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Playing politics: Criterion’s ‘Election’ vetoes comfort for relevancy

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Preston Barta

Before Criterion even announced they were adding Alexander Payne’s 1999 political satire, Election, to their collection, thoughts of the film have been entering the minds of many lately. Its stinging relevancy to the circus we endured during the 2016 presidential election is akin to a bad episode of the Twilight Zone. And if you haven’t thought about Election, or much less seen it, you might want to add its Criterion release near the top of your holiday wish list.

Election 

Rated R, 103 minutes.

Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection.

(4 of 5 stars)

Inspired by the 1992 election, in which Bill Clinton and George Bush were challenged by the unusually popular third-party candidate Ross Perot, Election revolves around a race for student body president at a high school in Omaha, Nebraska - only all the candidates are not clean. Some students are romantically involved with their teachers, while others are running for selfish reasons.

Reese Witherspoon stars in <i>Election</i>.&nbsp;Digital file
Reese Witherspoon stars in Election
Digital file

Starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, the film is about manipulation, what people do when no one is looking and lying.

Lots and lots of lying. 

Election is an exercise in discomfort. Every character decision is so raw and honest that you’ll squirm on your sofa.

Despite the constant sense of unease, the performances and sharp writing speak volumes about what we see in our daily news. It doesn’t provide any answers on how to resolve any conflicts, but it does show how messed up people can be.

Extras: The Criterion Collection release includes a 2008 audio commentary with Payne, new interviews with Payne and Witherspoon, Payne’s 1990 UCLA thesis film (“The Passion of Martin”), Omaha local-news reports on the film’s production and an essay by critic Dana Stevens of Slate Magazine.

Home Again (3 stars) - Speaking of Witherspoon, here’s a contemporary release. In Home Again, Witherspoon plays Alice, a 40-year-old mother who has settled in Los Angeles with her young daughters (the adorable Eden Grace Redfield and Lola Flanery) after separating from her workaholic husband (Michael Sheen). One evening after a birthday dinner, Alice stumbles into a surprising fling involving an unlikely man (a charming Pico Alexander) who's nearly half her age. And like we commonly see in this type of movie, one-night stands are fun for, well, one night. But come next morning you begin to rethink your life a bit.

(Clockwise from left) Candice Bergen, Michael Sheen, Eden Grace Redfield, Nat Wolff, Reese Witherspoon, Jon Rudnitsky, Lola Flanery and Pico Alexander in <i>Home Again</i>.Photo by Karen Ballard
(Clockwise from left) Candice Bergen, Michael Sheen, Eden Grace Redfield, Nat Wolff, Reese Witherspoon, Jon Rudnitsky, Lola Flanery and Pico Alexander in Home Again.
Photo by Karen Ballard

It's understandable how some husbands and boyfriends may fear how Home Again resembles many commercial romantic comedies - the kind that send your eyes rolling when lovebirds go swimming in the sheets. But underneath its sugar-coated story is a lovable hangout movie with people who could charm the coldest of hearts.

Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.

Extras: The Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release only features an audio commentary with writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer and producer Nancy Meyers.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (5 stars) - This Olive Films re-release came out last Tuesday, but it’s the Blu-ray to own this week. It’s one of the most beautifully packaged home releases I have ever seen, and the 1948 film itself is just as lovely as the case that envelops it.

Olive Films is re-releasing the 1948 film 'Letters From An Unknown Woman.' The film follows a man as he receives letters from a former flame and learns of the depth of his onetime lover's feelings for him.  Louis Jourdan plays the pianist receiving the letters, and Joan Fontaine portrays his former love.Courtesy photo
Olive Films is re-releasing the 1948 film 'Letters From An Unknown Woman.' The film follows a man as he receives letters from a former flame and learns of the depth of his onetime lover's feelings for him. Louis Jourdan plays the pianist receiving the letters, and Joan Fontaine portrays his former love.
Courtesy photo

Letter from an Unknown Woman centers on the story of a pianist (Louis Jourdan) who finds a letter addressed to him from someone in his past. As he begins to read the contents inside, he learns that it's from a former flame (an endearing Joan Fontaine) who genuinely loved him.

At a tight 87-minute runtime, Letters from an Unknown Woman is a wonderfully-rendered melancholic romance. It’s structured where we read along with the man who also doesn’t really know the whole story, so everything is learned through her detailed perspective. It’s an astounding way to frame the film. And it’s only icing on the cake that the performances, writing and direction are just as fulfilling.

Not rated, 87 minutes.

Extras: The Olive Films release (available on olivefilms.com) includes by film scholar Lutz Bacher, and interview with the director’s son and Oscar-winning documentarian Marcel Ophuls, an interview with cinema professor Dana Polan, a cinematography analysis with other cinematographers, a visual essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher and an essay by critic Molly Haskell.

Twilight Time - November releases (4 stars) - Even though Woody Allen is a bit of a sleazeball in real life, his early films contained some really great comedy and sight gags. This is evident in Twilight Time’s restoration of his 1971 film Bananas.

In the film, Allen plays a New York consumer product tester who is dumped by his political activist girlfriend (Louise Lasser), because he doesn’t have good “leadership” qualities. Determined to prove his worth, he runs off to San Marcos, Carazo, where he joins the rebels and works his way up to the President of the country. It’s a funny satire that pairs well with Election.

Woody Allen stars in 1971's 'Bananas,' the story of a noobish New Yorker who becomes the President of a Latin American nation. Courtesy of Twilight Time.Courtesy photo
Woody Allen stars in 1971's 'Bananas,' the story of a noobish New Yorker who becomes the President of a Latin American nation. Courtesy of Twilight Time.
Courtesy photo

Also in Twilight Time’s November pile are 1977's The Yellow Handkerchief (a delightful Japanese-language film about three strangers who journey to Hokkaido, Japan), 1967's Doctor Dolittle (a silly but heartfelt story of a veterinarian who can speak to animals), 1959's Gidget (a bubbly romantic comedy that follows a young woman who finds love and surfing during one hot summer) and 1957's Sayonara (a Marlon Brando romance drama about an American Air Force hero who falls for a beautiful Japanese actress).

Bananas is rated PG-13, 82 minutes; The Yellow Handkerchief is not rated, 109 minutes; Doctor Dolittle is rated G, 151 minutes; Gidget is not rated, 95 minutes; and Sayonara is not rated, 147 minutes.

Extras: The special features on these limited edition Twilight Time (available today on twilighttimemovies.com) releases vary, but most include such extras as audio commentaries by various film historians and talent, isolated score tracks and original theatrical trailers.

Also available this week: All Saints, The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (1968-86): The Criterion Collection, Detroit, England is Mine, Fuller House: Season 2, Game of Thrones: Season 7, General Idi Amin Dada - A Self-Portrait (1974): The Criterion Collection, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Luke Cage: Season 1, The Strain: Season 4, The Trip to Spain, Vice Principals: Season 2 (digital only) and The Zoo: Season 3.