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Monday, 29 November 1999 19:00
Reviewed by Mark Glass
This set of movies on DVD includes several two-disc special-edition releases of major hits, loaded with bonus features, just in time for all the gift-giving occasions coming up in May and June.

Dreamgirls: Showstopper Edition leads the way, adding to the multiple award-winning filmed version of the long-running musical with a dozen alternative or extended versions of its songs, plus insider extras ranging from audition clips to rehearsal footage and storyboards, showing the intricacies of adapting a play to the screen. Jennifer Hudson's Oscar-grabbing showstoppers play as compellingly on your TV as they did on the big screen. The same is true for Eddie Murphy's supporting role, both as actor and singer.

Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers turned out to be a surprisingly complex psychological portrait of the iconic Iwo Jima flag-raising, focusing far more on the aftermath and cultural importance of the image, than the battle itself. Besides the powerful, insightful presentation of the times and the principals contained in the film, the second disc adds hours of further historical context, details about the principals, and "making-of" coverage, including some reflections by Eastwood.

Those with high-def or Blu-Ray capacity will enjoy the extended versions of Tom Cruise's first two outings as the successor to Peter Graves' Jim Phelps - Mission: Impossible and M: I-2. Both screenplays were rather convoluted, but no one could gripe about the quality or scale of the action scenes. The bigger and better your home setup has evolved, the more kick you'll get from watching the films again, plus the hours of extras the second disc offers with each. Bonus material on the former focuses more on the original TV show, and real-life spy business; the sequel's add-ons are more about Cruise, and the process of planning and shooting blockbuster testosterone fare that kept us buying tickets for three of these outings.

Among vintage treats, The Guns of Navarone holds up amazingly well, considering how far technology has advanced since its 1961 release. The famous assault on the Nazis' monstrous cannons that dominated a seminal part of the Mediterranean is still thrilling. Its climactic battle couldn't be more exciting if re-shot with present-day computer effects and enhancements. Why? Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven. Until they clone those dudes, no one's going to sell the heroism and inner conflicts that make such tales soar as well as they could. In those days, the players were bigger than the explosions. Icons endure.

Equally immortal are the individual and combined charisma of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock's light-hearted, yet suspenseful romantic caper, To Catch a Thief. The strict industry moral watchdogs of 1955 did far more to make the era's comedies and love stories seem quaint and constrained, than they could impede solid action fare. Grant has no peer, then or since, on anyone's suaveness scale; Kelly was flawless as the elegant American tourist, plotting to trap an international jewel thief beneath her idle-rich veneer. They're a joy to watch; but one wonders how much fun they might have had, and delivered, without the rigid censorship of the Hayes Office. Bonus features include warm, insightful comments about the legendary Hitchcock from former colleagues and his descendants. Fans may enjoy some of the trivia - this was the first use of helicopters for overhead shots, maximizing the glamor of shooting most of the film on the Riviera; Kelly was slated to star in another of his classics, Marnie, before giving up her career for royal duties in Monaco. Our loss.

1989's Shirley Valentine is another delightful relic of its time. Pauline Collins warmed plenty of hearts on both sides of the Atlantic as a plain, middle-aged British suburban housewife who decided convention and boredom were not necessarily life sentences, even for those far less foxy than the Desperate Housewives on Wisteria Lane. The rediscovery of her youthful vitality and autonomy on a trip to Greece gave voice to the dreams of many, in a successful sentimental comedy. Tom Conti's co-starring role is another treat, with his easygoing charm that still plays well.

Turning from foreign settings to languages, Casi Casi is a low-budget gem from Puerto Rican brothers Jaime and Tony Valles, shooting their first film with absolutely no training, and an amateur cast. You can't tell by watching. This is a high-school comedy in the vein of Mean Girls, Election, and every other awkward stab by some likable lad to win the unattainable Miss Popularity of his school. Emilio runs for Student Council President just to impress foxy Jacklynn; the first snag is learning he's running against her! When he suddenly finds himself the frontrunner, he decides the way to her heart is by taking a dive, so long as she knows he made that sacrifice for her. An engaging cast of first-timers, including several relatives of the creators, delivers a brisk, amusing variation on a common theme, with a couple of twists that make it fresh. Though I rarely recommend the audio commentary option on DVDs, you'll enjoy sharing the wonder of learning- by-doing as the brothers describe it. 

The Italian is actually a Russian drama about an orphan about to be adopted into the love and luxury a nice Italian couple offers. But six-year-old Vanya isn't ready to abandon his fantasy of learning who his mother is, and why she left him there. The two months of paper-shuffling needed to sanction the move provide his window of opportunity to find mom before leaving his homeland and the chance to ever do so. I wouldn't dream of telling you what happens, but keep a couple of hankies nearby for this moving story, enriched by a fine young cast, complementary locations, and script's fact-based origins.

France and Koch Lorber give us a couple of Isabelle Huppert vehicles helmed by Claude Chabrol. In the recent Comedy of Power, she plays a no-nonsense magistrate investigating corruption at the highest levels of her country's quasi-governmental agencies. Self-indulgences, bribes to foreign leaders and many other questionable dealings are in issue; lives and careers of the rich and powerful are at stake. The plot seems analogous to many of our own affairs (Enron; no-bid and cost-plus contracts for Iraq and post-Katrina, etc.), including the anonymity and lack of accountability for those who are really pulling the strings. The story threads are somewhat hard to follow; but that amplifies the frustration of Huppert's character and others trying to untangle those webs, and penetrate the layers of authority to make a meaningful dent in the structure. Very cynical stuff.

Less satisfying is their 1978 collaboration , Violette - a fact-based period piece about a bold young woman in the 1930s, who became a cause celebre. Desperate to live more glamorously than her humble station, but devoid of assets other than beauty and willingness to use it, Huppert's Ms. Noziere lied, stole, and slept around, giving money to men she apparently thought would marry her and bestow unattainable luxuries if they thought she had some wealth, too. Not a very sharp lass, eh? And that's the problem. It's hard to care what happens to her throughout the film; the farther she goes, the worse it gets. Like Disney's ill-conceived Swing Kids, just because the story was a big deal in the 1930s doesn't mean it's grist for entertainment or enlightenment today.

Among low-profile domestic products, Creepshow III offers more fun than one might expect. The producers serve up five stories with varying degrees of gore, grisly humor and T&A, that first seem unrelated, before cleverly folding back into each other. Hookers, vampires, slashers, demons and several deserving victims among a largely unknown cast give the viewer plenty of bang for the bucks they spent. The first two outings under this title, inspired by comic books, with George Romero and Stephen King among the creators, hit the theaters in the 1980s. They're not actively involved in this round, but it still probably won't take as long for Creepshow IV. I'm ready when they are.

Seraphim Falls pits Irish stars Liam Neeson against Pierce Brosnan in the our Old West. It's 1868. For most of the film, we only know Neeson and his henchmen are trying to capture Brosnan, chasing him from snowy mountains to wintry plains and barren desert. We gradually learn they were on opposite sides in the Civil War, but can't be sure who we should be rooting for, or why. Brosnan's more sympathetic because he's so outnumbered and outgunned. Yet Leeson seems to have been greatly wronged. Neither betrays their Gaelic origins in this quietly gritty, suspenseful ordeal. That's is a testament to their artistry, enhancing this film's relatively unusual tone among oaters.

Motives 2: Retribution is just what the name connotes. A complicated revenge drama, in which the brother (Brian White) of the man wrongly convicted of murder in the first film sets up a complicated undoing for the dude (Sean Blakemore) that framed his sibling, married his wife (Vivica A. Fox) and took over the business empire they'd been building. A very attractive cast (notably enhanced by Sharon Leal and Drew Sidora), and an array of low characters aiding the principals make this an African-American, Dynasty-style soap opera, with a bit more sex and violence that we'd get on TV. 

Finally, The Hard Easy is a cleverly plotted heist flick. It opens with two masked crews showing up at the same time to rob a jeweler. We briefly see their confusion, than spend most of the time alternating between the sets of planners, oblivious to the existence of their rivals. Both include reluctant, unlikely protagonists (Henry Thomas, David Boreanaz) forced by circumstance to join their respective teams. Peter Weller, Gary Busey, Bruce Dern and Vera Farmiga add name appeal, and other talents. Even knowing our guys are heading towards chaos, seeing how they get there, and untangle the absurdity of that convergence makes a sufficiently entertaining caper flick.

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