Woody Allen, who's averaged one movie a year for the past three decades (a remarkable feat), may no longer have it in him to smash one out of the park, but he's still virile enough to hit a few singles. That's the case with The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (**1/2), a trivial pursuit that offers its share of pleasures, frequently in spite of itself. Set in 1940, this finds Allen playing CW Briggs, a top-notch insurance investigator whose office routine is disrupted by Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), an efficiency expert who frequently addresses CW as "roach," "weasel" and "inchworm." During an after-hours rendezvous with co-workers at a local nightclub, CW and Betty Ann both take part in a stage routine conducted by a magician known as Voltan (David Ogden Stiers). Little does CW realize that, under Voltan's hypnotic spell, he's soon being ordered to break into the homes of his company's wealthy clients and make off with their prized possessions. Mixing Fritz Lang's The Woman In the Window with the screwball comedies of the 40s, Allen has made a slender film that barely gets by on the strength of a sharp premise, several snappy one-liners, and a zesty performance by Charlize Theron as a leggy femme fatale who (inexplicably) falls for CW. On the downside, the film is frequently draggy, Allen's patented persona continues to shrivel with age, and Hunt, an incredibly overrated comedienne, shows about as much aptitude for flinging witty repartee as Howie Long. DVD extras include the theatrical trailer.
Accentuating the positive first, there's a scene in Rat Race (*1/2) in which Jon Lovitz agrees to take his wife and kids to the Barbie Museum, only to discover that it's actually a site dedicated to Klaus Barbie, the infamous Nazi butcher. It's a wonderful gag, so how the hell did it end up in this picture? Following in the tenuous comic tradition of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, The Cannonball Run and Million Dollar Mystery, this also finds various strangers taking to the highway in a race to see who can reach the proverbial pot of gold first. In this case, the prize is two million dollars, the sponsor is a casino tycoon (John Cleese), and the journey takes the participants from Las Vegas to Silver City, NM. Director Jerry Zucker was one of the guiding lights behind Airplane! and Kentucky Fried Movie, so it's possible he was attracted to this project by a couple of the vignettes: Lovitz's road trip (in Hitler's car, no less) builds to a satisfying payoff, and the loopiness of Rowan (Mr. Bean) Atkinson provides his scenes with some sparkle. But the remaining episodes (featuring Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Seth Green, among others) are terrible, replacing comic invention with shrill mimicry and random chaos. A busload of Lucille Ball impersonators sounds funny on paper but here merely brings on a headache; ditto for the bits involving airborne cows, a helicopter assault on a swimming pool, and a charity concert spearheaded by the ubiquitous Smash Mouth. DVD extras include deleted scenes, a making-of feature, and a gag reel.
Belle De Jour / Purple Noon Back in the 1990s, Martin Scorsese "presented" the theatrical reissues of two French classics from the 60s, both of which are finally making their DVD debuts (sold separately). It's been 35 years since Luis Bunuel's startling Belle De Jour first hit the screen, and yet its central subject matter -- mankind's perennial struggle to deal with the many facets of sex -- seems as relevant as ever. Catherine Deneuve, in a perfectly pitched performance, stars as a frigid housewife whose sterile relationship with her loving husband (Jean Sorel) leads her into taking a day job as a prostitute at a nearby brothel. The first half of the picture lends credence to the belief that inside every pent-up individual is a passionate creature struggling to get out, but the second part takes off into darker territory, exploring the risks of allowing one's private fantasies to be compromised by the harsh realities of the outside world. The plot of 1960's Purple Noon, meanwhile, will be familiar to those who saw The Talented Mr. Ripley which, like Noon, was based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Alain Delon plays a decadent American who travels to Italy and forges a friendship with a spoiled playboy (Maurice Ronet); once their relationship starts to sour, Delon concocts an elaborate scheme to murder the man and assume his identity. The Belle De Jour DVD contains more extras (including audio commentary by a Bunuel scholar), but both films are erotic, intriguing, and appropriately chilly.
Beverly Hills Cop The third and best of the three comedies that transformed Saturday Night Live player Eddie Murphy into an instant movie star (following 1982's 48HRS. and 1983's Trading Places), this 1984 blockbuster is notable not only as one of the few decent films starring an SNL comic but also as the movie that best made use of Murphy's explosive talents. He's sensational as Detroit cop Axel Foley, sniffing out his best friend's killers in swanky Beverly Hills with the help of two by-the-book LA detectives (Judge Reinhold and John Ashton). Bronson Pinchot made a name for himself with his inspired interpretation in a small role (the art gallery employee), and you can also catch Paul Reiser and Damon Wayans in brief parts. The DVD includes a documentary in which we're reminded (as if we could ever forget) that the film was originally conceived as a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, who (thankfully) opted out after the rest of the cast and crew were in place; other extras include audio commentary by director Martin Brest, a featurette on the film's best-selling soundtrack, and a photo gallery. This is also available in a boxed set with its two sorry sequels, 1987's mean-spirited Beverly Hills Cop II and 1994's lackluster Beverly Hills Cop III. *