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Elegy among new DVD releases

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ELEGY (2008). An adaptation of Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, Elegy shares some similarities to 2003's fine filmization of Roth's The Human Stain. Both movies focus on the relationship between a worldly college professor and a beautiful younger woman, but Elegy is even more memorable than its woefully underrated predecessor. Its central character is David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), an English professor who avoids emotional attachments by partaking in one-night stands with nubile students. David becomes involved with Cuban-American pupil Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), but this time, there's a difference: There appears to exist a real affinity between this aged instructor and this woman who's three decades his junior. But David, incapable of dealing with his feelings, almost sabotages the relationship from the start. The character of the aging intellectual becoming involved with a younger woman is hardly an original one, but between the sensitive direction by Isabel Coixet – and how interesting to see a female ably tackling material by an author who's repeatedly had to fight charges of misogyny – the smart screenplay by ace scripter Nicholas Meyer (who also adapted The Human Stain), and the terrific performance by Kingsley, David Kepesh emerges as a wonderfully complex and fully realized screen character. As for Cruz, she's a revelation in this role. It's a given that she's always been excellent in Spanish-language films and wooden in English-language ones, but between this and her Oscar-winning work in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she seems to have finally broken through the language barrier. Eloquent and understated, Elegy was one of last year's best films.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Meyer; a 5-minute making-of piece; and 16 trailers.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (2008). Any movie character who bears even the slightest resemblance to Robin Williams' insufferable Patch Adams deserves no less a fate than being simultaneously electrocuted and beheaded at film's end, yet here's writer-director Mike Leigh bucking the odds by bringing us such a person yet somehow keeping our collective wrath in check. Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins) is the eternal Pollyanna, a 30-year-old schoolteacher so chipper that, upon discovering her bike has been stolen, merely shrugs and states, "I didn't have a chance to say my goodbyes." To her friends, she evokes that familiar line from the theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show ("Who can turn the world on with her smile?"); to strangers, she's a baffling figure indeed, perhaps even psychotic. As in many Leigh pictures, including his two best ones (Secrets & Lies and Topsy-Turvy), narrative structure isn't nearly as important as character examination, and here that's a risky proposition, considering that spending so much time in the presence of such a live wire can lead to viewer irritation and exhaustion as much as it can evolve into acceptance and appreciation. But thanks to Leigh's lack of pretense and Hawkins' perfectly modulated performance, Happy-Go-Lucky eventually compels rather than repels, with some piquant encounters (chiefly between Poppy and her grouchy driving instructor, nicely played by Eddie Marsan) adding heft to what otherwise could have been dismissed out of hand as an airy confection. Leigh earned a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination, yet Hawkins was surprisingly overlooked despite having snagged a fistful of critics' awards.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Leigh; a 27-minute piece in which Leigh and the actors discuss the characters; and a 5-minute short focusing on the driving scenes with Hawkins and Marsan.

Movie: ***

Extras: **

HOWARD THE DUCK (1986). Ishtar. Stroker Ace. Heaven's Gate. Tai-Pan. Howard the Duck. Back when there existed such a concept as film history among the populace (that is to say, before fanboys decreed that the medium begins anew with the release of each new superhero flick), just the mention of any of these titles was shorthand for "universally lambasted mega-flop from the 1980s." Truth be told, none of these are quite as bad as their reputations – well, OK, Stroker Ace is even worse – and that charitable assessment extends a smidgen toward Howard the Duck. Adapted from the cult comic book – certainly one of the wackiest that Marvel has ever produced – and with George Lucas (at this point still considered a god among mere mortals) on board as executive producer and chief financier, expectations were high for this $30 million production when it was released in a summer season already flush from the success of Top Gun, Aliens and The Karate Kid, Part II. Instead, it was such a massive critical and commercial failure that it even managed to put a dent in Lucas' bank account (now that's some serious red ink). Howard (voiced by Chip Zien and played by eight different dwarfs), living on an alternate Earth in which ducks are the dominant species (leading to lots of visual gags on the order of Rolling Egg magazine and the Indiana Drake movie Breeders of the Lost Stork), finds himself transported to our planet by a mysterious beam. Here, he makes friends with a punk rocker (Back to the Future's Lea Thompson, the antithesis of "punk"), deals with interference from a nerdy lab assistant (Tim Robbins!), and fights off a monstrous alien intruder who has taken over the body of a helpful scientist (Jeffrey Jones). The jokes are atrocious, the slapstick is wearying, and Howard himself is an ungainly eyesore. Still, there are minor pleasures here and there – Jones is amusing once he shifts into the Dark Overlord persona, and the climactic special effects are engaging – and the overall movie is often fascinating in its blissful perversity.

DVD extras include a 26-minute making-of featurette; a 13-minute piece examining the picture's disastrous release (in which the filmmakers try to convince us – and perhaps themselves – that the picture was merely "ahead of its time"); archival featurettes centering on the stunts, special effects and music; and two teaser trailers.

Movie: *1/2

Extras: **1/2

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