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THE BILLY MADISON / HAPPY GILMORE COLLECTION (1995; 1996). This twin pack of Adam Sandler's first starring vehicles qualifies as a must-own for Sandler fans, a must-avoid for Sandler haters, and a shrug inducer for everyone else. Billy Madison, which features Sandler's stock what-me-retarded? act, starts off practically unwatchable but soon settles into its humdrum storyline about a spoiled rich kid who, in order to inherit his dad's (Darren McGavin) company, must return to school and pass grades 1 through 12 in a six-month span. Sandler's character grates rather than amuses, and there are unfunny turns by Sandler pals (and fellow Saturday Night Live castmates) Norm MacDonald and Chris Farley in small roles. Happy Gilmore is a vast improvement, generating some genuine laughs in this tale of a failed hockey player who brings his talents -- and foul temper -- to the genteel game of golf. Watching Sandler and The Price Is Right's Bob Barker engage in fisticuffs ("The price is wrong... bitch!") is worth at least the rental fee, and the movie features an early performance by Ben Stiller as an unscrupulous nursing home attendant. DVD extras include deleted scenes and outtakes.
Billy Madison: 1/2
Happy Gilmore: 1/2
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DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY (2004). Forget the Sandler twofer: Luckily for devotees of dum-dum cinema, here's Dodgeball to placate the lowest common denominator while also allowing discerning home viewers to slum in style. Oh, sure, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber didn't have to look further than his weather-beaten VHS copy of Animal House for inspiration, and some of the jokes not only thud to the ground but then spend a few uncomfortable seconds writhing in agony. But when it has its game face on, this offers a satisfying number of laughs, characters that we care to follow, and cameo appearances that are positively inspired. Vince Vaughn, often tagged to play villains, stars as the loser-hero, while Ben Stiller, generally typecast as the amiable nerd, is on board as the preening bad guy; this run of smart casting extends to the supporting ranks, where we find Rip Torn as a dodgeball vet who has to turn Vaughn's band of misfits into a top-notch team before the championship games (telecast on ESPN 8). The unrefined antics include people getting hit in the head with tools ("If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!"), and the fact that one of the teams is called the MILFs (don't ask, don't tell) hints that Thurber originally had an R in mind rather than a PG-13 (although, surprisingly, the deleted scenes featured on the DVD aren't any more risque). But at a time when many ambitious studio films are aiming high and falling short, here's one that delivers on its low-pressure promise. Along with the deleted scenes, other DVD extras include audio commentary by Vaughn, Stiller and Thurber, bloopers, and an amusing "alternate ending."
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GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). The most successful movie of all time (if adjusted for inflation, its box office would blow away Titanic's grosses) has been kicking around on DVD for several years in a lackluster presentation, so it was only a matter of time before Warner got around to producing a special set. And it's a beaut, all right -- a four-disc Collector's Edition crammed with hours of worthy supplemental material. Purely from a cinematic standpoint, this adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's bestseller about a Southern family's struggles during the Civil War is a genuine treasure, a four-hour epic distinguished by exemplary performances and breathtaking achievements in pure moviemaking. From a social standpoint, however, its past remains ingrained in controversy: Along with D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, it's the film most responsible for whitewashing the evils of racism and in effect making a romanticized vision of the Old South palatable to the nation at large. (Bruce Chadwick's book The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking In American Film is a fine starting point for discussions on this thorny subject.) Regardless, GWTW is a motion picture of numerous highs, beginning with Vivien Leigh's extraordinary performance as Scarlett O'Hara, surely one of the most fully developed characters ever depicted in American cinema. Clark Gable's not too shabby, either, transforming into the perfect Rhett Butler (even if Mitchell had wanted Basil Rathbone to play the part). And while frail Leslie Howard is miscast as the dreamy Ashley Wilkes, Olivia de Havilland offers a lovely turn as good-girl Melanie Hamilton. In addition to breaking box office records, the film earned eight Academy Awards (plus two additional honors for producer David O. Selznick and production designer William Cameron Menzies), including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel (as Mammy). Extras in this spectacular set include audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer, lengthy documentaries on Leigh, Gable and the making of the movie, the 1940 short film The Old South, a new interview with the 88-year-old de Havilland, and brief looks at the careers of 16 supporting players.
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ZATOICHI (2004). Debuting theatrically the same year as James Bond (1962), Japan's Zatoichi has enjoyed a healthy shelf life comparable to that of Agent 007: Played by Shintaru Katsu, the blind masseur-cum-master-swordsman has been the star of two dozen feature films and over 100 TV episodes. Writer-director-actor Takeshi Kitano elected to bring the iconic character back to the forefront, and the result is a marvelous showstopper of a samurai flick, a genuine crowd-pleaser that earned audience awards at the Toronto and Venice film festivals. Plot-heavy and bursting at the seams with what can only be described as visual non sequiturs, Zatoichi (or The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, as it's billed everywhere except on the screen) is at heart a musical disguised as an action film, with meticulous attention to choreography (in both the fight scenes and dance routines) and sound synchronization (love those field workers!). Yet Kitano's canvas is expansive enough to also incorporate slapstick sequences straight out of vintage Looney Tunes, sword skirmishes that zoom by like NASCAR drivers gunning for the finish line, and a final celebration that would make Busby Berkeley proud. The convoluted story concerns itself with a town dominated by feuding gangs (a nod to Kurosawa's Yojimbo), a pair of siblings out to avenge their parents' murders, and a proud samurai (Tadanobu Asano, often described as Japan's Johnny Depp) reduced to the role of hired killer in order to provide for his ailing wife. Naturally, Zatoichi shuffles into town just in time to set everything right. More than just a treat for the martial arts crowd, this is a boon for movie lovers of all stripes. The two-disc DVD also includes another Kitano film -- the 1994 gangster yarn Sonatine -- and extras such as a behind-the-scenes special and interviews.
Movie: 1/2
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