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Transsiberian (Blu-Ray)

First Look
Movie B+
Special Features C-
DVD Geek Factor 6.25 (out of 10)

I missed this in theaters, and I'm regretting it. The Russian winter landscapes played beautifully on the home screen, which means they were probably spectacular on the big screen.

Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play Roy and Jessie, American missionaries touring Russia on a train. They get a couple of cabin mates who are a little suspicious. Abby (Kate Mara) is a quiet American girl who always looks pissed, and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) is a little too sunny to be real. He also has a bag full of wooden dolls that he claims are unique--but the train is full of similar saltshakers. Could they be hiding drugs?

After a stopover, some stuff goes down. Roy and Jessie get a new bunkmate, a Russian narcotics detective (Ben Kingsley) who seems amicable enough. Unfortunately, Roy and Jessie are considered tourists, which raises some suspicions and leads them into the Russian snow with no shoes on.

Harrelson is great, playing Roy as an eternal optimist who offers undying support to his wife, even when it becomes apparent she's done him wrong. Mortimer is excellent as somebody who can't tell the truth, for very good reasons. Kingsley plays the scariest of roles: a nice guy who will kill you if he has to.

Ultimately, it's a good thriller with a nice mystery element. Director Brad Anderson (who also directed the creepy Session 9 and Christian Bale vehicle The Machinist) manages to pull the wool over viewers' eyes at times. The acting is superb, and the visuals are awesome. This should make anybody planning a trip to Russia to cancel promptly.

Special Features: Just a making-of documentary; I would've liked more.


Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Magnolia
Movie B+
Special Features B+
DVD Geek Factor 7.25 (out of 10)

When Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in 2005, he was fulfilling a sort of sad prophecy he had made for himself: He always claimed he'd go out on his own terms, and even planned his own memorial. After his death, a monument (designed by Thompson and occasional sidekick Ralph Steadman) was constructed, and his ashes were shot out of a cannon and over the mountains.

This documentary captures some of that memorial, and many other details in the life of Thompson. It follows him through his early Rolling Stone days, his stint as an angry political analyst, and his fall from grace that ended with him taking his own life. His suicide was supposed to be a final prank or something, but the film doesn't hesitate to show that his actions hurt his loved ones.

All things considered, he was a fascinating writer, and his presence is missed. A good chunk of the movie chronicles the making of the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It's a little-known fact that Alex Cox was the original director for that project, before Terry Gillian came along. (There's footage of Thompson and Cox arguing.) Johnny Depp, a close friend of Thompson, provides narration for the film, and political figures like Pat Buchanan and George McGovern sit down for interviews. This is one of 2008's better documentaries. For those who don't know much about Thompson beyond Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it's a must-see.

Special Features: The disc is pretty loaded. A filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes, Ralph Steadman drawings and audio excerpts from The Gonzo Tapes are all worth taking in.


Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection

Paramount
Movie A
Special Features A-
DVD Geek Factor 9 (out of 10)

Yes, this movie was released on DVD six years ago, and it was a good edition. But this one is even better, and if you don't yet own this all-time-great motion picture on DVD, it's time to get it.

That shot in the beginning, a below-angle image of William Holden floating in a pool, is still one of the best constructed for a film. Gloria Swanson's performance as has-been actress Norma Desmond is eternally remarkable, as is Holden's as screenwriter Joe Gillis, who gets a flat tire in front of Norma's mansion. The film is almost 60 years old, yet it feels timeless. Director Billy Wilder could do anything with a movie, and this is, perhaps, his greatest triumph.

Casting an actual silent-film actress (Swanson) whose fame had diminished by the time this movie was released was a stroke of genius. This makes her performance all the more real. She walks that line between caricature and true dementia, and she walks it beautifully.

The Centennial Collection also includes revamped editions of Roman Holiday and Sabrina.

Special Features: A two-disc extravaganza is loaded with goodies, some from the prior edition, and many brand-new. There's a commentary holdover from the original, with Ed Sikov, author of a Billy Wilder biography. You also get many making-of docs, features focusing on Swanson and Holden, and much more. Cool trivia tidbit: Montgomery Clift was the first choice for Joe Gillis, and even accepted the part before changing his mind.

More by Bob Grimm

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