by Bill Hawk

Warner Bros., 2003, Color, 116 mins.- Warners DVD

Nicholas Cage: "Obviously, I have a lot of tics- I find that very frustrating, to say the least."

His frustration, our amusement. Accomplished con artist Cage is a professional success and a personal disaster, suffering from a variety of twitches, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive quirks. After one particularly bad spell, partner-in-crime Sam Rockwell points Cage towards a shrink whose ministrations lead Cage to seek out a daughter, Alison Lohman, whom he has never met. When circumstances throw father and daughter together for awhile, she wreaks the expected havoc with his well-ordered life, but the human contact does him some good. And it's only natural that she shows an interest in her dad's work......but pulling your 14 year old kid into a big scam is asking for trouble.

Director Ridley Scott takes a breather from his more epic projects with this comedy/drama, which hits the character study and crime caper bases and then keeps on running. It's a showcase for Cage, an old hand at playing oddballs who here gives us textbook examples of a "Bad medication day." Rockwell, no slouch at goofiness himself, has a less-showy role but holds his own. As does Lohman, who manages to make you swallow the heaping spoonfuls of melodrama that the story generates. Fortunately, just when you think that you can't swallow any more, some helpful plot twists pop up......and unfortunately, they send the tone of the picture into a skid from which it never quite recovers, a situation made worse by a rather cornball final scene. The last act doesn't ruin the picture, though, and on the whole it's worth checking out. Extras on the disc include audio commentary with Scott and the writers, and a documentary which features a lot of candid behind-the-scenes footage.

Fox, 1940, B&W, 129 mins.- Fox Studio Classics DVD

Henry Fonda: "I'm just tryin' to get along without shovin' anybody, that's all."

After doing hard time for breaking that no-shoving rule with a bit of manslaughter, Fonda returns to his old homestead to find that "Progress" has caught up with the sharecroppers who work the land in Depression-era Oklahoma. Hooking up with nutty ex-preacher John Carradine, Fonda tracks down his family and the lot of them join a mass exodus to the fabled land of California, lured by the promise of work. Their trip, in a truck that makes the "Beverly Hillbillies" jalopy look like a Cadillac, is a harsh one, but what they find at their destination is even worse. From a sad 'Transient camp" to a ranch gig that's just a step above slave labor, the Okies get very little work and even less respect. And Fonda, in standing up for himself and others, gets into more trouble with the law- but his struggle, the search for a better life, will go on......

Despite the title, which evokes a companion piece to "Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes," this picture delivers on all of the levels that you expect in a classic.

Director John Ford- who collected an Oscar for this- and cinematographer Gregg Toland convincingly create the gritty, brutal world of "Dust bowl" refugees, who are portrayed by a thoroughly de-glamorized bunch of Hollywood types. Cast-topper Fonda is a decent guy who tries to keep his anger at an unjust world in check, partly to appease his mother, Jane Darwell- who garnered her own trophy from the Academy. The star power, on both sides of the camera, counteracts the story's wallowing in human misery, which will be familiar to anybody who ever took a literature class as "Social commentary." But it did originate from a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, and that ain't chopped liver. You won't be happily munching popcorn through this one, but if you're a classic film fan it's a must-see. Disc extras include audio commentary, a documentary on producer Darryl F. Zanuck, and some period newsreel footage.

Quartet/Films, Inc., 1982, Color, 83 mins.- Columbia DVD

Paul Bartel: "Why don't you go to bed, honey- I'll bag the Nazi and straighten up around here."

Pudgy and balding and a wine snob he may be, but Bartel knows how to treat his lady, Mary Woronov, right- especially after a she's had a hard night of catering to other mens' sex fantasies. In need of cash to fulfill their dream of escaping from decadent Hollywood and starting up a country restaurant, the couple are stumped.......until a chance violent encounter with a "Swinger" gives them an idea. Posing as "Naughty Nancy" and "Cruel Carl," they lure some of the local degenerate types to their place, collect money for kinky services to be rendered, and then render something different- a fatal blow from a frying pan. The scheme works, but when hot-blooded thief Robert Beltran muscles in on their action- and on Woronov- Bartel finds himself in a contest that he may not be able to win.

If ever a picture screamed "Midnite movie," this is it. It resembles nothing so much as a mutated 1950s sitcom, an impression reinforced by the vintage furnishings in the couples' apartment, which extend to separate beds- for Bartel and Woronov are the Puritanistic type. Of course, that makes their interactions with a variety of kinky characters (including the above mentioned Nazi) all the more interesting, although it's a less-racy picture than you might expect, given the premise. The warped sitcom feel, in fact, extends to the writing, the music, and the direction by Bartel, which echoes the name of his character- "Bland." Make no mistake, this movie was done on the cheap, and looks it- an effect worsened by some technical flaws on the disc- but that's part of the cultish appeal. If you like small, quirky comedies about people pursuing their dreams, with sex and murder and a little cannibalism thrown in, you'll enjoy this. There are no extras of note on the disc.


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© Melt Magazine 2004