Monday, March 26, 2007
Sometimes the best movie in town isn't actually in the movie theater. Don't overlook these recent releases on DVD.
Half Nelson (2006) ***1/2
With all the attention going to Forest Whitaker this year for his Best Actor win in the showy "The Last King of Scotland," Ryan Gosling's subtle turn in this indie powerhouse was a little overlooked. Rent the DVD and find out why a film that barely made $2.6 million at the box office was still able to get nominated in the same category.
Gosling is vibrant as a Brooklyn middle school history teacher who tries to give his students a wide perspective, sermonizing on the ying and yang of the world's forces-a never-ending battle. But this is no "Dangerous Minds" or "Freedom Writers." He fights that war with himself every day. One of his students (Sharika Epps) discovers that her teacher is hopelessly addicted to crack, and that he may not be the best one to dole out advice. An unlikely and non-judgmental relationship between the two develops and every moment that passes between them is genuine and unpredictable.
Reds: 25th Anniversary Edition (1981) ***1/2
At the complete other end of the spectrum is Warren Beatty's three-hour epic about writer/activist John Reed, who spent most of his short life on the fringe of early 20th-century political life. Unavailable on DVD until late last year, the transfer is stunning. "Reds" proves that movies on this huge of a scale can be full of ideas and do not have to rely on action alone (take that "300"!).
Against the backdrop of the Russian revolution, Reed navigates his way through a prickly relationship with headstrong Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) and playwright Eugene O'Neill (a subdued Jack Nicholson). Their romance is deeply felt but erratic; nothing inflames Reed's passions like rhetoric and social change. For Beatty, "Reds" is a deeply personal film, and Reed's struggle to write about things that matter mirror Beatty's own wild swings between commercial fare and risky material. And what could be more risky than to look at the rise of Communism coming out during the cold war of the early 1980s?
Brick (2006) ***
Since when did the real-life teenage problems of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" become so outdated that they are easily replaced by noir stereotypes like dumb goons with guns and conniving femme fatales? Rian Johnson's startling directorial debut not only elevates the problems of high school to a darkly comic level, but it also creates its own lingo. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the rest of the young, mostly unknown cast never raise an eyebrow, playing their hard-boiled dialogue as straight as ever.
Like "Half Nelson," "Brick" is a low-budget independent film, which makes it ripe for discovery on home video. The similarities between movies end there, as Johnson jettisons realistic situations and unintrusive camerawork for the hyper-real style of film noir. Like any good film of the genre, there is a murder and a sleuth-but there is so much to savor in the clever dialogue and stark widescreen cinematography that you may not notice or even care whodunit.
Pretty Poison (1968) ***
Another long lost movie that is finally available on DVD, "Pretty Poison" should soon be elevated from cult status to minor classic. Anthony Perkins proves there's more than one way to play a psycho with this role as a morally ambiguous ex-con who seduces a high school drum majorette, played by a mischievous Tuesday Weld. First he lies to her about being a secret federal agent, but gradually the stakes get higher. Perkins must face-not again!-her domineering mother.
Small town America may not have been ready for this kind of movie, especially one that gleefully lampoons the very idea of normality, but today it's not quite as shocking as it was back then. Despite the fact that some of its plot twists have been exploited ad nauseum by every screenwriter in Hollywood since then, "Pretty Poison" maintains an edge over all of them. It remains an intriguing curiosity that asks you in the end to re-examine the key moments you thought you had pegged the first time.
A Fish Called Wanda: Collector's Edition (1988) ****
Monty Python alum John Cleese wrote this hilarious tale of cultural differences taken to their furthest extremes, and you don't have to be a fan of Python to appreciate it. Kevin Kline won the rare Supporting Actor Oscar for a comedic role as Otto, a dim-witted criminal who reads philosophy but doesn't understand it, and recites Italian words like "spaghetti" to get girlfriend Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) hot and bothered. Like "Fawlty Towers," Cleese again plays a British stuffed shirt, and nobody does it better.
"Wanda" actually manages to throw in a dash of romance against all the inspired lunacy and live fish-eating, which is no small task. Besides a somewhat dated musical score, the movie has aged well and looks terrific on a new double-disc version with lots of extras. If there's one thing that never gets old, it's the love/hate relationship we share with our neighbors over the pond, and Cleese's perfect comic concoction plays this out with side-splitting results.