Beefcake and French fries

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Indy Lifestyle Online
At the height of Pulp Fiction fever last year, somebody suggested that video stores were becoming the new film schools, because that's where Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary had served their "apprenticeship". It was an absurdly premature suggestion, but it does shed a different light on McDonald's recent promotion, in which they offered cheap videos with selected meals. The gawky tyke asking if you want fries or a shake with that could, at this moment, be writing the script to next year's runaway hit.

Or perhaps not. But the arrival of McDonald's, and various supermarket chains, on the video scene has certainly smudged the rules and caused a furious trade battle in the process. Columbia TriStar was responsible for the McDonald's deal, which offered videos at a bargain price (£4.99) to anyone purchasing a £2.88 Extra Value Meal: junk movies to watch at home while your junk food repeats on you.

The idea came, as ever, from America, where the fast-food chain has been shifting blockbusters to its hungriest customers since 1992 (the most popular being Field of Dreams and Dances with Wolves, which makes Kevin Costner the human version of a Big Mac).

Video dealers there insist it has caused irreparable damage to the industry, though no one has actually been able to prove this conclusively (the Video Software Dealers Association failed when it tried to sue McDonald's and the distributor Orion for "preferential pricing" in 1992). Even Jeffrey Katzenberg, Disney's ex-head honcho, bemoaned what he called the "McDonaldisation" of the home video market.

The supermarkets were the first, though, really to infringe upon the video retail business in Britain. Their tactics were different - instead of offering titles as incentives to buy other goods, they simply cut their prices so low that no video store could afford to keep up. Tesco, Sainsbury and Safeway had begun selling videos in 1992, but the real crunch came last year when cut-price copies of Mrs Doubtfire and Jurassic Park were being sold in the run-up to Christmas.

"It's very short-sighted," an independent video dealer told the European Video Review. "If we make less profit, there's nothing to invest in slow- moving catalogue. So the catalogue suffers and the public's choicesuffers. They won't buy as much, we are not making as much profit and ultimately the industry won't expand."

The knock-on effect is apparent this month from Tartan's new World Classics range, a collection of re-released art-house favourites - including Les Valseuses and The Hairdresser's Husband - that are going for just £9.99 each, and 4-Front's new titles, including Saturday Night Fever and Sea of Love. Just a pity that, unlike Tartan, 4-Front rejects the widescreen format. The quality of its tapes has been muddy, too. But what do you expect for £5.99 - the Odeon Leicester Square?

The best new rentals this month are Richard Linklater's breezy Dazed and Confused, a comedy set in the 1970s but refreshingly free of sticky nostalgia; the heady Dennis Quaid/ Meg Ryan drama Flesh and Bone; and The Browning Version (all CIC), which is saved by an affecting, unusually understated Albert Finney. The straight-to-video releases are a fairly unimpressive bunch. Body Bags (PolyGram) is an inept horror compendium that you'd never guess was by ex-frightmeisters John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, especially the part about aliens taking over the world via a hair- growth potion for bald men. Oh, don't ask.

From Fox, there's The O J Simpson Story (yes, already) but what else can it be but incomplete? Did I mention that it's tasteless, listless garbage too? Clean Slate (Warner) stars Dana Carvey (aka Garth from Wayne's World, at least until he finds another decent part) as a man who wakes up each morning without his memory. No, not a harrowing insight into Alzheimer's, just a lame comedy that pinches all its gags from Groundhog Day.

Rental of the year so far, however, is William Friedkin's Blue Chips (CIC), written by Ron Shelton (Bull Durham; White Men Can't Jump) and starring Nick Nolte as the coach of an ailing university basketball team. Nolte is persuaded by the university to bribe three promising young players into signing up for the team, thereby catapulting it back to glory.

It's a deceptively simple fable of human conscience en route to moral bankruptcy. Nolte is electrifying, wracked with more guilt than Macbeth, bumbling around trying to please the players, their parents, his ex-wife and his own battered heart. There's an almighty eruption of energy from the ever-excellent J T Walsh, playing a kind of Mephisto in tennis whites, who must claim Nolte's soul for all eternity, or at least until the end of the basketball season.

Denied a theatrical release because it wasn't considered commercial enough (and the laborious new baseball movie Little Big League was?), this is a riveting, intelligent work, and an interesting companion piece to the documentary Hoop Dreams. If the boys in that film had found success, you think as you watch Blue Chips, they'd have had a whole new set of problems lying in lair ahead of them like mantraps.

It only remains urgently to recommend Lumiere's new £10.99 tape comprising Sweeney! and Sweeney 2. They've both dated appallingly of course, but you can sense the screenwriters' relish, after years of having Regan and Carter call villains "toe-rags" on TV, at finally being able to put some salty profanities in their mouths.