Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Call the Doctor

Lumet releases two on video.

By Noel Murray, Rob Nelson, and Jim Ridley

MARCH 2, 1998: 

On the wall--new releases

Critical Care After the wildly incompetent A Stranger Among Us and Guilty as Sin, director Sidney Lumet spent 1997 learning how to make movies again. He started the year with the gripping, salty legal procedural Night Falls on Manhattan, and he closed it with this dark satire of modern medicine. James Spader stars as a cynical hospital resident who gets embroiled in a tug-of-war between two sisters, their dying father, and their respective insurance companies. Lumet indulges some needlessly zany subplots (Wallace Shawn appears as, yes, the devil), and he relies too much on one-dimensional character types. But he coaxes great performances out of Spader and Helen Mirren, and he lets the comedy bubble up quietly from well-placed close-ups and from the imaginatively sterile set design. The film is also worth seeing for Albert Brooks' riotous turn as a drunken administrator. If nothing else, Lumet has remembered how to cast. (NM)

David Halberstam's The Fifties In the wake of an atomic blast, the telltale strains of "Let the Good Times Roll" fade up, and images of advertising icons and civil defense propaganda flicker across the screen. Thus begins each episode of a remarkable seven-part miniseries, now on video after its airing on The History Channel last November. Unlike Halberstam's fine book, which showed the relevance of a seemingly "tame" decade through the chronological accumulation of anecdotes and biographies, this documentary version takes a more direct approach, skipping across the years and using pointed interview reminiscences to make bold connections. There are episodes on sexuality, race relations, the cold war, youth culture, and more. But two installments stand out: "Selling the American Dream," about how new advertising techniques were used to pitch a president and his foreign policy, and "Let's Play House," which contrasts the family-centric image of the decade with three popular books that the '50s spawned--The Feminine Mystique, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Peyton Place. (NM)

Gravesend It's hard to say which is more outlandish--the plot of Gravesend or the movie's origins. For this 16mm mean-streets indie about four Italian-American boys who accumulate a trunk-full of dead bodies during one long night in Brooklyn, 19-year-old NYU dropout Salvatore Stabile used a three-man crew, two hot-wired lights, and a $5,000 inheritance from his gramma. He then went on to earn completion funds, a Seattle Film Fest screening, a rave review in Variety, a "presented by" credit from Oliver Stone, and a two-picture deal with Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks. Certainly, Stabile's story is more original than his movie's amalgam of Cassavetes, Scorsese, Gomez, Tarantino, and Kevin Smith; even though none of the hothead ultra-V is as shocking as it wants to be, Stabile does get the utmost out of unprofessional actors, cramped-hallway sets, and the F-word. And since Gravesend is a far more convincing piece of schlock than Stone's early-'70s Seizure, you never know what this kid might have in store. (RN)

Ma Saison Prfere This riveting French melodrama focuses on the archetypal situation of a middle-aged brother and sister forced to care for their dying mother; it's characterized by the constant refusal of director Andre Techine (Les Voleurs) to take the easy way out in style or theme. Scene after scene serves the emotional truths that most American films go out of their way to avoid. Out of touch for three years, the siblings--lawyer Emilie (Catherine Deneuve) and neurologist Antoine (Daniel Auteuil)--come together in Toulouse feeling an equal measure of love and rage toward each other and toward their 70-year-old mom (Marthe Villalonga), who's pretty bitter herself. Despite the overwhelming bleakness of the proceedings, there's a thrill to the way the horrors of familial relations are so unjudgmentally, therapeutically laid bare. (RN)

Off the wall--alternatives to new releases

The Duellists People who go to the video store looking for GI Jane probably aren't checking it out because they're fans of director Ridley Scott, but those who have followed Scott's checkered career should seek out his first feature--the eccentric tale of a personal vendetta writ against the background of the French Revolution. The very American costars, Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel, play noblemen soldiers whose paths cross every few years, when they renew their pledge to duel to the death. In Godot-like fashion, their duel is perpetually postponed until the gripping finale, when Scott employs all the taut action beats that he would later slide under Alien, Blade Runner, and Thelma and Louise. (NM)

The Stunt Man The biggest cheat of The Game was the way Michael Douglas' extreme paranoia turned out to be completely founded. Much cooler is Richard Rush's 1980 cult classic, wherein what's real and what's make-believe remain tantalizingly ambiguous up to the final frame. The film's main attraction, though, is Peter O'Toole's witty romp as a megalomaniacal director who takes a desperate, fugitive criminal (Steve Railsback) and turns him into one committed stunt man. Railsback is as good as dead anyway, so what's the harm in squeezing every last drop of blood out of him for the camera? When the tape ends, you'll be pleased to find that this is one puzzle that doesn't fit together neatly. (NM)

Laserdisc

A Night to Remember (Criterion) Until last Christmas, this sterling British docudrama from 1958 was regarded as the ultimate cinematic recreation of the Titanic's ill-fated voyage. Director Roy Ward Baker wasn't blessed with Hollywood starpower, digital resources, or James Cameron's naive dynamism, but that only makes his spectacular, taut retelling even more impressive. You'll be amazed to see how many shots and details turned up 40 years later in Cameron's version. But it isn't just the movie that makes this Criterion two-disc edition so essential It's the remarkable analog commentary by Titanic historians Don Lynch and Ken Marshall, who speak authoritatively on passengers, props, and even which version of "Nearer My God to Thee" accompanied the ship to Davy Jones' locker. Best of all is a documentary on the movie's making in 1958. To see a Godzilla-sized technician fixing miniature mechanized rowboats is to marvel at the filmmakers' ingenuity with the resources at hand. Then as now, the heroic efforts onscreen inspired them offscreen as well. (JR)


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