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Raging Bull, Howards End, The Motorcycle Diaries

HOWARDS END (1992). The best of the countless Merchant Ivory productions - and arguably the most appreciated by those who don't even like Merchant Ivory movies - this rich adaptation of E.M. Forster's Edwardian-era novel remains one of cinema's defining statements on the rigid class structures that too often create irreparable riffs between a nation's citizenry. The story centers on sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel (Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter) and their relationships with those who inhabit the classes directly above and below them. On the upper end of the scale, there's the Wilcox family, whose patriarch (Anthony Hopkins) ends up marrying Margaret after his ailing wife (Vanessa Redgrave) passes away; on the bottom rung, there's Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a struggling (and married) clerk whose cause is championed by Helen. The fiercely independent sisters offer a fascinating contrast in pre-modern feminism - Margaret's bend-but-don't-break diplomacy is a far cry from Helen's firebrand radicalism - and scripter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala takes care to preserve the staggering ironies that permeate the tale. Thompson earned a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her eye-opening performance (Jhabvala and set designers Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker also emerged victorious), but no less memorable are the turns by Hopkins (who somehow finds a shred of humanity in a despicable character) and Bonham Carter. Extras in the two-disc DVD set include new interviews with director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and others who made the film, a 1984 documentary about the history of Merchant Ivory Productions, and a piece on the film's costume and set designs.
Movie: ***1/2

THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (2004). The seeds of social change are planted early on within Ernesto "Che" Guevara in this uncomplicated biopic that examines an early incident in the life of the iconic revolutionary. Adapted by Jose Rivera from the memoirs of both Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado, this new drama from director Walter Salles (Central Station) centers on the two men as they leave their comfortable lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in order to see the rest of South America on the back of Alberto's beat-up motorcycle. Yet what begins as an Animal House road adventure for the earnest Ernesto (Bad Education's Gael Garcia Bernal) and the easygoing Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna) - complete with drunken revelries and flirtatious bantering with the Latino ladies - turns decidedly more somber as they work their way up the continent and become involved first with the indigenous people of Chile and then with a leper colony in Peru. Rivera's Oscar-nominated script makes no mention of Castro or Cuba or even those posthumous T-shirts emblazoned with Che's mug - aside from an end-credit blurb, the movie focuses exclusively on this specific journey. As such, it plays more like a humanist fable about one individual's consciousness-raising than it does as a portrait of the controversial warrior-martyr - while this may smack some as a play-it-safe ploy, it also frees the picture from the shackles of expectation and allows it to blossom as a heartfelt paean to a formidable continent and its proud people. DVD extras include deleted scenes, a making-of feature, and a brief interview with the real Alberto Granado.
Movie: ***

RAGING BULL (1980). Is Raging Bull really the best movie of the 1980s? According to Roger Ebert, the late Gene Siskel, USA Today's Mike Clark, and an American Film magazine poll of 54 influential US critics, the answer is yes. But whether it's ranked number one or number two or even number 200, it's clear that Martin Scorsese's pugilist pic is a towering achievement, a mesmerizing film that, like the current Million Dollar Baby, refuses to be pigeonholed as merely a "boxing movie." Decidedly unsentimental in every respect, Raging Bull offers a searing character study of Jake La Motta, the middleweight boxing champion who was as much of a brute outside the ring as he was inside it. Robert De Niro, in a superb performance that earned him the Best Actor Oscar, plays La Motta throughout his adult life, famously going from a fighting physique to portray the boxer in his heyday to gaining 60 pounds to play him after his glory days were long over. It's a startling transformation, but the true power of De Niro's performance rests in his ability to worm his way into this lug's twisted psyche and air out his personal demons for all to see. Scorsese's meticulous direction (you'd never know he had no interest in boxing when first tackling this project), the brilliant screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin (adapted from La Motta's autobiography), Thelma Schoonmaker's Oscar-winning editing and Michael Chapman's black-and-white cinematography all deserve kudos; ditto for the superlative turns by novice actors Joe Pesci (as Jake's supportive brother) and Cathy Moriarty (as his long-suffering wife). Extras on the two-disc DVD include three audio commentaries featuring Scorsese, the real Jake La Motta and others, a quartet of making-of features detailing all aspects of the production, and a shot-by-shot comparison between an actual La Motta bout (captured in newsreel footage) and the recreation by Scorsese and De Niro.
Movie: ****

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