#046

Bright Lights, Big City
MGM DVD

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The Sure Thing
MGM DVD

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The Flamingo Kid
MGM DVD

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The Rachel Papers
MGM DVD

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Valley Girl
MGM DVD

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80s nostalgia is an established trend now, and MGM has reissued a package of “classics” from the decade, for anyone who maintains a soft spot for down vests, headbands, and sport jackets with rolled-up sleeves.

The best film of the bunch is probably its biggest flop - James Bridges’ movie version of Jay McInerny’s zeitgeist novel Bright Lights, Big City, mostly because of Michael J. Fox’ nicely measured performance as an aspiring young writer in boomtown New York, running afoul of cocaine and the limits of his own ability.

The 80s were hardly a high point in film history. Between the emergence of “blockbuster syndrome”, rampant sequel-itis, and a deluge of teen-oriented product, it was a decade desperately seeking the bottom line, both financially and artistically. Ironically, it seems like a dry run for today’s Hollywood.

If there’s any common denominator to 80s films, mostly “youth-oriented” product made during an anxious economic boom, it’s a preoccupation with class and status, with ambition and identity. Nicolas Cage as a Hollywood punker and Deborah Foreman as the title character in Valley Girl are a great example, and Martha Coolidge’s markedly un-slick film is something of a template for the better teen-oriented films of the decade, striving for a bit of social commentary beneath the wall-to-wall soundtrack.

In The Sure Thing, John Cusack’s lack of ambition is the main obstacle between him and Daphne Zuniga’s prissy but focused co-ed, while in The Rachel Papers, James Spader reprises his cocksure snob from Pretty in Pink as Dexter Fletcher’s rival for the affections of Ione Skye. In the social machinery of an 80s film, wanting money and success was as vital as having it, and pockets of depth came from hinting that money wasn’t everything - a platitude standing in for profundity.

It’s the only period film in the bunch - The Flamingo Kid, with Matt Dillon as a poor kid working at a Long Island beach club in 1963 - that gives away the game: the youth market films of the 80s were being made by Boomer directors, subtly recycling their own nostalgia for their youth by dressing it up in pink lighting, leg warmers and skinny ties. It’s probably why the films seemed, in a phrase, totally bogus.

Except for Valley Girl and The Sure Thing, which come with director’s commentaries and retrospective featurettes, these are mostly no-frills packages. Harshest of all, Bright Lights, Big City’s widescreen print is trimmed to a pan-and-scan transfer, an almost unthinkable lapse on MGM’s part.

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Bringing Down The House
Touchstone DVD

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There might be a dozen ways to cringe at the comic premise behind Bringing Down the House - white people are afraid of black people - but the fact of Queen Latifah’s role in the film mostly nullifies every one.

As an escaped convict who forces uptight tax lawyer Steve Martin to clear her name, she runs the film as neatly as she changes Martin’s life. As executive producer, she made a fortune on this unexpected hit.

The most obvious joke has Martin reprise his Jerk-era physical comedy as he tries to walk and talk homeboy, but the best one has Martin and Latifah drunkenly assault each other as she tries to loosen him up. This five-minute scene is worth every predictable gag in the rest of the film.

Includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, commentary track, gag reel, deleted scenes, a music video, and a tongue-in-cheek short feature meant to sell co-star Eugene Levy as a hip-hop style guru.

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Casablanca Special Edition
Warner Bros. DVD

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As one of the most popular films of all time, Casablanca long deserved a two-disc special edition treatment, and Warner Bros. has finally put together a worthy package. The unearthing of a few minutes of silent deleted scenes and alternate takes is probably an overrated bonus, since the film itself managed to achieve an accidental near-perfection.

An featurette included on the second disc re-tells the familiar story of the film’s making - just another product of Warner’s wartime assembly line, with casting undecided until mere days before filming, and an unwritten ending. Since the casting and the ending are the pillars of the film’s success, it’s an ironic tale of the making of a “classic”.

Lauren Bacall also narrates a film bio of her late husband Humphrey Bogart, a fond tribute which nicely analyzes the slow, but certain evolution of Bogey’s screen persona. A latter-day Bug Bunny spoof of the film, a radio drama version of the movie, and the pilot episode of an unfortunate 1955 TV spin-off are also included.

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Starship Troopers Superbit Edition
Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment DVD

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Paul Verhoeven’s puzzlingly earnest sci-fi war film strives to come off like wartime propaganda from the near future, an intergalactic Sands of Iwo Jima. The glistening Superbit edition of this vaguely off-putting film makes Verhoeven’s over-lit, blood-spattered future combat as vivid as you could want, and makes the film’s disquieting politics - friendly fascism as mankind’s best defense against killer alien bugs - even more abidingly creepy. No bonus features.

©2003 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.