TEARS OF THE SUN (Columbia, 2003) D: Antoine Fuqua, w/ Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci. Rating: NNN
the folks at columbia found someone who proclaimed Tears Of The Sun "the best war movie since Black Hawk Down," which is true as far as it goes, but it's the sort of statement that claims an equivalence between the two. While Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) is a good director with an unblinking eye, he's not Ridley Scott, and his story is of less interest as a conventional war story than as an atrocity exhibition effectively advocating the intervention of American troops into trouble spots to prevent genocide. I'm not going to disagree with his point of view, but Tears has a far more conventional "cavalry to the rescue" finish than the one history forced on Scott in Black Hawk Down.
Bruce Willis stars as a Navy SEAL team leader dropped into the Nigerian jungle to get an American doctor (Monica Bellucci) out - only she won't leave without her people, so they must drag across what seems like half of Nigeria with rebel forces chasing them.
A good wide-screen transfer, and Fuqua's commentary is informative and passionate, but I've seen Tears three times now and I'm not sure there's much left to get. Good renter, for sure.
DVD EXTRAS Director commentary, screenwriter commentary, African fact track, pop-up-video-style reference track, making-of featurette, interactive map of Africa, English and French versions and subtitles.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER: COMPLETE SEASON FOUR (20th Century Fox, 1999-2000) P: Joss Whedon, w/ Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan. Six discs. Rating: NNNN
it's ironic that buffy fandom likes to run down season four. Yes, the story arc was all over the place, but the departure from high school liberated the writers, and three years of building the show gave them and the cast an uncanny grasp of the characters. Episode by episode, this is one of the most entertaining Buffy seasons, including the daring "silent" episode, Hush; the weirdest of the season finales in the dream episode Restless; and Who Are You?, in which Buffy's body is inhabited by the spirit of rogue slayer Faith, allowing Sarah Michelle Gellar to give one of her funniest performances.
However rambling the story gets, Season Four does stick with what writer Doug Petrie describes as the formula: "Demons, intrigue and cleavage. That's not why we'll never win an Emmy. If ER had demons, intrigue and cleavage they'd still win Emmys."
Good transfers, and a nice package of extras - seven commentaries, more than any previous season box, and mostly on the episodes where one wants a commentary.
DVD EXTRAS Commentaries by Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon and Seth Green on Wild At Heart; Doug Petrie on The Initiative and This Year's Girl; Whedon on Hush and Restless; Jane Espenson on Superstar; David Fury and James Contner on Primeval. Three episode scripts, featurettes on Hush, set design, Spike, season overview, stills gallery. English-, French-, Spanish-language tracks, English and Spanish subtitles.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Warner, 1984) D: Sergio Leone, w/ Robert De Niro, James Woods. Two discs. Rating: NNNN
THE RIGHT STUFF (Warner, 1983) D: Philip Kaufman, w/ Ed Harris, Sam Shepard. Two discs. Rating: NNN
GIANT (Warner, 1956) D: George Stevens, w/ Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor. Two discs. Rating: NNN
warner's two-disc special editions never turn out quite as well as one would hope. Singin' In The Rain and Unforgiven, the best of their last flight, suffered slightly from an insufficiently glossy print in the the former and an excess of Richard Schickel in the latter. (He hosted one of the documentaries, directed a second and did the commentary.)Well, we finally have the complete 229-minute director's cut of Once Upon A Time In America, in a beautiful transfer in the proper aspect ratio. Hallelujah.
On the other hand, Schickel, who seems to be Warner's go-to guy for critical commentaries when they can't get Ebert (who did a superb job on Citizen Kane), doesn't seem to have any real commitment to this film. Once Upon A Time In America is a perverse, wonderful monstrosity and needs a really passionate defender for its commentary.
The Right Stuff has no full commentary. There's 25 minutes of scene-specific commentary on the second disc, in which the object of the game seems to have been to squeeze in three lines from every member of the cast. Bad idea, and I wonder why, since director Philip Kaufman has done excellent commentaries for both The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and his remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.
There's some decent making-of material, but the big documentary on the second half is the PBS John Glenn biography. A very good transfer, however. A lot of people like The Right Stuff more than I do; I've never thought it succeeded in balancing the story's irony and hero worship, and eventually you tire of the way every secondary character is saddled with Tom Wolfean exposition.
Half a century ago, Giant was the biggest movie of its year at the box office and at the Oscars, which means it carries a certain historical weight. It also has some mythological status as part of the brief filmography of James Dean, but it has not aged well.
By the mid-50s, George Stevens had ossified into a director of official classics like A Place In The Sun, and Giant is in that style - big, slow-moving, based on a piece of serious literature (Edna Ferber's novel) and running a maddening 190 minutes. I was tempted while watching it to flip the DVD player to double speed just to get it over with.
Giant does have the best extras package of this bunch: a commentary by the director's son, George Stevens Jr., and screenwriter Ivan Moffat, two retrospective documentaries, period newsreel footage and an extensive production stills gallery. Indeed, the second disc has so many extras that the movie is a flipper, using both sides of the first disc. Once Upon a Time, even longer, is split across its two discs, but it's not broken at the intermission point but in the middle of a scene. As I noted earlier, Warner has trouble getting it right.
DVD EXTRAS Once Upon A Time In America: critical commentary, relevant excerpt from a Leone documentary, theatrical trailer, highlight clips from Leone's films.
The Right Stuff: scene-specific commentary, three retrospective making-of documentaries, PBS documentary John Glenn: American Hero, 13 deleted scenes, theatrical trailer, interactive space program timelines. English and French versions, English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Giant: Commentary by George Stevens Jr. and screenwriter Ivan Moffat, two retrospective making-of documentaries, contemporary newsreel footage, theatrical trailers, production notes, stills galleries. English and French versions, English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Also this week
NARC (Paramount) Gritty crime drama with Ray Liotta and Jason Patric spraying spittle on each other’s facial hair. There’s Method in their madness.
JUST MARRIED (20th Century Fox) Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy discover that being married’s tough. A comedy.
STARGATE SG-1: COMPLETE SEASON THREE (MGM) They did three seasons of this show? Who knew?
HAPPINESS: SIGNATURE EDITION (Lions Gate) 139 minutes of exquisitely realized suburban horror. In a new Special Edition!
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb