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Ghost Of A Chance

Sharp satire deserves spirited response on video


It didn't exactly wow them at the box office, but Ghost World (***1/2 out of four), Terry Zwigoff's adaptation of Daniel Clowes' underground comic book, deserves to rise above its niche status as a cult item and receive its proper due as a new generational touchstone for disaffected youth everywhere. Certainly, the character that Zwigoff and Clowes place at the center of this razor-sharp satire is a familiar one to anyone who's ever set foot in a high school hallway. Enid (Thora Birch), an outsider and damn proud of it, wears her disdain for the civilized world on her sleeve, and she and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) spend most of their time not experiencing their own lives as much as wryly commenting on everyone else's. Whether you love or loathe this type of person in real life doesn't really matter, since it's Enid's universal vulnerability that ultimately wins us to her cause. In many respects, she's no different than James Dean's Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause or Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate -- good kids who want to move forward but whose failure to communicate perpetually keeps their lives in idle. Ghost World is very funny but also very perceptive, and it offers Steve Buscemi one of the defining roles of his career as a lonely guy whose very cluelessness makes him cool in Enid's eyes. DVD extras include deleted scenes, a making-of feature, and a music video. The antithesis of the sort of film covered ad nauseam by E! Entertainment, The Anniversary Party (***) presents us with a seemingly raw vision of Hollywood that's far removed from the glam 'n' glitter of the typical Meg Ryan picture. The sort of intimate, navel-gazing drama that splits viewers between those who find it insightful and those who merely find it self-absorbed, this represents the combined viewpoints of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming who, in addition to starring, also serve as co-writers and co-directors. She plays Sally, a 30something actress who feels she's starting to be overlooked for meaty roles; he portrays her husband Joe, a British novelist who's about to direct the screen version of his largely autobiographical work -- with a younger actress (Gwyneth Paltrow) cast in the role that's based on his wife. Reconciled after a brief separation, the couple invite their friends over for a get-together; these include an Oscar-winning actor (Kevin Kline) and a fretful director (John C. Reilly). The film's pleasures are minor but many; not least is the fact that two notoriously awful 80s actresses, Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Beals, hold their own among their distinguished co-stars with a pair of excellent portrayals. Occasionally meandering, often sloppy, but never less than emotionally charged, the movie takes its best shot at a number of relevant topics and hits the mark a major percent of the time. DVD extras include audio commentary by Leigh and Cumming and a Sundance Channel documentary.

Woody Allen, who's averaged one movie a year for the past three decades (a remarkable feat), may no longer have it in him to smash one out of the park, but he's still virile enough to hit a few singles. That's the case with The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (**1/2), a trivial pursuit that offers its share of pleasures, frequently in spite of itself. Set in 1940, this finds Allen playing CW Briggs, a top-notch insurance investigator whose office routine is disrupted by Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), an efficiency expert who frequently addresses CW as "roach," "weasel" and "inchworm." During an after-hours rendezvous with co-workers at a local nightclub, CW and Betty Ann both take part in a stage routine conducted by a magician known as Voltan (David Ogden Stiers). Little does CW realize that, under Voltan's hypnotic spell, he's soon being ordered to break into the homes of his company's wealthy clients and make off with their prized possessions. Mixing Fritz Lang's The Woman In the Window with the screwball comedies of the 40s, Allen has made a slender film that barely gets by on the strength of a sharp premise, several snappy one-liners, and a zesty performance by Charlize Theron as a leggy femme fatale who (inexplicably) falls for CW. On the downside, the film is frequently draggy, Allen's patented persona continues to shrivel with age, and Hunt, an incredibly overrated comedienne, shows about as much aptitude for flinging witty repartee as Howie Long. DVD extras include the theatrical trailer.

Accentuating the positive first, there's a scene in Rat Race (*1/2) in which Jon Lovitz agrees to take his wife and kids to the Barbie Museum, only to discover that it's actually a site dedicated to Klaus Barbie, the infamous Nazi butcher. It's a wonderful gag, so how the hell did it end up in this picture? Following in the tenuous comic tradition of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, The Cannonball Run and Million Dollar Mystery, this also finds various strangers taking to the highway in a race to see who can reach the proverbial pot of gold first. In this case, the prize is two million dollars, the sponsor is a casino tycoon (John Cleese), and the journey takes the participants from Las Vegas to Silver City, NM. Director Jerry Zucker was one of the guiding lights behind Airplane! and Kentucky Fried Movie, so it's possible he was attracted to this project by a couple of the vignettes: Lovitz's road trip (in Hitler's car, no less) builds to a satisfying payoff, and the loopiness of Rowan (Mr. Bean) Atkinson provides his scenes with some sparkle. But the remaining episodes (featuring Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Seth Green, among others) are terrible, replacing comic invention with shrill mimicry and random chaos. A busload of Lucille Ball impersonators sounds funny on paper but here merely brings on a headache; ditto for the bits involving airborne cows, a helicopter assault on a swimming pool, and a charity concert spearheaded by the ubiquitous Smash Mouth. DVD extras include deleted scenes, a making-of feature, and a gag reel.

Must-See DVDs

Belle De Jour / Purple Noon Back in the 1990s, Martin Scorsese "presented" the theatrical reissues of two French classics from the 60s, both of which are finally making their DVD debuts (sold separately). It's been 35 years since Luis Bunuel's startling Belle De Jour first hit the screen, and yet its central subject matter -- mankind's perennial struggle to deal with the many facets of sex -- seems as relevant as ever. Catherine Deneuve, in a perfectly pitched performance, stars as a frigid housewife whose sterile relationship with her loving husband (Jean Sorel) leads her into taking a day job as a prostitute at a nearby brothel. The first half of the picture lends credence to the belief that inside every pent-up individual is a passionate creature struggling to get out, but the second part takes off into darker territory, exploring the risks of allowing one's private fantasies to be compromised by the harsh realities of the outside world. The plot of 1960's Purple Noon, meanwhile, will be familiar to those who saw The Talented Mr. Ripley which, like Noon, was based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Alain Delon plays a decadent American who travels to Italy and forges a friendship with a spoiled playboy (Maurice Ronet); once their relationship starts to sour, Delon concocts an elaborate scheme to murder the man and assume his identity. The Belle De Jour DVD contains more extras (including audio commentary by a Bunuel scholar), but both films are erotic, intriguing, and appropriately chilly.

Beverly Hills Cop The third and best of the three comedies that transformed Saturday Night Live player Eddie Murphy into an instant movie star (following 1982's 48HRS. and 1983's Trading Places), this 1984 blockbuster is notable not only as one of the few decent films starring an SNL comic but also as the movie that best made use of Murphy's explosive talents. He's sensational as Detroit cop Axel Foley, sniffing out his best friend's killers in swanky Beverly Hills with the help of two by-the-book LA detectives (Judge Reinhold and John Ashton). Bronson Pinchot made a name for himself with his inspired interpretation in a small role (the art gallery employee), and you can also catch Paul Reiser and Damon Wayans in brief parts. The DVD includes a documentary in which we're reminded (as if we could ever forget) that the film was originally conceived as a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, who (thankfully) opted out after the rest of the cast and crew were in place; other extras include audio commentary by director Martin Brest, a featurette on the film's best-selling soundtrack, and a photo gallery. This is also available in a boxed set with its two sorry sequels, 1987's mean-spirited Beverly Hills Cop II and 1994's lackluster Beverly Hills Cop III. *

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