by Bill Hawk

Fox Searchlight/Miramax, 2004, color, 102 mins.- Fox DVD

Natalie Portman: “If you can’t laugh at yourself, life’s gonna seem a whole lot longer than you’d like.”

Not that twentysomething actor/waiter Zach Braff pays much attention to time, having spent most of the past 20 years in an anti-depressant haze, estranged from both his family and his surroundings. But when a funeral draws him back from LA to his little hometown in New Jersey, he leaves his incredibly well-stocked medicine cabinet behind and starts to relate to the big, bad world again. It doesn’t take long for him to start running into some of his old school pals, as one of them, shifty stoner-type Peter Sarsgaard, is the head gravedigger at the funeral. Before he knows it, Braff is reliving his partying days of yore, catching-up with a variety of oddballs- and running into a new oddball, Portman, whose family is just as unusual in a good way as Braff’s is in a bad way. As the medication washes out of his system, Braff starts to realize that he may not need it, and that something like a normal life may be possible for him….at least, as normal as it’s possible to get in that particular stretch of Jersey….

This offbeat low-budget item is the classic “Shot at the big time” for writer/director/star Braff, who shopped it around for years until a small production company decided to give him a chance, with the result eventually making a modest splash at the box-office. The picture embodies the dilemma that you run into with such a personal project, where a sometimes self-consciously quirky feel is at odds with the more formulaic elements, and a loose structure clashes with the desire for some sort of dramatic resolution. But of course, the goofy nature of the thing is precisely what makes it a nice change from the usual assembly-line Hollywood product, and on the whole Braff acquits himself well in his various capacities. He is helped in the acting department by the decidedly antiheroic Sarsgaard and by Portman, whose character is one of those ditzy life-force types who always seem to be helping out troubled guys in movies. If you’re in the market for a character-driven piece with some melodrama and some (occasionally crude) laughs, you could do worse than to check this one out. Disc extras include audio commentary, a “Making of” documentary, and deleted scenes.

Fox, 1979, color, 118 mins.- Fox DVD

Sally Field: “One of these days, I’m gonna get myself all together.”

And when you live with your parents in a small Alabama town, have two kids from two different fathers, work in a grindingly hard job, and sleep with traveling salesmen, you’ve got a lot to get together. Fortunately for our heroine, union organizer Ron Leibman shows up, looking to bring her and her fellow cotton mill workers into the fold. Although Field has had her disagreements with the mill’s higher-ups, who are your basic heartless exploiter types, it takes her awhile to come around to Leibman’s way of thinking- but once she does, she really comes into her own, building her backbone up to a rock-like solidity. A solidity that she needs in order to deal with the corporate chicanery, racism, and familial discord that stand in her way……not to mention the union rep from the strange and distant world of New York City who wants to help.
The title role in this picture has “Oscar bait” written all over it, from the accent to the flawed nature of the character to her heroic struggle with both outside forces and herself. Field did indeed garner her first Academy Award for it- and deservedly so, for she inhabits the character so believably that her performance carries the narrative over its rough patches. The story of someone trying to make a better life for herself in difficult circumstances has a universal appeal, as does the idea of meeting somebody very different from yourself who facilitates that quest. Field’s friendship with Leibman is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film, and the combination of his experience and her tenacity makes it easy to root for the pair- not that you’d ever want to root for the mill managers, who aren’t exactly what you’d call complexly-shaded characters. Still, while director Martin Ritt deals from a stacked deck when it comes to the story’s sympathies, he presents it all very effectively, utilizing handheld camera techniques to create a very realistic feel. Recommended if you’re hankerin’ for a simple, heartfelt tale with darn good actin’. The only extra of note on the disc is an “AMC Backstory” documentary about the picture.

RKO, 1947, B&W, 97 mins.- Warner Bros. DVD

Robert Mitchum: “Build my gallows high, baby.”

Well, you’d be fatalistic too, if you’d had your life turned upside-down and your heart turned inside-out by femme fatale Jane Greer, a woman for whom life is a big play, with herself as the lead and everybody else as supporting players- expendable supporting players. Mitchum is running a gas station in a podunk town and romancing pretty young Virginia Huston when his past comes back to bite him, and on his way to deal with the bite he airs his dirty laundry for Huston. Seems he was a gumshoe, who went looking for gangster Kirk Douglas’ felonious and homicidal girlfriend Greer- and when he found her, things happened. Things that Douglas was pretty unhappy about when he discovered them. And now that he’s finally found Mitchum again, Douglas wants him to do another little job, to square things up between them. Mitchum has little choice but to go along, but he’s got this nagging feeling that he’s going to wind up taking a long nap on a cold slab……

This twisted little masterpiece of film noir was adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from his novel, and it delivers the requisite snappy dialogue, slippery characters, sudden violence, and doom-laden atmosphere. Director Jacques Tourneur, known for his stylish horror pictures, layers on the visual goodies and keeps the tension simmering. And then there are the stars. The laconic, sleepy-eyed Mitchum is right at home in this story, whether sleuthing around in a trenchcoat, knocking back a stiff drink, or playing the sap to a devious dame. And what a dame- Greer plays the men around her like a piano, and they hardly ever notice her hands on the keys. Even Douglas, a dangerous guy whose smiling manner fools the unwary, is overly generous where Greer is concerned. That’s bad for him, but good for the viewer who’s in the mood for this moodiest of film genres. The only disc extra is a commentary by noir scholar James Ursini.

For more "DVD Movie Reviews" click here to view back issues.

© Melt Magazine 2005