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View From The Couch

Army of Shadows, Droopy, The Fountain, Rio Bravo, Roots

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ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969). For all the stateside acclaim accorded to such Jean-Pierre Melville titles as Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, it's astounding that it took 37 years for his somber World War II drama to reach our shores -- for whatever reason, this 1969 French release wasn't shown in the United States until last year. The idea of "better late than never" certainly applies here, as Melville's picture is a powerful tale of the French Resistance's early struggles as it sought to survive its initial confrontations with a Nazi regime that had by this point already taken over France. Lino Ventura tops a rock-solid cast as Philippe Gerbier, the head of an underground outfit which spends much of the film's running time dealing with collaborators, moving from safe house to safe house, and figuring out how to deal with loyal fighters who have the misfortune of falling into enemy hands and therefore have become threats to their outfit's existence. Bleak and uncompromising, Army of Shadows is a far cry from both the French New Wave titles and the dialogue-heavy romances that were so popular at the time; instead, it's as fatalistic as the grimmest film noir. Extras in the two-disc DVD edition include audio commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau, new and archival interviews with cast and crew members, and a documentary on the Resistance.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***1/2

DROOPY: THE COMPLETE THEATRICAL COLLECTION (1943-1958). One of the giants of the animation field, the legendary Tex Avery created Daffy Duck, worked extensively on the Looney Tunes series, and had a hand in the creation of Bugs Bunny. Yet among his many accomplishments, I've always had a soft spot for Droopy, the slow-moving, slow-talking bloodhound he created in the mid-1940s. This lively volume includes all 24 of the theatrical cartoons helmed by Avery between 1943 and 1956, as well as the seven final widescreen cartoons directed by Michael Lah in 1957 and 1958 (including the Oscar-nominated One Droopy Knight, wherein our intrepid hero battles a dragon). Extras in this two-disc DVD set include a gathering of classic bits from the cartoons as well as a retrospective piece on Avery's career and the creation of Droopy. And as both the packaging and one of the interviewees in the featurette point out, these cartoons -- like many from their era -- were created with adult audiences in mind, so some of the material may fly over the heads of children.

Collection: ***1/2

Extras: **

THE FOUNTAIN (2006). To dismiss The Fountain out of hand is to miss the overriding passion that writer-director Darren Aronofsky pours into every frame of his wildly uneven but always watchable epic. The auteur has set his sights on nothing less than matters of life and death, using his ambitious love story to examine the manner in which the act of dying is viewed -- as a finality, as a rebirth, as a disease, as a shot at immortality. Ultimately, the film's philosophy may be no more weighty than the "Circle of Life" theory espoused by The Lion King, but because Aronofsky offers so much food for thought (and refuses to spell out anything), the film is one of those rarities that can be interpreted six different ways by six different people. I just wish that the picture, which finds Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz playing characters in the past, present and future, were longer than its 95 minutes: A troubled production history doubtless contributed to its short length, choppy structure and thin characterizations -- or it simply could be that Aronofsky's reach exceeded his grasp. But it's easy to see why some viewers despised this while a select group adored it -- although in the middle, I lean toward the latter designation, and further believe this will continue to benefit from repeat viewings. DVD extras include a half-dozen making-of featurettes totaling one hour and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: **1/2

Extras: **1/2

RIO BRAVO (1959). When Quentin Tarantino stated years ago that Rio Bravo was one of his favorite films, it came as no surprise to anybody who could see the similarity between director Howard Hawks' classic Western and Tarantino's own Pulp Fiction -- namely, that both pictures share a delirious love for the gift of inspired gab. And Tarantino's absolutely right about Rio Bravo: It's one of the all-time greats, and my own personal choice as the best Western Hollywood has ever produced. John Wayne (in peak form) stars as Sheriff John T. Chance, who's forced to take on a gang of seasoned gunmen with only scant support. "A bum-legged old man and a drunk. That's all you got?" asks a fellow lawman (Ward Bond). "That's what I got," replies Chance in one of the movie's many memorable exchanges. Joining Chance, the old man (Walter Brennan) and the drunk (Dean Martin) are a young hotshot (Ricky Nelson) and a typically (for a Hawks heroine) brassy woman (Angie Dickinson) who catches Chance's eye. Hawks and Wayne expressly made Rio Bravo to show their disapproval of High Noon (they didn't like the way Gary Cooper's sheriff went around begging all the townspeople for help), and count me among those who prefer it to that Oscar-winning hit by a wide margin. Extras in the two-disc DVD set include audio commentary by director John Carpenter (whose Assault On Precinct 13 was inspired by Rio Bravo) and TIME film critic Richard Schickel, a half-hour making-of feature, an hour-long documentary about Howard Hawks, a short piece on the Tucson area where many Westerns (including Rio Bravo) were filmed, and a John Wayne trailer gallery.

Movie: ****

Extras: ***1/2

ROOTS (1977). Zealous ad copy writers for the networks love to attach the term "major television event" to just about anything longer than a typical episode of Two and a Half Men, yet here's perhaps the greatest example of the real thing. Roots wasn't the show that began the whole miniseries craze back in the late-1970s -- that would be Rich Man, Poor Man, released a year earlier (and if I may digress, why the heck is that still not available on DVD?) -- yet it immediately emerged as a TV milestone, with the final episode becoming the most-watched show in history (eventually surpassed by the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas and the final episode of M*A*S*H). Based on Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning book and running nearly 10 hours, this monumental undertaking charts the author's family history through the decades, starting with the day when young African tribesman Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) gets kidnapped by slave traders and shipped to America, where he endures all manner of hardship while toiling on a Southern plantation. This rises above the level of a TV production in nearly every facet, resulting in a richly detailed and emotionally gripping classic. The all-star cast is uniformly fine (indeed, actors nabbed 13 of the show's phenomenal 37 Emmy Award nominations), with standouts including Louis Gossett, Jr. as the sagacious Fiddler, Leslie Uggams as the endearing Kizzy, Ben Vereen as "Chicken" George and, of course, Burton in his star-making turn as Kunta Kinte. Previously available in a three-disc 25th Anniversary Edition, Roots has now been reissued in a four-disc 30th Anniversary Edition; extras include a new documentary as well as the one included in the previous DVD set, and audio commentaries with cast and crew members.

Series: ****

Extras: ***

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