THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (2005). Given its colossal box office, it appears Christians, heathens and everyone in between were inspired to hold hands and sway to the gentle rhythms of this popular motion picture. C.S. Lewis' source material -- the first book in a series of seven Narnia adventures -- sprinkled Christian allegories throughout a fantasy yarn that was aimed primarily at children, and the movie steadfastly respects Lewis' intentions. Like the best kid flicks, it never talks down to its target audience, and its religious themes -- issues involving honor, forgiveness and redemption -- embody the true spirit of Christianity and in effect serve as an antidote to the sadistic theatrics of Mel Gibson's garish snuff film, The Passion of the Christ. With its story of four plucky siblings attempting to save a strange land from the machinations of an evil queen (Tilda Swinton), this seems as inspired by the recent Lord of the Rings flicks as by anything on the written page. But the child actors are appealing, the supporting critters add color (the film earned an Oscar for Best Makeup) and the brisk storyline fuels the imagination. Extras in the two-disc DVD set include two audio commentary tracks -- one featuring director Andrew Adamson and other crew members, the second featuring Adamson and the four child actors -- pop-up facts, a map of Narnia, two postcards of conceptual art and the requisite making-of features.
Extras: *** 1/2
THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY (1978). In his annual movie guide, Leonard Maltin has long stated that this disco yarn is "perhaps the worst film ever to have won some kind of Oscar (for [Donna] Summer's hit song 'Last Dance')." Personally, my vote would go to the dreadful family film Harry and the Hendersons (a winner for Best Makeup), but Maltin's distaste is understandable: This is awfully thin material, though viewers who remember the era -- if not fondly, at least vividly -- will appreciate its worth as a time-capsule artifact. Set over the course of one night at a popular LA nightclub, the film follows several storylines involving roughly a dozen patrons of the hot spot -- in short, think of it as an episode of Love Boat set to a disco beat. Donna Summer stars as Nicole, an aspiring singer hoping for that big break, while the Commodores appear as themselves. And while several of the ensemble players have long since faded into obscurity, others managed to continue forward with their career trajectories, among them Jeff Goldblum (as the womanizing club owner) and Debra Winger (as a naïve girl looking for romance amid the polyester). There are no extra features on the DVD.
3 FILMS BY LOUIS MALLE (1971-1987). The latest major director to benefit from a Criterion box set is Louis Malle, the acclaimed French filmmaker who enjoyed a fair amount of success with his English-language efforts (most notably Atlantic City and Damage) but whose works within his own film industry elevated him to the status of a world-class director. Murmur of the Heart (1971), featuring intuitive turns by Benoit Ferreux as an inquisitive 14-year-old and Lea Massari as his sensual mother, so adroitly nails the coming-of-age of a teenage boy that few ever bother to question the brief incestuous coupling that rests at the "heart" of both the story and the title. Malle's Lacombe, Lucien (1974) proved to be more controversial (at least in France), with its detached examination of a thuggish country boy (Pierre Blaise) who joins a group of other Frenchmen collaborating with the Germans during World War II. Malle had one of his biggest stateside hits with Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), a WWII-set tale (based on Malle's own childhood experience) about the friendship between two boys (Gaspard Manesse and Raphael Fejto) at a Catholic boarding school, one of whom is a Jew trying to steer clear of the Nazis. The box set includes a fourth disc comprised of supplemental material: interviews with Candice Bergen (Malle's wife for the 15 years prior to his death in 1995) and biographer Pierre Billard, interviews with Malle during the making of Murmur of the Heart and Lacombe, Lucien, a Louis Malle filmography, and 1917's The Immigrant, the Charlie Chaplin comedy featured during a scene in Au Revoir Les Infants.
Murmur of the Heart: *** 1/2
Lacombe, Lucien: ***
Au Revoir Les Enfants: *** 1/2
UNDERTAKING BETTY (2002). With the possible exception of Disney in the 1990s, no other studio had been as wasteful as Miramax when it came to making (or picking up) motion pictures and then leaving them on the shelf to rot away before finally booting them to home video. Undertaking Betty, which began life under the title Plots With a View, stands as an example of this practice, yet what's notable about this feature is the caliber of its cast: Brenda Blethyn, Naomi Watts, Alfred Molina, Christopher Walken and the underrated British comic Lee Evans. Beginning its film festival run back in the fall of 2002, the movie only made it to our shores for a quick LA showing this past November before turning up on DVD this week. A mediocrity at best, it's still not much worse than many of the other similarly soggy-sentimental tales that Miramax's publicity machine managed to steer toward acceptable box office and overly generous Oscar nods -- the only thing it's missing to cement the deal is a crusty supporting part for Judi Dench. As an unhappily married woman and the undertaker who loves her, Blethyn (subdued for once) and Molina play nicely off each other even as they labor to -- pardon the pun -- breathe life into the tepid proceedings. As rival undertakers, Walken and Evans are given few opportunities to display their scene-stealing capabilities, while Watts is wasted in a small role as a gold-digging secretary. DVD extras include a brief making-of feature.
Extras: * 1/2