- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Jack Nicholson delivers a tour-de-force performance in director Alexander Payne’s textured dramedy About Schmidt, out this week via New Line Home Entertainment ($27.95 DVD, $22.98 VHS). It’s our…

Video pick of the week

On screen in nearly every frame, Mr. Nicholson lends nuanced understatement to his role as Warren Schmidt, a newly retired, suddenly widowed Omaha insurance executive in desperate search of meaning in his humdrum life. Schmidt decides on a dubious mission to “save” his own hitherto emotionally neglected daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) from her impending marriage in Denver to slacker waterbed salesman Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney). To that end, Schmidt settles behind the wheel of his massive Winnebago and charts a rocky course to Denver and destiny.

Drawing from Louis Begley’s novel, Mr. Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor pepper Schmidt’s roadside adventures with wry observations on everything from domestic dynamics to a changing American landscape as our flawed protagonist records his innermost thoughts in letters sent to his 6-year-old mail-order Tanzanian foster child (an epistolary device brilliantly employed here).

The film builds to Warren’s wonderfully uncomfortable encounters with the Hertzel clan, including lusty in-law-to-be Roberta (a dead-on Kathy Bates), her spacey ex-husband Larry (Howard Hesseman in a neat cameo) and other, equally dysfunctional family members.

“About Schmidt” wisely eschews cheap, crowd-pleasing moves in favor of honest insights and well-earned laughs, while Mr. Nicholson’s Schmidt — part seeker, part jerk, all human — rings true throughout.

New Line’s widescreen DVD includes nine instructive deleted scenes, original theatrical trailer, and DVD-ROM content. A filmmaker audio commentary track would have been welcome on this one, but viewers will hardly feel cheated spending an evening with Warren Schmidt.

The ‘A’ list

In other fresh A-movie developments, Miramax Home Entertainment lavishes generous treatment on Julie Taymor’s Oscar-nominated biopic Frida ($29.99 DVD, priced for rental VHS), starring Salma Hayek as the famed Mexican artist, with Alfred Molina and Antonio Banderas as two of the men in her life. The two-DVD set includes audio commentary by director Taymor, cast interviews, a portrait of Frida Kahlo and much more.

In a creepier vein, next week Dimension Home Video unveils Wes Craven Presents: ‘They’ (priced for rental VHS, $29.99 DVD), starring Laura Regan, Marc Blucas and Ethan Embry. Seasoned suspense director Robert Harmon (“The Hitch-Hiker”) effectively emphasizes atmosphere over cheap scares in his underrated (if awkwardly titled) chiller.

Asian update

Kino Video (kino.com) unleashes a pair of cutting-edge 1999 Japanese thrillers: director Hideo Nakata’s twisty, time-fractured kidnap-caper mystery Chaos, along with another outrageous exercise from cult filmmaker Takashi Miike (late of “Audition”), the over-the-top gangster story Dead or Alive, featuring one of the wildest fade-outs in movie history. The disc also contains a brief but enlightening interview with the ever-mischievous auteur. The DVDs are tagged at $29.99 each.

Fans of old-school kung-fu with an added “blaxploitation” angle can relive the drive-in days of yore with the chop-and-sock sequel Black Belt Jones 2: The Tattoo Connection, new from Pathfinder Pictures ($19.98 DVD). The actioner, shot in Hong Kong, stars “Enter the Dragon” alumnus Jim Kelly and comes complete with dubbed and subtitled options, audio commentary by critics Luke Y. Thompson and Gregory Weinkauf, a still gallery and more.

Musical notes

Three first-rate musical discs swing their way into area vidstores:

• Kultur Video debuts the 1981 concert film Count Basie at Carnegie Hall ($19.95 DVD), wherein the legendary maestro is joined by fellow musical greats Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan,George Benson and Joe Williams for two hours of vintage jazz and blues.

• Image Entertainment counter-programs with the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s romantic musical comedy Kiss Me, Kate ($24.95 DVD), headlining Brent Barrett and Rachel York and showcasing such timeless tunes as “Another Opening, Another Show” and “It’s Too Darn Hot.”

• Eagle Rock Entertainment, meanwhile, celebrates late Washington native Marvin Gaye via Marvin Gaye: Live in Montreux ($19.98), a performance that includes such signature songs as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “What’s Going On.”

Phan mail

Dear Phantom: Can you tell me anything about a movie called Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World?

Your “phan,” Gloria VanSciver Ray, Lanham

That 1974 British fantasy romp, written by “Hazel” creator Ted Key and starring Jim Dale, comedy legend Spike Milligan and an effects-enhanced giant sheepdog, was issued on VHS but is no longer in circulation. Online auction sites like eBay might be the best way to snag a copy.

Send your video comments and queries to Phantom of the Movies, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002 or e-mail us at: [email protected] Check out our Web site at www.videoscopemag.com.

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