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View From The Couch

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DVD DECISION 2004 In the summer of 2003, Warner Home Video and Turner Classic Movies teamed up to give film fans a chance to decide which vintage motion pictures they wanted to see on DVD. From the studio-submitted list of 20 titles, the top five vote-getters (including The Postman Always Rings Twice and Days of Wine and Roses) subsequently made their debuts at this time last year. Encouraged by the success of that venture, Warner and Turner repeated the contest in 2004 with a brand new list of titles to choose from. So once again, the new year opens with the five ballot-toppers all making their long-awaited DVD premieres. The Letter (1940), based on the W. Somerset Maugham story, is the best of the bunch, with Bette Davis in sizzling shape as a plantation owner's wife whose claim that she killed an acquaintance in self-defense is accepted until an incriminating piece of evidence comes into play. Random Harvest (1942), an adaptation of James Hilton's novel, is a grade-A weepie with Ronald Colman as a World War I soldier whose bouts with amnesia lead him to forget the last three years of his life - including his marriage to a showgirl (Greer Garson) and the birth of his son. King Solomon's Mines (1950), a fine showcase for both the splendors of Technicolor and the high production values of MGM (the film earned Oscars for its color cinematography and film editing), stars Stewart Granger as adventurer Allan Quartermain, traveling deep into darkest Africa to help an Englishwoman (Deborah Kerr) locate her missing husband. Ivanhoe (1952), based on Sir Walter Scott's novel, often plays like a stodgy (if lavishly produced) remake of The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe (stiff Robert Taylor, clearly no match for Errol Flynn's Robin of Locksley) romancing lovely Joan Fontaine, befriending beautiful Elizabeth Taylor and trading blows with dastardly George Sanders during his efforts to place King Richard the Lionhearted back on the throne. And finally, Ice Station Zebra (1968) ranks as a major disappointment, a dull Alistair MacLean adaptation in which submarine commander Rock Hudson takes on several suspicious passengers (Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgnine and Jim Brown) as he heads for the North Pole to engage in the usual Cold War hijinks. The extras scattered among the discs are fewer than those included in the previous crop; they include audio-only radio adaptations, an Oscar-winning Tom and Jerry cartoon, and trailers.
The Letter: 1/2
Random Harvest:
King Solomon's Mines: 1/2
Ivanhoe: 1/2
Ice Station Zebra:
Extras:

VANITY FAIR A condensation - and softening - of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel, this adaptation finds director Mira Nair (helmer of the wonderful Monsoon Wedding) filtering the tale through her own sensibilities. That translates into plot nods toward her native India that weren't in the source material, a visual scheme that's far more colorful than what one usually encounters in British period pieces of this nature, and an approach that sentimentalizes many of the characters. Yet her liberties don't cripple the piece - more often, they provide a welcome sheen to a movie that often threatens to buckle under the weight of so many characters and plot strands. Reese Witherspoon stars as the poor but plucky Becky Sharp, the 19th century social climber determined to carve out a better life for herself. Using her quick wit and feminine wiles, she inspires lust in men and scorn in women; eventually, she marries a dashing gambler (James Purefoy), but her real troubles are only just beginning. Although the episodic nature of the screenplay sometimes gets in the way of narrative propulsion (the final half-hour especially dawdles), the lively characters - and the hypocrisies they inadvertently champion - always remain watchable. Witherspoon makes a perky protagonist, though her character needs a nastier edge to be truly believable. DVD extras include audio commentary by Nair, deleted scenes, and two behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Movie: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

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