What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Or, to parlay this eternal conundrum into cinematic terms, what happens when an amazingly versatile actor is forced to share screen space with a performer so immobile, he makes the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey seem as active as a sports bar on Super Bowl Sunday? The answers vary, of course, but in the case of Training Day (**1/2), the happy result was that the normally wooden Ethan Hawke was apparently inspired to raise himself out of his career-long slumber and try to keep pace with the extraordinary Denzel Washington. Indeed, the work by both actors is what keeps us watching even after the movie surrounding them falls apart. In his Oscar-winning performance, Washington is especially riveting as Alonzo Harris, an LA narcotics officer who gives rookie Jake Hoyt (Hawke) one day to see if he has what it takes to work under his command. Jake is thrilled with the opportunity, but he soon realizes that Alonzo's methods, which usually involve bending or breaking the law, fly in the face of his own idealism. Beyond the high-caliber performances, there's initially a delicious ambiguity in David Ayer's screenplay that suggests Alonzo's dirty deeds might be the only way for a cop to survive on the streets. Unfortunately, somebody connected with the film decided that moral uncertainty in a motion picture is a hard sell, and what started out as tantalizingly clouded eventually comes into dreary black and white focus, turning the film into a fairly routine (not to mention contrived) police shoot-'em-up. DVD extras include an audio commentary by director Antoine Fuqua, an alternate ending and two music videos.
Like Training Day, No Man's Land (***1/2) also snagged a piece of the gold last month, earning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. A trenchant look at a peculiar form of trench warfare, this import from Bosnia-Herzegovina is writer-director Danis Tanovic's searing look at the war that has laid waste to his homeland. It almost sounds like the set-up for a bad joke: Did you hear the one about the Bosnian and the Serb? Well, they both get stuck in this trench, see... But for Ciki (Branko Djuric) and Nino (Rene Bitorajac), it's no laughing matter. Ciki the Bosnian and Nino the Serb, who've been trained to hate each other despite their ample common ground, are placed in an explosive situation made even more tense by the fact that one of Ciki's comrades (Filip Sovagovic) is also in the trench with them, resting on top of a mine that will blow them all to smithereens if he tries to move. A compassionate United Nations peacekeeper (Georges Siatidis) wants to help defuse the situation, but his efforts are hindered by his odious superiors, none of whom want to take responsibility should anything go wrong. A foreign cousin to Robert Altman's anti-war classic M*A*S*H, this one also uses plenty of mordant humor to heighten the absurdity of it all.
Sports Illustrated recently named 1988's Bull Durham (****) the best sports movie ever made, meaning they're merely confirming something that's been apparent for well over a decade. I suppose cases could be made for Rocky, Raging Bull or even Robert Redford's highly divisive The Natural, but writer-director Ron Shelton's sleeper hit largely succeeds because it's so much larger than just the sport, using the world of minor league baseball to explore major league subjects that address the manner in which intelligent adults conduct themselves as they're busy weighing issues of lust and love. Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon have never been better (or sexier), and it's tough to dislike a movie that contains gems like Sarandon's comment that "The world is made for those who aren't cursed with self-awareness." Bull Durham had previously been available on a rather bare DVD, but this Special Edition ups the ante by including audio commentary by Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins, a making-of documentary, and a profile of Costner.
The marketplace has already seen a number of highly imaginative DVD packaging (Lawrence of Arabia, Fight Club, etc.), but will anything in the near future top the outer case for Anchor Bay's The Evil Dead -- Book of the Dead Edition (***1/2)? Sam Raimi's 1983 cult item, which ranks alongside Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as one of the few truly classic gore flicks, has already been released on DVD on multiple occasions, but this one promises to be (to borrow the film's tagline on its initial theatrical release) "the ultimate experience in grueling horror." Designed by the movie's makeup artist, Tom Sullivan, the packaging for this edition has been sculpted to replicate the actual Book of the Dead as seen in the film itself: In other words, it looks like a human face, it feels like a human face, and it smells like -- well, thankfully not like a rotted human face, though it certainly has a funky smell. But if nothing else, this cover will at least serve as a great conversation starter at your next high-falutin' social function, as the chit chat starts to dry up and the guests could use a goosing. As for the features found on the actual disc, they include Fanalysis, a short documentary by Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell; Discovering Evil Dead, a look at the history of the movie, starting with its discovery at the Cannes Film Festival; behind-the-scenes footage; trailers; and two hidden "Easter Eggs." This special edition is priced at $49.98, though some online sites offer it for as low as $29.98.
As someone who generally abhors primetime television, it's rare that I single out an enterprise that originated on the boob tube. Then again, it's not every day that my pick for the medium's all-time greatest sit-com makes its DVD debut, so fans of a certain landmark 70s show may want to join me in saluting its arrival in this format. All In the Family: The Complete First Season (****) contains the premiere 13 episodes of the still-relevant, still-controversial and still-hilarious series that introduced us to such enduring TV figures as ranting racist Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), his flighty yet paradoxically complex wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), their loving daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and their liberal (and perpetual thorn in Archie's side) son-in-law Michael (Rob Reiner). Given that there are no extra features included in this set, the price seems rather steep at $39.95, although online shoppers who do their homework can purchase it for as low as $29.98.
Finally, in my Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back review that appeared in last month's Home Theater column, I mentioned that the DVD included 42 deleted scenes -- one of which, I've since learned, has a local connection. Ernie Cooper, managing director of the AMC Carolina Pavilion, is featured in one of those deleted scenes (#38, to be exact). It turns out that Cooper had entered a contest through Wizard magazine in which the winner would have a brief cameo in the stoner comedy. Cooper's fleeting appearance (he plays a film crew member who gets yelled at) didn't make it into the theatrical version, but on the DVD, it gets its own chapter heading ("Ernie The Winner"), complete with a brief introduction by the film's writer-director Kevin Smith.
"I had a blast," reports Cooper, "and it was cool, but I'm on-screen for, what, 1.5 nanoseconds? (laughs) There's actually more of me in the behind-the-scenes featurette. My girlfriend and I are standing there chatting, while Kevin is talking to Mark Hamill while he gets his make-up done. The drooling, geeky fan boy in me was thinking, 'You're Luke Friggin' Skywalker!'" *