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Ben Hur, Fever Pitch

BEN-HUR (1959). For nearly a half-century, this mammoth production has held the record for the most Oscar wins with 11, a feat tied in recent years by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. While it may be depressing to interpret that as meaning the Academy believes these to be the three greatest films of all time (um, hardly), such a skewed viewpoint shouldn't be held against the movies themselves, all of which get the job done. From a technical standpoint, Ben-Hur is the most impressive of the bunch: While the newer pictures relied heavily on CGI work, this Biblical epic had to do it the old-fashioned way, with blood, sweat and that proverbial cast of thousands. MGM rolled the dice on this one, investing a wad of dough as the studio teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. But the movie proved to be a resounding success worldwide -- even its hefty 222-minute running time didn't deter audiences from reveling in its widescreen splendor. As the Jew whose skirmishes with the Roman conquerors fuel his anger until his soul is saved by Christ, Oscar-winning Charlton Heston wavers between stiff indignity and genuine pathos -- more consistent is Stephen Boyd, whose underrated turn provides the right measure of suave sadism as Ben-Hur's antagonist Messala. (And yes, the obvious homosexual vibe between Ben-Hur and Messala was largely intended: Boyd, director William Wyler and co-scripter Gore Vidal all discussed it before shooting, though they didn't tell Heston for fear he would freak out!) The magnificent four-disc DVD set also includes the acclaimed 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur; other extras include two lengthy retrospective documentaries, screen tests of actors who didn't get cast (including Leslie Nielsen as Messala), and a theatrical trailer gallery.

Movie: *** 1/2

Extras: ****

FEVER PITCH (2005). The true subject of this adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel isn't the love between a man and a woman but between a man and his favorite sports team (soccer in the book, baseball in this adaptation). As such, the film's ability to balance the yin with the yang makes it the ideal couples movie for a night at home on the couch -- it follows many of the conventions of the modern romantic comedy yet doesn't betray its convictions for the sake of the usual embarrassing sops to formula. Successful consultant Lindsey Meeks (sparkling Drew Barrymore) is happy with new boyfriend Ben Wrightman (OK Jimmy Fallon) until she notices that his undying devotion to the Boston Red Sox begins interfering with their relationship; he's reluctant to lose her but can't commit to her the way he does to his team. Like the character of Ben, Fever Pitch comes across as a scruffy romantic, not always suave on the surface but harboring an irresistible tenderness inside. Incidentally, Hornby's novel was filmed more faithfully in a 1997 British release starring Colin Firth; both versions are worth catching. DVD extras include audio commentary by directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly, 13 deleted scenes, a 6-minute gag reel and brief making-of featurettes.

Movie: ***

Extras: ** 1/2

THE OUTSIDERS (1983) / RUMBLE FISH (1983). The story goes that Francis Ford Coppola received a letter from a school librarian requesting that he make a film version of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, the popular novel about street-smart kids scraping by in 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma. Moved by the missive (which was signed by 110 students), Coppola not only made the picture but followed it up with Rumble Fish, another Hinton adaptation. Shortened by the studio upon its original release, The Outsiders now returns on a DVD which integrates 22 additional minutes into the 91-minute original, thus making the finished product more complete -- if not necessarily more satisfying. The film still has a tendency to wander from one contrived scenario to the next, yet what makes the overwrought melodrama tolerable is the amazing collection of then-rising stars: Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Diane Lane, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez and Tom Cruise. If The Outsiders was Hinton for the masses, then Rumble Fish was seemingly designed with the art-house crowd in mind. Indeed, Stephen H. Burum's stunning black-and-white cinematography is the chief asset of this otherwise arid tale about troubled teen Rusty James (Dillon) and his older brother, an iconic figure known as The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). DVD extras on The Outsiders include audio commentary by Coppola and all the principal actors except Cruise and Estevez, compelling audition footage and a making-of documentary. DVD extras on Rumble Fish include audio commentary by Coppola, deleted scenes and a piece on Stewart Copeland's film score.

The Outsiders: ** 1/2

Extras: *** 1/2

Rumble Fish: **

Extras: ** 1/2

--Matt Brunson

NO DIRECTION HOME: BOB DYLAN (2005). Martin Scorsese's 3-1/2-hour film is one of the most compelling musical documentaries I've ever watched. It recounts Dylan's life from his Minnesota childhood, through his meteoric rise to fame, and up to the 1966 motorcycle accident that freed him from the suffocating publicity his stardom had provoked. In short, this is "Dylan Classic," the brief period during which he managed to elevate rock & roll's gravitas and change the nature of American popular music -- and which became the basis of Dylan's reputation, at once a milestone and an unrepeatable accomplishment. The film presents a wealth of previously unavailable footage, including seven full-length performances in the DVD set's extras. You see Dylan both on and offstage during Newport Folk Festival appearances, in forgotten TV performances, at the famous Forest Hills concert where he was roundly booed for having "gone electric," and rumbling through the fiery, chaotic 1966 British tour. Friends and cohorts -- Baez, Van Ronk, Ginsberg, Seeger and others -- add insightful and often funny stories; and miracle of miracles, Dylan himself talks at length about his career, and is particularly fascinating when detailing the Greenwich Village folk scene. The one disappointment was not getting Dylan's firsthand take on his own creative process during this extraordinary period -- it seems to be as much a mystery to him as to us. And, somehow, the subject of drug use during his rise to rock stardom -- on the wings of groundbreaking, hallucinogenic lyrics and arrangements -- never comes up. All in all, though, this is an invaluable portrait of an immensely important artist.

Movie: ****

Extras: *** 1/2

--John Grooms

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