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THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996). Michael Ondaatje's award-winning novel was one of those works that was deemed "unfilmable," yet that didn't stop producer Saul Zaentz (Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and writer-director Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr. Ripley) from giving it their best shot. The resultant bull's-eye exceeded anyone's expectations: Here was the sort of lush, literate epic rarely seen in contemporary cinema, a throwback to those old-fashioned spectacles in which intimate romances are played out against the backdrop of earthshaking events. In this case, the defining conflict is World War II, and Minghella's script expertly moves back and forth between two interconnected storylines separated by time and distance: the steamy relationship between a Hungarian explorer (Ralph Fiennes) and a married Englishwoman (Kristen Scott Thomas), and the tender one between the now-dying Hungarian and a French-Canadian nurse (Juliette Binoche). There are images in this movie that are unforgettable (hats off to cinematographer John Seale), yet its real power rests in the complexity of its characters and the resonance of its themes involving betrayal, retribution and absolution. As the sensitive Hana, Binoche delivers one of the most incandescent performances I've ever had the pleasure to watch; she deservedly earned one of the film's nine Academy Awards. The two-disc DVD includes numerous snippets of interviews with the cast and crew, although, annoyingly, there's no "Play All" option to give your finger a rest; other extras include audio commentary by Zaentz, Minghella and Ondaatje, deleted scenes, and reviews by Roger Ebert, Peter Travers and David Thomson.
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THE FILM NOIR COLLECTION (1944-1950). Warner Bros. recently released The Cary Grant Signature Collection, but one look at the titles, which include none of his Hitchcock thrillers or screwball classics, and it's obvious that the compilation doesn't live up to its billing. The Film Noir Collection, on the other hand, is the real deal: While it doesn't contain any movies that transcended the genre label enough to become recognizable masterpieces on their own terms (e.g., The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity), it showcases five pictures that are essential noirs, movies not to be missed by anyone professing a love for these types of tough-talking, smoke-choked melodramas. Murder, My Sweet (1944), based on Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely, is a dazzling example of the form, with a cynical detective (Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe), a duplicitous femme fatale (Claire Trevor), and the sort of crackling, tommy-gun-paced dialogue ("You'd slit your own throat for six bits plus tax") that forces viewers to rewind to make sure they caught it all. Out of the Past (1947), stylishly directed by Cat People's Jacques Tourneur, offers the same sort of pleasures, with a private eye (Robert Mitchum) agreeing to help a slick mobster (Kirk Douglas) track down his missing moll (Jane Greer). Gun Crazy (1949), which became a cult sensation upon its rediscovery in 1967, finds director Joseph H. Lewis drawing terrific performances out of John Dall and Peggy Cummins, respectively cast as a clean-cut man who's obsessed with guns and the dangerous sexpot who talks him into committing bank robberies. The Set-Up (1949) is a gritty, sweaty tale of a small-time boxer (reliable Robert Ryan) who doesn't realize he's expected to throw his next fight. Finally, John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) set the pattern for all heist flicks to follow, with Sterling Hayden leading a stellar cast that includes Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest roles. Unlike most of the other Warner package deals, the extras here are sparse: Each film includes audio commentary by a renowned film noir scholar (except The Set-Up, which includes commentary by its director, Robert Wise, and Martin Scorsese), and a couple also throw in the theatrical trailer.
Murder, My Sweet: 1/2
Out of the Past: 1/2
Gun Crazy:
The Set-Up:
The Asphalt Jungle: 1/2
Extras:

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