Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Another case of overkill and double-dipping, but at least the new bonus features are interesting —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

The Pevensie children meet the Lion and the Witch behind the Wardrobe

" Treehorn treats objects like women, man "
The Big Lebowski

MRQE Top Critic

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Everybody has a movie lover on their gift list. This year, get them a DVD they’ll really like. Below are our DVD recommendations from the past 13 months.

Click on any title to read our full DVD review (and print it out for some handy gift wrap). Next to the title is our rating of the movie itself. Over in the right-hand box is how well we liked the DVD, along with a list of features. Finally, below each capsule review is a link to the DVD’s page on Amazon.com.

There are three pages: Kid-friendly, Classics, and Everything else (which is this page).

Alias: Season Three ****

DVD****
Picture***1/2
Sound***1/2
Extras****
  • Deleted scenes
  • Blooper reel
  • Running commentaries
Garner wins a hat trick with Alias Season 3
Garner wins a hat trick with Alias Season 3

Alias: The Complete Third Season is preposterously watchable. It’s a season of espionage, intrigue, and double-crossing that keeps trading in the proverbial kitchen sink for models with flashier faucets; it’s a pulpy page-turner and a hum-dinger of a roller coaster.

Dirty Pretty Things ****

DVD****
Picture***1/2
Sound***1/2
Extras**
  • Commentary by director Stephen Frears
  • Behind-the-scenes featurette
  • French language track
Sharp, honest Okwe prefers work to sleep
Sharp, honest Okwe prefers work to sleep

The struggles of illegal immigrants at a London hotel are at the heart of a suspenseful and affecting English thriller, Dirty Pretty Things. Audrey Tautou and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a Turkish chambermaid and an African hotel clerk, must make some shocking decisions in this film by director Stephen Frears and writer Stephen Knight that may forever change the way you think about a hotel’s staff. Excellent writing, acting, and directing create a story and characters you will remember long after seeing it.

The Magdalene Sisters ****

DVD****
Picture***
Sound****
Extras****

Salvation consists not simply of prayer and reflection, but of physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse
Salvation consists not simply of prayer and reflection, but of physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse

Set in County Dublin, Ireland in 1964, a cast of wayward “dirty” girls are abandoned, beaten, and shunned by family and community alike for their perceived sins, then whisked off to the Magdalene Sisters’ penitentiary of penitence to serve a term of indefinite servitude. Once inside, the systematized scenario of salvation consists not simply of quiet prayer and reflection, but of a rigorous regimen of physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse. Genuflecting is more than just a posture for kneeling in prayer.

The DVD includes a 50-minute British TV documentary produced by Steve Humphries, “Sex In a Cold Climate, which interviews four women who give unflinching accounts of their incarceration and treatment in the Magdalene asylums.

Alias: Season Two ***1/2

DVD***1/2
Picture***1/2
Sound***1/2
Extras***1/2
  • Behind-the-scenes featurettes
  • Commentary tracks for four episodes
  • ScriptScanner for two episodes
  • Deleted scenes
  • Promotional materials
  • Spanish soundtrack

Alias: The Complete Second Season manages to build on the appeal of the first season by adding a few new intriguing characters and keeping the plots twisting and turning from episode to episode. The show’s cliffhangers-within-cliffhangers approach is a great hook, but it’s the well-drawn characters and conviction of the cast that hold the attention. While the first season was a masterful example of the heights an action TV series can achieve, the second season stumbles a couple times, but it still manages to recover nicely by the season finale.

The second season’s six-disc set offers a nice variety of supplemental materials, including an extensive behind-the-scenes look at the making of the season finale, The Telling, with a full 40-minute documentary.

Hero ***1/2

DVD***1/2
Picture***1/2
Sound****
Extras**1/2
  • Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li
  • Featurette
Special features aren't so special, but the movie is
Special features aren’t so special, but the movie is

Hero is very good and visually, it’s a knockout. The DVD looks good, too, but it’s surprising how unable modern digital home video is to capture what I saw at the theater this summer. Zhang Yimou is a master of color and detail. Perhaps that’s what it takes to humble the mighty DVD format.

Hero is a historical Chinese epic of love and war. The king invites a constable (Jet Li), who has killed three notorious assassins, to approach him to tell his tale. The movie spends equal time in about six different timelines. The present, with the king and the constable, flashes back to fights between the constable and the assassins he killed. There are also versions of the constable’s tales, introducing a Rashomon-like sense of uncertainty. Hero is a little too aware of its grand ambitions. It sometimes feels like it’s pandering. Still, it’s a very good movie.

The special features on this Miramax release are hardly noteworthy. The two featurettes are marketing-heavy pieces with some information but little real insight.

Only the Strong Survive ***1/2

DVD***1/2
Picture****
Sound***1/2
Extras****
  • Commentary by music producer Jerry Wexler and perfomers Carla Thomas, Marvell Thomas, Sam Moore & Joyce Moore
  • “What is Soul” feature
  • “The Rufus and Jaye Show” comedy radio selections
  • Biography and discography
Where are they now? Still groovin'.
Where are they now? Still groovin’.

Rather than dwelling too much on the past, the focus is on contemporary happenings — what Isaac Hayes, Sam Moore, and Wilson Pickett were up to at the time of the movie’s production in 2002. One of the remarkable things to notice is how well these legends have all aged. In fact, this troop of soul’s best and brightest seem to have aged far better than their audiences, who, as captured in the film’s live performances, at times prefer to sit even when encouraged to stand up and groove.

Seeing these stars still at the top of their game is inspiring and provides a hint at what might be the secret to this club’s graceful aging: The feel-good power of laughter and soul music.

This Miramax DVD edition is one of those rarities in which the supplemental features truly add to the movie-viewing experience with worthwhile features that tell more of the story.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl ***1/2

DVD***1/2
Picture***1/2
Sound****
Extras****
  • Four commentary tracks
  • Behind-the-scenes documentary
  • “Below Deck,” an interactive piece on the history of pirates
  • Deleted scenes
  • Blooper reel
  • ScriptScanner, allowing viewers to watch the film alongside the script
  • Story boards
  • Virtual theme park ride.
  • A third disc, released in Nov., 2004 has additional featurettes
Verbinski uses the special effects without flaunting them
Verbinski uses the special effects without flaunting them

At a time when Hollywood is quick to plunder its own treasures, it’s stunning that a decades old amusement park ride would provide the initial inspiration for one of the year’s best surprises. Thanks to snappy dialogue, a great score, and an inspired performance by Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean is a modern-day popcorn classic.

The two-disc set offers an excellent and comprehensive look at the film’s production with some very worthwhile supplemental materials, along with almost too much coverage of the film’s inspiration.

Tom Dowd and the Language of Music ***1/2

DVD***1/2
Picture***
Sound***1/2
Extras***1/2
  • More than 90 minutes of interviews with Dowd, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and more
  • “Making of the Studio Shoot” featurette
  • Three deleted scenes
Palm Pictures' marriage of film and music continues with this biography of a brilliant engineer
Palm Pictures’ marriage of film and music continues with this biography of a brilliant engineer

As an early pioneer of new recording technology, producer Tom Dowd is revealed through interviews and testimonials in this compelling documentary to be a brilliant engineer as well as a gentleman who helped countless musicians preserve their best work.

Cold Mountain ***

DVD***1/2
Picture****
Sound****
Extras***1/2
  • Commentary by writer/director Anthony Minghella and editor Walter Murch
  • “Climbing Cold Mountain” - documentary
  • “A Journey to Cold Mountain” - making-of featurette
  • 11 deleted scenes
  • “Words & Music of Cold Mountain” Royce Hall Special concert
  • “Scared Harp History” - musical influences and roots
  • Storyboard comparisons
The screen lights up when Zellweger shows up to help Kidman
The screen lights up when Zellweger shows up to help Kidman

While Cold Mountain fell short of the grandeur and sweep of director Anthony Minghella’s adaptations of The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley on the big screen, the Civil War epic makes for an excellent DVD experience.

Disc One includes an excellent running commentary with director Minghella and Walter Murch, the film’s editor. Minghella defends the film’s romance, which some reviews (including this one) have dismissed as being less engaging than the rest of the movie. It’s enough of an argument to make the film deserve a second chance.

The second disc holds six supplemental features. The most curious of the bunch is the 90-minute The Words and Music of Cold Mountain - Royce Hall Special. It’s a live concert, but not just any concert. Among the performers are no less than Jack White, Alison Krauss, Sting, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Anthony Minghella, T-Bone Burnett, and the Sacred Harp singers. The evening was orchestrated by Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein, no doubt in a bid for more Oscars.

Open Range ***

DVD***1/2
Picture***1/2
Sound***1/2
Extras***1/2
  • Audio commentary with Kevin Costner
  • Making-of documentary
  • Featurette on life on the open range
  • Deleted scenes
  • Storyboards
Costner's western gets a surprisingly good DVD
Costner’s western gets a surprisingly good DVD

Released in 2003 to little fanfare, Open Range hit theaters like an indie movie: quietly but with good word-of-mouth. It tells the story of two cattle drivers who make use of the wide-open space of the west. One of their hands is jailed on a trumped-up charge, and in the time it takes to rescue him there is a violent confrontation in the wilderness, ending in death. In true western style, the plot reaches its climax at the big gunfight at the end.

In spite of its traditional-sounding plot, Open Range feels like a different kind of western. The protracted opening of the cowboys in their lush valley is a slow-paced poem, not a violent comic book. Unexceptional setbacks provide a detail and texture the stereotypical western is too busy to notice. Even the gunfight takes on a new visual style.

There is one feature on disc 2, that really makes Open Range a very good DVD. Beyond Open Range is always interesting. It grabs your attention right up front with Costner talking about a “piece of shit” producer who strings him along. The documentary also reveals that Costner’s appendix had “busted and was leaking.” It didn’t get fixed (or even diagnosed) until several weeks after production was finished.

Zatoichi ***

DVD***1/2
Picture***1/2
Sound****
Extras****
  • Behind the scenes featurette
  • Video interviews with the crew
  • Sonatine, Takeshi’s 1993 feature
  • Bonus features related to Sonatine
Plot doesn't matter in this vaudeville entertainment
Plot doesn’t matter in this vaudeville entertainment

When you get the Miramax DVD of Zatoichi, not only do you get the samurai movie with the vaudeville heart, you get a disc with a second Takeshi film, Sonatine. Both DVDs have extra features, giving you lots of bang for your yen.

City of God ****

DVD***
Picture***1/2
Sound***
Extras**
  • News from a Personal War, a documentary on the real slums of Rio
Shoot pictures, not guns
Shoot pictures, not guns

For a movie as excellent and prestigious as City of God, the new Miramax DVD hardly does it justice. The movie is still outstanding on home video, but in the age of extra features and audio commentaries, City of God is a sparse package. Only one documentary — on the real slums of Rio — graces the DVD, and its link to the movie isn’t even explained.

Calendar Girls ***

DVD***
Picture****
Sound**1/2
Extras***1/2
  • “The Naked Truth” documentary
  • “Creating the Calendar” documentary
  • Four deleted scenes
  • Touchstone movie previews
The Calendar Girls give it their all
The Calendar Girls give it their all

Calendar Girls is the true story of a group of Yorkshire women who launch a daring project to raise money for a cause, revealing their inner and outer beauty in the process.

Chris (Helen Mirren) and Annie (Julie Walters) giggle through their village’s monthly Women’s Institute. (Their vodka tasting event doesn’t go over well with their uptight W.I. leader.) Chris gets inspired to raise money by creating a nude calendar to pay for upgrades at the hospital where her husband was treated. The calendar turns into such a media sensation that Hollywood comes knocking.

At times, Calendar Girls has the feel of two movies stitched together. But despite a few flaws, this is a moving, tenderhearted, and funny film. The DVD picture shows the gorgeous Yorkshire country village. The sound and the dialogue are problematic at times. The DVD contains two featurettes. The Naked Truth is a documentary about the women of Kettlewell. Another documentary, Creating the Calendar, portrays the actors’ and filmmakers’ reactions to doing the nude scenes and making the calendar shown in the film.

Gettysburg and Stories of Valor: Civil War Minutes III ***

DVD***
Picture***
Sound***
Extras**1/2

DVD documentary focuses on the small details, not the big picture
DVD documentary focuses on the small details, not the big picture

Gettysburg and Stories of Valor, a three-hour documentary on two DVDs, takes a scattershot approach to the Civil War. One moment, narrator Keith Carradine talks about the monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield, a few minutes later we’re hearing about a young drummer on the Union side, then it’s on to a segment about a photograph of some dead soldiers.

This approach was intentional; the filmmakers wanted to tell the stories of individuals and of objects. Anyone wanting a big-picture approach to the Civil War would do better to check out Ken Burns’ The Civil War, or the many books on the subject.

The documentary succeeds in keeping these details interesting and never tedious. It may seem trivial to focus on a man’s wallet and shoulder patches, or a fine Confederate frock coat with a bullet hole. But these items serve as a physical link to the past, a reminder that they once belonged to real people who probably never imagined that their possessions would end up in a museum.

Kill Bill: Volume 1 ***

DVD***
Picture***1/2
Sound****
Extras**
  • Making-of documentary
  • 2 performances by the 5, 6, 7, 8’s
  • Tarantino movie trailers
A timely rental, but an unwise investment with its replacement due within the year
A timely rental, but an unwise investment with its replacement due within the year

While the rest of Hollywood was trying to catch up with Hong Kong, Quentin Tarantino was studying Japanese pulp fiction.

Uma Thurman plays The Bride, AKA Black Momba. She was once part of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, but when she tried to leave, the vipers turned on her, leaving her for dead. But she survived, and four years later, after waking from her coma, she sets out for revenge.

The Miramax DVD of Vol. 1 offers only trailers, 2 extra songs, and a documentary made for Miramax Television. In the documentary, Tarantino, animated and talkative, goes on-camera to tell a few stories about the movie’s inspiration. At only 30 minutes, it may leave fans wanting more.

The Vol. 1 DVD makes a great rental before you go see Vol. 2 in theaters. It may not be the wisest investment to purchase, however, as it’s only likely to hold its value until a box set is released, probably within the year.

Kill Bill: Volume 2 ***

DVD***
Picture***1/2
Sound***1/2
Extras***
  • deleted scene
  • concert footage from Chingon at premiere party
  • making-of featurette
Behind her Japanese steel, The Bride has some Chinese moves
Behind her Japanese steel, The Bride has some Chinese moves

When last we left The Bride (Uma Thurman), she had gotten final revenge on two of her former colleagues in crime. She still has three names on her list to cross out: Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle (Daryl Hannah), and Bill (David Carradine).

Before too long, there will likely be a definitive box set with both volumes of the film and many more extra features. But if you can’t wait that long for your own private Kill Bill (Complete) screening, check out Miramax’s first DVD release of Kill Bill: Volume 2.

Miracle ***

DVD***
Picture***
Sound****
Extras***1/2

Kurt Russel takes a trip to 1980
Kurt Russel takes a trip to 1980

Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), a college hockey coach from Minnesota, interviews for the 1980 Olympic coaching job. He has definite ideas about how to beat the Russians. They don’t jibe with the committee’s plans, but later, Herb gets The Call. Miracle finds drama in assembling the team, making cuts, the rigors of training, and the marital problems between an overworked husband and an underappreciated wife and mother.

No single feature stands out on the DVD. But what all the special features manage to do is make the finished movie look better. I was wary of the flag-draped marketing and the value-laden title “Miracle” when the film was released. But the movie won me over with its heart. Now, seeing how much effort and love was put into the film, I appreciate Miracle even more.

Morvern Callar ***

DVD***
Picture***1/2
Sound***1/2
Extras**
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Interviews with the cast and director
Morton is always alone in a room, and she doesn't mind
Morton is always alone in a room, and she doesn’t mind

Morvern Callar is the story of a personal journey, in which a young woman is able to take advantage of some unusual circumstances to leave her mundane life behind. The DVD from Palm Pictures has few extras, but is worth a look for the movie and the performance of Samantha Morton in the title role.

Noi Albinoi ***

DVD***
Picture***
Sound***
Extras**1/2
  • Making-of featurette
  • Three deleted scenes (introduced by the director)
  • Trailer for the U.S. theatrical release
DVD features amplify the ambivalence in this Icelandic isolation epic
DVD features amplify the ambivalence in this Icelandic isolation epic

Nói may not be a true albino, but people with the opposite personality would be described as “colorful.” He is a blank slate. Living in Iceland, in the winter, in a small town with few friends, Nói elicits our sympathy. But there’s always a coolness, always a distance. We probably don’t want to be his friend, but we want him to have one.

This bleak portrait of isolation is deliberately disengaging. And while the movie is effective at what it sets out to do, it’s hard to love it for its success. The DVD from Palm Pictures makes the ambivalence even stronger. The director goes on-camera to explain his goals, and in doing so, doesn’t explain anything. Rather than frustrating audiences, I think he beguiles them, making Nói Albinoi better on a second viewing.

Paperboys ***

DVD***
Picture***1/2
Sound***
Extras**
  • Deformer, a 17-minute documentary by the same director
Stillwater MN is a haven that allows old-fashioned notions like paper boys
Stillwater MN is a haven that allows old-fashioned notions like paper boys

Paper boys are surely becoming rare in this country as circulations decline and more newspapers prefer to have adults to deliver their product. Filmmaker Mike Mills provides a 40-minute glimpse into this dying breed when he looks at the lives of six paper boys in Stillwater, MN.

Penn & Teller: Bullshit! ***

DVD***
Picture***
Sound***
Extras**1/2
  • Bonus episode (“The Ghost Segment”)
  • Deleted scenes and backstage outtakes
  • James Randi interview with Penn & Teller
  • “Naked” promo
  • Behind the scenes
  • Wraparounds
Bullshit! is a very appropriate response to credulous TV programming
Bullshit! is a very appropriate response to credulous TV programming

Showtime entertainment last week released the complete first season of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! on DVD to coincide with the start of their second season. Each week, their half-hour show debunks the wrongheaded things Americans believe. As you can guess from the title, they don’t pull any punches.

Topics include talking to the dead, alternative medicine, alien abductions, secondhand smoke, feng shui, bottled water, ESP, and environmentalist doomsayers.

The series is a welcome alternative to TV shows that “reunite” audience members with dead loved ones, or credulous “news” stories on haunted houses and crop circles. With that sort of programming in mind, Bullshit! is a very appropriate response.

The Barbarian Invasions ***

DVD***
Picture***
Sound***
Extras***

2003's Best Foreign Picture is now on DVD
2003’s Best Foreign Picture is now on DVD

The Barbarian Invasions is a surprisingly good movie. It’s a low-key affair that starts on even, but uninteresting, ground. By the end we see that relationships have changed under our very noses, and a father and son who don’t see eye to eye manage to love each other anyway. Miramax’s DVD is sparse, but the movie stands alone quite well.

The Ladykillers ***

DVD***
Picture***1/2
Sound***1/2
Extras**1/2
  • Documentary on period instruments
  • 2 gosepel numbers
  • The Slap Reel
Hanks and Wayans are cartoony, but Irma P. Hall steals the show
Hanks and Wayans are cartoony, but Irma P. Hall steals the show

In The Ladykillers, criminal-minded hip-hoppers (Marlon Wayans) coexist with euphonious mint-julep-sipping charlatans (Tom Hanks). In this cartoon world, they not only coexist but collaborate on a Wile E. Coyote scheme to steal money from a gambling boat on the Mississippi.

Hidden amid the wacky plot and goofy character traits is a funny, warm, human sensibility. The filmmakers love these characters. Although they are all caricatured, none of them are simply mocked. And when they have something to say, the Coens listen raptly, like they would for a beloved but crazy uncle.

Most of the DVD features feel like they were included because they didn’t require any extra work.

The Station Agent ***

DVD***
Picture***
Sound***
Extras**1/2

A humble little DVD release with a big heart
A humble little DVD release with a big heart

Miramax releases a simple DVD today, as humble in scope as the movie, but with as big a heart. The Station Agent won over American audiences last winter with its friendship between Finn the train lover, Joe the hot dog vendor, and Olivia the painter. The audio commentary is a mixed bag, but it wins you over, not because the content is interesting, but because the friendship between these four people comes through. It reveals that the friendship on-screen sprang from the real-life friendship of those involved.

America’s Heart and Soul **1/2

DVD***
Picture****
Sound***1/2
Extras***
  • Audio commentary
  • making-of featurette
  • 4 extended musical tracks
Disney gives America a coffee-table book for its 228th birthday
Disney gives America a coffee-table book for its 228th birthday

America’s Heart and Soul