Home Video Release for November 1998
With the literally hundreds of films released on numerous formats each month, how is the casual consumer to choose quality films for that evening rental -- or the permanent collection? Each month, Nitrate Online will recommend a quality new release roster comprised of equal parts mainstream entertainment, older titles either reissued or making their belated appearance in the market, distinctive foreign films and documentaries, and anything else that deserves a spin through your platform of choice. The emphasis will be on VHS, with particular attention paid to new and enhanced reissues on the rapidly emerging DVD format.
The year's loudest and most financially successful movie blends the best elements of producer Jerry Bruckheimer's previous two films, with the overblown desperation of The Rock and subversive humor of Con Air combined in the testosterone-fuelled tale of a bunch of oil riggers shot into space to prevent an asteroid from pulverizing earth. Although not the kind of cultural phenomenon we've come to expect from our highest-grossing movies (how much cocktail chatter did you hear about the film?), Armageddon was skillfully cross-promoted -- so much so that Aerosmith's hit single from the soundtrack, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," is thrown in on the DVD (which is now set for release in early January 1999, and should up the bar once again for technical presentation on the ever-strengthening format). Director Michael Bay's in-your-face style is perfect for the short attention spans that prevail in most households.
Bird Now (1987)
Although this feature-length quasi-documentary on Charlie Parker features informative and invaluable interviews with both his wives as well as Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Bowie, Henry Threadgill, bassist Tommy Potter, drummer Roy Haynes and vocalist Sheila Jordan, eager jazz buffs are advised to take note of the "quasi-" part: for much of director Marc Huraux's 90-minute film, actor Leroy Williams wanders around contemporary Harlem, a decision the director defended in a 1987 interview as "an approach to things which is more important than the chronological... I have sometimes treated his life like a legend" (there are, however, archival clips featuring Billie Holliday, Ben Webster, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins). An interesting companion to Clint Eastwood's fiction film Bird, which came out the following year, this belated video release is a unique and important addition to any fan's collection.
The Butcher Boy (1998)
The new film from Neil Jordan, director of The Crying Game, is a harrowing cross between François Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange that tells the chilling story (from Patrick McCabe's novel) of young Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens, soon to be seen in John Boorman's masterful The General) and his slow descent into hallucinatory madness and violence in rural Ireland. Combining the exuberant charm of Truffaut's Antoine Doinel and the rampant psychosis of Kubrick's Alex, Owens is chillingly good, aided by Jordan's obvious confidence in the material and excitement in it's presentation (this is a much more vigorous movie than his obviously heartfelt but unwieldy Michael Collins). And since the expected moral backlash against the film's controversial implication of religious iconography in Francie's illness never materialized (Sinead O'Connor appears at key moments as the Virgin Mary), The Butcher Boy's power remains undiluted.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of "our fine four-fendered friend," this newly-massaged version of the perennial family favorite -- 007 creator Ian Fleming's only foray into children's literature -- looks better than ever. Although he never translated his small-screen stardom to film, Dick Van Dyke made a handful of movies that have aged well, and this is one of them: reteamed with the songwriting brothers Sherman (Richard M. and Robert B.) from Mary Poppins, he's well into the fantastic spirit at the absent-minded inventor who creates the magic car of the title. The DVD edition of the film sports not only the theatrical trailer, but an optional singalong feature that allows kids to bellow along with their favorite tunes (on the VHS side, the movie is also available with Spanish subtitles). For movie fans of a certain age (as well as their children), this is a perfect companion to the beloved Disney classic The Absent-Minded Professor -- and shows up the recent Flubber for the cold merchandising ploy it is. The Oscar-nominated title song, which is also available as part of Ryko's recent Original MGM Soundtracks series, lost out to "The Windmills of Your Mind" from The Thomas Crown Affair.
Like directors John Boorman, Milos Forman and Nicolas Roeg, Terry Gilliam has never made what you might call a bad movie, just prodigiously imaginative and narratively demanding visual spectacles that require something more from the viewer than casual engagement (his movies include Brazil, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys). Such is the case with this much-anticipated adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's pivotal, drug-fuelled book about a journalist and his lawyer on a surreal sojourn to the titular town in a rented convertible. Packed with the kind of bizarre imagery Gilliam's known for, as well as an inspired and improbable cast that includes Harry Dean Stanton, Christina Ricci, Lyle Lovett, Gary Busey, Cameron Diaz, Penn Gillette, Ellen Barkin and Mark Harmon, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had been considered unfilmable; individual tolerance to it will depend entirely on the viewer's ability to withstand the director's penchant for vertiginous sequences that simulate the effects of massive drug use at the expense of conventional narrative. Look for this uncompromising movie to make a serious run at cult status.
A Friend of the Deceased (1997)
In the east, the winds of social change haven't been as benevolent and enriching for all in equal measure, and that economic and moral confusion is at the heart of this fine new film, a co-production between the Ukraine and France. Long-suffering Anatoli (Alexander Lazarev) is a struggling Kiev-based translator whose estranged wife still sleeps in their bed and coos into a cell phone while he makes do on the couch and awkwardly conducts what little business comes his way on the speakerphone of an otherwise busted handset. When she finally leaves him, his utter despair manifests itself in odd jobs and a bizarre plot or two. His only salvation would appear to be two very different women. With Lazarev's perfectly calibrated hangdog performance balancing the dry, precise tone, director Vyacheslav Krishtofovich's intentions are clear: "In Ukrainian," he says, "the word 'love' and the word 'pity' are sometimes considered synonyms. That is why I made this film about people whom I pity. And whom I love." It is just this fragile balance between the tender and the firm that makes A Friend of the Deceased (the Ukraine's official Foreign Film Oscar submission last year) a noteworthy film of universal, memorable emotions.
The Horse Whisperer (1998)
An overly reverential (and, some say, overlong) adaptation of the Nicholas Evans' novel that retools the provocative story of a fast-track family and their fragmentation as a showpiece for director and star Robert Redford, The Horse Whisperer is substantially better than the kind of noble and dignified miscalculations that have dogged the actor for nearly 15 years. After a hideous accident involving a young woman and her horse (as well as an out-of-control 18-wheeler), the teenager's mother seeks out and persuades a reclusive outdoorsman to heal the animal -- and is shocked to learn that he's having an effect on her as well. As sensitive horse trainer Tom Booker, Redford has surrounded himself with a fine cast and the spectacular scenery of Montana, and in sequences such as a standoff with the recalcitrant animal that finds him outwaiting the horse in a field, he seems to be telling the audience that while he's aware of the passing years it's only a matter of time before the audience returns to him. If he can steer clear of dwelling on the vanity elements of his movies (a feat Clint Eastwood managed in The Bridges of Madison County), it might just happen.
It Happened Tomorrow (1944)
Paris-born actor-turned-filmmaker Rene Clair began his career with such notable avant-garde silent works as Paris Qui Dort, Entr'acte and The Italian Straw Hat, but his later films in Britain and Hollywood apply his imagination to more conventional storytelling. Such is the case with this charming fantasy, making its belated debut on tape. Dick Powell stars as Larry Stevens, an ambitious cub reporter in 1890 whose wish to know the news before it happens is granted by the mysterious Pop Benson (John Philiber). At first content to pick the next day's winners at the racetrack and scoop his fellow journalists, Larry soon opens one of his early editions to find, inevitably, his own death notice. Cowritten with Dudley Nichols (The Informer, Bringing Up Baby), the movie is a light and breezy throwback to vintage Hollywood production line filmmaking that is at once mannered and effortless -- a splendid example of continental filmmaking within a rigidly controlled system that manages to be both glossy and personal, glib and deeply felt.
Les Miserables (1998)
If this version of Victor Hugo's novel seems somehow simplified, chalk that sad fact up to the direction of Bille August, who had much the same flattening effect on Isabel Allendes The House of the Spirits (but, to be fair, also made Pelle the Conqueror and, from a script by Ingmar Bergman, The Best Intentions). Liam Neeson is intrepid and resolute as thief-turned-businessman Jean Valjean, while Geoffrey Rush (Shine) is less determined than just plodding as Javert, the inspector who hounds Valjean unmercifully. The films most convincing performance comes from Uma Thurman as factory-worker-turned-prostitute Fantine. Its a mystery why filmmakers continue to tackle these kind of complicated period pictures, only to lose their nerve in telling the stories in a deliberate and logical manner (this is the same problem that dogs recent productions of The Man in the Iron Mask and that shallow TV version of "Crime & Punishment"). Still, with its sumptuous production values and name cast, the movie provides as good of an introduction as any -- at least until the film version of the hit musical gets made -- to a durable story that has fascinated generations of readers and moviegoers.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Long unavailable on videotape, German iconoclast Werner Herzogs homage to F.W. Murnaus 1922 silent classic reproduces some of the earlier films sets and shots (shades of the upcoming Psycho remake) and stars Klaus Kinski in the ghoulish role made famous by Max Schreck. More formal and stylized than the average horror film (and most horror films these days are pretty average), the glacial pace and unique images, including a procession of coffins seen from on high that will stay with you, work in the films favor to create an atmosphere of hypnotic dread. Isabelle Adjani co-stars as Lucy Harker, with Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker. Consumer alert: Nosferatu the Vampyre is available dubbed into English as well as in its original German language version (which runs 11 minutes longer and is strongly recommended). A fine introduction to the distinctive work of Herzog and long-time collaborator Kinski, this is also liable to be the most distinctive and memorable take on the vampire legend youve seen in quite some time.
There have been a number of distinctive directorial debuts in the last couple of years, but none have quite the cocky exuberance of Shane Meadows TwentyFourSeven. An utterly original, energetic work spiced with generous portions of Angry Young Man social realism, a rough-and-tumble improvisational feel and great music (bloozy themes peppered with Van Morrison, Sun House, Strauss and others) the gritty black and white film -- Ashley Rowes cinematography is extraordinary -- follows the shaky fortunes of the 101 (one on one) Warriors, a Midlands boxing club organized by local character Alan Darcy (Bob Hoskins, superb in a career-best performance) to shake a listless gaggle of local lads out of their societal stupor. "If youve never had anything to believe in youll always be poor," says Darcy in one of the many lyrical journal entries that belie his gruff exterior. This heart-on-its-sleeve line does double duty as the films emotional barometer and a strong hint that with passion as currency, young Meadows has acquired substantial wealth.
Winner of the grand prize Palm dOr at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, this dazzlingly irreverent masterwork from Emir Kusturica uses the story of two brothers between World War Two and the current Balkan struggle as an elaborate metaphor for the downfall of the former Yugoslavia itself. When Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) have a falling out over Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic) while running guns to Titos Communist guerillas under the nose of the occupying Nazis, the former tricks the latter into joining a gaggle of refugees in the cellar of their grandfathers house -- and then fools them into staying there for the next 30 years under the pretext that the war is still raging. Moviegoers not used the peculiar blend of slapstick and seriousness in eastern European cinema may be uneasy at first, but stick with it: by turns harrowing and exhilirating, this is bold, brave filmmaking from one of the worlds great filmmakers.
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