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One DVD To Rule Them All 

Tolkien epic leads home entertainment charge

Between a mountain of critical raves, a $313 million box office haul, and 13 Oscar nominations (resulting in four wins), the colossal success of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (***1/2 out of four) caught even ardent admirers of J.R.R. Tolkien's literary trilogy off guard. After having filmed all three parts of the trilogy in one fell swoop (the second and third films will be released over the next two Christmases), director Peter Jackson got things off to a promising start with this first installment, a three-hour epic that, while rarely scaling new heights in the fantasy genre, should nonetheless please both fans and novices alike. Even those who haven't read the books are probably familiar with the saga's basic thrust -- noble Middle-earth denizens must destroy a powerful ring before it falls into the hands of an evil warlord -- but to their credit, Jackson and his co-scripters kick things off with a helpful prologue that nicely sets up the story. From there, Jackson juggles a daunting array of conflicts and characters (Ian McKellen as Gandalf is the cast standout), and it's to his credit that the pace rarely flags. The sound and picture quality on the DVD are so spectacular that (is this blasphemy?) I enjoyed the movie even more at home than in the theater -- on the big screen, this ambitious undertaking occasionally felt distant, but on disc it exudes more warmth, coming off as the best mini-series never made. The two-disc DVD holds plenty of noteworthy special features, including a 10-minute behind-the-scenes preview of the second installment, The Two Towers, a look at an upcoming four-disc DVD set (due in November), and over a dozen making-of featurettes.One of Ring's competitors for the Best Picture Oscar, In the Bedroom (***1/2) is a relentless downer cut from the same cloth as other "OK, where's the bottle?" films like Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter. But whereas movies of this nature generally don't break outside critical circles, Bedroom proved to be a sleeper hit, earning $36 million against its $2 million gross. An unflinching study of ordinary people coping with an unspeakable tragedy, this stars Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek as a Maine couple proud of their son (Nick Stahl), an only child making plans to go to graduate school. But the boy's relationship with a single mom (Marisa Tomei) threatens to put his future aspirations on hold, and the lurking presence of her estranged, redneck husband (William Mapother) finally leads to a catastrophe. Actor Todd Field (Eyes Wide Shut, Ruby In Paradise) makes a sure-handed debut behind the camera, serving as director and adapting (with Rob Festinger) a short story by the late Andre Dubus. The result was about as raw and as real as anything that passed through theaters last year, a searing drama that never shies away from examining the wildly divergent reactions mustered by people in impossible situations (when one character unexpectedly slaps a woman who had been reaching out for comfort, we feel like we've been smacked with a toaster). The eye-for-an-eye climax feels a little pat, but overall, this is a remarkably clear-eyed exploration of suffering and sacrifice, and the performances by Spacek, Tomei and especially Wilkinson are above reproach. The DVD is so barebones, it doesn't even include the standard trailer.

An impressive adaptation of Joe Galloway and General Hal Moore's book We Were Soldiers Once... and Young, We Were Soldiers (***1/2) focuses on a key skirmish of the Vietnam War: the 1965 battle in the Ia Drang Valley, when 400 Americans found themselves surrounded by 2,000 enemy soldiers. Like Black Hawk Down (which was still in theaters when this film premiered), We Were Soldiers also centers on the inspiring mettle demonstrated by US soldiers under fire, and it's the superior film, since it does a far better job of placing a human face on the spectacle of war. The expository scenes and domestic interludes provide it with an intimacy and emotional scope that easily overcome some rough narrative patches, while a no-nonsense cast (led by Mel Gibson) offers the necessary conviction. The combat scenes are extremely intense, and while some of the dialogue may clank, the sentiments don't: This is that rare Hollywood movie that isn't afraid to present its leading characters as devout Christians honestly seeking to reconcile their predicament with a spiritual soothing; and it's that even rarer movie that allows us to spend a little time with the enemy in an effort to show that the devastation of war hits on all fronts and in all facets. DVD features include audio commentary by writer-director Randall Wallace, 10 deleted scenes, and a behind-the-scenes documentary.

A fictional spin on a factual occurrence, The Cat's Meow (***), an adaptation of Steven Peros' stage play, focuses on an event that took place in 1924, when mogul William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann) invited a group of colorful celebrities aboard his yacht for a pleasure-filled cruise. Among the guests were Hearst's mistress, actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst); film legend Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard); movie pioneer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes); gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly); and novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley). But what started out as fun and games eventually turned serious, with one of the party guests turning up dead and Hearst using his influence to cover up the details of the demise. To this day, no one knows the real story, but Peros' script forwards the oft-discussed theory that the death was an accident, a "wrong place at the wrong time" scenario that came about because of Hearst's jealous rage when he found out that Chaplin, a notorious womanizer, was putting the moves on his beloved Marion. As the basis for a motion picture, it's a heckuva zinger, providing plenty of fodder for oversized characterizations, inventive bits of trivia, and an opportunity for director Peter Bogdanovich to helm his first noteworthy film in ages. Looking like a great unmade bed, Herrmann handles the story's trickiest role with all the complexity it requires, while Dunst offers a touching portrayal as Hearst's pragmatic lover. DVD features include audio commentary and theatrical trailer.Just as writer-director Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty) made a startling debut with In the Company of Men, so too did Patrick Stettner arrive on the scene with a like-minded drama. The Business of Strangers (***) presents the players of corporate America as so emotionally numbed, their universe resembles a self-contained plastic bubble. Stockard Channing plays Julie Styron, the lifelong ladder climber who, after learning that she's finally landed her company's top spot, seeks out and befriends the young assistant (Julia Stiles) she had fired earlier in the day. Stranded in an airport hotel, the two women spend the hours drinking, collaborating and fighting, a situation that becomes even more intense when Julie's acquaintance, a company headhunter (Frederick Weller), joins their party. A mid-movie plot contrivance (and the obvious twist ending that spawns from it) isn't especially convincing, but the movie's real pleasures rest in the impeccable performances by all three leads as well as in the give-and-take power plays orchestrated between the two female protagonists, assertive women who each draw their strength from completely different sources. DVD extras include the theatrical trailer.Reaching the bottom of the video bin, we come to The Sweetest Thing (*1/2), which is anything but. Two things are apparent after watching this There's Something About Mary rip-off from the director of Cruel Intentions (Roger Kumble) and one of the writers of South Park (Nancy M. Pimental): 1) Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate and Selma Blair clearly are all gifted comediennes; and 2) all three deserve to have their efforts showcased in a movie much better than this one. Billed as a romantic comedy, this instead proves to be about as romantic as a gas station urinal (one of which, by the way, is featured prominently in the film). Ostensibly a keen analysis of what happens when a party girl (Diaz) realizes she's reached a point in her life when she should stop fooling around and settle down into a long-term relationship, the film quickly chucks that idea in favor of lathering on a series of gross-out sight gags that are so ineptly staged by Kumble, they produce apathy rather than laughs or even disgust. This is being released on DVD in both R and unrated versions; extras include cast and director commentary, theatrical trailer and a behind-the-scenes feature called (groan) "Politically Erect."

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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