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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

The Bottom (Top) Shelf

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Alexander: Director's Cut

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Alexander: Director's Cut
2004 (2005) - Warner Bros.

Film Rating: C+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/B+

Like millions of Americans, I did not see the theatrical version of Oliver Stone's epic Alexander when it played last year. So I have no way of knowing if the Director's Cut is, as the cover art promises, "newly inspired, faster paced, more action-packed". Tell you the truth, I'm not even sure what "newly inspired" means or why that's supposed to be a good thing. But even on its own merits, Stone's revamped Alexander remains something of an enigma.

Colin Farrell takes the title role. Sporting one of the worst dye jobs in recent memory, Farrell's Alexander sets forth to conquer strange new lands, including Persia and India, areas coveted by his father (Val Kilmer) but forever out of his reach. Alexander's relentless ambition ultimately begins to foster dissent among his men, tired from year after year of endless fighting. Nevertheless, he stays true to his own seemingly limitless ambition.

I think Oliver Stone is a fascinating filmmaker capable of greatness. Even when I've hated his films, I still thought they were worth watching. Well, I didn't hate Alexander and there are impressive scenes here that are well worth your time. But for the most part, this is a clumsy beast of a movie, plodding along and only occasionally raring up to impress us. It reminded me of an old, classic Hollywood epic like Cleopatra as it would have been directed by a young, iconoclastic rebel filmmaker of the late 60s or early 70s. It's like if a strong-willed director like Dennis Hopper had teamed up with an equally strong and powerful old-school producer like David O. Selznick. Curious, to be sure, but the pieces don't really fit together. There are some fine scenes, particularly in that final battle sequence. Kilmer's performance is a bit eccentric (no surprise there) but ultimately I thought it worked. The same goes for Angelina Jolie as Alexander's mother, although I was put off by the bizarre, seemingly Transylvanian accent she uses. As for Farrell, he's certainly an arresting screen presence but I don't think he's really found the right role yet. His best performances to date have been in a supporting role in Minority Report and in the half-baked but fun B-thriller Phone Booth. As Alexander, I never really understood why these men followed him so far and for so long. Farrell just doesn't have the magnetism that would make him appear to be a natural leader of men.

While the movie is a disappointment, Warner's two-disc DVD is actually quite impressive. It looks and sounds terrific, which is no real surprise. Oliver Stone provides an extremely good feature-length commentary on disc one, regardless of what you think of the movie. Give the man his due, Stone is one of the best directors out there at this kind of thing. I actually enjoyed the 167-minute movie more while listening to him discuss it. He talks about the changes he made from the theatrical version and why, gives historical background, and provides insight into the production. There's hardly a dead spot on the entire track.

The bulk of disc two holds an 87-minute Behind the Scenes documentary by Sean Stone (Oliver's son, you may remember him from cameos in movies like The Doors and JFK). Divided into three parts, this is a very good making-of piece. Probably because he was the director's son, Sean Stone was able to take his video camera pretty much everywhere and talk to everybody (if you're working on a movie, do you want to be the one to tell the boss's kid to get the hell out of here with that goddamn camera?). By the end, I doubt you'll have a single question left unanswered about the making of the film. The disc also includes a couple trailers, a too-brief interview with Vangelis about his music (his first film score since 1992, if I'm not mistaken), and a DVD-ROM link to online historical background. My personal preference would have been to have the historical stuff part of the DVD video side but you may disagree.

Oliver Stone is too good a filmmaker to completely dismiss but Alexander is a misfire by most any definition. It's a disappointment, especially considering that it was a pet project of Stone's for many years, but I don't believe it's a major setback. I remain optimistic that he still has some great movies left in him. And if he doesn't, he can always hire himself out as a professional audio commentator.

Million Dollar Baby: 3-Disc Deluxe Edition

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Million Dollar Baby
3-Disc Deluxe Edition - 2004 (2005) - Warner Bros.

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/C+

Clint Eastwood seems to enjoy a resurgence in critical popularity, a comeback if you will, every few years or so. I'm sure Clint finds it all very amusing. Not only has he reached the age where most people couldn't care less what others think about them (although Eastwood's always had that air about him anyway). As far as he's concerned, he hasn't gone anywhere. Year after year, Clint just keeps on doing what he's doing, making movies quietly and efficiently with little fuss or pomp. Sometimes people connect with 'em. Sometimes they don't. Let the chips fall where they may.

In 2003, Eastwood received some of the loudest critical hosannas of his career with the release of Mystic River. Most praised it as one of his greatest films. Personally, I found it a bit overwrought and not nearly as effective as the novel it was based upon. But I'm in total agreement with the acclaim and Oscars showered upon his 2004 release, Million Dollar Baby.

For starters, I've rarely seen a boxing movie I didn't like. It's a sport that lends itself to film in a way like no other. But even if you're not a sucker for boxing pictures, Million Dollar Baby offers a rich, multilayered story. Oscar-winner Hilary Swank stars as Maggie, a hungry young boxer determined to make it big despite being older than most beginners and the fact that the man she wants to train her (Eastwood) doesn't train girls. Fortunately, Eastwood's pal Morgan Freeman (another Oscar winner) believes in her and, with a lot of persuading, convinces him to take Maggie on.

From that very basic description, it sounds like we've seen this story and these characters before. The ambitious hopeful, the crusty trainer, and the ex-fighter now working in the gym have been staples of the genre since somebody first decided to film a boxing match. And if Million Dollar Baby doesn't break new ground with these character types, it most certainly goes deeper into them than most movies. Each and every character is well-defined and lived in. And it's this quality that I believe gives the story's third-act left turn such a punch. Part of the reason we don't see it coming is because up until that point, we aren't entirely sure whose story is being told. It could be Maggie's or Frankie's or even Scrap's. But suddenly, everything we've seen snaps into focus.

The first disc of Warner's triple-disc Deluxe Edition features nothing but the movie and the trailer. When a studio does this, you hope that they've given the movie space to breathe. Sure enough, the space is well-utilized by the film, with an amazingly good image and a solid 5.1 audio track. Disc two holds the special features, a small but generally well-produced selection of featurettes. The 19-minute Born to Fight examines the world of women's boxing, primarily through interviews with boxer/consultant/actress Lucia Rijker. The Producers Round 15 only runs about 13 minutes but it's actually fairly interesting, with Albert S. Ruddy, Paul Haggis and Tom Rosenberg sharing their perspective. You don't often see a featurette devoted solely to the producers, so I enjoyed their take. Finally, the awkwardly-titled James Lipton Takes on Three has the obsequious host of Inside the Actors Studio chatting with Eastwood, Swank and Freeman for close to half an hour. This doesn't start well, with Lipton practically licking his chops over their just-won Oscars, but eventually does settle into some good stuff.

The third disc of the Deluxe set is actually Eastwood's score on CD. The music is very good, a mixture of piano jazz, strings, and almost Ry Cooder-esque guitar. It's a nice addition to the set, although you probably don't think so if you already bought the soundtrack album when it first came out.

There's no question that Clint Eastwood is an outstanding filmmaker. His Best Director Oscars for Unforgiven and this film are richly deserved. And like all great directors, he has some underrated movies in his filmography waiting to be rediscovered (personally, I'm very fond of Bronco Billy and White Hunter, Black Heart). But while I was pleased he won again for Million Dollar Baby, I'd hoped he'd win Best Actor. This movie features one of Eastwood's very best performances and I think that's what will make Million Dollar Baby endure. He's well past retirement age but I hope Clint decides to keep working for some time.


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2005 (2005) - Lions Gate

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A-/C-*

(* except for the commentary, which rates an A)

Speaking of Paul Haggis, the Million Dollar Baby screenwriter has been basking in his own critical kudos this year thanks to Crash, his directorial debut. The film has received some of the best reviews of the year and justifiably so. A provocative multi-character drama set against a backdrop of racial tension in modern day Los Angeles, love it or hate it, Crash is a movie designed to get you talking.

Unlike Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, to which Crash bears more than a passing similarity, this movie makes no attempt to hide the fact that it has an agenda. Race is first and foremost on the mind of every character and most of the dialogue is centered firmly around these issues.

Brendan Fraser is a district attorney who becomes the victim of a carjacking, then immediately goes into spin control so that the incident doesn't cost him the black vote. Ludacris and Larenz Tate are the carjackers and when we first meet them, they're arguing about the black but still, in Ludacris' eyes, racist waitress who just served them. Sandra Bullock is Fraser's high society wife who becomes even more suspicious and insulated after the carjacking. Ryan Phillippe is a cop shocked by the behavior of his racist partner (Matt Dillon) and spends the rest of the film trying to overcompensate for it. Dillon's worst tendencies are brought out when they pull over TV director Terrence Howard and his wife, Thandie Newton. Howard is emasculated by the experience and must come to terms with himself. And that's just a handful of the characters and stories in this mosaic. I haven't even touched on Don Cheadle as the detective sleeping with his partner (Jennifer Espotio), Michael Peña as the locksmith who works on the doors of two other characters, or Shaun Taub as the convenience store owner.

Crash is a movie designed to provoke debate and at that, it's very successful. But when I first saw it, I was slightly put off by how blatant that design was (I also had a bit of a problem with some of the coincidences inherent in the story... I have a hard enough time seeing people I know in this city, so I kind of don't buy how easily these total strangers encounter each other repeatedly). Crash certainly isn't the first movie to attempt something like this, either in its structure or its message. My own preference is for movies that stimulate thought and reflection with more subtlety, like Kieslowski's Decalogue for example. But is it really fair to expect subtlety from a movie called Crash? The second time around, I was able to get past the often-hammerhead dialogue to focus on the film's positive attributes and there are quite a few. J. Michael Muro's cinematography, for instance, is remarkable, often hypnotic. And while it should be fairly obvious that there are no slackers in this cast, some of the performances are downright spellbinding. The best of the bunch are Peña, Cheadle, Dillon, Bullock and most especially Terrence Howard.

Crash has not been given a particularly noteworthy treatment on disc but for a standard edition, it's not too shabby. Picture quality is fair, though I suspect that any perceived flaws are not the fault of the digital transfer but inherent in the film itself and there on purpose. Sound quality is pretty darn good. Most of the extras are disposable, including a 10-minute "behind the scenes", a music video by the group Kansascali, a clutch of trailers for other Lions Gate releases, and a pointless introduction by Paul Haggis. In fact, the disc would be a loss if not for the audio commentary by Haggis, actor/co-producer Cheadle, and co-writer Bobby Moresco. This is an honest-to-God great commentary, funny, informative and illuminating. For example, Haggis explains how important it was to get Cheadle on board first because at the time, Haggis himself had no track record. He knew other actors would want to work with Cheadle, whereas they wouldn't exactly line up to be in a movie directed by "the Facts of Life guy".

It's unlikely that you'll walk away from Crash with a lukewarm response. Most folks I know either love it or hate it. I'm in the "like it" camp but concede that it's a movie that rewards multiple viewings. And as such, it's a great movie to have on disc, no matter what side of the debate you're on.

Adam Jahnke
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