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12.10.08

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Phaedra

DVD Reviews


A Few Kilos of Dates for a Funeral
One disc; Facets; $29.95

What we think of as the Jarmusch comedy--the story of loneliness and failure, usually transpiring in a whited-out part of the snow belt--actually may go back all the way to the silent comedy. If you don't know that what you're watching is supposed to be funny, what you see is what's onscreen. In short: unhappy-looking figures in unflattering clothes, stuck with each other on the edge of some vast remote place, as in the starvation cabin scene in Chaplin's The Gold Rush. Saman Salour's 2006 anti-comedy, still banned in his native Iran, concerns a pair of gas station attendants bivouacked in a broken-down bus in a high-desert nowhere. The main highway bypassed this station a while ago, and the snow keeps any random traffic from coming by. The day boss is Sadry (Mohsen Tanabandeh), the wreck of a street-corner strongman and boxer, with one dead eye; his whiny, skinny pal Yadi (Nader Fallah) serves as companion, whipping boy and sounding board. Occasionally, they are visited by the local postman. All three men are lovelorn in different ways, but Sadry has some secret rendezvous in a nearby parked car with a curiously immobile woman. The silvery forlornness, well photographed in black-and-white, is diluted with some clumsy rustic comedy about the village idiot. The subtler comedy comes in the way Iran's have-nots deal with being thwarted--with either raving bluster or timeless, sweet-natured obliviousness: they choose to be Mr. Hardy's irresistible force or Mr. Laurel's immovable object.

(Richard von Busack)

Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition
Four discs; Shout! Factory; $59.95/$69.95

Has it really been 20 years since Joel and the Bots started riffing in front of some cheesy movies? Hard to believe that youth is so fleeting, but take a look at the receding hairlines on Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and Jim Mallon as seen in the three History of MST3K documentaries included in this set and contrast with the first-season footage--Joel had a shoulder-length shag. Only TV's Frank has kept his blond locks intact, although the forehead spit curl is missing in action. The four selections here give one taste of Joel and three of Mike Nelson in the hosting role. (I always thought Joel was funnier, but that's an angels-on-a-pinhead argument for fans.) First Spaceship on Venus (Season 2) is an East German space epic from 1960 that got redubbed for the American market. Joel, Crow and Tom Servo do a priceless Invention Exchange for "Junk Drawer Helper." From Season 7 comes Laserblast, a dreadful 1978 tale of a teenager who finds a superweapon discarded by subgenius-level stop-action aliens. This episode does feature a great takeoff on the last scene of 2001 starring Dr. Clayton Forrester as the aging astronaut pointing at a monolith, which is actually a VHS tape labeled "The Worst Movie Ever Made." For Werewolf (1996), from Season 9, Mike gets off a few zingers: noticing a shirtless character, he quips, "He's almost as hairy as Robin Williams." Future War (1997), a Season 10 offering, about a kickboxer, alien overlords and small, immobile dinosaurs, is pretty much beyond mocking: "Delay of movie penalty right about now." In short, not nearly the best of MST3K, which usually came in response to vintage '50s sci-fi and JD epics, like The Giant Gila Monster and Daddy-O (available in various collections). The three documentaries and a 30-minute clip of a reunion panel from Comics-Con International 2008 fill in a lot of background info: Joel for instance came up with the silhouettes idea from an Elton John album cover. The more expensive limited-edition set comes in a tin box with cards and a collectible figurine of Crow.

(Michael S. Gant)

One Touch of Venus
One disc; $14.98; lionsgate

Actor Robert Walker had a short, troubled life and career; an early marriage to Jennifer Jones derailed after David O. Selznick spotted Jones, leaving Walker severely depressed. After a breakdown, Walker looked on the mend, but he died of a bad reaction to a combination of alcohol and sodium amytal, in 1951. He gave one great, indelible performance--as the insinuating and charming psychopath Bruno in Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock's trading-murders classic had its sly moments, but the 1948 black-and-white oddity One Touch of Venus shows that comedy was not really Walker's strong suit. As Eddie Hatch, a department store drone who becomes the love object of a statue of Venus when she comes to life (Ava Gardner), Walker mugs helplessly as everyone around him races in and out of the slamming doors of creaky farce. The film is based on a popular Broadway musical comedy (directed by Elia Kazan and starring Mary Martin), but the screen version loses most of the songs. That was probably a strategic move, since neither Gardner nor Walker was much of a singer. But what's left is a pale patch on Pygmalion. Store owner Whitfield Savory II (Tom Conway) buys a marble statue of Venus and orders Eddie to prep it for an unveiling. But when the statue makes a magical transformation and runs off with the hapless clerk, an escalating series of misadventures ensues. Eddie tries to hide Venus in a model bedroom, while the police engage in some excruciating slapstick as they pursue the runaway goddess. At the lowest moment, Venus casts a spell on a policeman, turning him into an owl, and the man has to flap his arms and make hooting noises in response. Gardner is gorgeous in her off-the-shoulder toga, but Eve Arden steals the movie as Savory's long-suffering secretary. No extras.

(Michael S. Gant)


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