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View From The Couch: Hairspray, No End in Sight, more

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HAIRSPRAY (2007). A testing of the mainstream waters, maverick moviemaker John Waters' 1988 Hairspray was a critical hit that was eventually turned into a Broadway musical before being brought back to the screen this past summer. A similar screen-to-stage-to-screen journey didn't help The Producers, but Hairspray happily met with more success, grossing $118 million at the box office. It's one of the year's biggest treats, smoothing out but never compromising the themes that made Waters' film such a quirky delight. An ode to being different, Hairspray, set in 1960s Baltimore, stars appealing newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager who won't let her pleasantly plump figure get in the way of following her dream to dance. The film's hot-topic issues (including racism) are presented in the realm of feel-good fantasy, meaning that reality has no place in this particular picture. It's first and foremost a musical, and director Adam Shankman does a commendable job of filming the song-and-dance routines in a manner that accentuates the total skills involved (the noticeable lack of rapid MTV-style cuts is greatly appreciated). All of the principals are allowed to belt out at least one number apiece, and their enthusiasm and energy is positively infectious. The weakest cast link is, perhaps surprisingly, John Travolta (in drag as Tracy's plump mom): He fails to adequately fill the large shoes of the late Divine, who was simply, well, divine in Waters' original screen version. As for Waters, he stuck around to make sure that the circle's complete. Look for him in a split-second cameo at the beginning: He's the pervert who flashes a trio of housewives on the street.

DVD extras in the two-disc Shake & Shimmy Edition include audio commentary by Shankman and Blonsky, separate commentary by producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, a 78-minute making-of feature, deleted and alternate scenes, a piece tracing "The Roots of Hairspray," and detailed looks at the film's musical numbers.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***1/2

HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE (1991). One of the best movies ever made about the filmmaking process, Hearts of Darkness, like Les Blank's Burden of Dreams (about the filming of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo) before it, examines how the creation of a difficult motion picture in an often punishing environment took its toll – physically, mentally and emotionally – on a great director, exhausting him beyond all measure and perhaps even sapping him of his emotional juices. The movie under the microscope is Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now, the Vietnam War saga (loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness) that ate up several years of the director's life as he struggled to complete his epic tale under often torturous conditions. We get to watch Martin Sheen freak out, Dennis Hopper space out and Marlon Brando attempt to bail out; Coppola also had to deal with a hurricane that obliterated the film's sets and with Sheen's heart attack (Sheen, incidentally, was a replacement for Harvey Keitel, who had been fired from the role of Captain Willard a mere two weeks into shooting). Francis' wife Eleanor Coppola shot the invaluable on-the-set footage, while Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper handled the years-after-the-fact interviews with many of the principals, including co-scripter John Milius and George Lucas, the latter revealing how he was originally set to helm a far different version of Milius' screenplay in the early 1970s.

DVD extras include audio commentary by the Coppolas and a new documentary by Eleanor Coppola: CODA: Thirty Years Later, which details the making of Francis' upcoming film Youth Without Youth.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **1/2

NO END IN SIGHT (2007). "This is absolute Fantasyland. These people – I don't know what they were smoking, but it must have been very good." So says author and talking head James Bamford about the members of the Bush administration and their actions regarding the Iraq War in this absorbing documentary that dissects the mind-numbing incompetence that has defined this White House since Sept. 11, 2001. At this point in time, all Americans except for the most brainwashed of FOX News fanatics have accepted the irrefutable fact that this war was a bad idea from the get-go, but No End In Sight offers an excellent analysis of the logistics behind this disaster-in-the-making, insuring that no viewer gets left behind as it carefully details the time line between 9/11 and now. But only Republicans to the right of, say, Heinrich Himmler can find fault with what can't be dismissed as simply a liberal tirade: Rather than relying on the usual leftist talking heads like Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky, writer-director-producer Charles Ferguson gathers interviews with key personnel from within the Iraq campaign, including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and General Jay Garner, and allows them to explain how myopic leaders – among them Donald Rumsfeld (who in his press briefings would come across as a court jester were the consequences of his actions not so dire), Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and George W. Bush (the latter coming off, not surprisingly, as an imbecile who was kept out of the loop on most key directives by his own underlings) – made countless decisions that guaranteed this war would be lost before it even started. Iraqi citizens have their say (it's heartbreaking to see a few lament the destruction of Baghdad's museum and library, both of which were historical landmarks containing artifacts from over 1,000 years ago), as do American soldiers and even one pro-war official (predictably, all the rest refused to be interviewed for this film). It isn't often that a movie comes along that should be mandatory viewing, but here's one that should absolutely be integrated into every U.S. high school curriculum.

DVD extras include additional interview material with the film's participants and 10 minutes of footage of Iraq.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **1/2

OCEAN'S THIRTEEN (2007). A tiny handful of films (The Return of the King, for example) aside, isn't it accepted – in fact, isn't it pretty much gospel – that the third picture in any given trilogy is when the series has totally lost it, when the filmmakers have been completely replaced by pimps and profiteers? So how is it possible that Ocean's Thirteen has emerged as the best of this star-studded franchise? True, all three films have basically been an excuse for director Steven Soderbergh and his high-voltage friends to take paid vacations in trendy, plush locales under the pretense of making motion pictures – if life was fair, then resort timeshares would be included in the DVDs so that viewers could also join in the festivities. But Ocean's Thirteen is the first of the trio to truly feel like there's something at stake in its convoluted, house-of-cards plotline. Male-on-male love (platonically speaking, of course) has always been the driving force in this series, and this one milks that sense of camaraderie for all it's worth. When one of their own (Elliott Gould) gets swindled by a venal casino owner named Willy Bank (Al Pacino), it's up to the gang fronted by dapper Danny Ocean (George Clooney) to set matters straight. Because there are so many characters competing for attention, there will always be casualties when it comes to screen time. Yet because this is the most briskly paced of the three, and because the revenge angle provides its protagonists with a particularly poignant rooting interest, it's hard to get bogged down in the flaws. I wasn't a fan of the previous two pictures in this series, but Ocean's Thirteen qualifies as the first to even approach a winning hand.

DVD extras include deleted scenes, a short piece on Las Vegas, and a tour of the set with producer Jerry Weintraub.

Movie: ***

Extras: **

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