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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Not Playing at a Theatre Near You

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

The phrase "direct-to-video" is not one that tends to instill great confidence in the average movie buff. In its ability to lower expectations, it is perhaps rivaled only by the words "Starring Steven Seagal" (words, not so coincidentally, that are often used in conjunction with the phrase "direct-to-video"). For most consumers, the direct-to-video tag simply means not good enough for theatrical release.

In actuality, this is hardly a fair assessment of the direct-to-video marketplace. For one thing, if you've paid a visit to your local Hell Plaza Octoplex in the past... oh, ever, you'll know that Hollywood isn't exactly measuring the quality of their product by the gold standard. But more importantly, the direct-to-video market encompasses a wide range of genres and budgets. The biggest piece of the pie lately has come from animation with a glut of straight-to-tape/disc sequels and tie-ins to big-budget studio features. This trend encompasses everything from The Animatrix to the recent Chronicles of Riddick spin-off Dark Fury to the cheapening of the entire history of the Walt Disney Studios. Once in a blue moon, the powers-that-be will elevate one of these projects to theatrical status (Toy Story 2 is probably the most famous example) but for the most part, these movies were conceived, born, live and die their entire lives on home video.

On the other end of the spectrum lies the ultra-low-budget world of horror and softcore erotica. These are feature films produced for a budget many, many miles south of the million-dollar mark, often on DV, for a specialized audience of dedicated gore and silicone fans. This is the domain of the Full Moons, the Shock-O-Ramas, the Tempes and yes, the Tromas of the world. A lot of people wouldn't touch these movies with somebody else's ten-foot pole but that's their loss. A lot of them are terrible, yes, but some display a lot more genuine talent and enthusiasm than half a dozen movies like Van Helsing. Besides, these is the area that has helped keep friends of mine like Trent Haaga and Debbie Rochon in Hot Pockets and generic soda for the past several years, so don't knock 'em.

Between these two extremes is a strange netherworld of feature films that are unceremoniously dumped onto video without so much as a by your leave. These movies boast mid-sized budgets (low budgets by studio standards), recognizable if not exactly A-list stars, an established director and more often than not, financing either in part or in whole by foreign production companies. These movies could have and often should have received a theatrical release but for whatever reason, did not. Sometimes the American distributor got cold feet and shelved the project, casting an immediate shadow of failure over the film. Sometimes the movie doesn't even get that far and fails to land a theatrical distributor on these shores at all. This fate can befall a film for any number of reasons: changes in the executive suite at the studio, subject matter that the studio perceives as being culturally troubling at a certain point in time, or even "creative differences" between the filmmaker and the distributor.

At the moment, it seems likely that something like this will happen to the long-delayed film adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation. Directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg (the Norwegian auteur behind the original 1997 Insomnia) and starring Christina Ricci, the movie has received mixed reactions at the various film festivals it's played since its completion over two years ago. Miramax has occasionally announced a release date, then changed its mind and as of this writing, the studio has no plans to release Prozac Nation theatrically. I don't know if the movie's good or bad. I haven't seen it. But I would be very surprised if it wasn't at least watchable.

The direct-to-video world is a crapshoot, no question about it. Major critics don't often review these movies, so you don't really have much to go on when you stumble across them in the video store. As a public service, I've decided to give three recent direct-to-video discs a spin. None of them received a theatrical release in the United States. All of them received a theatrical release abroad. None of them are terrible. Two of them are in fact rather good. All of them could have been released theatrically and probably would have made a little bit of money someone had put their mind to it. If you don't want to run out and purchase them, they'd make fine rental choices for those evenings when Blockbuster is out of copies of Mystic River.

Starting from the bottom of the barrel and working our way up...

Hope Springs

Hope Springs

Oh, those fish-out-of-water romantic comedies. How we love 'em. In Hope Springs, Colin Firth is the fish and the idyllic New England town of Hope is the water. Colin (no, I'm not on a first name basis with Mr. Firth, that's the character's name too) is a British artist, repressed (as are all British people, at least in films) and rebounding from a recently ended engagement. He was attracted to Hope after seeing its name on a map and has come to town to do portraits of the eccentric townsfolk. Not long after his arrival, he meets a free-spirited (as are all American people, at least in films) girl named Mandy (Heather Graham). They fall for each other and Colin's life seems to be turning around until his ex-fiancée Vera (Minnie Driver) shows up eager for reconciliation. Whomever will Colin choose?

Unless this is your first movie, there isn't really much suspense in finding out the answer to that question. Even in the best romantic comedies, there never really is. But Hope Springs would have been a better movie if the outcome were at least partially in doubt. Unfortunately, not only is it painfully obvious that Colin does not want to get back together with Vera (he tells her so, point blank, repeatedly), it's never really clear what he saw in her in the first place. Vera comes across as a horribly vain, selfish woman throughout the movie and Colin is well rid of her. Perhaps if we'd seen some glimpse of what kind of life they'd led back in London, contrasted with the quieter, homespun charms of Hope, we'd be more invested in Colin's dilemma. As it is, the dramatic conflicts simply mark time before the end credits roll.

Still, Hope Springs isn't a completely terrible film and if it had starred Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock instead of Firth and Graham, I'm certain it would have received a theatrical run (Two Weeks Notice, by way of contrast, is a completely terrible film). Hope Springs is quiet, unassuming and occasionally charming, not unlike Brassed Off and Little Voice, two imports also from director Mark Herman. The people of Hope are not portrayed as eccentric caricatures. They're not exactly fully-developed characters, either, but it's somewhat refreshing to see a movie set in a town like this that doesn't feel like either Twin Peaks or The Andy Griffith Show. Oliver Platt gets a couple of funny moments as Hope's self-important mayor and Graham does the best she can with a somewhat underdeveloped role. And never underestimate the power of Colin Firth. As evidenced by Pride & Prejudice, Bridget Jones's Diary and Love Actually, women adore this dour, curly-haired Englishman. Guys, if you want to score some points, bring home a Colin Firth movie. Even if she doesn't like the movie itself, she'll be impressed that you have bowed down before the power of Firth.

Touchstone's DVD presentation of Hope Springs is par for the direct-to-video course. Video and audio are both perfectly acceptable, all the more so owing to the fact that you've never seen this movie in a theatre and therefore have nothing to compare it to. Extras are virtually nil. There's a handful of soapy trailers for similar Buena Vista releases like Raising Helen and a British EPK-like featurette cleverly titled The Making of Hope Springs that tells you that the movie was based on a novel by the author of The Graduate and basically nothing else of any interest.

Ripley's Game

Ripley's Game

No doubt you all remember Anthony Minghella's 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on the novel by the great Patricia Highsmith and starring Matt Damon as the charming sociopath Tom Ripley. Well, New Line must have hoped that not only would you remember it, you liked it well enough to want a sequel. Only thing is Ripley's Game is not a sequel. It's based on the third novel in the five-book series. It isn't directed by Minghella, nor does it share a single key crew member with his film. And taking over the role of Ripley is John Malkovich. Maybe audiences can buy Jack Ryan morphing from Alec Baldwin to Harrison Ford to Ben Affleck, but Damon to Malkovich? Why, that's just confusing. And this, my friends, is the kind of marketing brainteaser that inspires studios to shelve a perfectly good movie.

Ripley's Game finds Tom Ripley living in style in Italy. His semi-retirement is interrupted by the arrival of Reeves (Ray Winstone from Sexy Beast), a thuggish ex-partner of Ripley's who demands his help in eliminating some Russian mob rivals. Ripley refuses to do it but turns Reeves on to a British picture-framer (Dougray Scott), a complete innocent who has nothing to lose because he's dying of leukemia. He reluctantly agrees and soon both he and Ripley learn the old Godfather, Part III lesson, just when you think you're out, they pull you back in.

If the plot sounds familiar, then you've probably seen Wim Wenders' 1977 adaptation of the same book, The American Friend. Ripley's Game is a much different working of the same material and I really couldn't say that one is better than the other. However, it's extremely interesting to compare the two films (just as it is to compare Minghella's film with its predecessor, Rene Clement's 1960 movie Purple Noon). Both The American Friend and Ripley's Game have their strengths and weaknesses with a preference for one over the other coming down to personal taste.

It's immediately clear, however, why the Ripley character is so attractive to actors. In addition to Damon and Malkovich, Dennis Hopper played Ripley in The American Friend and Alain Delon was the first Ripley back in Purple Noon. Ripley is suave, calculating and ruthless and the underused Malkovich makes the most of the part. He's funny, sly and dangerous, whether he's probing to get to the root of an insult or bashing someone's skull in with a wrench. Liliana Cavani, an Italian filmmaker best known in this country for her controversial 1974 movie The Night Porter, directed Ripley's Game. Perhaps surprisingly, Ripley's Game is rather conventional in its dramatic paces and while that works against any claim you might make that it's a great film, it works very well as a suspense thriller. The production design and cinematography are sumptuous, far above the norm for most straight-to-video projects, and maestro Ennio Morricone contributes a very good score (probably his 1,598th).

New Line spared most expense in bringing Ripley's Game to DVD. Picture quality is adequate though hardly an A+ effort. There are three sound options including DTS 5.1 and they get the job done without impressing beyond reason. As for extras, nothing at all apart from a few unrelated New Line trailers.

Ripley's Game is not a great movie and there are moments (including some outlines of blood packs visible beneath people's shirts) that make you realize why this might have skipped the theatrical circuit. But its virtues far outweigh its shortcomings and it's definitely worth a rental, particularly for fans of John Malkovich.

Revengers Tragedy

Revengers Tragedy

Back in the mid 1980's, Alex Cox seemed like the last person who'd show up in a column like this. Every single person I knew had seen and loved his 1984 debut Repo Man. He cemented his indie cred with his follow-up, the punk biopic Sid & Nancy. And then, slowly but surely, his audience started to abandon him. First came the punk spaghetti western comedy Straight to Hell, a movie I've tried time and time again to embrace and just can't no matter how hard I try. And after the jumbled, anachronistic Walker, many of the people who had adored Alex Cox's first two films dismissed him as a self-indulgent two-trick pony.

So what happened to Alex Cox? Personally, I think he had two separate but interrelated problems. First, he stayed completely true to his own iconoclastic voice, regardless of what critics or audiences thought. This is actually admirable and is certainly preferable to a filmmaker who sells out completely and loses track of what made their movies special to begin with. Second, he had the misfortune to spend years working on projects that never got made, at least not with him. Over the years, Cox was attached to everything from Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas to an adaptation of Marvel's Sorcerer Supreme, Dr. Strange (which I still think would be one of the most mindbendingly bizarre superhero movies ever). Perhaps if Cox had been willing to bend a little bit on his personal vision, some of these movies would have been made. But would they still have been Alex Cox movies once they were finished?

Love him or hate him (and I've done both), Alex Cox has earned my respect by being one of the few filmmakers who refuses to compromise. When you sit down to watch one of his movies, you know you're not watching some movie-by-committee. Good or bad, the praise or blame belongs solely to Alex Cox. His most recent project, Revengers Tragedy, makes its US debut on DVD courtesy of Fantoma. Unlike the two movies above, Revengers Tragedy did not get a theatrical run because it never got a theatrical distributor. Cox is too weird, too personal for a run in American cinemas in the 21st century. It's unfortunate because Revengers Tragedy, despite being based on a 17th century play by Thomas Middleton and set in a post-apocalyptic Liverpool, is Cox's most accessible and successful film in years.

The story follows Vindici (Christopher Eccleston) as he returns home a decade after the powerful Duke (Derek Jacobi) murdered his wife. Vindici is sworn to take his revenge on the Duke and insinuates himself with the Duke's power-hungry son Lussurioso (Eddie Izzard). Vindici takes his bloody revenge but the movie's called Revengers Tragedy, so you know he's not going to be riding off into the sunset when it's all over.

Revengers Tragedy is part of a tradition I call visual updating. That is, the text of Middleton's Jacobean play is left virtually intact but the costumes, sets, and music are rocketed centuries forward. When this is done well, you can get a movie like Richard Loncraine's Richard III with Ian McKellan. When it's done poorly, you get Baz Luhrmann. With Revengers Tragedy, Alex Cox does it very well indeed. It works in his favor that Middleton's play is much less well-known than anything by Shakespeare, so the updated costumes and techno score by erstwhile tubthumpers Chumbawamba are not as jarring as they might have been. But also, Cox remains consistent to his own vision, creating a believably bizarre Liverpool dominated by jumbo video screens and populated by knife-throwers, Beefeaters, and royal grudge matches decided with a game of foosball.

When you first hear that Alex Cox is directing a Jacobean tragedy, you might expect the casting to be as bizarre and outlandish as the visual palette. But wisely, Cox plays it straight with a roster of accomplished actors led by Christopher Eccleston. Eccleston is a perfect choice as Vindici, filling the character with a seething hatred that inevitably explodes in mad revenge. Derek Jacobi is no stranger to classic theatre, having participated in several of Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare films, and his ease with the language raises the bar for everyone else. To his credit, he doesn't shy away from Cox's vision, playing the lecher to the hilt. Comedian Eddie Izzard might seem to be the ringer in the bunch but he's surprisingly good here, more than holding his own against Eccleston and Jacobi.

Once again, Fantoma gives the major studios a lesson in how to give an obscure, essentially direct-to-video title a proper DVD release. Picture and 5.1 sound are very good here, on par if not better than the work done by New Line. Cox and Izzard contribute a lively audio commentary that succeeds at being both amusing and informative. A 30-minute documentary provides background into the text as well as Cox's history with it and his working methods. Also included are four featurettes of variable quality, the 2001 Cannes Promo that Cox produced to help get funding for the project, a deleted scene, and a gallery of production art and storyboards. Finally, the insert provides a few interesting excerpts from Cox's online journal.

Revengers Tragedy proves that you don't need theatrical distribution to produce a high-quality feature film. And in this case, it may have even helped that the movie wasn't released theatrically. A major studio wouldn't have lavished half the care on the DVD that Fantoma has. Revengers Tragedy also proves that taking a chance on a completely unknown quantity can sometimes yield great things. If you're like me, you probably had no idea that Alex Cox was still active in filmmaking. It's good to see that he's not only still out there, he's still answering to no one but himself.

Adam Jahnke

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