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29.11.04

No DVD Left Behind...

I have been lucky for the past few Christmases in having a brother who is a self-declared Tolkien-phile. Whenever I was in doubt of what gift I could provide the sibling who has a hefty DVD collection, I could always rely the last couple of years on Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema to provide the shopper with various states of commercialism attached to his Lord of the Rings Trilogy. If he had already purchased the DVD movie of the previous installment (and he had), there was always the soundtrack, the picture book, and if one was in complete desperation a pair of bookends shaped the like the diminuative and shriveled character Gollum (luckily it never came to that). While the Oscar mural I created in evocation of the last year's award sweep begins to peel from my wall, I sit in longing for an over-the-plate movie purchase that I can be sure hasn't already nestled itself quietly somewhere between All the President's Men down to Xanadu (an eclectic assortment to be sure).

It's always a risky venture nabbing an old release that grabs your eye while carting through the aisles of Target or Wal-Mart as you elbow your way through the crowds the night before (yes, guilty). While the oddly priced $8.88 may seem like a steal you don't want to be on the receiving end of quizzical looks from a loved one finally being reunited with old fave Turner and Hooch. ("Oh, yeah, I DO remember liking this movie.") Besides the fact that it reeks of gift desperation (you probably left the tag on... guilty) they were probably drifting those same aisles not but a week before and saw the very same price tag (also note; Target, Toys-R-Us, and Wal-Mart are all pushing DVDs from $3.99 and up in hopes of luring you for bigger purchases. Careful.)

So falling in somewhere between the category of old classic and new release comes the re-release. No, I'm not talking about the Extra-Platinum-Double-Special-Uncut Director's Edition of New York Minute (if only it ran that long...), but rather some lost treasures that have fallen in that all too common crack of fading VHS and not being printed on DVD.

Available at Amazon:
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Tim Burton, Ed Wood
One of my favorites of the past few years that had become a sort of phenomenon in its protracted purgatory of non-release is Ed Wood. This gem of a movie got caught in so many retracted release dates that rumors began to circulate on why. Some even posited that it would never be released, and a small printing had slipped out and it would be a collector's item for years to come. (This very scenario DID occur some years back with Silence of the Lambs, when the Criterion edition of the film was pulled from shelves and discontinued due to licensing fees and agreements. So instead of documentaries, interviews, and audio commentaries with the entire cast, one can now get a "special" edition with a Hannibal Lector answering machine greeting. Craptacular!) Not the case; Ed Wood has recently been released with a Tim Burton/Martin Landau audio commentary (alas no Johnny), great deleted scenes, and a few "making of" featurettes. This release is a real catch that seems to have slipped in under the wire and unnoticed.

Available at Amazon:
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Robert Redford, Quiz Show
Another new to DVD special that has long been a favorite and missing in my collection is Quiz Show. If you've forgotten how good this movie was, then take a moment to gaze at this flawless classic again. Robert Redford's photogenic documentation of the quiz show scandals, starring Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro, holds up to repeat viewings (you'll even forgive Rob Morrow's accent, I swear) almost more that any film in my collection, making it a DVD must-have. While this edition is a simple meat-n-potatoes transfer with only the theatrical trailer attached it will constantly regenerate its value with each viewing. This baby holds up and tends to be forgotten because it didn't nab its Best Picture trophy the year it was released.

Available at Amazon:
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Jean-Jacques Annaud, The Name of the Rose
The third, and perhaps favorite, of the new-olds is The Name of the Rose by Jean-Jacques Annaud. In this new Da Vinci Code climate we are in, this should surely be the video vault discovery of the year. The story centers on a medieval monastery that has experienced a sudden death while visiting monk William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) goes about (à la Sherlock Holmes) solving what appears to be a murder (or series of) in face of the Abbey's desire to find the Devil at work. Capsized on bad VHS tape (hard to find) and grainy 2-disc laser editions, this resurrection of a cult classic comes fully loaded (they should have titled it "The Monastery Edition" or "The version God doesn't want you to see," or maybe not) with a "making of" documentary that isn't simply some HBO press kit but rather a far more hands on view of the making of the film. I confess (pardon the pun) to spending the day with this baby while I was working on a building project. Listening to audio commentaries is often like having the radio playing while doing busy work you can't do in front of the television, and yet I found the stories and subjects so compelling and Annaud's words so connected to the images on the screen I got nothing done.

So often in film commentary tracks one is submitted to a by-rote narration of what we are viewing ("There's Jenny . . . as you can see she is eating something. This was a good scene . . . and here comes Paul . . .") that you find you wish you were simply watching the film again without this annoying guy interrupting you all the time. Instead, Annaud delights in anecdotes ranging from period details (from a simple cross being of the wrong period) to Christian Slater falling in love with his co-star (so much so after her screen test he sent his mother to tell the director he couldn't work with another girl) to what a jerk F. Murray Abraham was (after winning his Academy Award for Amadeus he confessed his new self-appointed mission was to make directors miserable.) Even down to the "photo journey" of the film, Annaud manages to make every detail sound so personal and current that one can't help but want to spend more time with the man.

Available at Amazon:
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Frank Darabont, The Shawshank Redemption
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Richard Linklater, Dazed and Confused
Following up these three catches are some more conventional fare in the form of new editions of previous releases. Two of note are Frank Darabont's Shawshank Redemption in its 10th Anniversary, with Charlie Rose segments, commentary, and featurettes, and a personal favorite, Dazed and Confused; Flashback Edition. I am sure the latter has been hung up due to the director, Richard Linklater, emerging into commercial viability with School of Rock of late. Previous versions of this DVD had only the film and no extras. Now refitted with deleted scenes, commentary tracks, and retro featurettes, this film has the release it's always deserved. If this one happened to slip by you in its day, then do yourself a favor and catch it now because it will give you a cache for years to come in movie quotability and "where are they now" celebrity spots. When cast members like Matthew McConaughy, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck (to name a few) drift by, it's like paging through a Hollywood High School yearbook.

Available at Amazon:
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Alfonso Cuarón, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
BUT, if you are insistent on getting the shiny, new-new release for your loved ones I'd recommend Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is just out. If you have not been a fan of the J. K. Rowling series I would recommend this one as your way in. One of the most daring pairings of director and material, the studios, in a rare case of artistic insight, attached the director of Y Tu mama Tambien to one of the biggest financial juggernauts of all time, and the gamble paid off. Somehow the director, Alfonso Cuarón, even manages to make previously implausible CGI effects seem plausible simply from the emotional resonance he mines from this series's previously flat relationships.

Available at Amazon:
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Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Ring: The Return of the King
But, in the end, for me it's back to the basics as Mr. Jackson and his cohorts in fantasy have seen to adding, yes, another hour to the third film in the trilogy, Return of the King (making it a trim 4+ hours). Returning again to do their part, the entire cast has reassembled for commentary tracks, endless interviews, and featurettes that will be devoured with zealous zeal by my brother. I'll miss this trilogy come Oscar time, and it has been a steady source of activity during the holidays as I am subjected to repeated viewings during the inevitable idleness that comes between the Midwestern tradition of filling time between meals. But mostly, I'll miss "ol' reliable" come Christmas morning when my brother would announce what his gift was in advance but never with a trace of disappointment. The Lord of the Rings in its yearly extensions had found its way to becoming a tradition in itself at Christmastime as it wound to its inevitable conclusion.

But let's face it, folks. Some things never die. There'll always be "The Platinum Series Nine Hour Version," or "Peter Jackson's Personal Journey with...," or even "A Day with a Hobbit's Foot" and on and on from there and back again... and bless them for it.

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