Jack, Jake, chalk and chaps 

Chinatown: Special Collector's Edition
Paramount Home Entertainment

The Two Jakes: Special Collector's Edition
Paramount Home Entertainment

There's not much left to say about director Roman Polanski's brilliant Chinatown that hasn't been said, ad nauseam. To quote from Roger Ebert's original 1974 review, "It's a 1940s private-eye movie that doesn't depend on nostalgia or camp for its effect, but works because of the enduring strength of the genre itself."

The film has understandably hit "classic" status, and is an astonishing — and rare — example of a project where every element of the end result works perfectly, from Robert Towne's script to acting turns by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston, from Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score to the love-letter cinematography of a noir Los Angeles in full color, all played out under the genius vision of Polanski.

So, having said all that — and given that most film fans know Chinatown up one side and down the other — why do we need this rerelease?

Ah yes, the bonus features, for all you "special collectors." Between the four featurettes — Chinatown: Style, Acting Chinatown, Chinatown: The Classic and Chinatown: The Beginning and the End! — you'll learn more than you ever wanted to know about the tour-de-force. The pieces are superbly executed, with interviews from Nicholson, Polanski, Towne and infamous producer Robert Evans; it's insightful, revealing stuff that shows how a not-always-in-synch production can still create a thing of utter beauty.

The same can't be said of The Two Jakes, a disappointing 1990 Chinatown sequel.

Set in 1948 and directed by star Jack Nicholson, whose helming credits also include Drive, He Said and Goin' South, the icon is a cartoonish reprise of his svelte, sexy, J.J. Gittes of Chinatown fame. Nicholson's pneumatic, shoulder-padded suits look like they were cut for Raymond Burr on a scotch-and-potatoes bender, and, for some reason, Jack wears Blues Brothers-esque shades the size of 3-D giveaway glasses.

The plodding story (scripted by Chinatown alum Robert Towne) follows now well-established private investigator Gittes in a postwar L.A. tale of alleged adultery-cum-murder involving land developer Jake Berman, played efficiently by Harvey Keitel.

You want this thing to work, if for no other reason than the delicious aftertaste of the original, but it doesn't measure up, on any level. The film was years in the making, and the confusion shows.

As for bonus offerings, we get merely one. A featurette called Jack on Jakes that gives some enlightening background on the project that was originally designed as a trilogy. The third installment is (and perhaps thankfully) nowhere in sight.

Where Chinatown sings, The Two Jakes stutters, proving that two isn't always better than one. —Peter Gilstrap

 

Chalk
Arts Alliance America

Chalk begins with the ominous stat that 50 percent of teachers quit within the first three years. So the tone is set for what might be a serious documentarian's look into the teaching profession. But director Mike Akel's Chalk ain't a doc, really, despite looking and sounding like one.

It's a clever film that reveals humorously the true-life frustrations of neophyte high-school teachers. It follows four of them though a school year that brims with challenges. First-year teacher Mr. Lowery (Troy Schremmer) is horribly unprepared to manage his classroom while second-year PE instructor Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer) struggles to enforce the school policies ignored by her peers and principals. She's an unmarried female coach with short hair, a stereotype that doesn't go unnoticed. The gregarious Mr. Stroope (Chalk co-writer, Chris Mass) spends more time befriending his students — hence the Teacher of the Year campaign they've launched — than enlightening them. But he runs his history class like a well-oiled political machine. Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Harrigan) is a former teacher promoted to assistant principal. It's a grueling gig because teachers expect her to side with them in their petty squabbles. But she's little more than a bumbling warden.

Chalk sees many funny moments and underlying truths. The politically relevant observations and poignant bits involving Mr. Lowery's evolution add to the fun. Fans of Christopher Guest films, take note. —Paul Knoll

 

Cruising
Warner Home Video

If you like serial killers, Al Pacino and wonder what the gay bar scene was like back in the pre-AIDS glory years, then 1980's Cruising is your cup of leather-clad man-tea. Plot-wise, Pacino plays a straight NYPD beat cop selected to go under deep cover as a queer leather enthusiast in search of a psychotic murderer targeting chaps who favor chaps.

The film is a worthy William Friedkin effort, a fascinating homo-noir piece that follows Pacino's descent not only into the S&M leather bar subculture but into his own psyche. In its initial release, Cruising sparked plenty of outrage and indignation, not the least of which came from the gay world it depicted (many sensationalistic scenes were filmed on location in some of New York's notorious sex clubs).

Bonus extras include two interesting featurettes, wherein the director defends his work. Among other claims, he says that it's a murder mystery that just happened to be set against a gay backdrop, a ridiculous notion at best. Exploitative or not, the gay world is the star of the show. Taken as a period piece of a long-gone world or a somewhat confusingly plotted thriller, it's still a film that merits watching. —Peter Gilstrap

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