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NEW RELEASES ON DVD

At the risk of whining, a luxury no one who sees movies and gets DVDs for free is allowed, there is something chilling about being at the mercy of a medical practitioner or tax accountant who begins a consultation by saying "I read your four-star review of 'Closer,' so my wife and I . . ."

Fortunately, my optometrist agreed that "Closer" (Columbia-TriStar, $28.95) was the best film of 2004 that no one wanted to see, despite the fact that Mike Nichols' adaptation of Patrick Marber's acidic play of sexual attraction and its ugly consequences starred Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Clive Owen. It seems the rough language and rigorous inspection of sexual politics did not sound like an idea of a fun evening out.

On DVD, "Closer" may be an easier sell. It's a lot easier to squirm in the privacy of your home.

Nichols' direction is almost perfect: He was robbed of an Oscar nomination. And the performances are amazing. Portman and Owen received nominations, but Law and Roberts deserved them at least as much. It's time for the academy to break down and institute that ensemble-acting prize, I say.

No extras except Damien Rice's video from the film's lovely theme, "The Blower's Daughter," but I wouldn't hold out for the Special Edition. This is special enough.

Another film on my Top 10 list from last year had an even smaller audience than "Closer." Not only were there no marquee names to promote Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake" (New Line, $27.95), the subject matter also comes across as a lot less than appealing.

In 1950s England, the title character -- in an amazing portrayal by Imelda Staunton -- is a wife and doting mother with a secret: She helps out "girls in trouble," which is to say she performs abortions at a time when the practice was illegal.

Leigh's approach to directing drama is to introduce his actors to the characters, then, in extended rehearsals, give them time to explore the roles. Then the actors improvise their own dialogue, which is then turned into a shooting script.

The effect allows us to feel as though we know these characters intimately, and Staunton, who was nominated for an Oscar along with Leigh, was the most compelling woman seen on screen last year. "Vera Drake" takes no sides, but in showing the reality of back-street abortions it raises the obvious question: Do we want to return there? Again, no extras, just devastatingly realistic drama.

Yet another film that went mostly unseen gets its first DVD release this week, but 1998's "Orgazmo" (Universal, $19.98), a live-action comedy from "South Park" co-creator Trey Parker (and an uncredited Matt Stone) has only itself to blame. It's an intentionally offensive farce about a clean-cut Mormon, played by Parker, who becomes the masked porno movie superhero of the title. The humor is hit and miss but gleefully gross, and even though this version is unrated -- the original was NC-17 -- the sex is secondary to the silliness.

French director Mathieu Kassovitz's "The Crimson Rivers," from 2000, was one of the better cop thrillers in any language to be released in recent years, pairing the formidable Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel as two cops whose grisly cases converge. Last year's sequel, "Crimson Rivers: Angels of the Apocalypse," is now being released as a DVD Special Edition (Columbia-TriStar, $24.96).

It has Oliver Dahan replacing Kassovitz as director and Reno's Inspector Neimans getting a new partner in Benoit Magimel. The twisty story by Luc Besson is about a string of killings involving a very mad monk. Far more stylized than the original film, it benefits from a star turn by trustworthy Christopher Lee as a shadowy German diplomat.

Akira Kurosawa's 1980 epic "Kagemusha" -- about a peasant recruited to impersonate a powerful warlord in 16th century Japan -- comes in for a 25th anniversary re-evaluation in a new Criterion Collection remastered version ($39.95). It is one of the most visually arresting of all of Kurosawa's films, and the battle scenes are astonishing.

The creation of the imagery is explored in a documentary, and along with a commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, there are new interviews with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, two admirers who helped finance the film.

-- Terry Lawson,
Knight Ridder Newspapers

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