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Date: 5 December, 2003

 

 

'Without exception, the new material adds to the story and enhances what was already a fine piece of film-making.'



In the first of a new regular monthly column, Steve Couch reviews his choice of the best film releases on DVD. To buy a DVD, and raise money for Christian Aid projects, simply click on its title or picture.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Special Extended DVD edition (4 discs).

The cinematic release weighed in at just under three hours, and director Peter Jackson has added a further 42 minutes of footage, by way of adding lines of dialogue to existing scenes, or reinstating scenes which had to be sacrificed to bring the film down to a manageable length.

So what is the effect of the additions? Will they work, or prove to be a millstone, burdening an already long film with more weight than it can bear? Without exception, the new material adds to the story and enhances what was already a fine piece of film-making.

Supporting characters such as Farimir, Eowyn and Treebeard are given more screen time, and their stories are developed. Some of the subtleties of characterisation become more apparent, and the audience is given a clearer grasp of the psychology driving the characters.

Gandalf's grasp of the big picture becomes more apparent, and there is more sense of him as the mastermind of the opposition to Sauron, like a chess player marshalling his pieces to defeat the Dark Lord.

Rivalry

The playful rivalry of Legolas and Gimli is restored, as well as countless small details like Sam's Elven rope, and Merry and Pippin's experience of Ent draught, which will delight fans of the book. Whether you are a major Tolkien buff or only know the films, the additional footage all serves the story and adds significantly to the enjoyment of the film.

If all you got for your money was the improved version of the film, that would be a fine addition to any DVD collection. But there's so much more on offer here. Four commentary tracks, featuring the director and writers, cast, design and production teams respectively; and no less than thirteen documentaries spread over two discs of extras.

This DVD package will sustain - and reward - hours of viewing time spread over several weeks. Again, the documentaries tend to serve the film, enhancing and explaining the creative process, rather than merely filling out disc space.

Changes

Changes to Tolkien's original story are justified by the writers, and Tolkien buffs who were initially indignant will at least understand the reasons behind those creative decisions. For the most part (I write as one whose indignation was provoked by a couple of things) the reasoning makes sense, and you can see that Peter Jackson and his team probably got it right.

Who should buy this DVD? Fans of the films and fans of the books will be delighted by the detail and insight. Cinema buffs will love the craft of the movie-making that is revealed. If you didn't like the original film, this probably won't convert you, but then again, you probably don't expect it to. Peter Jackson has done a marvellous job in capturing the spirit of Tolkien's novel and recreating it on screen. That was true even without the extended versions, but this gets closer to his - and Tolkien's - vision. When God invented DVD, he probably had this kind of package in mind. Utterly brilliant.

Other Current Releases

Bruce Almighty
Ranking somewhere in the middle of Jim Carrey's wackiness range (more toned down than Dumb and Dumber or Ace Ventura, but crazier than Truman Show or The Majestic), to some extent what you make of Carrey as a comic actor will determine how you feel about Bruce Almighty.

An excellent supporting cast - Morgan Freeman turns in a typically classy performance as God - provides the platform for Carrey to do his thing. A disappointingly slight extras package includes 'The Process of Jim', which shows Carrey improvising multiple takes in search of the best comic business. Again, depending on your view of Carrey, this is either testimony to his genius or tiresomely self-indulgent. In the same way, the out takes will delight some and bore others.

The message of the film turns out to be disappointingly bland - stop looking to God to change things and be your own miracle - and maybe the film could have done with a little more bite. Nevertheless, there are several laugh out loud moments and this is a good night in if you want to be entertained without having to think too hard.

The Hulk
A film that didn't know whether it was a blockbuster action movie or a thoughtful psychological drama, and possibly falls between the two stools. Plaudits for director Ang Lee for attempting to do more than just 'Hulk smash!' his way to box-office riches.

Although there are early hints at the Hulk as an out-of-control suppressed beast of the subconscious, for the most part he is played more as a noble savage.

Even when Hulk lays waste to units of American tanks, helicopters and soldiers, he is always motivated by self-defence rather than anger. At times the film topples into the ridiculous (the fight with a genetically modified killer poodle springs to mind), while still trying to be taken seriously. A generous selection of DVD extras, but it's hard to shake off the thought that this film has more to offer than it delivers. This isn't a bad film, just a decent one which should have been so much better.

The Simpsons Season 3 box set
You know what you're getting with a Simpsons box set. Consistently funny episodes (24 of them here) which don't lose their edge with familiarity. Which is just as well, as everything in this box set has been aired on television many times over.

By season three, the show was well and truly into its stride, with sharper animation than before, finely polished writing and the likes of Sting, Danny DeVito and Michael Jackson queuing up to make guest appearances. (Jacko appears as a fat white man who is convinced that he is ... Michael Jackson). This season marked the point where Homer ousted Bart as the main comic focus of the show, but there is plenty of room for all of the characters to shine.

As we have come to expect, there are laugh out loud moments in every episode, and enough subtlety that you will still be spotting new jokes after several viewings. Best of the bunch for me are Colonel Homer and Saturdays of Thunder, but the standard is so consistently high that a case could be made for just about any episode here. Cartoon DVDs don't get better than this. At least, not until season 4 comes out.

Other DVDs from 2003

The Good Girl
Jennifer Aniston cast very much against type, and a revelation as a downtrodden supermarket employee tempted by an affair with younger co-worker (Jake Gyllenhaal). Finally, one of the Friends stars in a really good film.


Catch Me If You Can

Spielberg, Hanks and DiCaprio combine for the based-on-true-story tale of fraudster extroadinaire Frank Abagnale Jr. Less cat and mouse chasing than the promotional material led us to believe, but still a good film that's worth a look.


Gangs of New York

Leonardo in grittier mode than the previous offering. Scorsese's labour of love finally made it to the big screen (he's been talking about this one for years), and was appallingly overlooked at the Oscars. A long hard examination of the foundation of modern America, and one of the best DVD releases of the year. DiCaprio and Diaz are very good, while Daniel Day Lewis is mesmerising as Bill the Butcher.





The Life of David Gale

Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet are both on form in this tale of an anti-death penalty protester who finds himself facing the death penalty. Engrossing and thought provoking.

The West Wing, season 2
Absolutely no DVD extras, not even an interview or 'making of' documentary, but in spite of that, this is still excellent. The West Wing consistently provides some of the best written and best acted drama ever produced for television, and it deserves a wider audience than Channel 4's erratic scheduling has delivered.

An ensemble cast of intelligent, dedicated and idiosyncratic characters who swiftly work their way into the affections of the audience. Season one is just as good, but newcomers to the programme will soon pick up the pace if they start here. Only the lack of extras keeps this from the top marks that the episodes deserve.

Solaris
Intelligent, grown up philosophical science fiction. A disappointing box office opening for Steven Soderbergh's remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 classic, but can you name a non shoot-em-up sci-fi that did any better? George Clooney demonstrates again that there's much more to him than 'Gorgeous George the Hollywood Heart-Throb'. Not for everyone, but very good nonetheless.