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BUFFALO SOLDIERS (2003). The network TV movie The Reagans wasn't the only recent Hollywood project to largely vanish from plain sight (i.e., ending up on pay cable) because of fears it would anger our Republican friends in charge. Improbably, Miramax Films, once the most cutting-edge of all studios, cowardly gave the boot to Buffalo Soldiers this past year, releasing it to only a couple of major cities before shuffling it under the rug. The movie's crime? It dares to show the military in a less-than-flattering light, as an institution in which some of its officers are incompetent or psychotic and many of its foot soldiers corrupt and drug-addled. Imagine if Robert Altman's M*A*S*H had been stifled back in 1970 because its studio was afraid the movie would offend folks with its thinly veiled digs at the Vietnam War, and you can see the absurdity of the current climate. At any rate, Buffalo Soldiers is no M*A*S*H, but it's still a sharply scripted serio-comedy in which an opportunistic GI (Joaquin Phoenix), running illegal operations under the nose of his inept commander (Ed Harris) right before the end of the Cold War, runs afoul of a hardnosed officer (Scott Glenn) and escalates the antagonism by dating his daughter (Anna Paquin). DVD extras include audio commentary by director Gregor Jordan and a short behind-the-scenes feature.
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CURE (1997). Released in its Japanese homeland in 1997 yet only popping up stateside for a limited run in 2001, Cure is the sort of serial killer yarn that depicts a world in which it's not so easy to put unbridled evil back into its box. And speaking of boxes, that places it in the rare company of Seven and other similar thrillers whose narrative procession (most notably the ending) is meant to disturb, not reassure. Koji Yakusho, the charismatic lead from the 1997 art-house hit Shall We Dance?, here plays a weary detective attempting to find out why seemingly ordinary citizens -- among them a doctor, a teacher and a cop -- are going around killing strangers, friends and loved ones with no motive or explanation. His investigation eventually leads him to a mysterious young man (Masato Hagiwara) who seemingly suffers from memory loss and whose habit of answering questions with questions is more insidious than it initially appears. The muted visual approach taken by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) ensures that an intangible sense of dread takes precedence over the murders themselves (the film's gore is graphic but kept to a minimum), and although the movie doesn't quite get under the skin as much as one might hope, it's still an effective piece of shock cinema, with an ambiguous ending to provide one final jolt. DVD extras include an interview with Kurosawa and the theatrical trailer.
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JOHNNY ENGLISH (2003). Cast as a bungling British secret agent, Rowan Atkinson contorts his rubber band of a face into so many different expressions, it's like watching an entire comedy film festival rolled into one mug. Like many comedians, Rowan Atkinson is an acquired taste, but one which goes down easy for me -- and so does his latest vehicle, which turned out to be one of last summer's brightest surprises (also, alas, one of its biggest box office disappointments). After the vulgarity of the Austin Powers franchise, the PG-rated Johnny English seems almost like a quaint throwback, and it probably doesn't hurt that two of the screenwriters were responsible for Die Another Day, the best James Bond outing in ages; clearly, these men know their way around this genre and how to best tweak it. Despite numerous inspired sequences, director Peter Howitt admittedly can't keep the picture from losing momentum once it reaches a disappointingly undernourished climax; still, it's nice to find a small-scale picture that delivers what it promises without making a big deal about it. DVD bonuses include deleted scenes, a making-of feature and various spy-related extras.
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MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946). Serious actors are always itching to play Hamlet, but maybe they should consider the role of Doc Holliday instead. While the stars who are cast as marshal Wyatt Earp receive all the worshipful camera angles, those filling the part of the hard-drinking, hard-coughing gambler -- and Earp's partner in taking down the Clanton clan at the OK Corral -- often garner some of the best reviews of their careers. Kirk Douglas, Dennis Quaid and especially Val Kilmer have all excelled in the role, yet preceding them was Victor Mature, who did some of his finest work in director John Ford's Western classic. As Earp, Henry Fonda's no slouch, either, and it's these two actors' in-sync portrayals -- not to mention a superb script and beautiful black-and-white cinematography -- that make this the best Western Ford ever made without John Wayne on board. DVD extras include audio commentary by Wyatt Earp III and the pre-release version of the movie that includes several added and alternate shots.
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