Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time (Disney) and Letters to Juliet (Summit) are both covered by fellow MSN critics, while I review Princess Kaiulani (Lionsgate) at MSN and Starcrash, the 1978 Italian Star Wars knock-off, on my blog here. That covers the big ticket releases and the cult item of the week. As for the rest…
My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done (First Look / Absurda) – “David Lynch Presents a Werner Herzog Film,” reads the credits of this weirdly deadpan drama, based on the real-life matricide perpetrated by an unstable actor who reenacts a Greek tragedy in his own life and played out as a surreal police procedural. It’s hard to tell if Herzog adopted some of Lynch’s sensibility along with some of his acting company, or if the juxtaposition merely makes their compatibility more apparent, and honestly, I’m not sure I get the film, but it burrowed into me nonetheless.
Michael Shannon does the psycho duties here, his skewed intensity creating another of Herzog’s mad visionaries (he even takes a trip to the jungles of Peru a la Kinski), but with the vulnerability of a regular guy slowly slipping out of control. Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie is his smothering mother, Willem Dafoe the coolly professional detective conducting the interviews and measuring the crime scene. Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier and Brad Dourif co-star. Features commentary by Herzog (always happy to muse on his creations and inspirations) with screenwriter Herb Golder and producer Eric Bassett and a 27-minute interview featurette with Herzog and Golder, plus Ramin Bahrani’s marvelous short film Plastic Bag, an eco-fable as spiritual quest by a non-biodegradable plastic bag voiced by Herzog.
The 1983 The Pirates of Penzance (Universal), Joseph Papp’s hit stage production translated to the big screen by Wilford Leach (who directed both the stage version and an earlier TV production), is (as far as I know) the only successful Gilbert and Sullivan screen adaptation. The operetta of curiously moral pirates, the lovely daughters of a modern Major General, a keystone kops troop of British bobbies and a young hero torn between duty, desire and the unfortunate wording of a contract is presented with both theatrical flair and tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of the inherent absurdity of the comic melodrama. Leach reunites most of his original cast and embraces the stage conventions, from painted backdrops to larger than life caricatures, having fun with the material rather than making fun of it. Kevin Kline is a comic swashbuckler as the pirate king, all fun-loving gusto with a soft spot of orphans, and Rex Smith quite charming as his reluctant protégé in love with Linda Ronstadt (all rosy cheeks and fluttering eyes and romantic yearning under the guise of Christian charity), who is determined to rehabilitate him. No supplements.
The Black Cauldron: 25th Anniversary (Disney) – In the era of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and even The Chronicles of Narnia, Disney’s 1985 animated adventure fantasy feels downright quaint and innocent. Adapted from Lloyd Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain” novels, it’s a classic odyssey tale in a world of magic where the evil Horned King attempts to rule the world and a lowly “assistant pig-keeper” becomes a hero trying to stop him. The first Disney animated feature in four years and the last one released during Ron Miller’s reign at Disney (the guy who also gave us Tron and The Black Hole), it was Disney’s attempt to go darker with its animation. But with a hero out of The Sword in the Stone, dragons out of Sleeping Beauty and a caricatured mob of ogres, goblins and other creatures, the PG feature comes off more like a G-rated lark these days and it was another financial disappointment for the studio that once defined the state of the art of feature animation, and soon would again. Disney was ahead of the curve with this one, launching a potential fantasy adventure franchise it was part of the blockbuster landscape, but behind the times in terms of sensibility. Features a deleted scene, or more accurately an alternate version of the meeting of the fairfolk discarded early on and recreated out of sketches and pencil animation, and “Trick or Treat,” a 1952 Halloween cartoon with Donald Duck, his nephews and a witch with a black cauldron, plus set-top games and a gallery of artwork and stills.
The Return Of The 5 Deadly Venoms (Vivendi) – The alternate title to Chang Cheh’s 1978 kung-fu classic, Crippled Avengers, is a more accurate description of this martial arts revenge film. A martial arts master of the Tiger technique returns home to find that gangsters have cut off the legs of his wife and arms of his young son (hacked off with geysers of red spewing dramatically, more in the spirit of Chinese opera theatrics than slasher movie gore). He goes mad with revenge and draws his son (now outfitted with iron arms and working fingers that fire hidden projectiles—my, what talents the local blacksmith shows) into his reign of terror. That’s just the preliminaries. Together they capriciously beat and cripple four civilian who had the bad luck to say the wrong thing within earshot: rendering one mute and deaf, gouging out the eyes of another, hacking off the legs of third and crushing the skull of a fourth until he’s left a childlike idiot. So the four victims train with a master to overcome their injuries (cue obligatory training montage) and return for their own revenge, including a battle between iron arms and iron legs.
Some of the most memorable classics of old school Hong Kong martial arts revenge movies are built on gimmicks and this one is a doozy, but it delivers the goods with over a dozen major fight scenes, fabulous weapons (the iron arms shoot tiny razor bullets) and all the whip zooms and slap-crack sound effects you expect in old school Hong Kong action. And yes, their kung-fu is very good. In Mandarin with English subtitles and alternate English dub soundtrack. No supplements.
Also new this week: Alex Gibney’s documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Magnet), Boogie Woogie (IFC), Just Wright (Fox) and Madchen in Uniform (1958) (Wolfe) with Romy Schneider and Lilli Palmer.