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Home Video Releases for August 1999
Posted 13 August 1999

by Eddie Cockrell

Nitrate Online explores a sampling of the most noteworthy, provocative and satisfying video and/or DVD releases for the month of August. 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.

Affliction (USA, 1997, July 6)

To call Wade Whitehouse (Oscar-nominated Nick Nolte) a ticking time bomb would trivialize the demons and dark forces that rage within him. The sheriff of a small New Hampshire town, Wade is charged with keeping the peace in Law ford but can barely control his own confused, alcohol-fuelled emotions. When the helpless lawman finally breaks, the focus of his fury is the cause of his problems, his domineering, monstrous father Glen (James Coburn, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this year for his fine performance). Writer-director Paul Schrader has covered this territory in screenplays for others (Martin Crosse’s upcoming Nicolas Cage stirrer Bringing Out the Dead and the classic Taxi Driver) as well as his own films (which include the intense and little-seen Blue Collar and Hardcore). Here Schrader finds the diseased heart of Russell Banks’ novel in much the same way Atom Ego an succeeded with Banks’ "The Sweet Hereafter," juxtaposing the serene and bucolic surroundings of snowbound communities with the dark secrets of those who live -- no, make that cower -- within them. "There are no losers," someone says to a group of children at a church social early in this remarkable, affecting movie. "Everybody gets a nice ribbon." In the worlds of both Banks and Schrader, the excruciating irony of life is that there are no ribbons and, in the end, everybody loses. The videocassette is priced for rental, and the wide screen DVD includes a featured.

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Central Station (Central do Brazil, Brazil/France, 1998, July 13)

Desultory ex-teacher Dora (Oscar-nominated Fernando Montenegro) and the orphaned waif Josie (newcomer Vinci’s de Oliveira) she rescues but doesn’t want take a bus ride across Brazil that transforms them both as it takes the pulse of a country in flux. He’s looking for a father he’s never known and she’s in search of an elusive peace. By turns tough and tender, theater vet Montenegro brings to Dora a world-weariness made fresh by the sheer tenaciousness of the character; in such scenes as her harrowing rescue of Josie from some unscrupulous types, she seems not at all in control of the valiant side of her nature, and this crusading impulsiveness is both enthralling and endearing. When this subtly magnificent new movie from Brazil won the coveted Golden Bear award for best film at the 1998 Berlin International Film Festival, many saw the unexpected yet welcomed honor as a continued validation of a more accessible and financially responsible cinema being pioneered for the global marketplace by filmmakers who understand the fundamentals of simple yet elegant dramatic structure and the universality of human emotion. Central Station is performed in the native Portuguese of director Walter Sales, yet its human feelings and command of filmmaking render it a work capable of speaking to audiences in all corners of the earth. The videocassette and DVD are presented in Portuguese with English subtitles, and the latter includes a trailer and commentary from Sales, Montenegro and veteran producer Arthur Cohn.

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A Civil Action (USA, 1998, July 13)

One of the hazards of being the prolific John Travolta is the danger of over saturation, a trap he seems to have largely and miraculously avoided (well, OK, he did make White Man’s Burden, Michael, Mad City and the recent General’s Daughter). Yet in all the films in which he’s starred since resuscitating his career with Pulp Fiction, good and, uh, not so good, few present him in such a morally complex light as A Civil Action. Startlingly retooled from the non-fiction book by Jonathan Harry, the film benefits tremendously from the rock-solid storytelling instincts of writer-director Steve Zillion (who wrote Schindler’s List and directed Searching For Bobby Fischer). The movie presents ambulance-chasing attorney Jan Schlichtmann as a churning vessel of conflicting impulses, as he spurns the attempts of a small town citizens group to hire him to investigate the deaths of local children from what they suspect is exposure to a poisoned river -- only to take the case when he smells a huge corporate payoff, finding himself involved to the point of bankruptcy. The irony of the title -- below the surface, there’s nothing civil about this lawsuit -- is not lost on the movie’s makers, as Zillion and Travolta conspire to create a situation where nothing is as simple as black or white. Also fine is Robert Duvall as a bizarrely eccentric corporate lawyer, John Lithgow as a distastefully prejudiced judge and James "The Sopranos" Gandolfini as a witness whose guilt finally brings him forward to turn the tide. There’s a Spanish subtitled VHS of this title available, as well as a DVD with a production featured.

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Down in the Delta (USA, 1998, July 20)

"Something new happens in this world every day," a character advises during this warm, overlooked gem of a movie -- the directorial debut of poet Maya Angelou. "You just gotta keep at it," they add, and that philosophy is what’s best and worst about the film as a whole. At her wits’ end over the irresponsible behavior of her daughter Loretta (Alfre Woodard), Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice) ships the single mother and her two children from their cramped apartment in the dangerous Chicago projects to the Mississippi home of her estranged brother Earl (Al Freeman Jr.) and his Alzheimer’s afflicted wife Annie (Esther Rolle, in her last performance). Under Earl’s gruff tutelage, Loretta learns the true meaning of family and even plays a role in bringing Rosa Lynn and Earl back together. While Freeman Jr. and Alice anchor the picture, Woodard’s journey from urban crack house to rural entrepreneur is the film’s most satisfying story arc. She’s aided in her efforts by cousin Will (co-producer Wesley Snipes), who encourages Loretta to think for herself even as he struggles with challenges in his own family. Unfortunately, the movie’s sheer idealism often intrudes on the hard lessons being learned to the detriment of the overall impact (this is one very artfully lit crack house). Still, this is a minor quibble in the face of screenwriter Myron Goble’s thoughtful story and Angelou’s soothing, assured filmmaking rhythm. "I wasn’t born here but I kinda got reborn here," Loretta says in sincere wonderment, and it’s a sentiment echoed in the cumulative effect of this admirable movie. The no-frills DVD edition highlights William Wages’ golden photography.

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8MM (USA, 1999, July 20)

Since winning an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and staking a claim to the action film genre with Con Air and Face/Off, Nicolas Cage has made some, uh, interesting career choices (Brian De Palma’s sinewy Snake Eyes, while visually ravishing, is a dramatic disaster). On the surface, the appeal of 8MM is obvious: in meek Harrisburg, Pennsylvania detective/family man Tom Welles, Cage has the opportunity to play very nearly the direct opposite of the kind of strutting live wire on which he’s built his newfound success. As the deliberate detective is drawn into a case involving the supposed filming of a young girl’s murder, the theory must’ve gone, Cage’s Welles could teeter between his love of family and a growing outrage over the horror of the crime and the scuzziness of it’s perpetrators. Good theory. What it doesn’t take into account is the essential naivete of Andrew Kevin Walker’s script and the lackluster direction of Joel Schumacher. The director, in particular, seems so profoundly uncertain of the proper tone of the material -- sensational? Brooding? Foreboding? -- that the legitimate homilies of the story (porn bad, family good) are mocked by the simplistic approach. Not that there’s much in the movie that’s shocking, as the raunchy stuff in Los Angeles and New York happens largely offscreen. An actress named Amy Morton is terrific as the distraught mother of the supposed victim (her scenes with Cage are the best things in the picture), and with the success of cable’s "The Sopranos" this is probably the last time first rate character actor James Gandolfini will have to play these kinds of crude, hulking toughs -- unless he wants to, of course. Want to see this theme handled with confidence and veracity? Affliction director Paul Schrader did it 20 years ago in the 1979 Hardcore, in which conservative businessman George C. Scott searches for his runaway daughter. 8MM is also available in a Spanish subtitled tape and a DVD that includes a featured on it’s making.

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Hilary and Jackie (United Kingdom, 1998, July 6)

If all this music-themed biopic had going for it were the spectacular performances of Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths as the sibling prodigies Jacqueline and Hilary du Pre, that would be one thing (they were both nominated for Oscars, Watson as Actress and Griffiths in support). But it is the complex yet elegant story structure of debuting writer-director Anand Tucker, working from the sisters’ autobiography "A Genius in the Family," that gives this movie a flamboyant urgency and satisfying emotional wallop. The gifted daughters of warm yet disciplined parents, cellist Jackie and flautist Hilary are natural rivals from an early age, each vying for the approval that comes with success. Separated for the first time as teenagers by Hilary’s abrupt marriage and Jacqueline’s equally sudden success on the international recital circuit, the film follows the life of the former but then confidently backtracks to fill in the questions that have arisen about the latter’s adventures. As the successful Jackie’s increasingly bizarre behavior forces the more modest Hilary to make some hard choices about her family life, the bond between the two sisters is seen as doggedly durable. Reminiscent of the fiery sexuality first on view in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, Watson’s performance is made wholly believable by the mischievous passion in her twinkling eyes. Saddled with the stodgier sister, Griffiths brings a sympathetic determination to her role that rescues it from saintliness (maybe that’s why she got the Supporting Actress nomination). Tucker brings a fresh spin to the story, moving it away from obvious Shine territory to a more involving, life-affirming look at the burdens of talent and the pitfalls of fame.

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Hurlyburly (USA, 1998, June 22)

Sean Penn keeps threatening to quit acting altogether, and Hurlyburly is the most recent example of why that’s an idea he should continue to reconsider. A jittery and scabrously funny realization by David Rabe of his 1980s play about a passel of drug-fuelled lowlifes living high on the Hollywood hog, the movie achieves the twin victories of being a showcase for some terrific acting and an unexpectedly complex visual treat. Penn is the substance abusing Eddie, a casting agent who shares a house and office with sarcastic bottle blonde Mickey (Kevin Spacey) -- who, when forced by the increasingly desperate, soul-searching Eddie, describes their friendship as "adequate." Suspicious that Mickey’s sleeping with his girlfriend Darlene (Robin Wright Penn), Eddie’s frazzled frustrations spill over into an evening of debauchery with power player Artie (Garry Shandling), thuggish actor wannabe Phil (Chazz Palminteri), "sexual care package" Donna (Anna Paquin) and, in the most unexpected casting turn in a movie full of them, Meg Ryan as a dissolute stripper named Bonnie who is also, in her own words of tattered dignity, "a drug person." Inevitably, director Anthony Drazen has opened up the play to include scenes not in the sprawling modern house in which it was set, and in this conceit he is aided immeasurably by cinematographer Changwei Gui -- who shot The Gingerbread Man for Robert Altman and two movies each by Chinese directors Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine and Life on a String) and Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou and Red Sorghum). They’ve turned the house itself into a glittering metaphor for the lost lives on display, a sleek and complex series of corridors that, while lovely, go nowhere. The DVD includes audio commentary by Rabe, Drazen and Penn, who in his career has played tragic characters inarticulately searching for absolution in such films as The Falcon and the Snowman, At Close Range (the real-life inspiration for which just escaped from prison), Dead Man Walking and She’s So Lovely.

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Rushmore (USA, 1998, June 29)

Along with the newly-released American Pie the most imaginatively subversive of the current breed of teen-themed comedy/dramas ("dramedy" is a term someone coined awhile back), Rushmore is infinitely more sophisticated in it’s approach to the thorny issues surrounding puppy love but no less gleeful in it’s skewering of societal norms. Smarmy and obnoxious, scrawny 15-year-old phenom Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is an ambitious go-getter at the eponymous prep school who does everything from pen a play set amidst the horrors of Vietnam to wrestle on the school’s team. His secret? "I think you just gotta find something you like to do and then do it for the rest of your life. For me it’s going to Rushmore." He makes this pronouncement to forlorn industrial tycoon and hesitant Rushmore benefactor Herman Blume, who, in an operatic mid-life funk over a slew of issues from his thuggish sons to failing marriage, becomes his rival for the affections of widowed first grade teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams, whose only previous credit was as Kevin Costner’s love interest in The Postman). The resulting comic battle for superiority results in a film possessed of a quirky internal logic all it’s own, a fearless approach to what’s funny and a wit quick enough to zip past what isn’t. The whole thing is played to one of the freshest and most imaginative collection of influential 1960s British rock songs ever assembled, a list which includes The Who’s "A Quick One While He’s Away," "Ooh La La" by The Faces and songs from Creation, Paul Desmond, The Kinks, Vince Guaraldi, John Lennon and more. Admittedly a love it or hate it proposition, Rushmore is as precocious as it’s fearless young star and about as successful in ambition. The inventive visual scheme of the movie is preserved not only in a no-frills DVD edition, but a letterboxed VHS tape as well.

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 She’s All That (USA, 1999, July 13)
Varsity Blues (USA, 1999, June 29)

The recent aforementioned slew of teen-themed movies included the inevitable percentage of misfires (see Jawbreaker and The Rage: Carrie II -- or better yet, don’t), but there were a couple of cautious keepers as well, movies that tried to rise above the formulaic and were rewarded with box office success. She’s All That is a relatively charming and glossy update of the Pygmalion story that benefits enormously from the casting of Freddie Prinze Jr. in prime hunk mode as the popular high school jock and Rachael Leigh Cook (who slings the frying pan in those "this is your brain on drugs" ads) as the absorbed art student who blossoms into the prom queen when watered with a little attention. Matthew Lilliard is the loudest of the who’s who supporting cast as a Real World party type who distracts Prinze’s popular girlfriend long enough for the subterfuge to take hold (Prinze and Lilliard also co-star in the overly busy Wing Commander). The DVD has no additional features but serves to showcase the soundtrack, which includes Sixpence None the Richer’s "Kiss Me" as an appropriate musical motif for the swan’s awakening.

The most memorable promo line from the philosophical David and Goliath Texas high school melodrama Varsity Blues is star James Van Der Beek, the Dawson of "Dawson’s Creek," staring at his offscreen father and flatly stating "I don’t want. Your life." This could well be the motto of this earnest but predictable and thus lifeless fable about a nice high school athlete and his twin struggles with personal dignity and an egotistical coach (Jon Voight in Meryl Streep mode as a crazed southern Napoleon of the gridiron). Capable first-time director Brian Robbins goes through the yee-haw motions of life in a football-mad small town but seems more interested in the dynamics of maturation between Van Der Beek and his variously motivated pals. Still, it’s the scenes in which the team discovers the sex ed teacher moonlighting as a topless dancer and the football groupie who greets her conquests wearing a whipped cream bikini that probably have the greatest resonance with the film’s target audience. There’s a Spanish subtitled tape of this title and the DVD includes a selection of trailers.

She's All That Varsity Blues

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Still Crazy (United Kingdom/USA, 1998, June 29)

One of those genial, sporadically funny movies you keep wanting to be better than it ultimately is, Still Crazy was written by the team responsible for The Commitments (Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais) in obvious hope of scoring the same kind of underdog-themed musical success. In this case the object of their sincere musical affection is the fictitious British band Strange Fruit, which is bullied into a semi-triumphant reunion tour by keyboard player turned Ibiza contraceptive salesman Tony (Stephen Rea). Mike Leigh regular Timothy Spall is the beery drummer, comedian Billy Connolly plays the roadie and reformed wildman narrator, Bill Nighy is on his very own planet as the self-important and thus often hilarious lead singer and Jimmy Nail is the typically sedate but volcanic bassist. One of the movie’s most satisfying conceits is the band’s pursuit of their Syd Barrettish lead guitarist, the frail but talented and charismatic Brian -- who is played to perfection by Withnail and I writer-director Bruce Robinson. The music by producer Clive Langer and others is surprisingly quite good, although for all their vague glam trappings the band sounds more like vintage Bad Company than Mott the Hoople or the later Psychedelic Furs (to name two groups whose names are dropped repeatedly). "Our lives peaked too early," says one bandmate mournfully. Unfortunately for all concerned, so does the film. There’s a Spanish subtitled tape of this title, and the DVD includes a making-of featurette and no less than six subtitle options, including Thai.

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The Thin Red Line (USA, 1998, June 29)

Had this sprawling, surrealistic World War II epic been released prior to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, last year’s Oscar race might have had a similar but very different victor. But it wasn’t, and they didn’t, and therein lies a tale that is, depending on who’s doing the telling, either unjust or perfectly befitting a movie of as torturous a gestation period as The Thin Red Line. Immediately identifiable as the work of Terrence Malick, the brilliant cinematic recluse who made Badlands and Days of Heaven in the 1970s and hasn’t directed since, the movie is prodigiously cerebral, taking James Jones’ novel of the battle of Guadalcanal and moving it from an exploration of character under duress to a meditation on the effects of battle on environment and, to a lesser extent, the human psyche. Thus, while there are stories of cowardice and heroism among the large cast, the human side of the story, revised, reshot and re-edited throughout the production, is balanced and often overwhelmed by a kind of metaphysical hush that takes time to breath the soil and prowl effortlessly through the grassy hillside prior to battle. As in the work of Stanley Kubrick, this kind of moviemaking takes the most valuable asset of all to achieve -- time -- and the success of the venture is inevitably offset by the dashed anticipation of it. Still, Nick Nolte gives a fierce performance as a gung-ho officer, John Travolta is quietly riveting in his single scene as a brooding brigadier general, and Adrien Brody as Corporal Fife, a major character in the novel, has been reduced in the editing of the film to a wordless cameo. The very large cast also includes Sean Penn (prominent in the trailer), Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, Woody Harrelson, James Caviezel, John Cusack, Dash Mihok, John Savage and, in a brief cameo near the very end, George Clooney. The film is available in Spanish and widescreen video editions, with the DVD due November 2. The more conventional 1964 adaptation of the novel, starring Jack Warden and Keir Dullea (who would play one of the doomed astronauts in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey four years later), is available in all formats.

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