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View From The Couch: La Vie En Rose, Ratatouille, Stanley Kubrick Collection

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LA VIE EN ROSE (2007). Say what one must about La Vie En Rose, but there's no arguing the excellence of the performance at the center of this ambitious and erratic biopic about French singing sensation Edith Piaf. Piaf's life contained enough drama to fill 10 HBO miniseries, and here director and co-writer Oliver Dahan attempts to cram it all into one 140-minute motion picture. Faithful in some instances, negligent in others, he has nevertheless fashioned a screen biography that employs some tricks of the trade (hopscotching between different decades, moments of stark surrealism) to allow this to break away from the generally staid biopic form. His film isn't always successful, but it always remains watchable, thanks primarily to the fervent turn by Marion Cotillard. In the same manner as Jamie Foxx with Ray Charles and Reese Witherspoon with June Carter Cash, Cotillard doesn't play the role as much as become possessed by it. From a feisty waif singing for her supper on the mean Parisian streets, to the regal songbird known internationally as La Mome Piaf ("The Little Sparrow"), to the emotionally and physically battered woman who still managed to successfully headline concerts (in this respect, she and Judy Garland had much in common), Cotillard is an indomitable force as she eats, breathes and sleeps every moment up until Piaf's early death at the age of 47. As a movie, La Vie En Rose est bon. But as a performer, Marion Cotillard est magnifique.

DVD extras include a making-of featurette and theatrical trailers.

Movie: ***

Extras: *1/2

RATATOUILLE (2007). Cinema has given us so many marvelous movies set around the kitchen that it's easy to lose count among the tantalizing dishes laid out on display. But onto a long list that includes Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Like Water for Chocolate, I never expected to add an animated yarn about a culinary rat. The summer box office smash Ratatouille (a pun-tastic title that also ends up playing a part in the proceedings) is the latest winner from Pixar, the animation outfit whose win-loss ratio has still managed to equal that of the '72 Miami Dolphins. That is to say, John Lasseter's company has yet to produce a dud, and one can only wonder when (if?) this streak will end. The rat is Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), whose skills in the kitchen are exemplary, and the primary human protagonist is Linguini (Lou Romano), a skinny lad who possesses none of his late father's superb culinary abilities. Since restaurant kitchens aren't exactly rodent-friendly, and since circumstances force the singularly untalented Linguini to pass himself off as a master chef, the pair pool their resources to return a once-great Paris eatery, now struggling following the publication of a disastrous review by food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), back to its lofty position as one of France's finest. Written and directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles), Ratatouille serves as a love letter to Paris, a valentine to the fine art of cooking, and a gift to film fans of all ages.

DVD extras include deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes feature, the animated short that preceded Ratatouille in theaters (Lifted), and Your Friend the Rat, a new animated short starring Remy and Emile.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***

STANLEY KUBRICK COLLECTION (1968-1999). Oh, is it Christmas already? For film fans who have been eagerly awaiting this important box set, it sure seems like it. There's no arguing Stanley Kubrick's standing as one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and here we have a collection that brings together most of the titles from the final chapters of his career. Four of the five pictures are making their widescreen DVD debuts (previously, they were only available in pan-and-scan), and generous extras go a long way toward making this an essential addition to any serious cineaste's library.

Kubrick had already created such classics as Dr. Strangelove and Paths of Glory by the time he made 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but it's that landmark science fiction epic that's widely regarded as the finest achievement of his brilliant career. Ambitious and intelligent, it explores some of Kubrick's favorite themes – most notably the dehumanization of man, his intrinsic need to foster violence, and his foolish dependence on (and subservience to) the rules established by omniscient authoritarian figures – as it begins with our ape-like ancestors during the "Dawn of Man" and culminates with our evolutionary advancement in outer space. Adapting Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Sentinel," Kubrick (who co-wrote the script with Clarke) crafted a visionary tale that continues to be controversial, influential and open to multiple interpretations. An Oscar winner for Best Visual Effects, it also earned nominations for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay and Art Direction – but, given the conservative nature of Academy members during those changing times, not for Best Picture (instead, that prize went to the far safer Oliver!).

Perhaps even more controversial than 2001 was A Clockwork Orange (1971). On one hand, it earned four Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Director) and nabbed the top prize from the New York Film Critics Circle, while on the other, it was branded with an X rating from the MPAA and earned the Harvard Lampoon's Worst Film designation in their annual "Movie Worsts" celebration. Certainly, it's not an easy movie to digest, as Kubrick's theme of allowing man the freedom of choice seems quickly compromised by the mechanical motions of his leading character. In his most discussed performance until he tackled Caligula nine years later, Malcolm McDowell is mesmerizing as Alex, a futuristic punk whose days of robbing, raping and killing appear to come to an end once he's captured by the state and sentenced to rehabilitation. Witty in both its visuals and dialogue (with slang created by Anthony Burgess in his original source novel), A Clockwork Orange hasn't lost any of its brutal potency.

A Stanley Kubrick film for people who don't especially care for Stanley Kubrick films, The Shining (1980) is one of the writer-director's most accessible films, which explains why it's more familiar among the masses than many of his greater works. Kubrick basically takes the novel by Stephen King (arguably the author's finest) and molds it to his own liking, only keeping the central thrust intact: A hotel caretaker (Jack Nicholson) slowly goes bonkers and tries to kill his family while stationed at a snowbound Colorado resort. Nicholson's at his most gonzo, but it works; crippling the overall film, however, is a woefully miscast Shelley Duvall, who's so irksome and unsympathetic as the wife that it shifts the character dynamics to a startling degree. Still, the cinematography by John Alcott (who won an Oscar for Kubrick's Barry Lyndon) is excellent, and Kubrick maintains claustrophobic tension throughout.

One of Kubrick's most underrated pictures, Full Metal Jacket (1987) ranks second only to Apocalypse Now as the best Vietnam War movie ever made. In most of his films, there exists the theme of the corruptibility of man. Here, it's triggered by the experience of war with all its trimmings: the mental and physical training, the relocation to a foreign territory, and the confrontation with the enemy. Superbly shot, scored and acted (R. Lee Ermey as the unrelenting drill instructor and Vincent D'Onofrio as the simple-minded "Gomer Pyle" are especially memorable), this overlooked masterpiece captures the insanity of war better than just about any other movie that comes to mind. Its sole Oscar nod was for Best Adapted Screenplay (Kubrick, Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford, adapting Hasford's novel The Short-Timers).

The plight of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) serves as a depressing example of movies morphing from something worthy of discussion and analysis into mere matinee fodder for the kiddies. Had this been released in the late 1960s/early 1970s, in the midst of serious works by Bergman, Bertolucci and Kubrick himself, it doubtless would have been a universally acclaimed conversation starter. But as I wrote in these pages back in 1999, "Nowadays, post-viewing conversations tend to run along the lines of deciding whether the excrement scene in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was as funny as the bed-wetting sequence in Big Daddy." In other words, the film merely divided the critics and bored audiences who had come with K-Y in hand, expecting to see a skin flick starring then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Cut through all the misleading hype and what's on view is a mature, pensive and uncompromising motion picture that requires multiple viewings to unearth all its layers of meaning. Adapted from Arthur Schnitzler's novel Dream Story, the film is indeed best examined as a dream, a nocturnal odyssey steeped in sexual themes and examining the circumstances that stand perennially poised to break the bonds between a husband and wife. Kidman earned solid reviews for portraying the more sexually open of the pair, but it's Cruise's excellent, underrated performance that remains one of the finest of his career. Kubrick spent most of his life lampooning societal standards, so it's interesting to note that his final film was, in many ways, the most sympathetic of the bunch.

Except for the one-disc DVD for Full Metal Jacket, all titles are presented in two-disc editions. Extras include audio commentaries, new featurettes, documentaries, and theatrical trailers. The Eyes Wide Shut set includes both the digitally altered, R-rated version that played the U.S. and the unrated international edition. The set also includes a bonus disc featuring the 2-1/2-hour documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures.

2001: A Space Odyssey: ****

A Clockwork Orange: ***

The Shining: ***

Full Metal Jacket: ****

Eyes Wide Shut: ***1/2

Extras: ***1/2

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