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The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Lives of Others, The Shakespeare Collection

THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982) / LABYRINTH (1986). Two ambitious undertakings from Jim Henson and his Muppet factory, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth are both lavishly realized fairy tales brooding enough to earn their PG designations. In short, don't expect cameo appearances from Kermit or Fozzie; the worlds on view in these films are full of danger and menace, certainly too harsh for the all-inclusive G rating.

Just as those flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz have terrorized many a tot over countless generations, so too have the Skeksis, the villains of choice in The Dark Crystal, put the fear of God (or at least of wicked looking puppets) into youngsters who first caught this film back in 1982 (or on video in subsequent years). An epic tale in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings, the movie centers on the ages-old battle between the evil Skeksis and the gentle Mystics, with two young Gelflings (think Hobbits) holding the key to tipping the balance of power into the hands of the righteous.

Unlike The Dark Crystal, which proved to be a modest box office hit upon its release, Labyrinth turned out to be an underachiever -- even with George Lucas attached as executive producer and a script by former Monty Python member Terry Jones. David Bowie, regal in a role for which Mick Jagger, Sting and Michael Jackson were also considered, headlines as the Goblin King, though the most sizable part went to future Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly, portraying a dreamy teenager who enters the Goblin King's domain in order to rescue her little brother. The influence of both Maurice Sendak and Lewis Carroll can be spotted throughout the film; conversely, notice how many similarities last year's gem Pan's Labyrinth shares with this picture.

The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth have each been reissued in lovely two-disc DVD editions. Extras on both include audio commentary by conceptual artist Brian Froud (who designed the look of the films), a trio of making-of documentaries, and art galleries.

Movies: ***

Extras: ***

THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006). Of course, Pan's Labyrinth deserved to win the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar this past spring, but the Academy's selection of The Lives of Others hardly qualifies as an outrage. While it'd be easy to cynically rack up this film's victory to the fact that the organization's septuagenarians would more readily respond to a film about the good old days of the Cold War than to a fantasy yarn that would require them to use their imagination, the truth is that this German import is both emotionally and intellectually stimulating, a winning combo under any circumstances. Beginning in 1984, the story focuses on Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe, who recently passed away at the age of 54), an interrogator for the East German secret police. Wiesler believes in the principles of the German Democratic Republic, and he dutifully agrees to monitor the movements of a prominent playwright (Sebastian Koch) suspected of traitorous activities. But after learning that the powers of the state are being abused by a high-ranking official (Thomas Thieme) who's only interested in the writer's actress girlfriend (Martina Gedeck), Wiesler begins to soften, finally allowing a ray of humanity to crack his rigid dogma. Never mind chronology: Thanks to modern cinema (especially documentaries and films made by a guy named Spielberg), World War II feels more immediate and less buried in the past than the Cold War, yet here's writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck hitting a home run with a frightening drama that expertly evokes a period when spies would routinely come in from the cold.

DVD extras include both audio commentary and a half-hour interview with von Donnersmarck, a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, and 10 theatrical trailers of other art-house titles.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***

THE SHAKESPEARE COLLECTION (1935-1996). Assembling a "Shakespeare Collection" would be a daunting task for any studio's DVD arm, but Warner Bros. has admirably come through with a four-movie set that offers a nice mix of some of the Bard's most acclaimed screen translations.

The back story on the film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) is a rich one, too lengthy to recount in this space. Chiefly, it involves the exploits of theatrical titan Max Reinhardt and his eventual odyssey to L.A., whereupon he created a stage production of Dream that eventually was turned into this opulent (if occasionally schizophrenic) screen version. Shakespeare's romp involving young lovers and forest fairies finds an appropriate outlet in a filmic take that employs classical music, elaborate ballets and a cast mixing classically trained thespians with Hollywood hambones. Best of all is James Cagney, who's wonderful as spirited actor Nick Bottom; others filling out the large cast include 19-year-old Olivia de Havilland (in her film debut) as Hermia and 15-year-old Mickey Rooney as an annoying Puck. An Oscar nominee for Best Picture and Best Assistant Director (a long forgotten category), this won for Best Film Editing and Best Cinematography, the latter marking the only time in Academy history that a write-in candidate (cameraman Hal Mohr) took home a statue.

To play the roles of Shakespeare's teen protagonists in Romeo and Juliet (1936), MGM cast 43-year-old Leslie Howard and 34-year-old Norma Shearer. It sounds like celluloid suicide, but somehow the pair pull it off, resulting in a solid adaptation of the tragic tale of the "star-cross'd lovers." MGM head (and Shearer's husband) Irving Thalberg spared no expense in mounting this passionate production, and the stellar cast includes Basil Rathbone as a scowling Tybalt and John Barrymore as a prancing Mercutio. Only frequent Western sidekick Andy Devine, playing a servant, seems out of place. This earned four Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Actress, Supporting Actor (Rathbone) and Art Direction; missing out was Howard, whose line readings are simply exquisite.

Having already brought several Shakespeare plays to the moviehouse (including Henry V, Richard III and the Oscar-winning Hamlet), Laurence Olivier decided to take a crack at Othello (1965), albeit with no effort to make this anything more than a filmed stage production. As he explains in both the trailer and the featurette included on this DVD, Olivier's goal was to recreate the immediacy of a live theater performance on the silver screen, an impossible task no matter how open-minded one approaches it. Still, if nothing else, this preservation of the National Theatre show functions as an actors' showcase, with Olivier donning the blackface to portray the jealous Moor (his vocal intonations work better than his physical performance) and Maggie Smith outshining him as the devoted but doomed Desdemona. This copped four Oscar noms, all for the actors (Olivier, Smith, Frank Finlay as Iago and Joyce Redman as Emilia).

Shakespeare's immortal play Hamlet has been brought to the screen on several occasions, but nobody had ever attempted to do what Kenneth Branagh achieves -- film the entire, uncut text. His four-hour Hamlet (1996) is a dazzling achievement, a highly charged interpretation that paints the great Dane not so much as a melancholy, morally confused prince but rather a jock with a rapier wit and an unquenchable thirst for revenge. For the most part, the acting is superb -- Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Richard Briers as Polonius are especially good -- and Branagh and cinematographer Alex Thomson elected to shoot this in 70mm (a once-popular, ultra-widescreen format that's never used anymore), resulting in some staggering vistas. Unfortunately, in an obvious attempt to add marquee value to his piece, Branagh cast some incongruous American actors in small roles, yet with the exception of Charlton Heston (surprisingly effective as the Player King), these Yanks (Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal) distract from the proceedings with their flat accents, vaudeville schtick and awkward line delivery. Like Romeo and Juliet and Othello, Hamlet was another four-time Oscar nominee, including, curiously, a nod to Branagh for Best Adapted Screenplay (curious since the entire text was lifted straight from Shakespeare!).

Extras in the two-disc Hamlet DVD edition include audio commentary by Branagh and Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson, an intro by Branagh, and a Shakespeare movie trailers gallery. Extras on the other titles include shorts and vintage featurettes.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: ***1/2

Extras: ***

Romeo and Juliet: ***

Extras: **

Othello: ***

Extras: *1/2

Hamlet: ***1/2

Extras: ***

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