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View from the Couch 

Beowulf, Michael Clayton, more

BEOWULF (2007). Not exactly your grandfather's Beowulf, this played at select venues last winter in Digital 3D, resulting in a positively astonishing experience. Tossed coins rolled directly toward the camera, spears poked out at audience members, and even an animated Angelina Jolie's, umm, assets seemed more pronounced than usual. Certainly, the technology exists to offer a 3D Beowulf on DVD, but unfortunately, Paramount Pictures didn't even bother, releasing the film in the standard flat format. Luckily, the movie is strong enough to survive without the enhancement. Director Robert Zemeckis, whose 2004 The Polar Express felt like an animated feature that had been embalmed, again employs the "performance capture" technique with far greater success, overlaying real actors with a cartoon sheen and placing them in the middle of a CGI landscape. Based on the ancient poem, the script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary doesn't always match the movie's visual splendor, but their modifications to the text are more often than not respectful. After the gruesome monster Grendel (snarled by Crispin Glover) wreaks havoc on the castle of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), the heroic (and boastful) Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives to save the day. Yet he finds himself not only having to confront Grendel but also the misshapen creature's mother (Jolie) and, in the climactic piece de resistance, a fierce dragon. Given the massive advances in 3D technology, it's possible that more and more movies will be presented in this format, which in turn will inspire studios to transfer them to DVD in that manner. Anyone up for Shortbus 2 in Digital 3D?

Extras on the unrated Director's Cut include several deleted scenes, various making-of pieces breaking down the movie's effects and art designs, and a look at the Beowulf legend.

Movie: ***

Extras: *** 

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (2007). Writer-director Paul Haggis will forever be lambasted in many circles because Crash unfairly shanghaied Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars. But those quick to write him off as a pandering huckster tend to forget that he also penned the exquisite screenplays to two Clint Eastwood triumphs, Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima. It's that Paul Haggis who shows up with this powerful drama that employs a murder-mystery template to camouflage what ultimately proves to be the picture's true intent: Examine the repercussions of war on the psyches of the youngsters we ask (or order) to defend us in battle. Tommy Lee Jones, in a superlative performance, stars as Hank Deerfield, a retired officer trying to find out why his son went AWOL upon returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Once it's ascertained that the boy was murdered, the morose father teams up with an equally glum detective (Charlize Theron) to solve the case. On its own terms, the mystery is presented in a satisfying matter, and only those expecting an elaborate Agatha Christie-style unmasking of the killer will be disappointed in this aspect of the plot, which wraps up well before the actual movie does. Clearly, Haggis' main story is about the toll that the Iraq War – and, by extension, all battles, especially those (like Iraq) created for bogus reasons – takes not only on the soldiers sent to participate in the bloodshed but also on their families and friends. The film attempts to depict the manner in which the specter of war can follow a soldier back to civilization and inform every subsequent decision and action, and Haggis should be saluted for taking this angle further than most.

DVD extras include a 43-minute making-of documentary and one additional scene.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **

THE LAST EMPEROR (1987). Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor is an epic in every sense except one: As depicted here, its protagonist is a small figure, one who had greatness (or at least a facsimile thereof) thrust upon him, rather than a man who would in any meaningful way be allowed to control his own life. Near the start of the 20th century, 3-year-old Pu Yi becomes the emperor of China. As a lonely teen who's essentially kept prisoner within the walls of the Forbidden City, he learns that his country's changing winds have rendered him nothing more than a figurehead; once he becomes an adult (played at this point by John Lone), he finds himself ousted from the only home he's ever known and subsequently moving through a variety of roles, among them a puppet for the Japanese government, a Western-styled playboy, a political prisoner of the Communists and, finally, a humble gardener. To call The Last Emperor a magnificent visual achievement almost seems like an understatement, but this is no dusty, dull biopic that's forced to solely fall back on its good looks: Despite the often impenetrable nature of Pu Yi, the performances of the various actors who play the role humanize this character, and Bertolucci and co-scripter Mark Peploe locate the sorrow in this story about a person who became a pawn of history itself. Peter O'Toole appears in a choice role as Pu Yi's sly Scottish tutor, and there's an exquisite music score provided by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Cong Su and Talking Heads' David Byrne. This went nine-for-nine at the Academy Awards, winning every award for which it was nominated (including Best Picture and Best Director).

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