THE MAGDALENE SISTERS (2003). Perhaps not since Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has the screen offered such a searing portrait of evil flourishing under the guise of matronly concern. The Magdalene Sisters is writer-director Peter Mullan's unflinching account of Ireland's Magdalene laundries, church-sanctioned establishments in which young women accused of "sex sins" (even flirting with boys was cause for incarceration) were sent to spend lengthy stretches working as slaves under the auspices of money-grubbing nuns who enjoyed humiliating their prisoners at every turn. The movie's based on the testimony of scores of former Magdalene inmates, and while its characters are fictionalized, they're all based in whole or in part on actual people involved in this decades-long crime against humanity. The movie often resembles a prison flick in its narrative structure (with the nuns effectively doubling for Nazis), yet what sticks with you the most, past its surface dramatics and superlative performances, is its clarion call to action, its outrage at the immoral activities that are allowed to run unchecked -- and are often even encouraged by governing bodies -- throughout what we keep telling ourselves is a civilized western world. Besides trailers, the only DVD extra is a documentary on the subject titled Sex In a Cold Climate.
THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (1983). By the time he was given a chance to direct this adaptation of the best-selling novel by Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity), the legendary Sam Peckinpah was a Hollywood has-been, a booze-and-drug-addled director whose last feature had been the disastrous Convoy back in 1978. To say that Peckinpah ended his career on a high note (he died in 1984, at the age of 59) would be an outrageous lie: The Osterman Weekend is a complete mess, a muddled thriller for which Peckinpah seemed far more interested in shooting laughable action sequences and exposing the bare breasts of all his actresses than in relating a coherent story or getting the most out of his impressive cast (not surprisingly, he was finally fired from the project, with the producers cutting the film themselves). Rutger Hauer stars as a hotshot TV news host who's informed by a pair of CIA operatives (John Hurt and Burt Lancaster) that his three closest friends (Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper and Chris Sarandon) are in fact Russian spies, and that it's his patriotic duty to expose them during a weekend get-together. Extra features in this two-disc DVD set include an informative documentary on the film's genesis, Peckinpah's initial cut of the film, and a sloppily assembled filmography that (among other flaws) completely fails to mention that Burt Lancaster even made a movie called Elmer Gantry, let alone won an Oscar for it.
SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1974). The best "slice of life" movies allow the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall, but with Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman goes even further: He makes the viewer feel like a fly pinned to the wall, privy to everything going on in the room but unable to flee from the scene when things get nasty. And in this powerful look at a "happy" marriage destroyed from within, things do get nasty, resulting in devastation so complete, it's the emotional equivalent of Sherman's trek through the South. Editing down a 5-hour miniseries he had created for Swedish television in 1973, Bergman presents a 2-hour-50-minute drama about Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson), a longtime married couple whose lives spin out in unexpected directions once he leaves her for a younger woman. Johan's hair-trigger cruelty toward Marianne barely conceals the self-doubts that keep him tethered to their relationship; conversely, his actions force her to tentatively step outside their carefully constructed existence to discover her own voice. Besides being an art-house hit, the film did well with the critics' groups and even the Golden Globes, but nitpicking Academy rules prevented it from being eligible for that year's Oscars. No matter: This raw and uncompromising motion picture, which should be required viewing for anyone even thinking about getting hitched, has endured as one of Bergman's finest achievements. Extras in this two-disc DVD edition include the original 5-hour TV version, interviews with Bergman, Ullmann and Josephson, and Bergman scholar Peter Cowie discussing the differences between the film and television versions.
21 GRAMS (2003). Whiplashing between past and present, writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros) has fashioned an absorbing drama that's as much about loneliness, retribution and redemption as it is about matters of the heart. Much of the movie's potency comes from viewers being allowed to slowly connect its pieces, so suffice it to say that the story centers on three individuals -- a gloomy college professor (Sean Penn), a suburban mom (Naomi Watts) and a born-again ex-convict (Benicio Del Toro) -- whose lives are all affected by the same car crash. As narrative fragments bombard us and the storyline circles back on itself repeatedly, it becomes apparent that the melodramatics are necessary to forward the movie's exploration of the way life and death constantly step on each other's toes. Del Toro earned an Oscar nomination for his anguished emoting, while Penn is even better here than in his Academy Award-winning Mystic River stint. Yet it's Watts (like Del Toro, a deserving Oscar finalist) who's most commanding, unleashing a whirlwind of emotion as a former party girl whose complete transformation into a model of upper-middle-class respectability is cruelly upended by a loss that leaves her trapped in her own purgatory. Aside from a pair of trailers, there are no extras on the DVD.