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DVD Reviews

Javier Bardem in 'Extasis,' an Errol Flynn collection and American Slapstick revisted.

One disc; Lionsgate; $14.98

This 1996 Spanish feature gives American viewers a chance to see a young (27) Javier Bardem developing the intense style that eventually led to his Oscar for playing Grim Reaper Chigurth in No Country for Old Men. Young, wild and not too bright Rober (Bardem) leads his pals Max (Daniel Guzmán) and Lola (Silivia Munt) on low-level crimes. He ups the ante when he sees a chance to cash in on the guilty conscience of Max's father, who abandoned him as a child. Pretending to be Max, Rober cozies up to Daniel (Federico Luppi), a renowned, wealthy Spanish stage director, figuring to strip his mansion of its art treasures. The imposture goes astray, however, when Daniel proposes to turn Rober into the star of his next play, much to the chagrin of Max and Lola, who quickly grow tired of waiting for the big score. Max, in particular, doesn't like the idea that Rober has turned out to be a much better son than he ever could have hoped to. The film (directed by Mariano Barroso, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joaquín Oristrell) can't decide what it wants to do with its father/fake son/real son triangle and limps to an unsatisfactory conclusion, but Bardem proves to be a riveting presence, full of the energy of De Niro circa Taxi Driver. No extras.

(Michael S. Gant)

Errol Flynn Westerns Collection
Four discs; Warner Home Video; $49.98

Proving that you can take Errol Flynn out of the swashbuckler, but you can't take the swashbuckler out of Errol Flynn, this set presents a cowboy who more often than not finds himself going against the Old West grain. Playing a Union soldier in Virginia City (1940) and a Confederate rebel in Rocky Mountain (1950), Flynn ends up in unfriendly territory no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon his uniform reflects. As an unwelcome sheepherder in Montana's (1950) cattle territory and an underdog riding into San Antonio (1945), Flynn resides just outside the lines of the general populace. What makes his cowboy portrayals unique is that he doesn't redraw the line with a gun and a squint a la John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Instead, he earns the respect needed to be welcome across the line. When big-business cattle herders kill Flynn's men in Montana, his retaliation largely consists of an attempt to show that sheep and cows can share the grazing areas. Sent by the Union to obtain Southern gold from Nevada's Virginia City, Flynn ends up sacrificing the treasure to keep it out of both Confederate and Union hands, upsetting both sides but somehow managing to justify his actions. This isn't to say that Flynn is the Western's answer to "Can't we all just get along?" There are moments throughout these films where he seamlessly turns into the gunslinging version of a swashbuckler we expect. Cornered and outnumbered by countless stereotypical, whooping tomahawks in Rocky Mountain, his battle cry, "They've seen our backs, let's show 'em our faces," could no better befit a Hollywood hero. Luckily, Flynn sells both the measured and the gun-'em-down traits so the transitions between the two add depth to the characters instead of creating unevenness. Each film comes newsreels, shorts, cartoons and trailers.

(Matthew Craggs)

American Slapstick, Vol. 2
Three discs; Facets/All Day Entertainment; $34.95

At nearly a century's remove, we know about silent-era comedy mostly by exploring the tip of the iceberg: the masterpieces of Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton, plus endless excerpted Keystone Kops chase scenes and Mack Sennett pie-throwing melees. This three-disc collection does an excellent job at boring deeper to reveal just how extensive the world of comedy shorts really was in the pre-sound era. Bowler hats, paste-on mustaches, canes, flying pancakes, smacks in the kissers, flivvers with bent wheels and, yes, the ubiquitous banana peel got endlessly recycled with remarkable fecundity. Harold Lloyd is the biggest name here, the best film being 1918's Hey There, in which Lloyd fools around on the sound sets at "Near Famous Film Co." and demonstrates some peerless timing. The rest of the comedians in American Slapstick, Vol. 2 exist in the shadows of the big three. Gaylord Lloyd, seen in Dodge Your Debts (1921), was a pale imitation of his brother, Harold. Syd Chaplin, Charlie's half-brother, shows off own brand of deviltry in a short from the "Gussle" series, but he has to capitalize on the Little Tramp's signature get-up to draw any attention. Indeed, so great was Chaplin's fame that a number of comedians simply did straight rips--the best of them is Billy West, whose The Hobo (1917) proves that Chaplin's persona could be effectively imitated. In one gem of a moment, an imperious wait discreetly extends his hand for a bribe, and West's tramp taps his cigar ashes in the outstretched palm. Snub Pollard, Larry Semon, Paul Parrott and Sid Smith all ring changes on sight gags and pratfalls. The real discovery is Billy Bevan, whose Be Reasonable (1921) fizzes with visual invention, from a periscope zipping through the sand to a legless beggar who turns out to have his legs stuck in two holes in the ground. Another pleasant surprise is shock-haired Alice Howell, a proto-Tracey Ullman with google-eyes and a great drunk act in Cinderella Cinders (1920). The set concludes with a couple of clunky slapstick sound shorts, which only prove that the style worked best without dialogue to slow things down. Sadly, as the notes by film historian Steve Massa relate, all too many of these comedians died young in the 1930s, as if defeated by the new medium.

(Michael S. Gant)

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