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10.29.08

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Phaedra

DVD Reviews

'Before the Rains,' 'Bright Lights, Big City' and the Busby Berkeley Collection


Before the Rains One disc; Lionsgate; $27.98
In India in 1937, Henry (Linus Roache), the sahib of a tea plantation, and his right-hand-man, Neelan (Rahul Bose), work on a new road. Later, two village children observe Henry and the female servant Sajani (Nadita Das) coupling; word gets out, and Sajani's husband beats her. The sahib looks to Neelan to sort the matter out. The village--already restless because of Gandhi's agitation--is soon in full revolt. Director Santosh Sivan's The Terrorist remains his best film, although he has worked on a range of material, including the silly but succulent The Mistress of Spices. This might have been a more compelling film if Sivan had given us more shadings in the characters--if Sajani weren't out of her mind with love for the sahib and had instead to consider being his consort as a way of surviving. And the village's processionals and ceremonies seem about as authentically ethnic as a Waikiki luau. At first, the road-building seems too simple a metaphor: like the old right-wing argument: "You call it imperialism, but I say we gave them roads." Here, the English Raj is represented by the devious crooked road, which has to weave its way up a hill in order not to be washed out. We contrast that with the wisdom of Neelan's father: "No one is ever lost on a straight road." (Ah, if only there were more straight roads in the world.) The disc includes a commentary track with Sivan and Roache.

(Richard von Busack)

Bright Lights, Big City One disc; MGM; $14.98
Mick Stingley, one of the pop-cult critics interviewed in a background documentary for Bright Lights, Big City, calls the movie a "cultural artifact for the '80s." That's true, if you remember that most artifacts come encrusted with the caked-on dust of the ages. This 20th-anniversary DVD release of the film, adapted from Jay McInerney's coming-of-age coming-apart tale, feels as dated as another archeological oddity from the '80s: Perfect, also directed by James Bridges. Michael J. Fox plays Jamie Conway, a fact-checker in over his head at an snooty magazine called Gotham (a very thinly disguised New Yorker). Jamie, who has moved from Sarah Palin's "real America" to the Big Apple, dreams of writing a novel but spends his time snorfling "Bolivian marching powder" in trend-pig downtown nightclubs. The action takes place across a very bad week (including cutesy intertitles for each day) as Jamie loses his job, pines pitifully for his faithless wife, Amanda (Phoebe Cates), and wallows in guilt about his cancer-stricken mother (Dianne Wiest). The film--as callow and superficially witty as any Catcher in the Rye rip--suffers from the disastrous casting of Fox in the lead role. The Family Ties star simply can't pull off degeneracy; no matter how much he twitches his nose in a coked-up frenzy, he still looks like a pet bunny rabbit. If ever there was a role suited for Robert Downey Jr., this was it, but he was busy making Less Than Zero, the West Coast version of the cautionary fable. Cates, who has only a couple lines, is nobody's idea of a supermodel (in a scene that foretells a Seinfeld episode, Jamie goes ape when he see a mannequin based on Amanda's features). A special niche in the Ham Hall of Fame has been carved out for Wiest's death-bed scene in which she interrogates Jamie about his teenage sex acts. Even Kiefer Sutherland, as Jamie's more polished pal Tad Allagash, can't counterbalance the squeaky-clean Fox. All that said, for students of the excesses of the near past, the film is irreplaceable. The disc comes with commentary tracks by McInerney, who explains how much his own life resembles Jamie's; and cinematographer Gordon Willis, who was hired at the last minute and still seems a little cranky, 20 years on, about the short shooting schedule; plus a minidoc about the film's cultural impact.

(Michael S. Gant)

The Busby Berkeley Collection, Vol. 2 Four discs; Warner Home Video; $39.98
Although not as essential as Vol. 1 (with Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933), the second installment of breezy 1930s musicals with dance numbers choreographed by the amazing Busby Berkeley is still full of bright tunes, sprightly ingénues, groanworthy character actors (Ted Healy, Hugh Herbert, Victor Moore et al.) and some astonishing hoofing. Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936, go figure) and Gold Diggers in Paris (1938) continue the adventures of the cheerful chorines and their dreams of Broadway stardom and/or a diamond ring from a rich gentleman. On their trip to a backlot Paris, Rudy Vallee and the gang endure a variety of mistaken identities, bad French accents and competition from a real ballet troupe (headed by a very funny Curt Bois, a Berlin cabaret performer). The finale features two dozen wildly tapping chorus girls canted at a vertiginous angle, followed by the whole cast crowding together under a giant sailor's hat in typically surrealistic Berkeley style. Gold Diggers of 1937 is the standout in the set. Dick Powell, at his best here, plays reluctant insurance salesman Rosmer Peck, who turns to showbiz with the help of Joan Blondell, the snappiest of '30s comedians. The Depression-era sangfroid is surprisingly timely: "In spite of the worry that money brings, just a little filthy lucre buys a lot of things," Powell croons. And the opening features a hilarious corporate pep talk: "There is no depression; don't let your prospect talk about it. All you've got to do is get him so enthused about what life insurance can do for him that he can see himself lying in his grave, glorying in the physical comfort of his family." Keep an eye out for the rubber-legged young tap dancer Lee Dixon, who shines on "Speaking of the Weather." Varsity Show (1937) and Hollywood Hotel (1937), both with Powell and Rosemary Lane, are less amusing, burdened with too much slapstick, not enough dance scenes and one very unpleasant blackface joke. Lola Lane steals Hollywood Hotel as a petulant movie star: "Oh, my thyroids!" she proclaims during an meltdown. Each disc comes with a selection of period shorts and cartoons.

(Michael S. Gant)


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