THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN (2005). Just in time for the theatrical release of Knocked Up comes the DVD reissue of the film that first put writer-director Judd Apatow on the fast track. An unexpected surprise, The 40-Year-Old Virgin mixes honest sentiment and bawdy humor in a manner that's more satisfying than in just about any comparable modern comedy. Steve Carell plays Andy, a man-child who sports an impressive collection of comic books and action figures (all in mint condition, of course), rides a bicycle to work every day, and never has even come close to knowing the joys of a relationship, let alone the attendant carnal pleasures. His three coworkers at the electronics store (Paul Rudd, Romany Malco and Seth Rogen, all hilarious) make it their mission in life to hook Andy up; he eventually bumps into a few prospects, the most promising being Trish (excellent Catherine Keener), a divorcee with three kids and a flailing Internet business. The unrated DVD cut runs over two hours -- normally, that's a suicidal length for a comedy of this sort, but in this case, co-scripters Carell and Apatow use the time wisely, developing the Andy-Trish romance at a believable clip and also turning Andy's three buddies into fully formed characters rather than the one-note sidekicks we're accustomed to seeing. The movie includes the usual mix of gross-out gags, yet out-of-left-field jokes involving Hair (the musical, not the filament), Asia (the band, not the continent) and the Six Million Dollar Man's boss signal that this is a comedy with smarts. The two-disc DVD, tagged the "Double Your Pleasure" Edition, contains an astonishing amount of extra content; among the bonuses are 17 more minutes of deleted scenes, extended versions of select existing scenes (including the Date-A-Palooza sequence), roundtable interviews, cast auditions, and a free movie ticket to see Knocked Up.
THE GOOD GERMAN (2006). If there was any year-end Oscar bait title that I was especially jonesing to see, it was Steven Soderbergh's The Good German. The 1940s is my favorite decade for cinema, and film noir is my favorite genre, so how could I not get excited about a movie that promised to replicate those black-and-white classics from Hollywood's Golden Age? But while nowhere near as execrable as Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake, this big-budget equivalent of a grad school thesis project is so intent on everything looking right that it frequently forgets to add either heart or soul. Here, there's not much beyond self-conscious mise en scenes and a lead actor who isn't mysterious or magnetic as much as he's simply aloof. George Clooney plays the central sap, a military journalist who returns to postwar Berlin and discovers that his driver (Tobey Maguire), a bully whose R-rated language and actions basically render void Soderbergh's offer to take us back to the family-friendly flicks of yesteryear, has been dating his former flame (Cate Blanchett). After the driver ends up murdered, our newshound takes it upon himself to crack the case and, in the process, try to reconnect with his German ex-lover. Clooney basically sleepwalks through the picture, while Maguire is too boyish to convey the proper degree of menace. In this weak company, Blanchett easily steals the film; she won't make movie buffs forget Ingrid Bergman (or Marlene Dietrich), but she's about as good as German gets. Aside from some trailers, there are no extras on the DVD.
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (2006). Before this picture, director Clint Eastwood had already helmed one film in 2006: Flags of Our Fathers, a look at the American soldiers who hoisted Old Glory on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima during the World War II battle. Whereas the respectable Flags provided the Yankee point of view, this superior picture, one of last year's best, gives us the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who fought and, for the most part, died in this bloody skirmish. Eastwood and scripters Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita stay away from the politics of the war in the Pacific, choosing instead to focus on the humanity of the Japanese men required to defend this island from a U.S. takeover. The name actor attached to Letters is the magnetic Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai); he plays General Kuribayashi, a sensible leader who knows that he and his army are doomed but still does the best he can in an impossible situation. War movies used to be a dime-a-dozen in Hollywood, but recent times have seen them become almost as rare as the Western and the musical. Here's one that comes along at the right time. As Bush continues to play bloodthirsty warlord at the expense of American lives, here's a film that reminds the rest of us that all soldiers have names and faces -- and most deserve better than to end up as body bag fodder simply to serve the interests of petty tyrants. Winner of the Best Sound Editing Oscar, this also earned nominations for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay. Extras in the two-disc DVD set include a making-of featurette, a discussion with cast members concerning their characters, and footage from the world premiere in Tokyo.
THE THIRD MAN (1949). This collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene (who also teamed on 1948's The Fallen Idol and 1959's Our Man In Havana) is one of those rare birds that improves with subsequent viewings, which is saying a lot since an initial viewing immediately pegs it as a cinematic masterpiece. This British gem, in which hack American author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) searches for his shady friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in post-WWII Vienna, is notable for many achievements: Welles' first appearance in the film, rightly regarded as one of the greatest entrances in cinema history; Anton Karas' excellent zither score, a far cry from the lush orchestrations heard in most motion pictures at the time; Robert Krasker's startling cinematography, which deservedly received an Academy Award (the picture received additional Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Film Editing); Greene's scintillating dialogue ("I don't want another murder in this case," Trevor Howard's Major Calloway tells Martins, "and you were born to be murdered"); and Harry Lime's legendary "cuckoo clock" speech, written by Welles himself. Extras in the two-disc DVD set -- another bang-up job from the Criterion label -- include an audio commentary by director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Tony Gilroy, a separate audio commentary by film scholar Dana Polan, a video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, a 90-minute making-of documentary, an hour-long interview with Greene, archival footage of Vienna after the war, a look at the original U.K. press book, and the film's alternate opening narration for the U.S. version.