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View from the Couch: Gone Baby Gone, Groundhog Day, more 

What's new on DVD

BECOMING JANE (2007). Perfectly pleasant yet also somewhat rudderless, Becoming Jane comes across less as a motion picture and more as a victim of identity theft. Given the glut of exemplary films based on the works of Austen – from the fairly faithful (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice) to the radically reworked (Bridget Jones's Diary, Clueless) – the only sound reasons to create a movie based on Jane herself would be either to suggest some insights into what turned this country girl into one of the most acclaimed writers in the English language or to provide a comprehensive overview of her life and times. But Becoming Jane prefers to take a more narrow view, focusing on one small period in her life (and, based on historical records, a spotty one at that) and trumping up the details of her brief flirtation with a dashing rogue named Tom Lefroy. As a result, the Jane in this film never feels real, ultimately coming across as fictional a creation as Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood or any other Austen heroine. Still, within its own self-contained chamber, it's an agreeable period romp, missing the spark of the high-end Austen adaptations but firmly in command of its own romantic devices. Anne Hathaway, all-American in The Devil Wears Prada and Brokeback Mountain, adopts a British accent and makes for a lively Jane, while James McAvoy (currently starring in Atonement) brings the proper measure of rakish charm to the part of Lefroy. It all goes down smoothly, and if the incomplete portrait of Jane Austen sends even one person to the library to hunt down more info, so much the better.

DVD extras include audio commentary by director Julian Jarrold, writer Kevin Hood and producer Robert Bernstein, deleted scenes, and pop-up facts.

Movie: **1/2

Extras: **1/2

GONE BABY GONE (2007). Ben Affleck makes his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, and by playing it close to the vest, he turns out a drama that's deeply absorbing and constantly surprising. A better movie than Clint Eastwood's marginally overrated Mystic River, this sports a connection to that film since both were adapted from novels by Dennis Lehane. Here, a little girl is snatched from her home in a working-class Boston neighborhood, and the family hires two private investigators (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) to track down the missing moppet. Working in uneasy unison with a couple of detectives (Ed Harris and John Ashton), sometimes without the knowledge of the cops' superior officer (Morgan Freeman), the pair follow the trail of clues wherever it leads, which is straight into an underworld populated by thuggish crime lords and coke-addled pedophiles. Aided by a stellar cast that showcases superlative turns by Ben's brother Casey, Harris and Oscar nominee (and multiple critics' award winner) Amy Ryan as the child's trashy mom, Affleck (who also co-scripted with Aaron Stockard) has crafted a forceful crime flick that's made even more irresistible by way of a moral ambivalence that's extremely rare in modern dramas. It's this stance that propels the film through its knockout finale, since a sequence about two-thirds through the picture erroneously leads us to believe that the film is winding down with a disappointingly conventional ending. But it's a mere ruse, since it clears the way for more surprises that in turn build toward a devastating conclusion guaranteed to remain in the mind for days, weeks, maybe even months.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Affleck and Stockard, four deleted scenes, an extended opening and ending, and a behind-the-scenes piece.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **1/2

GROUNDHOG DAY (1993). Upon its original release in the relatively dead movie month of February, Washington Post film critic Desson Howe stated, "Groundhog Day will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress. But, in terms of vehicle selection, this is one of the better ones [Bill] Murray has hitched himself to." Indeed, while critical response was positive and box office was fairly strong ($70 million), nothing suggested that this comedy from writer-director Harold Ramis and co-scripter Danny Rubin would gather steam over time and emerge as one of the most respected comedies of the past 20 years. Yet at the end of the 1990s, the movie found itself on several critics' lists of the best films of the decade, and, despite Howe's understandable assertion to the contrary, the Library of Congress' National Film Preservation Board did add the picture to its prestigious National Film Registry in 2006. Murray is once again cast in the sort of role in which he excels, the lewd, self-centered lout; here, he's Phil Connors, a TV weatherman who inexplicably finds himself living the same day over and over again, trapped in a small town during its Groundhog Day celebration. The very nature of the piece leads to a repetitive midsection, but the film offers some cosmic ruminations beneath its comic exterior, and Murray and Andie MacDowell (rarely so relaxed on film) make a surprisingly compatible screen couple.

Extras in this 15th Anniversary Edition include audio commentary by Ramis, deleted scenes, an interview with Ramis, and a study of groundhogs.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

THE NAKED PREY (1966). After his acting career began to wane, Hollywood hunk Cornel Wilde formed his own production company in order to allow him to assume the additional mantles of director and producer. His best-remembered title in this capacity is The Naked Prey, a fast and furious adventure yarn that moves at the speed of a cheetah zeroing in on a gazelle. A period yarn set in deep Africa, the picture stars Wilde as "Man," a respectful safari guide whose colonialist employer (Gert Van Den Bergh) insults the members of a large tribe. In retaliation, the natives capture the hunting party, torturing and killing all its members save for Wilde's character. He's given a head start to run for his life, a mere diversion for the tribe's best warriors until they realize that their prey matches their level of resourcefulness and determination. An Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay (penned by Clint Johnston and Don Peters), The Naked Prey is a marvel of economical filmmaking, as lean and mean as the characters populating it. Brutal in its depictions of both tribal savagery and English arrogance, the film nevertheless avoids lazy stereotyping, often presenting its African characters in sympathetic ways while never letting us forget that primitive behavior (even from Man) is a prerequisite to surviving in such a harsh landscape.

DVD extras include audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince, Paul Giamatti's reading of the story "John Colter's Escape," about the real-life incident upon which The Naked Prey was loosely based, and soundtrack cues focusing on the African tribal music used in the film.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

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