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View from the Couch 

Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood, more

RESERVATION ROAD Is there anything more depressing than the senseless death of a child? In the real world, perhaps not; in Reservation Road, plenty. For starters, it's depressing to note that director Terry George elected to follow his powerful Hotel Rwanda with this simple-minded melodrama. It's also depressing to note that this film largely wastes the talents of not one but two Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners, Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino. And finally, it's depressing when a strong premise is compromised by lazy plotting and cop-out resolutions. Based on John Burnham Schwartz's novel (with Schwartz co-writing the screenplay with George), Reservation Road starts with a young boy being struck and killed by an SUV. The driver is the distracted but decent Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), who panics after accidentally hitting the lad and flees from the scene. The victim's dad is Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix), who witnesses the tragedy firsthand but doesn't get a good look at the driver. Dwight struggles with his overwhelming guilt while Ethan tries to console his grieving wife (Connelly) and their other child (Elle Fanning) – so far, so moving. But buying into the notion that every city outside of L.A. and N.Y.C. is the size of Mayberry, Reservation Road then takes a wrong turn by having Dwight's ex-wife (Sorvino) coincidentally be the music instructor present at the boy's funeral – and then grows even more absurd when Ethan turns to a law firm for help and gets assigned – God help the storytellers – Dwight as his counsel. It's all downhill from here, as Ethan turns vigilante (when he sets off to purchase a gun, we half-expect him to bump into Jodie Foster on the way out) in order for the film to end as predictably as we feared it might.

DVD extras include 8 minutes of deleted scenes, a 15-minute making-of featurette, and, for reasons unclear to me, a random episode of the TV series Friday Night Lights.

Movie: **

Extras: *1/2

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET Sweeney Todd is an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 Broadway smash, but it hides its stage roots so thoroughly that it often feels like a piece created exclusively for the screen. There's no trace of the often limiting theatricality that has marred other stage-to-screen transfers, though that's hardly a surprise given that Tim Burton remains one of our most visually adept filmmakers. In refashioning Sweeney Todd for the movies, he and scripter John Logan have created a big, bold musical that functions as an upscale slasher film: It's bloody but also bloody good, with the gore tempered by the melancholy love stories that dominate the proceedings. Johnny Depp delivers a haunted performance as a barber who returns to London after 15 years in prison to exact his revenge on the judge (Alan Rickman) who ruined his life; he's aided in his efforts by lonely widow Nellie Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). As partners-in-crime, they're matched beautifully: He slits the throats of all who sit in his barber's chair, while she grinds up the corpses to use in her popular meat pies. Burton's decision to stylize the film to within an inch of its life (his most theatrical flourish is to retain a Grand Guignol sense of the melodramatic) was a sound one, resulting in a visual feast that dazzles even through the setting's necessary grime (this deservedly earned an Oscar for Best Art Direction & Set Decoration). And while neither Depp nor Carter are classically trained singers, both are just fine belting out Sondheim's tunes. More importantly, they provide this rousing musical with the emotional heft necessary to prevent it from merely becoming an exercise in Gothic chic.

Extras in the two-disc DVD set include two half-hour behind-the-scenes features, additional pieces on the movie's makeup, costume and set designs, the featurette The Real History of the Demon Barber, and footage from a November 2007 press conference with Burton and his stars.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***1/2

THERE WILL BE BLOOD Academy Award win notwithstanding, I'm not sure Daniel Day-Lewis' performance represented the best acting of 2007, but it certainly represented the most acting of the past year. Then again, his oversized turn is right in line with Paul Thomas Anderson's oversized ambitions in creating a modern-day masterpiece, a movie so audacious that it flagrantly apes Citizen Kane and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at various points. But Anderson's latest isn't even up to the standards of what I consider his real masterpiece, the dazzling, dizzying Boogie Nights, though there was certainly enough here to please adventurous moviegoers. Based on Upton Sinclair's Oil! this centers on Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), a powerful oilman who has an adopted son in young H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and a nemesis in unctuous preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). There Will Be Blood, therefore, is a story about the feud between Plainview and Eli that doubles as the battle between bald capitalism and insincere spirituality (in that respect, the movie could be set today), as well as a more personal tale involving Plainview and his adopted boy. That the former plotline is more interesting than the latter throws the film off balance, a flaw accentuated by the fact that no attempt to understand Plainview provides the film with a hollow center that separates it from the likes of Kane and Sierra Madre (wherein we cared about their protagonists even after they took leave of their senses). Still, the picture is a beauty to behold (Robert Elswit took the Best Cinematography Oscar), and there are individual sequences so staggering that a second viewing on DVD hardly proved to be a chore.

Extras in the two-disc DVD set include 15 minutes showcasing research materials (namely vintage photos) used in the making of the film, deleted scenes, and The Story of Petroleum, a 1920s silent short promoting the oil business.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

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