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DVD reviews: Cloverfield, The Golden Compass, more

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CLOVERFIELD (2008). The logistics of probability dictate that critics will occasionally overlap by describing a given movie with the same phrase, and here was Cloverfield to set the bar at its highest point yet when it comes to literary redundancy. Upon its theatrical release, it was almost impossible not to describe this terror tale as "Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project," as it exclusively relies on the camcorder wielded by one of its characters to capture the rampage of a frightening behemoth (and its even more terrifying sidekicks, vicious arachnoid creatures) as it destroys Manhattan with single-minded determination. Past films that employed this trick often seemed silly – what sane person wouldn't drop the camera in the face of real danger? – yet in our modern-day, techno-crazed world, the need to capture everything on film (as if to validate its authenticity, not to mention provide the shooter with a fleeting 15 minutes of fame) is such a built-in instinct for many people that the actions of the protagonists in this film rarely come into question. Director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard also effectively tap into post-9/11 anxieties: It's hard to witness collapsing skyscrapers and the resultant deadly debris hurtling down New York City streets and not be reminded of that fateful day. While some might consider such a tactic to be in extremely poor taste, there's no denying its potency when viewed through fictional horror-film lens – for all its newfangled innovations, the movie shares DNA with similarly themed sci-fi yarns from the 1950s. And like many fantasy flicks, this one also contains a defining "money shot" (a la the exploding White House in Independence Day); in this case, it's the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty, forlornly resting on a city street. Heads roll in Cloverfield, and none more startlingly than this one.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Reeves, a half-hour making-of feature, four deleted scenes, two alternate endings, and a look at the visual effects.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2007). The apex to the nadir of the inexplicably popular winter hit The Bucket List, this impressive effort from director Julian Schnabel takes a comparable blueprint – how a person moves forward with life after his body fails him – and makes it come alive via a startling visual style, knotty characterizations and a terrific central performance. Based on a true story, the film centers on Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the cocky editor of the French Elle magazine who suffers a stroke at the age of 43 and thereafter finds himself in a paralyzed state. The only part of his body he can move is one eye, but while cynics may want to dismiss this as My Left Eye, Bauby's story and Schnabel's approach turn this into a different type of biopic than the Daniel Day-Lewis Oscar winner My Left Foot. Propelled by Ronald Harwood's delicate script (which allows us access to Bauby's inner monologues in a crisp and believable manner) and camerawork (courtesy of Saving Private Ryan lenser Janusz Kaminski) that allows the film to break away from the tale's inherently claustrophobic atmosphere, this steadfastly avoids reducing the notions of perseverance and heroism to convenient catchphrases. Amalric is excellent in a tricky role, and there are further stellar contributions by Emmanuelle Seigner as his devoted wife and especially Max von Sydow as his father – the latter's two scenes are the emotional high points of the film. Schnabel, Harwood, Kaminski and editor Juliette Welfling all earned Oscar nominations.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Schnabel, a making-of featurette, and Charlie Rose's interview with Schnabel. For xenophobes and/or illiterates, the disc for this French-language film also contains an English-language track.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **1/2

THE GOLDEN COMPASS (2007). When this box office underachiever first hit theaters, there was a lot of talk surrounding the film as it compared to Philip Pullman's original novel – what was taken out, what was watered down, etc. Many forgot to remember the bottom line: A movie is a separate entity from a book and as such deserves to be judged on its own terms. And on that level, The Golden Compass is an acceptable piece of fantasy fluff, a cluttered mishmash that nevertheless can lay claim to its own scattered charms. An ambitious tale set in an alternate world, this is basically yet another tale about an unassuming youth who emerges as the only person able to vanquish the evil force that's poised to conquer all (Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo, etc.). Top-billed Nicole Kidman plays the villainous Marisa Coulter, but the lead is actually Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, the spunky lass who lands in the middle of a large-scale skirmish that finds the fascistic members of the religious ruling body (with the aid of the aforementioned Mrs. Coulter) fighting all manner of outsiders in an effort to not only hold onto power but insure that they eliminate the notion of "free will" entirely. For all the narrative shortcuts taken by director-adapter Chris Weitz, the movie still works fairly well as a high-flying fantasy tale for the younger set. As for adult audience members, they can enjoy the fine work by Kidman, who's all slinky, silky menace as the purring Marisa Coulter. Whether displaying a false maternal front to the motherless Lyra or slapping around a moody monkey, she's a movie villain worth remembering – in fact, if she were any more evil, she would have to change her name from Marisa to Ann. The hot-and-cold visual effects copped an Oscar.

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