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BILL HICKS LIVE: SATIRIST, SOCIAL CRITIC, STAND-UP COMEDIAN (2004). Comedian Bill Hicks died from cancer in 1994 at age 32. Since then, his critical reputation and popularity have grown steadily, going beyond "cult favorite" status till now he's almost routinely lumped in with revolutionary comic icons like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. I wouldn't go quite that far, but... he's re-e-e-ally close. Hicks' intelligence and passion, his timing and outrageous subject matter, certainly put him in the company of the greats. For years, CDs of Hicks' performances have sold well and thousands of bootleg videotapes of various TV and club performances have been bought and passed around all over the world (Hicks has a particularly large following in Great Britain). Finally, an "official" DVD of the man's brilliant, blistering comedy is available. Although Hicks died a decade ago, much of what he talks about -- a war conducted by a President named Bush, the ludicrous "war on drugs," and religious fundamentalists -- is more relevant than ever. His intensity can be astonishing, but fear not, as he used to say, in addition to the socially topical material, there are also dick jokes. Bill Hicks Live is three and a half hours long and includes three complete performances from the early 90s, each one more in-your-face than the last. There's also a 40-minute documentary about Hicks that's eye-opening in how many now-legends of comedy claim him as an influence.
Concerts:
Extras: 1/2
-- John Grooms

BEFORE SUNSET (2004). Richard Linklater's 1995 indie fave Before Sunrise was a pleasant enough yarn about two college-age kids -- one American (Ethan Hawke), the other French (Julie Delpy) -- who meet in Vienna, spend the night talking (and loving), and agree to meet again in six months. Before Sunset continues their story: Unfolding in real minutes (about 80 of them), this follow-up finds Jesse, now a published author, and Celine, an environmental activist, again crossing paths, this time in Paris. Their planned rendezvous never took place, and now, nine years later, they find themselves forced to breathlessly bring each other up to speed before Jesse has to catch a plane back to the States. As they chat, their initial apprehension wears off, leaving them emotionally exposed as they discuss failed relationships and what would have happened if they had managed to remain together all those years ago. Superior to its predecessor in every way, this lovely film does an exemplary job of conveying the manner in which the freedom and naivety of youth inevitably fall by the wayside, leaving only cherished memories, present regrets, and the rigor mortis of a future that can only be avoided by those willing to take risks. Hawke and Delpy (who both co-wrote the script with Linklater) have never been better, and the movie's ending is letter-perfect. DVD extras include a 10-minute behind-the-scenes short and the theatrical trailer.
Movie: 1/2
Extras: 1/2
-- Matt Brunson

THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979). One of the best of the myriad social thrillers that emerged during the politically conscious 70s, this opened respectably across the country on March 16, 1979. A mere 12 days later, an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant occurred, and suddenly The China Syndrome, whose events mirrored those that took place at the Pennsylvania facility, became the must-see movie of the spring. Even without its eerie parallel to real life, this superb film generates enough drama on its own, as an ambitious TV reporter (Jane Fonda), her outspoken cameraman (Michael Douglas) and a concerned engineer (Jack Lemmon) square off against shady plant officials and timid network executives in an effort to expose a near-meltdown at a local facility. Guided by James Bridges' taut direction and without the distraction of superfluous subplots, this picture -- an indictment of corporate greed as well as a reminder of the necessity of responsible journalism -- builds its case scene by scene, leading to a climax of unbearable tension. Lemmon and Fonda are both excellent; they snagged well-deserved Oscar nominations, as did the airtight screenplay and the impressive art direction (with its meticulous recreation of a nuclear power plant). Lemmon's committed performance also earned him the Best Actor prize at Cannes, an honor he would recapture just three years later with Missing. DVD extras include two documentaries (a half-hour apiece), three deleted scenes, and skimpy filmographies.
Movie:
Extras: 1/2
-- Matt Brunson

ELF (2004). While it could stand being a little more naughty and a little less nice, this box office smash isn't a pre-fabricated piece of synthetic Christmas cheer like The Santa Clause or Governor Schwarzenegger's disastrous Jingle All the Way. While remaining mindful of the season-friendly PG rating, director Jon Favreau and scripter David Berenbaum manage to add a few splashes of Tabasco sauce to the expected puddles of syrup, thereby elevating this fable about a baby who gets adopted by Santa Claus and his diminutive assistants. Raised as an elf at the North Pole, Buddy (Will Ferrell) only learns that he's actually a human once he reaches the age of 30; feeling dejected, he heads to New York to find his real dad (James Caan) and in the process manages to spread some much-needed cheer onto the mean streets of the city. Overcoming a sluggish beginning, both the picture and Ferrell's broad performance become easier to take once this gets rolling, with some inventive touches (love those Etch-A-Sketch renditions!) and wicked laughs helping matters along. Also aiding immeasurably is a game supporting cast: Ed Asner as Santa, Bob Newhart as Papa Elf, the luminous Zooey Deschanel as Buddy's love interest, and The Station Agent's Peter Dinklage as a children's book author. The two-disc DVD set offers both widescreen and fullscreen versions of the film; extras include audio commentary by Ferrell and Favreau, deleted scenes, a "Fact Track," several less-than-scintillating games, and "elf karaoke."
Movie: 1/2
Extras:
-- Matt Brunson

THE IRON GIANT (1999). Audiences who enjoyed The Incredibles (and who didn't?) should now go back and catch writer-director Brad Bird's earlier effort, a critical darling but a commercial bust. Loosely based on the children's book The Iron Man by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes (who gave the project his blessing before passing away in 1998), this touching parable derives much of its strength from a striking visual design and a welcome pacifist stance that would leave NRA nuts foaming at the mouth. Set in a small Maine town in 1957, just days after the Russians have launched Sputnik, the story concerns itself with Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal), a bright kid whose only friends are his single mom (Jennifer Aniston) and a local artist (Harry Connick Jr.) who was a beatnik before that term was even coined. But Hogarth soon adopts a "pet" of sorts -- a 50-foot-tall metal creature of unknown origin (Vin Diesel) -- and he does everything in his power to save this gentle giant from the wrath of a paranoid government agent (Christopher McDonald) whose overriding fear of both Communists and extra-terrestrials makes him willing to destroy anything he doesn't understand. Witty evocations of this bygone era (we even see a "duck and cover" film clip) are smoothly integrated with the story's modern sensibilities ("Guns kill," Hogarth plainly tells the giant after they witness two hunters blow away a deer), and although the film doesn't quite step out of the shadow of E.T. (another tale about a boy and his alien), it's still a worthwhile achievement that should satisfy kids and adults alike. DVD extras include audio commentary by Bird and his team, deleted scenes, and a piece on Diesel's vocal work for the film.
Movie:
Extras: 1/2
-- Matt Brunson

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