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'Sahara' is dumb summer fun

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

A very mixed collection of movies is in this week's DVD column.


A Matthew McConaughey movie arriving in the office is reason for celebration. I mean I think the guy is a solid actor, but I didn't fully realize the hunk status he enjoys until I saw the reactions of my staff.

Well, I'm sure that the many gaping plot holes and lapses of logic will go unnoticed by them as they will be too busy admiring the star.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I would watch Sandra Bullock read the telephone book for two hours and consider it a fulfilling experience.)

Sahara is a very expensive Republic movie serial, updated from the 1940s with a budget that would have shocked that venerable studio. Based on a Clive Cussler book, the film stars McConaughey as Cussler's hero, Dirk Pitt (love that name). It involves Pitt's obsession with a missing Confederate ironclad vessel as well as his involvement with a ruthless African dictator and a beautiful World Health Organization doctor, played by Penelope Cruz.

Pitt's best friend is played by Steve Zahn, while William H. Macy portrays his boss.

This is dumb fun with plenty of fight scenes and explosions. If you don't expect much, you might have a good and very forgettable time.

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Memories of Murder

This Korean cop film is a fictionalized telling of real events: the first recorded serial killer in that nation.

Set in 1986, the local police are baffled by a series of murders of young women in their rural town. With very little forensic procedures available to them, their approach is to make a list of every man who had any contact with the victims and pick the mostly likely subject whom they torture into making a confession.

All of that changes when a detective from Seoul comes to help. He wants to solve this crime through science and analysis rather than brute force and guesswork. The clash of the two approaches and the tension that results from more murders creates a very good cop film that anyone who enjoys procedural crime stories would like.

Director Bong Joon-Ho treats the most exploitive elements of the story the violence itself, the examination of the corpses, the discussion of the crimes themselves with restraint and taste. Instead he focuses on the frustration of the officers and the lack of training and tools they need to catch this killer.

Well shot and scored, Memories of Murder is a solid must-see film from a nation that is emerging as a new center for film production.

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One of the most outrageous and inventive comedies of the 1990s is now on DVD. Alex Winter (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) made his feature film directing debut with colleague Tom Stern on Freaked, a film that may not have fared well in theaters but found its audience on home video.

A fast-moving, gross-out comedy with a sharply satiric core, Freaked tells the story of Ricky Coogan (Winter), a former child actor who is hired by the evil EES Corporation (Everything Except Shoes) to go to a small South American country to act as a spokesman for a controversial fertilizer they sell.

Coogan and his friends wind up in the hands of a mad showman named Elijah Scuggs (Randy Quaid) who uses the fertilizer to mutate normal people into freaks. He turns Mr. T into a bearded lady, Bobcat Goldthwaite into a sock-head puppet and an unbilled Keanu Reeves into a dog boy.

He even changes a wrench into a hammer!

Freaked is one of those comedies that you will watch several times to catch all of the jokes.

The extras show the process that Winter and Stern used to make the film. There is a full-length cast rehearsal of the film, which has scenes and dialogue that were ultimately edited out of the film. There are deleted scenes and the script as well. Perhaps the most interesting features are the two student films the pair made at New York University.

If you enjoy offbeat sharp-edged humor then you must check out Freaked.

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Casanova's Big Night

Bob Hope developed a comic persona for film pretty early on. He was mostly the wise cracking coward who succeeded despite of himself. Woody Allen has said that Hope was his favorite comic, and it's clear once you watch a few vintage Hope films where Allen got much of his own comic voice.

Hope also used the comic device of speaking directly to the audience in his films. Subsequently it's difficult to view Hope as an actor, but rather a stand-up comic who was walking through a role.

Casanova's Big Night is no exception of the Hope formula. Hope is the guy with a quick wit and no backbone. Set in 18th century Italy, Hope plays Pipo Poplino, a tailor's apprentice who is in love with the widow across the street (Joan Fontaine).

She only has eyes for the great lover and swordsmen, Casanova (an unbilled Vincent Price) who owes money to every one in town.

Casanova skips out of town, trading Hope his clothes for Hopes horse, and Hope is mistaken for Casanova, but a couple of noblemen wishing to hire Casanova for a job of seduction. The town's merchants put Hope up to the deception to get their money back.

Hope stayed in character and seemed to take the assignment more seriously than his famous Road pictures with Bing Crosby, until the final scene.

Is it funny? There are some good moments, although younger audiences might just wonder what made Hope so popular.

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