DVD Picks

CorrespondentJune 26, 2009 

Long conversations with good friends can have an almost narcotic effect. Something about making a meaningful connection with another person must toggle serotonin switches somewhere. With dialogue, you can often reach places and find truths that you just can't get to mulling things over in your own head.

In 1981, French director Louis Malle ("Au revoir les enfants") found a way to distill this experience onto film and produced one of cinema's most singular achievements. " My Dinner with André" has since become a must-see independent film classic, a movie that more or less does the impossible: It consists entirely of two friends having a conversation over dinner, and it's riveting.

The two men are Wallace Shawn, a New York actor and playwright, and André Gregory, a veteran theater director. These are the names of the actors, as well as the characters. Old friends, they reunite one evening after falling out of touch. Gregory has just returned from a five-year global walkabout, seeking spiritual enlightenment. Shawn is a struggling writer, skeptical of his friend's New Age-y musings.

Shawn and Gregory wrote the script with the intention of playing exaggerated versions of themselves and based it on conversations they'd shared over the years. Gregory, who does most of the talking, is impassioned and articulate. Shawn, more fearful and inhibited that his old friend, mostly asks questions -- until the end, when his own turbulent feelings pour out.

Much of the pleasure of the film is simply drifting along with their conversation. Watching it again, I had the thought that this is a good DVD to experience alone. Let yourself fall into its rhythms and marvel at how utterly evocative the spoken word can be. When Gregory describes his experiences -- wandering through Tibet, dancing in the woods of Poland -- the visuals are no less stunning for being all in your head.

Malle's filmmaking style here is so subtle and intimate that you forget you're watching a movie. You may catch things peripherally -- how Malle uses mirrors, when he chooses to turn up the volume on ambient noise, where he points the camera. But mostly you just drift along, watching and listening.

Don't let this movie's art house rep scare you away. "My Dinner with André" is out this week in a fabulous new Criterion two-disc package, with a carefully restored high-definition digital transfer, in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and remastered sound. The second disc consists of new, exclusive interviews with Gregory and Shawn by filmmaker Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"), regarding the fascinating genesis of the film. Gregory, now 75 years old, is still a spellbinding storyteller.

Speaking of storytelling, the 1990s Showtime series " The Hunger" is an overlooked little pop culture gem that combines the creepshow vibe of "The Twilight Zone" with the R-rated soft-core approach of premium cable. Reissued in a new 4-disc DVD package, "The Hunger: The Complete First Season" gathers 22 half-hour episodes, each a separate and self-contained story, along with some modest "making-of" material.

Loosely inspired by director Tony Scott's 1983 vampire movie of the same name, "The Hunger" features twisty, trashy tales of lust and greed with a supernatural bent. It's not all vampires, though they occasionally pop up. Hosted by Terence Stamp, the show tries hard -- often too hard -- to push the envelope of sex, violence and radical visual presentations.

Discerning horror fans will appreciate the writing, though, which is often much better than it needs to be. Several top-drawer horror and sci-fi writers, including Harlan Ellison and Robert Bloch, penned episodes. "The Hunger" never quite earned the audience it deserved, and its hybrid approach to sexy spookiness works nicely on DVD. Lots of fun cameos, too: Watch for a pre-007 Daniel Craig and voluptuous horror godmother Karen Black.

Finally, the reboot-sequel " Pink Panther 2" hits stores this week and stands resolutely as testament that Peter Sellers was one of a kind. Steve Martin reprises his role as bumbling Inspector Clouseau, this time around joined by a global team of super sleuths including Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina and Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai.

Kids will enjoy the broad physical humor, and supporting turns from Jean Reno, John Cleese and Lily Tomlin are certainly enjoyable. But Martin remains curiously unfunny as Clouseau, and the entire enterprise comes across as bland and conspicuously commercial. If you've never seen the original Peter Sellers movies, move those to the top of your Netflix queue instead.

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