By Jim Ridley and Noel Murray
Pharaoh’s Army, an independent film financed partially by grants from the NEA and Kentucky Educational Television, has been playing throughout Kentucky in limited release for the past few months now, and I would never have heard of it if the movie’s distributors, Cinepix Film Properties, hadn’t booked it into Nashville for a brief run starting Friday. I’m glad they did. Based on an incident from regional folklore, Pharaoh’s Army is a terrific find, a somber, powerfully acted historical drama that delivers the psychological intricacies of a novel and the suspense of a crackerjack thriller.
The basic premise of Pharaoh’s Army is disarmingly simple. A Confederate war widow, Sarah Anders, looks up from her farming duties to discover an approaching band of Yankee soldiers. The soldiers have been sent to confiscate food for the rest of their unit, and their commander, Capt. Abston, a farmer who enlisted to hasten the end of slavery, apologetically prepares to take most of the Anders’ supplies. Suddenly, one of the soldiers critically wounds himself, and Abston and his three comrades are forced to wait for his recovery.
The movie’s first half sketches the characters and the issues at stake. We overhear the quiet conversations about home and duty among the soldiers, and we notice the awakening attraction between Sarah and Abston, who relishes the chance once more to plow fields and work the soil. But we also understand the roots, and the depth, of the hostility underlying their relations—Sarah harbors deep hatred toward the Yankee sympathizers who desecrated her infant daughter’s grave, and the soldiers mistrust the Rebels, whose snipers seem to lurk behind every outcropping. When the bubbling resentment finally boils into outright conflict, we dread the bloodshed and betrayal to come. We’ve been too well prepared.
Writer-director Robby Henson, here making a strong feature debut, sees the same forces at work in Civil War-era Kentucky that led to disillusionment and tragedy in Vietnam (and may do the same in Bosnia): the regional resentments and prejudices, the warping of noble intentions, the bitter consequences of occupation and vanquishment. And the ironies involved are no less painful. By the time the gentle, decent Abston becomes a cold-blooded killer and the maternal Sarah hatches a plot for vengeance, Pharaoh’s Army has achieved a resonance far beyond its modest scale. The movie unfolds with relentless stealth; its deliberate pace gives it the feel of a nightmare unfurling in real time.
The movie has been impressively shot in the foothills of Tennessee and Kentucky by cinematographer Doron Schlair, who creates extraordinary period atmosphere on a tiny budget—the earthy shadows and varnished light don’t appear to belong to this century. The movie’s strongest feature, though, is the acting of its leads. Patricia Clarkson, best known as Daniel Benzali’s wife on the TV series Murder One, delivers a raw and commanding performance as Sarah: The intensity of her emotions gives the movie its urgency. There’s a stunningly erotic moment when Abston’s hand brushes Sarah’s as she tends to the wounded soldier, and the rush of conflicting feelings—lust, warmth, confusion, rage—on Clarkson’s face is overwhelming. Equally fine is the movie’s Abston, Chris Cooper, who portrays with soft-spoken grace a decent man struggling with indecent options. In smaller roles, Will Lucas, Robert Joy, Richard Tyson, and Kris Kristofferson as a granite-eyed preacher provide fine support.
Pharaoh’s Army suffers only slightly from a few flaws typical of low-budget regional films: an occasional overreliance on nature footage, a few too many static camera setups at the beginning. Its virtues, however, not only match but surpass all but a few of this year’s major-studio releases. It reminds you that all the cinematic trickery in the world can leave you feeling empty and disengaged, but a good story told well can shake you to your soul.—Jim Ridley
Making the Yuletide Pay
Giving movies as Christmas gifts offers many of the same advantages as giving books—it’s a way of showing your loved ones that you understand their tastes, and a way of sharing yours at the same time. A good movie, properly selected, can be that elusive perfect gift for that impossible giftee.
The problem comes in actually locating the movie you want. Most Americans have figured out the complexities of renting movies, but they don’t know much about the business of buying them—a fact we both learned during several years as video clerks. For help, shoppers turn to clerks, only to discover that many clerks don’t know enough about the product to steer them in the right direction. As a result, the hapless shopper runs from store to store, seeking the unfindable.
The following list answers seven deadly questions for the neophyte video buyer, who often finds himself trapped at this time of year in a world of confusing terms, deceptively similar choices and last-minute desperation.
1. How come I can get Apollo 13 for $15, but Pulp Fiction costs $100?
When a movie is first released on video, it’s usually “priced for rental,” which means it’s marketed to the video store instead of the average consumer. The video store pays a high price (usually around $100), with the expectation that the movie will rent out enough times to cover its cost. Only a very few new movies are “priced for sell-through” and pitched directly to the consumer at a more reasonable price (usually around $20). Children’s movies and hugely popular blockbusters generally get the sell-through treatment.
Almost every movie is eventually reduced to sell-through price, but that may not happen for as long as a year after its initial release. If the person you’re buying for absolutely has to have that copy of Pulp Fiction or The Secret of Roan Inish—and who can blame them?—your choice is either to pony up the big dough or scour the shelves for a used copy.
2. What about used videotapes? The price is right, but is the quality OK?
Major video chains buy multiple copies of hot new movies to meet the demand of their customers; once that demand cools, the stores sell off the extra copies for a rock-bottom price (between $5 and $15, on average). These “previously viewed” movies, despite having the video store’s security tape and “please rewind” stickers all over them, are more or less the equal of an untouched copy. If the tape is flawed in some way, most stores will accept returns on them within 30 days of purchase.
While your gift-receiver may scoff at getting a used movie for Christmas, consider that for the price of one brand-new movie you can give two or more “previously viewed” movies of fairly recent vintage. A further note: Many local video stores bury some terrific older movies and foreign films among their used tapes, so a sharp-eyed shopper can pick up genuine treasures for astonishingly low prices.
3. I saw one Cary Grant boxed set for $60 and another (with the same movies) for $20. Is there any difference between the two besides the price?
In video shopping as in life, you get what you pay for. The pricier gift sets tend to feature well-known movies presented in the original cinematic format and on high-quality tape. The cheaper sets, while they may offer the same classics, use a lower grade of videotape and a poor film-to-video transfer. One way to tell? Look for the words “extended play” on the back of the box—if you see those words, you’ll know that the movie enclosed is of no better quality than one taped off your TV at home. If you buy one of the super-cheap tapes (and, admittedly, there are some fine movies available for a pittance), don’t be surprised if the sound is poor and the picture cropped and fuzzy.
While we’re on the subject of quality and formats, if you’re shopping for a hardcore movie buff, and you have a choice between buying a movie “letterboxed” or “pan-and-scan,” opt for letterboxed. Letterboxing places black bars on the top and bottom of the picture, thereby recreating the dimensions of a motion-picture screen and reproducing the film the way the filmmaker intended it to be seen. Panning-and-scanning crops the image, filling the television screen but eliminating anywhere from one-third to one-half of the picture. (For a demonstration, compare the different video editions of Lawrence of Arabia—on the old pan-and-scan version, the meticulous widescreen compositions are mangled.) Casual video watchers tend to dislike letterboxing—not unreasonably, they want their TV screen filled—but cinephiles insist on it.
Oftentimes, there’s no choice available: Pan-and-scan is the norm. But major releases like Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, and the Star Wars trilogy increasingly come in multiple formats. Choose wisely.
4. Why can’t I find The Little Mermaid? Or Sleeping Beauty? Or Lady and the Tramp?
Easy, big fella. Of all the questions we fielded during our video-clerk days, questions about Disney films were invariably the most frustrating. What most shoppers (and, unfortunately, many clerks) don’t realize is that the Walt Disney Corporation has a video release policy similar to the one they use for their film releases: They bring out their classics on video for a limited time and then pull them off the market for about seven years to preserve their freshness for a new generation of children. As a result, just about every video store sold out of The Little Mermaid four years ago. Call all over town, talk to a dozen clueless clerks—chances are you’ll only track down The Little Mermaid if you can find a collector (who’ll charge you a couple hundred bucks for it) or an importer (who may have access to the Japanese laserdisc editions that remain in print indefinitely).
A warning: Some video companies, quite often the same ones who sell cheaply made extended-play videos, market other versions of fairy tales that Disney has made famous. Read the label carefully. If it doesn’t say Disney in big letters somewhere—and believe us, it will—your disappointed children will be watching immobile, crudely drawn Scandinavians lip-synch tuneless drivel in a Danish Little Mermaid on Christmas morn.
5. If I order a movie from a video store, will it arrive by Christmas?
It depends on the movie, but most “name” movies from major companies can be delivered within a week or sooner. This time of year, when video chains are placing orders a couple of times a day, some movies even arrive overnight. If you have a movie in mind, and you don’t expect to find it on the shelves, find the nearest idle employee and ask for help. The employee can check the computer to see if your movie is available in the store. If it isn’t, he can find out if the movie is even manufactured on video. If the movie can be ordered, and you still want it, the employee can quickly fill out the paperwork. You will most likely be asked to pay up front, but you will also probably not have to pay any shipping fees.
Something else to keep in mind—be patient. Video stores are full of renters this time of year, and a rental is a quicker transaction than a special order. This is why you want to corral an employee as soon as you walk in the door. Get the clerk started on the paperwork, then browse for awhile, letting the employee take care of other customers while he works on your order. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes in an empty store, but it could take up to 15 in a busy one. Please exhibit goodwill toward men. Take it from those who’ve been in the trenches.
6. My loved one wants a laserdisc of Citizen Kane for Christmas. I’ve found it for $35, and I’ve found it for $125. Why the discrepancy?
The reason laserdiscs have become so popular among movie buffs (besides their clear image and impeccable sound) is the extra information that can fit into its digital encoding. These may include interviews with the filmmakers, copies of the script, “making of” documentaries, and especially extra audio tracks that include a running commentary on the movie. These special editions are expensive, but they’re the real reason to own a laserdisc player. The best of these are found on the Criterion/Voyager label, which has released excellent laser editions of Do the Right Thing, The Killer, Taxi Driver and other fine films with scene-specific commentary by the filmmakers. More companies, however, including Pioneer, Image and Elite, have issued impressive special-edition disc packages.
The big drawback to these editions is their expense: The Criterion deluxe Citizen Kane runs $124.95, while the regular edition costs only $39.95. If you buy your favorite couple the cheaper Citizen Kane, though, they’ll most likely smile, say thanks, and then go home and shelve the disc forever. The best thing to do, if you can’t afford the higher price, is to look for another item on their Christmas list. We suggest a box of rice.
7. I’m looking for a video guide for my favorite movie fan. Which is the best?
The two most comprehensive guides on the market are Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide and the Video Movie Guide by Mick Martin and Marsha Porter. Of the two, Maltin’s guide is the more inclusive, as well as the more discerning. Maltin covers just about every feature film in the history of cinema, including many that only pop up on American Movie Classics or Turner Classic Movies and aren’t available on video. The only down side to Maltin’s guide is that it doesn’t cover specialty releases, like concert videos and tapes of children’s shows. Also, the index is pathetic, including only “major” directors and actors like Chuck Norris.
Martin and Porter’s VMG, by contrast, is oriented more to the video renter and compiles an impressive body of theatrical and nontheatrical video releases under a fairly forgiving rating system. The selling point of the VMG, though, is the index, which features every actor and director in the book with a practically comprehensive filmography. So which to buy? Well, they’re not too expensive (about $7 each), so why not both? If that seems wasteful, alternate buying Maltin’s guide and the VMG from year to year, so as to keep both fairly updated.
Beyond the quickie guides, there are shelves of more thoughtful books of criticism for the film fan in your life. Three classics spring to mind. Roger Ebert’s annual Video Home Companion offers a curtailed look at Ebert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning movie reviews from 1970 to the present. Although Ebert’s opinions can be shaky—he loves Mississippi Burning and Less Than Zero; he hates Raising Arizona and A Soldier’s Story—they are well defended and lively.
For lively, bristling commentary, though, you can’t beat the criticism of Pauline Kael, collected nicely in the hefty greatest-hits compendiums For Keeps and 5001 Nights at the Movies. Kael has pissed off more people, either admirers or detractors, than any film writer in the business—she liked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for God’s sake—but her command of high and low culture is dazzling, and her snappy style, at once colloquial and elevated, is never less than a pleasure. Running a close second is Danny Peary, whose enthusiastic, omnivorous appreciation of cinema comes to a head in Alternate Oscars, a book rewarding the great films that Academy voters have passed by. His Guide for the Film Fanatic also qualifies as a cult-movie buff’s answer to Maltin or the VMG.
The pleasure in all these books, for the cinephile, comes from bouncing back and forth from entry to entry, review to review, finding new fodder for discussion with other movie buffs. So if you want to see a happy Christmas firsthand, here’s what you do. Give your movie lover a book by Kael or Peary and a modestly priced videotape or laserdisc, and watch him or her sit quietly for hours in front of the tree, lost in joy. At that moment, the hassle of shopping and fretting will do a quick and pleasant fade. —Noel Murray & Jim Ridley
The pleasure in all these books, for the cinephile, comes from bouncing back and forth from entry to entry, review to review, finding new fodder for discussion with other movie buffs. So if you want to see a happy Christmas firsthand, here’s what you do. Give your movie lover a book by Kael or Peary and a modestly priced videotape or laserdisc, and watch him or her sit quietly for hours in front of the tree, lost in joy. At that moment, the hassle of shopping and fretting will do a quick and pleasant fade. Noel Murray & Jim Ridley
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