Home Video Releases for February 1999
A diverse a line-up of releases for all tastes, these new, reissued and restored videos and DVDs recommended by Nitrate Online are followed by original country and year of production, as well as the announced street date as of the posting.
Antz (USA, 1998)
The initial salvo in the battle of the animated bug wars, DreamWorks SKG's Antz is undeniably astonishing to look at, but isn't nearly as rousing as Disney's subsequent A Bug's Life on the script level, offering an unsatisfying cross between technical gloss and thin story that says more about the high-stakes world of contemporary animated film than it does about pleasing the child within each patron. Even in voice only Woody Allen is annoying as dyspeptic worker ant Z-4195, who rebels against his lowly existence by sweeping Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) off her feet and thwarting the efforts of evil General Mandible (Gene Hackman) to do in the entire colony. Jarringly, while some characters in Antz look more like their human counterparts than others (the celebrity voice cast includes Sylvester Stallone, Jennifer Lopez, Christopher Walken, Anne Bancroft and Paul Mazursky), none of the characters are even of the cute-gross variety kids like; rather, they're downright grotesque, sort of like those sad, large-eyed kids and animals in cheap paintings. And come on, ants with perfect teeth? Too pseudo-hip for kids, far too simplistic for adults and much too dramatically overblown for the simple messages of its story, the movie tries to make a mountain out of an anthill. One doesn't want to dismiss the exciting technical achievement on display in Antz out of hand, but it's a pity there couldn't have been more steak with the sizzle. Buyer beware: if you're looking to own Antz (and there's also a dubbed Spanish language version available), be prepared to spend a few dollars more, as the list price is $26.98.
John Carpenter's Vampires (USA, 1997)
"We kill vampires," says Montoya (Billy Baldwin) to questioning hooker Katrina (Sheryl Lee), and that pretty much sums up this new movie from genre mainstay John Carpenter (Halloween, the remake of The Thing). In the sun-baked New Mexico desert, lifelong vampire hunter Jack Crow (James Woods) and his dwindling band of bad asses pursue Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), a sort of supersucker ("master," in the well-thought-out vernacular adapted from John Steakley's novel) who is on the verge of figuring out how to do his business in the daytime. True to form, Vampires -- we'll shorten Carpenter's traditional, unwieldy possessory title -- highlights the best and worst of the director's uneven career: absorbing, gore-filled action set pieces (not for the squeamish) on annoyingly cheesy sets are sprinkled throughout a wildly implausible and often howlingly stupid story in which the three human leads often seem completely lost. Although Vampires is Carpenter's most accomplished movie in quite some time (at least since 1988's They Live), it once again exhibits a nearly fatal distraction, as if the natural flow of human interaction that is the connective tissue of any halfway decent movie is either too trivial to be bothered with or is maybe beyond his abilities altogether at this point. Worth seeing for the zesty action (even now, nobody does cross-cutting, tracking shots and intuitive coverage quite like John Carpenter), Vampires is yet another frustrating chapter in a career that has promised a great deal more than it has delivered. Also available day-and-date with the VHS tape is a DVD edition, featuring audio commentary from Carpenter and the obligatory theatrical trailers. And of further interest to the director's long-suffering fans, his first feature, the spoofy, low-budget Dark Star (which was made in collaboration with Dan O'Bannon, who went on to write the original Alien), will be coming to DVD on February 23.
Mulan (USA, 1998)
Skillfully adapting an ancient Chinese legend to a contemporary Disney mold, Mulan tells of the independent young title character, who rebels against the plans of her family and culture and masquerades as a boy to become a warrior in the Imperial Army's battle against the invading Huns (she goes in place of her proud but infirmed father). Through grit and determination, bravery and guile, she helps turn the sincere but ragtag gaggle of soldiers into a fighting unit. An improbable subject for the Disney animation treatment -- to say the least -- this is actually one of more satisfying of the studio's recent string of box office successes, a perky, colorful saga that smartly balances comedy and drama by minimizing the anthropomorphized sidekicks and maximizing the action (best sequence: a spectacular mountain battle that culminates in a harrowing avalanche and rescue). Ming-Na Wen gives sprightly voice to Mulan, supported by Eddie Murphy's blustery, wise-cracking dragon Mushu and Miguel Ferrer as head Hun Shan-Yu (other voice talent includes George Takei from the original "Star Trek," Gedde Watanabe from "E.R.," B.D. Wong and the immortal June Foray). Jerry Goldsmith wrote the music, and Matthew Wilder's songs include "True to Your Heart," performed by Stevie Wonder with 98 Degrees. As with Antz, Mulan has a slightly higher price point ($26.98), and is also available in a Spanish-language edition (dubbed, not subtitled).
Pecker (USA, 1998)
Although each of his films has a strong streak of sentimentality, "sweet" is not a word usually linked with Baltimore-based filmmaker John Waters, creator of such notoriously -- and inspirationally -- trashy movies as Hairspray, Polyester and the immortal, unclassifiable Pink Flamingos. Yet that's exactly what Pecker is: a sweet, slight and altogether surprisingly graceful ode to family values, community pride and irredeemable eccentricity. Edward Furlong is sublime as the title character -- the nickname refers to the finicky way he eats (which of course we never see) -- an amateur photographer who is discovered by vivacious but shallow New York agent Rorey Wheeler (Lili Taylor). After initially succumbing to the evil lure of New York City, Pecker comes to realize that you can take the boy out of Baltimore but you can't take Baltimore out of the boy. Nurturing him throughout his travails are a gallery of appealing eccentrics that include a miscast but game Christina Ricci as his laundromat-managing girlfriend Shelly, Brendan Sexton III as his shoplifting pal Matt, Lauren Hulsey as Little Chrissy, Jean Schertler as his odd but lovable grandmother, Mary Kay Place as his sunny mother, and a whole slew of distinctive locals. After years of such skewed nostalgia as Cry-Baby and unfocused comedy as Serial Mom, Waters has regained the distinctive equilibrium of his early work and seems newly able to weave social satire into engaging narrative situations. To be fair, the days of promoting a movie like Pink Flamingos with showmanly pizzazz and little fear of censure are long gone, but you've got to hand it to a guy who positions his directing title card over a shot of rats mating. And how ironic is it that Pecker barely made a dent at the box office, while There's Something About Mary wouldn't even exist without Waters' legacy of bad taste? The Special Edition DVD features audio commentary, interviews, the theatrical trailer and a photo gallery.
Practical Magic (USA, 1998)
That crazy witchcraft gets a surprisingly agreeable chick flick treatment and the nostrum almost takes, until the curse of Hollywood special effects and dubious logic cast a dark spell over the impractical third act. Practical Magic begins as a stimulating brew of Beetlejuice, "Bewitched" and a modified "The Munsters," as it casts an appealing, if somewhat cloying spell of sisterhood and security (does anybody really own and live in houses like these?) while exploring the effects of special powers on a benevolent family that includes Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as sisters cursed by their dying mother to spell certain death to any man who marries them. Coached by swingin' aunts Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing, the girls learn about love and pain in the hunky forms of Aidann Quinn and Goran Visnjic. In the end, however, Practical Magic is caught between familial and sensationalist sensibilities and can be true to neither without serious dramatic sacrifice. Add to that the calculated and predictable use of high-profile chick flick songs -- just when you think the movie is like watching a Stevie Nicks album, sure enough, she caterwauls over the closing credits -- and the movie has the potential to be positively annoying for those not caught up in the spirit of the proceedings. Two thirds of a very good movie about that little bit of witch in women and the mischief of which they're capable in the name of love, this incarnation of Practical Magic could've used a last-minute exorcism of its last two reels. Also available in a Spanish subtitled edition and a DVD, which sports a theatrical trailer, interactive games, a featurette and audio commentary.
Ronin (USA, 1998)
Ronin rocks. Taut, taciturn and terrific, this out-of-nowhere new action classic marked a defiant return to form for director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) and a vibrant update of the moody thrills found in French caper films of the 1960s and such American genre classics from the 1970s as The Seven-Ups and The Driver. Completing the transformation into action hero that began with Midnight Run, Robert De Niro stars as the detail-oriented Sam, one of five specialists brought together in a Paris warehouse by Irish tactical strategist Dierdre (Natascha McElhone, The Devil's Own and The Truman Show) with the promise of a job. Their mission? Steal the distinctively shaped silver case chained to the wrist of -- who cares? They're being paid a lot to get it, and that's that. As they pursue the mysterious case from Nice to Arles and back to Paris, cautious bonds begin to form and each man's character is glimpsed. Though this may sound like tough-guy posturing on the page, a combination of canny writing and intricate, astonishing urban car chases propel the story over some stilted rough spots. The movie's central metaphor is that of the ronin, the masterless samurai forced into the life of a wandering outlaw through the humiliation of their masters' deaths (the Japanese characters for the word literally mean "wave man"). The cumulative effect is that of a whole underworld of these specialists, all of whom know each other, running around the world knocking each other off for faceless bosses. The DVD features additional footage, alternate ending, audio commentary, the theatrical trailer and web access that allows the viewer to log on to the internet and chat with Frankenheimer.
Rush Hour (USA, 1998)
Okay, so it took a pairing with motormouthed Chris Tucker to break Jackie Chan once and for all in the United States -- that's OK, as Rush Hour is probably the most inventive and pleasing riff on the buddy cop movie since the original 48 Hrs. Jackie stars as a hotshot Hong Kong cop summoned to the United States to look into the kidnapping of a teenaged Chinese girl, and Tucker is the hotshot Los Angeles cop sent by his boss to keep Chan away from the case. Of course the two bond, with thrills and laughs along the way. High points: Jackie's split-second timing in a poolroom brawl, Jackie's split-second saving of priceless artifacts during the climactic brawl, and Jackie's complete lack of timing while singing Edwin Starr's "War." Low points: any time Tucker is allowed too much wiggle room in a script that is otherwise enhanced by a smart pace and good character work from the supporting cast (points off, though, for under-using Elizabeth Pena). For a lot more Jackie on his own terms, see Who Am I? below. Rush Hour also comes in a subtitled Spanish version and a feature-packed DVD, the latter of which streets March 2 and features deleted scenes, director Brett Ratner's audio commentary, one of his earlier short films (Whatever Happened to Mason Reese, from 1990),and the Dru Hill video for "How Deep is Your Love."
Snake Eyes (USA, 1998)
As a hurricane approaches, wiseass Atlantic City police detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) tries to get to the bottom of a political assassination during a prizefight, a task complicated by best friend, Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) -- who may or may note know more than he's telling. Snake Eyes is nothing if not ambitious, opening with a lengthy, bravura Steadicam shot through the hall and point-of-view sequences in which principal characters narrate their own version of the events surrounding the assassination (shades of Akira Kurosawa's 1951 must-see masterpiece Rashomon). And for a while it looks as if the movie has achieved a seductive rhythm, coddled by Ryuichi (The Last Emperor) Sakamoto's lush score, that promises tangible pleasures. But once Santoro turns from cretin to crusader and the fourth or fifth plot twist has been revealed, the movie loses not only steam but common sense, lurching to an abrupt halt via a wildly improbable and virtually indecipherable denouement. The latest in a long line of cinematic teases from veteran director Brian De Palma (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), Snake Eyes is a glossy, supercharged, sumptuous but ultimately empty exercise in virtuoso technical skill that is at once gorgeous to look at and a real challenge to sit through (a significant irony, since at under 100 minutes it was one of the summer's more conspicuous examples of brevity). Still, movies like this are what the big screen is for -- and when all was said and done the movie made close to $100 million worldwide, if grosses are a deciding factor in weekend tape rentals. See it for the experience, not the satisfaction. There's a Spanish-subtitled tape available, as well as a fairly utilitarian DVD featuring a theatrical trailer and interactive menus.
There's Something About Mary (USA, 1998)
"Isn't that a little politically incorrect?" someone says 45 minutes or so into this inexplicable cultural phenomenon -- which, once all the hysteria has died down, proves neither as wretched as the Farrelly Brothers' first movie, Dumb & Dumber, nor as genuinely subversive as their second, the truly off-the-wall Kingpin. Yet this surprise grossout hit of summer 1998 turned out to be a bad taste movie for people who are just a little hesitant about bad taste. After the ultimate indignity on his prom night with dreamy sports nut Mary (Cameron Diaz), earnest nerd Ted (Ben Stiller) hires shamus Healy (Matt Dillon) to find her 13 years later, setting off a chain reaction of screwball shenanigans. As resolutely off-color as it is, the movie has an oddly disjointed rhythm and no center to speak of -- the popular highlights of the film (or low points, depending on your tolerance), are as disconnected from the slim storyline as anything else here. Still, the movie made more money than anything save Armageddon and Saving Private Ryan last year ($346.9 million worldwide to date), and anything with Chris Elliott, the musical stylings of Jonathan Richman and the indestructible Puffy the dog can't be all bad. But compared to the mystifying box office flops BASEketball and Mafia! (not to mention the aforementioned Kingpin), Mary, ironically, just isn't politically correct enough. Also available in a subtitled Spanish edition.
At Pendleton University, the so-called "safest college in the United States," someone is murdering people in the style of contemporary urban legends and everyone's a suspect: there's Natalie (Alicia Witt from "Cybill"), her best friend Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart, who was also in Scream 2), ambitious student reporter Paul (Jared Leto, "My So-Called Life"), Damon (Joshua Jackson, who plays Pacey in "Dawson's Creek") and, in what you might call the Drew Barrymore role, Natasha Gregson Wagner (First Love, Last Rites and Another Day in Paradise) as Michelle. Although older moviegoers may have had it up to here with Scream clones, Urban Legend must grudgingly be recognized as the exception that proves the rule, a knowing and zippy teen-aimed horror movie that manages to subvert predictability by the sheer brio of it's approach. Credit for this must go to the almost impossibly young principal talent behind the camera: first-time director Jamie Blanks was just 26 when he made this, and screenwriter Silvio Horta has been out of film school for fewer years than it takes to get a Bachelor's degree. Together, they've managed to get a few more miles out of a genre workhorse that plods on as long as there are popular young stars and older character actors (John Neville from "The X-Files" and Freddy Krueger himself -- OK, Robert Englund -- pop 'round for a visit) game enough to offer themselves up for inventive on-screen deaths. There is also a Spanish subtitled tape of this title (the plot's transparent in any language), as well as a DVD featuring audio commentary and a featurette.
Beyond the A-List: Some Other Titles of note:
All of Me (USA, 1984, reissue)
A pivotal and long overdue reissue in the annals of contemporary American film comedy, this sparkling new version of Steve Martin's career high water mark to date restores a great comedy to its rightful place as one of the freshest and funniest movies of a decade not known for warm laughs. Adapted from Ed Davis' novel "Me Two" by Phil Alden Robinson (who went on to write and direct the classic baseball film Field of Dreams and the not-so-classic Robert Redford caper movie Sneakers) and directed with unobtrusive smoothness by the great but often uneven Carl Reiner (who had previously directed Martin in The Jerk, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and The Man with Two Brains), All of Me stars Martin as an affable, idealistic lawyer and moonlighting jazz musician (hence the title) who becomes half possessed by the venal spirit of Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin), a rich old lady who has been persuaded by Terry Hoskins (Victoria Tennant, for a time Mrs. Martin), the daughter of a servant, to have her spirit moved to the young woman's body by the quite daffy Prahka Lasa (Richard Libertini). The joke is that although Martin thinks the whole thing's a scam, the transfer actually works and Mrs. Cutwater is now controlling half his body. After a steady diet of absurdist foolishness (albeit tremendously successful absurdist foolishness), Martin used this genuinely original story to show off his leading-man good looks, great taste in clothes and impeccable comic timing. Particularly funny is the scene on the street right after her spirit enters him, his subsequent foray to the men's room, and Libertini's un-PC but hysterical turn as the mystic ("Bakinbowl! Bakinbowl!"). The charming coda is every bit as cathartic as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan finally meeting at the end of Sleepless in Seattle. If ever a DVD cried out for extras and audio commentary, this is it -- but, alas, neither Reiner or Martin is seen or heard on this straightforward reissue. Regardless of format, All of Me is a keeper.
Called Life During WarTime when it premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival (that's the name of the 1990 play on which it was based -- and, of course, a great Talking Heads song), this tedious directorial debut from Evan Dunsky stars Stanley Tucci (Big Night, The Impostors) as ruthless burglar alarm baron Heinrich Grigoris, David Arquette (the Scream franchise) as ambitious protegee Tommy Hudler, Kate Capshaw as Gale, Arquette's love interest, and a whole gallery of minor character types as Los Angeles-area weirdos with various opinions of the salesmen's wares (that looks like Dunsky as a commercial director). One of those movies that thinks it's a lot funnier than it really is, the general heavy-handedness is fatally accentuated by Christophe Beck's annoying score and the rather smirky approach of everyone towards the material. One major plus: the comic sexual monologue delivered by Ryan Reynolds, the funny guy from "Two Girls, a Guy and a Pizza Place," who's a scream as Gail's comically clenched son Howard (also, the movie has the wit to film in the legendary watering hole Boardner's, on Cherokee Boulevard off Hollywood). Sort of a lame, updated, west coast version of Jules Feiffer's "Little Murders," The Alarmist is enough to make one wonder just how bad all those movies that get rejected for Sundance really are. There is a Spanish subtitled tape and DVD edition available.
Beyond Silence (Germany, 1997)
Life isn't often easy for the hearing child of deaf parents, yet it is a rich, dignified and occasionally mischievous tapestry of emotions -- good and bad -- that gives Caroline Link's remarkable directorial debut Beyond Silence it's power. An intimate drama with the bold feel of an epic that charts the growing pains of a close but conflicted Bavarian family, the film has won numerous international awards and was one of the Final Five in last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar field. Kai and Martin Bischoff (Emmanuelle Laborit and Howie Seago) are deaf, relying on their bright and spunky daughter Lara (Tatjana Trieb) for everything from bank meetings to parent-teacher conferences. When Martin's free-spirited sister Clarissa (Sybille Canonica) gives Lara a clarinet, the gifted child is hooked. Ten years later Lara (Sylvie Testud) moves to Berlin to study music and becomes involved with Tom (Hansa Czypionka), the hearing teacher of deaf children. Yet Lara's conflict with her father threatens to destroy the family's bond. "The subject matter offered me the possibility of combining several ideas I had been wanting to use for a film," Link told an interviewer. "I wanted to tell a love story, make a film about growing up, about how hard it is to first find one's own way and then to actually follow it." Based on a newspaper article she read during a stay in the United States five years ago, Beyond Silence has the kind of universal appeal that is a hallmark of the new German cinema (Lara and Tom signing to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" provides a comic highlight) and displays a thoughtful, exuberant filmmaking talent at the dawn of what has all the makings of a brilliant career.
The Blue Gardenia (USA, 1953)
Kino on Video expands one of the niftiest boutiques going with these three previously unavailable titles from the heydey of film noir, that hardboiled atmospheric movement of the 1940s and 1950s. Although it takes awhile to get going, German emigre director Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia -- photographed by genre genius Nick Musuraca (the original Cat People, Out of the Past) from a story by the woman who wrote Laura -- is a visual treat, as impulsive Anne Baxter's liason with libidinous lounge lizard Raymond Burr (whose next role would be the killer in Hitchcock's Rear Window) at the eponymous Los Angeles club "on Vine, right off Hollywood" (where Nat King Cole is the house pianist) leads to murder, mystery and love for smooth Chronicle newshound Richard Conte -- who has to pass up covering the latest H-Bomb test to crack the case. In Brute Force, Burt Lancaster (in only his second starring role) does battle with sadistic chief guard Hume Cronyn in a complicated prison caste system meant to draw parallels between incarceration and life in a fascist state (the large familiar supporting cast includes debuts from future character stalwarts Howard Duff -- then playing Sam Spade on a popular radio program -- and Whit Bissell, who later played the scientist in The Creature from the Black Lagoon). There are eight million stories in The Naked City, the film that coined that memorable phrase from the 1950s, and this is the first of them: narrated by producer Mark Helllinger, the film stars avuncular John Ford regular Barry Fitzgerald as Muldoon, a police lieutenant heading up a murder investigation over the course of a hot summer's day in New York City. With these latter two titles and the later Thieve's Highway, director Jules Dassin pioneered a realism in popular films that was harrowing at the time (and has strongly influenced such contemporary incarnations of the genre as TV's "Law and Order"). About to be named a Communist in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Dassin fled to Europe and made Night in the City in London and Never on Sunday in Greece (with new wife Melina Mercouri). These three movies are first-rate examples, not only of an exalted genre, but a time when movies had exposition, shades of meaning and few, if any, explosions.
Knocks at My Door (Venezuela/Cuba/Argentina, 1992)
"The good Lord does not get involved in politics," someone says during the course of this provocative drama. If only that sentiment were true: the politics of oppression and martyrdom are key elements in this tension-filled game of human chess adapted from a successful Venezuelan stage play. In an unnamed but strongly suggested Latin American city, two nuns shelter a young fugitive from totalitarian forces. The corrupt mayor soon deduces the truth (the sisters aren't very good liars), but is faced with a potential public relations nightmare when they refuse to cooperate with his inquiry. How on earth could he explain two executions? Chilling and thought-provoking, Knocks at My Door packs a heavy emotional punch through the skillful direction and emotional veracity of Argentine-born director Alejandro Saderman, who brought years of experience in non-fiction filmmaking to his narrative feature debut -- which is a must-see for moviegoers with an interest in the dramatization of human rights issues. Saderman's new film, the caper drama Little Thieves, Big Thieves, has just played the Toronto and Sundance festivals to great acclaim.
The Life of Jesus (France, 1997)
Nothing much happens in the small northern French town of Bailleul, but as the sun broils the Flanders countryside the inarticulate, pent-up rage of one local boy is about to explode. Twenty-year-old Freddy (David Douche) lives with his mother Yvette, who runs the Au Petit Casino cafe. He's in love with the attractive Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), a cashier at the local supermarket, and the two spend their time together either in bed or just standing against each other in the otherwise deserted street. Freddy's epileptic and self-conscious about it, but dutifully goes for treatment when he isn't racing souped-up mopeds with his equally bored buddies. But one day Kader, the son of Arab immigrants, starts talking to Marie, and Freddy's frustrations with life find a sudden focus. First-time director Bruno Dumont takes his time with his leisurely unconventional narrative, and the widescreen photography alternates between bucolic vistas and jarring closeups. Among the cast of non-professionals Douche is memorable as Freddy, with his close-cropped hair, eyes like black marbles and a soul that is truly and profoundly adrift. "I was reaching into the creases of human nature, their junctures," says Dumont, and what he has found is profoundly terrifying.
Marie Baie des Anges (France, 1998)
In a sun-drenched French Riviera nearly devoid of adults, in the shadow of the twin shark fin-shaped rock outcroppings known as the Bay of Angels, 15-year-old petty thief Orso (Frédéric Malgras), who isn't very good at what he does, meets 14-year-old vixen Marie (Vahina Giocante), who spends her time entertaining Americans on and around a nearby base. Eventually, they come together, only to be separated by cruel fate and the power of a gun. Conjuring up such seminal films of disaffected youth as Breathless, The 400 Blows and Pixote, this debut feature -- five years in the making -- has been prompting critics and programmers to compare writer-director Manuel Pradal's shimmering, fragmented style to "pure poetry," in the words of Toronto festival director Piers Handling, "Rimbaud and Kerouac transcribed onto celluloid, a breathless film for the 1990s." Profoundly disturbing and undeniably powerful, Marie baie des Anges is a singular, memorable moviegoing experience.
A Merry War (United Kingdom, 1997)
Based on George Orwell's semi-autobiographical novel "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" (and known by that title when it played the film festival circuit in late 1997), this sweet and hugely enjoyable British satire tells the saga of Gordon Comstock (Richard E. Grant), a poet of fiery emotions stuck writing ad copy for a publishing company. Impulsively quitting his job, to the chagrin of long-suffering girlfriend Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter), Gordon takes a job in a seedy bookstore and finds rooms with the virtually indestructible houseplant of the title in the window -- a sure sign, according to his bemused publisher, of respectability. Yet Gordon's road to success proves rocky indeed, with both his nature and situation conspiring to keep him from the upper class he thinks he wants to join. The glossy 1930s period look of the film and sly undercurrent of class conflict makes for a tart but dignified burlesque of the stuffy British character, with the constant bickering of Gordon and Rosemary spiced with the kind of imaginative English seldom seen these days outside of proper British films. Those with Bohemian yearnings will take to Gordon's comically doomed spirit, while the more pragmatic will cluck at the foolishness of it all. Whichever camp you belong to, A Merry War is a delightfully good film.
Whatever (USA, 1997)
Susan Skoog's desultory, quasi-autobiographical drama of growing up in early 1980s New Jersey is so distracted by its own ennui that the company didn't even bother going to New Jersey: the movie was shot in and around Wheeling, West Virginia. Still, the moody surliness of Liza Weil's fearless performance as the thrill-seeking Anna, a high school senior "afraid of being ordinary" but too confused to resist the proto-slacker life, will appeal strongly to similarly conflicted contemporary teenagers (proving that hairstyles and music may change, but emotions stay pretty much the same from generation to generation). Dreaming of art school in New York City but resistant to the supportive exhortations of her teacher, Mr. Chaminski (Frederic Forrest), Anna spends most of her time with best friend Brenda (Chad Morgan), an unrepentant party girl whose wild ways have rubbed off on the clearly smarter but no more discerning teenager. After a number of parties and a few unsatisfying sexual experiences, Anna seems to break out of her torpor long enough to take some positive steps forward. Shot through with an authentic feel for the period and selfless, unshowy acting, Whatever is so determined to be unglamorous that the film often seems to be daring audiences to stay with it. "Don't expect so much, it's a little easier that way," says Anna's weary mother by way of career counseling, and perhaps this is the best advice for those approaching this well-intentioned by unrelentingly bleak movie.
Who Am I? (Hong Kong, 1998)
Forty-four years old and still coordinating and performing his own stunts (as well as writing screenplays and co-directing), Jackie Chan is at the point where he's going to need his own wall at the video store. Much of that shelf space will be taken up by this direct-to-video gem, which was never released theatrically but is one of his most exciting films of the decade (even slightly edited from the Asian release print). Chan -- playing 31 -- stars as, uh, Jackie Chan, an elite commando operative dubbed "Whoami" (he's lost his memory) by the African tribe that nurses him back to health after a spectacular fall from a helicopter when a mission goes awry. His quest to regain his memory and get to the bottom of the plot involve some of his best stunt work in a long time, highlighted by a an intricate chase through Rotterdam engineered while handcuffed and the spectacular, vertiginous finale ("I can't believe you're still in one piece!" says one of the two fetching women who help him throughout the film; also fine are Ron Smerczak and vet Ed Nelson as heavies). Who Am I? was released in Asia in the first month of 1998, grossing some $200 million in that region alone. A must-see for fans and a splendid blending of glossy production values and the old-fashioned one-on-one fights that made his reputation (there's not a hovercraft in sight), Who Am I? is a perfect complement to Rush Hour and a triumphant new chapter in the saga of Jackie Chan. And don't forget to watch the traditional closing credits, which among other goodies and gaffes features Jackie doing the Macarena with a gleeful group of African children and the trademark sequence where he's carted off on a stretcher following one blown stunt or another.
Don't have a DVD player?
Didn't find what you are looking for? Look in the back issues of the store or in the extensive catalog of Amazon.COM by entering your search in the text box below: