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DVD Video Reviews - September 2002, Pt. 3 of 3

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The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

The first indication of the unique position of this film in film history is seeing on the cover art that it is presented by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese and dedicated to Jerry Garcia. Turns out it was the late Garcia's favorite movie, and such film greats as Luis Bunuel shared his love of the long, quirky, supernatural epic. I saw it in San Francisco in the same little art theater where Garcia and his friends first saw it. That version was edited down and a long a laborious effort involving many people around the world has resulted in this new full-length director's cut which elucidates many - but not all - of the labyrinthine plot lines. If you liked Memento and Last Year at Marienbad you'll love Saragossa.

A captain during the Napoleonic Wars discovers in a house under attack an amazing book that tells the adventures of both personages in the past and of some now living - such as the enemy officer who takes him prisoner and then also gets fascinated by the manuscript. Someone in each of the stories suddenly begins to tell another story about his own adventures, and we go down the rabbit hole into riddles within riddles unending. One of the oft-repeated (with variations) scenes concerns a haunted inn where the captain must stay in his journey, and where he is seduced by two beautiful Moorish princesses. But just when the firkytoodling with his menage a trois is getting good he finds himself lying on a pile of bones on a hill where criminals are hung. The stories range from humorous to horrifying, with many unforgettable characters. The main role of the captain is acted by the excellent Zbigniew Cybulski, and his character strikes me as a Polish/Spanish version of Voltaire's Candide. He blithely steps into all these situations in which he is tricked, punished, put upon in various ways, but emerges from it all unscathed and still enthusiastic. This is a Polish film, and one soon gets used to hearing Polish spouted by all the thoroughly Spanish characters. And the transitions from the themes of Beethoven to the electronic/musique concrete sounds from Krysztof Penderecki are no more jarring than the strange transformations occurring on screen. The avant sounds perfectly echo the mood of the chilling scenes with ghosts, demons and the necropoli. The liner notes promise "You've never seen anything like The Sargossa Manuscript and afterwards you will never be the same." Could be.

- John Sunier

Earth (1930)

This silent feature by one of the four leaders of the early Soviet cinema movement is regarded by critics as one of the greatest films of all time. While it is full of gorgeously-composed images and moving closeups of the Ukrainian collective farmers involved, I don't find it nearly equals the power of the best of Eisenstein. Extremely slow-moving; even holding down the Fast Forward button the film seemed to drag on forever. Those interested in earlier film history will certainly want to see or own this remastered version, which used a 35mm master print from Russia. However, image quality is still fairly poor. The iffy-quality orchestral soundtrack was added to the silent film in Russia. English inter-titles are superimposed over the original Russian ones. The story concerns the struggles of the village council to buy a tractor to be shared among the farmers. The music swells to emotional heights as the gaggle of tractors comes down the road. Sounds like a parody of a typical Soviet film, right?

Bezhin Meadow is an Eisenstein film made in l935-37 which would have allegedly been his best were it not banned by Stalin in l937, and all copies destroyed by German bombing during WWII. This 31 minute recreation was assembled from stills in the collection of one of the actresses in the film, and the soundtrack music is selected from works of Prokofiev. The Soviet collectivization program is again the subject of this film. Many of the still images are especially haunting.

- John Sunier

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)

Gulliver is no man to sit idle, but his medical practice is just not paying off. He gets chickens as payment and cannot afford a nice house for his fiancé. He vows that he will not live as a poor medicine man and sails off to seek a fortune. He goes off without permission, but his fiancé decides to stow away. When he discovers her, he is enraged, and chases her out onto the deck of the ship in a storm. They both end up in the water, and Gulliver is washed up on a strange island. It turns out that all the residents of Lilliput are quite small in comparison to the size of normal men. He is tied and bound until the king arrives, and by his grace he is allowed to learn of their culture and politics. It seems there is a war going on, and Gulliver is enlisted. Gulliver is a very moral man, and has difficulties with what is asked of him. Even though he makes countless attempts to help the Lilliputians, he is soon in their disfavor.

After leaving the land of Lilliput, he arrives in the land of Brobdingnag where he is rejoined with his fiancé. In this land, Gulliver is the Lilliputian and the members of the land are much larger. New dangers exist in animals and other members of the kingdom who are afraid of Gulliver and think him a witch. Due to his clever nature, Gulliver manages to bide his time long enough to escape and make it back to his fair country, England.

There is no attempt to stay strictly true to the original story by Jonathan Swift. In fact, there are many liberties taken in the story that only slightly resemble the original text. There is but a glimmer of the political commentary present in the original--this is clearly a film geared towards pure entertainment. The DVD case is labeled part of the Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection, and there are a few special features that cover the special effects used in this film and other Harryhausen films. There is a section on Dynamation as well. The period of the film is evident in its style and acting, but it shouldn't dissuade the viewer from enjoying the production.

- Brian Bloom

Neon Genesis Evangelion Death & Rebirth (2002)

This anime blockbuster arrived with a great spearhead of publicity: "Most highly anticipated Anime Release of the Summer!" "Mind-blowing," etc. This is the conclusion to the best-selling anime series in Japan, Neon Genesis Evangelion. The conclusion is so epic in scope that it required two feature films, of which this is the first - The End of Evangelion will be the second. The DVD is double-sided, with most of the material on Side A. Side B contains the Mokuji (Information) Interactive Feature, which brings up little icons on the screen constantly, upon which the viewer clicks and then sees a short course in the particular character or gadget then on the screen. The idea is to present additional information to make the film viewing more fulfilling, and to teach those new to the story about the multifarious characters and their back-stories.

Starting out on the A Side, I found myself completely befuddled by the wild monster battles going on onscreen. So - seeking to get my Mokuji working - I switched to the B Side. Wow. Now I got way much Mokuji! You are assailed by screen after screen of detailed background on each of these characters and their past history, coming up every couple minutes. You forget completely what was happening in the actual movie. I groked this much: the Angels are mostly bad angels, (except for one that defected to the humans), the Evangelions are some sort of huge transformer-type human-driven fighting robots built to battle the Angels who are attacking earth to destroy it. The are all piloted by a single human, and all the humans are children for some unexplained reason. (I'm sure that's an automatic audience-builder!) And there's all sorts of subterfuge going on, with secret government agencies seeking to manipulate the children and battle each other to the death. Moreover, although these angels are far from the good angels in the Bible, the images and convoluted plot demonstrate a bizarrely innocent appropriation of Christian Apocalyptic symbols and theology that is vauguely unsettling. Could it be that Japanese youth are dabbling in Protestant Fundamentalism to freak out their Buddhist and Shinto parents?

The series evidently began on Japanese TV, and the first half of this feature (up to the intermission, and boy will you need one!) is an "orchestrated retelling" of episodes 1 thru 24 of the original series. No wonder it's so maddeningly chaotic. Mind-numbing- not mind-blowing. There are long sections of nothing but Japanese ideographs jumping all over the screen with no subtitles at all. The target for this stuff appears to be youth and adults still stuck in their youth whose brains have been fried by non-stop computer gaming. I gritted my teeth to make it to the intermission and that's where I stopped. Those perky kids will have to save the world without me. I enjoyed most of the previous blockbuster anime features Akira, Metropolis, Ghost in the Shell, and Blood: The Last Vampire. The last two even came from one of the two animation studios responsible for this mess!

- John Sunier

The Verdict (1982)

Frank Galvin has had a few tough years. He used to be a star attorney for a big law firm, but some strange dealings left him without a job and without many clients. He's barely making a living and in addition to drinking a lot has been reduced to showing up at funerals to try and drum up business. His luck is about to change, but he just needs a little help realizing it. An old friend has given him a serious case: When a young women went to the hospital to deliver her baby she was given the wrong anesthetic that caused her to go into arrest and become a vegetable. Frank thinks he can get some money out of this one, but luck is still not on his side-his star witness disappears, the judge is against him from the start, and the two doctors (considered to be among the best in the world) are represented by one of the best firms in town. Frank realizes that this is not just a case, but THE case, the one that will help him get back on his feet again. He is fighting not only for his client, but for himself as well.

Paul Newman delivers one of his best performances in this courtroom drama. A good supporting cast, with the aid of the directing genius of Sidney Lumet and wonderful script by David Mamet, makes this film memorable. At the opening, we see a shell of a man-a man who has played the system and lost. Throughout the film, we are treated to wonderful depictions of character and scenes with emotional impact that will have you fully engrossed. The sights, the sounds, and the air of loss, pain, and humanity provides the foundation for a great movie. This is a classic you shouldn't miss.

- Brian Bloom


Supergirl (1984)

With the success of the Superman movie, it was only a matter of time before the filmmakers decided they would attempt the same feat with the cartoon Supergirl. The movie starts with what looks like ordinary people living a normal life, but we soon discover that they are in a different place than Earth. When a freak accident occurs, and an Omegahedron, the main power source of their city Argos, is suddenly cast out, young Cara goes off in search of it. She soon lands on Earth, where her cousin has gone. Her mission is clear, to recover the power source and save her home. Along the way she disguises herself as Linda Lee, much like Superman disguises himself as Clark Kent. Unfortunately, an evil witch, Selena, has taken the power source and plans to do no good. She soon gets very powerful, and threatens the entire Earth itself with being subjugated and under her control. Supergirl is intent on stopping her and may even end up in love along the way.

It was clear that there were high hopes for the success of this film, but as I recall it only received a mediocre reception in the box office. Here we have a nice Limited Edition DVD with an extended version of the film that helps the flow a little better, and develops characters a bit more. The picture quality is good, and sound has been remastered for the DVD. The movie feels a little dated-much more so than Superman. However, if you haven't seen it before, it is a fairly good attempt at reconstructing the comic book heroine. Some of the film can be rather silly, but will be something that can be watched with the entire family, and even may be appreciated more by younger folk. The making of the film is very interesting and we learn about the selection for the main part, talk to some of the main characters, and discover other difficulties in the production of the film. If you liked Superman, and you are in the mood for something along those lines, then Supergirl should be on your list.

- Brian Bloom


Shiri (2002)

What was once a hostile battleground between the North and the South, Korea is now coming closer to a unified people. But in the past, there were militants, spies, and agents trained specifically to assassinate at will. One of these assassins is a young woman named Hee. Two cops have been tracking her activities for years and have been trying to zero in on her. When a highly explosive liquid is stolen, the detectives will do anything necessary to get it back and attempt to allow the two factions to come together and live in peace. Hee seems to be a step ahead every time, and the only way this is possible is the existence of a mole in the police department. But will it be too late when the truth is finally uncovered?

I can't say that I've seen many Korean films, but this one is clearly worthwhile watching. There was a lot of graphic violence, so I wouldn't recommend this movie for young kids, but the story was interesting and the plot twists helped propel the movie along. Without giving away the ending, I can say that much happened that was not expected, and getting there was worth the time.

- Brian Bloom


The Projectionist (1970)

Reading that the hero of this film was a movie theater projectionist, I just had to see it. Well, Cinema Paradiso it's not. It made me a bit uncomfortable because it seemed like the first feature film I would have made if I had pursued filmmaking beyond my longest effort (24 min.), and been bankrolled to do an 85-min. low-budget epic. It has a projectionist who does passable impressions of classic movie stars to entertain himself in the lonely projection booth, and whose rich fantasy life casts his stentorian theater manager boss (Dangerfield) as the villain The Bat in a superhero silent-movie serial starring himself. There are also collages of clips from classic silent films, occasionally melding the projectionist's scenes artfully with the classic films. In one he picks up the phone and talks to Humphrey Bogart. But the silent movie parody goes on too long and although often speeded-up - silent comedy style - is still draggy. There are some single-framed WWII violence-to-women stills in one collage section that are inexplicable, out of context and disgusting. (A What Were They Thinking? situation for certain.) The drawn-out scenes of the lonely after-work slumming by the projectionist in Times Square are depressing. Dangerfield is much better as the slimy boss-villain than as the Bat villain. This was his film debut.

- John Sunier


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