I'm a huge fan of everything Allison Anders wrote and directed, but I always loved her 1996 musical Grace of My Heart. A magical mix of the kind of intimate, behavioral filmmaking Anders is known for with the scope and resources of a large studio film. It's one of the most generous films I've ever seen in terms of the characters (all of whom are presented with deep empathy and respect) and the audience. At the heart of the picture is the richly detailed story of a singer-songwriter (a fantastic Illeana Douglas) who struggles with others' lack of trust in her voice – and then with her own loss of faith – before filling her art with triumphs and potions Regret of your life in one of the most overwhelming climaxes I have ever seen. Grace of My Heart is a character study and portrait of the difficulties creative people have in balancing work and love. It contains all the emotional power and anthropological authenticity of other Anders masterpieces such as "Things Behind the Sun" and "Gas Food Lodging" on a completely different level than a comprehensive portrait of an era of popular American music that begins in the Brill Building in the early 1960s and with the West Coast singer-songwriters 1970s ends. In between, Anders can cover a variety of styles and movements, all conveyed through original songs written for the film. Anders and her team (mainly composer Larry Klein and music supervisor Karyn Rachtman) combine Grace of My Heart with new songs that still sound classic. In this soundtrack, Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello meet fresh, as the music to which the film pays tribute would have sounded in its original time. The same goes for the entire film, which is composed entirely of both the time it is set in and, like something that couldn't have been made until the mid-1990s, when the American independent film movement and studio The System crossed so that writers like Anders could expand their ambitions and expand their canvases. It took nearly 25 years, but now this exquisite gem of personal filmmaking is finally available on Blu-ray by Scorpion Releasing in an edition that includes some wonderful extras: an insightful commentary track by Anders, an edifying making-of documentary, and several deleted scenes.
Another important release from 1996, Paul Thomas Anderson's directorial debut Hard Eight, is first available on Blu-ray via the Imprint label. While Hard Eight is just a warm-up for the spectacular audacity that was to come in Boogie Nights and Magnolia and beyond, it remains one of the greatest first features of all time, a haunting opening speech from a director who would later become one of the most important of his generation. The film is about an enigmatic aging gamer (Philip Baker Hall) who tries to atone for past sins by taking a likable but stupid loser (John C. Reilly) under his wing. He introduces a number of thematic elements (the impulse to create replacement families in order to correct the trauma of real ones) and aesthetic (elaborately choreographed steadicam movements, optical visual recordings influenced by Jonathan Demme, expressionistic lighting moods) that Anderson used a lot in later works Would evolve, but they're all pretty darn good here. Hard Eight has its many influences up its sleeve, not just Demme, but Jean-Pierre Melville and Robert Altman as well, but it doesn't come across as a derivative. Anderson internalizes his influences and combines them with his own heartfelt moral concerns to create a movie that is great to watch, but not a mere exercise in style. He was helped in this by a quartet of excellent lead performances, rounded off by Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson, although the film is owned by Hall. After playing around in supporting roles in films and on episodic television for decades (with the exception of his barn burner of a performance as Richard Nixon in Altman's Secret Honor), Hall got the part of his life here and he clearly knew it – you can feel his pleasure in the character in every fascinating scene and Anderson's delight in platforming Hall seeps through the celluloid. Imprint's Blu-ray contains all of the ancillary materials found on Sony's long-out-of-print DVD from 1999, including two great commentary titles: one with Anderson and Hall, the other with the director and star, and a host of interviewed crew members about their hard Eight experiences on the set of Magnolia.
When I'm staying in the mid-90s, my final recommendation this week is the extra-rich Blu-ray of Kevin Smiths Mallrats (1995) from Arrow Video. Like Grace of My Heart, Mallrats was funded and published by Gramercy Pictures, a joint venture between Universal and Polygram that (along with eventual studio indie subsidiaries such as Warner Independent and Paramount Vantage) was designed to bring Miramax 'success to compete and repeat it. At the time, Smith's attempt to transfer the sensitivity of his Sundance hit Clerks to a studio production was a critical and commercial disaster, but like many Gramercy underperformers – Grace of My Heart, Dazed and Confused, Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill, and The Underneath – Time was kind to it. The comic-obsessed characters and their digressions into superhero sex lives have aged well now with Marvel and DC adopting pop culture, as is a very fun Stan Lee cameo far more inventive and purposeful than any of Lee's appearances as a whole Marvel Movies Compiled. Smith's stated goal was to pay homage to the comedies of John Hughes and John Landis he grew up with, and although Mallrats didn't find the emotional resonance of the best Hughes pictures or the anti-establishment rage of Landis' satires corresponds entirely, as it strikes an effective balance between youthful slapstick and loving, revealing mockery of male neuroses; even in the age of COVID, it makes one painfully nostalgic for a time when densely populated shopping malls were hubs of social activity. The Blu-ray is one of those packages worth watching whether you like the movie or not because it offers such a fascinating historical overview of that moment in American cinema, for the Grace of My Heart was so emblematic. There are hours of commentary and interviews here, many of which offer an informative and often hilarious look at Smith's unfortunate foray into studio filming, a story that serves as a microcosm for the experiences of so many other directors at the time. And if you're looking for a similarly comprehensive look at the 1980s effects movies and the dawn of digital technology, you must also check out Arrow's equally well-stocked Blu-ray of The Last Starfighter. Her new 1984 edition of Science Fiction Charmeur contains a number of compelling additions that give the film the reputation it deserves as a landmark for visual effects.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently streamed on Amazon Prime and Tubi. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.