Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The mysteries of DVD releases

A good, but not great, movie like A Life in the Balance has never been released to DVD. However, a mess like The Chairman (which coincidentally airs tomorrow at 2:00 PM ET on the Fox Movie Channel) has. Hmm....

Gregory Peck plays an American scientist who's an expert in biochemistry, who in the past collaborated with a scientist in Communist China. That scientist is on the verge of discovering how to synthesize an enzyme that could solve much of the world's food supply problems -- and, in so doing, make Red China the world's new superpower. The Americans, British, and Soviets all know this, and are desperate to get the structure of the enzyme for themselves. Naturally, in a Torn Curtain-like move, they decide that sending in an American scientist is the way to do it. The only thing is, there's no guarantee that Peck will be able to get back out of Red China, But the western spy agencies have a solution to that little problem; at least, one that solves their problems, Peck's be damned: they'll implant a spy bug in his cranium, which will pick up everything Peck says and hears, and transmit that information to a satellite.

Oh boy is this a doozy of a plot. Needless to say, you haven't heard the half of it. The movie was filmed during the Cultural Revolution, at a time when intellectuals like the Chinese scientist (Keye Luke) were the target of derision at best, if not forced re-education. That certainly makes life tougher for Peck, as many of the research materials are made inaccessible to even Luke, who can only see them through a film projector. Peck also has to gain Chairman Mao's trust and, in one of the movie's more ludicrous scenes (and goodness knows there are a lot of ludicrous scenes in this movie), tries to win Mao over during a game of table tennis! Even worse for Peck is that the bug inside Peck's head also contains a bomb that the spymasters can detonate via remote control. And it looks like they will when Peck has to try to escape from the compound and make a break for the Soviet border....

The Chairman is a mess, and a movie that makes one wonder, "What on earth were they thinking?" True, that does make the movie worth watching once, as long as you know you need to be in the right mood. If you're expecting an intelligently serious spy movie, you're not getting it from this. The aforementioned Torn Curtain is much better. Still, for reasons known only to the executives at Fox, The Chairman has been released to DVD.

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