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Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975

There’s a tradition among purveyors of BDSM pornography to append a coda to their project in which the participants in various potentially alarming scenarios are finally glimpsed, all smiles, reveling in the afterglow of a clearly consensual exercise. I assume this practice has very practical benefits — for one thing, it might help stave off prosecution for obscenity or sex-trafficking. But it’s also a signal from the community making the videos to the community watching them that the performances are undertaken with high spirits, lest there’s any misunderstanding about the actual circumstances of their making. Despite any apparent unpleasantness, dear viewer, all involved (top and bottom, dominant and submissive) are working toward the ultimate goal of pleasure, not pain.

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A Man Called Horse

Directed by Elliot SIlverstein, 1970
Hey, peoples of the world: white guys are awesome! Suppose a white guy--a pasty English lord, let's say--were kidnapped by a bunch of Lakota Sioux. Sure, he might try to escape from captivity once or twice, but after a while he'd be totally cool with it. Instead of whining like a paleface, he'd go out and kill some other Native American people, maybe grab him a scalp or two, and then finally prove himself to his tribe by undergoing a bizarre physical ritual and fucking the chief's sister. Eventually, he'll be the leader of the tribe, rocking a tomahawk and a headband and showing them how to skirmish, English-style. Read the rest of this review at FilmFreakCentral.net
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Solaris

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972
Andrei Tarkovsky's adaptation of Solaris, a novel by the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, betrays the director's general disinterest in conventional SF tropes. His film does honour the mind-blowing outlines of Lem's concept, which deals with a manned mission to investigate a planet-sized extra-terrestrial consciousness. But where Lem speculated about the practical boundaries of human intellect in the shadow of the universe, Tarkovsky opts to explore human feelings of loss and insecurity in the face of mortality. For Lem, the failed Solaris mission is emblematic of the difficulties we humans would have comprehending and communicating with a radically different form of life. For Tarkovsky, the mission re-opens old psychic wounds, flooding us with regret that we weren't better to the people we loved. "Shame [is] the feeling that will save mankind," murmurs protagonist Kris Kelvin near the end of the film. In Tarkovsky's Solaris, we have made contact with the aliens, and they want you to call your mom. Read the rest of this review at FilmFreakCentral.net
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Opium and the Kung Fu Master

Directed by Tang Chia, 1984

<span class="title">Opium and the Kung Fu Master</span>Released in 1984, this widescreen actionfest/drug-addiction drama was the final film of only three directed by longtime action choreographer Tang Chia — and one of the last films ever released by the legendary Shaw Brothers movie studio, which in its heyday made dozens of movies every year but by this time was struggling to keep up with the popular trends ushered in by Bruce Lee and expanded upon by Jackie Chan and friends.

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Sonny Chiba's Dragon Princess

Directed by Yutaka Kodaira, 1976

Crummy by mainstream standards, this low-budget martial-arts programmer has lots of charm, starting with the opening shot depicting the inside of a church with saloon-style swinging doors banging against the wind and dust outside, and Tarantino fans will make note of some of the source elements he appropriated for his Kill Bill revenge pastiche. But the real attraction here is Yumi Higaki, playing a talented but reluctant martial-arts disciple seeking payback for injuries to the body and pride of her master (Sonny Chiba, in an extended cameo at the film's beginning). I had seen her previously in Sister Street Fighter, released two years earlier, but her poise and confidence has improved here. A prototype for any number of femme videogame ass-kickers, from Chun Li down the line, she has an overgrown-kid look to her that makes her determination and eventual triumph in the violent coming-of-age scenario more rousing.

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Directed by Dave Filoni, 2008
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Step Brothers

Directed by Adam McKay, 2008
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Postal

Directed by Uwe Boll, 2008
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Standard Operating Procedure

Directed by Errol Morris, 2008
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Story of O

Directed by Just Jaeckin, 1975
I wanted to look at the new Blu-ray Disc release of Story of O (out this week from the Canadian company Somerville House) for two reasons. First, I'm interested in what happens to obscure and cult films as they make their way to the new high-definition formats, and this French sexploitation drama from the mid-1970s certainly qualifies. Second, I know that while Story of O has some kind of literary pedigree (a sort of de Sade pastiche written under the pen name Pauline Réage, the novel broke significant ground for erotic fiction as well as bondage fetishists), the film version in particular has long been a pervy grail of softcore cinema -- knowledgable viewers of a certain sexual inclination find this mix of epic skin flick, softcore potboiler, and S&M psychodrama to be in a class of its own. … [read more]
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Can't Hardly Wait

Directed by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, 1998
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Chicago 10

Directed by Brett Morgen, 2007
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Chicago 10
, a documentary about the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and subsequent jury trial of eight protester defendants, is a bracing combination of archival footage and contemporary animation. The archival sections speak for themselves -- the colorful footage of groovy, loose-lipped protesters with a flair for the theatrics filling Lincoln Park is not only historic, but can be interestingly contrasted against the less colorful demonstrations of today -- but the interspersed animated sequences are something unusual. Working from stranger-than-fiction transcripts of the (sadly unphotographed) courtroom proceedings, writer/director Brett Morgan has assembled an all-star cast of character actors (Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, etc.) to portray that world-class cast of characters (including Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther Bobby Seale), animated in a rotoscoped style reminiscent of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. … [read more]
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Counterfeiters, The

Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007
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Felon

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh, 2008
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Untraceable

Directed by Gregory Hoblit, 2008
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Other Boleyn Girl, The

Directed by Justin Chadwick, 2008
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Teeth

Directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007
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Dawn (Jess Weixler), the protagonist of writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein's playfully gynephobic black comedy Teeth, is a high-school abstinence advocate whose no-sex-before-marriage stance masks her deep discomfort with her own body. Because Teeth is also a horror movie, the root of her fear is physical, not psychological -- as Anne Carlisle put it in the druggy downtown classic Liquid Sky, "this pussy has teeth."

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax)

Following a stroke that paralyzed him nearly completely, Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by listening to a bedside assistant read out all the letters of the alphabet and blinking each time she reached the correct one. This film is about the metaphor described in the book's title--Bauby's ruined body is like a diving bell, keeping him from interacting with the world outside, but his still-agile imagination is more like a butterfly. Director Julian Schnabel is a painter-turned-filmmaker who approaches the matter with an artist's instinct for aesthetics, and the film's first half-hour or so is a tour de force. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, known for his work with Steven Spielberg, creates a first-person experience full of both beauty and terror, imagining what the world must have looked like to Bauby in those first few days after he came out of his coma. The rest of the film, including flashbacks and fantasy sequences that amount to a contemporary take on Fellini's 8 1⁄2, is more ordinary (a tearful Max Von Sydow is excellent in what amounts to a cameo), but Mathieu Amalric gives life to Bauby's clear-eyed, life-affirming prose in an expert voiceover. (Related: Julian Schnabel in Pleasantville) Originally published in the White Plains Times.

Buy it from Amazon.com: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly[read more]
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480_greenlight.gif480_charlie-wilson-dvd.jpgCharlie Wilson's War (Universal)

Charlie Wilson’s War is a rare thing—a funny political film, a sexy history lesson. Director Mike Nichols brings a light comic touch to the story of the Democratic Texas Congressman (Tom Hanks) with a thing for the ladies and a soft spot for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Julia Roberts plays the wealthy conservative socialite who convinces Wilson to orchestrate the covert diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Afghan rebels in the years following the Soviet invasion in 1979. Neither Hanks nor Roberts is particularly convincing as a Texas politico, but that’s OK. The film crackles whenever Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, comes on screen, ripping mischievously through his sardonic dialogue and bringing everyone else’s game up a notch. Adapted from a book by the late George Crile, Aaron Sorkin's screenplay strongly suggests that the Congressional failure to help rebuild Afghanistan’s decimated post-war infrastructure helped make that country an eventual hotbed of terrorist activity. But what sticks is the criticism of U.S. politics as essentially a popularity contest, driven by friendships, favors, and fickle public opinion—a system prone to leave jobs unfinished as they become unfashionable. Originally published in the White Plains Times.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Charlie Wilson's War (Widescreen)

480_easy-living-dvd.jpgEasy Living (Universal)

Preston Sturges began his career at Paramount in 1937 by writing this Depression-era-New-York comedy about a wealthy industrialist (Edward Arnold) known as The Bull of Broad Street, his unhappy son (Ray Milland) who leaves home to work as a busboy at an automat, and working girl Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), whose life changes after a crazy-expensive fur coat chucked off the roof of a Manhattan apartment building lands on her head. (She turns around, angrily, and demands, "What's the big deal anyway?" The turbaned dude behind her responds, deadpan, "Kismet." It's that kind of screenplay.) Turns out the coat is a powerful status symbol, and Mary soon learns that nothing attracts wealth as powerfully as, well, more wealth. The no-frills slapstick of director Mitchell Leisen (an accomplished art director and costume designer) is no substitute for the elegance that Sturges would later develop helming his own material, but it's fairly well-tuned for this sophisticated, breezily entertaining farce of misunderstood identities. And Jean Arthur is terrific. I'm not sure how good the DVD looks, but it's got to be better than my VHS copy, which was recorded from Showtime almost 20 years ago.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Easy Living (Universal Cinema Classics)[read more]
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480_juno-dvd.jpgJuno (Fox)

Yes, it's absolutely crazy that this was nominated for Best Picture. Still, Juno is a pretty good time, elevated by the wry comic performance at its center—the 20-year-old Ellen Page delivers an endless succession of one-liners like she’s just vocalizing every colorfully sarcastic, occasionally scabrous thought that pops into her head. It’s a breakout performance that humanizes a script by erstwhile stripper (but you knew that) Diablo Cody that’s just a little too reliant on clever verbiage to create completely credible characters. Page plays Juno, a newly pregnant 16-year-old who, appalled by her visit to the local abortion clinic, decides to carry her baby to term. The first two-thirds is played for laughs, contrasting Juno's air of worldliness with the gentle confusion of her boyfriend (Michael Cera of Superbad) and the quiet desperation of the young couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) seeking to adopt. In the third act, the air of hipness dissipates and Juno becomes just the story of a girl who knows she’s in over her head and tries her best to do the right thing. Songs from the likes of The Moldy Peaches, Belle and Sebastian and even The Velvet Underground amplify the feeling of twee folksiness, but the emotions are, finally, honest and complex. A version of this review originally appeared in The White Plains Times.

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Manda Bala: Send a Bullet (City Lights Video)

First-time filmmaker Jason Kohn's documentary about life amidst the violence, poverty, and pervasive corruption of urban Brazil is frighteningly easy to watch — he shot on 16mm film using anamorphic lenses that stretch the image to an eye-popping ratio somewhere to the wide side of Cinemascope, and cinematographer Heloísa Passos ably captures a range of images that include the unfortunate amphibians inhabiting an overstuffed frog farm, the drably colorful favelas of Säo Paolo, and the too-colorful cosmetic-surgery procedure that's put to use in oder to replace the ears torn from kidnap victims by their abductors. Set largely to the urgent, jazzy stylings of tropicalia music from artists including Tom Zé and Gilberto Gil, Kohn's vignettes eventually cohere in a patchwork portrait of a country under siege by the twin threats of violent crime and the shenanigans of corrupt politicians whose money-laundering schemes fuel the kind of economic disparity that creates lower-class desperados. There's something to be said for chutzpah, and you can't accuse Kohn of laziness — the film includes a low-key confrontation with Jader Barbalho, the villain of the piece, and a nervy interview with one of the masked gunmen who makes a living dealing drugs and snatching members of the upper classes, securing their (mostly) safe return in exchange for money he claims to re-invest in his community. Kohn has been criticized for a certain sensationalism in his approach, and it's true that Manda Bala is a nonfiction film with the sensibility of pulp fiction. (Its gangster-movie tone actually reminded me a bit of the similarly in-your-face City of God.) But Kohn doesn't claim that he's trying to change the world. This is more of an essay film — a colorful, eyes-wide-open trip through the cities and slums of Brazil with a gutsy young filmmaker who's poking around to find ways to illustrate the connections between crooked politics and systemic violence. The ride more than repays the time you put into it — but it's an ultimately pessimistic trip that's unlikely to make you feel any better about the wide world outside.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Manda Bala

480_twbb.jpgThere Will Be Blood (Paramount)

The movie that finally turned me into a P.T. Anderson fan is even better on a second viewing, and if the inevitable high-definition home-video version hadn't fallen through the cracks created by the implosion of HD DVD, I'd be ready for a third go-round, like, tonight. Home video isn't the perfect environment for the fiery visuals of this grim descent, spectacularly photographed in widescreen by Robert Elswit. It may, however, be a good place to appreciate the score by Jonny Greenwood; it sounds radical enough as film music to make me frustrated by the moribund, this-is-how-we-feel-now style of too many composers, who labor in the long shadow of movie-music kingpin Johnny Williams and his work on behalf of the Lucas-Spielberg syndicate. (Not to knock John Williams, who has done some pretty solid work, but his success in a very familiar, "neo-romantic" mode has established a kind of hegemony in mainstream movies.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: There Will Be Blood or There Will Be Blood (Two-Disc Special Collector's Edition)
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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Dreamworks)

Tim Burton may not seem like the ideal adapter of a Stephen Sondheim musical, but when you consider the wry ghoulishness of this throat-slashing tragedy, the aptness of Burton’s dark flamboyance is clear. With input from Sondheim himself, Sweeney Todd has been smartly and ruthlessly condensed to fit a two-hour template — some songs cut entirely, several more liberally pruned — without completely gutting the original musical. Burton’s re-conception of the material is where the bigger changes have taken place. The casting of Johnny Depp, performing a brooding character study that shaves the comic surface from his famous pirate Jack Sparrow, is a stroke (turns out he can sing, too!), but Helena Bonham Carter, in strung-out goth mode, is never quite able to nail down her character (or maybe it's just difficult to imagine such an anti-Angela Lansbury in the role). Alan Rickman and the rubber-faced Timothy Spall can play comic adversaries in their sleep, and the anatomically enhanced Sacha Baron Cohen steals each scene he appears in as the barber Pirelli. The bloodletting is copious and graphic, but executed with a theatrical flair that softens the grisliness. Finally, Burton’s vision of the aspirationally romantic “By the Sea” is a riot — a perfect mini-movie with a stone-faced Depp channeling Buster Keaton. It’s a terrific musical in an uncommonly good year for movie musicals. (A version of this review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street or Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Two-Disc Special Collector's Edition)

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480_bonnie-dvd.jpgBonnie and Clyde (Warner)

I wasn't around for its release, so I don't know what it felt like to see it contemporaneously, but Bonnie and Clyde has gained a deserved reputation as the first of a new type of Hollywood film — one that revels in the outlaw appeal of the sociopath and depicts brutal violence frankly and with some degree of relish. The generally wrong-headed Bosley Crowther attacked it at the time ("... Bonnie and Clyde does not impress me as a contribution to the thinking of our times or as wholesome entertainment") and the Times was still harrumphing about its glamorization of violence as recently as last August, when A.O. Scott furrowed his brow in retrospect ("... in some ways that matter and that have become too easy to dismiss, Bosley Crowther was right"). Elaine Lennon's piece for Senses of Cinema is an insanely anecdote-packed précis on the film, including a representative sample of critical reaction that hints at what really was at stake at the downtown movie house in the late 1960s. If you've missed it to date, or are ready to stage your own private revival, a new multiplicity of home-video versions is out today.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Bonnie and Clyde (Two-Disc Special Edition), Bonnie and Clyde - Ultimate Collector's Edition, or Bonnie and Clyde [Blu-ray]
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The Ice Storm (Criterion)

240_the-ice-storm.jpgDirector Ang Lee followed up his mainstream-American breakthrough — the foreign-language Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — with first a superhero movie (The Hulk) and then a gay cowboy film (Brokeback Mountain), which should demonstrate enough range for anybody. Back in the day, he was a bright light on the indie-film scene, an uncommonly sensitive and expressive Taiwanese director making his English-language debut in Jane Austen territory, with Sense and Sensibility, and then following it up with an arguably even-more-diffficult Rick Moody adaptation, The Ice Storm. All about the swinging suburban middle class in the early 1970s — sexually restless housewives and husbands and their bored children — The Ice Storm might have seemed like a presumptuous choice for a director born and raised in Taiwan, but it turns out that Lee knows a thing or two about the suburbs. (He moved to Westchester County, just north of New York City, more than 20 years ago.) With The Ice Storm, Lee able handled a group of young actors (Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood) and elicited what's possibly a career-best performance from Joan Allen. He also nailed a specific sense of time and place, and uncovered the almost mournful emotional heart of the story. It's a little creepy, a little heartbreaking, and a little otherworldly.

Buy it from Amazon.com: The Ice Storm - Criterion Collection
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No Country for Old Men
(Miramax)

No Country For Old Men is, probably, the single most critically lauded film of the Coen Brothers' career. It's also a departure, especially in that it largely subjugates their own exhibitionist hallmarks of style and characterization to those established in the source material – in this case an expertly grim genre potboiler by Cormac McCarthy. No Country gets great benefits from the outstanding performances at its center – Javier Bardem's cold-blooded killer the kind of outsized stereotype that self-identifies as a Coen creation, but paying dividends in counterpoint to Josh Brolin's quiet desperado and Tommy Lee Jones's mournful good-ol-boy sheriff. I was yanked out of the story when vibe-busting reminders of the old-school Coen Brothers' schtick appeared on screen, especially the straight-out-of-central-casting types who inhabit the film's smaller speaking parts – the motel clerk who woodenly insists Brolin select from a menu of room choices, the mama who dodders through her scenes like a Spike Jonze Jackass parody of the elderly, and even the gas-station proprietor whose highly directed performance almost wrecks that crucial early, mood-setting scene with Chigurh. In a broad comedy like the wonderful paean to country folk and bluegrass O Brother Where Art Thou or the bountiful ode to stoner lifestyles The Big Lebowski, they'd be welcome, maybe even show-stealers. But juxtaposed with No Country's sad-eyed hero performances, they feel forced, inauthentic, even (here's that accusation so often lobbed at the Coens) crudely condescending. That's not to say that the Coens' style is a liability; they make consistently smart decisions in condensing and adapting McCarthy's novel, especially when it comes to packing the gist of Ed Tom Bell's lengthy monologues from the printed page into snatches of dialogue on screen. They work the story for suspense, fully exploiting the conventions of crime drama in a narrative (McCarthy's) that, eventually, deliberately flouts genre convention to terminate in a meditation on aging and mortality and maybe nostalgia. And they invent a scene that has the sheriff and the killer coming almost eyeball to eyeball across the portal of a motel-room door with a blasted-out lock cylinder, their simultaneous proximity and distance a necessarily cinematic expression that vaults beyond the source material. But the irony remains: two of our greatest cinema stylists have made the most critically lauded film of their career by ruthlessly corseting their formidable drive and vision into the literary strictures dictated by a great American novel. Seeing it a second time, at home, the melancholy grandeur of the film's final cut to black became even more apparent — reassurance that I wasn't simply bowing to conventional wisdom by placing it on my top-10 list. No Country For Old Men is a triumph for sure. But for the Coens, it's also something of a capitulation.


Buy it from Amazon.com: No Country for Old Men or No Country for Old Men [Blu-ray]


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Into the Wild (Paramount Vantage)

I guess I like this more than No Country For Old Men partly because it's markedly more personal in its execution. While No Country's exacting genre mechanics can feel overly mechanical, Into the Wild has a relaxed, freewheeling energy and a sensuousness that's rare enough in contemporary Hollywood to seem noteworthy when it occurs. The performances are uniformly dedicated -- sure, old guy Hal Holbrook deserved the end-of-year love he got, but not any more so than overlooked co-thesps Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener, and even Vince Vaughn. The cinematography is a marvelous example of its type, and skillful editorial work helps Penn keep the momentum going throughout an expansive running time. Here's what I wrote at the time: "As accomplished as the photography is, what's even more glorious about Into the Wild is its essential messiness." It'll be reduced on a small screen, but undoubtedly worth the sit — maybe it'll find the wide audience on DVD that eluded it in theaters.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Into the Wild or Into the Wild (Two-Disc Special Collector's Edition)
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Gone Baby Gone
(Miramax)


In this gripping, self-assured crime drama, Ben Affleck flexes directorial muscles that nobody knew he had (except maybe Mama Affleck). Set largely in the working-class neighborhoods of South Boston, it begins with the disappearance of a four-year-old girl from her Dorchester home and ends in deeply ambivalent territory. Frustrated by law-enforcement efforts, the girl’s aunt and uncle hire a local husband-and-wife private-investigation team (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) to pound the pavement for leads. Complicating matters, the girl’s mother (Amy Ryan, teriff) is a drug addict with unpleasant entanglements of her own. It takes a while to gel, but eventually works up a tension and complexity that are underscored by a taut, troubled lead performance from the director’s younger brother Casey. There’s something going on behind that character’s eyes that’s hard to figure out, even after the film’s richly suggestive final scene. It’s not a perfect movie, but there’s a depth and urgency, not to mention a flotilla of generally expert actors, that carry it over the rough spots. The elder Affleck, who doubled as co-screenwriter, avoids pretension or high seriousness — this is highly entertaining, pulpy stuff. But it generates a provocative atmosphere of moral ambiguity that lingers for days. It’s a modest film, but an excellent one. (A version of this review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Gone Baby Gone or Gone Baby Gone [Blu-ray]

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We Own the Night (Sony)

With the heart of Greek tragedy and the soul of film noir, We Own the Night takes an intractable situation as its premise and then spends two hours showing us bad things happening. Joaquin Phoenix is the devil-may-care Bobby Green, who manages a successful-but-shady Brooklyn nightclub — and just happens to have a brother (Mark Wahlberg) and father (Robert Duvall) in high-profile jobs with the NYPD. They could use Bobby’s help infiltrating the Russian mob, but his loyalties are elsewhere. Once Bobby wakes up to the idea that he must choose sides, We Own the Night so vividly depicts his various betrayals of trust that the sentiment expressed in the film’s final scene feels somehow both monstrous and hilarious. Whether you enjoy this will depend in part on how much you mind a script that spells every little nuance of the story out in clumsy lines of dialogue — it’s writer/director James Gray’s worst impulse. But Gray has an appealingly old-fashioned approach to filmmaking and, of course, a terrific cast. (Phoenix, in particular, has never been better.) What’s more, he devises two show-stopping action scenes that propel the film’s second half — including a stylish, heart-pounding car chase in the rain. Good stuff. (This review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.)


Buy it from Amazon.com: We Own the Night, We Own the Night [Blu-ray] or We Own the Night [UMD for PSP]
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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner)

Sometimes I wonder if I overrated this one, starved as I sometimes am for a sense of lyricism — anybody's sense of lyricism — at the multiplex. And then I remember the arresting cinematography by Roger Deakins (this, No Country for Old Men, and In the Valley of Elah seeing release in the same calendar year constituting some kind of triple play, even if I have a few problems with Elah); the presence of Brad Pitt as a laconic but intensely charismatic icon; and a sneaks-up-on-you performance by Casey Affleck as a kind of emotional parasite. And I decide that no, it is pretty great, and I look forward to catching it again this week. Here's what I wrote about it in October:

Tracing the roots of celebrity culture all the way back to 1883, writer/director Andrew Dominik imagines the last few months of the life of Jesse James as a hazy battle of wits between the sharp, charismatic bandit (Brad Pitt) and the gang of thieves he no longer trusts. James has good reason to be wary — two of his men are plotting to turn him in for the reward money, and another, the young wannabe Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), exhibits a neediness that borders on creepy. (He even sneaks up on James in the bath.) Close to three hours in length, the film has time to precisely detail the ways Ford’s idolatry of James turned to resentment and betrayal, with an ironic reversal in the last reel. Pitt invests James with charm, humor and occasional murderousness, effectively imagining a man on the downhill side of his own legend. As the outlaw loses his drive (the clear suggestion is that his death was a form of suicide), the film becomes more clearly Ford’s story, and Affleck’s fine performance snaps unexpectedly into sharp focus for the film’s final third. The result is a languorous masterpiece — a revisionist western about myth, moral compromise, and the male ego. (This review was originally published in the White Plains Times.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [Blu-ray] or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Combo HD DVD and Standard DVD) [HD DVD]
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4 by Agnes Varda (Criterion)

Among the most important female directors* in film history, Agnes Varda may best be remembered for crashing the boys' club that was the Nouvelle Vague with Cleo from 5 to 7, her 1962 study in real-time anxiousness — the title character hangs around in Paris, awaiting the results of a cancer biopsy. But she was already on the scene in 1956, when she made La Pointe Courte, a film-school standby and an important precursor to the French New Wave. This boxed set collects both of those high-water marks along with Le Bonheur (1965), the well-regarded Vagabond (1985) and a full load of extras. I haven't seen it myself, but it's on my list.

* No, there aren't many of them. Another good reason to investigate the great ones.

Buy it from Amazon.com: 4 by Agnès Varda (La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7, Le bonheur, Vagabond) - Criterion Collection

Monty Python's Life of Brian (Sony)

How many times do you have to buy Life of Brian, anyway? If you already own a DVD version, this latest iteration — the "Immaculate Edition" — may be missable. But if you're like me, you haven't watched this since the Criterion laserdisc came out and need an upgrade. (You could also ask why you spent big money on a Criterion laserdisc that you would only play once, and why you would compound that fiscal error by sinking even more money into a DVD that you're likely to only play once — but then you wouldn't be like me.) My copy (Blu-ray) hasn't arrived from Amazon.com yet, but it looks like this one contains the same five deleted scenes and the same twin commentary tracks as the Criterion version, which means I can thrill again to the sound of distinguished Python Terry Gilliam griping about how much better this film would have been if the group had let him direct. (He's probably right, of course.) As Python goes, I honestly prefer the more madcap Holy Grail — but this one has the distinction of being perhaps the least offensive film ever to get a worldwide reputation for blasphemy. Here's a recent interview with John Cleese on the subject.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Monty Python's Life Of Brian - The Immaculate Edition or Monty Python's Life Of Brian - Collector's Edition [Blu-ray] (Note: Amazon.com says the Blu-ray version is two discs, but apparently it's just one.)
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If you follow consumer-electronics news and/or video-nerd gossip with even a casual interest, you know by now that the long-simmering format war between rival high-definition movie standards (HD DVD in one corner, Blu-ray Disc in the other) is, essentially, over. When Warner Home Video announced that it was ending support for HD DVD in favor of Blu-ray, it essentially put the writing on the wall — with only Universal and Paramount supporting the HD DVD format, it’s soon to go the way of the Betamax. Blu-ray has a fairly robust film library, but until those two hold-out studios make a decision about releasing their high-definition titles to the format, video nerds are going to have at least a few tough decisions to make. Right now, for instance, they have to decide whether to shell out for attractive titles like Universal’s Eastern Promises and Paramount’s must-have Zodiac: Director’s Cut in a soon-to-be-obsolete high-definition format, hold their videophile noses and buy the standard-def DVD versions, or simply rent the damned things for now. (For inveterate collectors, that last option isn’t much of an option at all.)

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Eastern Promises (Universal)

The life of a Russian gangster, with a heart. Forget about the story, which is a slight thing, and more than a little obvious. It’s elevated — from an auteurist perspective at least — by Cronenberg’s pedigree, although it’s perhaps the most conventional of the director’s many genre-tweaking exercises. But this expertly modulated B-movie exercise in tension and release is really the Viggo Mortenson show — he spends most of the movie with the kind of confident almost-grin on his face that suggests he’s the only one who realizes that a joke is being told. It’s not until a punishing action scene, in which Mortenson’s Nikolai fights for his life, nude, in a Russian bath house, that he delivers the punchline. Like the superior A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is a deliberately modest but sophisticated (and quite entertaining) accomplishment.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Eastern Promises (Widescreen Edition) or Eastern Promises (Combo HD DVD and Standard DVD) [HD DVD]

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Zodiac: Director’s Cut (Paramount)
 
The differences between this version and the theatrical release are fairly minor, but if you’re going to dig into (or revisit) Fincher’s obsessive, nearly three-hour look at the unsolved mystery of the Zodiac killer, you might as well go all the way. The complete film holds up to repeat viewings, but this DVD is a nibbler’s delight, since the film can be broken down into so many virtuosic sequences and incredibly ambitious VFX shots that reward close examination. The digital cinematography by Harris Savides is worth a close look, almost — but not quite — replicating the look of film and still giving an oddly plastic feel to some of the imagery. (In my review, I guessed that the cab seen from a crane shot in one of the film’s early murder sequences was a CG model. I found out later that I was completely wrong. But it’s still fascinating to consider the provenance of these images from a tech point of view.) The two-disc release carries a full load of extras, including two documentaries and the requisite Fincher commentary. (Original review.)

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Blade Runner (Warner)


It wants more life, father. The different versions of Blade Runner have taken on legendary status over the years, partly because this was an early, well-documented case of a film being changed — against the better judgment of its creators — by a studio made squeamish by middling test-screen results, and partly because it was one of the first high-profile films to have an alternate-version release in the then-nascent home-video market. The original Embassy Home Video VHS release presented Blade Runner in its European-release version, which included the bits of violence that were trimmed to secure an R rating in the U.S. That was a nice touch, but Blade Runner wasn't really worth watching on home video until the letterboxed Criterion laserdisc came out. At the same time, the early workprint versions of the film that were screened for test audiences in Dallas and Denver gained currency on the fan circuit, and word started to spread that perhaps there was evidence in the source material indicating that replicant-hunter Deckard was himself a replicant with the same implanted memories as the poor souls he was charged with hunting down and exterminating. A lot has transpired since then, including a half-assed "director's cut" release in 1992 that followed fairly close on the heels of an accidental, but well-received, screening of a 70mm blow-up from one of the workprints. This year, Ridley Scott created a "final cut" version of the film that includes some new material and digital tweaks to existing footage (a 60-year-old Joanna Cassidy reprised her role as replicant Zhora in newly shot material!), and that's the excuse for this release. It's available in a plethora of multi-disc configurations, but anybody with a serious interest in the long journey of Blade Runner from screen to screen to screen owes themselves the investment in this five-disc collection, which is the only way to get your hands on the original workprint version that represents Scott & Co.'s first close approach to the material. (Interestingly, the high-definition versions of the five-disc set are significantly less expensive than their standard-def counterparts, which are only available along with collectible geegaws in limited-edition packaging apparently patterned after a briefcase seen in the film.) For movie nerds of certain ages and proclivities, it's a must-buy. (Also, Amazon dudes, why haven't you mailed my copy yet?)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Blade Runner (Five-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition) or Blade Runner (Five-Disc Complete Collector's Edition) [Blu-ray] or Blade Runner (Five-Disc Complete Collector's Edition) [HD DVD]

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Once (Fox)

It's an uncommonly great year for movie musicals, and I haven't even seen Sweeney Todd yet. Director John Carney's gentle romance turns a typically limiting digital-video aesthetic and resolute, not-quite-cloying sweetness into a winning combination. Not as pat as it sounds, nor as gloppy as might be suggested if you hear Glen Hansard's songs — devastating in context — divorced from the story. I wrote a short review earlier this year.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Once



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The Bourne Ultimatum (Universal)

Far and away the best action movie of the year was The Bourne Ultimatum. Director Paul Greengrass, cinematographer Oliver Wood, and editor Christopher Rouse push the shakycam aesthetic to the extreme and come up with something almost avant garde: the Hollywood set piece as pure sound and motion, physical and psychological violence communicated in visceral, visual terms. Will the smaller screen tame the vigorous whip pans and fast cutting that made some viewers physically ill? Maybe. It might also magnify the failings of the film's last act, which falls back disappointingly on talking-heads exposition. Still an exciting way to spend the evening — and way more fun than the similarly gripping United 93 — with the hint of a post-9/11 subtext and a hugely satisfying final shot (but do catch up with its two predecessors first if you've managed to not yet see them).

Buy it from Amazon.com: The Bourne Ultimatum (Widescreen Edition) or The Bourne Ultimatum (Combo HD DVD and Standard DVD) [HD DVD]

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Vol. 4 [Blu-ray]

Normally I'd urge you to steer well clear of this hit-or-miss horror anthology series, which underwhelmed the horror-fanboy community when it originally aired on Showtime in 2005 and 2006. But this high-definition Blu-ray Disc, which can be had from online retailers for less than $20, includes both of the series' high points in a single volume: Joe Dante's "Homecoming," about the zombies of Iraq War veterans who rise from the grave to vote the Bush Administration out of office; and Takashi Miike's nutty "Imprint," which I reviewed last year. Neither one is a masterpiece, but they're both well worth watching if you're a horror fan, and right now you can get them in high-definition for less than they'd cost on standard DVDs. The third and fourth segments, "Chocolate" from director Mick Garris and "Haeckel's Tale" from director John McNaughton, are forgettable, but essentially free with the purchase.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Masters of Horror: Season 1, Vol. 4 [Blu-ray]

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Ford at Fox: The Collection (Fox)

Yes, it's expensive. And no, I haven't actually checked out a review copy or anything like that. (I only wish.) But the DVD-format gift item to beat this year has got to be Fox's mammoth, one-of-a-kind cataloging of this major director's work at the studio. Is every film going to be a masterpiece? Of course not. For all I know, some of them may not even have the whiff of genius about them. But at a street price barely above $200, it's hard to find fault with an offering of 24 films (plus a documentary) — at the very least you get a handful of stone classics like My Darling Clementine, Citizen-Kane-Oscar-stealer How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln that put you well on the way to recouping that investment even if you hate the bulk of what's left. Could it be better? Sure. It could be in high-definition. If it's a hit, then such a thing could one day come to pass. And if nobody buys this, well, we can probably say goodbye to the idea of truly comprehensive home-video releases from the major-studio catalogs. And that makes it probably the most important home-video release of the year.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Ford At Fox - The Collection

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Exiled (Magnolia)

Not a revelation or anything, but a solid Hong Kong crime film for anyone who's lately lamented the apparent absence of solid crime films out of Hong Kong. (Director Johnnie To remains the go-to guy for this kind of thing.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Exiled
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Waitress (Fox)

Waitress takes on an unavoidable added poignancy when you know the story behind it. (Actress Adrienne Shelly, a staple of the New York indie film scene since the late 1980s, was poised for a breakthrough as a director with this romantic dramedy. After the film was completed but before its Sundance premiere, Shelly was murdered in Greenwich Village. Waitress therefore plays as valedictory — a gently feminist celebration of love, life and motherhood.) Keri Russell stars as a great waitress and pie-maker stuck in a bad marriage (to a scruffy, clueless Jeremy Sisto). She falls for her gynecologist (Nathan Fillion) and struggles toward independence. Russell carries the film pretty well, and the deadpan Fillion (Serenity, Slither) is an odd but endearing choice as her romantic foil. The men in the film are completely out of focus, anyway, except for Andy Griffith (!), who appears in several scenes playing a creaky old plot device. The biggest problem is that you’ve seen this story many times before — woman with bad marriage and spunky friends finds the courage to make a new start. If this sounds like your idea of a good time, relax and enjoy.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Waitress (Widescreen Edition)


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Ghosts of Cite Soleil (Thinkfilm)

This raw and sobering look at gang life in the Haitian slums seems to be consciously aimed at short attention spans, cranking itself continually forward so fast that you wonder what's been left out. But it's one of those amazing pieces of documentary that makes you wonder how in the world the filmmakers got so close to the action. I reviewed it in June.

Order it from Amazon.com: Ghosts of Cite Soleil

480_hairspray-dvd.jpgHairspray (New Line)

Nobody could have expected this to be as crappy as I did, but, lo and behold, it's a terrifically entertaining high-school musical. John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer can go screw themselves as far as I'm concerned, and the songs aren't great, but the kids — especially Nikki Blonsky in what should be billed as the lead plus Amanda Bynes and James Marsden in good-natured comic supporting roles — are all right.


Buy it from Amazon.com: Hairspray (Widescreen Edition) or Hairspray (Two-Disc Shake & Shimmy Edition) or Hairspray [Blu-ray]


480_heart-o-darkness.jpgHearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (Paramount/ American Zoetrope)

Long unavailable (my VHS copy was recorded off Showtime on its 1991 premiere), this new DVD was such a stealth production that even director George Hickenlooper — who had long been lobbying to help create a special-edition release — had no idea it was coming out until he read about it on the Internet. Reportedly uncut despite long-standing rumors of Coppola's discomfort with his own near-lunatic presence in the film, Hearts of Darkness is based largely on about 60 hours of footage shot by Coppola's wife, Eleanor, during the near-disastrous (well, some would say it really was a disaster) making of Apocalypse Now. It's all here — the budget overruns, the bad weather, the abortive French Plantation sequence, Martin Sheen's heart attack, Brando's arrival on the scene, overweight and underprepared. "We were in the jungle, " Coppola says at one point, "there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." They don't make 'em like that any more.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

480_manu-land-dvd.jpgManufactured Landscapes (Zeitgeist)

It's a shame that the high-definition home-viewing revolution hasn't, to date, revolutionized titles like Manufactured Landscapes, because Jennifer Baichwal's film about Edward Burtynsky's ongoing photography project — he documents the effects of industry on natural landscapes, to often-stunning effect — is as visually provocative in its way as Burtynsky's own work. Credit must go in part to artful cinematography by Peter Mettler, but Baichwal keeps the film reined in, avoiding facts-and-figures outrage and instead allowing the humbling scope of the desolate imagery depicted to speak largely for itself. Reviewing it in June, I wrote, "The images are striking in their otherworldliness, suggesting science-fiction landscapes as readily as dystopian ruins of the here and now. They're relics of human pride and folly — signposts, perhaps, on a one-way street."

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Killer of Sheep (Milestone)

Believe the hype. Charles Burnett's long-unreleased slice of Americana is every bit the lost classic its partisans have declared it for the last 30 years. There's nothing flashy or innovative about its style, nothing innovative or groundbreaking about its technique. As David Denby suggested in The New Yorker earlier this year, it's kind of like a great blues record — scruffy and familiar in some ways, startlingly expressive and singularly mournful in others, Or, as I put it back in March, "I've seen quite a few films about growing up in America, but there's a nonchalant immediacy to this one that I've never seen matched." 


Buy it from Amazon.com: Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection
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Ratatouille (Disney)


Sometimes I feel like all this writing about movies — coming up with reasons to dismiss movies I dislike, articulating elements I think could have been handled better and enumerating the problems in script, casting and execution — has turned me into a curmudgeonly freak who's incapable of enjoying a great Hollywood entertainment on its own terms. And then I see something like Ratatouille, which plasters a dumb smile on my face for the majority of two hours and runs over and over in my head for weeks and months. Look, critics don't really enjoy sitting through dross, even if it means they get to exercise their fickle fingers for a few minutes by typing a clever slag on the new popular blockbuster or critics' (the wrong critics) darling and slapping a C-, or a D, or even an F at the bottom of the review. Those reviews can be fun to read. But they'd destroy the soul if there weren't reviews of movies like Ratatouille to go along with them. A-freaking-plus, man.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Ratatouille or Ratatouille [Blu-ray]

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Sicko (Weinstein Co.)

Of all Michael Moore’s qualities, the most underrated may be his skill as a storyteller. For better and worse, his strategy has always involved forcing his political arguments to fit a strong narrative structure. In those terms, Sicko, his documentary about the American health-care system, is a doozy. This film’s stories are heartbreaking; many of its characters are already dead — victims, Moore argues, of for-profit HMOs that seek to deny as many insurance claims as possible. He gathers anecdotal evidence about universal, government-paid health care in Canada, France, the U.K., and even Cuba — where he’s able to secure no-questions-asked care for a group of ailing 9/11 rescue workers. Moore once again skirts anything resembling real debate, failing to engage with dissenting views on more than a superficial level, but his questions are effectively pointed. If universal health care is the boondoggle its opponents claim, why is Moore able to find so many happy testimonials from non-U.S. citizens? And what are the moral implications of a system that refuses care to people who are desperately in need? Impressively, Moore maintains a sense of humor, keeping Sicko from becoming pointlessly shrill or completely maudlin — instead, it’s absorbing, occasionally infuriating, and thoroughly entertaining.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Sicko (Special Edition)
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Looney Tunes: Golden Collection, Volume 5 (Warner)

There were two reasons for my decision to purchase a DVD player in time for Christmas, 1997. One of them was the news that Criterion had begun releasing its catalog of "classic and important contemporary films" to the new format, so that a film-and-extras package that cost $100 or $125 on laserdisc would soon be available as a $40 DVD. And the other was the Warner Bros. announcement that the Looney Tunes catalog was on its way to DVD. The Looney Tunes announcement turned out to be years premature, but the shorts did start showing up on four-disc DVD collections, one per year, in 2003. The sets aren't exactly optimized for the collector — they're not chronological, and there is no all-Chuck Jones set, or all-Robert McKimson — but they're organized smartly enough from a commercial perspective, sprinkling the best-known shorts across enough discs to keep the nostalgia factor high for casual viewers while dipping deep enough into the catalog to surprise even Looney Tunes fans. (Still no "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips," in case you were wondering.) Highlights of this set include a helping of Chuck Jones classics ("Ali Baba Bunny," "Transylvania 6-5000," "Bewitched Bunny," among others) plus a 2000 documentary (Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens), an all-Bob Clampett disc, and an "Early Daze" disc presenting pre-1944 'toons from Clampett, Jack King, Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, and Tom Palmer (1933's "I've Got to Sing a Torch Song"). Extras include a couple of Private Snafu cartoons and the usual flotilla of short documentaries, commentaries, music-only tracks, etc. (Do not confuse this with the less-expensive Spotlight Collection, which only includes the first two of these four discs.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Looney Tunes - Golden Collection, Volume Five

240_twin-peaks.jpgTwin Peaks: The Complete Series (Paramount)

OK, it's a mixed bag, really. The second season of Twin Peaks was a disappointment, growing sillier and more disassociated from any notion of a conventionally satisfying narrative (which the early episodes delivered on top of all the Lynchian quirkiness) as each episode stretched on. Even the eventual revelation of Laura Palmer's killer was bungled in the program's increasingly unfocused execution. And, yeah, $100 is a lot of money to spend on a TV show. But television rarely got stranger or grander than this program's first season, which examined the aftermath of the murder of Laura Palmer, a pretty, popular high-school girl who was found dead, wrapped in plastic, on a riverbank in Twin Peaks, WA. What ensued was a tongue-in-cheek soap opera involving the denizens of the town, plus newcomer Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), on hand to investigate Palmer's murder and slug down diner coffee. It's a masterpiece of mood if nothing else. And the portentous, wryly funny feature-length pilot episode remains, even after all these years, a highlight of David Lynch's career. Watch it, and imagine what Mulholland Dr. could have been. This definitive, 10-DVD set includes all 29 episodes of the show, the original pilot, the European version of the pilot (which resolves the "mystery" in a clumsy coda at the very end), deleted scenes, and even footage from the Saturday Night Live episode hosted by MacLachlan at the height of Agent Cooper's popularity.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Twin Peaks - The Definitive Gold Box Edition (The Complete Series)
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Breathless (Criterion)

I've not seen this in years — and from what I remember this is hardly my favorite Godard film — but it's an iconic piece of history nonetheless, moving-pictorial evidence of the ways the French New Wave synthesized elements of hard-boiled American culture with a distinctly Euro sensibility to effect a sharp demarcation from your daddy's cinema. Slate it as the capper to a triple feature with The 400 Blows and Hiroshima Mon Amour, also on Criterion DVD.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Breathless - Criterion Collection

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Eyes Wide Shut (Warner)

Warner Bros. is reissuing a whole slew of Kubrick movies on DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc today. I'm singling out Eyes Wide Shut not because it's a particular favorite but because, as far as I know, it represents the first time a non-bastardized version of Kubrick's final film has been available in the U.S. (Previous versions had clumsily inserted digital figures blocking simulated sex acts during the film's orgy scene, which were added — after Kubrick's death! — in order to secure a contractually obligated R rating.) If we're lucky, this will also exhibit the return of some very heavy film grain that seemed to have been noise-reduced out of previous versions. Even if you own them already, the other releases are likely well worth picking up, since they boast improved transfers and, in several cases (notably Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining) they're available for the first time in their proper, widescreen theatrical framing. (Why this has been the source of online controversy for years and years I'll never understand; Kubrick was said to prefer full-screen telecine for television versions of his films, but he was making those decisions in the days before anamorphic DVD and high-definition displays changed the rules of the game.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Eyes Wide Shut (Two-Disc Special Edition), Eyes Wide Shut [HD DVD], Eyes Wide Shut [Blu-ray], or Stanley Kubrick - Warner Home Video Directors Series

480_days-of-heaven.jpgDays of Heaven (Criterion)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is only the latest in a long line of films that were influenced by Terence Malick's direction and Nestor Almendros's famed golden-hour cinematography. If you've never seen this before, consider yourself lucky to have the chance to watch it in an improved transfer; if you're a fan, this is probably a necessary upgrade. (The nagging question that may hold you back: when will Criterion announce its first catalog of high-definition releases?)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Days of Heaven - Criterion Collection

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28 Weeks Later (Fox)

I suppose it's a minority opinion that this rather more cacophonous, action-oriented sequel is better than the low-key original (28 Days Later), but damned if this isn't the spiritual heir to George A. Romero's socio-politically charged forbears. Its release coincident with the thickening quagmire in Iraq, the military solution to infestation it depicts — firebombing a city to take out the human survivors alongside the uncontainable zombie insurgents — qualifies as a ghoulishly modest proposal. With contemporary horror lacking much in the way of ideology beyond torture-porn's implicit sidelong critique of Abu Ghraib etc., it's reassuring to see a thrill ride that tries to get its hooks into the social zeitgeist. The action isn't bad either, with a few supremely disquieting set pieces (the first one is illustrated above) and a genuinely distressing tone. One of the year's best for sure.

Buy it from Amazon.com: 28 Weeks Later (Widescreen Edition) or 28 Weeks Later [Blu-ray]

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Day Night Day Night (IFC)

I think of Day Night Day Night in some ways as a companion film to United 93. One is about a real event, one is imagined. One uses handheld camera and fast edits to convey a sense of urgency and naturalism, one gets much the same effect through long takes and subjective camerawork. Both are utterly gripping studies of how people react in high-stress situations — one is about the victims of terrorism, the other about the perpetrators. The protagonist of Day Night Day Night is an unnamed young woman (Luisa Williams) who has chosen to leave her life and her family behind to carry a bomb into Times Square in a backpack and detonate it. Writer/director Julia Loktev keeps all this material non-specific — the masked men who prep her for the job seem American; the guy who drives her into the city looks Korean; the folks who make the bomb look ... Jewish, maybe? It doesn't matter. Loktev forces audience identification with her as a frightened woman looking for redemption, not as a symbol of any specific political beef, by keeping the camera close to her face and body, and in certain moments showing us exactly what she sees. (Cinematographer Benoît Debie, who also shot Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, knows a thing or two about the subjective camera.) It's a slow-paced, methodical film, and also a very smart and instructive one that's sympathetic to its sad bomber without forgiving her her intentions.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Day Night Day Night

480_spider-baby.jpgSpider Baby (MTI Home Video)

This is a week late, but the folks at MTI Home Video were kind enough to send me a review copy of their September 25 release of Spider Baby, a movie whose reputation I knew well but had somehow managed to avoid until now. To my delight, it's an entirely excellent B-grade horror comedy that exhibits director Jack Hill's trademark good-natured humor but also manages to crank up an impressive creep factor in a couple of scenes and fulfills its disturbo potential without being self-consciously transgressive. (This was strong material for the mid-1960s.) The cast, including Lon Chaney Jr. and latter-day Rob Zombie stalwart Sid Haig, is generally very good — and Jill Banner, the big-eyed newcomer who played the arachnophilic slasher Virginia (pictured), is sexy as all hell. The DVD image quality is excellent and "The Hatching of Spider Baby," a new short documentary consisting of latter-day interviews with the stars and filmmakers, is good fun as well. There's also an audio commentary with Hill and Haig. My only quibble is with the audio track, which starts to exhibit a droning noise that sounds like digital distortion in the film's midsection. (Whether this artifact was introduced by this particular DVD transfer I can't say.) Otherwise it's an excellent release.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Spider Baby (Special Edition)
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