THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007). While Warner Bros.' inexplicable abandonment of the film sank any small chance it had at denting the box office, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is no turkey; on the contrary, it's a sterling example of accomplished filmmaking on a grand scale, wielding a lengthy running time that allows it to explore its themes and characters in satisfying detail. Adapted from Ron Hansen's novel by writer-director Andrew Dominik, this comes from the same school of Westerns as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Unforgiven and Lawrence Kasdan's underrated Wyatt Earp: Hardly a straight shoot-em-up, it instead serves as a commentary on the manner in which Western fact morphed into Western myth even as the ink was still drying on that particular time in American history. It also explores the allure of celebrity, using its powerful final half-hour (after the outlaw has been killed) to recount how Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) was vilified while Jesse James (Brad Pitt) was elevated to legendary status. Aided by stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins and a music score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that grows in stature as the film progresses, The Assassination of Jesse James also benefits from Hugh Ross' sturdy narration, which adds depth to a movie already awash in it. Pitt makes his mark via a skillfully etched portrayal, yet top honors go to Casey Affleck, who's as impressive here as he is in Gone Baby Gone. Affleck earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work; Deakins, meanwhile, earned two nods this year, for this picture and for his camerawork on No Country for Old Men.
Absurdly, there are no extras on the DVD.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: THE FINAL SEASON (1989-1990). The third and last season of the cult TV series is the weakest, and for an obvious reason. After spending two years examining the bond that existed between Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton), an assistant district attorney in New York, and Vincent (Ron Perlman), an underground dweller with leonine features but a poetic soul, the series' producers were forced to come up with an alternate game plan once Hamilton became pregnant and opted to leave the show. She bows out in a powerful two-part episode that opens the third season, but from there, the program often has trouble finding its footing, with the continuing plot thread involving Vincent's search for his (and Catherine's) infant child not compelling enough to fill the void left by Hamilton's departure. Not surprisingly, low ratings insured that the season didn't even make it through a normal 22-episode run, stopping after a dozen episodes.
The only extras are promos for other TV shows on DVD.
THE INVASION (2007). I suppose every generation deserves its own sociopolitical take on Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers, though The Invasion does neither viewers nor the source material any favors. Depending on one's political bent, the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which emotionless "pod people" from outer space take over human beings, was either a warning about Communism or an indictment of McCarthyism. The 1978 version (same title) tapped into post-Watergate paranoia, also finding room to mock the rampant New Age-y philosophies of the time. And 1994's Body Snatchers honed in on teen alienation while also examining the splintering of the nuclear family. So what agenda rests on The Invasion's plate? Hard to tell, given the general muddle of the piece (much of it was refilmed after poor test screenings, and it shows). There's some talk of eradicating humankind's intrinsic need to destroy (with evidence provided by the numerous TV sets showing scenes from Iraq), but it's unconvincing lip service. There's a hint that this might satirize our nation's obsession with medicating its populace, but that's quickly dismissed. Without anything to chew on, we're left with a straightforward thriller – and a fairly effective one until the film self-destructs with a wretched ending that had me slapping my forehead in staggering disbelief. That I was able to register such emotion proves that I'm still human, though I'm not sure the same can be said for the indifferent automatons who made this dud.
DVD extras include three making-of shorts totaling 10 minutes and an 18-minute piece titled We've Been Snatched Before: Invasion In Media History.
THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS (2007). When the video game phenomenon exploded during the early 80s, the charge was led by such innovative – and now charmingly retro – challenges like Pac-Man, Galaga and Asteroids. But it was Donkey Kong that emerged as the most popular – and reportedly most difficult – of all these primitive games. The King of Kong initially centers on gaming deity Billy Mitchell, who, as a teenager back in the day, set the Kong high-score record, a feat that hadn't come close to being equaled in over 20 years. But cut to the present, and along comes Steve Wiebe, a family man who, possessing a pinch of the autistic about him, proves himself to be a Donkey Kong player extraordinaire. Steve catches the attention of the gaming community, and the old guard begins to worry that this affable guy can overthrow their figurehead. As for Billy Mitchell, he turns uglier and uglier right before our eyes, as his actions resemble those of a bratty child more than a world champion. Documentaries about competitions (Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, Wordplay) invariably lead to a climactic contest to determine who's the best of the best, but with The King of Kong, director Seth Gordon has managed to tap into a true-life tale that veers off-course more than once. A study of both chronic adolescence and the need to win (and keep winning), as well as a compendium of memorable characters (wait until you get a load of the self-named "Mr. Awesome," who's anything but), The King of Kong is a documentary that successfully takes it to the next level.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Gordon and others, 10 extra scenes, an arcade glossary, and the animated short A Really, Really Brief History of Donkey Kong.
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978). Criticized for its dramatic liberties as well as its depiction of Turkey as the ultimate hell on earth, but praised for its power as an emotionally gripping drama directed for maximum impact by Alan Parker, Midnight Express loosely relates the saga of American Billy Hayes and what happens when he attempts to smuggle hashish out of Turkey in the early 1970s. Caught at the airport moments before boarding the flight back to the United States, Hayes (played by Brad Davis in an excellent performance) is sentenced to pass the time in a prison facility where a sadistic guard (Paul Smith) rules with fear and a repugnant prisoner (Paolo Bonacelli) is only too happy to sell out his fellow inmates. Hayes' few allies are a boisterous American (Randy Quaid), a sensitive Swede (Norbert Weisser) and a perpetually stoned Brit (John Hurt); they help him pass the time, but once it becomes clear that he won't be released any time soon, he begins to plot his great escape. This was the first major screen credit for Oliver Stone, who adapted the book by Hayes and William Hoffer; it also provided a significant boost to the film career of composer Giorgio Moroder, whose synthesizer-heavy score would influence Hollywood movie music for at least a decade. Nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Supporting Actor (Hurt), this won statues for Stone's adapted screenplay and Moroder's original score.
DVD extras in the 30th Anniversary Edition include audio commentary by Parker, three retrospective featurettes totaling 74 minutes, a photo gallery, and a 28-page photo journal by Parker.
TOOTSIE (1982). In 1959, Billy Wilder made the brilliant cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot, and 23 years later, it was Sydney Pollack who helmed another classic gem in the same mold. Tootsie marks one of those rare occasions when a troubled production and a revolving door of writers did not sink a film; on the contrary, the result proved to be a critical smash and a box office bonanza. Dustin Hoffman stars as temperamental New York actor Michael Dorsey, who learns from his agent (played to perfection by Pollack himself) that nobody will hire him. So donning a dress and wig, he auditions as "Dorothy Michaels" for a female role in a popular soap opera. He lands the job, which leads to a number of complications: He has little time for his neurotic friend (Teri Garr), he constantly fights with the show's chauvinistic director (Dabney Coleman), and he finds himself falling in love with the program's leading lady (Jessica Lange). The gender politics seem more superficial than before, but everything else about this topflight comedy still works beautifully. Hoffman is magnificent in his dual role, though it's Bill Murray who stealthily steals scenes as Michael's deadpan roommate. Despite being nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), its only winner was Lange for Best Supporting Actress (it got clobbered by Gandhi).
DVD extras include three making-of pieces totaling 68 minutes, nine deleted scenes, and footage from Hoffman's screen test.
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