Destiny, death and romance collide in `Fiction'

Critics' picks: New DVDs

February 25, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Reporter

STRANGER THAN FICTION -- Sony Pictures / $28.95

Stranger Than Fiction is a film that fulfills one of my most cherished fantasies. It answers a yearning so tantalizing, yet so forbidden that I dared not even admit it to myself. And for once, it has nothing to do with chocolate.

No, the object of my lust is Queen Latifah, an - gasp! -"author's assistant" who helps scribes overcome writers' blocks. She introduces herself like this: "I have helped 20 authors finish 35 books. I have never missed a deadline, and I have never gone back to the publisher to ask for more time."

An author's assistant - what a great idea! Where can I sign up for one?

Stranger Than Fiction, which is being released Tuesday on DVD, deals overtly with such big themes as destiny and death within the framework of a romantic comedy. The story also is threaded with screenwriter Zach Helm's witty meditations on the writing craft.

Harold Crick is a buttoned-down IRS auditor who hears a voice in his head, narrating his life. Gradually, he figures out that he's a character in a novel by author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Unfortunately, Eiffel is known for killing off her characters in creative ways. Harold seeks help from Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a literature professor who initially fears that his visitor is crazy.

"The voice isn't telling me to do anything," Harold says. "It's telling me what I've already done, accurately and with a better vocabulary."

The performances uniformly are delightful.

Ferrell, in particular, tones down his often-manic persona and lets an inner diffidence emerge. But the true star is Helm, who peppers the dialogue with wry observations about the academic workload (Hilbert is "teaching five classes, mentoring two doctoral students, and I'm the lifeguard at the faculty pool") to a fanatic reader's willingness to sacrifice all for literature.

"Harold, I'm sorry. You have to die," Hilbert tells his stunned friend after reading Eiffel's manuscript. "It's a masterpiece ... and it's absolutely no good unless you die in the end."

Special features

There are a slew of extra features, including the obligatory cast love-fests. Worth checking out are two scenes cut from the movie that feature Kristin Chenoweth as a vacuous talk show host who hasn't read any of Eiffel's books.

Maybe she should get an assistant.

ALSO ANTICIPATED

BOB DYLAN DON'T LOOK BACK: 65 TOUR DELUXE EDITION --Docurama / $49.95

D.A. Pennebaker's remarkable 1967 documentary captures a young Dylan during his 1965 tour of England (his last before famously going electric at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival).

Shot on the run, sometimes barely keeping up with Dylan as he goes from place to place, performance to performance, this cinema verite time-capsule is a must-have for anyone who wants to understand not only rock-and-roll's signature songwriter (and people have been struggling to do that for more than 40 years), but also the music itself.

Special features

Extras include Highway 61 Revisited, a new hour-long documentary pieced together from 20 hours of never-before-seen footage; a companion book, originally published in 1967, that both transcribes and describes the film (it also includes contemporary reviews, such as this from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer: "It is certainly not for moviegoers who bathe and/or shave. It is `underground' and should be buried at once"); and a tiny flip book that animates the movie's opening sequence, as a deadpan Dylan tosses aside cards containing the lyrics to "Subterranean Homesick Blues."

MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY

mary.mccauley @baltsun.com

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