- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

Joe Maggio's gritty indie Virgil Bliss, new from First Run Features, has a story arc that is ultimately familiar; see "Sling Blade" and "Straight Time" for starters. But it offers copious rewards for viewers who appreciate honest emotions and intense performances, ingredients too often missing from many mainstream Hollywood movies. It's our

Video pick of the week

On the audio commentary track of "Virgil Bliss" (priced for rental VHS, also available on DVD), writer-director Maggio describes how he "workshopped" the film like a theatrical play, familiarizing the actors with the material and each other to the point where they could comfortably improvise and still stay "on topic." The result is somewhat reminiscent of a toned-down film by John Cassavetes ("Faces") or Nick Gomez ("Laws of Gravity").

Our realistically rendered story centers on laconic, largely unsocialized but soulful Southern ex-con Virgil (Clint Jordan, who resembles something of a scruffy Yank Liam Neeson) as he attempts to adjust to civilian life after serving a 12-year stretch in a New York prison.

With little romantic experience in his incarcerated past, an emotionally naive Virgil tumbles for almost literally the first woman he sees on the outside-resistant, unstable, drug-addicted prostitute Ruby (Kirsten Russell), a character who defies celluloid cliches by not harboring a heart of gold.

A determined Virgil more or less successfully pursues Ruby, sometimes coaxing out her softer side, and finds humble but, for him, satisfying employment as a school janitor. When Virgil's former cellmate, Manny (Anthony Gorman), shows up at his doorstep, however, the appearance starts Virgil on a downward spiral, leading to a more predictable denouement.

Despite Mr. Maggio's recidivist plot, "Virgil Bliss" works as a credible character study with a flawed protagonist who wins viewer sympathy via his sincere desire to walk the straight and narrow. The film, quite adeptly shot on digital video, also benefits from Mr. Maggio's evocative location lensing, both in obscure Brooklyn sectors and in more colorfully seedy spots like Coney Island and Brighton Beach.

If you're looking for an engrossing break from the usual run of cookie-cutter multiplex fare, "Virgil Bliss" is well worth a visit. In addition to audio commentary, the DVD includes an interesting Sundance Channel featurette, "Virgil Bliss Afterthought."

Indie beat

Elsewhere on the flourishing DVD indie beat, other new titles of note include these:

R.W. Fassbinder's 1977 post-modern American noir homage The American Soldier (Wellspring Media, $24.98); Bob ("A Christmas Story") Clark's extras-packed 1975 seasonal scare classic Black Christmas: Collector's Edition (Critical Mass, $24.95), starring Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea and Andrea Martin; and the ultra-'70s Andy Warhol "superstar" Edie Sedgwick meltdown Ciao! Manhattan (Plexifilm, $24.95).

And these: Satirist Eddie Izzard's one-man show Dress to Kill (Anti, $19.95); Richard Franklin's uncut 1978 Aussie chiller Patrick (Elite Entertainment, $24.95); and the wild 2002 self-tribute Scarlet Diva (Media Blasters, $24.95) by actress-auteur Asia Argento, daughter of Dario Argento.

And these: Veit Helmer's imaginatively surreal fable Tuvalu (First Run Features, $24.95); as well as two markedly different dysfunctional-family satires Jan Svankmajer's darkly whimsical Little Otik (Zeitgeist Films, $29.98) and Takashi ("Audition") Miike's simply dark Visitor Q (Tokyo Shock, $24.98).

Milestone movies

Next month, Milestone Film & Video (milestonefilms.com) revives a pair of acclaimed foreign films: Henri-Georges ("Diabolique") Clouzot's 1956 art documentary The Mystery of Picasso, showing Pablo at work; and Gillo ("The Battle of Algiers") Pontecorvo's 1957 Italian drama The Wide Blue Road, with Yves Montand as a fisherman struggling to support his family, and co-starring Alida Valli and Francisco Arrabal.

The label also introduces American director Conrad Rooks' Herman Hesse adaptation Siddhartha, filmed on location in India by award-winning cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The titles will be tagged at $29.98 DVD/VHS.

The 'A' list

Recent theatrical films headed to home video include the surprise comic hit Barbershop (MGM Home Entertainment), starring Ice Cube, Sean Patrick Thomas and Cedric the Entertainer; the surfer-girl sports adventure Blue Crush (Universal); and Gary Winick's digital-video coming-of-age comedy Tadpole (Miramax Home Entertainment), featuring Sigourney Weaver, John Ritter, Bebe Neuwirth, and Aaron Stanford in the title role of a love-struck preppy. All three releases will be priced for rental VHS and also available on DVD.

Phan mail

Dear Phantom: Is Al Adamson's Dracula vs. Frankenstein still available on DVD? I haven't been able to obtain a copy. Also, the 1974 TV series Planet of the Apes?

John Jenkins, via e-mail

Al Adamson's 1970 campfest is still available via Image Entertainment ($16.99). Movies Unlimited (800/4-MOVIES, moviesunlimited.com) carries the DVD, as well as Planet of the Apes: The Complete Series (Fox, $39.99 DVD).

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