DAN IN REAL LIFE (2007). Anybody who caught even one glimpse at the coming attraction trailer for Dan In Real Life when it played theatrically knew that here was a movie designed to milk audience emotions for all they're worth. You'll laugh! You'll cry! You'll sing! You'll reflect! You'll hug the person sitting next to you, even if he smells like an NFL wide receiver's socks after a particularly grueling Sunday match-up! The trailer didn't lie: Dan In Real Life wants to offer it all – a fine sentiment when a movie can pull it off, an example of trying too hard when it doesn't. This one falls somewhere in the middle: There are individual scenes that work nicely, even if the finished product doesn't produce the flood of emotions one might have reasonably expected. Writer-director Peter Hedges soft-pedals this material, offering a warm and fuzzy tale of a popular newspaper writer (Steve Carell) whose column, "Dan In Real Life," offers practical advice that he can't seem to apply to his own life. A widower with three daughters, Dan travels to Rhode Island for the annual family get-together; he falls for Marie (Juliette Binoche), a Frenchwoman he meets in a book store, only to learn that she's the girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook). It's nice to see this normal a family on screen, but the movie pays a price for its politeness, since there's never any sense that feelings might be hurt or egos bruised – this is especially true at the conclusion, which basically ignores conflicts that have already been established in order to send everyone home smiling. Dan In Real Life is the equivalent of a warm glass of milk, and that's meant neither as a compliment nor a criticism, merely a stated fact.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Hedges, a 15-minute making-of featurette, 11 deleted scenes, and outtakes.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007). It's not often that the Academy and I agree on the best picture of the year, but here's one of those rare instances. The Coen Brothers have always been known for genre-hopping, and their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel smacks of both a contemporary Western and a crime thriller. But may I add the classification of monster movie to the mix? As I watched Javier Bardem's seemingly unstoppable Anton Chigurh shuffle his way through the picture, killing left and right without remorse, I realized that it's been a long time since I've seen such an unsettling creature on the screen. No Country for Old Men is a delirious drama that often echoes such classics as Psycho, Touch of Evil and Chinatown, not only in its intricate and unpredictable plot structure but also in its look at an immoral world in which chance and fate battle for the upper hand and in which evil is as tangible a presence as sticks and stones. Chigurh spends the film, set in 1980 Texas, on the trail of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a cowboy who stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong and walks away with $2 million in cash. The cat-and-mouse chase between Chigurh and Moss is enough to propel any standard narrative, yet tossed into the mix is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a weary sheriff who, baffled and deflated by the wickedness that has come to define his country, nevertheless trudges from crime scene to crime scene, hoping to save Moss and stop Chigurh. This isn't the first great movie to have its ending criticized even by many who enjoyed the rest of the picture (Apocalypse Now also springs to mind), yet love it or hate it, accept it or debate it, it's perhaps the only proper conclusion for a movie as uncompromising as this one. In addition to its Best Picture victory, this also earned Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Bardem), Director and Adapted Screenplay.
DVD extras include a 25-minute making-of featurette, a discussion of the film's characters, and a piece in which the actors talk about working with the Coens.
SLEUTH (2007). Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) in his cinematic fare-thee-well, 1972's Sleuth was a delicious adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's stage hit (scripted by the playwright himself), with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine trading verbal blows as, respectively, mystery writer Andrew Wyke and hairdresser Milo Tindle, the former peeved that the latter is having an affair with his wife. A critique on British class differences as well as a cinematic jigsaw puzzle, the credit for the movie's success was shared equally by writer, director, stars and, crucially, production designer Ken Adam, who turned the Wyke mansion into a funhouse maze of eye-catching bric-a-brac. Working with writer Harold Pinter, director Kenneth Branagh has opted to remake Sleuth, this time with Caine in Olivier's old role and Jude Law in Caine's former part. But this version isn't lean and mean as much as it's choppy (50 minutes shorter than the original) and mean-spirited. Whereas the '72 Sleuth was informed by Adam's elaborate set, so too does this edition take its cue from Tim Harvey's vision for the Wyke home, which is all spare, sleek surfaces bathed in metallic colors. It's easy on the eyes but also cold to the core, and a similar chill punctuates every moment of this poor remake. None of the plot twists enhance the story (especially a homosexual spin), and whereas Milo and (to a lesser degree) Andrew were sympathetic in the original, here we find Andrew barely tolerable and Milo outright odious. Sleuth is no longer a fun whodunnit; it's been transformed into a baffling whatthehellweretheythinking?
DVD extras include audio commentary by Branagh and Caine, separate audio commentary by Law, a 15-minute making-of piece, and theatrical trailers.