SPIDER (Alliance Atlantis, 2002) D: David Cronenberg, w/ Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne. Rating: NNNNN
david cronenberg's films, with their complex internal structures and glimpses of alien worlds, always benefit from repeat viewings. The second viewing gets you past the strangeness and more deeply into the director's chilly emotional landscape. You also tend to see the narrative twists as more logically motivated, and the dark humour emerges more clearly.
Spider, the portrait of a middle-aged schizophrenic (Fiennes) haunted by what he thinks are his childhood memories, is no exception, and this Alliance transfer does full justice to the expressionist cinematography of Peter Suschitzky, who's shot every Cronenberg film since Dead Ringers.
Cronenberg thinks his films all the way through, and he can articulate that process. This makes his commentary tracks unusually valuable, whether you want simple production details (the gasworks were shot by building a window frame and shooting through it to make it appear that the works stood across the street from Spider's halfway house) or a discussion of the points when the story veers between true and false memory, and how that's indicated visually and in the performance. Anybody interested in how world-class filmmakers work should check this commentary.
DVD EXTRAS Director commentary, talking heads making-of documentary. English and French versions and subtitles.
THE HOWLING (MGM, 1981) D: Joe Dante, w/ Dee Wallace-Stone, Patrick Macnee. Rating: NNNN
you've heard of christmas in july? Welcome to Halloween in August. Not just Anchor Bay's 25th-anniversary special edition of Halloween itself, which licenses the John Carpenter-Jamie Lee Curtis commentary from the old Criterion laser disc, or the sudden flurry of classic horror from Warner's, with a velvety transfer of the original 1964 The Haunting and Howard Hawks's The Thing. We're talking mega-horror from MGM: four double features in their Midnight Movies series, including Jeff Lieberman's cult classic worm movie, Squirm, with a director's commentary (!); the 1934 British Gaumont production of The Ghoul, with Boris Karloff, which isn't very good, but at least it's rare; and a special-edition issue of Joe Dante's 1981 werewolf goodie, The Howling, with a director/cast commentary. This is enough stuff to keep you scared - or laughing - for at least a month. The Howling is the prize of the MGM group. The collective commentary by Dante and stars Dee Wallace-Stone and Christopher Stone is worth the price on its own, half for the comic interplay and half for the discussion of Rob Bottin's special effects. The Howling was written by John Sayles (he also wrote Alligator during this period), and Dante's packed the cast with horror veterans like John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy and Kenneth Tobey.
Funny-scary, and if it's not as wild as Gremlins, it's an early alert to Dante's Famous Monsters Of Filmland sensibility and to the way Sayles could sneak political content into genre pictures. The ending's a joke with teeth, and anticipates The Truman Show by more than a decade.
DVD EXTRAS Director/cast commentary, making-of documentary, theatrical trailer and TV spots, outtakes, deleted scenes. English and French versions, English and French subtitles.
EL MARIACHI (Columbia TriStar, 1992) D: Robert Rodriguez, w/ Carlos Gallardo, Consuelo Gómez. Rating: NNN
DESPERADO (Columbia TriStar, 1995) D: Robert Rodriguez, w/ Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek. Rating: NNNN
just in time for the september 12 release of Once Upon A Time In Mexico, Columbia issues Robert Rodriguez's first two films - actually his first film, because Desperado is really a reasonably budgeted remake of his micro-budgeted first feature, El Mariachi. It certainly has more star power, with Antonio Banderas and then-new face Salma Hayek in her first American film, and the budget means Rodriguez can indulge his John Woo fantasies to a fuller extent. (Compare and contrast the bar shootouts with the one that opens Woo's Hard-Boiled.) But El Mariachi has an art povera charm all its own, and Rodriguez's commentary track is a master class in how to make a film for absolutely no money. (To produce a screening cassette, he spent $7,000. Columbia then spent a quarter-million in post-production, but it's still an achievement.)
Good transfers, and some interesting extras. The commentaries have great value in utterly practical terms; Rodriguez isn't any kind of deep cinematic thinker, but he knows how to make a movie for nothing. On that basis, the aspiring filmmaker will get a lot more bang for the buck from listening to him than from a couple of years of film school.
DVD EXTRAS Both: director commentary, theatrical trailers, sneak peek at Once Upon A Time In Mexico.
EL MARIACHI: 10-minute Film School featurette, short film Bedhead. Spanish and French versions; English, French, Spanish, Korean subtitles.
DESPERADO: Ten More Minutes With Robert Rodriguez: Anatomy Of A Shootout, trial version of Screenblast editing software. English, French, Spanish versions; English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese subtitles.
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (Kino, 1926) D: Arnold Fanck, w/ Leni Riefenstahl, Luis Trenker. Rating: NNNN
some films are more interesting as historical documents than as art, and The Holy Mountain falls into that category. A paradigm of the German mountain film that served as the "healthy" counter-cinema to the Weimar morbidity of Expressionist directors like Lang and Murnau, it was the movie that made a huge star of the young Leni Riefenstahl, eventually leading to her directing career and and the making of Triumph Of The Will. It's easy to see why she became a star. Aside from the dance numbers in skimpy outfits, she's like Garbo without the mystery. The mountain films aren't exactly proto-Nazi (compare the mountain-and-cloud imagery with the opening of Triumph Of The Will, though), but you can certainly see a kinship in their upward-yearning, downward-sneering attitudes. Perhaps Kino will bring us Riefenstahl's directorial debut, The Blue Light, which is really interesting in those terms. This is an excellent restoration, with original tinting and new intertitles from the Murnau Foundation, though not quite on a par with their Metropolis miracle.
DVD EXTRAS Excerpt from The Wonderful, Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl.
ANIMAL HOUSE: DOUBLE SECRET PROBATION EDITION (Universal, 1978) D: John Landis, w/ Tom Hulce, John Belushi. Rating: NNN
animal house does hold up as a comedy after 25 years. Universal has provided a first-rate transfer (though the film never looked particularly good), but anyone encountering it for the first time may be a bit disappointed. So many slob comedies trail in its wake that it looks almost restrained after the various Porky's and American Pies. It does have great moments - Belushi's rallying-the-troops speech, for example. It's also a film that serves as ground zero for low Hollywood comedy in the last quarter-century. John Landis, Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis got Hollywood careers out of this movie, which means it has a lot to answer for, including Evolution and An American Werewolf In Paris.
It was also the first film for a remarkable array of performers, including Kevin Bacon, Karen Allen and Peter Riegert - and if you look closely, Robert Cray is a member of the band that plays the toga party.
DVD EXTRAS A where-are-they-now mockumentary, a good talking heads making-of, and a trivia text track. Oddly, no commentary, though two of the writers, the director and the producer all took part in the documentary. English, French and Spanish versions and titles.
ALSO THIS WEEK
ALIAS: THE FIRST SEASON (Touchstone) Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow, CIA agent and fabulous babe, who works as a double agent inside another covert agency.
TITANIC (Fox Studio Classics) No, the other one, the early 50s black-and-white, with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb.
MONTY PYTHON'S THE MEANING OF LIFE: 20th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Universal) Two-disc SE, with commentaries, deleted scenes, new documentary, the whole thing.
TIGHTROPE (Warner Home Video) And six other new-to-DVD Clint Eastwood titles, including Pink Cadillac and Black Hunter, White Heart.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb