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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Ask And You Shall Receive... L'il Adam's Wish List Revisited

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Some time ago (November of 2003, I believe it was) I wrote a column devoted to a few of the movies on my DVD wish list. Ten movies that hadn't been released on disc but should have and half a dozen that had been released at least once already but could use an upgrade. At the end of that column, I promised to check back in if any of the titles I'd asked for were ever released. Surprise, surprise, some of them actually have been.

From the list of ten movies that had never seen the laserlight of DVD, three have so far turned up in stores. Another, the little-seen 1947 noir gem Nightmare Alley, is due out this June from Fox. Of all of the movies I wanted, that one was the one I least expected to ever see released, so I'm chomping at the bit to get my greedy little paws on that disc.

However, this still means there is absolutely no indication that 60% of my wish list will be released anytime soon. No word on Delicatessen, despite the release of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's follow-up to Amelie, A Very Long Engagement. No word on The Double Life of Veronique, although Kino has released a host of other, more obscure (though equally good) Krzysztof Kieslowski films, including Camera Buff and No End. Nothing about Harry & Tonto, either of Lars von Trier's original versions of The Kingdom, or Powell & Pressburger's classic Stairway to Heaven. We haven't even heard anything about Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, even though the passing of Russ Meyer would seem to make such a disc inevitable.

Even more frustrating is the fact that not one of the movies I wanted to see re-issued have been. Oh sure, Duck Soup was revisited as part of Universal's Marx Brothers box set, but it wasn't exactly the extras-laden package I wanted or that the film deserves. Columbia is apparently re-releasing Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen soon but it appears to be exactly the same as their previous effort. The same with Universal and William Friedkin's Sorcerer. There seems to be no movement on doing a proper special edition DVD of Bram Stoker's Dracula, although Fantoma would undoubtedly do a hell of a job with it if they could get the rights. And absolutely no one seems interested in a special edition of The Jerk except for the legions of fans who would immediately fork over cash money for one, with or without a free Optigrab. The most likely candidate for a significant upgrade at this point is The Road Warrior, if Bill Hunt's efforts in The Rumor Mill are to be believed, but who knows when that might turn up.

But hey, something's better than nothing, right? So let's take a look at those wishes that were fulfilled over the past year. Don't look for a lot of objectivity in the film ratings on these, by the way. These were movies I really wanted on disc, so of course I like 'em very much indeed.


After Hours
1985 (2004) - Warner Bros.

Finally, Martin Scorsese's 1985 up-all-night black comedy has been released on DVD. And for those of us who are fans, the wait was worth it. Griffin Dunne stars as Paul Hackett, a risk-averse word processor who impulsively decides to head to SoHo late one night to hook up with a mysterious girl (Rosanna Arquette) he met in a diner. Before he's even out of the cab, things start to spiral out of control. Paul becomes trapped in this neighborhood, unable to get home, at the mercy of fate, and surrounded by an increasingly odd group of characters. After Hours is simply one memorable bizarre encounter after another, from Linda Fiorentino as Arquette's sculptress roommate Kiki Bridges to Teri Garr as a trapped-in-the-sixties cocktail waitress to Cheech and Chong as a roaming pair of burglars to Catherine O'Hara as the driver of an ice cream truck who becomes the impromptu leader of a vigilante mob after Paul's head.

After Hours

After Hours is often unfairly dismissed as a minor footnote in Scorsese's career but Warner Home Video's DVD (available either on its own or in Warner's Martin Scorsese box set) goes a long way toward changing that misconception. In fact, After Hours was a make or break movie for Scorsese. He had just spent years trying to set up his dream project, The Last Temptation of Christ, only to see it all fall apart at the last minute. Scorsese needed to make a movie not only to get his confidence back but to disassociate himself from the big studio, big money politics he'd just endured. He wanted to make a movie like he used to when he was just starting out: fast, cheap and controlled. Producers Dunne and Amy Robinson had the right project at the right time. Scorsese rediscovered his love of filmmaking and, not unimportantly, got a chance to flex his comedy muscles, a talent he taps too seldom as far as I'm concerned.

The movie holds up very well after almost twenty years, better than some of Scorsese's more celebrated pictures. I would have been happy enough just to finally see the movie letterboxed to its correct ratio but the anamorphic enhanced picture is actually pretty darn good. The audio is the original mono track only, which is fine. A handful of special features make this a very worthwhile package. Scorsese, Dunne, Robinson, DP Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker contribute a commentary which, as was the case with the GoodFellas special edition, doesn't quite run the entire length of the film but comes pretty close. Also included is a short documentary on the making of the film called Filming for Your Life. There's a little cross-over between the doc and the commentary but not too much. Both revealed some very interesting information that I didn't know prior to getting this DVD. We also get some great deleted scenes, trimmed because of Scorsese's insistence on keeping the momentum going. It makes sense why they were cut but unlike most deleted scenes, these are worth checking out if for no other reason than one is another extended bit of dialogue between Griffin Dunne and Dick Miller. The original trailer rounds out the disc.

After Hours may not be my absolute favorite Martin Scorsese picture but it's right up there near the top of the list. I couldn't be happier that Warner took the time to give this cult classic some respect on DVD. It isn't a jam-packed special edition but it's a perfect example of what we all hope every standard edition DVD should be: the best possible presentation of the film itself and a handful of well-executed extras.

After Hours
Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/B+



La Comunidad (Common Wealth)
2000 (2005) - Ventura Distribution

I've been saying for a while now that Alex de la Iglesia is the best filmmaker whose movies you're not seeing. Don't feel bad. This is through no fault of your own. Unless you've been actively trying to seek out his work, it's been virtually impossible to get ahold of in this country. Until recently, just about the only one of his films you could come close to getting was a severely edited version of his terrific 1998 movie Perdita Durango (retitled Dance with the Devil for some reason). But that's starting to change. Lolafilms has teamed up with Ventura Distribution to release a number of Spanish language films under the Studio Latino banner and to date they've released two Iglesia films: Muertos de Risa (Dying of Laughter) and my wish list pick for his best film to date, La Comunidad (Common Wealth).

La Comunidad

Carmen Maura (whom you may recognize from her work with Pedro Almodovar) stars as Julia Garcia, a real estate agent who discovers a fortune in the apartment of a dead man. Unfortunately for her, everyone else in the building also knew about the money and has been waiting years for the old man to die so they could split the cash. Like After Hours, La Comunidad is about a (relatively) normal person trapped in an unfamiliar environment with a large group of oddball characters (this bunch includes a Cuban dance instructor and a Star Wars-obsessed voyeur who dresses up as Darth Vader). But unlike After Hours, just about everyone in La Comunidad is greedy, selfish and despicable. They're all completely certain that they deserve this money... when in fact, none of them really deserve it. Watching the tenants turn themselves inside out trying to get the money back from Maura is hilariously uncomfortable. Iglesia films the proceedings with a fluid camera, ratcheting up both the tension and the black humor. La Comunidad isn't exactly Hitchcockian in that I don't think Hitchcock would have done this story in quite this way, with touches of absurd throwaway humor and flashy camera effects. But I do think Hitchcock would have enjoyed La Comunidad quite a bit.

Despite the fact that La Comunidad is now available on DVD, you still might have to search a little bit for it. Your best bet for finding it in a brick & mortar store is if you live near one with a section devoted to Spanish-language films. Even if you do find it on the shelf, you might be hesitant to pick it up because the packaging is almost entirely in Spanish. Not to worry. The case itself is clear plastic. Open it up and you'll find the English version of the insert printed on the reverse. Pop the disc in and you're given a choice between English and Spanish menus. The movie and all of the special features come with English subtitles, so you won't miss a beat. The image is OK, though a little soft and possibly framed just a little bit off, as some of the main credits were cut off on the left and right of my set. These faults shouldn't stand in the way of your enjoyment of the film, though. Two audio options are provided. The original Castilian track is given a robust 5.1 mix while a 2.0 dub is in "neutral" Spanish. I'd avoid that one. I'm not entirely sure what the difference is between Castilian and "neutral Spanish", but I'm assuming it's like if an American movie from the deep south offered a dub in neutral English.

There are a handful of extras and that's a handful more than I expected. A half-hour featurette on the making of the film doesn't offer much insight but does reveal that the interior of the apartment building was actually a giant, very impressive set. There are four minutes of deleted scenes. More like trims, actually. There's only one real scene in the bunch and it adds almost nothing. There's a fairly pointless photo gallery and trailers for La Comunidad, Muertos de Risa and several other Studio Latino releases. The real prize here, though, is a short film by Alex de la Iglesia called Mirindas Asesinas (Killer Mirindas). It isn't in very good shape technically but it's a funny, extremely well-shot eleven-minute piece, a sort of dark variation on a guy-walks-into-a-bar joke.

La Comunidad is my favorite of Alex de la Iglesia's films so far and I'm very happy that Region 1 audiences are finally getting the chance to see some of his work. Now if Lolafilms (or somebody... anybody!) could release Accion Mutante, the uncut Perdita Durango and especially The Day of the Beast, I'll be more than satisfied.

La Comunidad (Common Wealth)
Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/A/C+



Pennies from Heaven
1978/1981 (2004) - Warner Bros.

When I compiled my wish list, all I asked for was the 1981 film version of Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven. Well, Warner Home Video did me one better, releasing not only Herbert Ross's film but also the original 1978 BBC miniseries never before released on video in the US. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Pennies from Heaven (1978)Pennies from Heaven (1981)

Pennies from Heaven tells the story of Arthur Parker, a frustrated sheet-music salesman in the Depression. His life is going nowhere, his wife Joan is frigid in bed and unsupportive of his dream of opening a record shop, and he longs for something more. But he doesn't know how to express it except through the popular songs that he carries around with him in his briefcase and in his head.

In 1978, Potter's miniseries was acclaimed as a groundbreaking tour de force, mixing harsh realism with characters who would spontaneously begin to lip-sync songs of the 1930's. There hadn't been anything like it before and indeed there hasn't been much like it since. It's both stylized and realistic. It's highly aware of its own artifice. It's unsettling, disorienting and dreamlike, but at the same time, it's identifiable and grounded in reality. Bob Hoskins had one of his first big breaks as Arthur and it remains one of his best performances. Hoskins is all too frequently relegated to supporting roles but when he's given a lead, like he is here or in The Long Good Friday, he's amazingly good. I don't think the BBC version of Pennies from Heaven reaches the heights Potter would later hit with The Singing Detective. But it remains a remarkable achievement and a testament to the power television can achieve but so rarely aspires to.

Much debate has swirled around the worthiness of the 1981 Hollywood remake of Pennies. Generally I dislike remakes out of hand but I still feel that the American version of Pennies holds its own with the original (maybe because I saw the American one first). Steve Martin is cast as Arthur here and, as with Hoskins, he delivers a brilliant performance. This was only Martin's second film and I can't off hand think of a bigger risk taken by a major Hollywood star than to follow up The Jerk with Pennies from Heaven.
The main source of controversy with the remake revolves around Herbert Ross's treatment of the musical numbers. The BBC version keeps the songs basically grounded in reality with the numbers flowing organically around the setting and the situation. In the American version, the songs are given lavish production numbers that some critics argue miss the point of what Potter was trying to achieve. I disagree with that to some extent. For one thing, there are instances in the BBC version where the filmmakers clearly wanted to make things bigger but were hampered by technical and/or budget limitations. For another, the difference in scale makes perfect sense to me in terms of adapting the British story to an American setting. It seems appropriate that an American fantasy of a banker approving a loan would lead to a show-stopping production with all the glitz and tinsel of a 1930's Hollywood musical. And even those who feel the musical numbers are too grand in the American version concede that even if they are inappropriate, they're amazingly well done. The number in the bank, Christopher Walken's breathtaking tap dance, and Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters' recreation of the work of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers rank right up there with the best musical sequences ever captured on film. In fact, all of the technical aspects of this version of Pennies from Heaven are astonishing. The costumes, the sets, and especially the cinematography by Gordon Willis, at times inspired by period paintings and photographs by the likes of Edward Hopper and Walker Evans, are all top-drawer.

Both versions of Pennies from Heaven have their strengths and weaknesses on disc. The BBC miniseries has its six episodes spread out over three discs. They look and sound fine, considering the inherent limitations involved in transferring a twenty-five year old TV production that was shot on a combination of videotape and 16mm film. Extras are limited to a dry but occasionally insightful commentary on the first and last episodes by director Piers Haggard and producer Kenith Trodd, as well as a photo gallery on disc three. The menus are nicely designed, playing extended bits of appropriate songs for each screen. My main complaint with this set is the forced advertisement for BBC America that plays at the beginning of every single disc. Please, studios everywhere, make your pitch once if you have to and move on.

No complaints on the video or audio qualities of the 1981 remake. Image is grainy and appropriately film-like, certainly a step-up from previous video incarnations I've seen. Audio, no surprise, is mono and a good solid mono track it is, too. The highlight of the extras is also the most disappointing: a 20th anniversary cast and crew reunion videotaped at a recent screening of the film. There's some good information here but it is just a taped copy of this event. No editing was done other than the post-production guy stopping the tape every so often and fast-forwarding to the next pertinent piece of information. The sound is the sound that was captured by the hand-held microphones on stage. These are interesting people (Steve Martin, Jessica Harper, Bob Mackie, and editor Richard Marks, to name a few) and it's a shame that Warner didn't see fit to do a proper reunion documentary... or at the very least get a better seat and a tripod for the dude taping this event. An audio commentary is provided for some of the film by the reunion's moderator, film critic Peter Rainer. He was an early champion of the movie and provides some good context early on but runs out of steam too quickly. The back cover also promises a theatrical trailer but apparently nobody told the DVD that because it's nowhere to be found.

Pennies from Heaven is unique in that the remake is often identical to the original, simply condensed and Americanized. Despite that, both versions are very much worth watching. It's like seeing different productions of the same play. I don't think either version is perfect. But both are remarkable attempts at doing something new and different, sometimes successful, sometimes not, but always fascinating.

Pennies from Heaven (1978)
Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/C


Pennies from Heaven (1981)
Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/C-



Next time, I'll be offering up a new wish list of movies that should come be released on disc but haven't. I will not be including any that need to be re-released, partly because I haven't gotten anything I wanted so far but also because I don't want to encourage the studios to double-dip. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't.

I want to know what you guys would most like to see re-released as a super-duper full-fledged special edition. What already released movie did the studio screw the pooch on so badly that you would happily buy it a second time if they did it right? Try to avoid things that we know (or are pretty sure) are coming out... in other words, don't say Batman. But other than that, e-mail me and let me know what you want and I'll post the results next time. Hey... just because I didn't get everything I wanted doesn't mean you won't.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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