Albert Brooks’ “Lost in America” is a horror movie for the middle class


In a new interview that’s one of the bonus features on the new Blu-ray Criterion Collection edition of “Lost in America,” Albert Brooks is asked about being cast as a villain by Nicolas Winding Refn in “Drive.”

Brooks says that Winding Refn first saw “Lost in America,” it scared him. He was particular unnerved by the anger in Brooks’ performance, as advertising executive David Howard who tries to “drop out” of society comfortably (in a Winnebago, with a comfortable “nest egg”), only to face real financial ruin when his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) gambles away that nest egg.

It’s odd at first to think of Brooks’ performance as a scary one. But while watching the Criterion disc, I happened to mute the sound during the scene where David is excoriating his wife for losing all that money. And without hearing Brooks’ great, funny dialogue, without hearing him refer to a nest as a “round stick,” it really is startling how angry he is at his wife.

It’s an anger that comes from fear, a fear that we laugh at because we recognize it so deeply. “Lost in America”is one of the best comedies ever made. And it’s also a horror movie.

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“Here Comes Mr. Jordan” sums up the human condition in a bittersweet sax riff


“Pleasant Valley, where all is peace, and love, and harmony, and where men are beating each other’s brains out.”

It’s rare that an opening title card sets the tone of a movie quite so effectively as the laugh-out-loud beginning to Alexander Hall’s 1941 gem “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” now out in a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection. It’s both a funny line and a signifier of one of the themes of the film, about how nothing quite lives up to our idealization of it. Not even Heaven.

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“The Player”: Remember when writers in Hollywood were important enough to get murdered?

The Player

What would Griffin Mill think of today’s Hollywood? In Robert Altman’s 1992 satire “The Player,” Mill (Tim Robbins) is the boy-king of an compromised Hollywood, ruthlessly steamrolling the desperate pitches of screenwriters, plucking a few that he can turn into acceptable multiplex pablum.

Today, original movie pitches seem almost quaint; it’s all about reboots and remakes, putting a CGI gloss on something familiar. Or better yet, make every movie conform to a larger brand, like products on an assembly line, each feeding back to the same rapacious beast. The studio comes up with the idea now, and hires hungry writers and an unproven director to get it done. Of all the pitches we hear in “The Player,” Buck Henry’s idea for “The Graduate 2” might get through. But Mill would be sacked — probably by the studio’s Chinese owners — if he let anything remotely original get made, sappy happy ending or no.

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“Phoenix”: An act of invention rising from the ashes


In the three featurettes that accompany the new Criterion Collection edition of Christian Petzold’s “Vertigo” is mentioned exactly once. Director of photography Hans Fromm brings up the Alfred Hitchcock classic in comparing the lurid reds he wanted for one nightclub scene to the bright color palette of “Vertigo.”

That seems odd, given that most movie fans would make the obvious connection between “Vertigo” and “Phoenix.” Both films are about women who remake themselves for men, recreating the haunting spectre of a flame thought lost forever. Maybe the connection is so obvious that it’s not worth mentioning. Or maybe “Phoenix” goes so deeply into its own distinct themes — of betrayal and identity, of the futility of trying to change back into the person you were — that the cinematic homage becomes the least interesting part of the film to those who made it.

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“State of Siege”: What came after “Z” for Costa-Gavras


“Governments may change. But the police remain.”

That line seems chilling, a blood-curdlingly neat summation of the politics of repression and control in regimes everywhere. But what’s unsettling about how the line is delivered in Costa-Gavras’ “State of Siege” is that the speaker doesn’t mean to be sinister. A “consultant” for Latin American police departments working on behalf of the CIA, he’s merely describing his business, and how business is always good.

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“Ace in the Hole”: This reporter found a man buried alive. You won’t believe what happens next.


If you think the media satire in Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” is dated, I’ve got a Malaysian airliner I’d like to sell you. Even today, perhaps especially today, Wilder’s 1951 satire (his follow-up to “Sunset Boulevard”) hits a nerve  — especially if the viewer happens to be member of the media himself. Criterion released a dandy DVD edition in 2007, and it’s been re-released this month as a Blu-ray/DVD combo package with a sparkling new digital transfer.

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Blu-ray review: “Overlord” is a World War II movie unlike any other


Is every war movie an anti-war movie? Many think so — Tom Hanks once said in an interview that he hoped that, by the end of “Saving Private Ryan,” the audience will hope it never sees one person shoot another person again. But then again, maybe ever war movie is a pro-war movie too, as it’s so hard not to get caught up in the characters’ struggle, to feel a visceral if awful excitement as Capt. Miller and his men fend off the Germans. It’s a mixed message – war is wrong, but warriors are heroes.

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DVD review: “Life is Sweet: The Criterion Collection”


When I first moved to Chicago in 1990, I remember seeing two movies that first year at the beautiful Music Box Theatre that changed my 22-year-old idea of what movies could be. The first was “35 Up,” which changed my idea of what documentaries could be. The other was Mike Leigh’s “Life is Sweet,” which showed me a new (to me) way of making dramas.

Leigh’s funny and touching working-class smorgasbord is out on DVD and Blu-ray this week in a new edition from the Criterion Collection. It’s the film that first put Leigh on the map, as he went on to make excellent films like “Another Year” and “Topsy Turvy,” and it has all the hallmarks of a Mike Leigh film, deeply-felt relationships between its characters borne out of months of preparation with the actors, a humane but not sentimental spirit, and an emphasis on small lives, quietly and unquietly lived.

The emphasis here is on a family, both ordinary and extraordinary. Andy (Leigh mainstay Jim Broadbent) is a chef who wants to open his own food truck on the side, while Wendy (Alison Steadman, then Leigh’s wife) teaches dance classes to children. They’re a fun couple — Andy is a dreamer and somewhat absent-minded, but devoted to his family, while Wendy is almost chronically daffy and exuberant. They have two children, twin sisters Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks). Despite looking so much alike that, for much of the first time I saw the movie, I thought I was watching the same actress in a dual role, the two sisters are completely different. Natalie is good-natured and stable, Nicola is a twitching, angry, anxiety-ridden mess. I found her hilarious in 1990; now that I have two daughters of my own, not so much.

The film follows some of the family’s schemes, such as that food truck, or a family friend (Timothy Spall) whose attempt to open a French restaurant ends in disaster. (One thing you notice now is that the foodie dreamers in “Life is Sweet” are merely ahead of their time in 1990 — that food truck would have them lined up around the block today.) But the real heart of the film is that family, as the family members approach Nicola with a mix of caring and exasperation.

The title of the film is presented in a cheery font at the beginning of the film, but its life-affirming nature seems like more of a challenge. Is life sweet? How can two sisters grow up in the exact same circumstances and turn out so different? The key to happiness, the movie suggests, is to find sweetness in the sour as well.

The Criterion edition includes a new gregarious commentary track by Leigh, which he opens by listing all the things his movie is about in alphabetical order (“caring, catering, central heating, chips, chocolate. . .”) as well as an extended 1991 interview with Leigh. There are also five short films that Leigh made for the BBC back in 1975 that show his wry take on working-class interactions in nascent form.