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View From The Couch: Chinatown, Close Encounters, Help!, more

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CHINATOWN (1974) / THE TWO JAKES (1990). "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." This immortal line is enough to make any movie lover swoon, yet it's just one of the countless classic bits of dialogue in director Roman Polanski's film noir homage, an enduring masterpiece that has moved beyond being regarded as one of the best films of the 1970s to being hailed as one of the best films Hollywood has ever produced. Jack Nicholson, in what ranks as one of his four or five greatest performances (and that's saying something), stars as J.J. Gittes, a private eye in 1930s Los Angeles who becomes involved in a labyrinthine plot involving murder, political corruption and the family secrets of a potential femme fatale (Faye Dunaway). Nominated for 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), its sole victory was for Best Original Screenplay – a given, since Robert Towne's script continues to be singled out (and even utilized by film professors) as a model of perfection. Sixteen years later, Nicholson (this time as both director and star) reteamed with Towne for the unjustly overlooked sequel, which finds Gittes drawn into a mystery that shrewdly connects back to the events from the first picture. The link to the original film can be deduced fairly easy, and by this point, Nicholson had begun slipping into the "hammy Jack" persona that would eventually inform too many of his performances – his turn as Gittes is enjoyable, but it never quite feels like the same man from Chinatown. Yet The Two Jakes is admirably dense in a manner that's satisfying rather than frustrating, and co-stars Harvey Keitel and Meg Tilly are both memorable, especially in the picture's later scenes.

DVD extras on Chinatown consist of making-of featurettes totaling approximately one hour and the theatrical trailer; bonuses on The Two Jakes consist of a 20-minute making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.

Chinatown: ****

Extras: **1/2

The Two Jakes: ***

Extras: **

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). For those keeping count, Steven Spielberg's sci-fi epic has been released in three separate versions (four if you count the edit used for the TV network showing). There's the original 1977 theatrical release (135 minutes); there's the 1980 Special Edition (132 minutes), also released theatrically; and then there's the Director's Cut (137 minutes) that was released on video in 1998. Spielberg erroneously views the '77 model in much the same way as George Lucas views the original cut of Star Wars: as a rough motion picture that could stand some tinkering. Because of this thinking, the 1977 Close Encounters has never been available on DVD ... until now. The new 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition contains all three of the different edits, and it includes a handy poster that details all of the additions and deletions (and where in the running time they occur) between the versions. That might sound like a lot of bother to some folks, but fans who champion one version over the others (or simply want to compare) will appreciate this handsomely crafted box set. As for the film itself, it remains an impressive undertaking, with Richard Dreyfuss excellent as the regular joe who becomes obsessed with extra-terrestrials after his initial spotting and French director Francois Truffaut in his only English-language film as a UFO expert. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Spielberg's first Best Director nod), this won for Best Cinematography (by Vilmos Zsigmond) and earned a special Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing; in all five other technical categories in which it was nominated, it lost to the year's other sci-fi breakthrough film, Star Wars.

Extras in the three-disc set include a three-part, 102-minute making-of documentary, a 20-minute interview with Spielberg, and the 1977 featurette Watch the Skies. The set also includes a booklet filled with photos and trivia.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***1/2

HELP! (1965). It's hardly A Hard Day's Night, but The Beatles' second foray in front of the camera is a nonsensical romp that similarly shows off the lads' easygoing manner, spontaneous wit and, of course, their brilliant musical abilities. Night's Richard Lester is back as director, but scripter Alun Owen has given way to Marc Behm and Charles Wood, who forego the first film's freewheeling mock-documentary approach for an out-and-out fictional format. In this one, Eastern religious fanatics search for a sacred ring whose bearer must be served up as a human sacrifice; currently, it rests on the finger of Ringo, and he, John, Paul and George frequently find themselves on the run from their bumbling pursuers. Numerous imaginative touches (love the boys' home!) and that cheeky British humor make this an engaging lark, though, not surprisingly, the highlights are whenever the mop tops break from the action to sing one of their classic tunes, among them "Ticket to Ride," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and (a personal fave) "The Night Before."

Extras in the two-disc DVD edition include a half-hour making-of documentary, cast and crew reminiscences, a look at the process behind the film's excellent restoration, the discussion of a missing scene, and three theatrical trailers (one in Spanish).

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

THE LADY VANISHES (1938). One of the last films made by Alfred Hitchcock in his native England – only 1939's Jamaica Inn separated it from the 1940 Hollywood production RebeccaThe Lady Vanishes vies with 1935's The 39 Steps as The Master's most popular movie made in his own country during the early years. Working from an exquisitely structured screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, Hitchcock employs one of his favorite "toys," the train (see also Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, etc.), to maximum effect – never mind that the entire film was shot on a 90-foot-long set! – in this crisp comedy-drama in which young socialite Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) befriends the elderly school marm Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) while both are passengers on a locomotive barreling across Europe. But in an instant, Miss Froy disappears, and, for various reasons, the other passengers claim that they never saw such a person and that she must exist only in Iris' mind. It's up to a flirtatious music scholar (Michael Redgrave) to help Iris make sense of the situation. Hitchcock won his only Best Director award from the New York Film Critics Circle for this picture, a charmer that takes time getting started but never pauses for air once it does.

Among the film's characters are Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), two stiff-upper-lip Brits whose whole world revolves around cricket. These scene-stealers became so popular that they were used in other film and radio projects, including the 1941 feature Crook's Tour. That film is among the extras in this two-disc DVD set; other bonuses include audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder, excerpts from Francois Truffaut's legendary 1962 audio interview with Hitchcock, a half-hour piece further exploring the film, and a stills gallery.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END (2007). This 168-minute second sequel is overblown, overstuffed and over-the-top. It's also entertaining and sometimes even exciting, which right there marks it as an improvement over last year's hot-and-cold Dead Man's Chest. In most respects, it's the sort of popcorn movie which forces critics to denounce popcorn movies, relying too heavily on bombast and bullying tactics (both copyrighted trademarks of producer Jerry Bruckheimer). And yet there's no denying that the picture contains a good measure of whimsy (usually MIA in pre-sold blockbusters) and a great deal of plot (ditto), indicating that director Gore Verbinski and scripters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are at least making an effort to earn their paychecks. To attempt to relay all the plot details would probably only lead to reader confusion, so suffice it to say that Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) still fears the tentacled Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) still hopes to free his tortured father (Stellan Skarsgard) from Davy Jones' grip, and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) turns into a kick-ass riot grrrl in much the same manner as Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi. All of the series' regulars are sent off in satisfying (and even surprising) ways, and at its best, the movie exhibits a real affection for the sort of fantasy-tinged material that kept Ray Harryhausen employed back in the day. It's a decent DVD rental, though nothing about it begs for a repeat viewing.

Extras in the two-disc DVD edition include making-of featurettes on the various aspects of production (music, sets, costumes, effects), bloopers, a look at the relationship between Depp and his film dad, Keith Richards, and a piece on international star Chow Yun Fat.

Movie: **1/2

Extras: ***

SHREK THE THIRD (2007). Mike Myers may well be the star of the Shrek franchise, but he's hardly the one whose character most vividly remains in the minds of moviegoers. For the 2001 original, Eddie Murphy earned the lion's share of the positive notices for his vigorous vocal work as the obnoxious donkey sidekick (even if it was just a reworking of his vigorous vocal work as the obnoxious dragon sidekick in Mulan). And for the 2004 sequel, it was clearly Antonio Banderas as the debonair Puss In Boots who emerged as the cat's meow. In Shrek the Third, both the donkey and the kitty have largely been neutered, and the film's makers didn't bother to introduce any compelling new characters to pick up the slack (Justin Timberlake's Arthur and Eric Idle's Merlin certainly don't cut it). The result is a step down from the first two flicks in the series, though the drop isn't nearly as precipitous as its detractors will insist. Shrek (which somehow beat Monsters, Inc. for the first Best Animated Feature Oscar ever handed out) and Shrek 2 (which stands as the third all-time top moneymaker) were amusing enough, although the impersonal style of animation, rapid succession of instantly dated pop culture references and fondness for scatological humor always left me a little cold. Shrek the Third brings the exact same ingredients to the table, only what's offered feels more like leftovers. The film's most original conceit is turning Disney's damsels in distress (Snow White, Cinderella, etc.) into feminist warriors; the rest is mildly amusing but mindless, the work of businessmen who doubtless measured the film's success by Happy Meal sales and other commercial tie-ins.

DVD extras include three deleted scenes, cast interviews, a piece on animating the characters, an Animation Video Jukebox (featuring selected songs from various DreamWorks toon flicks), and children's activities.

Movie: **

Extras: ***

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