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Deliverance, The Graduate, Saturday Night Fever, others

BABEL (2006). An award winner at Cannes as well as the recipient of seven Academy Award nominations (winning for Best Original Score), Babel comes from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, the same team that gave us 21 Grams and Amores Perros. Like those two efforts, Babel is a gloom-and-doom dissection of society, whipping between various characters and their interconnected storylines. Certainly, this is the duo's most ambitious undertaking, yet for all its scattered strengths, it's also the least satisfying, hampered by a structure that feels schematic rather than organic. Several of the Big Issues -- border disputes, Middle Eastern tensions and gun control -- are handled in ways that feel overly familiar, perhaps because we've seen them tackled more adroitly in other multistory flicks like Traffic and Syriana. The freshest storyline concerns a deaf teenage girl (Rinko Kikuchi, delivering the movie's best performance) in Tokyo who grows increasingly frustrated as she's unable to find any male who's willing to provide her with love and compassion -- this plot seems the least driven by obvious ideology and therefore best illustrates the picture's theme of the lack of communication that exists between people. There's a lot to chew over in Babel. But because it's overstuffed, it also means that there's a lot not worth swallowing.

Extras on this two-disc DVD edition consist of an 86-minute making-of feature and theatrical trailers.

Movie: **1/2

Extras: **1/2

DELIVERANCE (1972). The Appalachian terrain is the setting for this gripping adaptation of James Dickey's best-selling novel in which the notion of the "civilized" man bumps up against nature and barely makes it out alive. Four Atlanta businessmen -- pensive Jon Voight, macho Burt Reynolds, whiny Ned Beatty and affable Ronny Cox -- get away from it all by embarking on a weekend vacation highlighted by a canoe trip, unaware that repulsive redneck rapists lurk in the deep, dark woods. An Oscar nominee for Best Picture, this finds director John Boorman establishing a sense of menace almost from the start, and the "squeal like a pig" sequence continues to haunt viewers even decades after the fact. In one of his best parts, Reynolds excels as a rugged athlete who best understands the milieu's "survival of the fittest" code, while Voight scores as a mild-mannered sort who discovers unexpected reservoirs of heroism bubbling up within him. The "Dueling Banjos" sequence, in which Cox's character tries to keep pace with the playing of an illiterate mountain boy (Billy Redden), has become a classic in its own right.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Boorman, an hour-long 35th anniversary retrospective, and a vintage featurette.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **1/2

THE GRADUATE (1967). Where to begin? And how to capsulize? A landmark motion picture, director Mike Nichols' blistering comedy emerged in tandem with the same year's Bonnie and Clyde as the film which blew open the lid on what audiences could expect to see on movie screens from that point forward. Experimental in its approach, candid about sex, and vicious in its attacks on American conformity and consumerism ("Plastics"), the film also became a rallying cry for the period's youth, widening the generation gap and emerging as one of the biggest box office smashes of its decade. In a star-making performance, Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a young man whose confusion about the direction his life will take only becomes muddier once he stumbles into an affair with a married older woman (excellent Anne Bancroft). Then when he falls in love with her daughter (Katharine Ross), things become really complicated. Nichols' decision to use a pop score resulted in a beautiful melding of movie and music (and sent the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack soaring up the charts), while Robert Surtees' brilliant camerawork yields one awe-inspiring shot after another. Nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this copped its sole win for Nichols' direction.

Extras on the 40th Anniversary Edition DVD include audio commentary by Hoffman and Ross, separate audio commentary by Nichols with Steven Soderbergh, and several making-of featurettes. The set also comes with a CD containing four Simon & Garfunkel songs from the soundtrack.

Movie: ****

Extras: ***1/2

THE LOST WORLD (1925 & 1960). With the focus on the 1960 screen version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, potential buyers need to read the fine print on the packaging to notice that this two-disc DVD set also includes the earlier silent picture. Considering that the older take is the superior movie, one would have hoped for equal billing, but given the latter's Cinemascope presentation and its mark as an Irwin Allen production (Allen being the "Master of Disaster" responsible for such hits as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), the marketing decision is understandable. The plots remain the same, as Professor Challenger leads a group of assorted individuals (scientist, reporter, hunter, etc.) deep into the Amazon in an attempt to prove that dinosaurs still exist in the modern world. The 1925 version is preferable largely because of Wallace Beery's animated performance as Challenger and the excellent special effects work by Willis O'Brien, who would achieve screen immortality eight years later with King Kong. The 1960 remake suffers from cut-rate effects (basically, pasting fake horns on lizards and filming them large), dull characters, and a casual racism (how come the only two characters to suffer at film's end are the Latin American ones, while no harm befalls the Yanks and Brits?).

Extras include a making-of featurette, a vintage newsreel, outtakes from the 1925 version, and an on-screen reproduction of the comic book adaptation.

The Lost World (1925): ***

The Lost World (1960): **

Extras: **1/2

NEXT (2007). One of the weakest adaptations yet of a Philip K. Dick story ("The Golden Man"), Next is most notable for how it shunts the vibrant, 46-year-old Julianne Moore off to the sides while it gives 43-year-old Nicolas Cage a far less interesting love interest in 25-year-old Jessica Biel. (In similar fashion, the movie's poster and DVD box art makes it look like Biel's bodacious ta-tas are the leading characters.) Biel is basically filling the same function as she did in last year's The Illusionist, which is serving as girlfriend-pawn to a magician hoping to keep her out of harm's way. Cage's Cris Johnson actually uses his Vegas "magic man" act to cover up the fact that he can see two minutes into his own future and therefore shape his destiny to his liking. Cris considers his gift a curse, but FBI agent Callie Ferris (Moore) believes it can help her locate a Eurotrash terrorist outfit plotting to destroy Los Angeles with a nuclear bomb. Into the mix walks Liz Cooper (Biel), a teacher who's been frequently appearing in Cris' visions and who might hold the key to ... well, something; the movie never bothers to elaborate. Next quickly loses altitude once it becomes apparent that Cris' powers will conveniently come and go as needed to keep the screenplay lurching forward. Yet even this slipshod quality is tolerable until we reach the final portion of the film, a monumental cop-out on the level of those overused "It was all a dream" stories that our fiction writing professors would urge us not to pen back in college. One plus: It's great to see Peter Falk (now 79) as Cage's confidante, even if his screen time seemingly runs shorter than the end credits crawl.

DVD extras include a making-of featurette, a short piece on the visual effects, and a two-minute interview with Biel.

Movie: *1/2

Extras: **

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) / FLASHDANCE (1983). Although both films have already been available on DVD (more than once, in fact), Paramount has nevertheless decided to reissue two of its most popular musicals in special collector's editions. Saturday Night Fever is the clear pick here: Unfairly remembered as a kitschy celebration of the disco era (no, that would be Thank God It's Friday), this is actually a hard-hitting drama about a Brooklyn kid who (shades of The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock) has trouble planning for the future. For now, he's content hanging around with his deadbeat friends, ignoring one woman (excellent Donna Pescow) for another (Karen Lynn Gorney), and, most importantly, dancing his heart out at the local disco. As Tony Manero, John Travolta is superb in a career-making performance that earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, while the smash soundtrack by The Bee Gees became the top-selling album of all time (at least until Michael Jackson's Thriller came along). A hit soundtrack also sprang from Flashdance, but the film itself is far less memorable than its music (itself no match for the SNF score). An early credit for producers Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson (as well as screenwriter Joe Eszterhas), this formulaic Cinderella story set the stage for the pair's M.O. of style over substance, with appealing Jennifer Beals cast as a welder who, while dreaming of becoming a classically trained ballerina, spends her nights dancing at the local dive.

DVD extras on Saturday Night Fever include audio commentary by director John Badham, a piece on the classic soundtrack, looks at the period's music and clothes, and a 70s Discopedia trivia option. DVD extras on Flashdance include shorts on the film's music, choreography and influential costume design (Beals' sexy, off-the-shoulder sweatshirt look became all the rage); the set also includes a CD featuring six of the film's songs, including the Oscar-winning "Flashdance ... What a Feeling."

Saturday Night Fever: ***1/2

Extras: ***

Flashdance: **

Extras: ***

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