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THE LADYKILLERS (2004). The Coen Brothers' remake of a beloved 1955 British comedy may not quite match its predecessor, but it works in its own eccentric way. The action has moved from England to the Deep South, where a churchgoing widow (Irma P. Hall) agrees to lease a room to Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks), little suspecting that he's a criminal mastermind who plans to use her cellar as his base of operations for a planned casino heist. Passing themselves off as musicians, Dorr and his cut-rate crew work quickly to carry out their plot, but once the senior citizen gets wind of their scheme, they decide that bumping her off might be the best course of action. The oddest aspect of this coolly detached comedy is that it never feels especially funny -- at least not in the gut-busting, knee-slapping sense -- but that's not because the movie fumbles its gags: On the contrary, they're executed so well that paradoxically we end up admiring the intricacies behind the set pieces rather than the set pieces themselves. The same goes for Hanks' offbeat characterization as a loquacious gentleman who looks like Colonel Sanders' illegitimate son -- his portrayal is masterful in its attention to the character's fussiness and flamboyance, yet the pleasure we derive is because we know it's Hanks, not because he disappears into his character. But all this isn't meant as a criticism of this smartly constructed comedy; in fact, this might be the first instance in which the ultimate middle-school putdown, "That's so funny I forgot to laugh," can be interpreted as the highest compliment imaginable. DVD extras include a feature on the man who built the instruments seen in the film, extended gospel music scenes, and outtakes.

ROUNDERS (1998). Matt Damon's star power gets pumped up to full volume in this satisfying -- if not exactly fresh -- drama from director John Dahl (The Last Seduction). Damon plays Mike McDermott, a brilliant poker player who swears off the game after losing a bundle of money (including his law school tuition) to a sleazy card shark known as Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, never allowing a ridiculous Russian accent to obscure his otherwise good performance). But when his reckless friend Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of prison and steps right into a mountain of debts owed to some dangerous characters, Mike finds himself drawn back into the game in an effort to earn enough dough to solve all their problems. The "good buddy, bad buddy" symmetry harkens back to the days of James Cagney-Pat O'Brien pictures, but Rounders is stylish enough to make us forgive the narrative conventions, and there's some genuine tension in watching Mike figure out how to stay one step ahead of everyone else. John Turturro, Martin Landau and Famke Janssen score in supporting roles, although aspiring starlet Gretchen Mol gets saddled with the deadweight part of Mike's sweetheart, whose only function is to berate her boyfriend every time he even thinks about picking up a deck. DVD extras include audio commentary by Dahl and Damon, a separate audio track with professional poker players, tips from the pros, and an interactive game.
Extras: 1/2

SLACKER (1991). Far from being a sellout, writer-director Richard Linklater has retained his indie street cred far better than most moviemakers who have gone Hollywood. Yet even his latest pictures, Before Sunset and School of Rock, look as extravagant as a Lord of the Rings flick when compared to Slacker, Linklater's breakthrough feature and a key independent film of the early 90s. What initially sounded like a gimmick proved to be a sound way to capture a period and a lifestyle, as Linklater's camera follows a number of (fictional) characters around the streets of Austin, Texas, focusing on one person or group of people before tagging along behind somebody else for a while. Most of the characters are young, aimless and unemployed, and Linklater's often improvisational approach doesn't bother to separate the conversational wheat from the chaff. Among those we meet: a woman trying to peddle what she claims is Madonna's pap smear; a JFK conspiracy nut working on a book called Conspiracy-a-Go-Go; and a member of a band called The Ultimate Losers. Many of these folks might seem like ultimate losers, but Linklater clearly appreciates their creative impulses, and their refusal to conform was interpreted as a final stand against the lockstep mindset that had been sweeping the nation (it's no surprise to learn that the alternative cafe in the film closed down and was replaced by a Starbucks). Extras in Criterion's two-disc DVD set include a 64-page booklet crammed with essays and photos, audio commentaries by the cast and crew, Linklater's 1985 short film Woodshock, his 1988 debut feature It's Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books, footage from the movie's 10th anniversary reunion party, and more.
Extras: 1/2

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