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Days of Heaven (Blu-ray)





(OUT OF 10)

I love the films of Terrence Malick. Surprisingly, I had never seen this film until I saw it sitting on the department-store Blu-ray rack.

The film is as beautiful and important as any of his works. If you asked me which directors capture the look and feel of nature best, I would have to put Malick at the top. He is a true visual poet.

The film stars relative newcomer (at the time) Richard Gere as Bill, a laborer who gets himself into trouble and winds up fleeing with his lover, Abby (Brooke Adams), and younger sister, Linda (Linda Manz), to a wheat farm. The farm they work on is owned by a solitary man (Sam Shepard, playing a character simply called The Farmer) who has learned he is dying. He falls in love with Abby, and Bill becomes convinced that she should marry him so they might inherit his wealth.

Of course, things don't go according to plan, with Bill and Abby unable to hide their love 100 percent of the time, and The Farmer becoming suspicious. While Gere and Adams are excellent, it is Shepard's character I find the most memorable. There's a sad innocence regarding the plight of his character.

The film contains Oscar-winning cinematography by Néstor Almendros, who was apparently going blind at the time; there's also an Oscar-nominated score by Ennio Morricone. The picture is so beautifully shot that I found myself missing the dialogue, because I was so busy admiring the scenery. The locust-infestation scene and the immense fire are technical marvels. Malick used peanut shells to simulate swarming bugs, and he really did set a field on fire.

This film truly earns the description "haunting"; it's also the film that marked a serious interruption in Malick's career. He wouldn't make another film for two decades, before he ended his silence with The Thin Red Line (1998). Since then, he's completed one more movie (2005's The New World) and is wrapping up another (The Tree of Life, due for release this year). It's nice that he seems interested in the craft again.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Interviews with Gere and Shepard reveal much about the production. Shepard, who hadn't yet acted much at the time, rented a Mustang and drove from his ranch to Canada to be in the movie. Gere, who got the part when John Travolta couldn't get out of his Welcome Back, Kotter commitments, was upset when he discovered Malick had removed large swaths of dialogue in favor of visuals. You also get a commentary with members of the production crew, and a booklet containing an impressive essay on the film.

The African Queen (Blu-ray)





(OUT OF 10)

Until now, you could only watch this classic film in the United States on beat-up VHS. Now on DVD and Blu-ray, John Huston's African epic has been restored, and the results are mesmerizing.

Humphrey Bogart won an Oscar for playing against his usual type as scruffy Charlie Allnut, captain of an old riverboat. World War I has begun, and Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) is a missionary in a small African village. When soldiers destroy her church, she winds up on Charlie's boat and is determined to attack a German warship with handmade torpedoes.

It's fun to watch Bogart dirty himself up and play a character who feels lucky to be romancing somebody like Rose, rather than just sweeping her off her feet, Hollywood-style.

Huston actually shot much of the film on location, so when you see Bogart commenting on a group of crocodiles jumping into the water, he's really looking at animals capable of eating him. Much of the cast and crew, including Hepburn, got very ill while making the movie. Legend has it that Huston was obsessed with shooting an elephant while working on the production.

SPECIAL FEATURES: The single-disc Blu-ray comes with an excellent making-of documentary. The Blu-ray is also available in a boxed set that contains collectibles and a radio version of the story starring Bogart.

Apollo 13: 15th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray)





(OUT OF 10)

Fifteen years ago, Ron Howard made the best movie of his career, about the troubled Apollo 13 mission. The film was nominated for Best Picture, but he personally got snubbed when he didn't get a Best Director nom. (He's won an Oscar since then, for A Beautiful Mind.)

This film also included what might be the best performance of Tom Hanks' career, as he played astronaut Jim Lovell. (Of course, he didn't get nominated for an Oscar, either.) The film has aged well, and I still believe both Howard and Hanks should've scored Oscar gold for their work here.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Some cool documentaries and a Howard commentary, but best of all is a commentary from the real Jim Lovell.


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