6/14/05 Edition

Cult Classics Hit DVD!

Plus: Raquel Rocks in KANSAS CITY BOMBER, Chucky Returns and More!

It’s not often that you get a week where several cult classics bow on DVD, but happily that’s the situation this Tuesday when Paramount unveils a handful of catalog titles making their long-awaited first appearance on disc.

Top of the list is the lyrical, winning screen adaptation of William Faulkner’s THE REIVERS (****, 106 mins., 1969, PG-13; Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week), a nostalgic slice-of-life set in rural 1905 Mississippi.

Steve McQueen stars as a plantation hand whose “Boss” (Will Geer) leaves to attend a family funeral. McQueen’s Boon Hogganbeck is then placed in charge of young Lucius (Mitch Vogel), an innocent 12-year-old who joins his older friend in hyjacking Boss’ brand-new yellow Winton Flyer and traveling on a series of adventures around the deep south. Joined by fellow hand Rupert Crosse, the trio run into all kinds of predicaments, including McQueen’s girlfriend Sharon Farrell (employed at a brothel), a corrupt local police chief, a horse race that requires Lucius to become a jockey, and the consequences he faces when the journey is over.

“The Reivers” is a marvelous movie on so many levels that it’s hard to pick a place to begin analyzing -- suffice to say it’s easy to see why the film is a viewer favorite.

Veteran screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. beautifully adapted Faulkner’s prose for the screen, employing Burgess Meredith to narrate the movie with a knowing blend of truth and nostalgia. The direction of Mark Rydell perfectly captured the uniformly superb performances of McQueen (seldom as likeable as he was here), Crosse (in a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance), Geer (a memorable turn as the grandfather who’s ultimately even wiser than he first appears), and Vogel, in a sensitive turn as the young boy who comes of age.

Richard Moore’s cinematography and Joel Schiller’s production design both vividly recreate the time and place of Faulkner’s tale, but for many it’s the music of John Williams that truly puts “The Reivers” in a select company of personal favorites.

After scoring fluffy ‘60s comedies that have long been forgotten, in addition to episodes of Irwin Allen TV series and sitcoms like “Gilligan’s Island,” “Johnny” truly became “John” with “The Reivers.” This outstanding score has always felt to me like the first “genuine” Williams masterpiece: its exuberance, energy, soaring lyricism and tender, introspective passages don’t sound like most of Williams’ output from the ‘60s. Rather, they embody the immaculate dramatic scoring sense Williams would bring to so many of his works from the ‘70s thereafter. All comparisons aside, though,“The Reivers” is, at the least, a classic soundtrack and a cornerstone in the Williams canon.

Paramount’s DVD of the Cinema Center Films production only adds to the film’s riches. For the first time since its 1969 theatrical release, “The Reivers” is available in its full 2.35 widescreen aspect ratio, and neither the transfer nor the print the studio utilized for the disc disappoint. This is a pristine print beautifully captured on DVD, and the restoration of the film’s anamorphic cinematography should give movie buffs ample reason to rejoice. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and 2.0 Dolby Stereo mixes are superlative for their era as well, giving some depth to Williams’ score and the film’s splendid dialogue.

“The Reivers” is an old-fashioned Americana tale perfectly suitable for adults and older children (despite its PG-13 rating, which back in 1969 was given an “Mature [M]” classification), and Paramount’s spectacular DVD is one of the year’s most essential catalog releases. Highly, highly recommended!

Also newly mined from the Cinema Center Films vault this week is the tough, exciting PRIME CUT (***1/2, 86 mins., 1972, R), a gritty rural gangster thriller that’s equally worthy of rediscovery on DVD.

This taut, efficient tale serves as an illustration of how much filmmaking has sadly changed over the 33 years since its release. Robert Dillon’s script and Michael Ritchie’s direction never overstate the film’s pulpy plot and resist the temptation to stretch the story beyond its 86-minute running time. Most of the picture’s emotion and excitement come not through dialogue but rather the terrific performances of Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman and a young Sissy Spacek (who never looked more attractive than she does here), exchanging glances and conveying emotions in a restrained manner far removed from the “hip,” pretentious tone we see all too prevalent in today’s cinema.

Dillon’s plot involves a Chicago enforcer (Marvin) sent to Kansas City to collect from a mobster named Mary Ann (Gene Hackman), whose cattle empire is spiraling out of control. Hackman owes Marvin’s employer big-time, and the last Chicago thug sent to deal with Mary Ann was promptly turned into a ground-up hot dog by his big lug brother (Gregory Walcott).

What Marvin and his crew discover when they arrive in K.C. is shocking: not only are Hackman and his cronies thoroughly repellent white trash, but they’re also mining a group of orphaned young girls and turning them into doped-up love slaves for their own pleasure. Spacek is one of the latter, and her chemistry with Marvin -- who rescues her out of her sedated state -- is palpable in a film that’s both atmospherically shot on location (by Gene Polito) and superbly scored by Lalo Schifrin, who was able to incorporate a wide spectrum of thematic material in “Prime Cut” (including one great, propulsive action cue during the climax).

“Prime Cut” is a film that’s flown under the radar for years, and makes its debut on DVD for the first time ever in its original Panavision aspect ratio. Like “The Reivers,” this is a movie that’s an absolute must in widescreen because Ritchie and Polito employ all sides of the frame to convey the setting (just check out the great sequence where Marvin and Spacek escape from Hackman’s thugs in a wheatfield).

The 2.35 transfer is great, the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound likewise effective, and the movie itself a gem strongly recommended for anyone interested in a B-movie plot capped by A-grade filmmaking. Unfortunately, they really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

They also don’t make low-key character studies like LIFEGUARD (***, 1976, 96 mins., PG) much these days, which is also a shame.

Sam Elliott stars as a veteran lifeguard who doesn’t seem (or want) to get his life in gear beyond doing what he does best: soaking up the sun, saving the lives of inexperienced swimmers, and enjoying his time with as many lovely young ladies as he can. Elliott’s prototypical California lifeguard does, however, at least question his career goals after he meets up with his newly divorced, ex-girlfriend Anne Archer at their high school reunion. Her availability -- and the prospects of a new job as a car salesman courtesy of pal Stephen Young -- threaten to turn Elliott’s laid-back lifestyle upside down. Fortunately, a quick romance with young Kathleen Quinlan (who looks great in a bathing suit) and a few Paul Williams music montages later, Elliott gets his senses back and realizes what’s truly important.

Ron Koslow’s script and Daniel Petrie’s direction aren’t anything extraordinary: “Lifeguard” at times might seem like a PG-rated Movie of the Week, yet its casual atmosphere and lack of dramatic tension are part of its charm. Elliott is wonderful in one of his most well-remembered performances, and seeing young starlets Archer and Quinlan give the film plenty of eye candy for the guys.

Dale Menten’s score is likewise a treasure, sporting tuneful melodies and a pleasant Paul Williams song (“Time and Tide”) that opened and closed the movie during its initial theatrical release. On video and TV, however, Williams’ song was replaced with a terrific Menten instrumental track, which makes the restoration of the original soundtrack here somewhat bittersweet. Granted, it’s always nice to hear the theatrical soundtrack restored, yet I couldn’t help but think that Menten’s own theme wasn’t more effective in conveying the picture’s mood than Williams’ song (which, in its poky arrangement, almost sounds like a “Happy Days” transitional cue by comparison).

That said, Paramount’s DVD looks great in 1.85 widescreen and sounds equally strong in its 2.0 mono track.

“Lifeguard” isn’t for everyone: the movie doesn’t offer easy answers, preferring, much like its protagonist, to go with the flow. To some, Elliott’s solution may seem depressing, while others might find it optimistic. Either way, the movie’s performances and soundtrack make it a perfect summer view...all you need to do is take a ride on its groovy, mellow, character-driven wave.

Also new among Paramount’s catalog DVDs this week is DANGER: DIABOLIK (**½, 1968, 100 mins., PG-13), a swingin’ 60s relic starring the cardboard John Phillip Law as the comic strip thief who -- along with sexy galpal Marisa Mell -- loves to steal from the uber-rich while avoiding the authorities at all costs.

Mario Bava directed this Dino DeLaurentiis production, which fits comfortably alongside “Barbarella” and other fantasy “freak outs” of the era. The production design, editorial style and use of colors are striking and completely over-the-top, while Ennio Morricone’s memorable music score likewise comes across as an artifact of its time. The plot and dialogue are secondary to the picture’s central atmosphere, which should please its aficionados and entertain casual viewers, though I think most viewers will likely find that a little of “Danger: Diabolik” goes a long way.

Paramount has teamed up with American Zoetrope to produce a superb Special Edition DVD of the 1968 film. Bava and Law join Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas for a scholarly commentary on the production, while “Danger: Diabolik - From Fumetti to Film” goes behind the picture’s cult following and influence on filmmakers like Roman Coppola, musicians including Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, and comic book artist Steven Bissette. The Beastie’s “Body Movin’” video (which includes copious footage from the film) is also on-hand with commentary from Yauch, while a pair of trailers round out the disc.

Visually the movie’s 1.85 widescreen transfer looks stellar, though there are times when the matting seems a bit too tight on the bottom. The 2.0 Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is just fine.

Last and (given the company this week) least among Paramount’s library titles is THE FAR HORIZONS (**½, 1955, 108 mins.), the memorable -- though far from spectacular -- teaming of Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston as intrepid explorers Lewis and Clark.

Meandering and not at all convincing, this Rudolph Mate epic boasts Donna Reed as Sacajawea and future “Perry Mason” star Barbara Hale as the woman who comes between Lewis and Clark. You also get William Demarest and Alan Reed in a cardboard Hollywood production that’s light on historical accuracy but relatively high on silly, old-fashioned B-movie cliches, the kind that ought to entertain Golden Age aficionados in spite of the film’s flaws.

Paramount’s DVD looks fairly crisp with its 16:9 transfer, framed in the 1.85 aspect ratio. The VistaVision frame appears in healthy condition while the 2.0 Dolby Digital mono sound offers a standard score by Hans J. Salter.

Kansas City Craziness

Warner Home Video’s recent slate of catalog releases includes offerings from HBO (the terrific teen comedy “Heaven Help Us” and the forgettable Judge Reinhold vehicle “Head Office”), plus one of Raquel Welch’s more memorable turns in KANSAS CITY BOMBER (**½, 99 mins., 1972, PG).

This MGM production stars Raquel as the Queen of the Roller Derby, K.C., who has to take on one of her rivals (Patti Calvin) in order to stay in town and rule the rink. Raquel isn’t nearly as manly as the villainous “Big Bertha” and subsequently loses the match, sending Welch and daughter Jodie Foster to the “Portland Loggers” franchise where owner Kevin McCarthy has more on his mind than just getting K.C.’s game back on-track.

“Kansas City Bomber” is obviously a dated product of its era, but Welch’s performance is excellent and there’s plenty of action in Jerrold Freedman’s film. Don Ellis’ relatively subdued score adds further enjoyment to the preceding, but it’s Raquel’s show and just for her presence alone “Kansas City Bomber” holds up better than any movie about a roller derby has any right to.

Warner’s DVD sports a solid 16:9 transfer in the 1.85 aspect ratio. Having seen the movie on TCM over the years, it seems as if the film has always looked drab, since many MGM films of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s appear as washed-out and, at times, downright “dirty” as “Kansas City Bomber” does on DVD. The Dolby Digital mono sound is perfectly acceptable and a standard trailer rounds out the disc.

Horrifying Horrors

It hasn't been a great stretch for the horror genre. Recent theatrical efforts have been greeted with indifference from both critics and audiences alike, and several of these disappointments have quickly fled to the small screen.

Top of the list is SEED OF CHUCKY (Rogue/Universal, *, 88 mins., R, Unrated, 2005), which goes to show what happens when a filmmaker is apparently given free reign to do whatever he pleases. Thus, this puerile and unsettling (for all the wrong reasons) sequel shows that a whole movie filled with the intermittent gross- out humor of "Bride of Chucky" is indeed too much of a good thing.

"Chucky" creator Don Mancini's picture starts off on the wrong foot (with a series of ersatz "scares") and then quickly descends into an unfunny succession of gory murders and Hollywood in-jokes, with Chucky's son "Glen" arriving in Hollywood to find his parents as props in a "Chucky" film. No sooner do the murderous Chucky and Tiffany dolls come back to life than another rash of murder and mayhem begins, all the while Jennifer Tilly plays "herself" in a "real" Chucky film shooting at the same time.

The satiric targets (if you can call them that) are obvious and the whole picture sits in no man's land, neither a horror film (Chucky and Co. are now bout as scary as your typical Smurfs episode) nor an amusing spoof (Mancini's jokes worked a lot better in a semi- traditional genre framework like its predecessor).

Rogue/Universal's DVD is filled with special features, the most entertaining of which is a commentary with Mancini and Tilly. The two discuss filming in Romania and the sequel's long gestation, though hearing Tilly recite the phone book also might have been more entertaining than the film they ultimately produced. Another, more technically-oriented commentary offers Mancini and puppeteer Tony Gardner, while Tilly's alter-ego Tiffany meets up with actress Debbie Carrington in a deleted scene. On-screen trivia anecdotes, an "interview" with Chucky, a segment with Tilly on the Tonight Show, and a featurette round out the Unrated disc, which sports a 1.85 transfer and an appopriately cliché-ridden score by Pino Donaggio.

The success of "Resident Evil" and its sequel had to have provided the impetus for the German-produced ALONE IN THE DARK (*, 2005, 96 mins., Lions Gate), a hideous video game-to-movie adaptation that makes the critically maligned -- though gleefully entertaining -- "RE" films look like the works of James Cameron by comparison.

Uwe Boll's lifeless direction coaxes appropriately bland performances from Christian Slater (as a P.I.), Tara Reid (as his ex-flame and, would you believe, intrepid scientist?), and Stephen Dorff (a relatively brief supporting role as a federal agent) in a movie that begins with the longest spoken prologue crawl I've ever seen. The plot is a haphazard mess of an ancient culture coming back to life, mysterious monsters, disappearing bodies, ersatz religion, and a government experiment to fuse man and monster…all of which sounds appetizing enough, but believe me when I tell you that "Alone in the Dark" is utterly devoid of entertainment. Even on a trash level this awkwardly filmed and uninspired turkey offers boredom instead of laughs (though an amusing love scene with Slater and Reid making out may provoke a few, brief yucks).

Lions Gate's DVD includes commentary from Boll, a strong 16:9 transfer with 6.1 DTS and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, though the blaring, non-stop sound mix does no favors to one's ear drums (and the score by Bernd Wendlandt, Peter Zweier and Oliver Lieb is likewise thankless). Several featurettes and a trivia track round out the release.

At least "Alone in the Dark" resembles a movie (even if it's a bad one), which is more than you can say for ZOMBIEZ (No Stars, 83 mins., 2005, R), the unwatchable "Zombies In Da Hood" epic from the filmmaker known only as "ZWS" (I'm not making this up).

The cover art for Lions Gate's DVD must have cost more than the movie itself, which looks and feels like a public access movie, complete with sausages disguised as one poor victim's innards. It's amateur hour all the way, though somehow Lions Gate managed to give this piece of video garbage a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack and an OK full-screen transfer that's far more than this "film" deserves.
NEXT TIME: COACH CARTER, Anchor Bay and More!
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