FARGO (MGM, 1996) D: Joel Coen w/ Frances McDormand, William H. Macy. Rating: NNNNN
given the coen brothers' habit of making funhouse-mirror versions of classic films - The Big Lebowski as Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, for example - you wonder if they conceived the snowbound thriller Fargo - a film blanc if ever there was one - as their answer to In Cold Blood. Fargo, the Coens' one official classic, won Oscars for its screenplay and for Frances MacDormand's performance as Marge Gunderson, a small-town police chief who finds herself up against two sociopaths in a kidnap/ransom deal that goes horribly wrong.
This new DVD issue is a complete upgrade and replacement of the old bare-bones issue, with a huge bonus for serious Coenheads: a commentary by cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coens' key creative collaborator since Miller's Crossing.
DVD EXTRAS Cinematographer commentary; Minnesota Nice, a new making-of feature; Charlie Rose interview with the Coens and McDormand; a really annoying, if funny, trivia text track; photo gallery; advertising gallery. English and French versions and subtitles.
THE GOOD THIEF (Alliance Atlantis, 2002) D: Neil Jordan w/ Nick Nolte, Nutsa Kukhianidze. Rating: NNNN
watching this loose remake of Bob Le Flambeur for the third time, it strikes me that, given Nick Nolte's age, it may be the last great starring role of his career. It's been a great one, taking into account both his tendency toward self-destruction and his preference for working with great writers and difficult directors rather than going the conventional Hollywood route. Here, he plays an aging gambler and junkie who joins in a scheme to knock over a Monte Carlo casino for its art collection.
The plot, however, is secondary to the detailed atmosphere of the new polyglot south of France, the neon world of late clubs and petty criminals, and the way Jordan steps back to let Nolte rip in a role that's all philosophical gas and clever gamesmanship.
Nolte's performance is a rare instance of a dominant central performance that engages with every actor in the picture. Check his scenes with Tchéky Karyo as the cop who pursues him and with Nutsa Kukhianidze, a young Russian girl he rescues from a local pimp, and you see an actor who improves the game of everyone around him.
DVD EXTRAS Director commentary explaining some of the stylistic choices, like those little freeze frames and the striking colour choices; making-of featurette; deleted scenes; optional commentary. English and French versions and subtitles.
THE DANCER UPSTAIRS (20th Century Fox, 2003) D: John Malkovich, w/ Javier Bardem, Laura Morante. Rating: NNN
MEN WITH GUNS (Columbia TriStar, 1997) D: John Sayles, w/ Federico Luppi, Damián Alcázar. Rating: NNNN
when american filmmakers visit unnamed Latin American countries, a certain degree of earnestness is intrinsic to the enterprise. John Sayles filmed in Mexico, near Chiapas, and John Malkovich filmed in Spain and Ecuador to create these stories about living in an atmosphere of political terror. Men With Guns is the better film, in large part because Sayles wrote and directed it in Spanish with Spanish actors, so while you're forced to read subtitles, you're seldom distracted by the actors' desperate struggle with the English language, as you are in The Dancer Upstairs.
Malkovich shot in English with Spanish actors. While Javier Bardem is a great actor, you often have to resort to the English subtitles, or, on the DVD, to the Spanish dubbed track. It sounds more natural.
In Sayles's film, an upper-class doctor played by the great Argentine actor Federico Luppi goes into the countryside to find the doctors he trained to work in remote villages, only to find they've all been killed - by terrorists, says the military, though the locals have a different story.
It's a film about the way people at a comfortable remove from violence can lie to themselves about it, and what happens when those lies are suddenly confronted by the truth.
Malkovich's film, from Nicholas Shakespeare's novel, is about the last honest cop in a Latin American dictatorship, who finds himself betrayed by the people he trusted and served. The DVD is an improvement on the theatrical release because it lets us watch the film in Spanish; Bardem dubbed himself.
DVD EXTRAS Dancer: director/star commentary, making-of featurette, Sundance Channel interview with Malkovich, theatrical trailer. English, French, Spanish versions and subtitles. Men With Guns: director commentary, John Sayles trailer gallery (Men With Guns, Limbo, Sunshine State, Passion Fish). Spanish with English, French, Portuguese subtitles.
GAS, FOOD, LODGING (Columbia TriStar, 1993) D: Allison Anders w/ Brooke Adams, Ione Skye, Fairuza Balk. Rating: NNNN
what happened to allison anders? This story of a mother (Brooke Adams) and her two daughters (Ione Skye, Fairuza Balk) was one of the indie treats of the early 90s, a realistically detailed portrait of a single mom and her reckless daughters in a town in the Southwestern desert. And nobody involved in the film, except for Fairuza Balk, has managed to sustain a career since then. Adams and Skye peaked here; Adams hardly acts in movies any more, and Skye's career, after this and Say Anything, turned out to be blink-and-you'll-miss-it.
DVD EXTRAS None. Columbia has an annoying habit of releasing catalogue titles for nearly full price without extras. In this case, director Anders and the cast are very much alive and kicking, and it would be nice to have their thoughts. Commentaries aren't that expensive. English and French titles.
IN COLD BLOOD (Columbia TriStar, 1967) D: Richard Brooks, w/ Robert Blake, Scott Wilson. Rating:
NNN in cold blood has been persist ently over-praised since its release. Only Pauline Kael noted that the film's baroque visual style is at odds with the flat, reportorial style of Truman Capote's book. Richard Brooks's recreation - often in the real locations - of the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas by the dyad of Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) and Perry Smith (Robert Blake) may be the last true film noir. It's worth seeing less for the performances than for Conrad Hall's (Fat City, American Beauty) black-and-white cinematography, which is given full value in this excellent transfer.
DVD EXTRAS Theatrical trailer. English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Thai subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, September 30
SCARFACE ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Universal) Directed by Brian De Palma, written by Oliver Stone, starring Al Pacino. Scarface isn't a model of cinematic restraint. It may be the most over-the-top film any of those concerned have made, including Natural Born Killers and Scent Of A Woman. The more expensive Special Gift Edition includes Howard Hawks's original 1932 film.
THE WARNER LEGENDS COLLECTION (Warner) Warner Brothers went into the vaults for two-disc special editions of The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (in a box or singly). Documentaries, commentaries, period-appropriate animation.
FASSBINDER'S BRD TRILOGY (Criterion/Morningstar) The films that put Fassbinder on the map with North American audiences: The Marriage Of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and Lola. Extras in the four-disc Criterion package include a commentary on Maria Braun by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, star interviews and a feature-length biographical documentary on Fassbinder.
BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM (20th Century Fox) Anglo-Indian girl wants to play soccer. Ethno-cultural hijinks! You will be going now, girlfriend.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb