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Excalibur, The Times of Harvey Milk among new home entertainment releases 

EXCALIBUR (1981). Based on Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (the go-to source for most works about the Knights of the Round Table), Excalibur is director John Boorman's bold and bloody retelling of the saga of King Arthur: his birth as a bastard child, his ascendance from squire to king, and his death in one-to-one combat. This ambitious undertaking manages to incorporate all the highlights from the legendary tale, not least being the omniscient presence of the sorcerer Merlin (Nicol Williamson), the adulterous betrayal by Arthur's wife Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and best friend Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), and the villainy of Arthur's half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) and her son Mordred (Robert Addie). Boorman and co-scripter Rospo Pallenberg vigorously punch across the gritty battles, operatic tragedies and mischievous magic that combined form the crux of the tale, and the picture looks spectacular thanks to the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Alex Thomson and the Oscar-worthy (but shamefully overlooked) costume design by Bob Ringwood (see one of the photos accompanying this column for the costumes as displayed in the London Film Museum). Williamson's turn as Merlin is a tad too buffoonish, but there's an undeniable thrill in catching the work of then-unknown actors Gabriel Byrne (as Arthur's ruthless father, Uther), Patrick Stewart (as Guenevere's noble pop, Leondegrance) and Liam Neeson (as the knight Gawain). This earned Boorman a special award for Best Artistic Contribution at that year's Cannes Film Festival.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Boorman and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **

THE SWITCH (2010). Deciding that Jeffrey Eugenides' short story would be perfect for expanding into a wacky comedy, this film's creators ran with the premise of Jennifer Aniston as a single woman who badly wants a baby. Aniston's Kassie opts to go the route of a sperm donor, despite the objections of her whiny best friend Wally (Jason Bateman). The donor is a hunky athlete (Patrick Wilson), but through circumstances too mind-numbingly stupid to detail here, a drunken Wally spills the filled baby-batter cup and replaces the lost content with his own seed. Will the dumb-as-a-brick Kassie ever learn that Wally made a switch? And did none of the filmmakers — or the movie's fans — realize that Wally's action of implanting his unwanted sperm into an unwilling woman qualifies as a form of sexual assault/rape? Apparently not, given the reader feedback I received from men who felt such behavior was acceptable — heck, even their God-given right — and from women — lots of women — who found the scenario adorable (cooed one: "I'd let Jason Bateman invade my uterus any time!"). If the film ever addressed this issue beyond some ever-so-modest poo-pooing by Wally's confidant (Jeff Goldblum, the lone bright spot), it might warrant some respect, but everything is played at an inane sitcom level, and we're supposed to cheer Wally on as he tries to bag his woman (shouldn't he be going to jail instead?). Strip away the ramifications of the plot and The Switch is merely one more failed Aniston rom-com bomb. But add it back in and we're talking about a fairly revolting piece of work, enough so that this landed in the #2 slot (under Grown Ups) on my year-end 10 Worst list.

Blu-ray extras include a 15-minute making-of piece; 25 minutes of deleted scenes; and four minutes of bloopers.

Movie: *

Extras: **

THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK (1984). This important, informative documentary tells the story of Harvey Milk, who became the first openly gay person elected to public office. Working under San Francisco mayor George Moscone on a city supervisory board headed by Dianne Feinstein, Milk spoke out not only for gay rights but for the rights of all people; he was a natural leader whose progressive views touched many citizens, but within a year of his election, he and Mayor Moscone were assassinated by supervisor Dan White, the board's most conservative member. The Times of Harvey Milk, which earned an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, is a richly detailed film that takes the story beyond White to create a vivid impression of a specific time and place, as well as analyzing the sorrow that followed Milk's death (the footage of the candlelight vigil held in his honor is especially powerful) and the rage that erupted because of the imbecilic jury verdict — the 12 dolts decided that the murders weren't premeditated even though White snuck into the federal building through a window while carrying a loaded weapon and extra ammo! (Incidentally, White committed suicide a few years later.) For a fictional dramatization of this story, don't miss Gus Van Sant's Milk, which earned my vote as the best picture of 2008 and earned Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay, respectively.

DVD extras in Criterion's two-disc edition include audio commentary by director Rob Epstein, co-editor Deborah Hoffmann and photographer Daniel Nicoletta; a 23-minute discussion of both the documentary and Van Sant's film, featuring interviews with (among others) Epstein, Van Sant and Milk co-star James Franco; five audio and video recordings of Milk; footage from the film's San Francisco premiere as well as from the Oscar ceremony where it won its award; and a 25th anniversary panel discussion with White's attorneys, the sort of smug, soulless SOBs who will remind many people why they hate lawyers in the first place.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ****

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