, style and underlying story and a smattering of deleted scenes with optional Koepp commentary. Not too bad a set for an okay film.

Two more releases from Home Vision and Criterion Collection's Merchant Ivory Collection are released today. One is Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures and the other is Savages. Although both are good films, I'm going to focus on...


The reason: I think a lot of people miss the joke on this one. In fact, Criterion and Home Vision may have missed it themselves. It's packaged as a highbrow exploration, and on the surface it is. You have to remember that the brain behind this film isn't Merchant or Ivory, but Michael O'Donoghue (aka Mr. Mike - the man behind some of the funniest comedy in the first few years of SNL). O'Donoghue didn't think to spell his comedy out, so when presenting a farce about an aboriginal tribe who stumbles upon a croquet ball and finds themselves slowly but surely becoming more and more civilized (until they become "us" over the course of a weekend), it's left as a pretentious art house film. Look closer, 'cause on the surface it may be pretentious and talky, but it's still making fun of the very subject matter and film style it's presenting itself as. Actually, I'm pretty sure that Merchant and Ivory might have missed the joke as well, because after years of light and invigorating looks at Indian society, they jumped feet first into the world O'Donoghue so expertly dissected. Oh, well. Hopefully, now people might get it. Since this was produced with Criterion, of course this DVD looks and sounds wonderful. Extras include a conversation with the filmmakers and a documentary film Ivory made for the BBC.

The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story

I love the work of Al Hirschfeld. The things he could do with a line, a swirl and a dot amaze me every time I look at his work. This documentary takes a nice long look at the man and his art. We see his history, his perspective, his driving force and his love for family and friends. Hirschfeld lived a good life and he left behind a cannon of work for all of us to enjoy.

This disc presents the full frame film well enough. Sometimes the video source shines through and some of the archival footage has seen better days, but generally this is a good transfer and surely the best it could look on DVD. The extras include a nice gallery of art by Hirschfeld and a cute behind-the-scenes look at Hirschfeld at work on a drawing of Paul Newman in Broadway's revival of Our Town. Fans of this exceptional artist and man will want this in their collection.

The Lower Depths The Lower Depths

This one is a tricky DVD to comment on, but I'm going to try and not offend any Renoir fans out there. Although this DVD houses two versions of the same film, by two of the most celebrated filmmakers of all time, it's really Kurosawa's set. The Renoir version is included almost like a supplemental piece. That's not saying that Renoir's version of the Maxim Gorky play is of lesser quality... it's not. Both films are incredible works of art, created by filmmakers with great vision at two different periods of time and in two different parts of the world.

Kurosawa's 1957 version of The Lower Depths or Donzoko follows a group of people who live together in a tenement house. Among others there's a delusional prostitute, an old drunken actor, a jaded gambler, a former samurai, a tinker and a thief. The thief is played by Toshiro Mifune, and although he isn't truly the focus of the film, his side story (the fact that he's having an affair with the landlord's wife but is in love with her sister), plays out quite prominently. The film, even though it's focused on a claustrophobic environment and down on their luck characters, has a humorous edge to it. The moments of life are played out with a light touch, and even if it has a dark, hopeless climax, the film isn't depressing.

Contrasted with that is the original 1936 Renoir version. Where Kurosawa honored the original theatrical roots of the play, Renoir takes a more cinematic stance. The film is bigger and there is more "action." It's basically the same idea, with a love triangle between a thief, a landlady and her sister along with a wizened old man "helping" a young man better himself, but the tone is not as comic as Kurosawa's. Nor is it as dark.

Looking at the two side by side, I think most will prefer the Kurosawa version, but there's an added appreciation for the films when looking at them together. I love that Criterion has started doing these "like-minded" double features (see: The Killers and A Story of Floating Weeds). I hope we'll see more.

The DVD features both films in prime form. Sound is the original mono and is fine for both films. Video is remastered at the original ratio of 1.33:1 and also works well. Renoir's version fares slightly better that Kurosawa's, as the source for the 1957 version isn't as well kept as the 1936. Extras include an introduction by Renoir for his version, a commentary by Donald Richie and another entry in the Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create series. Film fans everywhere will want this set.

Mamma Roma Mamma Roma

From Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo and The Gospel According to St. Matthew) comes this story of a prostitute trying to make her world a better place in post WWII Italy, while coming to terms with a new life and a son that she left behind years ago. Not the best film Pasolini would go on to make, Mamma Roma is still an impressive feat made that much better by the presence of the alluringly beautiful Anna Magnani. Magnani plays Mamma Roma with unswerving sex appeal and a humanity that showcases the fact that she is one of Italy's greatest actresses - ever. With this film, Pasolini gives a short view into a style that would inspire legions of filmmakers. Its ban upon release in Italy alludes to what would become a career of controversial filmmaking. Criterion's release showcases the film wonderfully with anamorphic widescreen video and a clean mono soundtrack. Extras include a poster gallery, trailer, interviews with crewmembers of Pasolini including director Bernardo Bertolucci, a documentary about the filmmaker and a short film starring Orson Welles as a crazed filmmaker making a film about the Passion of the Christ, which is eerily similar to the true-life story of Mel Gibson. Art imitates life imitating art. Weeeeee.

Bloody Territories Bloody Territories

Home Vision, along with the documentary about Al Hirschfeld and the two Merchant Ivory films, today releases a pair of films by legendary Japanese filmmaker Yasuharu Hasebe, the man behind Black Tight Killers and Meiko Kaji's swan song as Female Convict Scorpion in 1973's Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701's Grudge Song.

First up is Bloody Territories, one of the first films to exploit the Japanese Yakuza. No longer a gang of thugs with a chaotic bloodlust, as seen on the films of Seijun Suzuki or Hasebe's Black Tight Killers, these gangsters are fully organized and businessmen of sorts. Sure there's still some chaos and bloodlust, but this film shows for sure that the Yakuza are the masterminds of the crime world in Japan... even if their organization is splintering, and young up and comers are taking over the old with the new. Being one of the first of the genre, this entry is on the weak side, without the "fun" that later films about the Japanese Yakuza exhibit. Maybe no one wanted to piss anyone in the real Yakuza off? This DVD looks great in anamorphic widescreen and sounds just as good. Extras include a filmography of the director, the trailer for this film and the neat Home Vision Zatoichi collection teaser.

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter

Next up is Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, the third in the five film Stray Cat Rock series and the second directed by Hasebe.

Maiko Kaji is Mako, the leader of the girl gang that supports The Eagles, a gang of tuffs that speed around in Army Jeeps and generally raise a ruckus. When one of the Eagles looses his girl to a African-American/Japanese mixed man (a Half), the leader of the Eagles, Baron, declares war on all the mixed-race Japanese citizens living in their town because his sister was raped by a Half years prior. Problem is, Mako is secretly fawning for Kazuma, a recently arrived Half who is searching for his sister. Sides will be chosen, battles will be fought and a cool hallucinogenic film will unspool. It's rip roaring and fun, in the same way Jack Hill's Switchblade Sisters is. Like Bloody Territories, this DVD has a nice clean anamorphic transfer of a limited source with solid mono sound and extras that include a Hasebe filmography, the trailer for this film and the Home Vision Zatoichi teaser.

SuperGuy: Behind the Cape SuperGuy: Behind the Cape

What if our world had a real, honest to goodness superhero like the ones found in comic books and the movies? Would we love him or her, or hate them? Would we expect too much from them and become overly reliant? Those are the questions asked in this "mockumentary" about a Superman-like superhero dubbed "SuperGuy." Using interviews from those who know him best and archival footage from his past (his triumphs and blunders), we get an inside look at the origins of a man who runs around in tights and saves those in need. While piecing together his life, the film also has a sideline view of situations which lead to his dramatic fall. How, in true chaos theory, his heroic deeds may have dire results somewhere else. It's an interesting film. It can be fun and funny, while also raising "real world" thoughts about what it might be like if superheroes really existed. I'd love to see the lawyer who would represent meta-humans, wouldn't you? SuperGuy looks just okay on DVD. The picture quality is unfortunately VHS-grade at best, and the full frame presentation does nothing but show off the fact that this is a low budget film. The sound is in Dolby Digital stereo, but again delivers only a VHS experience. Extras include trailers for more Razor Digital releases, a blooper reel that serves as a behind-the-scenes look at the production and a smattering of deleted scenes. SuperGuy might be fun for that fanboy out there who loves this sort of thing. Maybe, too, for that mockumentary fan. But it'll be a hard sell for just about everyone else. If you like quirky films though, give this one a try.

You'll want to check out these TV releases as well...

The Joe Schmo Show: Season One Uncensored!Reno 911! The Complete First SeasonElvis Presley: 68 Comeback Special: Special Edition

BMG releases two Elvis TV specials (Elvis Presley: 68 Comeback Special: Special Edition and Elvis Presley: Aloha From Hawaii: Deluxe Edition DVD), fans of the FX reality show spoof The Joe Schmo Show should be happy with the release of Season One Uncensored! and, of course, a must own this week is the always brilliant Reno 911! The Complete First Season.

Also coming to DVD this week...

Badder SantaThe Lost Skeleton of CadavraNight Patrol

... the other major studio title I didn't get (but you should) - Bad Santa. You'll also find the unrated version under the title Badder Santa. This one looks cute: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. Anchor Bay releases the vice cop comedy Night Patrol. An underrated thriller set in the gambling world with Ron Eldard, John Goodman and Courtney Cox comes to DVD in the form of The Runner. Look for Warner's Scooby Doo and the Loch Ness Monster hanging out in the aisles today. And there's one more Criterion out there for you too... A Woman Is a Woman.

I don't think next week is any better, but we'll see. June is usually a horrible month for DVD, as the studios prepare their big fall titles for release. But come back next week and we'll see what surprises Hollywood has cooked up for my birthday. Yes, next DVD day is a special day indeed. Well, for me and my immediate family. Of course, presents are always welcome.


Hugs and kisses,

Todd Doogan

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