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Bridge to Terabithia, Shooter, The Hustler

BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007). After earning positive notices for his breakthrough feature, 2005's Hustle & Flow, writer-director Craig Brewer returned with another look at Southern discomfort deep-fried in a greasy pool of sex and song. Befitting the double meaning of its title, Black Snake Moan provides a pleasurable bait-and-switch, beginning as a funky, freaky "woman in chains" offshoot and ending up as a more traditional tale about redemption and life's second chances. Set in a swampy Tennessee burg, this stars Samuel L. Jackson as Lazarus, a former blues musician who rescues town tart Rae (Christina Ricci) after he discovers her battered body in the ditch next to his house. Working through his own domestic crisis -- his wife has just left him for his brother -- Lazarus decides to redeem himself by simultaneously saving this woman, chaining her to his radiator and attempting to purge her of her sexual demons. What Lazarus doesn't know is that his own demons will be better tamed by the love of a good woman -- in this case, the helpful pharmacist (S. Epatha Merkerson) who works in the nearby town -- and that Rae's soldier-boy steady (Justin Timberlake) has just returned after an aborted Iraqi tour of duty and is looking high and low for his sweetheart. Black Snake Moan is far more scattershot than Hustle & Flow, but its unorthodox yet earnest approach to religion, a sizzling soundtrack and spot-on performances by Jackson and Ricci keep the whole brew bubbling. DVD extras include audio commentary by Brewer, a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and a photo gallery.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (2007). There's a gentle strain seeping back into today's family films, a development that should be encouraged at every turn. When movies aimed at the smallest fry feature characters belching and breaking wind at regular intervals, it's clear that the tide has turned since the decades of such marvelous and -- I hasten to add -- enduring masterpieces like Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians; even last year's recent live-action take on Charlotte's Web couldn't resist occasionally pandering to the crusty-snot-nosed kids in the audience. Like the film versions of A Little Princess and The Neverending Story, Bridge to Terabithia wasn't made for them; instead, it's for bright, inquisitive children (and attendant adults) who subscribe to the theory that imagination is one of the most wonderful tools available. Based on Katherine Paterson's award-winning book, this explores the relationship between two outcast middle-schoolers (Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb, both highly appealing) and the adventures they share as they create a magical kingdom in the woods that rest behind their respective houses. If the effects involved in the creation of their imaginary world seem on the thrifty side, that's OK, since the heart of the story rests in the manner in which children are able to cope with loneliness, ostracism and even death. Incidentally, co-writer David Paterson is Katherine's son, which helps explain the film's fidelity to its source material. DVD extras include audio commentaries by Hutcherson, Robb, director Gabor Csupo and others, a making-of piece, a look at the themes of the story and Robb's music video for "Keep Your Mind Wide Open."

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

THE HUSTLER (1961) / THE VERDICT (1982). Paul Newman has been handing in excellent performances for roughly 50 years now, so choosing the best of the best would seem to be a daunting task. Yet his superlative turns in The Hustler and The Verdict are generally cited as his finest moments on film, and Fox had graciously re-released both titles in new two-disc editions.

It wasn't until the late 1980s that Newman finally won his Best Actor Oscar for 1986's The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese's rocking sequel to The Hustler. But it was a classic case of too-little-too-late (Newman didn't even bother to attend the ceremony), made all the more bittersweet by the fact that the actor clearly should have won for his initial portrayal of Fast Eddie Felson (instead, fifth-billed Maximilian Schell won for a supporting role in Judgment at Nuremberg). Already adept at playing likable heels, Newman ratchets up the swagger as the rising pool-hall regular who sets his sights on taking down the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). A rocky romance develops with an alcoholic (Piper Laurie), while a pool-hall bargain is struck with a shady backer (George C. Scott). Nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and all four aforementioned actors), this deservedly won for Best Black-and-White Art Direction and Best Black-and-White Cinematography.

Talk about bad timing: Did Newman even have a reasonable shot at the Oscar for 1982? On one side was Gandhi's Ben Kingsley (the Academy's choice) and on the other was Tootsie's Dustin Hoffman (my choice), and even the sentimental factor -- coupled, of course, with that note-perfect performance -- wasn't enough to place him in the winner's circle. Working from David Mamet's lean script (adapted from Barry Reed's novel), Newman stars as a boozy lawyer struggling down the comeback trail via a medical malpractice suit. No one gives him a shot at winning, especially against a polished opposing attorney (James Mason), which means he also has self-doubt functioning as one of the challenges placed before him. This was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and nods for Newman and Mason.

DVD extras on The Hustler include audio commentary by Newman, film critic Richard Schickel and others, three new featurettes, the Biography episode on Newman, an analysis of trick shots and trailers for eight other Newman titles. DVD extras on The Verdict include audio commentary by Newman and director Sidney Lumet, three new featurettes, trailers and a photo gallery.

The Hustler: ****

Extras: ***1/2

The Verdict: ***1/2

Extras: ***

SHOOTER (2007). Shooter kicks off with a scene in which a young man flashes a picture of his fiancée to his partner, which in movie parlance of course means he won't be around much longer. Shooter also includes a sequence in which our put-upon protagonist reaches his boiling point upon learning the worst news a movie hero can hear: The villains went and shot his faithful dog (big mistake, guys). It's a testament to all concerned that this film can include such hoary clichés and not only survive them but also make them fun to watch one more time. Crisply directed by Antoine Fuqua and adapted from Stephen Hunter's Point of Impact, this casts Mark Wahlberg (who portrayed a shooter of an entirely different kind in Boogie Nights) as Bob Lee Swagger, a former Marine sniper who's duped into taking part in a political assassination and then served up as the lone gunman. Refusing to go down easy, he instead uses all his training to get back at the slimy suits who framed him, along the way enlisting the aid of an earnest FBI rookie (Michael Pena). Comparisons to Sylvester Stallone's equally ill-treated combat vet from two decades ago are paper-thin, since this film is anything but a Rambore; instead, it benefits from some taut action sequences, a well-chosen supporting cast (66-year-old Levon Helm, not looking a day over 99, steals the film as a gun enthusiast), a deep cynicism about how this country operates behind closed doors, and the sight of a smoldering Wahlberg already building on that Oscar nod for The Departed. DVD extras include audio commentary by Fuqua, a making-of piece and deleted scenes.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

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