Home Video Releases for September 1999
Nitrate Online explores a sampling of the video and/or DVD releases for the month of September. 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.
Analyze This (USA, 1999, August 17)
Robert De Niro’s had a spotty track record with comedy, from the sublime high of Martin Brest’s Midnight Run to the heavy-handed low of Neil Jordan’s We’re No Angels (and let’s not even get into his early, sophomoric collaborations with Brian De Palma or speculate on his turn as Fearless Leader in the upcoming live action version of Rocky and Bullwinkle). Knowing this makes the unexpected springtime success of Analyze This that much sweeter. As insecure mob boss Paul Vitti opposite Billy Crystal’s typically annoying turn as therapist Ben Sobel, De Niro’s genius here -- undoubtedly aided and abetted by Ghostbusters director Harold Ramis -- is to play Vitti completely straight. Thus, his impeccably timed comic scenes with Crystal work precisely because he’s spoofing his hairtrigger persona with none of the wink wink, nudge nudge he’s brought to other comedies. Perhaps cowed by the straight-faced daffiness around her, Lisa Kudrow is surprisingly muted in support. A huge character actor named Joe Viterelli neatly steals every scene he’s in as Vitti’s resourceful lieutenant. There’s a Spanish subtitled tape available, and the features-packed DVD includes a gag outtake reel, theatrical trailer and commentary from Ramis, De Niro and Crystal.
Celebrity (USA, 1998, August 10)
Kenneth Branagh is becoming frighteningly adept at American accents, kind of a Meryl Streep in reverse. As ambitious journalist Lee Simon, his dead-on impression of Woody Allen goes a long way towards selling this, uh, celebrity-stuffed black and white morality play about “a culture that took a wrong turn somewhere.” Yet as good as his Woody is, he’s cumulatively upstaged by Judy Davis’ giddy turn as his ex-wife Robin, a bundle of remorseful neuroses who begins dating a television producer and finds success on a very fast track indeed. Along the way the cautionary vignettes involve such well-cast stars as Melanie Griffith, Joe Mantegna, Winona Ryder, Leonardo DiCaprio (cast, as virtually every review notes, long before the phenomenon of Titanic), Famke Janssen, Hank Azaria, Charlize Theron and Bebe Neuwirth (who, in the film’s brashest bit, teaches Davis the fine points of oral sex using a handy banana). The spartan DVD is worth owning just for the cold lushness of Sven Nykvist’s monochrome photography.
Cruel Intentions (USA, 1999, August 3)
Each generation can use an update of Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” and promising writer/director Roger Kumble (an uncredited writer on both Dumb & Dumber and the unsung Farrelly Brothers masterpiece Kingpin) jumps fearlessly into this one with head held high and barbs aimed low. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Philippe play dueling (and lusting) half-siblings who wreak havoc on those around them from their perch on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “I’m sick of sleeping with these insipid debutantes,” declaims Philippe languidly in a mannered delivery that takes some getting used to but kind of grows on you after awhile. As their complicated, vicious and profane games become more complicated, it seems apparent that both of these schemers are headed for big falls. The mysteriously popular Reese Witherspoon plays one of Philippe’s conquests, while the mature troika of Louise Fletcher, Christine Baranski and Swoosie Kurtz are the only adults who venture close enough to feel the pair’s heat. An actress named Selma Blair is memorable as giggly adolescent victim Cecile, and the glossy cinematography of Theo Van de Sande (who shot the 1986 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Assault) is yet another example of the big city reinvented through fresh eyes by a foreign-born artist. The film’s TV spinoff, “Manchester Prep,” premieres this fall. There’s a VHS tape dubbed in Spanish as well as a DVD which includes behind the scenes footage, deleted scenes, and tie-in music videos from Placebo and Marcy Playground (if you don’t know who they are you might be better off with Roger Vadim’s 1959 French version, the 1988 Dangerous Liaisons -- which also featured Swoosie Kurtz and won Christopher Hampton an Oscar for the adapted screenplay -- or, less well known but even better, Milos Forman’s 1989 Valmont with a youthful Annette Bening).
The Deep End of the Ocean (USA, 1999, August 10)
Nine years after literally losing her 3-year-old middle son in a hotel lobby and subsequently steeping in bitter despair, Beth Cappadora (Michelle Pfeiffer) is shocked to discover the boy has returned to mow the lawn of the suburban Chicago house where she and her long-suffering husband Pat (Treat Williams) and two children have moved to start over again. The kind of film where everybody is well-to-do and every little thing is perfect (who actually lives in these huge houses?), the disparity between the tidiness of these lives and the messy emotions generated by the horrible trauma of losing a child is supposed to underscore the drama. And as good as Pfeiffer and the ensemble are as an extended family torn asunder by a mother’s grief, the whole is far less than the sum of the parts due in large part to veteran Ulu Grosbard’s perfunctory direction and the intrusive, sappy score by Elmer Bernstein. Although she’s saddled with some of the film’s most mawkish lines, Whoopi Goldberg is very good in a small role as a gay detective who befriends the family and brings a measure of quiet humor to the proceedings. Equally fine in a larger part is Jonathan Jackson as the teenaged sibling of the missing boy. They’re not enough to save this glossy melodrama, but they do give it what little heart it possesses.
Edtv (USA, 1999, August 17)
Neatly beating The Truman Show at much of it’s own game, Ron Howard’s Edtv shows how easy it is for people to accept the intrusion of mass media in their daily lives and the price that intimacy exacts from the average joe. Who is, in this case, is Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey), neatly spoofing his own meteoric and nearly disastrous rise to fame as a guy plucked from a bar to star in the round-the-clock reality TV program championed by programming executive Cynthia (Ellen DeGeneres, who spouts all the expository dialogue in the first 15 minutes or so of the picture). As Ed’s foibles and habits begin to seduce viewers around the country at a loss to explain their attraction to the program, Howard -- who more or less grew up on TV himself in “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days” -- uses his large cast of stars mixed with up-and-coming young talent to tell a technically ambitious and emotionally authentic fable about the advantages and drawbacks of fame. Simple hygienic intimacies soon give way to Ed having an increasingly rocky relationship with UPS driver Shari (Jenna Elfman) the former girlfriend of Ed’s brother Ray (Woody Harrelson, who bears an uncanny resemblance to McConaughey -- or vice versa). There’s a Spanish subtitled tape, a DVD heavy with features (including outtakes and an alternate ending), and a cheaper, bare-bones DVD edition due September 28.
The Kubrick Collection (USA/United Kingdom, 1962-1987, June 29)
While purists are furious that this box of seven key films from the late Stanley Kubrick are presented in a decidedly weird Dolby Mono mix and two of the titles -- The Shining and Full Metal Jacket -- are full frame instead of their original wide screen aspect ratios, according to Warner Home Video these are the versions approved by Kubrick during the increasingly hectic post-production period of his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. This may explain the often poor image quality (there appears to be a hair on the picture during the opening credits of the The Shining) as well as a notable lack of the kind of behind-the-scenes extras becoming increasingly common in the DVD format. Still, the 2001: A Space Odyssey disc features an interview with Arthur C. Clarke over lunch, and Kubrick’s daughter Vivian’s backstage documentary on the making of The Shining makes that disc a must for collectors (and, to be fair, the tinniness of the sound only increases the movie’s disquieting mood). If these are the transfers Kubrick approved, then let the second-guessing begin. Also available as individual titles, for the record the box set includes Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001 (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). Three additional Kubrick titles are available: Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957).
Beyond the A-list
The Celebration (Festen, Denmark, 1998, August 10)
Lars von Trier confederate Thomas Vinterberg’s improbably entertaining family-reunion-from-hell drama The Celebration puts the tenets of the half-serious, half-spoofy Dogma 95 collective -- handheld shooting, no special effects, natural light only -- into sublime service of an accessible story that finds varied members of patriarch Helge Klingenfeldt’s family gathering at a rural estate to celebrate his 60th birthday, with the inevitable clashes and revelations. Fans of von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and the sprawling Danish television series “The Kingdom” will immediately recognize the shaky aesthetic at work here, from the washed-out amber digitally tinged images to the probing camera to the often rough sound. Yet in his strict adherence to the kind of identifiable dilemmas found at family gatherings of this type (and this family has more skeletons in more closets than most), Vinterberg has made a movie at once so familiar and so alien to international audiences that Americans responded to the as if it were a product of some morally bankrupt and bickering midwestern family. With von Trier’s recent, X-rated The Idiots stalled in U.S. distribution limbo and an upcoming Dogma 95 project by Kids co-creator Harmony Korine sounding less than promising, this may well stand as the movement’s shining hour, a visceral approach to familiar material that brings two schools of moviemaking into harmonic convergence.
Chaplin, Charlie: Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (USA, 1915, August 31)
In 1915, young comic Charlie Chaplin was lured from the Keystone Film Company (home of those famous Kops) to the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, an outfit named for the last initial of founders George K. Spoor and G.M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson (who plays a boxing patron in The Champion on tape one). During the year-long creative burst (16 short films are featured on this remastered four-tape boxed set) prior to his feature-length debut with the Mutual Film Company, Chaplin can be seen refining the parameters of his classic Tramp character in ways both subtle and overt. The Essanay deal, besides paying him much more than Keystone ($1,250 per week versus $150 per week plus a $10,000 signing bonus), allowed him to work at a slower and more deliberate pace. Thus, in movies such as the ironically titled debut His First Job, A Night Out, the classic The Tramp and others, Chaplin forges a comic relationship with Ben Turpin, begins work with long-time co-star Edna Purviance, and, not incidentally, performs some astonishing feats of physical prowess that are still fresh and achingly funny today.
Brazil (United Kingdom, 1985, July 13)
“Each day is a challenge with Terry,” someone says in an interview on the second DVD in this newly-released 3-DVD set from The Criterion Collection that charts the incredible rise and fall of director Terry Gilliam’s visionary 1985 masterpiece in which a younger Jonathan Pryce does battle in an Orwellian future with his inept employers at the oxymoronish Ministry of Information. Essentially a repackaging of the previously issued laserdisc set, this lavish box is a new benchmark for DVD quality. Disc one is Gilliam’s approved and remastered 142-minute final cut of the film in a new wide screen transfer. Featuring one of the funnier “making-of” movies in the history of that much-maligned genre, disc two is a fascinating trip through the complicated and often very public controversy surrounding the enforced editing of the film by executives at Universal Pictures (“we’re not talking about life and death here,” says one. “We’re talking about a film.”). Disc three presents a suitably inferior transfer of the emasculated 94-minute cut of the movie -- dubbed the “Love Conquers All” version -- that was commercially released in the United States over Gilliam’s vigorous protests. As it becomes crystal clear that each day must be a challenge when working with the cheerfully determined Gilliam, his caustic and outspoken wit, tempered with an almost child-like enthusiasm for what he does, provides a cautionary lesson to filmmakers on the importance of individual vision and the pain that can result while fighting for that right.
For Ever Mozart (Switzerland/France, 1996, July 13)
Nicely described on New Yorker Video’s packaging as “intellectual vaudeville,” Jean-Luc Godard’s typically dense and bleak exercise in self-reflexive moviemaking is split into two parts, each of which examines the futility of both art and war. In the first, an idealistic group of young performers set off for Bosnia intending to perform a play. This segues into the elaborate efforts of fictitious director Vicky Vitalis to finish the shooting of something called Fatal Bolero. Early on in his career Godard famously declaimed an ambition not to make not “political films” but rather “make films politically,” and For Ever Mozart continues that ambition, using recognizable themes and icons from the director’s canon (flashy cars, the absurdity of war, the human conflict inherent in filmmaking) in service to a new approach to ensemble acting that gives the work an approachable veracity not often found in his films. “It’s our duty to turn the pages in our own lives,” he explained to a film festival press conference in Toronto, referring to the climactic performance of Mozart in the movie. “Sometimes it’s nice, sometimes it’s painful.” So, too, is the cinema of this adventurous, challenging auteur.
Germany Pale Mother (Deutschland bleiche Mutter, Germany, 1979, August 24)
One of the key works of the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s, Helma Sanders-Brahms’ deliberate, involving Germany Pale Mother sets the history of that country during and immediately after the Nazi era against the autobiographical story of one determined young woman -- the filmmaker’s fictionalized mother. The film features a powerful performance from the remarkable Eva Mattes, who starred for Rainer Werner Fassbinder in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Werner Herzog in Woyzeck. From early shots of a nighttime swastika flag crawling with mosquitoes through the pregnant young bride’s dawning awareness of her country’s disintegration, Sanders-Brahms probing camera and Jurgen Knieper’s brooding music conspire to create a moving and powerful story of courage in the face of moral corruption. Continuing it’s commitment to making key works of international cinema available in the US, Chicago-based Facets Video’s letterboxed transfer of this key work is an important addition to their huge catalogue. Facets Video, 1-800-331-6197.
Krulik, Jeff: The Films of Jeff Krulik and Friends (USA, August 3)
Illuminating the fringe element of the material covered in Woody Allen’s Celebrity with a distinctly benevolent grin, Washington, D.C.-based Jeff Krulik has directed and/or collaborated on short films about, among other things, smut collectors (during which Krulik is glimpsed as “hapless producer”), wrestling legend Fred Blassie and Ernest Borgnine. Perhaps his masterpiece, however, is Heavy Metal Parking Lot, in which Krulik hangs with some enthusiastic fans outside an arena in Landover, Maryland prior to a 1986 Judas Priest concert (interviewed for his upcoming Fight Club, Columbia, Maryland native Edward Norton called the film “anthropological genius” -- and he’s right). A few years later Krulik produced a companion piece, Neil Diamond Parking Lot, which profiles an entirely different group of people in the same space. Finding this work used to require some effort, but finally all of this material and so much more is collected on one very special tape.
The Travelling Players (O thiassos, Greece, 1974, July 13)
When acclaimed Greek director Theo Angelopoulos won the grand prize at the 1998 Cannes film festival for his most recent work, Eternity and a Day, the honor was seen as the capper to a distinctive international career that really began with this nearly four-hour epic about a small acting troupe whose wanderings lead them throughout a contemporary history of Greece. Actually the middle film of a trilogy bookended by 1972’s Days of 36 and The Huntsmen (1977), The Travelling Players stands alone as a hypnotic movie of immense power and is the definitive place to start for an understanding of contemporary Greek cinema and it’s contributions to the international development of the art form. Unfortunately, few of Angelopoulos’ films are available in North America, but those that are -- including 1988’s Landscape in the Mist and the three-hour 1995 eastern European epic Ulysses’ Gaze, starring Harvey Keitel as a returning filmmaker of Greek heritage in search of three elusive cans of vintage film -- are essential viewing for international movie fans interested in Angelopoulos’ stately and distinctive approach to moviemaking.
Unmade Beds (United Kingdom, 1998, August 10)
New Yorker Video does it again, in this case rescuing Nicholas Barker’s one-of-a-kind dramatic documentary from self-distribution and making it available to a sure-to-be-befuddled public. Four lonely and decidedly unique city dwellers share their hopes, dreams and dating service adventures with the camera, punctuated with meticulously composed shots of the New York City skyline that more often than not feature glimpses of people in the privacy of their apartments (most of them seem to be lying in, or at least have, unmade beds). Described by various critics as “a fly on the wall turned into a vulture” and “the most sadistic director in British television,” Barker studied anthropology before causing a sensation with the satiric BBC series “Washes Whiter,” “Signs of the Times” and “From A to B.” For this unashamedly manipulative blend of fact and fiction (“an exercise in mendacity,” he calls it), Barker recruited a research staff to pose as singles. These four, uh, specimens, identified by the process of elimination, then worked with the director on the monologues they deliver in the film and the sequences were shot using their narration. Courageous, cruel and monstrously funny, the resulting film was perhaps the most audacious -- and certainly the most singular -- directorial debut of 1998.
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