Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men is a film about grifters, so you know it’s going to have a sharp twist of an ending as the inevitable double-cross arrives. What’s rare about the movie is how enjoyable a ride it offers before the rug is pulled out from you.
Nicolas Cage plays a neurotic con man, whose agonized conscience manifests itself in a battery of tics, obsessive compulsive habits and crippling agoraphobia. Cage revels in this sort of human wreckage, and it’s to Scott’s credit that he never lets Cage straddle the film and ride it like a bucking bronco.
As good as Cage are Alison Lohman, as his teen daughter, and Sam Rockwell as his flashy partner. Scott, a director known more for his technical skill, fits them all neatly into his story, and manages to make that most enjoyable of things: a small cut carefully-wrought throwaway film by an epic filmmaker.
Includes a commentary track with Scott and his screenwriters, and an unusually detailed “making of” featurette.
Pieces Of April
The best thing to be said about Pieces Of April is that it’s short; a film this inconsistent would have been torture at two hours, while at barely an hour and a quarter, it rings down the curtain before it’s tempted to do anything beyond its meagre capabilities.
Katie Holmes is the titular April, a boho waif living in a New York tenement with her new boyfriend (Derek Luke), who invites her dysfunctional suburban family for Thanksgiving dinner, as a final desperate gesture to her mother (Oscar-nominated Patricia Clarkson), who’s dying of cancer.
The problems begin with Holmes’ April, a snotty brat whose sole character motivation is a sense of warped entitlement. Writer/director Peter Hedges may have nailed the habitual rudeness of girls like April, but he’s unable to see how unsympathetic it makes her, even when she’s surrounded by an apartment building full of Manhattan. A lesser actress than Clarkson might have made April’s bitchy mother less watchable, but it doesn’t mitigate a building sense of exasperation that’s almost overwhelming when the film abruptly ends.
Includes a commentary track with Hedges, and a “making of” featurette.
The most interesting thing about the DVD release of Ron Howard's The Missing isn't the film, but a group of home movies the director made as a teenager, collected on the ample second disc of bonus features.
Howard, with Opie behind him and Richie Cunningham ahead, was a Hollywood brat with access to horses and western street sets, and a father who once dreamed of being Roy Rogers. The films, which starred both Rance, Howard's father, and his little brother Clint (both of whom have small roles in The Missing), are westerns, short and primitive, but already aware of their sources. One is a homage to Sergio Leone, the other to Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.
Howard includes them as part of his reflections on the western, and flatters himself by musing that, with these little films, he got the cliché western out of his system before he was twenty. If only: Howard is a journeyman director, and as promising as The Missing seems at the start (Tommy Lee Jones actually seems awake for his role as a white man gone native), it subsides into your standard, overshot, frontier action drama by the end.
Death In Venice
Director Luchino Visconti was a count and a Marxist, a not uncommon combination in Italy, and his best films - of which one of these two releases counts - exhibit a sickened fascination with the habits of the wealthy and powerful.
Death In Venice features Dirk Bogarde as a German composer who falls in love with a beautiful young boy while on vacation in pre-World War One Venice. The boy is supposed to represent the catastrophic beauty that Bogarde's character has been trying to keep at arm's length all his life, and by letting himself give in to his passion, he also falls mortally ill with the cholera that's sweeping the city. It's all very lugubrious behind the high-minded rhetoric, but it's also one of the most beautiful films ever shot.
The Damned, on the other hand, is a grotesque soap opera about the rise of the Nazi party and the fortunes of a wealthy manufacturing family. It makes no sense, politically or otherwise, but it's grossly watchable despite itself. Both films feature fawning period "making of" documentaries that underline Visconti's once-unassailable status as an artist.
Chappelle’s Show: Season One Uncensored
Just as Richard Pryor was a post-Dick Gregory comic, and Eddie Murphy was a post-Pryor comic, and Chris Rock a post-Murphy comic, Dave Chappelle is a post-Rock comic. Yes, they’re all black comics, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that, especially with Rock and Chappelle, being young and black a generation after civil rights has demoted racism to a backdrop, not a looming shadow, as it was for Gregory and Pryor.
A far less spiky persona than Rock, Chappelle can be provocative (an intro where a pretty white girl sings the casually hostile thoughts of a young black man) and make it seem utterly free of rage.
Chappelle’s show, which relies mostly on less-than-revolutionary TV and movie satires, gained real confidence over this first season. Bonus features on this set include a handful of commentaries, a blooper reel, and unaired footage of the regular “Ask A Black Dude” spots, with writer Paul Mooney, an older black comic whose anger is far more palpable than the amiable Chappelle.
Filmed from a script by Lillian Hellman - who never met an average American she liked - 1966's The Chase is one of those potboiler social melodramas that positively shivered with a message that Something Was Wrong With America. Robert Redford plays an escaped convict whose return to his small southern town (they're always set in small southern towns - the ground zero of American iniquity) blows the top off a boiling mess of social and emotional turmoil. Peyton Place updated for the 60s. No special features.
The Cola Conquest
I suppose some people might be able to watch this documentary about the global expansion of American cola companies with a suitable sense of anti-globalist outrage. At heart it's a fascinating exploration of the history of marketing, slightly tipsy with a whiff of corporate skepticism. It made me want a nice cold Coke, to be frank.
Michelangelo Antonioni's film about a cynical young photographer (David Hemming) in Swinging London who inadvertently witnesses a murder was once a sensation, a film that young people embraced as an espression of their culture. Today, it looks very different - a chilly dismissal of the fashionable counterculture - and warning that if you base a film around a cold protagonist, you get a cold film. No bonus features.
Star Trek: Voyager Season One
The first season of Voyager was a back-to-basics exercise for the Trek brain trust, who wanted to take the series back on to a starship, and into the final frontier. The twist was a female captain (Kate Mulgrew as Katherine Janeway) and a black Vulcan (Tim Russ' Tuvok). Voyager didn't lose its stiffness for a season or two, by which point it had also fallen victim to the holodeck disease (how else do you fight Nazis in deep space?). Comes with a disc loaded with the special production features and "easter eggs" that Trek fans demand.