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View From The Couch

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AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956). There's a four-star movie included in this two-disc DVD set, yet it isn't the marquee attraction. George Melies' 1902 landmark A Trip to the Moon is among the extras, and it remains an extraordinary (not to mention historically important) picture in its early use of visual effects. As for 80 Days, this adaptation of the Jules Verne novel has its moments, but it's mainly regarded today as one of the least deserving Best Picture Oscar winners in the Academy's history. Infinitely more interesting than what appears on screen are the stories surrounding its maker: Before his death in an airplane crash at the age of 48, master showman Mike Todd had managed to marry Elizabeth Taylor, create the widescreen format Todd-AO, win the Oscar for his only motion picture credit as producer, and coin the term "cameo" to refer to fleeting appearances by famous movie stars. 80 Days includes approximately 40 such cameos (Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, for starters), and the star-spotting provides momentary distraction from what is too often a stodgy adventure yarn in which Phileas Fogg (David Niven) and assistant Passepartout (Spanish comedian Cantinflas) take a whirlwind tour across the globe for the sake of a wager. Besides A Trip to the Moon, other extras include introductions by TCM host Robert Osborne, a 1968 bio-pic titled Around the World of Mike Todd, and a 1957 Playhouse 90 telecast centering on the lavish party Todd threw to celebrate the one-year anniversary of his film's release (with Walter Cronkite reporting from the scene!).
Movie: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003). Pulling off a successful three-peat, director Peter Jackson wrapped up J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy saga with a dazzling chapter that outgrossed its predecessors and led to Oscar overkill when the myopic Academy handed it 11-out-of-11 awards (four or five would have been more reasonable). Running 3 hours and 20 minutes, this installment is long but not necessarily overlong -- even the battle sequences seem to have been executed with more focus and clarity than those in Two Towers (the weakest of the three chapters). The super-sized length also allows several members of the large cast to strut their stuff, and several new creatures, from an army of ghostly marauders to a gigantic spider in the best Harryhausen tradition, are staggering to behold. Ultimately, though, this final act belongs to the ring-bearer and his equally diminutive companions. The odyssey of the Hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood), his faithful companion Sam (Sean Astin) and the treacherous Gollum (the brilliant CGI creation voiced by Andy Serkis) is the true heart of the film, evoking all sorts of emotions as we watch each player constantly forced to make painful decisions and struggle with their own tortured psyches. This is a movie of expensive visual effects and expansive battle scenes, but when it comes to truly making its mark, we have to thank all the little people. Extras on the two-disc DVD include numerous behind-the-scenes specials and theatrical trailers; the more elaborate Extended Edition, featuring a longer cut of the film, will hit stores later this year.
Movie: 1/2
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STRAY DOG (1949). Akira Kurosawa was one year away from being acknowledged as a world-class filmmaker with Rashomon, but this early effort shows that his skills had already been honed to razor-sharp perfection. An impossibly youthful Toshiro Mifune, already as intense an actor as in his later works with Kurosawa, plays a greenhorn detective whose gun is lifted by a pickpocket on a crowded bus. Burdened with guilt and driven to distraction over the fact that his weapon will now be used to commit crimes, he sets off on a frenzied quest to track down the revolver, scouring the underworld and, with the invaluable aid of a veteran cop (Takashi Shimura), piecing together the clues that will lead him to the disgruntled man wielding it. Stray Dog is commendable enough as a straightforward thriller (the phone booth sequence alone is incredibly suspenseful), but its atmospherics -- the film is set during a blistering summer, and you can almost see the sweat pouring off your TV set -- as well as its probing look at post-war Japan trying to get back on its feet make it a welcome companion piece to the riveting film noir flicks Hollywood was producing at the time. DVD extras include audio commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince and an informative documentary on the making of the film.
Movie: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

WYATT EARP (1994). A notorious box office flop when it debuted 10 summers ago (it didn't help that the so-so Tombstone, which covered much of the same material, had been released six months prior), Wyatt Earp was probably doomed from the start: Audiences in the mood for escapist fare during the summer months don't generally line up for downbeat, three-hour character studies. Yet writer-director Lawrence Kasdan's handsomely mounted Western deserved a better fate -- clearly the most comprehensive of all screen Earps, it's a thoughtful drama that illustrates in painstaking detail how a person's foibles can over time fall by the wayside, leaving us with only the legend. The movie doesn't shy away from frequently presenting Wyatt (played by Kevin Costner) as a lout, yet it also doesn't strip him of any heroic attributes, still allowing him to come off as a fearless lawman hell-bent on maintaining order. The large supporting cast includes Gene Hackman, Bill Pullman and Isabella Rossellini, yet the scene-stealer is Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday. Spitting out one-liners even as he's spitting up blood (caused by his tuberculosis), Quaid turns Doc into a memorable anti-hero, a man who acknowledges (even relishes) his own weaknesses yet does the right thing when the chips are down. Extras on the two-disc DVD include a pair of making-of features, 11 deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.
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