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My Own Private Idaho: The Criterion Collection

Meandering, lyrical, occasionally tedious, and often exhibiting a reach that far exceeds director Gus Van Sant's grasp, My Own Private Idaho (1991) firmly established Van Sant as one of the new stars of the indie-to-mainstream movement of the early 1990s. In his third film (following the acclaimed Drugstore Cowboy and the underseen Mala Noche), Van Sant brought an intriguing Shakespearean element to a tale of two young drifters who travel from Portland, Ore., to Idaho and Italy and then back again. River Phoenix plays Mike Waters, a troubled and aimless street hustler who dreams of reuniting with his mother. He suffers from narcolepsy, nodding off into deep sleep whenever he's overtaken with anxiety, slipping into poetic dreams of salmon heading upstream, returning home. He becomes friends with Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), a hustler from an altogether different background. Born into wealth and privilege, Scott's on the street as an act of rebellion against his father, the mayor of Portland. Scott takes Mike under his wing, offering him safety and protection as the pair wander from set-piece to set-piece, serving clients ranging from a Truman Capote-like clean freak to a wealthy woman with a penchant for groups of young boys. A none-too-subtle reworking of Shakespeare's Henry IV (and subtlety is hardly intended; Van Sant credits the Bard as a screenplay collaborator), the boys often slip into iambic pentameter — as street urchins are wont to do, naturally — and there's a Falstaff/Prince Hal relationship between young Scott and the stout Bob Pigeon (William Richert), who once offered Scott love and protection and now hopes to renew the friendship. A deeply unhappy movie at its core, Idaho offers a rather tragic view of unrequited love and friendship, with the inexplicably sociopathic prodigal son played by Reeves betraying both the men who love him and Phoenix's character, who alternates between fierce yearning and complacent sadness. Credibility is also stretched tissue-thin as the boys travel on their search for Mike's mother, popping over to Rome in the blink of an eye and suddenly nattering at each other in Bardspeak. But the pacing of the film is hypnotic, the lovely autumnal imagery — courtesy of cinematographers Eric Alan Edwards and John Campbell — is often mesmerizing, and the unfulfilled promise (for such very different reasons) of Phoenix and Reeves as young actors is heart-wrenching.

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The Criterion Collection once again offers an exemplary package with their DVD release of My Own Priviate Idaho, presenting a new director-approved digital anamorphic transfer (1.77:1). It's a typically gorgeous Criterion presentation, cleaned up beautifully with boosted, saturated colors, most notably the reds, oranges and yellows of the film's rich visual palette. The audio is available in the original Dolby 2.0 stereo or in new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix produced for this release. The DD mix is good, especially when it comes to spreading around ambient sound and background music, but not especially necessary — this a dialogue-heavy film, and the original stereo mix is not only adequate to the task, it may be preferable in this case. Disc Two offers all of the extras (save a theatrical trailer on Disc One), including a less-than-ideal audio track with Van Sant and director Todd Haynes discussing the making of the film. Very director-wonky, it's full of information — but it's still inferior to an actual scene-specific commentary track, and it involves maneuvering through three different menu screens to listen to it all. However, there is a terrific widescreen "making-of" featurette (43 min.) offering reminisces by DPs Eric Edwards and John Campbell, editor Curtiss Clayton and production designer David Brisbin on the behind-the-scenes work; a 44-minute interview with film scholar Paul Arthur on the adaptation of Henry IV to the script and other genre influences on the film; a rather dull conversation (20 min.) with producer Laurie Parker and River Phoenix's sister Rain about the work Phoenix did on the film; six deleted scenes; and an audio conversation between Van Sant collaborators/writers/ex-street kids JT LeRoy and Jonathan Caouette about how their experiences on the street influenced their work. The package includes a book with photos and essays by Any Taubin and JT LeRoy, plus interviews with Van Sant and Phoenix, all enclosed in a faux-weathered paperboard slipcase.
—Dawn Taylor



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