Home Video Releases for January 1999
Flush with independent and foreign titles, the January video releases recommended by Nitrate Online are followed by original year of production and street date (where applicable).
The Big Chill (1983) (January 26)
There's no new footage added to the 15th anniversary re-release of this seminal comedy drama about seven college friends reuniting at a funeral from writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, meaning that on the tape, anyway, there's still no sign of Kevin Costner, who played the dead college buddy in flashbacks that were cut before the film's release (the DVD offers a new 56-minute "Making Of" documentary as well as nine minutes of outtakes and the letterboxed trailer for Silverado, the movie Kasdan subsequently wrote for Costner). Still, the film continues to carry an undeniable emotional punch, as much now for the youthful look of the soon-to-be all-star cast (including Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Jeff Goldblum and Jobeth Williams) and remastered Motown oldies soundtrack as for the message: "I had written the film not just from my view of the issues," remembers Kasdan, "but also in reaction to Body Heat, where I'd been cloistered with two actors in a terribly claustrophobic movie. I'd determined that my next film would have a lot of actors and that I wouldn't be stuck in an airless world." Thankfully, The Big Chill still breathes. The video edition includes a CD soundtrack sampler.
Disturbing Behavior (1998)
Marginally more interesting than the teen slasher movies now in vogue, Disturbing Behavior updates both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives by positing a world where exasperated parents have taken drastic measures to keep their rowdy high school-aged children in line (think mad scientists). When hunk-with-a-past James Marsden moves into the idyllic Cradle Bay, he immediately notices that the usual clashing of cliques seems to be a deadly serious sport, made all the more harrowing by the nearly bionic Blue Ribbons. Taking on this squeaky clean juggernaut with the help of bad girl Rachel (Katie Holmes), they soon find the town's horrible secret. Made more atmospheric by the production values of director David Nutter and what looks to be a large chunk of the "X-Files" crew (back when they were filming in the Vancouver area), the movie is at its best when Nick Stahl's stoner Gavin (Stahl can currently be seen in The Thin Red Line) and his buddy U.V. (Chad E. Donella) are describing and analyzing the intricate caste system found in high schools everywhere. Also featuring Bruce Greenwood, from Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, as the mustachioed bad guy and the all-purpose William Sandler (the heavy in Die Hard II, Death in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, the unfortunate astronaut in Rocket Man) as the sinister but sincere custodian. Also available on DVD, where the film is accompanied by 11 deleted scenes, Nutter's commentary and the music video for The Flys' "Got You Where I Want You" featuring both Marsden and Holmes.
The legend of the hot New York City disco of the late 1970s and early 1980s certainly lends itself to a flashy movie treatment, but other than a few moments of wit and a terrific performance by Mike Myers as impressario Steve Rubell -- constantly high and flirting with every boy in sight -- 54 isn't that movie. Ryan Philippe is Shane, a bargain-basement Tony Manero selected by Rubell from the surging crowd outside the fabled velvet rope to be a lowly, barechested busboy at the fabled club. Parlaying his body and his luck into a plum bartending job, Shane befriends a married couple whose union is being torn apart by the pressures of emulating the jet-set life while toiling at the club. Other than Myers' courageous performance (like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey before him, he'll be thrilling when he finally gets a drama worthy of his talents), the film has few moments of genuine interest, the best of which is probably Salma Hayek's wistful Anita trying to teach disco moves to a hopelessly lead-footed bunch. Beset by script problems and all-out warfare during the editing process, this obviously sincere effort from writer-director Mark Christopher (who was there and apparently remembers much of what went on) has none of the rhythm of the music it glorifies, and precious little of the panache. For a more verisimilous look at this bizarre chapter in American pop culture, try Saturday Night Fever (New York edition) and Boogie Nights (west coast chapter).
Forty-year-old workaholic San Francisco stockbroker Stella Payne (Angela Bassett, luminous and in great shape), "stuck on stale" in her love life, follows up on her young son's admonishment to "have some fun while I'm gone" by finding fulfillment in the arms of 20-year-old Winston Shakespeare (Taye Diggs) during an impulsive vacation in Montego Bay, Jamaica. But once the interlude is over, she's got to deal not only with her skeptical friends but his disapproving parents in Jamaica, her best friend's failing health in New York and her own conflicted feelings -- and sudden unemployment -- as well. How Stella Got Her Groove Back is a glossy, tastefully done melodrama that expands on Terry McMillan's autobiographical novel (she co-scripted with Rain Man writer Ron Bass) with the addition of Whoopi Goldberg as Stella's pal Delilah Abraham, a sort of Greek chorus whose often profane and up-to-the-minute wisecracks (including "Miss Thing," "fly," and "don't go there," which gets said a lot) are as funny as they are ephemeral ("if he's almost of age then it's almost not a felony," she says reasonably). Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan keeps things smooth, although at two hours plus the film's leisurely pace and episodic nature becomes wearying. The star-studded soundtrack, produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, features tunes by Big Punisher featuring Beenie Man, Mary J. Blige, Boyz II Men featuring Chante Moore, Kevin Ford featuring Rufus Blaq and more. Also available on DVD.
One of the best movies of 1998 that nobody saw, Richard Kwietniowski's crowd-pleasing Love and Death on Long Island features the part of a lifetime for John Hurt (Contact, The Elephant Man). The great character actor is charmingly eccentric as Giles De'Ath, a reclusive and fussy intellectual British Luddite who falls head over heels for Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley), the shallow young American movie star currently appearing in Hot Pants College II (De'Ath mixed up the theaters on his way to the latest Forster adaptation, an easy mistake to make in a multiplex -- especially if you've never set foot in one) . Making a sheepish pilgrimmage to the Long Island house of his hero after collecting clippings from teen magazines in a dossier he labels "Bostockiana," De'Ath ingratiates himself into the actor's life but discovers that the path of his heart is not without its perils. Adapted for his first feature by Kwietniowski from the novel by Gilbert Adair, Love and Death on Long Island also features a heroically selfless performance by Priestley as the poster boy of celebrity dimwits; any actor capable of playing that role straight demands to be taken seriously. And as for Hurt, if his name is called out among final five Best Actor Oscar nominees come February 9, well, you read it first on Nitrate Online over a year ago -- following the film's premiere at the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival.
When only tasteless, stupid and 90 minutes tops will do, Mafia! is a can't-miss rental choice, a proudly and profoundly goofy riff on gangster movies from Airplane! co-director Jim Abrahams that manages to send up Casino, The Wizard of Oz and Twister before the opening credits are even over but also finds time to spoof The Godfather trilogy, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, Il Postino, The English Patient, Cocktail, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, Forrest Gump, and Hollywood's then-current obsession with literary adaptations (the original title, which steal appears on screen, was Jane Austen's Mafia!). Lloyd Bridges (to whom the film is dedicated) is featured as Vincenzo Armani Windbreaker Cortino, scion of the great American crime family taken into modern times by Jay Mohr (in the Al Pacino role) at the famous Las Vegas landmark Peppermill Casino (where one game is called "You Absolutely Can't Win"). Although fun, there is one caveat: even for the genre this wild, the movie has a few scenes -- the cattle prod in the casino bit and the mass funeral regurgitation sequence chief among them -- that are almost uncomfortably gross. At this writing the DVD is scheduled to be released February 9.
Mister Toad's Wild Ride (aka The Wind in the Willows) (1996)
Barely released theatrically under its original title (the sad result of a lawsuit that shifted theatrical rights from Disney to Columbia, which decided not to spend promotional funds to hype this eventual Disney video release), this merry new live-action version of Kenneth Grahame's beloved kiddie classic "The Wind in the Willows" is nothing less than an unheralded Monty Python reunion of sorts: directed by and starring Terry Jones as the intrepid but quite daft Toad, the movie features Eric Idle as Rat, Michael Palin as the Sun and John Cleese as Toad's lawyer (Graham Chapman is dead and Terry Gilliam was probably too busy with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Also starring British comedian Steve Coogan (who does various voices on the animated cable show "Bob and Margaret" and is fictitious sportscaster Alan Partridge on the legendary British series "the Day Today") as a fine Mole, Nicol Williamson as Badger (the actor seems to be turning into Darren McGavin) and Antony Sher as the leader of the larcenous Moles, the film takes that sort of Victorian fantasy era look favored by the Pythons and fits it snugly around a by-and-large faithful reading of the story and atmosphere of the book (itself a cautionary tale of the Industrial Age), which is in turn supplemented by some pleasant music-hall influenced production numbers. One of the genuine video finds of the month, and highly recommended for sophisticated children and adults alike.
Out of Sight (1998)
Although written about extensively on Nitrate Online, those who missed this earthy yet elegant caper adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel can now catch up with it on tape and DVD (the latter of which features lots of extras and goodies, including deleted scenes and the obligatory director's commentary -- and the gorgeous photography of Elliot Davis is alone worth the price of switching to the new format). George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez have the year's hottest and most improbable relationship as the career recidivist who can't quite make that big score and the federal agent who is attracted to him -- despite their professions. Both on its own and as a companion piece to Quentin Tarantino's sadly under-appreciated Jackie Brown (they even share a few marginal characters) this is a movie that rewards repeated viewing, not the least of which for Scott Frank's extraordinary screenplay structure (he also adapted Get Shorty) and the precise, canny direction of Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies & videotape). although probably too steeped in genre to factor in at Oscar time, Out of Sight is one of 1998's best movies and a template for how Leonard's books should be treated by filmmakers.
Return to Paradise (1998)
Suffering from a fundamental dramatic contradiction -- thriller or moral tract? -- this cautionary tale of two buddies who reunite at the incessant goading of a lawyer to try and spring a barely-known pal from a Malaysian jail seemed ripped from the headlines when it opened theatrically in August (remember those American students detained in Myanmar?). Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche, seen later in the year in Gus Van Sant's provocative remake of Psycho, give taut performances and the direction of Joseph Ruben (True Believer) is smart and brooding. As the focus of their efforts, Joaquin Phoenix, who's in Clay Pigeons with Vaughn, brings a harrowing anguish to his role. Yet the whole is less than the sum of the parts, probably due to the tension between the unvarnished story original writer Bruce Robinson (The Killing Fields) wanted to tell and the more melodramatic elements injected by Wesley Strick, who wrote that remake of Cape Fear for Martin Scorsese. In fact, Return to Paradise is itself a drastically altered remake of the 1989 French film Force Majeure, which is even more remorseless than this version's decidedly un-Hollywood ending. Made with undeniable commitment but done in by a fatal compromise, Return to Paradise can't find the strength within itself to sacrifice sensationalism for straight-ahead storytelling. At this writing the DVD is scheduled for an April 27 release.
The Truman Show (1998)
Among the most subversive mainstream Hollywood films in recent memory, Peter Weir's The Truman Show was an early year critical favorite that was that rare thing: a box office success too. In the seriocomic role he'd been searching for, Jim Carrey is Truman Burbank, an average guy on the island of Seahaven whose life, unknown to him, is the subject of an immensely popular globally broadcast television show. Everything around him is fake and everyone in his life and in Seahaven is an actor, hired and coordinated by the show's creator, Cristof (Ed Harris, looking improbably smart in a beret and those little accountant glasses that are all the rage). Movies that satirize the media are a dime a dozen in this self-referential age, but what lifts The Truman Show to the rarified heights of such groundbreaking meditations on cinema and self as Citizen Kane and O Lucky Man! is the fortunate confluence of clever script, Weir's assured direction (anyone less seasoned couldn't've sustained the concept through an entire feature), the imaginative photography of Burkhard Dallwitz and the cheery, selfless and grateful performance of Carrey, who seems to be so happy to have a movie of substance -- with no fart jokes! -- that he fairly busts out of nearly every scene. Although the reformatted rental video ruins the essential joke of the movie (5,000 hidden cameras record his every move), the shimmering and properly framed DVD makes up for it
Beyond the A-List: Some Other Titles of Interest
Buffalo 66 (1998)
As vibrant, original, cryptic, self-conscious and raw a film as any released in 1998, the directorial debut of co-writer and composer Vincent Gallo stars the actor as Billy Brown, a recently paroled felon who kidnaps Christina Ricci's waifish Layla from a tap-dancing class to bring home to the bizarre parents (Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston) who have no idea that their son's been behind bars. When their reunion proves less than cathartic, the two embark on a shambling tour of Buffalo (the title refers to Billy's year of birth) that brings them to a series of bowling alleys, bars and strip joints as the wound up but clueless Billy works up the nerve to shoot Scott Wood, the Bills place-kicker whose missed field goal cost the team a Super Bowl victory. Featuring pungent cameos from Mickey Rourke, Rosanna Arquette and Jan-Michael Vincent (raspy-voiced and light year's from The World's Greatest Athlete) Gallo's minimalist, formal directorial approach is scored to Gazzara's lip-synching of Vincent Gallo Sr.'s version of "Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)," King Crimson's "Moonchild," "I Remember When" by Stan Getz and two tunes by Yes, "Sweetness" and the immortal "Heart of the Sunrise" (don't miss the eye-catching trailer, which is scored to the latter and featured on both the tape and DVD). Among others, the movie is dedicated to "the beautiful city of Buffalo and all the wonderful Buffalonians" Give it time and Buffalo 66 might pull you in. Then again, it might not.
Henry Fool (1998)
And speaking of quirky: although not for every taste, Hal Hartley's eccentrically plotted movies also yield tangible rewards for the patient moviegoer. In his latest droll opus, newcomer Thomas Jay Ryan stars as the eponymous drifter, a character Hartley says was drawn from "Faust and Kasper Hauser." Henry has an explosive effect on the lives of shy garbageman Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) and his disfunctional family, which includes his morose mom (Maria Porter) and earthy sister (Parker Posey). Henry's been working on an epic handwritten poem called "Confession," and at his urging Simon begins to write too -- in the process upstaging the mysterious stranger. Fuelled by beer and smokes, Hartley's band feel their way towards some sort of peace. "I wanted to tell a story about influence," he explained. "both artistic and personal. I considered this possibility: what happens if your most profound influence is somebody whom you're kind of ashamed of or you'd be embarrassed to admit?" Video is peculiarly suited for his leisurely stories (which include The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Simple Men, Amateur and Flirt), making Hartley's theatrically cold stories oddly warm in the comfort of the home viewing environment.
The Family Album (1986)/Intimate Stranger (1991)/Nobody's Business (1996)
In the mid-1980s, documentary filmmaker Alan Berliner made an hour long film, The Family Album, that uses found footage and audio collage to examine the struggles and joys of relatives and relationships. In 1991, Berliner followed that with Intimate Stranger, which explored the odyssey of his grandfather, a Palestinian Jew who was as successful in his post-World War II business dealings in Japan as he was wretchedly inept at raising his family in America. In 1996, Berliner completed the saga with Nobody's Business, in which the filmmaker drags his bitter and reluctant father Oscar kicking and screaming in front of the camera to examine how a life of such promise, honor and drive could be described by the man who lived it as "nothing." Seen together, the cumulative effect of these remarkable movies is both exhilarating and devastating, as the doggedly determined Berliner chips away at his father's facade to find the idealistic, now elusive young man within -- and in the process reminds the viewer how deceptive and fragile recorded history can be. This extraordinary trilogy is available individually or at a discount for the set from Milestone, the same folks who distribute "Beat" Takeshi's Fireworks (Hana-Bi), and is highly recommended.
Kurt & Courtney (1997)
Moviegoers unfamiliar with or just plain uninterested in the saga of late musician Kurt Cobain, his band Nirvana, outspoken wife Courtney Love and the now-quaint grunge movement that sprang from Seattle in the early years of this decade (the kids wore flannel, the hot bands all sounded like faster versions of Deep Purple? No?) will probably react to the controversial documentary Kurt & Courtney by avoiding the Pacific Northwest, which comes off as wet, wild and profoundly weird. It isn't, of course, and that's sort of the point: in the scattershot oeuvre of filmmaker Nick Broomfield, who in the past has inserted himself into documentaries supposedly about Margaret Thatcher, Heidi Fleiss, Lily Tomlin and serial killer Aileen Wuornos -- see a pattern here? -- accuracy takes a back seat to mood, as the perpetually befuddled filmmaker runs around in his trademark headphones, waving a boom microphone and trying to puzzle his way through another project that he seems to be making up as he goes along ("reeaallly..." is one of his favorite responses to an interviewee's statement).
Anybody with an emotional involvement in this vivid chapter of rock and roll history will be initially fascinated by Broomfield's controversial premise. Did Love kill Cobain, or pay someone else to do so? What -- if anything -- Love had to do with it is never properly explained, much less verified. Kurt & Courtney is hard to watch, an almost painful story that ends -- perhaps as it must -- with Broomfield's favorite home movie image of the dead rock star, frozen on an out-of-focus long shot that gives him an unintentionally ghoulish death's head mask. Oh, and due to a tiff with the widow there's no Nirvana music in the entire film.
Office Killer (1997)
One of the most spectacular misfires in the annals of recent American independent film -- the so-called horror film Office Killer is the directorial debut of celebrated photographer Cindy Sherman. When Constant Consumer magazine suffers a downsizing at the hands of a ruthless editor-in-chief (Barbara Sukowa), meek copy editor Doreen (Carol Kane) goes quietly over the edge and begins stalking her officemates (including Molly Ringwald and Jeanne Tripplehorn). Not nearly as ribald as it thinks it is, the movie squanders an intriguing cast on annoyingly strident characters and manages its supposedly celebrated gore effects with a self-consciousness that negates their power. Famous for her bizarre self-portraits and work that might be called Gothic Irony, Sherman must've spent all her time in the darkroom, because she clearly has no idea what makes a horror film tick.
Winner of the Best Director award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Darren Aronofsky has made a debut feature that is an absorbing, cerebral black and white thriller about obsessive, headache-plagued mathematician Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) and his quest to confirm and apply the mythical 216-digit number (3.14 is the generally accepted abbreviated value of the title) to both stock market figures and the Hebrew-language Torah using his homemade supercomputer Euclid. While plausibly written and played, perhaps the real star of the film is cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who shot it on notoriously hard-to-handle reversal film and, along with Aronofsky, developed a number of technical innovations (dubbed the "Heat-Cam" and the "Vibrator-Cam") that allow the look of the film to precisely mirror the protagonist's deteriorating mental state. As a bonus, the rental version screened was in the increasingly popular letterboxed format, which allows the image to be reproduced in the same ratio as the theatrical presentation (that's what those black bars above and below the image are for). The goodie-packed DVD includes music videos, production notes, the theatrical trailer, behind the scenes footage, deleted scenes and Aronofsky's commentary.
Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)
On the eve of her entrance to Beverly Hills High School in 1976, Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne) has more than her share of challenges: in addition to developing rapidly for her age, she's the middle child in a motherless, nomadic and barely functional family lead by struggling salesman Murray (Alan Arkin). Alighting at the rundown Casa Bella apartment complex south of Santa Monica Boulevard in the flats of Beverly Hills, Vivian navigates her siblings, wild cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) and stoner neighbor Elliot (Kevin Corrigan) with a kind of shellshocked, world-weary, pigeon-toed aplomb. Perpetually shrill, often crude and cursed with a heavy-handed soundtrack that tries for ironic whimsy but succeeds only in telegraphing nearly every punchline well in advance of its arrival, this vaguely autobiographical first feature from Tamara Jenkins nevertheless generates a quirky rhythm that in script form earned it a Guggenheim grant in 1995 and subsequent development at the Sundance Institute's screenwriting lab (which explains Robert Redford's executive producer credit). Chief strength: the slyly funny and authentic production design of Dena Roth.
Smoke Signals (1998)
"It's a good day to be indigenous," says the disc jockey at Idaho's remote Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation -- "Population: Variable" and dubbed "the rez" by locals -- and Smoke Signals, the first feature-length dramatic film to be written, directed and co-produced by Native Americans, is a fine calling card for indigenous American filmmaking. Winner of the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy for Best Dramatic Film at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, the movie charts the bittersweet, comic odyssey of stoic Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and nerdy raconteur Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), who travel from the Salmon Indian Reservation to Phoenix to retrieve the remains of Victor's estranged father Arnold (Gary Farmer), seen in flashbacks as a good but deeply conflicted provider whose drunken mistake during a Bicentennial celebration begins the drama. As their journey progresses, Thomas' stories serve to soften Victor's gruff exterior and provide ironic commentary on the state of the American Indian in 1998. Smoke Signals is an assured debut for director Chris Eyre and screenwriter Sherman Alexie, who adapted his 1993 collection of short stories "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven."
Vanishing Point (1971)
This cult film, newly restored in a letterboxed version, can probably best be described as an existential chase movie: during a 15-hour drive from Denver to San Francisco in a souped-up Dodge Challenger, pill-popping ex-Marine Kowalski (Barry Newman -- hands up if you remember TV's "Petrocelli") encounters a cross-section of American types of the era who pitch in to help him make the trek. The police are after him for a host of high-speed misdemeanors, racists want him for listening to the navigational advice of blind disc jockey Super Soul (Cleavon Little, soon to star in Mel Brooks' landmark comedy Blazing Saddles) and Delaney and Bonnie & Friends are, well, just, you know, around, man (yes, that's Rita Coolidge with them -- hands up if you thought she and Kris Kristofferson were a cool couple). Dig that period lingo: "only if you make war on war will you overcome it," someone says sagely. And any movie that features both Dean Jagger and Charlotte Rampling in cameos as a grizzled prospector and comely hitchhiker -- guess which is which -- demands a certain amount of respect. Film restoration is a wondrous thing.
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