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Armchair Cinephile




A s the wait for Return of the King becomes nigh-on unbearable - that thrown-around phrase "most anticipated movie of the season" is an understatement, and one is tempted to strike "season" and replace it with "year" or maybe even "decade" - the canny folks at New Line have seen fit to whet our appetite with Peter Jackson's "Special Extended DVD Edition" of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This is one time DVD lovers can hardly cry foul about a company releasing the same movie twice: When the theatrical cut was put out months ago, it was widely advertised that this version would be forthcoming, just as happened with Fellowship of the Ring. The wait was worth it.

Fellowship pulled off the strange feat of seeming shorter in its extended cut than it did in the theaters; all that "getting to know you" information flowed more smoothly, and the more casual, less crucial material Jackson picked off the cutting-room floor broke up the uniform urgency that sometimes dominated the release version's tone. That's not the case here: Two Towers is longer and feels it - but in a good way.

Instead of flow, the new version aims for a more thorough telling of the tale. It fills in gaps that may have puzzled some viewers the first time around; for instance, two brief moments involving the forest "shepherded" by the Ents both amplify the trees' tale and cap off the showdown at Helm's Deep. It also throws in some bits of Tolkien mythology that fans of the books will appreciate (we discover what's so hot about Elven rope) and gives some background (quick, guess how old Aragorn is!) that is essential to the story to come. Those tidbits are appreciated, but Jackson has also added sequences that work beautifully as drama, including one with a character viewers won't be expecting to see again, and, at least in one final gluttonous moment with Pippin and Merry, as comic relief.

Of course, there are more bonus features than you can shake Gandalf's staff at. And I'm happy for them, really I am. But hours of "making of" documentaries are a bit of a tease right now, as we wait for our last glimpse of Middle Earth.

Wait - what am I saying? Who's to say that, after he has his way with his upcoming version of King Kong, Peter Jackson can't go back and make The Hobbit?

Some other recent DVD releases also have a bearing on current theatrical releases. Gus Van Sant's Gerry (Miramax), for instance, had critics deeply divided from its first screenings at Sundance; some thought the odd, nearly actionless film spellbinding and reminiscent of the best contemporary cinema from the Middle East, while others thought it a colossal bore. Now, after seeing the director transfer his gargantuan attention span to a school massacre in Elephant, naysayers may want to revisit the film. It's more clear now where Gerry was pointed, and the experiment certainly paid off in the later film.

Lord of the Rings:
The Two Towers - Extended Edition
(New Line)
Gerry (Miramax)
Morvern Callar (Palm Pictures)
The Bushido Blade (Wellspring)
To Live and Die in L.A. (MGM)
Viewers who find themselves wondering anew at the acting chops of Samantha Morton (Minority Report, Sweet and Lowdown) in Jim Sheridan's wonderful upcoming film In America may want to see Morvern Callar (Palm Pictures), which is basically all Morton, all the time. Here, she again plays a character with more than her share of difficulty interacting with the rest of the world; but I'm happy to report that this character has a full head of hair. (And that the movie is stunningly photographed, with a soundtrack too hip for words.)

If The Last Samurai has you riled up for "white man in land of Rising Sun" period dramas, The Bushido Blade (Wellspring) is here to help scratch the itch. Like Samurai, it's a mixed bag - but it does boast not only über-swordslinger Toshiro Mifune, but Kill Bill scene stealer Sonny Chiba.

Finally, the Friedkin Watch: Real men - and the real women who love them - have cause to rejoice today, as William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. (MGM) sits in a store near you boasting a nice special edition. Like The French Connection transported into the world of Miami Vice, the film is a must for those of us enamored of Friedkin's gonzo, testosterone-heavy style. The dialogue (co-penned by the director) reeks of macho clichés, the Wang Chung soundtrack (minus the title track, which sets the tone perfectly) should have been strangled at birth, and you would be surprised what questionable performances are delivered by good actors. Still, the gritty crime-and-revenge saga, this time about counterfeiters instead of drug wholesalers, is a lot of ballsy fun, whether we're laughing at it or grinning with it. And while Friedkin happily wasn't allowed to revamp it the way Jackson did Two Towers, the DVD does let you see the sellout ending the filmmakers almost used instead of the basically perfect one they finally went with. •

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