the wim wenders collection: the american friend, lightning over water and notebook on cities and clothes (Anchor Bay, 1977, 1980, 1989) Three discs only available separately. Ratings: The American Friend NNN, Lightning NNNN, Notebook N
As he nears 60, does Wim Wenders ever sit around thinking, "Didn't I used to be a genius?" He's one of the few directors to win the top award at both Cannes and Berlin. But does anybody remember why?
The current DVD catalogue is no help. The vagaries of distribution are such that Wenders's three best films -- the epic Kings Of The Road, the mournful Paris, Texas and the evanescent Wings Of Desire -- are unavailable anywhere, including Germany. His most gaseous wastes of time, however, have all been digitized: Until The End Of The World; Faraway, So Close; The End Of Violence; and The Million Dollar Hotel, a film whose producer/star, Mel Gibson, pronounced it "as boring as a dog's ass." It's in rotation on the Movie Channel this month if you don't believe him.
Of Anchor Bay's three new Wenders issues, two qualify as important and one is actually fun to watch.
Wenders's lone thriller, The American Friend is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game (Highsmith's sociopath has now been played by Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon and, in the forthcoming Ripley's Game, John Malkovich). With Hopper opposite Bruno Ganz's reluctant art restorer and two of Wenders's favourite directors, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller, in supporting roles, The American Friend plays like a German director's dream of an American thriller. Gorgeous Robby Müller cinematography.
The other two issues are documentaries. The astonishingly tedious Notebook On Cities And Clothes is an 80-minute look at Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto at work in Paris and Tokyo. What Chris Marker might have done with a project like this! And adding insult to injury, Wenders provides a commentary, just in case you were wondering if anything could be duller than a Wenders documentary on fashion.
More problematic, and more interesting, is Lightning Over Water, subtitled Nick's Movie, an act of cinematic morbidity verging on necrophilia. In 1979, Wenders arrives in New York to make a film with/about the aging and desperately ill Nick Ray. You get the overwhelmingly creepy feeling that Wenders may love and admire Ray, the legendary director of Rebel Without A Cause, but that he'd also like to film his death.
It's a difficult film to watch, but a tender act of hero worship. Wenders's commentary adds to it, and this is the first American work by cinematographer Ed Lachman (Far From Heaven).
DVD EXTRAS Director commentaries on all three. Lightning includes the full lecture Ray gives during the film; Notebook has deleted scenes (oh, joy!); American Friend has deleted scenes and trailer.
signs (Buena Vista Home Video) D: M. Night Shyamalan, w/ Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix. Rating: NNN
M. Night Shyamalan has an undeniably exquisite eye for dread, and the first 80 minutes of Signs plays as a haunting mood piece about a Pennsylvania farm family's encounter with the edge of an alien incursion.
Then there's the hyper-tricky ending (on second viewing you can't avoid watching the elaborate set-up), which makes it seem as if Shyamalan had set out to make the sort of movie his detractors have accused him of making since The Sixth Sense.
And on second look you start asking questions the director doesn't want to hear, like, "Why would a species with an aversion to water invade a planet that's pretty much covered with the stuff?" and "Couldn't Mel's dying wife have given him a clearer message?"
The principal DVD extra is a rather good hour-long making-of documentary in which we learn, among other things, that they grew those acres of corn specially for the film.
Shyamalan is chatty enough in the documentary to render the lack of a commentary moot. But where's the trailer? Signs had a great one.
DVD EXTRAS Making-of documentary, deleted scenes, short excerpt from one of Shyamalan's teen films, storyboards, English and French versions.
the good girl (20th Century Fox, 2002) D: Miguel Arteta, w/ Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal. Rating: NNN
If anyone's wondering where Jennifer Aniston's Oscar buzz went, I blame the Academy screeners Fox sent out last month.
The story of Justine (Aniston), a Texas retail clerk who acts on her dissatisfaction with her life by taking a younger lover (Gyllenhaal) in place of her stoned house painter husband (John C. Reilly), The Good Girl is small, precisely observed and very well acted. But it doesn't render up anything new on third viewing. It's thin and limited by its very precision, as if the characters had made the film to fit inside their own tiny world view.
Worth a rent for Aniston, Gyllenhaal and the smaller contributions of Tim Blake Nelson, Deborah Rush and the hilarious Zooey Deschanel. The extras don't add much. Listening to the commentary by Arteta and screenwriter Michael White, you can only assume that nothing amusing ever happened on the set.
DVD EXTRAS Director/writer commentary, scene commentary by Aniston (not interesting), deleted scenes, alternate ending, gag reel, wide-screen and pan-and-scan versions -- it's a "flipper." English and Spanish-language version and subtitles.
trouble in paradise (Criterion/Morningstar, 1932) D: Ernst Lubitsch, w/ Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall. Rating: NNNN
this is a classic hollywood comedy from the pre-Code era, when sophisticated comedy wasn't quite as subject to the censors. It features a pair of thieves whose crimes go unpunished, racily smart dialogue, art deco sets and a sublime comic turn by Miriam Hopkins, an undervalued actor who gives her best performance here.
Director Lubitsch, the first of Hollywood's great European imports and the master of the intelligent romantic comedy (The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, The Shop Around The Corner), creates his first sound masterpiece here from Samson Raphaelson's script.
When people ask why they don't make them like this any more, I want to say, "Well, almost nobody ever made them like this." Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman compares Trouble In Paradise to a Fabergé egg. Besides, the world that supported this society of wealth and cultivated international criminals is gone. On those rare occasions when someone tries to make one like this, the result is You've Got Mail, for which Nora Ephron will burn, or something like it.
This is a very good transfer of one of Hollywood's greatest films from the 30s, but at $60 it's not cheap. Note that the online vendors offer it in release-week specials at 20 to 30 per cent below list.
DVD EXTRAS Critical commentary by Eyman, video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, and one of those Criterion-only specials -- a 1939 radio comedy featuring Lubitsch, Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert and Basil Rathbone. English subtitles.
wisegirls (Lions Gate Home Video, 2001) D: David Anspaugh, w/ Mira Sorvino, Mariah Carey. Rating: NN
Is the sorvino family genetically attracted to crap? You can talk about the "curse" of the supporting-actress Oscar, but Sorvino is supposedly smart (Harvard grad). Yet she's worked steadily for seven years since winning her Oscar and has a mind-boggling list of junk movies to show for it. After Son Of Sam for Spike Lee, her best post-Oscar films are arguably The Replacement Killers, a Chow-Yun Fat shoot-'em-up, and the giant mutant bug movie Mimic (of note because their directors would later make Training Day and The Devil's Backbone). It's no worse than father Paul's filmography -- Slow Dancing In The Big City, anyone? -- but he never won the big one either.
In Wisegirls, which never made theatres, Sorvino finds work waiting tables in a mob-owned restaurant where she goes all buddy movie with fellow servers Mariah Carey and Melora Walters.
The surprise isn't that Sorvino's good (being good in junk is a family trait), but that Carey's much more fun as a brash bridge-and-tunnel hellion than she was as a diva-in-training in the disastrous Glitter. Evil mob stuff happens and there are huge plot twists. Almost worth renting to answer the question "Whatever happened to that guy who made Hoosiers?"
DVD EXTRAS Theatrical trailer -- an Easter egg in the main menu, which gives away a big plot twist.
Also this week
ABOUT A BOY (Universal) Hugh Grant as a shallow, self-absorbed jerk in an adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel. Very funny.
FOX STUDIO CLASSICS A trio of Academy Award winners brought into the DVD era: All About Eve, How Green Was My Valley and Gentleman's Agreement, also known as the film that beat Sunset Boulevard and Citizen Kane and the one where Gregory Peck tries to pass as a Jew.
UNDERCOVER BROTHER (Universal) Affectionate updating of classic blaxploitation films, with comic Eddie Griffin in the title role and Denise Richards as White She Devil. Really, it's in the credits and everything.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb
No rating indicates no screening copy