DVD Reviews for 2/18: A Good Ashley Judd Film? Believe It or Not!

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/18/05 14:27:16

One of the reasons that the shoddy recent work by Ashley Judd (such as last year’s abysmal “Twisted”) is so enraging is the simple fact that, unlike many other performers who coast from project to project with only trace amounts of talent, charm or charisma, she has all of those qualities in abundance and, at least in the early part of her career, she wasn’t afraid to make use of them. Her breakthrough performance in “Ruby in Paradise” served as the announcement of a major new actress and her work in “Heat” showed that she could more than hold her own against the likes of Pacino and De Niro. And yet, despite the fact that she could pull off almost any role imaginable, she has inexplicably chosen to avoid the kind of riskier work that got her noticed in the first place for the kind of bland formula films that barely seem to have enough energy in them to make it from the projector to the screen.

To date, her single greatest performance–indeed, one of the strongest bits of film acting that you are ever likely to see–was in what probably remains the most obscure and least-seen film of her career, John McNaughton’s 1996 masterpiece “Normal Life.” In this powerful drama, based on a true story that occurred in Chicago in the early 1990's, Judd plays a wild, emotionally damaged woman who falls into a passionate romance with a straight-laced guy (Luke Perry, also quite good in a less showy role). They marry and try to live happily ever after but crushing economic problems eventually nudge them into a life of crime in order to afford a chance at a decent lifestyle. It all ends badly, of course, but one of the fascinating things about the film is that it manages to fully sympathize with the characters and their actions without ever glossing over or romanticizing the true nature of their behavior or actions. A lot of that is thanks to Judd’s work; it is an astonishing tightrope-walk of a performance in which she has to be sweet, funny, scary, tragic, sexy, distraught and deranged–quite often all at once–and she pulls it off with an almost frightening degree of ease.

Almost as frightening was the shockingly inept handling that the film received at the hands of its distributors. Produced on a tiny budget for New Line’s Fine Line subsidiary, “Normal Life” apparently didn’t test well with audiences (not surprising, considering the gut-wrenching journey it took them on). Instead of remembering the lesson they learned the previous year when “Seven” tested badly and yet became an enormous hit anyway, the studio essentially told McNaughton that his film was no good and that they wouldn’t release it in theaters. Outraged, McNaughton waged a war with the studio in the press and they finally agreed to distribute it theatrically. Unfortunately, their “release” consisted entirely of a couple of brief, poorly advertised runs in New York and Chicago that made it look like a “Natural Born Killers” rip-off. As a result, it quickly disappeared and since it never played Los Angeles, Judd was robbed of the Oscar nomination that she would have otherwise been assured of (as this performance would have done for her what “Monster” did for Charlize Theron). Although the DVD, not surprisingly, couldn’t be more of a bare-bones release, it is finally available and perhaps now it can finally begin to reach the audience that it deserves. Hell, maybe Ashley Judd will pick it up and be reminded of the work she was once capable of.

Written by Peg Haller & Bob Schneider. Directed by John McNaughton. Starring Ashley Judd, Luke Perry, Bruce Young and Jim True-Frost. 1996. 101 minutes. Rated R. A New Line Home Video release. $19.95


DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (Fox Home Video. $26.98): For those who thought that Richard Kelly’s 2001 mind-bender, involving time-travel, quantum physics, the end of the world, giant bunny rabbits and Patrick Swayze, was just too perplexing, they should probably check out this new edition, in which previously deleted scenes have been returned to clarify some of the more confusing elements. For those who cherished the original precisely because it didn’t explain things, you should probably hang on to the original DVD (which contains most of the restored footage in its deleted scenes section) but this version (featuring a new commentary from Kelly, prodded along by Kevin Smith) is still worth a look.

THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO: SEASON ONE (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $29.98): Best remembered now for a theme song that inspired big laughs in both a “Seinfeld” episode and a key scene in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” this was a pretty funny attempt at fantasy television, 80's-style. For those too young to remember, William Katt starred as a schnook high-school teacher who is given a superhero suit with astounding powers by alien visitors; sadly, the poor dope loses the instructions and has to learn his abilities literally on the fly. Surprisingly, despite the dated Cold War references, much of the humor still holds up, as does the ever-lasting appeal of Connie Selleca.

HOWARD’S END (Home Vision Entertainment. $29.95): Most of the films in the Merchant-Ivory catalogue are boring literary adaptations with all of the life and energy of a museum installation. This 1992 effort, an adaptation of the classic novel by E.M. Forster (whose “A Room With a View” inspired their other high-water mark), was the exception to the rule–a film that generates its power from the genuine emotion that it creates and not just from the pretty sets and costumes.

THE ICE PIRATES (Warner Home Video. $14.97): The bizarre 1984 sci-fi spoof, in which Robert Urich, Mary Crosby and Anjelica Huston embarrass themselves in a battle for the most valuable substance in the universe, H2O, is one of the dumbest movies that I have ever seen in my life. Nevertheless, I am compelled to recommend it for two reasons; it is so peculiar that everyone should see it once just for the experience and, amazingly, it isn’t the dumbest movie being released on DVD this week. (We’ll get to that title in a bit.)

KANSAS CITY (New Line Home Video. $19.97): Robert Altman’s 1996 drama was one of his less successful films, mostly due to a less-than-compelling story (a gun moll kidnaps the wife of a politician so that he will free the moll’s boyfriend from the clutches of the mob leader he has crossed) and a surprisingly weak performance from the usually reliable Jennifer Jason Leigh as the moll. However, the Depression-era film does contain a wonderful jazz soundtrack and a performance from Harry Belafonte, as the mob leader, that is fearsome, funny and always compelling to watch.

THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (Universal Home Video. $29.98): While Gael Garcia Bernal was impressive playing the young Che Guevara on a cross-country motorcycle trip that would prove to open his eyes to the world around him and alter his destiny forever, the film sells him short by painting the controversial future leader as the kind of sweet, cuddly communist that even Joe McCarthy might have embraced. Well meaning but a little too toothless to have much of an impact.

RENDEZ-VOUS (Home Vision Entertainment. $19.98): A flighty young woman comes to Paris to act and finds herself embroiled in the lives of three vastly different men; the nice guy who loves her from afar whom she won’t sleep with, the nice guy’s sleazy roommate whom she is willing to sleep with and the older director who casts her in a production of “Romeo & Juliet” and begins to serve as a sort of father figure. This thoughtful 1985 French film served as an early career turning point for director Andre Techine (who won the Best Director award at Cannes) and Juliette Binoche, whose work in the central role launched her career as one of France’s leading actresses.

SAW (Lion’s Gate Home Video. $28.98): Although plagued with faulty plotting, a screenplay far too reliant on the likes of “Seven” for its own good and a performance by Cary Elwes that has already become legendary for its sheer awfulness (especially in his hilarious final scene), this Australian-lensed horror film, about two guys (Elwes and co-writer Leigh Wannell) who try to figure out why they are trapped in a filthy abandoned bathroom as the future victims of a devious serial killer, does have a ferocious energy to it and a refreshing lack of silly humor to water down the gloom and doom. Hardly a breakthrough film but genre buffs willing to overlook the flaws may get a kick out of it.

TAXI (Fox Home Video. $29.98): Though I can hardly believe that anyone who actually endured this worthless Jimmy Fallon-Queen Latifah “comedy” (an Americanized trashing of a reasonably effective French action film from Luc Besson) came away hoping for more, Fox has decided to throw a bone to masochists everywhere by releasing an extended version contain footage deemed not worthy of the original cut. Yeah, I know it has hot Brazilian babes in bikinis (led by Giselle Bundchen) in it, but if that is all you want, you would be far better off picking up “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2005" (Goodtimes Home Video); there are far more lightly-clad ladies and even the dialogue is an improvement.

TOUT VA BIEN (Criterion. $29.95): Although not the ideal way to introduce newcomers to the works of Jean-Luc Godard, devotees will be thrilled to have this 1972 bit of agitprop (co-directed by Jean-Pierre Gorin), in which a strike at a sausage factory being covered by an American reporter (Jane Fonda) transforms into an examination of leftist politics, society and the role of the artist in both. Also on the disc is “Letter to Jane”, Godard’s slightly unfair (in that he never allows his subject to properly respond) hour-long film in which he mercilessly deconstructs a photo of Fonda taken during the infamous trip she took to North Vietnam after shooting “Tout Va Bien”.

THE YES MEN (MGM Home Video. $29.95): More agitprop, but in a much lighter form. This is a hilarious documentary about a couple of merry pranksters whose anti-W.T.O. website looked so much like the real thing that they found themselves being invited to global conferences to lecture on the organization’s policies. They decided to play along and give speeches (along with visual aids that must be seen to be believes) that hang the W.T.O. by using their own words against them.

YOUNG EINSTEIN (Warner Home Video. $14.95): This is the dumbest release of the week, perhaps in the entire history of the DVD format. Those who have previously experienced the career pinnacle of auteur Yahoo Serious knows exactly what I am talking about. Those who haven’t will never be able to fully encapsulate the horror without experiencing it for themselves–a procedure that will have most of them feeling like George C. Scott watching the porn loop in “Hard Core” long before the end credits. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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