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The Wrap Up ...

Across the
Special Edition

In her irresistible period musical, Across the Universe, Julie Taymor used re-conceptualized Beatles songs to describe for young audiences what many of their parents, grandparents and teachers did before they cut their hair; started wearing bras, again; pretended to stop taking drugs; and allowed themselves to be co-opted for fun and profit. As such, the often hallucinatory two-hour-plus film resembles a hybrid of Hair and Cirque du Soleil's Love, with a little bit of Tommy thrown in for good measure. With the exception of the reliably sensational Rachel Evan Wood (Thirteen, King of California) as Lucy, the cast of Across the Universe is comprised primarily of unfamiliar young actors and singers. Among the more-familiar entertainers who appear - and/or perform -- in cameos are Bono, Salma Hayek, Eddie Izzard, Joe Cocker, Jeff Beck and semi-legendary deejay Cousin Brucie Morrow. Bits and pieces of nearly three dozen Beatles songs are included on the soundtrack, while references to countless other '60s ephemera are scattered among the various sets, signs, names and dialogue. Most will fly right over the heads of young viewers, but Boomers will enjoy deciphering the iconography (when they're not cringing at the dead-on fashions, hairdos and messages on picket signs). Whether adults will buy the interpretations of Beatles standards by performers, who weren't even born when John Lennon was murdered, is difficult to say. I found several of the adaptations to be inspired and only a few irksome. Taymor's staging is reliably imaginative, and she gets excellent support from choreographer Daniel Ezralow, costume designer Albert Wolsky, composer Elliot Goldenthal, production designer Mark Friedberg and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Among the extras are commentary with Taymor and Goldenthal, several featurettes and two live performances of Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite. -- Gary Dretzka

The Brave One

The difference between Jodie Foster's revenge thriller, The Brave One, and such exercises in '70s vigilantism as Death Wish, Walking Tall and Breaking Point, is the gender of the protagonist, a generous budget and the direction of slumming Irish director Neil Jordan. The distance between The Brave One and Straw Dogs, Taxi Driver and Dirty Harry, however, is far greater. Foster's Erica Bain is a New York talk-radio host, who, in her spare time, records ambient sounds in various Manhattan neighborhoods. One night, Bain and her fiancé are attacked by a gang of thugs while walking their dog through Central Park … something only a European tourist or total moron would do, even in the movies. He's killed, she's beaten to within an inch of her life and the pooch is dog-napped. Not long after Bain awakes from her coma and learns that the police aren't likely to catch her attackers, she buys a gun from a street dealer and commits an act of violence that is both heroic and cathartic. Like the Lone Ranger, however, Erica rides off before anyone can thank her. Bain is horrified by her vigilante chops, but finds the taste of blood to be strangely intoxicating. Like Bernard Goetz before her, Bain becomes the flavor-of-the-month for the New York media, and a problem for police who must track down and arrest her. Terrence Howard plays the detective who straddles the film's moral and ethical tightrope. Once the paths of Bain and Detective Morris finally cross, Jordan choreographs an ending that succeeds both as cinema and as a commentary on our increasingly violent society. The problem, of course, is that several troubling questions are left unanswered, as they were in Death Wish and Dirty Harry. Instead, we have a movie that liberals and NRA members both can embrace. The package includes a making-of featurette and deleted scenes. -- Gary Dretzka

Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

2007 was the year Casey Affleck made the leap from being Ben's sullen little brother - and an actor who appeared content to blend into the background of other peoples' movies-- to becoming someone whose name on a marquee actually means something. Although the 32-year-old Massachusetts native seemed an unlikely choice to play a private detective in Gone Baby Gone, Affleck kept inventing new ways for the slight-of-build Patrick Kenzie to challenge the jaded cops, hardened criminals and neighborhood bullies who stood between him and the recovery of a kidnapped child. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Affleck played a wanna-be gunslinger whose toxic obsession with the nation's most notorious outlaw sealed the murderous train robber's place in American folklore. Where Brad Pitt's Jesse James is by turns cocky, charismatic and blood-thirsty, Affleck's Ford remains an enigmatic figure throughout. Beautifully shot and patiently rendered, Assassination takes a painterly approach to the brooding skies and rolling landscapes of post-Civil War Missouri, creating a period feel that is far more Midwestern than Western. It was written and directed by New Zealander Andrew Dominik, whose only previous effort was the kick-ass biopic, Chopper. Employing extremely graphic violence and sardonic humor, Chopper documented the career of one of Australia's most notorious criminals. Even so, it hardly telegraphed the fully realized gem that is Assassination. If you're nuts for bonus features, though, wait a few months for the inevitable collector's edition.

The James and Younger Gang also figure prominently in the documentary Outlaws and Gunslingers, which describes how weaponry developed for the military in the Civil War would be used soon thereafter by outlaws to rob trains and banks, and by lawmen to keep the bad guys in line. Also portrayed are the Dalton boys, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, whose reputations spread west from Missouri and Minnesota, to Arizona and California. The rash of new westerns inspired Lionsgate to release into DVD The Legend of Butch & Sundance, a less whimsical portrait of the duo than the one provided by George Roy Hill. It was directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, who also is credited for Broken Trail. -- Gary Dretzka

Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone is the second recent adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane to succeed both as a work of crime fiction and a portrait of a unique American burg: Boston. (Martin Scorsese also nailed it, in The Departed.) It helped mightily that Casey and Ben are as intimately familiar with the city's working-class neighborhoods, dialects and local customs as Lehane, and, thus, required no tutelage. Affleck and Michelle Monaghan play a struggling pair of PIs, Patrick and Angie, who became hopelessly entangled in the case of a neighbor's missing daughter. The mother is a notorious drunk, slut and dope fiend, who should have been forbidden by law to have children. In an unconventional twist, the police agree to an aunt's demand that Patrick and Angie be allowed to participate in the investigation. Why not? Patrick's lived in the neighborhood all of his life and has a direct pipeline to the local ne'er-do-wells and gossip mongers. Even as the clues take them into increasingly hostile territories, this modern-day version of Nick and Nora Charles proves to be surprisingly dogged and fearless. Adding mightily to the prevailing climate of dread are powerful performances by Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Amy Madigan and an unrecognizable Amy Ryan. The momentum never lags, and the movie's climax is as surprising as it is disturbing. Affleck was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for his work in Assassination, but a Best Actor nod for his revelatory turn in Gone Baby Gone also would have been warranted. The extras include commentary, deleted scenes, an extended ending and a pair of making-of featurettes. -- Gary Dretzka

Aristocats: Special Edition

Snow Buddies

Disney has elected to release its sequel to the fish-out-of-water family comedy, Snow Dogs, directly into the DVD marketplace. Minus Cuba Gooding Jr., James Coburn and a sound screenplay, it's just as well. This time around, the marquee names, such as they are, are attached to the voicing cast -- Jim Belushi, Whoopi Goldberg, Dylan Sprouse - and the anthropomorphic pups are put front and center. The newcomers' willingness to work as a team is put to a severe test in a dogsled race across Alaska. Snow Buddies will appeal primarily to the kiddies, who also will appreciate the time-killing extras.

An upgraded edition of the studio's popular animated musical-comedy The Aristocats (1970) -- not to be confused with last year's salty The Aristocrats, one hopes - arrives with several new features, including an interactive Virtual Kitty game. Paris provides a delightful background for the adventures of a family of snooty felines, who stand to inherit their owner's fortune. After being abducted and abandoned by the estate's jealous butler, the cats are rescued by a rogue hipster and shown a part of Paris they'd never experienced. Sounds sort of like Lady and the Tramp, doesn't it? As legend has it, The Aristocats was the last animated feature to get the nod from Walt Disney himself.

Other new animated releases include, The Ten Commandments, which features the voicing talents of Ben Kingsley, Christian Slater, Alfred Molina and Elliot Gould, but won't make anyone forget DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt; Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight is being targeted at fans of the once-controversial Dungeons and Dragons game and the same teenagers and young adults who made Beowulf a surprise hit; and Turok: Son of Stone, a hand-drawn adaptation of the '50s cartoon hero, who battled prehistoric creatures and cavemen. Like the graphically violent Dragonlance, Turok isn't for the young'uns
. -- Gary Dretzka

Jane Austen Book Club

Becoming Jane

Hard to believe that two movies grounded in the life and work of Jane Austen arrived practically on top of each other last summer, and neither was an adaptation of one of her novels. (PBS and ITV began filling that vacuum last month, however, with new productions of Persuasion, Northhanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.) So many adaptations, so little time. The conceit behind Becoming Jane required ardent fans of the author - of which there are legions - to suspend their disbelief long enough to enjoy a speculative biography, based solely on intimations of a brief love affair discovered in letters to her sister, Cassandra. The importance of 20-year-old lawyer Tom Lefroy in Austen's life was speculated upon by biographer Jon Spence. Director Julian Jarrold and writers Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood expanded on Spence's research, adding a ravishing Anne Hathaway to the fictional scenario. As elegantly staged as any of the period adaptations of Austen's works, Becoming Jane is as enjoyable as it is easy on the eyes. Janites probably had quibbles over the liberties taken by the filmmakers, but, to casual fans, they will matter little.

In Robin Swicord's imaginative adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler's best-seller, a half-dozen such devotees are assigned a particular novel to dissect and host a night of discussions, readings and noshing. The women, and one hot guy, represent a cross-section of literate, middle-class Californians (yes, they exist). The fun comes in observing how the characters in the movie begin to resemble characters in Austen's books, right down to Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Swicord was able to avoid having her movie branded a chick flick, by populating it with multi-dimensional characters and asking them to avoid the temptation to swoon every time their hearts skip a beat. Included in the cast are such capable thespians as Kathy Baker, Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Amy Brennemen, Jimmy Smits, Hugh Dancy, Lynn Redgrave and Nancy Travis. Both films offer attractive packages of bonus features, including featurettes on Austen.
-- Gary Dretzka

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Any actor who is able to deliver dead-on, Oscar-nominated portrayals of Queen Elizabeth I and Bob Dylan in the same season is a force of tornadic proportions. Add the characters Cate Blanchett's been assigned in such disparate pictures as Hot Fuzz, Notes on a Scandal, The Good German and Babel, and you have two year's worth of work any actor in the history of the medium would envy. And, yet, the 38-year-old Aussie has only been on the radar screens of Hollywood and London for 10 years. Blanchett probably hasn't even reached her stride, yet. It bothers me that actors working at the level of Blanchett and Helen Mirren can make us care more about the triumphs and failures of British royalty than those of our own political leaders. Artistic depictions of Adolph Hitler have been far more compelling than those of FDR, even if what went on behind the scenes at the White House was similarly fascinating. The American political system is the product of pragmatism, compromise, corruption and shattered optimism, and its leading practitioners are drab guys and gals with all the flair and charisma of a tuna-salad sandwich. The backstage drama that led to such fateful events as the Cuban Missile Crisis and Watergate break-in has informed splendid films, even if the politicians and their aides remained hopelessly unfashionable. All of which is a long way of saying that Blanchett probably could make Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi look as if they enjoyed wearing those boring suits and low-heeled pumps, just as she's infused in the Virgin Queen a simmering sexuality and cajones to stand up to the Spanish Armada and Vatican. Geoffrey Rush is excellent once again as Elizabeth's scheming aide, Sir Francis Walsingham, while the arrival of Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) adds romantic intrigue to the mix. Historians have been given sufficient reason to complain about the accuracy of what happens on screen, but the same can said of 99 percent of all movies that claim to be based on a true story. The package includes deleted scenes, commentary with director and featurettes on the making of the movie and Queen Elizabeth's reign. As far as I know, there are no immediate plans to extend the franchise, but there's a lot of life left in the old girl. -- Gary Dretzka

I Could Never Be Your Woman

Until one actually finishes watching I Could Never Be Your Cougar, er, Woman, it's impossible to imagine a romantic comedy starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Paul Rudd and Tracey Ullman -- and helmed by the director of Clueless and Fast Times at Ridgemont High - not finding distribution in the U.S. Movies far worse than I Could Never Be Your MILF, er, Woman are allowed a one-week courtesy opening in Lubbock, at least. Judging solely from box-office data provided by IMDB.com, Amy Heckerling's misguided romantic comedy launched at the Maui Film Festival before being abandoned. In it, we're asked to believe that a 40something divorced mom, played by the ever-radiant Pfeiffer, would, 1) have been married to the slovenly slacker played by Jon Lovitz, and 2) once single, not have her pick of the litter, come Friday and Saturday nights. Instead, she falls for the 26-year-old Robin Williams wanna-be (Rudd, actually 38) who plays a high-school nerd in the sitcom she produces. (Worse, the high-school hottie is played by 42-year-old Stacey Dash, who looks far more weathered than Pfeiffer.) This is pure Hollywood hokum, and the odor is palpable from Scene One. Part of the great appeal of Fast Times and Clueless came in watching characters that were recognizable as teenagers, even if they were being played by actors a few years older. The parallel dilemmas here involve Mom, whose jealousy over perceived slights couldn't be less realistic, and a hip-beyond-her-years Daughter with raging hormones. Their openness allows them eventually to help solve each other's problems. This isn't a bad premise for a movie, and the script itself isn't all that bad. The distractions caused by terminally flawed casting decisions, however, are insurmountable. Who green lights this stuff? -- Gary Dretzka

No Reservations

Add Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart to most any movie and their presence alone would be reason enough to recommend it. The same thing applies to No Reservations, an otherwise anemic re-make of the delightful German romantic comedy, Mostly Martha. Although Carol Fuchs closely followed Sandra Nettlebeck's blueprint, she (or the guys looking over her shoulder) forgot to add the spicy ingredients that made the original so tasty. Zeta-Jones plays the queen of the kitchen at Manhattan's upscale 22 Bleecker. Kate is as obsessed with the quality of the food she prepares as Gordon Ramsay, and is dismayed when the restaurant's popularity prompts the owner (Patricia Clarkson) to hire another chef. Steve, of course, is the polar opposite of Kate. His good-natured approach to the job unnerves Kate, who mistakenly believes he's out to turn the rest of the staff against her. The plot thickens when Kate is made guardian of her young niece (Abigail Breslin) and the girl demands more of her attention than she can afford. You can guess the rest. The European version correctly pits chilly Germanic Martha (Martina Gedeck) against an outgoing and playful Italian interloper (Sergio Castellito). The sparks come not only from the differences in their personalities, but also in what each considers haute cuisine and fun food. By comparison, the friction between Kate and Steve feels forced and lacking in spice. Thank goodness, Breslin is around to lighten up the proceedings. If the star power tempts you to sample No Reservations, don't neglect Mostly Martha. -- Gary Dretzka

The Martian Child

In Menno Meyjes' squishy heart-tugger, Martian Child, a recently widowed writer of science fiction adopts an orphan so traumatized by the loss of his parents that he's convinced himself he's from Mars as a defense mechanism. The writer, David (John Cusack), is initially attracted to the boy because he spends most of his waking hours in a box, but responds to an offer of sunscreen. Dennis is played by Bobby Coleman, who looks like a Culkin, but isn't. He delivers an entirely credible portrait of a kid whose bizarre behavior puts off classmates and frustrates sympathetic adults. Eventually, Dennis' disruptive and self-destructive behavior forces David to break the intergalactic boy's bubble. His tough-love approach convinces the boy he's about to lose another parent, and he takes his fixation to another level. If all this sounds too schmaltzy by half, rest assured that it is. Martian Child will most appeal to kids who feel out of place in any crowd, and parents who are having trouble dealing with their child's idiosyncrasies. The story is based on a novella by David Gerrold, a former Star Trek writer and single gay man who adopted a hyperactive child not unlike Dennis. Tellingly, in the movie adaptation, David is a recently widowed heterosexual who seems attracted to a woman played by Amanda Peet. Hurray, for Hollywood. -- Gary Dretzka

Romance and Cigarettes

There's no better way to describe John Turturro's Romance & Cigarettes than to reference such offbeat movies and mini-series as Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, and both U.S. and Brit adaptations of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective and Pennies From Heaven. In each of these musical dramas, characters burst into song at odd moments, either to amplify on what they're feeling, or simply for kicks and giggles. Turturro, who's worked for scale in dozens of indie projects, apparently was able to call in chits owed him by some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry. Among the actors who've lent their singing and dancing talents are James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, Aida Turturro, Christopher Walken, Elaine Stritch, Eddie Izzard and Amy Sedaris. Gandolfini plays Steve, a chain-smoking ironworker, who lives next-door to a New York airport with his beleaguered wife (Sarandon), Kitty, a dressmaker, and their three grown-up daughters. The constant arrival and departure of airplanes masks the sound of the arguments and the rock music the daughters and a neighborhood Elvis-impersonator rehearse in the backyard. What can't be silenced is their anger over dad's recent fling with a trampy-looking Irish salesgirl (Winslet). At about the same time that Kitty finally decides she's had enough of Steve's middle-age-craziness, he is diagnosed with a serious illness. His sudden vulnerability demands that the big lug come to grips with his infidelity, mortality and otherwise boorish behavior. Because the story unfolds on the eve of the broadening of the feminist movement to suburban and blue-collar women, Kitty's agonizing over her pet Neanderthal almost feels quaint. Despite the film's downbeat ending, the enthusiasm of the cast is downright infectious, as is their delivery of the highly recognizable songs (some of which are lip-synched). Sadly, the domestic release of Turturro's pet project was delayed after Sony bought MGM - and it already had debuted at Venice -- and lawyers forced it to sit on a shelf for two years. When it looked as if the film would go straight to DVD, Turturro picked up theatrical distribution rights and gave it a proper, if abbreviated sendoff. Adventurous viewers will find a lot to like in R&C, and they'll enjoy the extras, as well. -- Gary Dretzka



The Independent

Originally released in 2000, The Independent goes to great things to mock the idiosyncrasies and conceits of those dedicated men and women who have invested most of their time and all of their resources to the creation of movies only morons, cultist and boob hounds could admire. Now that nearly all of the nation's drive-in theaters have been turned into giant outdoor flea markets, such exploitation films as the recently released Motocross Zombies from Hell, Lake Placid 2: Unrated and Storm Warning: Unrated bypass theatrical release altogether by going straight to DVD or cable TV, in sanitized versions. Here, Ben Stiller plays the bombastic showman, Morty Fineman, one of the genre's most prolific auteurs, with 427 titles to his credit. He is responsible for such immortal drive-in fare as Twelve Angry Men and A Baby, The Man With Two Things, The Heart Is a Strong Muscle, Supermodel Carnival II: Runway Runaways, Psycho Vet Meets Hercules, LSD-Day, Cheerleader Camp Massacre, Teenie Weenie Bikini Beach and World War III II. Fineman hopes to make one more film - a musical biography of a demented serial killer - before he hangs up his beret and megaphone for good. When funding eludes him, he turns to his estranged daughter Paloma (Janeane Garofalo, natch) for support and financial guidance. The Independent documents the pre-production process, while also providing testimonials from real-life filmmakers as to Fineman's dubious legacy. Ultimately, Fineman finds backing from the citizens - mostly prostitutes - who populate a Nevada town, not unlike Pahrump, hoping to showcase Fineman's oeuvre at its first film festival. Nothing in the mockumentary is nearly as funny as the snippets of material taken from Fineman's movies, and they're hilarious. Film-school graduates and festival junkies will most enjoy The Independent, as they are likely the only ones who understand what makes guys like Fineman tick.

Meanwhile, enterprising labels such as Dark Sky and Victory Films have begun giving the red-carpet treatment to exploitation and Euro-horror flicks Fineman may have produced, written and directed if he had been living in Italy or Spain in the '70s. Recent DVD releases include The Loreley's Grasp, by Amando de Ossorio (the Blind Dead series); Horror Rises From the Tomb, with alternate clothed and unclothed scenes; Tragic Ceremony, starring cult goddess Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave); and Ricco, the Mean Machine, starring American ex-pats Christopher Mitchum (Robert's son), sexpot Barbara Bouchet and Arthur Kennedy.

Stay with Alan Moyle (Empire Records) and Willem Wennekers' genre-bending Weirdsville long enough and it will begin to grow on you. What, at first, feels like a stoner tribute to the early movies of Danny Boyle morphs into an inspired parody of the straight-to-DVD thrillers enjoyed by young males whose hallucinations often are more entertaining than the movies they watch. Weedsville (a.k.a., Weirdsville) is home to Royce and Dexter, a pair of dope fiends who must quickly find a place to bury Royce's girlfriend, Matilda, after she's overdosed on stolen drugs. Their plan to stash the body in an abandoned drive-in theater is stymied when confronted by a group of amateur Satanists looking for a place to hold a demonic ritual. Things get even nuttier when a midget knight and his armored posse enter the fray. It's easy to tell Weirdsville is a product of Canada after a barefooted apparition skates down a frozen road, Matilda's lifeless body is packed inside a hockey-equipment bag, a lawn troll is used as a weapon and a drug kingpin's henchman is on the local curling team.
-- Gary Dretzka
Stanley Kramer Film Collection
The Joan Crawford Collection, Vol. 2
Imitation of Life: Two-Movie Special Edition
Midnight Express: 30th Anniversary Edition
The Wiz (w/30th Anniversary Edition Bonus CD)

During his four-decade career in the movie business, producer and director Stanley Kramer was known for his message movies and as the liberal conscience of Hollywood. The newly released collection is comprised of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Ship of Fools, The Member of the Wedding, The Wild One and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Of these, only The Member of the Wedding is new to DVD, and, as yet, it's only available in this package. Kramer was an extremely influential filmmaker, who, in 1961, was chosen for the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Soon after the release of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, in 1967, Kramer's brand of bleeding-heart liberalism would go out of style, as studio executives scurried to tap into the politics and culture of hippies and radical students. An extra bonus disc adds new interviews, testimonials and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The second volume of pictures Joan Crawford made for MGM and Warner Bros. includes: A Woman's Face, Flamingo Road, Sadie McKee, Strange Cargo and Torch Song. They were made between 1934 and 1953, during which the prolific diva starred in 26 other movies, as well. Of the newly released titles, the most anxiously awaited is Sadie McKee, while the musical-comedy Torch Song can be enjoyed primarily for its camp value. The package adds the usual array of biographical featurettes, vintage cartoons, shorts and radio shows.

Both the 1934 Claudette Colbert/John Stahl and 1959 Lana Turner/Doug Sirk versions of Imitation of Life have been repackaged under the banner of Universal's Legacy Series. The new set adds commentary by historians Avery Clayton and Foster Hirsch; trailers; and a discussion of the groundbreaking movies, with Oscar nominee Juanita Moore.

Upon its release, in 1978, Midnight Express singlehandedly set the Turkish tourism industry back to the days of the Ottoman editor. It told the harrowing story of an American tourist who was thrown into what amounted to a dungeon for the crime of trying to smuggle hashish out of the country. (This, of course, begs the question, What's the crime in trying to remove bad influences from a country?) Billy Hayes had the misfortune of being arrested at precisely the same time as the Turkish government began cracking down on undesirable foreign elements. This 30th Anniversary Edition follows by 10 years Columbia's 20th Anniversary Edition, which implies that a 40th Anniversary Edition is bound to follow, taking advantage of whatever platform is in favor in 2018. The current version adds director Alan Parker's commentary, an essay and photo journal, as well as three new featurettes.

The 30th anniversary of The Wiz is being similarly honored with a spanking new edition. The musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz starred Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, Nipsey Russell and Ted Ross, and featured a soundtrack produced by Quincy Jones. The picture has been digitally remastered, and its audio presentation has been upgraded to 5.1 surround sound. A CD album is included in the package, as well.
-- Gary Dretzka

Romeo and Juliet Get Married
Romeo & Juliet: A Monkey's Tale

Studio types rarely seek my opinions on anything, unless it involves finding the men's room after a screening. Having just finished watched this thoroughly charming Brazilian import, however, I know one thing for certain: someone who makes a lot of money, somewhere, blew it. With a bit of help from the marketing gods, Bruno Barreto's charming adaptation of the Bard's most accessible tragedy might have captured a healthy slice of the same audiences that embraced Bend It Like Beckham, Shakespeare in Love and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Romeo and Juliet Get Married is just that irresistible. Here, the feuding families are rabid fans of rival teams in Brazil's club-soccer league. Juliet's father is a lawyer and chairman of Sao Paolo's real-life Palmeiras, and he named his daughter after two of the team's legendary players. A fine player, herself, the lanky brunette falls for the chief cheerleader of Palmeiras' arch-rivals, Corinthians. Despite not being able to maintain an erection in the vicinity of the Palmeiras banner in Juliet's bedroom, Romeo's infatuation demands that he convince her father he is a diehard fan. In his stubborn chauvinism and loud devotion to his team, Romeo's future father-in-law recalls restaurateur Gus Portokalos in Nia Vardalos' sleeper hit, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Anyone who's read the Shakespeare tragedy even once could guess what happens next, minus the swordplay and vials of poison. (Juliet's dad and Romeo's grandmother do shed some tears, however.) Like so many other Brazilian comedies - Barreto also gave us Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands - Romeo and Juliet Get Married is sly, sexy and broad enough to appeal to those with only a passing interest in soccer. There's commentary, brief interviews, a music video and a making-of featurette.

Of all the adaptations of Romeo and Juliet extant, Animal Planet's A Monkey's Tale may be the most curious. More documentary than drama, it observes the behavior of a pair of Thai monkeys -- Romeo and Juliet - whose love is challenged by members of the temple and market clans. A simian narrator charts the progress of their star-crossed romance.
-- Gary Dretzka

Great World of Sound

Long before American Idol gave marginally talented singers a reason to believe they hadn't wasted the time spent in front of a mirror preparing for stardom, con artists would wander hither and yon in search of rubes who would pay good money for a crummy demo tape and empty promises. Now, of course, these same artists stand in line for days on the off-chance they'll be chosen to humiliate themselves on national TV. The fictitious company, Great World of Sound, is just such an operation. As depicted in this movie of the same name, the scam not only targets musicians, but also salesmen so desperate for a job they'll front their own money for expenses. In Great World of Sound, co-writer-director Craig Zobel introduces us to a pair of amiable chumps who hire on, thinking they can make a few bucks genuinely helping aspiring artists. The first sign of trouble comes when they're forced to audition perspective clients in their shared motel room, instead of a recording studio. Most of the performers -- some of whom are actors faking incompetence - are helplessly delusional and painfully untalented. All are poor. It's easy to feel sorry for them, and, after time, we also begin to empathize with the salesmen who, we know, are about to be stiffed by GWOS and left stranded hundreds of miles from home. Zobel effectively employs documentary techniques to suck us into the story and invest our emotions in the characters. Financed on a well-worn shoestring, GWOS is a perfect example of what can be accomplished with a digital camera, a great story, a couple of selfless actors and a well-placed ad for amateur musicians.
-- Gary Dretzka
Tell Me You Love Me: The Complete First Season
Strictly Confidential: The Complete Series
Third Watch: The Complete First Season
The Whitest Kids U' Know: The Complete First Season
Thunderbirds: 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition Megaset

In the wake of the departure of The Sopranos from its lineup, HBO wanted to come out of the gate running with a series that would generate heat of its own. Overflowing with sex of both the verbal and physical variety - tame by porno standards, but graphic even by those redefined by HBO - publicists were able to get the ball rolling by introducing Tell Me You Love Me to the alarmists at the TV critics' tour. The controversy generated there quickly spread to the provinces, ensuring a decent opening, at least. The characters' neurotic obsession with sex and their problems with intimacy and commitment -- which extended to a married couple in their late '60s -- weren't for everyone. The show was enhanced, however, by sharp writing and fine acting, and it began to grow on viewers. Watching the shows back to back, without a week's separation between episodes, is an easy way to get up to speed on the provocative series.
Strictly Confidential, exported from Britain's ITV, is likewise consumed with sex and flawed relationships. Here, though, the therapist through whom all things flow is a young woman with problems as serious as those of her patients. Over the course of six episodes, we are introduced to a dozen or more fetishists in treatment, and a parallel drama involving the therapist, a former cop who desperately wants a baby; her husband, whose spermatozoon can't swim the distance; his brother and her partner, who's been asked to contribute his sperm to the cause; his pregnant wife; a horrifying live-in mother-in-law; a lesbian police detective, who's recently broken up an affair with the therapist; and someone, perhaps any of the above, who's killing women during rough sex. Given this frightful build-up, you might be surprised to learn that Strictly Confidential often is uproariously funny, too. The cast, which includes Kate Isitt from Coupling, is terrific. This series, too, benefits from a quick perusal.

In ER and China Beach, John Wells helped depict the mayhem that dominated the lives of nurses, doctors and staff in risky environments. Third Watch surveys the chaotic nature of roles played by New York police, paramedics and firefighters in emergency situations. The freshman-season set contains all 22 episodes of the Emmy-winning series.

Trevor Moore and Zach Kregger are the most prominent members of the sketch-comedy troupe behind The Whitest Kids U' Know. The show launched on cable's Fuse network, but has since moved to IFC, where the cussing and naughtier bits are shown unbleeped and unpixelated. The cutting-edge nature of the parodies and satires will remind most viewers of The Kids in the Hall, but minus the tethers of network censors.

If you wondered where Trey Parker and Matt Stone got the idea for Team America: World Police, look no further than the new, Thunderbirds: 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition Megaset. The cult favorite series from Britain imagined a family of puppets that used high-tech devices - for 1965, anyway - to rescue Earthlings in distress and accomplish other amazing feats. The huge boxed set includes a making-of featurette and other material hand-picked by the creator, Gerry Anderson.

Of the TV-to-DVD packages representing shows already past their inaugural season, there are Girlfriends: The Third Season, Family Ties: The Third Season, Soul Food: The Third Season, Wire in the Blood: The Complete Fourth Season,Beauty and the Beast: The Final Season and the all-inclusive, Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection and Rosemary & Thyme: The Complete Series.

The celebrity-roast format originated with the Friar's Club, before being introduced to television audiences by Dean Martin. It has since become a staple of niche networks, and even has grown to include athletes and such manufactured celebrities as Pamela Anderson and Hugh Hefner. Typically, the many profanities and obscene anecdotes have to be censored from shows in the basic-plus tiers. It explains why such titles as Comedy Central Roast of Flavor Flav: Extended and Uncensored are able to find enthusiastic buyers, even after they've been repeated endlessly on cable. Likewise, The Best of Comedy Central Presents features uncensored bits by Lewis Black, Dane Cook, Jim Gaffigan, Carlos Mencia and Brian Regan.
-- Gary Dretzka

WWE: The Legacy of Stone Cold Steve Austin

The only folks who churn out more DVD titles than WWE Home Video are the greedheads at CBS who dutifully release three 15- to 25-minute discs weekly, containing little more than a segment each from the previous, 60 Minutes. All for the bargain price of $17.95, per. By comparison, The Legacy of Stone Cold Steve Austin offers three discs and 540 minutes worth of entertainment, for no more than $34.95 and, at Amazon, $19.95. Stone Cold Steve Austin is only the latest in a growing line of WWE superstars to be digitally immortalized. The DVD offers his many fans an opportunity to collect his greatest matches and learn more about his rough-and-tumble life and career.

Through Amazon, 60 Minutes also is offering archival segments for sale. Again, WWE Home Video is way ahead of the curve, packaging classic matches and profiling gladiators long retired. For example, The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling documents the rise and fall of the popular Texas-based operation, and such wrestlers as the Von Erich brothers, the Freebirds, Bruiser Brody, Ric Flair, Jerry Lawler, Abdullah the Butcher and the Ultimate Warrior (a.k.a., Dingo Warrior). For the discounted price of $14.95, fans also can purchase the three-disc WWE: The Best of RAW 15th Anniversary, with highlights from the 700-plus broadcasts of Monday Night Raw. Other recent titles include Armageddon 2007, WWE Shawn Michaels: Heartbreak and Triumph, WWE: Royal Rumble Anthology, WWE Survivor Series 2007 and Rey Mysterio: Biggest Little Man.
-- Gary Dretzka


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