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

Mystic Pizza (1988)

Starring: Annabeth Gish, Julia Roberts, Lili Taylor, Vincent Philip D’ Onofrio
Directed By: Donald Petrie
Screenplay: Amy Jones, Perry Howze, Randy Howze, Alfred Uhry
Video Format: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio Options: DD 2.0, French Mono, Spanish 2.0
Subtitles: French, Spanish
Extras: Trailer
Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Category: Romance/ Comedy/ Drama
Movie Rating: ***1/2
The Mystic Pizza is a special recipe only known by the proprietor of a local pizza eatery in the town of Mystic. The story focuses on the hopes and aspirations of three young women—two sisters and their friend—who work at the restaurant. One is hopelessly in lust with a young fisherman who only wants to love and wed her. But is she ready to make the big commitment? As she wrestles with her internal demons and tries to discover what it means to be a woman, the plot shifts to the other two sisters. One is a dreamer—a talented young woman holding down three jobs and babysitting for the new man in town. His wife happens to be out of the country and who is better to help her discover her womanhood than this handsome young architect? She is off to college soon and very impressionable. Her feelings grow stronger and stronger, but will he reciprocate? The last is the reckless one. Pretty and self-assured but deep down scared at what may become of her life. Her sister is smart, and her friend has a wonderful guy who loves her, but what does she have? When a rich, handsome young law student breezes into town, she begins to date him. But will he be the one? Will he be true to her?

All three are dying to get out of the small town and make something of their lives, but they are not sure of what they can accomplish and if it is what they really want. As the movie progresses each woman grows and learns the meaning of their friendship and importance in each other’s life. Each is faced with the task of looking at their true selves, and casting off immature needs and desires in favor of acceptance of the life of an adult and each other’s own limitations. The movie really has the feel of an 80’s “coming of age” film, complete with a little crying, a little laughter, and a little singing of Aretha Franklin’s respect while driving in a truck together. This movie will appeal to young adults, but also has something in it for others as well. Definitely not a bad movie even though some of it feels a bit dated. And who can miss Julia Roberts early on in her acting career? Pix and sound quality are only fair for a DVD.

- Brian Bloom

Michael Jordan To The Max (2000)

Starring: Michael Jordan
Directed By: James D. Stern, Don Kempf
Narration: Laurence Fishburne
Studio: Fox
Video Format: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio Options: DD 5.1, DD 2.0, French 5.1, commentary
Subtitles: English
Extras: M. Jordan & Filmmakers, “Bullet Time” Slam Dunk, Behind the Scenes, trailers (4), reviews (3)
Time: 46 minutes
Category: Sports Documentary
Movie Rating: ****
To The Max is a short documentary film of Michael Jordan’s career in sports. The film focuses largely on the 1998 championship game, and what leads up to the final victory. Also included are commentaries on Michael Jordan the man, the ball player, the hero. In several instances Michael himself comments on key moments in the games and gives an insight into his psyche and what was going on on the basketball floor. We are even shown moments from his short career in baseball, and there are many scenes filled with exciting moments in Michael Jordan basketball. By all who are interviewed it is clear that many believe him to be one of the greatest ball players of all time and they not only have respect for his abilities in sports but also believe him to be a good person.

Although much of the video is either commentary or actual playing, there are still many questions left unanswered. The problem is the short length of the film that is nicely done, but for fans, a longer documentary would be better. Briefly we are informed of the hardships due to injury or the fact that Michael’s father was murdered and a minute or two on the effect of both. Sure, we are shown some of the influence he has on his fans, and there are brief pictures or comments from family, but overall there is not enough material to feel like you actually know Michael. Still, for anyone who enjoys the game of basketball, or knows little of who Michael is, there is something to be gained by watching this film. Also, it proves to be very inspiring, especially to those who may feel that they are unable to accomplish goals in their life. The chapters are divided into sections like Heart, Legacy, Dedication, Star Power, Determination, Strength, and Role Model. There are several touching moments that do help connect you to Jordan the man. For these alone, it was worth viewing for me.

- Brian Bloom

Zebrahead (1992)

Starring: Michael Rapaport, DeShonn Castle
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen Enhanced
Audio: DD 2.0
Extras: Trailers (Boyz N The Hood, Higher Learning)
Length: 102 minutes
Rating: ***+

It is a story that has been told over and over, but will be told possibly to the end of time. Both parents and school chums alike have a difficult time accepting the relationship a young white male has with a fellow black student. Zack has been long-time friends with Dominic, but when Zack asks Dominic’s cousin Dee out, it brings trouble with his white friends and other black students. Zack is into hip hop and rap music (as well as jazz and the blues) and makes tapes of mixes he has made and sells them at school. His father is always sleeping around, and isn’t the best example for Zack to follow in his relationships with women. One black student who is more rebellious than some of the others especially does not approve of the relationship between Dee and Zack. When Zack and Dee find their relationship strained, Dee finds herself back into the fold of the familiar. She still loves Zack, but can’t accept the idea that she might only be a flavor of the month. The tension rises and so do the hostilities that result in violence and tragedy.

Near the end of the film, some of the high school kids try to make sense of the course of events. It is somewhat distressing that the main characters reinforce the prejudices that have led to the violence. Stone is mirroring many of the leaders in our society, and shows their feelings towards others and themselves quite dramatically. Some of the situations are stilted, but others are quite down to earth and readily accessible and believable. It would be nice to believe that the problems and misconceptions about people of different race and background are left behind in high school, but we all know too well that this is not the case. The message that I pull away from the film, is that these sorts of prejudices and discrimination, not only perpetuated by the adults, but the youth even more, will only lead to pain and suffering and will slowly rip apart the common threads all people share. You can call it a modern Romeo and Juliet, but I would just call it worth seeing.

- Brian Bloom

Changing Lanes (2002)

Starring Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, William Hurt, Sidney Pollack
Studio: Paramount
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, English & French Dolby Surround
Subtitles: English
Extras: Commentary by Director Roger Michell, The Making of Changing Lanes, Featurette: A Writer’s Perspective, 2 deleted scenes, 1 extended scene, Theatrical trailer
Length: 98 min.
Rating: ****
A small masterpiece of American film. To say it is about road rage would be to say Moby Dick is about a whale. Two men’s lives, at first seemingly very different from one another, suddenly cross violently on the freeway. A giant battle of their wills and wits begins and gradually escalates to more dangerously violent levels. While some of the actions of both the smug young attorney and the struggling black insurance salesman are beyond the pale, they both redeem themselves in the end and their lives will be clearly changed for the better. Though often maintaining as cynical a tone as many recent films about the lives of young self-absorbed men, Changing Lanes wraps things up in a gratifying, believable and humanistic manner. And along the way it boasts as many compelling dramatic turns as a fine policier. Ebert & Roeper called it one of the year’s best; they’re right.

- John Sunier

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1996)

Documentary by Errol Morris
Studio: Columbia TriStar/Sony Pictures Classics
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital Surround
Extras: Bonus theatrical trailers
Length: 82 min.
Rating: ****
Errol Morris is our Orson Welles of documentaries. His Thin Blue Line won several awards, and his recent Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. proved an amazing portrait of a specialist in the repair and design of electric chairs as well as a Holocaust revisionist. Documentaries are normally death at the box office, but Morris takes them into a whole new realm with the sort of cinematography and general production seen in feature fiction films, plus avoiding the “axe-grinding” stance common to most documentaries. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a wild and weird collage made up of five basic elements: talking-head interviews with four unusual experts in four different fields (the notes call them “obsessed eccentrics” but I think that’s a bit unfair), plus some old black & white serials, cartoons and stock footage that seems to comment on their stories. First is a wild animal trainer who idolized Clyde Beatty (the main old serial is one starring Beatty’s daring-dos). Next is a topiary gardener who sculpts giant greenery giraffes and elephants. One of the funniest of the quartet is the expert on naked mole rats - you will learn more about these ugly little creatures than you really wanted to know. Lastly is the designer of robotic mechanisms - from him comes the film’s title. It ties in with his idea of substituting for the single complex and expensive robot planet explorer a herd of simple little robots which together can accomplish more with less control - hence Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.

The mole rat and robot experts have an especially high degree of involvement in their chosen fields, engaging the camera with buggy eyes and big smiles - doing their darnedest to share their great enthusiasms with the viewer. (This has been a trademark of most of Morris’ films.) The soundtrack music by Caleb Sampson aids the film’s various moods (Thin Blue Line had a most effective track from Philip Glass). The straight interviews are relieved constantly with often gorgeously shot closeups of actions and items associated with them - or in some cases associated with one of the other three stories. The creative intercutting of the four men and their stories is masterful - for example, you may be seeing the circus surroundings while still hearing the voice of the robot designer but the images seem to illustrate the point he is making - then eventually it returns to the lion tamer interview. Where does Morris find his people? I love ‘em - they’re compelling examples of what can result from a monomaniacal concentration on one thing. But he is never condescending - his subjects are treated with respect. It is left up to viewers to make their own decisions. Are they geniuses or crazy? See it and decide for yourself.

- John Sunier

Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946)

Starring Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Claude Rains
Studio: SDH/The Criterion Collection
Video: 4:3 full screen B & W
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Subtitles for dead and hearing-impaired
Extras: Digital film & sound restoration; Commentaries by film scholar Marian Keane and film historian Rudy Behimer; Radio broadcast of l948 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation with Bergman; Production, publicity, and rear projection photos plus posters and lobby cards; Correspondence about the production, Trailers & teasers; Ben Hecht’s script excerpts of deleted scenes and alternate endings; Excerpts from the source material for the film - the short story “The Song of the Dragon;” Newsreel footage of Bergman and Hitchcock; Isolated music and effects tracks
Length: 102 min.
Rating: ****

Francois Truffaut cited Notorious as the fullest representation of Hitchcock’s unique art. In it he took ideas from his British thrillers of the 30s and transformed them into a completely American movie of suspense and romance. The era in which the film is set is that space between the end of WWII and the worst days of the Cold War. Bergman, a woman with a tainted past (her father was a Nazi), is enlisted by U.S. agent Grant to spy on a ring of Nazis holed up in post-war Rio. The debonair leader of the band (Rains) - who had been her suitor years earlier - asks her to marry him and the agents advise her to go ahead since it would mean she could learn even more. Her effort becomes life threatening as her new husband and his mother learn of her ruse and begin to slowly poison her. Cary Grant has to rescue her and thereby admit that he has loved her all along while pretending he didn’t care. Great acting by all concerned, Bergman is lovely, the script is well done and the superb direction from Hitchcock all conspire to make this the sort of classic that may have you saying at the end, “Why don’t they make movies like this anymore?” The restoration is glorious - looks like it was shot last year instead of 56 years ago - and there are loads of worthwhile extras to peruse. The section on the film’s early use of rear projection is especially fascinating - Hitch and his actors didn’t need to go to Rio. But the results on the screen look pretty bad compared to what we take for granted today.

- John Sunier

Birthday Girl

Starring Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin
Studio: Miramax
Video: 2.35:1 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; French dialog option
Subtitles: Spanish
Extras: Behind the Scenes featurette, “Somethin’ Stupid” music video
Length: 90 min.
Rating: ***

Described as an unpredictable and sexy thriller, this film has some interesting concepts but seems to run aground in the last third or so. Lonely British bank worker Chaplin uses a Russian mail order bride service and is at first disappointed when the beautiful Nadia arrives but doesn’t speak a word of English as promised by the service. She soon convinces the desperate young man by employing non-speaking sexual communication, and he begins to warm toward her. Kidman is quite good in the role, seeming more alive and human than she has been in past films. Then suddenly two gregarious “cousins” from Russia appear at the door and seem to just move in. They insinuate themselves more and more into our hero’s life and eventually force him - by threatening Nadia - to steal millions of pounds from his bank. Things go downhill from there, but our hero gets to be a lot less of a nebbish in the end. The wrapping-up goes on far too long, and I didn’t buy the denouement. But like the blurb on the package says, it will keep you guessing.

- John Sunier

Plenty (1985)

Starring Meryl Streep, Sam Neill, Charles Dance, Tracey Ulman
Dir. By Fred Schepisi
Studio: Studio Canal/Anchor Bay Entertainment
Video: 2.35:1 enhanced for 16:9 screens
Audio: Dolby Digital Surround, English & French options
Extras: Theatrical trailer, Talent Bios, A conversation with director Fred Schepisi
Length: 129 min.
Rating: ***

Difficult to describe any Streep performance as one of her best since they all qualify for that. The star-studded cast here are all excellent as well, including such other big names is Ian McKellen, John Gielgud and Sting. Settings, costumes, cinematography are plenty good and the DVD transfer is superb in both pix and sound - though there is little use of the surround. The script by David Hare provides plenty of drama centered around the life of Englishwoman Streep, who felt the zenith of her young life was the period during which she was a spy in occupied French and had an exciting liaison with fellow British spy Sam Neill. Her post-war life, married to diplomat Dance, just doesn’t measure up to her experiences fighting “the good war,” and her destructive streak begins to damage not only her life but also those around her. Alcohol overuse and mental instability become part of her self-created struggle. The viewer will probably also find the WWII scenes more involving and exciting than the later period in the film. I tried but had a problem staying with the story towards the end of the over two hours. There wasn’t a great deal of empathy with the Streep character that otherwise flawed screen characters can sometimes elicit - probably due more to the script than to Streep. But still a worthwhile semi-Masterpiece Theater sort of film; and both versatile performers Ulman and Sting are a treat to see in their roles.

- John Sunier

Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise (1945)

Starring Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand
Studio: Gaumont/The Criterion Collection
Video: 4:3 screen B & W, digitally restored
Audio: Dolby Digital mono, noise reduction with CEDAR process
Subtitles: English optional; Improved English translation
Extras: Disc 1 = Commentary by film scholar Brian Stonehill, Video intro by Terry Gilliam, Demo of film restorations; Disc 2 = Commentary by film scholar Charles Affron, Screenwriter Jacques Prévert’s orig. Film treatment, Alexandre Trauner production designs, Production stills, Filmographies for Carne and Prevert, U.S. Theatrical trailer, 26-page illustrated booklet including excerpts from a l990 interview with director Carne, an essay by Peter Cowie, and cast bios.
Length: 190 minutes
Rating: *****
Children of Paradise is regarded as France’s greatest motion picture ever, and appears on the Top Ten lists of countless film critics and writers. It was produced in Paris under the most difficult conditions during the Nazi occupation. It had a large budget and cast - including people active in the Resistance as well as German spies. Arletty, the woman loved by four different men in the story, was at the time the mistress of a Nazi officer, which may have actually helped the production get completed without serious hassles. By filming an historical drama, Carne side-stepped the Nazi censors. The world of 19th century Paris is the setting - peopled with actors, artists, aristocrats, thieves, hucksters, courtesans and pimps. Arletty plays Garance - an actress who is in turn pursued but never actually claimed by a shy, sad mime (Jean-Louis Barrault), a wealthy older aristocrat (Pierre Brasseur ), a blind beggar, and a villainous assassin (Marcel Herrand).

The blending of theater, music, literature and art elements in Children of Paradise elevates the story to sublime heights. The title came partly from theatergoers referring to the second balcony as “paradise,” and also by reversing the word order in the name of a toy shop just down the street from the theater - it was called Paradise of Children. The true story of a famous 19th century mime, Deburau, was the stimulus which Carne and Prevert eventually turned into Children of Paradise. The original story involved the public trial of the mime for accidentally killing a man and all Paris attended the trial to hear the mime speak for the first time. Since the public was already familiar with the voice of Barrault there was no suspense and they had to formulate a different approach. The interplay of the various and sundry characters lives is complex and yet at basis very simple. One is plunged into the world of Paris in the l9th century and the over three hours goes by quickly. There are two discs and a sort of intermission, with a repeat of the opening titles at the start of the section of the film. The digital transfers are absolutely superb and the special section on the restoration efforts clearly shows the major improvements even over the good prints that were used for the former laserdisc version. Compared to the version seen in theaters (I saw it first back in the 60s) the images now have an almost 3D quality since subtle gradations of tones have been restored and surface scratches and spots removed. Of course there’s a limit to what can be done with minimal quality historical mono optical soundtracks, but after all most of us are watching it with the English subtitles anyway. And by the way the new, improved translations point up the fact that with DVDs we’ve lost a good source of art house laughs - there are no more hilarious mistakes in the English subtitles as there were in days of yore.

- John Sunier

Landlock (1995)

Studio: Manga video
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: English stereo, Japanese Stereo
Extras: character bios, photo gallery, movie previews, catalog (movies and merchandise)
Length: 90 minutes
Rating: ***

Our narrator speaks of his father and how he is a Wind Master—a person who can control the wind for the good of the people in his community. Soon enough the town in which they live is under attack by a terrible enemy. His young general is given orders to bring back the son of the Wind Master who possesses a single red eye. After much destruction, her goal is accomplished. She happens to have a single blue eye (a coincidence?), and her lord is interested in taking advantage of the power behind those who have the colored eyes. There is a god who can be awakened, and the evil lord wants to prevent that from happening, harness the power, and take over. Through a narrow escape, the two are on the run and try to figure out what is going on. Together they find the truth and band together against the evil ruler.

Violence and destruction are prevalent in this film, but so is strange, semi-mystical philosophy that is really hard to follow. At one point I gave up trying to figure out exactly what was going on and let the action take me where it would. You could call these animated sci-fi films farfetched, but some of that is just the nature of the beast, and you have to let it go. If this sounds mildly titillating, then bring on Landlock.

- Brian Bloom

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