Aug 11, 2007

Latest DVD Reviews Hail to The King!

by Peter Sobczynski

If you're looking for trouble/You came to the wrong place. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a bonanza of Elvis-related DVDs (along with some strange cartoons, a classic sex symbol caught at her peak and plenty of bellydancing)/You came to the right place--please proceed.

As most every student of American pop culture no doubt knows, this August 16th marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, an audacious move that supercharged a career that is still going strong today. In order to cash in on the latest wave of interest in Presley’s life, death and work, several video companies have gone into their vaults and have come up with new DVDs of many of the 29 feature films that Presley made throughout his career. Below is a brief round-up of the ones that have been released this week and while only a few of these titles could honestly be considered good by anyone who isn’t already a stone-cold Presley fanatic, the worst of them are still entertaining in a cheesy sort of way and the best remind us of the King’s considerable on-screen appeal and inspires you to wonder what might have happened if he had been given better material to work with.

JAILHOUSE ROCK (Warner Home Video. $19.98): Even if the rest of this 1957 effort, which was only Elvis’ third movie (following “Love Me Tender” and “Loving You”), had sunk to the mediocre depths of most of his other screen output in the ensuing years, it would still go down as a landmark film just for the electrifying opening production number in which he performs the title tune. Actually, the rest of the film—in which he plays a hot-head who develops his musical talents while in jail, becomes an overnight sensation when he is released and lets fame go to his head—is a better-than-average film that is a little more serious than one might expect and which was a rare opportunity for Elvis to show off the not-inconsiderable dramatic chops that he clearly possessed and which he was rarely allowed to demonstrate in the majority of his subsequent movies.

THE LIGHTS CAMERA ELVIS COLLECTION (Paramount Home Video. $69.99): This box set collects eight previously released films that Elvis made over the years for Paramount—one before beginning his two-year army stint in 1958 and the rest after—and while there are no masterpieces in the bunch, they are, for the most part, passable entertainments. They include 1958’s “King Creole” (in which he plays a singing busboy whose budding career is threatened when he refuses to perform at a mob-controlled nightclub), 1960’s “G.I. Blues” (in which he plays a singing soldier who bets his buddies that he can seduce leggy dancer Juliet Prowse and then falls in love with her), 1961’s “Blue Hawaii” (in which he plays a singing soldier who doesn’t want to work in his parents’ fruit company when he returns home from the service), 1962’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” (in which he plays a singing fishing guide torn between two sexy dames), 1963’s “Fun in Acapulco” (in which he plays a singing lifeguard at a hot south-of-the-border hotel), 1964’s “Roustabout” (in which he plays a singing loner who finds love and family while working at a traveling carnival run by Barbara Stanwyck), 1966’s “Paradise Hawaiian Style” (in which he plays a singing helicopter pilot trying to start his own sightseeing business) and 1967’s “Easy Come, Easy Go” (in which he plays a singing scuba diver on the trail of sunken treasure).

VIVA LAS VEGAS (Warner Home Video. $19.98): Unquestionably the last great film that Elvis made and arguably the best of the entire bunch, this 1964 effort isn’t that much different on the surface from most of his other films—it is another frothy combination of a silly plot (the usual nonsense involving auto races and talent contests), pretty girls and plenty of songs (including the legendary title tune). What separates this one from the rest is the presence of Ann-Margret as the female lead—perhaps the closest thing to a female Elvis that the 60’s had to offer, she not only gives the film a much-needed shot of energy but she also clearly inspired Elvis to kick things up a notch as well in regards to his own performance. The results are so entertaining that you’ll find yourself wishing that they had gotten the chance to appear opposite each other in more films than just this one.

ELVIS: THE HOLLYWOOD COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $49.98): Alas, the one person who apparently wasn’t taken with “Viva Las Vegas” was Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker—the film cost more to make than the usual Elvis film (which cut into his profits) and more people seemed focused on Ann-Margret than on his client. For the remainder of Elvis’ screen career, Col. Parker would ensure that this didn’t happen again by steering him into a series of low-budget quickies that were ground out like cheap sausages and were just as appetizing. Six of those decidedly inessential films make their DVD debuts in this set. They include 1964’s “Kissin Cousins” (in which he plays two roles in the story of a man trying to convince his country cousin to sell his land to the U.S. government for use as a missile base), 1965’s “Tickle Me” (in which he plays a singing rodeo rider working at an all-female dude ranch) and “Girl Happy” (in which he plays a singing singer hired by a mobster to keep an eye on his nubile daughter during spring break), 1968’s “Stay Away Joe” (in which he plays a singing two-fisted Indian raising cattle for the U.S. government with dad Burgess Meredith) and “Live a Little, Love a Little” (in which he plays a singing photographer—one of the songs he sings is the latter-day hit “A Little Less Conversation”—who spends his days working for a staid ad agency and his nights moonlighting for a nudie magazine) and 1969’s “Charro” (in which he plays a singing cowboy accused of stealing a cannon from Mexican revolutionaries).

ELVIS—THAT’S THE WAY IT IS: (Warner Home Video. $20.98): After a string of increasingly disappointing feature film appearances, culminating with 1968’s immortal “Change of Habit” (in which he plays a hunky-but-crusading ghetto doctor who forces novice nun Mary Tyler Moore to choose between The King and The King of Kings), Elvis left Hollywood to return to the world of live performance where he would spend his remaining years. This 1970 performance film captures him at the beginning of that phase of his career—focusing on the preparations for his comeback 1968 concerts at Las Vegas’ International Hotel—and while certain aspects are pretty dated (especially the overuse of then-trendy split-screen effects), Presley is clearly relived to be back on stage and you can feel that excitement and energy in every one of his songs. This DVD includes two versions of the film—the original 1970 cut and a revised version that was done in 2001.

THIS IS ELVIS:(Warner Home Video. $20.98): Although there were always rumors of his eventual return to the screen (the most notable being the one suggesting that he would star opposite Barbra Streisand in the remake of “A Star Is Born” in the role that eventually went to Kris Kristofferson), Elvis would only appear in one more film, the 1972 concert film “Elvis On Tour” before his death in 1977. Four years later, he would finally come back to the big screen in this documentary that utilized concert performances, movie clips, behind-the-scenes footage and even a few dramatic re-enactments to tell his entire story from the humble beginnings to the bitter end. Remarkably, the film is neither a sugar-coated valentine nor a mean-spirited hatchet job in regards to its subject. Instead, it maintains an even tone that both celebrates his talent and achievements and mourns (especially in the heartbreaking footage towards the end in which Elvis struggles to get through another performance) what was lost in an avalanche of money, drugs and ennui. This DVD contains both the original 1981 theatrical version (making its home video debut) and the expanded 144-minute version that was prepared for television and home video soon after its original release.

NEW AND NOTABLE

8 SIMPLE RULES: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $23.99): The premise of this silly sitcom—a goofball dad is driven to distraction by an acerbic-but-loving wife, a pair of hot teenage daughters and an annoying son—is as unpromising as it sounds but the late John Ritter, playing the dad in question, was one of those television performers who could overcome weak material with his sheer force of personality. Thanks to his Herculean efforts, he single-handedly transforms this otherwise wanting series into something that isn’t too painful to watch after all.

ARE WE DONE YET? (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): Apparently worried that he hadn’t tossed away all of his credibility with the distressingly awful (and distressingly popular) family films “Are We There Yet?,” Ice Cube humiliates himself again in this pointless and unnecessary sequel—one which began life as a remake of “Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House,” of all things—in which he buys a dilapidated home in the country for his new family and attempts to renovate it. Needless to say, he spends most of the film either falling from great heights or having things fall on him from great heights—all of which inspire great merriment from his family, if not those of us in the audience.

BELLYDANCE UNDERWORLD (Hollywood Music. $21.98): No, this isn’t a direct-to-video continuation of the heretofore useless Kate Beckinsale vampire series in which she goes toe-to-toe (among other things) with Shakira—an idea that I submit could result in the greatest movie ever made. Instead, it appears to be some kind of video exploring the seedy and presumably sexy world of fusion bellydancing in which, according to the liner notes, “rules are broken and authority is defied with unique costumes and sublime music.”. Okay, that doesn’t sound that awful but come on, it doesn’t begin to compare with the idea of a Kate Beckinsale/Shakira vampire-tinged dance-off, does it? (Please let someone from Screen Gems be reading this column right now.)

BENEATH (Paramount Home Video. $26.99): This is some MTV-produced horror nonsense about a young woman who returns to her hometown years after an auto accident–one in which she was driving and which left her sister disfigured–and discovers any number of presumably spooky secrets. I wouldn’t have even mentioned it except for the fact that Nora Zehetner, whom you hopefully caught as the femme fatale at the center of last year’s brilliant “Brick,” is the damsel in distress and her presence alone might make it worth checking out after all.

THE BRIGITTE BARDOT COLLECTION (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $39.98): If you can get beyond that cover—and if you can, you are definitely a stronger man than I—you will find that this set contains five films featuring one of the most enduring of all cinematic sex symbols. The films include 1956’s “Naughty Girl” (a pre-“And God Created Woman” work in which she plays a sexy teen who shacks up with the star performer of her daddy’s nightclub), 1959’s “Come Dance With Me” (in which she plays a sexy housewife out to prove her husband innocent on murder), 1962’s “Love On A Pillow” (in which she plays a sexy young thing who saves the life of an abusive drunk and then becomes totally dependent on him), 1964’s “The Vixen” (in which she plays a sexy-but-innocent secretary who is seduced by her Lothario employer) and 1967’s “Two Weeks In September” (in which she plays a sexy wife torn between her much older husband and her somewhat younger lover).

DARKWING DUCK VOLUME 2 (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $34.99): This surprisingly witty Disney Channel animated favorite returns to DVD with another 27 episodes of humor, action and weirdness for audiences young and old alike. Among the gripping adventures collected here are “All’s Fahrenheit In Love And Work,” “Toys Czar Us,” “Twin Beaks” and “Stressed To Kill.”

DISTURBIA (Dreamworks Home Entertainment. $29.99): When I first saw this teen-oriented thriller last spring, I just assumed that the combination of a tired plot (a blatant retread of “Rear Window” with iPod plugs and a hot girl in tiny bikinis replacing all that pesky suspense and ethical questions that Alfred Hitchcock needless littered the original with) and a relatively unknown star with a virtually unpronounceable name would lead to a quickly dismissed box-office failure. Of course, kids flocked to it in droves to make it a surprise hit and that unknown, Shia LaBeouf, quickly became the hot young actor in Hollywood. Of course, it is still a pretty bad movie but for those who feel differently—much of America, it seems—this DVD also features a commentary from co-stars LaBeouf and Sarah Roemer (the aforementioned bikini babe) and director D.J. Caruso, deleted scenes, outtakes and something called “Serial Pursuit Trivia Pop-Up Quiz.”

THE DOOM GENERATION (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $14.98): A trio of disaffected-but-sexy young people roam across America and brutally murder people for not particular reason—don’t worry, they are still our heroes—in Greg Araki’s misanthropic and misguided stab at material that Oliver Stone handled much better in “Natural Born Killers.” The only saving grace to this monstrosity is the presence of Rose McGowan in her first big film role—she is funny, strange and sexy-with-a-capital-“S” to a degree that no other film of hers quite managed to capture until Robert Rodriguez strapped the machine gun to her leg in “Planet Terror.”

THE FILM CREW: KILLERS FROM SPACE (Shout! Factory. $19.99): The MST3K gang returns for the second installment of their direct-to-DVD revival of the concept of running a cruddy old movie with acerbic commentary from a trio of pop-culture-savvy smartasses. This time around, they take aim at the less-than-immortal 1954 programmer in which astronaut Peter Graves is captured by evil aliens and hypnotized into spying for them as part of a plan to take over the Earth.

FLASH GORDON: SAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE EDITION (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98): The good news is that the long-out-of-print 1980 campfest—producer Dino De Laurentis’ attempt to cash in on the “Star Wars” craze with an adaptation of the popular comic-strip character featuring eye-popping sets and costumes (especially the ones adorning Ornella Muti and Mariangelo Melato), a bombastic Queen soundtrack and hilariously over-the-top turns from Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan and Max Von Sydow as the vile Ming The Merciless—is once again available on DVD. The bad news is that when you compare this version to the one released overseas a couple of years ago—an overstuffed special edition with commentary tracks from Blessed and director Mike Hodges (who was brought in after Federico Fellini turned it down and Nicolas Roeg got the boot)—this relatively meager edition (which includes a couple of short featurettes and a promo for the upcoming Sci-Fi Channel “Flash Gordon” series) can’t help but come up short. If all you want is a decent copy of the movie, this version should do fine but if you are a fanatic for the film (and such people do exist), you may want to Go-Flash-Go and invest in a multi-region player and import the foreign version instead.

HATED: THE G.G. ALIN STORY (MVD Visual. $19.95): If you are familiar with the life and work of controversial shock rocker G.G. Alin, you will no doubt appreciate this 1994 documentary. If, on the other hand, you are unfamiliar with his life and work, I would strongly suggest to you that this film might not be the best place for you to start, especially when you discover why it was always dangerous to sit in the front row at one of his shows.

HOME IMPROVEMENT: THE COMPLETE SEVENTH SEASON (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $23.99):In this latest collection of episodes from the long-running Tim Allen sitcom, one of the kids announces wedding plans, another one goes through a Goth phase (well, a made-for-TV Goth phase), Tim contemplates leaving his TV show (which he wouldn’t do in real life for another season) and the likes of Grant Hill and Dan Aykroyd drop in for Very Special Appearances. For those of you with a jones for Tim Allen and who just can’t wait for “Wild Hogs” to hit next week, this set is the next best thing.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98): Although the original 1956 version of this sci-fi chestnut (in which pod people from another world come to Earth and take over our bodies and do away with our emotions) is usually considered to be the definitive adaptation of the Jack Finney novel, I have always preferred Phil Kaufman’s alternately creepy and bitingly satirical take on the material that brought the invasion to 1978 San Francisco and gave us Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright as mankind’s last hope. Instead of just giving us a by-the-numbers retread, Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter (the author of “Big Trouble in Little China” and the director of “Buckaroo Banzai”) skewered the Me Generation attitudes of the time while still providing plenty of genuine shocks to the system. (If you decide to brush up on this one before catching “The Invasion,” the latest take on the material, you should also take a look at Don Siegel’s original as well as “Body Snatchers,” Abel Ferrara’s unjustly maligned and really quite brilliant 1993 version.)

I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): In what remains the oddest remake to come along so far this year, Chris Rock co-wrote and directed this update of Eric Rohmer’s 1971 French classic “Chloe In the Afternoon” and starred in it as a dissatisfied husband who contemplates straying from his wife (Gina Torres) when a sexy former acquaintance (Kerry Washington) returns to town and begins sending out unmistakable signals. Some of the lower-key material that Rock deals with is intelligent and contains the ring of human truth but he shoots himself in the foot with too many bits of broad comedy (including a moldy gag about a bad reaction to Viagra). This is Rock’s second attempt at directing a film (the first was the execrable “Head of State”) and while this is a marked improvement for him, he still has a long way to go before his abilities equal his obvious ambitions.

THE LUIS BUNUEL BOX SET (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.98): Although many of you will presumably balk at the notion of referring to a set of two movies as a “box set,” fans of the acclaimed Spanish surrealist filmmaker (the creator of such masterpieces as “L’Age D’Or,” “Los Olivados,” “Belle Du Jour” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”) probably won’t mind the questionable nomenclature if it means that they can get their hands on the two obscurities contained within. “Gran Casino” is a surprisingly straightforward 1947 mystery thriller in which a couple of escaped convicts find work on an oil rig, find themselves accused of murdering the big boss and find themselves trying to solve the mystery with the aid of the dead man’s sister. “The Young One” is a 1960 English-language melodrama set on a remote islands off of the Carolinas about a romantic triangle involving a African-American on the run for a crime he didn’t commit, the naive teen girl in love with him and the grumpy game warden of the island who wants the girl for himself and will do anything to get her.

THE MYRNA LOY/WILLIAM POWELL COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $49.98): If you are looking for any of the “Thin Man” movies or the hilarious “Libeled Lady,” arguably the best films to feature this well-known screen couple, you won’t find them here as Warners has already included them in previously-released box sets (the former have their own collection and the latter appeared in their “Classic Comedies Collection” from a couple of years ago). Instead, this set features a quintet of lesser-known comedies and dramas featuring the pair—1934’s “Manhattan Melodrama” (best known as the film that John Dillinger saw just before being gunned down outside of Chicago’s Biograph Theater) and “Evelyn Prentice,” 1937’s “Double Wedding,” 1940’s “I Love You Again” and 1941’s “Love Crazy.”

PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES (IFC Films. $24.95): Having thoroughly subverted all conventional notions of what could be done in the cinema with his still-mystifying 1961 landmark “Last Year at Marienbad,” it is strange to find French filmmaker Alain Resnais, still working steadily at , an age when most filmmakers have retired to the Lifetime Achievement Award circuit, now working on film versions of stage plays in which he embraces their theatrical nature instead of trying to make them more cinematic. Based on a play by, this comedy-drama follows six vaguely interrelated characters—a tenuously engaged couple, a real-estate agent, his lonely-heart sister, a seemingly virtuous receptionist and a bartender trying to care for his nasty bedridden father—as they try and mostly fail to connect with each other during a chilly Paris winter. Although I can’t say that I liked this one as much as his previous effort, the delightful 2004 musical “Not On The Lips,” this is still a smart and well-acted drama that deserves a wider audience than it received during its brief art-house run earlier this year.

ROME—THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (HBO Home Video. $99.98): If you are in the mood for a chronicle of the fall of the Roman empire that is chock-full of sex, violence and political strife and you can’t wait a couple more months for the 4-disc special edition of “Caligula” to hit store shelves, this second season of the popular HBO series should do the trick. Alas, despite good ratings, the show was cancelled by the network because it was too expensive to produce so as good as the show was, these final ten episodes are it.

THE SIMPSONS—THE COMPLETE TENTH SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98): Although this season of the seemingly perennial animated sitcom is the one that naysayers tend to point to as the beginning of its downward slope in quality, the 22 episodes collected here still provide more laughs than the best seasons of most any other show you could name. In this set, Homer joins a hippie commune, befriends a lob]ster that he bought in order to eat, changes his name to Max Power visits the Super Bowl, Las Vegas and Tokyo and hires on as a grease seller, a bodyguard for Mayor Quimby and as a personal assistant to Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Not to be outdone, Bart spoils Springfield’s chances of hosting the Olympics and leads a revolution against a town-wide curfew, Marge develops road rage, Lisa leads a Mensa revolt and Mr. Burns realizes that he isn’t as beloved as he thinks he is when a younger and friendlier billionaire moves into town.

THE TICK VS. SEASON 2 (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $34.99): Another hilarious collection of animated adventures featuring the adorably thick-headed superhero, his loyal moth assistant Arthur and fellow crusaders Der Fledermaus and American Maid as they battle an ever-bizarre string of enemies. How bizarre? Well, in just the first three episodes, they fight rogue members of the Swiss Army, an artistically-inclined villainess known as Venus with a weapon that removes the arms of anyone who encounters it and a mad inventor who has kidnapped DaVinci, Ben Franklin, George Washington Carver, the caveman who invented the wheel and other noted minds in a scheme to claim their inventions for himself.

TMNT (Warner Home Video. $28.98): Yeah, apparently the kids (or at least twenty-somethings looking for some instant nostalgia) flocked to this reboot of the venerable film series–now featuring spiffy CGI animation instead of stunt men in clunky turtle suits–but whatever appeal the property may have continues to elude me and I spent most of the running time trying to figure out why people with actual careers (including Sarah Michelle Gellar, Patrick Stewart and Laurence Fishburne) chose to lend their voices to something so silly. If it is turtle-based entertainment that you are looking for, you would be better off checking out an old “Gamera” film instead.

UNACCOMPANIED MINORS (Warner Home Video. $28.98): I am not a fan of Christmas-themed movies, bratty children running amok, crowded airports or anything that involves the participation of serial starlet debaser Wilmer Valderama. Therefore, it may not come as too much of a surprise to you that I never quite got around to seeing this Christmas-themed movie involving a bunch of bratty children running amok in a crowded airport while being pursued by Wilmer Valderama. From what I understand, though, I apparently didn’t miss that much.

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