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Date: 7 July, 2004

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'Don't be surprised to see this being named as a lot of people's favourite film in a few years time.'

Steve Couch reviews his choice of the best film releases on DVD.

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Use the jump links below to read the other reviews in this column
Lost In Translation
Runaway Jury
American Splendor
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Lost In Translation

Satisfying intelligent, Sofia Coppola's low budget view of urban Japanese life seen through the eyes of a world weary American actor (Bill Murray) doing lucrative advertising work and a wide-eyed young woman (Scarlett Johannson) trying to find her place in the world. The chemistry between the two central characters is played gently, and the film ignores the obvious route of sexual liaison and presents a much more interesting dynamic. There is a poignancy to the ending which owes as much to what hasn't taken place as to what has.

Although the film presents the surface of modern Japan in a way that anyone in the know will recognise (so I'm told by my friend in the know), this is ultimately a tale of friendship, alienation and losing - or finding - your way in life. The distinct culture of Japan is merely a filter to help us see this more clearly. For a time the film itself seems to be going nowhere, but that's kind of the point. Then suddenly it starts peeling back the layers to expose the questions that lie at the heart of both the film and the two main characters.

The extras offer nothing particularly remarkable (disappointingly, there isn't even a commentary), but the film itself is worth seeing. And if it is the kind of film that will leave some viewers cold, it will strike chords for others that resonate very deeply indeed. Don't be surprised to see this being named as a lot of people's favourite film in a few years time

Click to buyRunaway Jury
20th Century Fox

A John Grisham adaptation that does exactly what we have come to expect from Hollywood versions of that author's novels: first of all, make lots of changes; secondly, produce a genuinely gripping conventional thriller.

Grisham's central concept - a high profile trial with various forces at work to sway the jury, by fair means or foul (well, just foul, actually) - remains intact, but the details have changed. Where the trial in the novel centres on the tobacco industry, here it concerns a gun manufacturer. However, even hardcore Grisham fans should find that the changes do nothing to weaken the story, The cast is uniformly excellent, with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman - old acting school buddies - getting the chance to act together onscreen for the first time in their distinguished careers. John Cusack and Rachel Weisz prove more than capable of standing toe to toe with the two veterans, and the supporting cast do all that is asked of them and more.

The plot twists and turns throughout, and there is a genuine sense of tension as the film enters the home straight. The film doesn't really offer any great or profound observations on the legal system or the gun industry, but I don't think that was high on the agenda here. What the film sets out to do - to entertain - it does admirably.

The extras package doesn't look anything special, but is actually a lot better than many other DVD offerings. The reason for this is simple: Hackman and Hoffman dominate, with plenty of time given to their anecdotes, mutual teasing and finishing each others sentences like an old married couple. At one point Hackman even refers to playing a scene with 'the young people' (by which he means Cusack and Weisz). Once it came to light that the two old friends had never shared screen time before, an additional scene was quickly written to give them just that opportunity. The extras spend a lot of time examining that scene, and it stands up well to the scrutiny.

With ordinary actors, the entire extras package could have sagged into boredom, but Hackman and Hoffman are no ordinary actors, and they show more charm in a couple of interviews than some well known rivals manage in an entire career. Whoever persuaded the two old codgers to make themselves available deserves almost as much credit as the stars.

Click to buyAmerican Splendor

American Splendor tells the true story of Harvey Pekar, a files clerk from Cleveland who wanted to make his mark upon life, and so started writing his own comic books - with himself as the hero. Harvey's musings on a mundane life soon developed a cult following, one which led to regular appearances on the Letterman show and ultimately to this film. Early on in the proceedings the real Harvey Pekar warns us not to expect a typical Hollywood movie, and what follows is in many ways unlike anything else you will have seen.

Writer/directors Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcimi interweave different versions of Harvey and his story to telling effect. We have actor Paul Giamatti playing Harvey, documentary footage of the real Harvey, and even animated cartoon-strip Harvey's. Real-life actors find themselves in comic book frames, and the flavour of the original American Splendour comics shines through. This most unnaturalistic of films succeeds in capturing the essence of a comic strip whose appeal was always in showing the truth about real life. A measure of the different levels at play in the film is found in the scene where Giamatti's Harvey goes to the theatre to see a stage version of the comic books: we are presented with an actor playing Harvey watching an actor playing an actor playing Harvey, and it's impossible to escape the knowledge that somewhere the real Harvey is also watching it all.

Mortality, identity and reality are all explored as themes, and if the film doesn't necessarily provide easy answers, it's a fascinating journey. A plentiful array of extras somehow manages to disappoint, and even the commentary track finds Harvey's voice too often drowned out by the various friends, family and cast members who shared the recording with our man.

This is a fascinating film that won't be to everyone's taste, but has a great deal to recommend it. A collection of truly strange - and strangely true - characters are treated with affection. Viewers with a taste for imaginative, innovative and genuinely left-field film making, will find this to be a delight.

Click to buyLord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2 disc set)
Optimum, certificate PG

Who would want to buy this when later this year will see The Return of the Film in a four disc edition, complete with another hour of deleted material? Don't get me wrong, Return of the King as it appeared in the cinema - which is what you get here - was a glorious conclusion to Peter Jackson's epic trilogy. Although the eleven Oscars were, let's face it, handed out to honour the trilogy as a whole, this is the best of the three remarkable films.

It's easy to take the films for granted and think that you couldn't go wrong with Tolkien's material, but don't forget that for years people described The Lord of the Rings as unfilmable. Jackson's achievement in producing a runaway success at the box office that also satisfies the vast majority of the book's fans shouldn't be underestimated. The extras here are also reasonable, but it's hard to escape the knowledge that the best stuff has been held back for the release of the extended version.

So, who would want to buy this edition of the film?

1. People who think that 3 hours plus is quite long enough for one film, thank you very much.
2. People who have the theatrical versions of the other two, and want a matching set.
3. People who don't like Christopher Lee as Saruman - notoriously omitted from this cut of the film.
4. People with no patience and who just can't wait.
5. People with more money than sense who plan to buy both.

My advice? I'm waiting for the big one. But if any of the above reasons do apply to you, this two disc set provides an excellent film which won't disappoint. If we had never had the four disc versions of the other films, we wouldn't know there was anything wrong with this - the only shadow on the horizon is cast by this films own big brother.

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