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Home Video Releases for June 2000
Compiled by Eddie Cockrell, 5 May 2000

Nitrate Online explores a sampling of the most noteworthy, provocative and satisfying video and/or DVD releases for the month of June 2000 (give or take a few weeks). Titles are followed by original country and year of release, as well as release date (if known). Street dates change constantly and often differ from format to format, so check with your favorite online or brick-and-mortar supplier for up-to-date information.


BiCentennial Man
review by Eddie Cockrell

Thereís a sense of wonder permeating Bicentennial Man, as in, "wonder why Robin Williams canít seem to shake this sappy phase heís going through," or, "wonder why somebody in the actorís immediate orbit canít prevent him from starring in such breathtakingly miscalculated projects as What Dreams May Come (1998), that bizarre remake of Jacob the Liar (1999), and now Bicentennial Man." These are pertinent and interesting questions, but the answer lies with the actor alone; in the meantime, audiences are left bewildered by such supposed family fare. Adapted from an Isaac Asimov short story, the film follows 200 years in the life of Andrew, a robot who yearns to be human after watching his host family through numerous generations. Other than being slow as molasses (those two centuries play out like, well a couple hundred years), Bicentennial Man isnít bad or anything, just cheerless, witless, and, ultimately, bloodless, with a final courtroom scene awash in righteous posturing as grating as it is preposterous. Williams has built an admirable career as a comic actor with some depth and taste, but the recent dilution of his filmography with this kind of treacle has to be alarming to the Hollywood establishment and is distressing to his legion of fans. The DVD features a making-of featurette.


Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo
review by Eddie Cockrell

A schlubby pool, pond and toilet cleaner (co-writer Rob Schneider), so broke he takes the bus around Los Angeles with his equipment, falls into the "man-whore" business and proves that kindness is a virtue in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, a not-so-Swiftian satire which demands itís audience to wade through a flood of bodily function humor on itís way to the message that itís far more important to be happy with yourself than pay for sex (or something along those lines). "You have a way of satisfying a woman that would sicken a normal man," Deuceís "man-pimp" T.J. (Eddie Griffin) tells him with undisguised glee, and itís true, as Deuce nurtures the inner beauty of a string of women with various infirmities ("hand me my leg," says one). Lowbrow comedies of this ilk, if done, ah, properly, provide satiric windows not only on popular culture, but social mores and personal fortitude as well. Thus, Deuce is able to win the day through his plucky combination of intrepid disposition and extreme tolerance. "Did I bring you pleasure," he plaintively asks one client (an unbilled Marlo Thomas, of all people). "Not really," she says, and while some audiences may feel the same way, the grossly goofy Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo has something to say and a determinedly frat-house approach to saying it. Available on video since early December 1999, the new DVD release includes, for those completists out there, both wide- and full screen presentations, a "Making Of" featurette and storyboard-to-scene comparisons.


Girl Interrupted
review by Gregory Avery

A cross between The Snake Pit and Clueless. Winona Ryder plays a girl in the late 1960s who gets tossed into a sanitarium by her parents so she won't turn into a student radical; Angelina Jolie, in a self-consciously showy performance (which won her an Oscar), plays a spiritedly rebellious fellow patient. Jolie may be able to do cute things while sucking on cherries, but she doesn't come close to Celeste Holm, who played a somewhat similar role opposite Olivia de Havilland in the 1948 Snake Pit. James Mangold directed, with supporting performances by Vanessa Redgrave, Whoopi Goldberg, and the ubiquitous Jared Leto. A Spanish subtitled tape is available, and the DVD features a commentary track from director James Mangold (Cop Land), an HBO First Look documentary on the filmís making, deleted scenes with commentary and an isolated music score.


The Green Mile
review by Gregory Avery

Director and screenwriter Frank Darabont, back again behind-bars, with an adaptation of a Stephen King novel (which was originally published in serial-like installments). Tom Hanks plays a prison guard who has second thoughts about whether an inmate (Michael Clarke Duncan) on Death Row should be executed or not. The story, though, ultimately feels like an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone which somehow ended up running three hours. The altruistic may want to step out to the lobby (or a variation thereof) when Michael Jeter's character is finally led to the chair. The DVD includes a featurette on the production, Walking the Mile.


Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
review by Eddie Cockrell

For about its first half hour or so, Mr. Death seems more like the profile of a Mr. Mouse: the son of a prison warden and a trained engineer, owlish and mild-mannered Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. sort of stumbled into a successful business designing various machines for use on the Death Rows of American prisons. He seems to be a persuasive, if somewhat eccentric craftsman in a macabre business, and joins a long list of unusual people to be profiled by uncategorizable filmmaker Errol Morris (who makes what might be described as stylized documentaries). Then, Leuchterís life takes a fateful turn after heís asked to inspect the ruined gas chambers of Auschwitz for cyanide gas residue by a neo-Nazi  named Ernst Zundel. After surreptitiously gathering and analyzing samples by pounding away at the walls and floors with a hammer and sending the mess to a lab with little guiding criteria, Leuchter concludes in the absence of such residue the Holocaust never happened. Needless to say, this pronouncement turns Leuchter, who from all appearances is an unpleasantly outspoken popinjay, into a pariah in some quarters and a hero in others. It isnít often a documentary has a production designer, but then again, there arenít many filmmakers like Morris, who told Nitrate Onlineís own Cynthia Fuchs "you couldnít possibly make Fred up. It is just too bizarre." So too is the film, which employs the kind of impressionistic real-life storytelling  Morris has pioneered in such films as The Thin Blue Line (1988) and A Brief History of Time (1992), here massaged by the extraordinary score of Caleb Sampson, to allow Leuchter to present himself warts and all. Morris makes some documentary purists uncomfortable, but thereís no denying the seductive immediacy and immense power of his approach. According to Morris, Leuchter likes the film, a fact which, in light of the mammoth contradictions inherent in his life, makes perfect sense.


Sweet and Lowdown
review by
Eddie Cockrell

Woody Allenís torrid pace of about one movie a year represents a level of productivity unrivaled by any contemporary American filmmaker. Given the sheer number of movies he makes, and the intricate detail involved in even the most routine production (one, say, with no period trappings and few special effects), the craftsmanship and precision evident in every frame of Sweet and Lowdown makes the production all the more noteworthy in the Allen canon. Taking a page from his Zelig playbook, Allen has fashioned the tumultuous early years of one Emmett Ray, an obscure guitarist in 1930s America whose talent for the instrument is matched only by his self-destructive ego. Sean Penn, who seems to keep announcing his imminent retirement from the acting profession, is the most prominent among the alphabetically listed cast (an Allen hallmark) and gives a terrific performance as the self-centered musician. Heís matched step for step by relative newcomer Samantha Morton (Oscar nominated) as Hattie, an adoring, subserviant mute who maintains a shining dignity in the face of his torrents of abuse. Framed by a distinctly period hat, sheís endearingly expressive in the way that such silent film stars as Mary Pickford were, calibrating an endless series of facial expressions to speak in shades that language just canít express. It is this very nuance and depth that permeates the film as a whole, a level of dramatic sophistication which Allen has rarely achieved (think Crimes and Misdemeanors or the early and underrated Interiors). History will reveal Woody Allen as certainly among the most prolific directors of the latter half of cinemaís first century, but the record will also place him among the most dramatically successful artists in the medium -- no faint praise for the guy who had to overcome a reputation for all those comedies. In keeping with Allenís spare approach to credits, the DVD edition is a stripped-down affair, offering only subtitles and a trailer.


The Talented Mr. Ripley
review by Gregory Avery

A perfectly respectable filming, by Anthony Minghella, of the Patricia Highsmith novel (which was previously filmed, gloriously, by Renť Clťment as Purple Noon in 1959), with Matt Damon as an ambitious young man who seeks to rise in the world by insinuating and copying other people's mannerisms. The picture works fine during the first hour, but drags badly in the second, and the film runs almost two-and-a-half hours as a whole. Still, gorgeously photographed (by John Seale), great 1950s jazz music score (by Gabriel Yared, who uses two of Chet Baker's signature songs to bookend the action), and while the supporting ranks include Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor everyone seemed to talk about afterwards was Jack Davenport, who plays the gentle concert pianist (a character invented by Minghella) whom Ripley next attaches himself to. The features-laden DVD includes documentaries on the making of the movie and the creation of the soundtrack, as well as a commentary track by Minghella and a couple of music videos.


Topsy Turvy
review by
Gregory Avery

How the collaboration of W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) almost fell apart for good, until it was revived by an idea for a nice little show set in the Orient, The Mikado. A movie nobody thought director Mike Leigh, a maker of thoroughly here-and-now films, was going to come close to pulling-off -- and everyone turned out to be wrong. The picture succeeds beautifully, and was the least poky of the majestic-sized 1999 year-end releases. The performances are uniformly excellent, but special attention deserves to be paid to Richard Simon, who makes a brief appearance as Gilbert's ancient father (who is, alternately, howlingly funny, and hair-raising poignant); Timothy Spall, as D'Oyly Carte company member  Richard Temple, who plays the Mikado himself and almost loses his one big solo number; and Lesley Manville, who, as Gilbert's wife, delivers one of the most haunting and affecting soliloquies in recent film. Thereís a Spanish subtitled VHS tape available, and the DVD features production stills, a "making of" featurette and information on Gilbert & Sullivan.



Beyond the A-List

The Eel (1997)
review by Eddie Cockrell

Co-winner of the Palme d'Or, or grand prize Golden Palm (with Abbas Kiarostami's Iranian drama Taste of Cherry)at the fiftieth Cannes Film Festival in 1997, the great Shohei Imamura's The Eel is a precisely visualized smorgasbord of emotions adapted from Akira Yoshimura's novel Glimmering in the Dark that finds the revered director, at seventy-one, in complete control of his craft. Released from prison after serving eight years for killing his wife in the gruesome but oddly poignant passage that opens the film, taciturn ex-con Takuro (Koji Yakusho) retreats with his eponymous pet to a seaside village and the rural life of a barber. Joined by the frail young woman he rescues from a botched suicide attempt (Misa Shimizu) and a gaggle of local eccentrics, Takuro slowly builds for himself a life full of little disappointments and modest victories, small heartbreaks and big laughs. "Do you know that eels travel far?" someone says by way of sublime moral, "They travel as far as the equator, then come back to live in the mud here." Modest yet moving, The Eel is just like that folksy wisdom: low-key yet illuminating. New Yorkerís spotless video transfer preserves the movieís delicate aura.

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The Last Stop (2000)
review by Eddie Cockrell

A tight, atmospheric thriller that stumbles only in the last few minutes, The Last Stop is a British Columbia-shot B-picture thatíll do nicely if your first -- okay, and your second -- choices arenít on the shelves. Adam Beach (from Mystery, Alaska and Smoke Signals) stars as Colorado state trooper Jason, who finds himself stuck at The Last Stop Cafť and Motel with a group of locals and strangers as a snowstorm whips through the region. Aided by owner Fritz (Jurgen Prochnow), Jason must grapple with a couple of mysteries, including a pair of dead bodies and a bagful of money. The suspects include the vexingly mannered Rose McGowan as Jasonís former flame and Canadian character actor Callum Keith Rennie (Last Night, David Cronenbergís eXistenZ) as a priapic truck driver. For much of its ninety-four-minute length the movie is divertingly taut, with director Mark Malone (Bulletproof Heart) using the blowing snow and a maze of opaque plastic strips (the motel is in the midst of a renovation) to ratchet up the tension and confusion. Unfortunately, Bart Sumnerís script decrees that the bad guy is revealed to be a gleefully cackling psycho, and the picture backs off from a truly larcenous twist ending by climaxing with a cheap, off-camera comeuppance for one of the felons. Still, itís these kinds of movies that nurture new talent and keep vets working, and The Last Stop feels like this kind of stepping stone for Malone and Beach, at least. The DVD edition features optional Spanish subtitles, cast and crew interviews, and an audio commentary track by the director.

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Leila (1996)
review by Eddie Cockrell

A chilling, incisive view of generational clashes in contemporary Islamic culture, Dariush Mehrjuiís Leila is also a kind of horror story, as a calculating mother-in-law breaks the spirit of her sonís infertile wife, the Leila of the title. To underscore the selflessness of this unfortunate but strong creature, the story has her assist in finding a second wife for her husband (polygamy remains legal in Iran) even though she knows sheíll succumb to grief once the marriage goes forward. Mehrjui is a bit older than Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, two other Iranian filmmakers whose works have excited American audiences (Taste of Cherry and The White Balloon, respectively), and as such his film has a sharper yet more controlled fury at the absurd gulf between cutting-edge technology and humiliating customs in contemporary Tehran. Ironically, while many of the popular Iranian films take children as their subjects, the absence of them and the yearning that springs from that gives Leila a devastating force unique to Iranian cinema. Both a VHS tape and DVD edition of the film are available.

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The 1900 House (2000)
review by Eddie Cockrell

Sort of the British "Survivor," this series (broadcast recently in America on PBS) plops a contemporary British family, the Bowlers, into a retrofitted Victorian London townhouse with instructions to live as an average family might have in 1900 for three months. The series has been called a cross between MTVís The Real World and everything from Upstairs, Downstairs to This Old House, and while those titles provide a suitable frame of reference the showís current appeal lies in just how different it is from "Survivor" in approach while covering much of the same territory: the pace is much quieter, and there are no tacky production values ŗ la the "Tribal Council" set or endurance tests to weed out the weak and different. No rat feasts here, only an admirably practical family fraying ever-so-decently around the edges at such taken-for-granted conveniences as housework and laundry. Of particular interest to history and do-it-yourself buffs is the first episode, which goes into exhaustive detail about the search for a suitable house, the construction challenges of taking out the modern amenities and particularly the problems getting an accurate kitchen installed. This VHS box set collects all four hours of the series on two tapes, and is an even-tempered and appealing antidote to the self-centered titillations of the CBS phenomena.

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Our Merry Way (1948)
review by Eddie Cockrell

A genuine curio from the post-World War II studio years, On Our Merry Way (a.k.a. A Miracle Can Happen) continues the laudable commitment of Kino Video to spotlighting the lesser-known vehicles, programmers and rarities of some of Hollywoodís biggest stars. In this case itís Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, who have what amount to clever cameos in the first of four delightful short stories woven together by the quest of ambitious young reporter Burgess Meredith (who co-produced the film) to get a human-interest story from the man on the street. More than a decade before they teamed for My Three Sons, Fred MacMurray and the great William Demarest play con men out-conned by a ten-year-old hellion. But the centerpiece of the film is a howlingly funny spoof of Dorothy Lamour production numbers starring, well, Dorothy Lamour as a famous actress who tells Meredith the story of her success. The film was directed by King Vidor (who next tackled Ayn Randís The Fountainhead) and Leslie Fenton, with assistance from John Huston and then George Stevens on the Fonda/Stewart segment (which was written by novelist John OíHara). Also released from Kino in June is the 1946 Douglas Sirk period adventure A Scandal in Paris (a.k.a. Thievesí Holiday), which features a terrific performance by George Sanders as a smooth French rogue -- based on a real-life thief -- who maneuvers his way into a high-level police job. 

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