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DVD Reviews

'Billy the Kid,' 'Quo Vadis' and 'Polar Express'

Billy the Kid
One disc; Zeitgeist; $29.99

Jennifer Venditti's intimate cinéma-vérité study of Billy, an isolated 15-year-old from rural Brunswick, Maine, is told in his own words and is a study in contradictions. Billy is drawn to violent games and is subject to serious anger, but he also longs for love and is gentle at heart. Romantic fantasies almost overcome him. Venditti sets up the conflict between Billy's immersion in blood-and-thundering pop culture (KISS does the soundtrack) and his intense sensitivity. She doesn't blame the adults for Billy's isolation, either; his high school isn't an urban charnel house. Additions to this noteworthy documentary are a commentary track and some brief on-camera interviews with Venditti; she describes how she was forced during one cut of the film to add a title card explaining that Billy has Asperger's syndrome, a gesture she didn't want to make because she hated labeling the boy-man. Zeitgeist is offering the film at a reduced rate to educators. While this is certainly a unique film about the plight of adolescence, it especially has a great deal to offer a schoolroom, and I'd be fascinated to hear what high school students think of it.

(Richard von Busack)

Quo Vadis
Two discs; Warner Home Video; $20.97

The coming of TV spooked Hollywood big time. To lure audiences back to the movie palaces, the industry experimented with spectacle, producing a decade's worth of biblical/Roman epics, until Cleopatra broke the bank. The first of these canny combinations of fleshy desire and spiritual redemption was 1951's Quo Vadis, which hit theaters complete with a Roadshow Overture and Exit Music. This was the fourth screen adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz's 1895 bestseller, set in the reign of Nero. A proud Roman soldier, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), falls for a Christian girl (Deborah Kerr) and eventually sees the light and converts. Meanwhile, Peter Ustinov's porcine Nero mewls, pouts and composes bad verse while his "suave and ironical" court satirist, Petronius (Leon Glenn), tries to contain his disgust. The climax arrives when Nero, "history's evil genius," embarks on an ambitious program of urban redevelopment by burning down Rome. The special effects consciously recall the burning of Atlanta sequence from Gone With the Wind, with lurid incendiary colors. Unfortunately, Vinicius' chariot ride to the rescue is a glaring bit of back projection. Stiffness abounds in the scenes of Peter and Paul preaching the new doctrine to the oppressed true believers. On the other hand: wild orgy dancing at the palace. That's the beauty of these period epics--you can have your cheesecake and eat it, too. This special edition comes with a fascinating background documentary. The project was initiated before World War II, with such names as Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich in the casting mix. Eventually, the original choice, Taylor, got the nod. The demise of Nero, when he cries out, "Is this the end of Nero?" echoes the famous finale to Little Caesar: "Is this the end of Rico?" The ad campaign modestly proclaimed Quo Vadis to be "the most genuinely colossal movie you are likely to see for the rest of your lives." That's debatable, but the film did well enough at the box office to spur such successors as The Robe and Ben-Hur. At nearly three hours, it's a long haul, but perhaps worth it for one marvelous line of dialogue as Kerr's character is forced to join the emperor's seraglio: "Welcome to Nero's House of Women!"

(Michael S. Gant)

The Polar Express: 3-D
Two discs; Warner Home Video; $20.98

Sometime in the 1950s, a boy who doubts Santa is whisked away to the North Pole on a vintage steam engine. On the way, it transforms from passenger train to polar-coaster and finally to a funicular. The North Pole village is like a Mont St. Michel rising from the ice, as if designed by red-brick-crazed Victorians. A gruff ghost hobo who plays the hurdy-gurdy is the darkest part of the story, supplying the scary quality necessary to all Christmas stories. Robert Zemeckis' startling computer-animated technique for this 2004 feature fails occasionally, with instances of vacant, unfocused eyes or plastic-looking skin. Despite some of the direr predictions ("This technique will be able to replace actors completely!"), this kid-friendly film never transcends its purpose as holiday kids' stuff. Zemeckis' usual star Tom Hanks does the voices for the various adults. This two-disc set contains the original release, the 3-D version and four pairs of 3-D glasses. The 3-D effect proves hard to achieve on a TV set if you're already wearing eyeglasses, or so our review team found after considerable fiddling with the cardboard specs.

(Richard von Busack)

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