|by Peter Sobczynski
In lieu of anything pithy to say, the author would merely like to take this opportunity to celebrate the majesty of August 25, a date so revered in the annals of history that such celebrated individuals as (from youngest to oldest) Rachel Bilson, Claudia Schiffer, Jeff Tweedy, Mia Zapata, Tim Burton, Elvis Costello, Peter Wolf, Marin Amis, Gene Simmons, Rollie Fingers, Regis Philbin and Sean Connery all chose to be born on it.
David Mamet is, of course, regularly celebrated as one of the best American writers working today and it is hard to disagree with that assessment–whether working for the stage (“Sexual Perversity In Chicago” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” to name two of the most obvious titles) or the screen (including such critical and popular favorites as “The Verdict,” “The Untouchables” and “Wag The Dog”), he knows how to create intriguing situations, fascinating characters and endlessly quotable lines of poetic and pungent dialogue. The only drawback to the fame surrounding his brilliance as a writer is that has largely overshadowed his equally impressive contributions as a director. Over the past two decades, he has made nine feature films (as well as episodes of “The Shield” and “The Unit”) and he has demonstrated himself to be as gifted behind the camera as he is behind the keyboard–of those films, there is only one (the 1994 adaptation of his controversial play “Oleanna”) that I wouldn’t happily watch again and most of the rest (I’m thinking of “The Spanish Prisoner” (1998), “Heist” (2001) and “Spartan” (2004), which just might be the best of the bunch) are of such a high quality that they would be considered absolute peaks in the filmographies of most ordinary filmmakers. What is especially impressive is that this was apparently not a skill that he gradually learned over time (which is often the case with writers who shift into directing) but was a gift that he was able to demonstrate fully formed right from the start, as a look at the new DVD of his debut feature, the brilliant 1987 film “House of Games,” will readily confirm.
Lindsay Crouse stars as Dr. Margaret Ford, a psychiatrist with a booming professional life–a thriving practice and a best-selling book–that is offset by a virtually empty personal existence. That quickly changes one day when a patient of hers confesses that he owes an enormous sum of money to a group of gamblers and that they will do him serious harm if he doesn’t pay up. Margaret offers to intercede on his behalf and, as a result, finds herself in a seedy gambling den to meet the head honcho, Mike (Mamet regular Joe Mantegna). Unexpectedly, Mike informs Margaret that the debt is nowhere near the size previously indicated and that he is willing to wipe that clean if she will do him one small favor–he has a big game going on and he wants her to keep an eye on one of the players once he leaves the room in the hopes that she can notice his “tell,” an individual behavioral tic that will help Mike determine whether he has a good hand or a bad one. Margaret does this and instantly becomes fascinated with Mike and his profession as a con man–like herself, his job success is completely dependent on getting complete strangers to instantly put all of their faith and trust in him using nothing more than carefully chosen words–and she becomes drawn further and further into his world of short and long cons.
There is much more to the story, of course, but to even begin to hint at what happens next would do a disservice to Mamet’s intricately woven screenplay. What I can talk about is the absolutely effortless manner in which Mamet pulls us into the story right from the start and keeps us there so completely that it is only when the end credits begin to roll that we start to realize just what a trip he has taken us on. Not surprisingly, considering the fact that it is a story about con men, the narrative relies on a number of twists and turns but unlike too many films that sacrifice story and logic in their efforts to pull the rug out from under our feet, “House of Games” not only plays fair with the audience but it sets up and delivers those twists in such a smart and dramatically sound manner that they hold up on multiple viewings. Hell, they actually improve upon multiple viewings because once the shock of the twist has gone, we can better appreciate how all of the disparate elements come together with almost mathematical precision. (I especially love how Mike demonstrates a short con in a currency exchange by befriending a marine waiting for a money order and gets the guy to practically insist on giving him money without ever making a request for a single cent.) The dialogue is quintessential Mamet (I’ll allow you to discover the great lines for yourself) and it is impeccably delivered by a cast that was well-versed in how to properly deliver his celebrated syntax–among the players seen here are such Mamet company players as William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh, Mike Nussbaum and the invaluable Ricky Jay. At the center of the film, however, are the great central performance from Mantegna and Crouse–their scenes have the kind of electric charge that is rarely seen on the screen these days and even when the film threatens to teeter into implausibility (as in the climactic confrontation between Mike and Margaret, a bit that feels a little more like a placeholder for a real ending than an actual finale), they summon the strength to pull it off.
Previously released on DVD by MGM in a bare-bones edition that pleased virtually nobody, The Criterion Collection has put together the kind of package that the film truly deserves. For starters, there is a commentary track featuring Mamet and longtime cohort Ricky Jay, who offers up plenty of first-hand insight into the nature of the con man. There are new interviews with Lindsay Crouse (who was married to Mamet at the time) and Joe Mantegna in which they discuss their memories of the shooting and working with Mamet. Most interestingly, there is also a short making-of featurette, “David Mamet on House of Games” that offers up some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of the director prepping the film in Vermont, shooting it in Seattle and playing poker with a bunch of friends who will look all too familiar to anyone who has seen the film.
Written and directed by David Mamet. Starring Joe Mantegna, Lindsay Crouse, Mike Nussbaum, Lilia Skala, J.T Walsh and Ricky Jay. 1987. Rated R. 102 minutes. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95.
NEW AND NOTABLE
BICKFORD SCHMECKLER’S COOL IDEAS (Universal Home Entertainment. $24.98): This is a barely-released teen comedy about a brilliant-but-weird college freshman (Patrick Fugit) who turns his campus upside-down when a journal containing all of his brilliant ideas and insights about life and the universe goes missing. Sadly, I haven’t seen this one yet but with a name like “Schmeckler’s,” it has to be good.
BLOOD IN THE FACE (First Run Features. $24.95): Alternately horrifying and ironically funny, this 1991 documentary offers up an eye-opening look at the American white supremacist movement that exposes its members for the hate-choked loons that they are by allowing themselves to hang themselves in a series of jaw-dropping interviews. (One of the hangmen here, by the way, is a post-“Roger & Me” Michael Moore.)
BROKEN ENGLISH (Magnolia Home Video. $26.98): Parker Posey roams the streets of Manhattan and Paris in search of love in this quirky indie romantic comedy/drama from Zoe Cassavetes. Although it is somewhat aimless at times, the winning central performance from Posey is more than enough to make it worth checking out.
DEXTER–THE FIRST SEASON (Showtime Entertainment/Paramount. $39.98): No, this is most definitely not that amusing and highly acclaimed Cartoon Network show about a pint-sized mad scientist and his wacky misadventures. Instead, this is the dark and highly acclaimed Showtime series in which the title character (Michael C. Hall) is a serial killer who spends his nights bloodily dispatching the very same monsters that he investigates during the day as a crime lab technician.
THE EX (The Weinstein Company. $29.95): After wife Amanda Peet leaves her high-paying job to care for their newborn child, the eternally mopey Zach Braff goes to work at the ad agency run by her disapproving father-in-law (Charles Grodin) and discovers that a fellow co-worker (Jason Bateman) is a former boyfriend of the missus who wants her back for himself–the joke is that since the ex-boyfriend is a.) a sweetheart to everyone else and b.) in a wheelchair, no one believes it when Braff accuses him of treachery and whatnot. A bomb in theaters (further proof, on the heels of “The Last Kiss,” that Braff may not be a movie star and that the success of “Garden State” might have been a fluke after all), this film is being trotted out in an “unrated” edition but unless the extra footage includes Grodin either slapping Braff around or slapping his forehead while asking why he chose to end his 13-year absence from the big screen for this particular project, I doubt that it will help things very much.
EXORCISM/NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS (BCI/Eclipse. $19.98 each):Two exceptionally bizarre stabs at 70's-era Eurohorror are served up on these two DVDs. “1975's “Exorcism” is, of course, a knock-off of “The Exorcist” in which a young woman becomes possessed by the spirit of her dead father after inadvertently (!) taking part in a satanic ceremony and only a local priest (Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy) can save the day. 1973's “Night of the Sorcerers,” on the other hand, tells the gripping story of a group of Eurosleaze photographers (including a couple of sexy blondes, naturally) who journey into darkest Africa on an expedition and are set upon by a cult led by a leopard-skin-clad vampire babe.
HOUSE–THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $59.98):Okay, dear readers, we need to come to an understanding. If you learn that the adorable Piper Perabo is making an appearance on any television program–as she apparently did in a couple of the episodes of this popular medical drama collected in this set–YOU TELL ME! Okay? Thank you very much.(However, if the show in question is “According to Jim,” it would probably be best if you kept that little nugget of information from me.)
I PITY THE FOOL–SEASON ONE (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $14.98): Proving that there is no premise for a reality show that might be considered too deranged to air, this TV Land series offers up the sight of 1980's icon/relic Mr. T entering the lives of various people (including a couple of families, a car dealership, a dance school, a restaurant and a realty office) and motivating them to pull themselves together via his own special version of Mohawked self-help therapy. Of course, if that doesn’t work, he can always threaten to cut down their trees with a chainsaw. No bonus features to speak of but the box does feature a fuzzy little Mohawk that you can stroke to your hearts content, if that is your particular bag.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Sony Home Entertainment. $26.98): If you haven’t yet seen this acclaimed German film about a loyal East German Stasi who finds himself questioning his loyalties when he is asked to bug the conversations of a playwright and his actress girlfriend in the period just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, let me give you a few reasons to check it out. 1.) It is apparently going to be remade by Hollywood, though one questions how or why, and you should catch up with it before it is inevitably ruined. 2.) The film’s star, Ulrich Muhe, unexpectedly passed away last month from stomach cancer and there can be no better way of honoring him than by watching his mesmerizing performance. 3.) Although some people were surprised when it won the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar earlier this year over “Pan’s Labyrinth,” few were upset by the upset because it really deserved that award, if not others as well. 4.) I have met the film’s writer-director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and I can assure that the man is tall enough to crush you without a second thought, so why risk crossing his path by not watching his movie.
MALICIOUS (Republic Video. $9.98): For many a lad who grew up in the 1980's, this 1995 film gave us something that they had been wishing and hoping to see for years–naked Molly Ringwald. Alas, while this was indeed a more-than-pleasing sight, it was unfortunately contained within the confines of a lame-ass “Fatal Attraction” knock-off in which she plays a nutty young woman who falls in love with a dumb college guy and who will do anything to anyone who gets in her way in order to have him for herself. As I said, it is pretty bad but I guess as ill-fated mid-90's Molly Ringwald comeback vehicles go, it is at least a little more tolerable than that “Townies” show.
THE MICHAEL HANEKE COLLECTION (Kino Video. $99.95): On the eve of his English-language debut later this year with a remake of his own 1997 film “Funny Games,” the decidedly dark Austrian filmmaker gets the box set treatment with this collection of his first seven feature films: “The Seventh Continent” (1989), “Benny’s Video” (1992), “71 Fragments Of A Chronology of Chance” (1994), “Funny Games,” “The Castle” (1997), “Code Unknown” (2000) and “The Piano Teacher” (2001). Although each one of these films is well worth checking out, though perhaps not if you are in the mood for something light and frothy, I must once again point you to “Funny Games,” which I continue to believe may well be the single scariest and most intense film that I have ever seen in my life. (Coincidentally, this is another film featuring a performance from the late Ulrich Muhe.)
THE MILKY WAY [i(The Criterion Collection. $29.95):In the first of what would be an informal trilogy of films about what he called “the search for truth” (which would go on to include 1972's “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and 1974's “The Phantom of Liberty”), legendary surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel scandalized audiences with this cheerfully heretical 1969 film in which a couple of French beggars on the way to Santiago de Compostela offer up a decidedly askew look at the history and teachings of the Catholic church. Although the least of the films of the trilogy, this wild satire still maintains the power to outrage, amuse and provoke viewers of all faiths in equal measure. (BTW–Bunuel fans in the Chicago area will want to head over to the Gene Siskel Film Center of the Art Institute this week for their ]revival of Bunuel’s 1967 masterpiece “Belle Du Jour,” which is playing in conjunction with Manoel De Olivera’s 2006 intriguing semi-sequel “Belle Toujours.”)
PERFECT STRANGER (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): In one of the dumbest American movies to emerge thus far in 2007–and that is saying something–intrepid-but-idiotic journalist Halle Berry becomes convinced that slick-but-idiotic businessman Bruce Willis killed a friend of hers to prevent her from exposing their affair and vows to bring him to justice via erotic e-mails and other such nonsense. Look, if you are in the mood for a completely insane erotic thriller featuring Bruce Willis as one of the leads, you would be much better off checking out the seriously steamy and seriously deranged “The Color of Night” and file this one under “delete” while wondering how director James Foley could have gone from the heights of “At Close Range” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” to a project so threadbare that it would have had trouble passing muster as a late-night Skinemax project.
REDLINE (The Weinstein Company. $29.95): I stand corrected–this vanity project devised by real estate magnate Daniel Sadek to show off both his fabulous and expensively upholstered automobile collection and the fabulous and (presumably) expensively upholstered starlet Nadia Bjorlin is actually dumber than “Perfect Stranger.” However, it is so shamelessly idiotic–imagine “The Cannonball Run 2" without the lucid plot–that I can’t help but feel a little affection towards it. Amusing anecdote: the supporting performance from Australian actor Nathan Philips is so awful (though not quite as bad as the one turned in by chief bad guy Angus MacFadyen) that at the screening I attended, a guy from Australia came up to me after the screening and actually apologized to me for it on behalf of his entire country. (Now where was this guy back when I saw “Young Einstein” at the Barrington Square dollar theater back in the day?)
ROBOCOP: 20th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (MGM Home Entertainment. $22.98): Paul Verhoeven’s thrilling, violent and blackly funny live-action comic book returns to DVD in a two-disc package that contains both the R-rated theatrical edition and Verhoeven’s more violent original cut. If you own either the long out-of-print Criterion Collection edition or the “Robocop Trilogy” package (which included the uncut version along with the two sorry sequels), there is no need to pick up this particular edition–all the bonus features (including a commentary from Verhoeven and deleted scenes) are ones ported over from the earlier releases–but if you have yet to pick it up and have no desire to own the other two films, this is the way to go.
SERENITY–COLLECTOR’S EDITION (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98): As much as I adored Joss Whedon’s television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” I could never quote get into either his short-lived follow-up series “Firefly,” a strange sci-fi western about the crew of a dilapidated spaceship trying to make its way through a universe gone wrong, or this 2005 big-screen spinoff. However, while nether the show nor the film were commercial successes, both inspired loyal fan followings that will cheerfully repurchase the same movie over and over again in order to own every single permutation. To be fair, the features on this particular double-dip are a little more substantial than the norm–all the material from the original DVD has been ported over and the new elements include a variety of deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes and a new commentary with Whedon and cast members Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau and Ron Glass.
SHE (Kino Video $24.95): Produced by Merian C. Cooper in 1935, two years after his landmark work “King Kong,” this adaptation of the H. Rider Haggard fantasy novel stars Randolph Scott (Ran-Dolph Scott!!!) the tale of an ambitious young man who leads up an exploratory party searching for a land that is said to have the power of immortality and run up against She Who Must Be Obeyed (future congresswoman Helen Gahagan in her sole film role), a 2000-year-old woman who has been patiently awaiting the reincarnation of her long-lost love, a man who is the spitting image of Randolph Scott.(Ran-Dolph Scott!!!). Originally intended to be shot in color until R.K.O. slashed the budget at the last second, this two-disc edition features both the original black-and-white version and a newly prepared edit that has been colorized under the supervision of Cooper’s friend and colleague Ray Harryhausen.
SOUTH PARK–SEASON 10 (Paramount Home Video. $49.99): In this tenth go-around for the seemingly inexhaustible satire, the show takes on such varied targets as hybrid cars, “Family Guy,” Scientology, Al Gore, “World of Warcraft,” James Frey, Oprah Winfrey and the anticipation for the Nintendo Wii. Although there are a couple of weak episodes here and there (especially some nonsense about Cartman coaching a pee-wee hockey team in an episode that all but screams “It’s the end of the season and we are out of ideas.”) but for the most part, the jokes hit far more often than they miss and a couple of episodes (especially the “World of Warcraft” segment) are as funny as any that the show has ever produced.
THE SURFER KING (Image Entertainment. $19.99): I know nothing about this film–something about a surfer dude from California who relocates to Colorado, gets a job at a water park, woos the boss’s daughter (Cerina Vincent) and the cute lifeguard (Keri Lynn Pratt) and tries to win the annual employee surf contest (presumably in that order)–but I feel that it is my duty to warn you that it features Alan Thicke and, as a result, the possibility of seeing Alan Thicke in swim trunks
TRAPPED IN THE CLOSET: CHAPTERS 13-27 (Jive. $19.98): Perhaps in an effort to boost his coffers before his long-standing trial finally gets underway in Chicago next month, R. Kelly offers up the latest instalments of his hugely popular and increasingly bizarre extended music video soap opera. Although there are still plenty of “what-the-hell?” moments to be had, the efforts to outdo the previous twists and turns have become a little too self-conscious to match the head-scratching insanity of the earlier chapters.
UGLY BETTY: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $59.99): Oh, Ugly Betty, when will those nasty fashionistas at “Mode” realize that a.) your real beauty comes from within and b.) your outer beauty, outside of those comically exaggerated braces, isn’t anything to sneeze at either? You won’t find those revelations in this six-disc box set–I can only presume the producers are saving them for either the series finale or at least sweeps week–but you will find all 23 episodes of one of last season’s few decent new shows, deleted scenes, commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes and enough other material to keep fans busy until the second season premieres next month. (See, I managed to get through this blurb without making a single reference about finally having a decent copy of the elevator stripping performed by guest star/series executive-producer Salma Hayek and . . .whoops!)
THE ULTIMATE GIFT (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.98): When his rich and estranged grandfather (James Garner) dies, a self-centered greedhead (Drew Fuller) attends the reading of the will expecting a lot of money but instead receiving “the ultimate gift.” Alas, it is neither that Sam Fuller box set from Criterion or a life-size Milla Jovovich doll with the kung-fu grip–the “ultimate gift” turns out to be a series of tasks that presumably teach him about the things in life that are truly important.
WORKING GIRLS (First Run Features. $24.95): No, this is not that Mike Nichols film in which Melanie Griffith uses her brains and body to get ahead in the world. This is the 1986 Lizzie Borden film focusing on the lives of a group of women working at an exclusive Manhattan brothel. When I first saw this film many years ago, it didn’t impress me that much–although some of the individual performances were affecting, the film as a whole didn’t really seem to have much of a point to it–and while I haven’t seen it again recently, I somehow suspect that it hasn’t aged very well either. However, it might serve as an interesting snapshot as to what the American independent film movement looked like in the pre-“sex, lies and videotape” era.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2244
originally posted: 08/24/07 13:46:26
last updated: 08/24/07 13:56:00