- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

The Bourne Trilogy (Blu-ray, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, $119.98) - Author Robert Ludlum’s bewildered black-ops CIA assassin, Jason Bourne, gave moviegoers a thrill ride in his trilogy of recent films.

“The Bourne Identity,” “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” all struck box-office gold, thanks to Matt Damon’s understated but selectively explosive performance, along with some spectacular stunts and fight scenes.

The latest high-definition tribute offers the three movies in one package. It also ports many of the extras found in the HD-DVD releases while adding enough new content to bury the viewer in the ultimate Bourne experience.

An optional director commentary for each film and more than three dozen featurettes lead the way, and the fun continues with a selection of interactives.

First, on-screen background resources - Treadstone Files, Bourne Dossier and Blackbrier Files - provide immediate access to deeper story information through Universal’s U-Control menu system. Basically, at select times during the movies, multimedia presentations pop up to deliver such fact fodder as a current medical diagnosis of an injured agent or bad guy, character biographies, field reports and 3-D location maps.

Next, specific to “The Bourne Ultimatum,” a Spy Training challenge tests observational skills. A viewer watches select scenes and answers multiple-choice questions to receive a bureau classification ranking.

Finally, most intriguing is an online, turn-based card game. After a pair of opposing players virtually place attack and block cards on a grid, a hand-to-hand combat simulation ensues. It may lack the depth of Magic: The Gathering, but I’ll give Universal points for creativity.

— Joseph Szadkowski

• • •

You’re a Good Sport, Charlie Brown (Warner Home Video Inc., $19.98) - The animated slapstick, the wondrous Vince Guaraldi jazz tunes and the simple but meaningful story lines - they’re all here in this lesser-known but splendid Charlie Brown special, which first aired on CBS in 1975. It even won an Emmy for outstanding children’s special.

The main feature, a mere 25 minutes, revolves around a motor-cross race with a funny and innovative Masked Marvel (when his motorcycle sputters and dies, he decides to refurbish a tennis-ball feeder into a vehicle) and Charlie Brown, et al.

The special features include “You’re the Greatest, Charlie Brown,” which is not quite of the same caliber as the main feature but is still a cute and thoughtful take on competition. (Charlie Brown is competing in a decathlon.)

Though short, this DVD is a good value - for who could ever get enough of Chuck Brown and gang?

The Secret of the Magic Gourd and Mary Poppins: 45th Anniversary Edition (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, $29.99 each) - Although both titles mix animation and live action, you’ll likely find that the older of the two,”Mary Poppins” (made in 1964) does a much better job.

“Gourd,” from 2007, is Disney’s first Chinese-language children’s movie - a brave step in itself. Still, the old Chinese tale about a gourd that grants every wish made by a lazy boy gets tedious.

As a crosscultural experience, though, the movie can be educational for American youngsters, especially when the main Chinese character, Raymond (roughly 7 or 8 years old) and his classmates are studying some mean geometry. (Wow, American kids barely add at that age!)

As for “Mary Poppins,” perhaps it seems a little redundant to release yet another edition. There is, however, a wealth of bonus features and original material for fans of the movie as well as collectors, including a behind-the-scenes look at a contemporary Broadway musical adaptation of the Oscar-winning film from nearly half a century ago.

— Gabriella Boston

• • •

Chris Rock: Kill the Messenger (HBO, $19.98, $29.98 three-disc special edition) - Chris Rock’s latest HBO special features an interesting little quirk: The 80-minute set was spliced together from three shows on three continents. He starts a joke in the Apollo Theater in New York City, sets up the punch line at the Carling Apollo Hammersmith in London and delivers it with aplomb at the Carnival City Casino in South Africa. It’s a neat trick, one that drives home the universality of humor. When your joke kills in New York City, London and Johannesburg, you know you’re a funny guy.

The three-disc special edition contains the original HBO broadcast and all three of the individual performances in their unedited forms. It’s a little repetitive - the sets are remarkably similar, after all - but it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of Mr. Rock’s brand of humor.

Fabulously foul-mouthed and unfiltered in his critical gaze at society and its hang-ups, Mr. Rock’s comedic stylings aren’t for everyone. Still, if you can handle the raunchy ramblings, there’s a deeper - often uncomfortable - truth to be found in his jokes.

John Grisham Courtroom Collection: The Pelican Brief, The Client, Runaway Jury, and A Time to Kill (Warner, Regency and Fox, $39.99) - Not getting enough courtroom procedurals with the myriad variations of “Law and Order” on cable? Check out this collection of big-screen John Grisham adaptations.

The highlight of the pack is “The Client.” Starring Tommy Lee Jones as a U.S. Attorney trying to put away a mobster, Brad Renfro as a child afraid to testify about what he has seen the mobster do and Susan Sarandon as a plucky young lawyer trying simultaneously to protect the child and put the mobster away, “The Client” has a top-notch cast. Indeed, Miss Sarandon was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. This is the only movie in the set that’s a “must-see.”

That said, the rest of the titles are perfectly acceptable courtroom thrillers. “The Runaway Jury” pits a jury foreman (John Cusack) against a corrupt lawyer trying to guarantee a win for a morally bankrupt gun manufacturer. “A Time to Kill” features one of Samuel L. Jackson’s finest performances; his aggrieved father kills two white men who raped his 10-year-old daughter, sparking heightened racial tension in a small Southern town.

“The Pelican Brief” is arguably the most disappointing of these films. Directed by Alan J. Pakula (“All the President’s Men”) and featuring the talents of Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts, “The Pelican Brief” has the trappings of a sure-fire smash hit. Unfortunately, it’s overly long at 141 minutes and something of a bloated mess as a result.

Being There (Blu-ray, Warner Home Video, $28.99) - “Being There” might be the greatest satire of insider Washington I have ever seen. Hal Ashby’s 1979 film nails the pretensions of the political class and its underlings, the talking-head/think-tank set and the media in one fell swoop, managing to be both brutally cynical about the power games played within Washington’s secret corridors and incredibly heartfelt about personal relationships at the same time.

“Being There” stars Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener, who appears to have spent his entire life within the confines of the D.C. town house where he’s employed and to have learned everything he knows about society from television. When the owner of the house dies, he’s forced to leave. Wandering the streets in a daze, Chance almost certainly would starve if he were not fortuitously struck by the car of one Mr. Rand (Melvyn Douglas).

Mr. Rand is a fabulously wealthy businessman who has the ear of the president (Jack Warden) and some sort of connection to the Freemasons. When asked about the state of the economy and how to improve it - no small question in that era of stagflation - Chance responds with gardening jargon about the changing of the seasons. Rand and the president treat this as a metaphor without realizing the truth: Chance is literally talking about gardening.

When the president cites Chance in a speech the next day, he becomes a celebrity on the D.C. cocktail circuit. Everyone wants a piece of the mysterious Chauncey Gardener. By the end of the film, this illiterate tender of the soil is thought to speak eight languages and be a master of intelligence operations.

Mr. Ashby’s film works as well today as it did 30 years ago - which says as much about the dark economic forecast and the divisive politics of the day as it does about the movie. Still, anyone who has spent any time in the nation’s capital can appreciate the satire at work in this marvelous little film. If they look carefully enough, viewers probably can find a small piece of themselves in one (or several) of the characters.

— Sonny Bunch

• • •

Simon Schama: The American Future: A History (BBC, $34.98) - Columbia University art and general historian Simon Schama has produced a number of insightful and watchable documentary series for the BBC, including “Power of Art” and the 15-part “A History of Britain.” He says, though, “My journey into the American future by way of the past has been the most exciting thing I’ve done in television yet.”

The declaration comes in the introduction to his latest offering, which aired in Britain in the fall and is on DVD in America. He produced the series before the election but filmed this intro on Nov. 5 from the Lincoln Memorial, just a day after America elected its first black president: “The genius of America lies in its powers of reinvention. This is one such immense moment where America is reinventing itself.”

Mr. Schama is British-born but has lived in America half his life. The point of this series, he says, is to explain “why America matters now and why American history has always mattered.” It’s a big topic, but he covers a lot of ground in four hourlong episodes: “American Plenty,” “American War,” “American Fervour” and “What Is an American?”

Mr. Schama is a learned man, but his greatest gift is for the lyrical turn of phrase. “He looked at Europe and its history and saw its standing armies and endless wars as the nursery of tyrants,” he says of Thomas Jefferson, who founded West Point not as a military academy but as a school for citizen-soldiers.

This is an intelligent, literary and timely look at the country at the center of the world at a time when it is reassessing its role.

— Kelly Jane Torrance


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