(Alliance, 2006) D: Michael Apted, w/ Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai. Rating: NNNN ; DVD package: NNN
British parliamentarian William Wilberforce spent two decades campaigning for the end of the slave trade in the British empire, and in the end succeeded. It was only one of over 60 key social changes brought about by one of the most vigorous and successful social reformers of his or any age.
Michael Apted has condensed 20 years of politics and ideas into two hours of energetic and occasionally quite funny drama. He does this by using his documentary background to keep his camera, and us, in the middle of lived events and by emphasizing the thriller aspects of the old-guard-vs-upstarts conflict.
Mainly, though, he does it by filling his screen with strong actors who know how to get the most out of Steven Knight's witty dialogue. Ioan Gruffudd, so bland as Reed Richards in The Fantastic Four, is here passionate and playful. Benedict Cumberbatch, as William Pitt, England's youngest prime minister and Wilberforce's best friend, easily matches and sometimes overshadows Gruffudd's energy and intelligence.
Top English character actors headed by Albert Finney, Michael Gambon and Rufus Sewell fill out the rest of the cast and are clearly having a ball in their pithy scenes. Apted and Gruffudd offer a conversational commentary that, like the making-of doc, provides a good dose of information about both the history and the filmmaking.
Double-bill this with The Libertine, starring Johnny Depp as the 15th-century poet and rake, for a great evening of period drama.
EXTRAS Commentary, making-of doc, more. Wide-screen. English, French audio and subtitles.
Twin Peaks: Definitive Gold Box Edition
(Paramount, 1990-91) Creators: David Lynch, Mark Frost w/ Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean. Rating: NNN ; DVD package: NNNN
Context is everything. On network television , Twin Peaks hit big because there had never been anything like it and everybody watching had a week to get together and ponder the question "Who killed Laura Palmer?"
Since then, we've had The X Files and Lost. Strangeness isn't as strange as it used to be.
But Kyle MacLachlan is still a hoot as FBI agent Dale Cooper (think Fox Mulder on acid), and Twin Peaks still has the power to disturb. Much of that comes from Lynch's evocative undercurrents. The backward-talking dwarf and the Log Lady are fun, but why do so many Twin Peaks men continually dissolve in tears?
Angelo Badalamenti's ethereally eerie music infuses that Lynchian unease into every scene of what seems to be an almost normal small-town soap opera centred on the murder of pretty teenager Laura Palmer.
The extras disc is loaded with goodies, including some very strange Japanese coffee commercials. Lynch shows up in a bizarre conversation with MacLachlan and co-star Mdchen Amick but stays out of the very thoughtful making-of retrospective that includes everybody from co-writer Mark Frost to singer Julee Cruise and contains, from Badalamenti, the single best showbiz story I've ever heard.
It also gives serious consideration to why the question "Who killed Laura Palmer" was both the making and the breaking of the series. The international version (see Extras), by the way, answers that question in a different way than does the North American series.
EXTRAS 10 discs, including the original pilot; international version; Lynch, MacLachlan and Amick conversation; four-part making-of doc; Saturday Night Live parody; fan festival doc and more. Full-frame. English, Spanish, Portuguese audio and subtitles.
(WB, 2007) D: Steven Soderbergh, w/ George Clooney, Brad Pitt. Rating: NNN ; DVD package: NN
I always find movie endings that feature fireworks offputting. They're either an unnecessary and silly sexual metaphor, as in the 19th James Bond instalment, The World Is Not Enough, or they're there because the filmmakers fear they haven't produced a sufficiently strong show, again as in T.W.I.N.E. Either way, the starbursts always feel wrong - a bad fit.
Ocean's Thirteen ends with fireworks and, weirdly, they fit perfectly. Maybe this is because we've been watching nothing but content-free spectacle for two hours, and we've come to love it. And why not?
This is content-free spectacle at it's finest. The imaginary Bank Hotel, where Ocean (George Clooney) and his gang of master thieves mount their big rip-off, is a masterpiece of gaudy design, from the overbright reds of the casino floor to the high-tech sealed diamond shrine.
Steven Soderbergh's ultra-slick visuals are so highly watchable that you barely notice Clooney, Brad Pitt and the rest of the good guys disappearing into the decor. If you do, David Holmes's faux 60s score will keep you groovin' right past those bothersome thoughts.
Only Al Pacino as the evil hotelier and a few of the minor characters register as people. Pacino has big fun being rich and evil. Ellen Barkin gets a little fun, too, as his arrogant aide.
The two-disc version, available only at Future Shop, isn't worth the money. The metal case is too thin to stop a bullet (the only possible use for it), and the extras are feeble.
In place of the usual making-of items, there's a brief history of Las Vegas that plays like a chamber of commerce ad, while disc two hands us a slick but not very detailed true-crime doc on some clever crooks. Only the MIT card-counting team has any real relevance to the movie, but the others are mild fun. I'm guessing there's a much better special edition six months down the road.
EXTRAS Disc one: Las Vegas doc, producer Jerry Weintraub set tour, deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish audio and subtitles. Disc two: true-crime doc. Wide-screen.
The Boss Of It All
(WB, 2006) D: Lars von Trier, w/ Jens Albinus, Peter Gantzler. Rating: NNN ; DVD package: NN
After years of hiding behind a fictitious boss, the owner of an IT company decides to sell, so he hires an actor to pose as the boss. It's very funny. Lars von Trier, the creator of Dogma 95 and director of serious art-house fare like Dancer In The Dark, uses his homespun aesthetic to create a very funny conventional comedy that's also a pointed commentary on itself.
Von Trier works with natural light, off-kilter compositions, the illusion of naturalistic performances and a lopsided editing rhythm. From this he makes the kind of slow-fuse comedy that Blake Edwards created in the Pink Panther movies.
You savour the awkwardness and wait for disaster to strike.
In a 10-minute interview given to a young Canadian filmmaker, von Trier outlines his filmmaking philosophy. It's a simple, workable aesthetic that produces excellent results.
EXTRAS Von Trier interview. Wide-screen. Danish, French audio. English, French subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, November 20
Live Free Or Die Hard: Two-Disc Special Edition
(Fox, 2007) Bruce Willis strikes again, and things blow up real good.
(Alliance, 2007) John Travolta does Divine in the musical version of John Waters's 1988 comedy.
Sawdust And Tinsel
(Criterion, 1953) Seldom-seen Ingmar Bergman drama of cruelty and betrayal in a rundown circus.
Max Mon Amour
(Lions Gate, 1986) Diplomat's wife Charlotte Rampling falls in love with a chimpanzee. Surrealist comedy from long-time Luis Buöuel screenwriter Jean-Claude Carri`re.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb