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DVD Video Reviews, Pt. 2 of 3 - Nov. 2003

Hook – Superbit Deluxe (1991)

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 2.35:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1, DTS 5.1, French 2.0
Extras: None
Length: 142 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2

Steven Spielberg takes a little liberty with this twist on Peter Pan. It seems that Peter (Robin Williams) is fully grown and has kids of his own in the real world. He’s obsessed with his work and doesn’t have much time for his wife and kids—he’s in mergers and acquisitions—a virtual pirate. His mother-in-law, the infamous Wendy from the original Peter Pan tale, is about to get an award for all the work she has done with the homeless, so the family fly back to England to help her celebrate. Captain Hook’s revenge has been festering over the years, and what better way to get at the aging Pan than to kidnap his kids? Peter is in denial about his old life, and frankly doesn’t believe any of it. It takes a visit from Tinkerbell and the help of the Lost Boys to help him train and get his memory back, and most importantly to learn how to play and imagine. With their help, Peter is ready to take on his old nemesis and save his son and daughter from the clutches of Hook. But after being spoiled with attention and the riches of Neverland, do the kids really want to come back to the real world with their absent father?

All the stops are pulled out on this production in the typical Spielberg style. The elaborate sets, costumes, and effects that made this film possible are quite amazing. The actors in the film are all excellent in their own right, but some debate will no doubt come about whether they were miscast. Williams provides a bit of humor, melodrama, and silliness as the aged Pan, so his character didn’t bother me. Maggie Smith is a treat no matter what film she is in, and seeing Julia Roberts before she starting playing in harder, more serious roles like Erin Brockovich, was welcome. Believe it or not, she makes a cute Tinkerbell. Hoffman’s portrayal is criticized (by some) for being over the top, but his is probably the only character that you won’t recognize straight off, and lends an air of credibility to all the scenes in which he takes part. Some of the elements of the story have clearly been modernized, and not for the best in my opinion. The leader of the Lost Boys rides around on a skateboard, and some of the action scenes are reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Many of these touches will, no doubt, help to make it more appealing to the younger viewer that (I believe) the film is directed towards. Other scenes with the Lost Boys that are meant to teach moral lessons will come off as slightly hokey and silly for adults. But overall, the movie has enough to offer that makes it worth seeing. Purchase here

-Brian Bloom

Regarding Henry (1991)

Starring: Harrison Ford, Annette Bening
Studio: Paramount
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1, DD 2.0, French stereo
Extras: None
Length: 107 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

Henry Turner isn’t the nicest guy around, by far. He’s a lawyer with a big apartment but without much of a conscience, doesn’t treat his only daughter with much love, and smokes. One holiday evening he goes down to the liquor store to pick up a pack, and gets shot twice by a criminal in the process of holding up the store. At first he’s in a coma in the hospital, but wakes up and moves to a recovery facility. He’s in terrible shape: has amnesia, can’t speak, can’t read, and has trouble using his body to move at all. A friendly therapist helps him to recover, but Henry isn’t the same person he once was. He has a different personality, cares about his family now, and sees a big problem with practicing the law as he had in the past. Those around him suffer at his expense both financially and emotionally. His family and maid see the positive in his change, while his work associates don’t. At the end of the film, the transformation is complete, his life is changed, and he embarks on a new beginning.

Mike Nichols has another winner on his hands. I don’t know if I’m okay with the idea of seemingly punishing the guy for going down to the store to get cigarettes, but I suppose that is a convenient way to set everything up. The film is about not only the recovery of the body, but of the soul. Henry is left much like a child in the middle stages of development, and it is up to him and those around him to shape his new person. The questions that he asks and ultimately the decisions he makes in this “new” life are what allow him to recover his humanity. His so-called friends in the firm aren’t exactly the people he thought they were, but his family is as supportive as can be. Doing the right thing with his life is what he strives for, and what the viewer will most likely agree to be the correct course. Taken as a whole, the film may come off as a bit preachy, but it has its touching moments and the message, I believe, is a good one, and the viewer can’t help but cheer on Henry as he takes control of his self and makes good on his life. Purchase here

-Brian Bloom

Love Liza (2003)

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Kehler, Sarah Koskoff, Kathy Bates
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD 2.0
Extras: Trailers (Love Liza, Adaptation, Big Shot’s Funeral, Punch-Drunk Love), Filmographies (2), Audio Commentary
Length: 90 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2

Wilson is trying to survive one of the most difficult experiences in his life—the suicide of his beloved wife. The story picks up shortly after her funeral and covers his recovery from it. His adjustment is not as good as might be hoped. He is lost, lonely, confused, sad, and not sure what to do with himself. He’s lost his sense of direction and the happiness seems to have been sucked out of his being. He’s been trying to go about his daily routine, but the loss has weighed so heavily upon him that it is difficult to get back on track. He takes to sniffing gasoline to numb the pain. In order to explain the presence of the gasoline smell to an acquaintance, he is forced to lie and say that he operates remote control planes. In order to live the lie, he delves into the hobby head on. Just when things start to look up, his inability to deal with his new addiction, his mother-in-law, and his work situation knock him off his feet again. His struggle continues and he looks for a reason for her death. What seems like a final bit of relief only ends in tragedy.

There is clearly something special about this film. Although the description above makes the movie seem like it contains one painful moment after another, that is not exactly true. There are bits of insight and comedy interspersed in the whole span of the film. Gordy Hoffman, Philip’s older brother, wrote the script—a first produced effort. There is no doubt that Hoffman is a splendid actor—a virtual chameleon. Just think of his roles in Boogie Nights, State and Main, and 25th Hour. It seems that his only limits are that of the script. In the case of Love Liza, he is called upon to deliver a mixed performance—understated at times, powerful and passionate at others. The supporting cast fit well in the accompanying roles and help reinforce the strength (and lack thereof) present in his character. The subject matter is difficult to handle at best, and most viewers will have but a glimpse into the psyche of Wilson, and perhaps, manage to connect to feelings that are associated with similar past traumatic experiences. It is this terrible suffering that may be hard to handle due to its effective depiction throughout the film. There is no wonderfully upbeat ending like It’s A Wonderful Life and no scene where all the characters share a beer and reminisce. All that is left is the empty feeling of relief one feels after a good cry with the knowledge that it is out of your system. And perhaps when it is over you’ll think, “that was good.”
Purchase here

-Brian Bloom

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)

Starring: Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame, B&W
Audio: English Mono, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Extras: Vintage Advertising, Trailers (The Lady From Shanghai, The Loves Of Carmen, A Man For All Seasons, The Last Hurrah), Talent Files (2), Featurette: Conversation with Peter Bogdanovich, Audio Commentary
Length: 87 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

The story seems simple, but not everything is what it seems. The hero of our drama, Mike, who can’t resist a lovely young lady, narrates the tale of his misfortune. A chance meeting and an encounter with some brigands (where our hero struts his stuff) manages to bring the attention of the young woman’s husband. Mike is an out of work sailor waiting for his ship to come in (in more ways than one). Arthur Banister, attorney at law, is the young woman’s husband. He’s set on getting Michael O’Hara to work on his yacht. Mike’s pride loses out to his desire when he decides to accept the offer to work on the boat. Conditions aren’t the most pleasant aboard, especially the way the owner treats his crew—servants, actually. The moral fiber of all the characters comes into question as the story progresses, and Mr. Banister’s business partner proposes a diabolical plan to Mike. Mike and Mrs. Banister are like opposite poles of a magnet that can’t seem to stay apart. Just when it looks as if the plot has been laid out, it twists back and forth until the viewer isn’t sure who are the innocent and who are the guilty.

I’m not sure I’m a huge fan of Welles’s Irish accent as it tends to seem like overacting. The story isn’t exactly audience friendly either, and definitely falls under the Film Noir genre. From the dark scenes to a chase in a funhouse with mirrors (one for which this film may be best remembered), the plot itself is dark. It’s as if there isn’t a big concern for the viewer to like any of characters. What is at first a feeling of sympathy for the main characters turns into something quite different. Hayworth is surely a heavenly sight, although after listening to the featurette, it is clear that she had difficulty making this film due to her and Welles’s personal involvement problems. The melodrama gets heavier as the film goes along, and in parts it clearly has the feel of a foreign film. Symbolism is utilized throughout the film, and certain creative film techniques help to create an atmosphere not possible by conventional means. The sections are separated by the locations of the characters and appear in clear chunks. There is a feeling of care and art in the construction of the film, and the lack of a predictable course lends a feeling of reality—although black, cold, and unfriendly. Even though the film wasn’t well received (much like Citizen Kane,) it has grown to be appreciated as a classic Welles’ film. The commentary is especially worthwhile. Clearly recommended. Purchase here

-Brian Bloom

Three Japanese movies (well, sorta) wind up this section...

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara
Music: Toru Takemitsu
Studio: Milestone/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 black & white
Audio: Dolby Digital mono, Japanese with English subtitles
Length: 127 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2

One of the classic Japanese films, this artistic masterpiece was nominated for Best Foreign Film and Best Director. The DVD is restored from the original negatives with new and very readable subtitles. The strange and symbolic story concerns an amateur biologist studying beetles in some remote sand dunes. He misses the last bus back to his job in the city and accepts an offer to stay the night at the shack of a widow located at the bottom of a deep sand pit. The neighbors call her “old woman” but she’s not. The next morning he finds himself trapped. Though at first he hates the woman his passion soon turns to lust. The film is full of haunting images that will stay with you. You’ll have a whole different appreciation of sand after viewing this - should have included it with our other sandy film reviews last month! This is a fine example of the atmospheric film music of Takemitsu, even if it is just mono. His various knocks and squeaks are more chilling than the music on any standard horror movie. The transfer isn’t as pristine as, say, a Criterion effort. Since much of the action takes place in near darkness it would be nice to have a bit more shadow detail. [Publications which only report on the technical side of DVDs would give this one a low rating, but then WSR wouldn’t report on this one at all because it’s not widescreen! Isn’t that a shame?] I say if you’ve never seen it, rent it. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Ninja Scroll (1994, 2003) 10th Anniversary Special Edition

Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Studio: Toho Co./Manga Video
Video: Either 16:9 widescreen or 4:3 full screen - dual sided
Audio: DTS 6.1; Dolby EX & 2.0; Choice of Japanese, English, French or Spanish dialog
Subtitles: English
Extras: Director interview, Character synopsis, Photo gallery, History of Jubei, English soundtrack character interview other manga extras
Length: 94 minutes
Rating: ****

This feature is considered one of the best anime films of all time and has been digitally remastered and reformatted with 6.1 surround for this 10th Anniversary edition. Japan’s Mad House anime studio has been acclaimed for such animes as Perfect Blue and Spawn. Taking place in feudal Japan, the artwork is often delicate and beautiful, yet there is plenty of violent action in the swordsman hero’s fighting various villains who often have superhuman powers. The hero is out to find an evil Shogun of the Dark who plans to take over the Japanese government. He has a coterie of demon henchmen who must be overcome, so there’s plenty of samurai action. Joining the hero in the pursuit is a deadly female ninja who had acted as the good Shogun’s taster since she is unaffected by poisons - however, any man who touches her dies. The story, characters and artwork are all superb. While not as sexy as some of the sci-fi anime, parental discretion is advised. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1978)

Studio: Castle Hill/Image Entertainment
Video: 2.35:1 widescreen enhanced for 16:9
Audio: Dolby Digital mono, dubbed and completely different English soundtracks - one for theatrical and one for TV airing
Extras: Comparisons of original with Woody’s new dialog excerpts for theatrical and TV versions
Length: 80 minutes
Rating: ***

This was Allen’s first movie, and he probably didn’t have to struggle much to raise the funds for it since it only involved shooting a few minutes of footage. He got the rights (wonder if the Japanese producers realized what he was doing to their movie?) to a James Bond-style thriller and proceeded to write an entirely new soundtrack for it. He hired The Lovin’ Spoonful to do the new soundtrack music and to appear a few places in the film performing at a disco. This was the only newly-shot footage integrated into the original film except for a couple scenes with Woody being interviewed by someone about the film. (In one he is asked, “This plot is getting very convoluted - would you like to explain what’s going on? Woody: No.”)

He makes the daring hero, whom he names Phil Moskowitz, into a wacky superspy involved in all the sex and danger to obtain a priceless recipe for egg salad. There’s sadistic henchmen (one does a Peter Lorre voice and finally complains that he’s wrecking his vocal chords trying to keep that up), sexy women, killer snacks and wildly improbable shootouts. One scene involves the actors all wearing gas masks for protection against poison gas, and this gives Woody a great opportunity to have them say almost anything because you can’t see their lips move. Great fun, and even more so for fans of Japanese movies. The comparisons of dialog between the original and Woody’s in the extras seems as skewed as the movie in general - some of those in the original column are funnier than Woody’s version. As the car she was in drives off without her, a woman in Woody’s version says “Wait, that’s a rented car!” But in the original column she is saying “Wait, my vibrator is in there!” Purchase here

- John Sunier

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