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Category: Drama DVDs

Blood Diamond [2006] (buy now)

Leonardo DiCaprio puts a handsome face on an ugly industry: In parts of Africa, diamond mining fuels civil warfare, killing thousands of innocents and drafting preteen children as vicious soldiers. DiCaprio (The Departed) plays Danny Archer, a white African soldier-turned-diamond-smuggler who gets wind of a large raw jewel found by Solomon Vandy, a native fisherman (Djimon Hounsou, In America) recently escaped from enslavement by a brutal rebel leader. Archer offers a deal: He'll help Vandy find his war-scattered family if Vandy will share the diamond with him. Drawn into this web of exploitation is journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly, Little Children), who agrees to help if Archer will tell her the details of how conflict diamonds make their way into the hands of the corporations who sell them to the Western world. DiCaprio is compelling because he never flinches from Archer's utter ruthlessness; Archer ends up doing the morally justifiable thing, but only because his desperate greed has led him to it. Hounsou and Connelly, though saddled with all the moral and political speeches, rise above the cant and keep the movie's treacherously formulaic plot rooted in human characters. But in the end, the story won't stick with you as much as the dead stillness in the child soldiers' eyes; the horror of African civil strife refuses to be contained by Blood Diamond's uplifting message--and the movie is all the more potent as a result. --Bret Fetzer

Price: £8.97

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Rome: The Complete HBO Season 1 (6 Disc Box Set) (buy now)

Family dysfunction. Treachery. Betrayal. Coarse profanity. Brutal violence. Graphic (and sometimes brutal) sex. No, it's not The Sopranos, it's Rome, HBO's madly ambitious series that bloodily splatters the glory of Rome just as savagely as Monty Python and the Holy Grail soiled the good name of Camelot (but with far fewer laughs; very few funny things happen on the way to this forum). Set in 52 B.C. (Before Cable), Rome charts the dramatic shifts in the balance of power between former friends Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham), leader of the Senate, and Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds), whose imminent return after eight years to Rome after conquering the Gauls, has the ruling class up in arms. At the heart of Rome is the odd couple friendship between two soldiers who fortuitously become heroes of the people. Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) is married, honorable, and steadfast. Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) is an amoral rogue whose philosophy is best summed up, "I kill my enemies, take their gold, and enjoy their women". Among Rome's most compelling subplots is Lucius's strained relationship with his wife, Niobe (Indira Varma), who is surprised to see her husband alive (but not as surprised as he is to find her upon his homecoming with a newborn baby in her arms!) Any viewer befuddlement over Rome's intrigues and machinations, and determining who is hero and who is foe, disappears the minute Golden Globe-nominee Polly Walker appears as Atia, Caesar's formidable niece and a villainess for the ages. In the first hour alone, she offers her already married daughter as a bride to the recently widowed Pompey. One eagerly awaits to see what (or who) she'll do next as much as we anticipate her comeuppance in the final episode.

Rome is a painstakingly mounted production that earned eight well-deserved Emmy nominations in such categories as costumes, set design, and art direction. Michael Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter) was honored with a Director's Guild Award for the first episode, "The Stolen Eagle." But artistic considerations aside, instantly addicted viewers will agree with Atia, who notes at one point, "I adore the secrecy, the intrigue. It's most thrilling." --Donald Liebenson

Price: £24.97

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Life on Mars : Complete BBC Series 2 [2006] (buy now)

It's hard to believe it's over. Life On Mars shot out of nowhere at the beginning of 2006 to become a vital, gripping drama, and this second series more than maintains the sky high standards that the first so memorably set.

What makes it even more surprising is that all the ingredients were there for it to go so tragically wrong. The central premise, that for unknown reasons modern day police detective Sam Tyler wakes up in the 1970s, is fraught with potential potholes, yet the creators of Life On Mars twist it very much in their favour, delivering a skilful, taut comparison between policing then and policing now.

It's this clash of approach that provides many of Life On Mars' sparks, but nonetheless, it has much more than that going for it. It boasts, for instance, a terrific level of attention to detail, and weaves in quality narrative too, with Tyler frequently caught between unravelling his predicament, the crimes before him, and his 1970s' colleagues with their 1970s' tactics.

This second, and final, series wraps things up surprisingly well, and consistently delivers laughs, action and plenty of pub talk off the back of it. It's also a delight to revisit Life On Mars, and that makes this collected boxset of the episodes of season two an absolute must for any fan of gritty, interesting and terrifically entertaining British drama. Quite, quite brilliant. --Jon Foster

Price: £25.98

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The Last King Of Scotland [2006] (buy now)

As the evil Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Forest Whitaker gives an unforgettable performance in The Last King of Scotland. Powerfully illustrating the terrible truth that absolute power corrupts absolutely, this fictionalised chronicle of Amin's rise and fall is based on the acclaimed novel by Giles Foden, in which Amin's despotic reign of terror is viewed through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a Scottish doctor who arrives in Uganda in the early 1970s to serve as Amin's personal physician. His outsider's perspective causes him to be initially impressed by Amin's calculated rise to power, but as the story progresses--and as Whitaker's award-worthy performance grows increasingly monstrous--The Last King of Scotland turns into a pointed examination of how independent Uganda (a British colony until 1962) became a breeding ground for Amin's genocidal tyranny. As Whitaker plays him, Amin is both seductive and horribly destructive--sometimes in the same breath--and McAvoy effectively conveys the tragic cost of his character's naiveté, which grows increasingly prone to exploitation. As directed by Kevin Macdonald (who made the riveting semi-documentary Touching the Void), this potent cautionary tale my prompt some viewers to check out Barbet Schroeder's equally revealing documentary General Idi Amin Dada, an essential source for much of this film's authentic detail. --Jeff Shannon

Price: £6.98

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The Prestige [2006] (buy now)

The Prestige attempts a hat trick by combining a ridiculously good-looking cast, a highly regarded new director, and more than one sleight of hand. Does it pull it off? Sort of. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play rival magicians who were once friends before an on-stage tragedy drove a wedge between them. While Bale's Alfred Borden is a more skilled illusionist, Jackman's Rufus Angier is the better showman; much of the film's interesting first half is their attempts to sabotage--and simultaneously, top--each other's tricks. Even with the help of a prop inventor (Michael Caine) and a comely assistant (Scarlett Johansson), Angier can't match Borden's ultimate illusion: The Transporting Man. Angier's obsession with learning Borden's trick leads him to an encounter with an eccentric inventor (David Bowie) in a second half that gets bogged down in plot loops and theatrics. Director Christopher Nolan, reuniting with his Batman Begins star Bale, demonstrates the same dark touch that hued that film, but some plot elements--without giving anything away--seem out of place with the rest of the movie. It's better to sit back and let the sometimes-clunky turns steer themselves than try to draw back the black curtain. That said, The Prestige still manages to entertain long after the magician has left the stage--a feat in itself. --Ellen A. Kim

Price: £5.97

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Goodbye Lenin! [2002] (buy now)

Contemporary comedies rarely stretch themselves beyond a bickering romantic couple or a bickering couple and a bucket of bodily fluids, which makes the ambition and intelligence of Goodbye, Lenin! not simply entertaining but downright refreshing. The movie starts in East Germany before the fall of communism; our hero, Alex (Daniel Bruhl), describes how his mother (Katrin Sass), a true believer in the communist cause, has a heart attack when she sees him being clubbed by police at a protest. She falls into a coma for eight months--during which the Berlin Wall comes down. When she awakens, her fragile health must avoid any shocks, so Alex creates an illusive reality around his bedridden mother to convince her that communism is still alive. Goodbye, Lenin! delicately balances wry satire with its rich investment in the lives of Alex, his mother, and other characters around them.

On the DVD: Though the DVD extras for Goodbye Lenin! include a detailed featurette on the digital effects used in the movie (particularly intriguing because they had to be completely invisible--many viewers won't realize there were digital effects until they see this featurette) and a convivial cast commentary (in German with English subtitles) with Daniel Bruhl, Katrin Sass, and Alexander Beyer, the star of the DVD is director Wolfgang Becker himself. Not only is his commentary rich with historical information and thoughtful notes about the making of the movie, for the deleted scenes (including two lovely scenes that expand on the relationship between Alex and his girlfriend Lara) he and Tom Tykwer (director of Run Lola Run and part of the X Filme collective that produced Goodbye Lenin!) have an insightful conversation about the editing process, storytelling, and the essence of watching a movie. Utterly fascinating, and invaluable to any aspiring filmmaker. --Bret Fetzer

Price: £2.97

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Hannibal Rising [2007] (buy now)

Though Hannibal Rising's Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) is a pussycat compared to Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, this sequel's story of revenge is grizzly enough to satisfy lovers of Thomas Harris's epic tale. After young Hannibal (Aaron Thomas) is forced to watch his little sister, Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska), devoured by starving soldiers in his homeland Lithuania, Hannibal vows to avenge his sister's death by slaying those who committed not only war crimes against the Lecters, but also against other families during WW II.

In detailing Hannibal's revenge plan, the film investigates the psychological implications of witnessing cannibalism to justify Hannibal's insatiable appetite for human flesh. The most interesting aspect of Hannibal Rising--its analytical connections drawn between Hannibal's childhood traumas and his murderous adult obsessions--is also the film's weak point. The links oversimplify Lecter's complex character. For example, though titillating to see flashbacks of Lecter's sister hacked up and boiled while Lecter visits a Parisian meat market, the reference is too obvious. One learns why he excels in his medical school classes dissecting cadavers, and we're given explicit explanation for why he slices off and eats his victims' cheeks. The story only complicates when Hannibal interacts with his sexy Aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). When Murasaki educates him in the art of beheading, the viewer sees Hannibal's sword fetish as a manifestation of physical lust. --Trinie Dalton

Price: £11.98

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Miss Potter [2006] (buy now)

Miss Potter walks that fine line between charming and cloying with pleasing sure-footedness. Apple-cheeked Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones' Diary) once again slips into a British accent to play writer/illustrator Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit. Potter, born into wealth, fought the disapproval of her high society mother to do something as crass as publish a book... and to fall in love with her publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor, previously teamed with Zellweger in Down With Love). Unfortunately, their love runs into something worse than upper-class stuffiness. Miss Potter skips through Potter's life a bit too briskly at times, but Zellweger's thankfully restrained performance, McGregor's infinite charm, and some beautiful shots of the English landscape keep the movie grounded and engaging. Also featuring a crackling supporting performance by Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) as Warne's sister Millie. --Bret Fetzer

Price: £6.98

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Betty Blue (Subtitled) (DVD) [1986] (buy now)

Sex and sunlight are on ample display in Betty Blue, director Jean-Jacques Beineix's passionate look at mad love. (Every French director is contractually required to make at least one movie about l'amour fou.)

It begins at the seashore, where handyman and failed novelist Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade) has his life electrified by Betty, a woman whose sense of abandon frequently tips over into the pathological. This was the role that introduced gap-toothed, voluptuous Beatrice Dalle to the world, and neither Dalle nor the world has ever quite recovered. Traces of Beineix's precious Diva are still present, though this is a darker and more memorable ride, especially in the three-hour "version integrale" that restores an hour of footage. Its copious nude scenes are a drawing card, but stick around for the age-old alchemy of life translated into art. Gabriel Yared's score is a favourite of movie-soundtrack mavens, especially its haunting piano theme.-- Robert Horton

Price: £4.97

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The Queen [2006] (buy now)

Helen Mirren reigns supreme in The Queen, a witty and ingenious look at a moment that rocked the house of Windsor: the week that followed the sudden death of Princess Diana in 1997. Diana's death came at just the same time that Prime Minister Tony Blair (played by the bright Michael Sheen) was settling into his new government--and trying to figure out the delicate relationship between 10 Downing Street and Queen Elizabeth II (Mirren). A large portion of the British population was trying to figure out the Windsors that week, as Elizabeth remained stiff-upper-lip and largely mum about the death of the beloved princess. In Peter Morgan's skillful script, we watch as Blair grows increasingly impatient with the Royals, who are sequestered in their Scottish estate while the public demands some show of grief. Prince Philip (James Cromwell, in good form) clumsily decides to take Diana's sons hunting, while a sympathetically-treated Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) displays some frustration with his mother's eerie calm.

None of this conveys how funny the film is, or how deftly it flows from one scene to the next. Director Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things) deserves great credit for that, and for the performances, and for the movie's marvelous sense of well-roundedness; you could see this movie and groan at the cluelessness of the Royals and their outmoded existence, or you might just sympathise with showing reserve in a world that values gross public displays of emotion. But either way, you'll marvel at Mirren, who makes the Queen far more alert and human than one might ever have imagined. --Robert Horton

Price: £8.98

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The Queen [2006] (buy now)

Helen Mirren reigns supreme in The Queen, a witty and ingenious look at a moment that rocked the house of Windsor: the week that followed the sudden death of Princess Diana in 1997. Diana's death came at just the same time that Prime Minister Tony Blair (played by the bright Michael Sheen) was settling into his new government--and trying to figure out the delicate relationship between 10 Downing Street and Queen Elizabeth II (Mirren). A large portion of the British population was trying to figure out the Windsors that week, as Elizabeth remained stiff-upper-lip and largely mum about the death of the beloved princess. In Peter Morgan's skillful script, we watch as Blair grows increasingly impatient with the Royals, who are sequestered in their Scottish estate while the public demands some show of grief. Prince Philip (James Cromwell, in good form) clumsily decides to take Diana's sons hunting, while a sympathetically-treated Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) displays some frustration with his mother's eerie calm.

None of this conveys how funny the film is, or how deftly it flows from one scene to the next. Director Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things) deserves great credit for that, and for the performances, and for the movie's marvelous sense of well-roundedness; you could see this movie and groan at the cluelessness of the Royals and their outmoded existence, or you might just sympathise with showing reserve in a world that values gross public displays of emotion. But either way, you'll marvel at Mirren, who makes the Queen far more alert and human than one might ever have imagined. --Robert Horton

Price: £8.98

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Gone With The Wind (4 Disc Collector's Edition Box Set) [1939] (buy now)

First off, if you're a GwtW fanatic, you must buy this four-disc collection. But then again, you probably don't need to read this to make that decision. For the rest of us, know that the kitchen-sink approach has been established here with two full discs of extras. The film's restoration under Warner's brilliant Ultra-Resolution process is the major contribution to the set. However, the bare-bones version released years ago isn't bad and the film still doesn't pop off the screen as do films from the headier days of Technicolor (like the earlier Ultra-Resolution DVD release of Meet Me in St. Louis). That said, the set is worthy of the most popular movie ever made. Rudy Behlmer's feature-length commentary is dry but an exhaustive reference guide to the entire history of the film. Need more? There's the excellent full-length documentary The Making of a Legend (1989) narrated by Christopher Plummer, plus two hour-long older biographies on the two main stars. There are many new vignettes on the rest of the cast, all narrated by Plummer (a nice touch to tie everything together). The new 30-minute interview/reminisce with Oliva de Havilland will be interesting to older fans, but tiresome for the younger set. The usual sort of trailers and premiere footage is here along with a curious short ("The Old South", directed by Fred Zinnemann) that was produced to help introduce the world to the history of the South. --Doug Thomas

Price: £4.97

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Life on Mars : Complete BBC Series 2 [2006] (buy now)

It's hard to believe it's over. Life On Mars shot out of nowhere at the beginning of 2006 to become a vital, gripping drama, and this second series more than maintains the sky high standards that the first so memorably set.

What makes it even more surprising is that all the ingredients were there for it to go so tragically wrong. The central premise, that for unknown reasons modern day police detective Sam Tyler wakes up in the 1970s, is fraught with potential potholes, yet the creators of Life On Mars twist it very much in their favour, delivering a skilful, taut comparison between policing then and policing now.

It's this clash of approach that provides many of Life On Mars' sparks, but nonetheless, it has much more than that going for it. It boasts, for instance, a terrific level of attention to detail, and weaves in quality narrative too, with Tyler frequently caught between unravelling his predicament, the crimes before him, and his 1970s' colleagues with their 1970s' tactics.

This second, and final, series wraps things up surprisingly well, and consistently delivers laughs, action and plenty of pub talk off the back of it. It's also a delight to revisit Life On Mars, and that makes this collected boxset of the episodes of season two an absolute must for any fan of gritty, interesting and terrifically entertaining British drama. Quite, quite brilliant. --Jon Foster

Price: £25.98

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Inland Empire (David Lynch) [2006] (buy now)

Though Inland Empire's three hours of befuddling abstraction could try the patience of the most devoted David Lynch fan, its aim to reinvigorate the Lynch-ian symbolic order is ambitious, not to mention visually arresting. The director's archetypes recognizable from previous movies once again construct the film's inherent logic, but with a new twist. Sets vibrate between the contemporary and a 1950s alternate universe crammed with dim lamps, long hallways, mysterious doors, sparsely furnished rooms and, this time, a vortex/apartment/sitcom set where rabbit-masked humans dwell, and a Polish town where women are abused and killed. Instead of speaking backwards, mystic soothsayers and criminals speak Polish. Filmed on video, the film's look has the sinister, frightening feel of a Mark Savage film or a bootlegged snuff movie. Constant close-ups, both in and out of focus, make Inland Empire feel as if a stalker covertly filmed it.

A straightforward, hokey plot unravels during the first third of Inland Empire to ground the viewer before a dive off the deep end. Actor Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is cast as Susan Blue, an adulterous white trash Southerner, in a film that mimics too closely her actual life with an overbearingly jealous and dangerous husband. When Nikki and co-star Devon (Justin Theroux) learn that the cursed film project was earlier abandoned when its stars were murdered, the pair lose their grasp of reality. Nikki suffers a schizophrenic identity switch to Sue that lasts until nearly the film's end. Suspense builds as Nikki's alter ego sleuths her way through surreal situations to discover her killer, culminating in Sue's gnarly death on set. Sue's actions drag on because any sign of a narrative thread disappears due to idiosyncratic editing. Non-sensical scenes still captivate, however, such as when Sue stumbles onto the soundstage where she finds Nikki (herself) rehearsing for Sue's part. In this meta-film about identity slippage, Dern's multiple characters remind one of how a victim can become the hunter in their fight for survival. Lynch's portrayal of Nikki/Sue's increasing paranoia is, in its own confusion, utterly realistic. Laura Dern has created her own Lady Macbeth, undone by her guilt over infidelity. Even though Inland Empire is too long and too random, Laura Dern's performance coupled with Lynch's video experiments make it magical. --Trinie Dalton

Price: £10.98

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The Godfather Trilogy (4 Disc Box Set) (buy now)

Price: £10.98

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Titanic (2 Disc Special Edition) [1997] (buy now)

Price: £2.97

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Goodbye Lenin! [2002] (buy now)

Contemporary comedies rarely stretch themselves beyond a bickering romantic couple or a bickering couple and a bucket of bodily fluids, which makes the ambition and intelligence of Goodbye, Lenin! not simply entertaining but downright refreshing. The movie starts in East Germany before the fall of communism; our hero, Alex (Daniel Bruhl), describes how his mother (Katrin Sass), a true believer in the communist cause, has a heart attack when she sees him being clubbed by police at a protest. She falls into a coma for eight months--during which the Berlin Wall comes down. When she awakens, her fragile health must avoid any shocks, so Alex creates an illusive reality around his bedridden mother to convince her that communism is still alive. Goodbye, Lenin! delicately balances wry satire with its rich investment in the lives of Alex, his mother, and other characters around them.

On the DVD: Though the DVD extras for Goodbye Lenin! include a detailed featurette on the digital effects used in the movie (particularly intriguing because they had to be completely invisible--many viewers won't realize there were digital effects until they see this featurette) and a convivial cast commentary (in German with English subtitles) with Daniel Bruhl, Katrin Sass, and Alexander Beyer, the star of the DVD is director Wolfgang Becker himself. Not only is his commentary rich with historical information and thoughtful notes about the making of the movie, for the deleted scenes (including two lovely scenes that expand on the relationship between Alex and his girlfriend Lara) he and Tom Tykwer (director of Run Lola Run and part of the X Filme collective that produced Goodbye Lenin!) have an insightful conversation about the editing process, storytelling, and the essence of watching a movie. Utterly fascinating, and invaluable to any aspiring filmmaker. --Bret Fetzer

Price: £2.97

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If.... [1968] (buy now)

The Palme D'Or-winning British classic, If...'s long wait for a DVD release is finally over, and the end result does it proud. Boasting commentaries, interviews and a quality documentary too, it's a true collectors' piece for fans of the film.

And make no mistake about it, it's the superb movie that's the star here. If... is, for those new to it, set in a British public school, and from this setting it has plenty then to say on authority and society. Directed by the late, great Lindsay Anderson, the film centres on Mick Travis, magnetically portrayed by Malcolm McDowell.

Superbly marrying fantasy and more realistic elements, If... is packed with iconic, and often quite surreal moments, leading right up the to the famed and indelible ending that sticks long in your mind once the credits have rolled.

A strong, powerful influence for many who followed it, If... is powered by Malcolm McDowell's astounding performance (which would earn him the part in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange). It's arguable that he's never been better than he is here, and he's in good company, thanks to a top-quality supporting cast too.

Perhaps the greatest complement to If... though is that, decades after is initial release, it's not only recognised as one of the finest British films ever made, but it's regarded in many quarters as a classic of cinema full stop. And if you've not yet had the pleasure, this DVD release finally, belatedly, can open the film up to a whole new audience. Let's hope it does. --Jon Foster

Price: £10.98

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The Painted Veil [2007] (buy now)

Price: £11.98

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House - Season 2 (Hugh Laurie) (buy now)

Price: £24.98

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The Shield - Series 4 - Complete [2004] (buy now)

With the addition of Glenn Close to its already excellent cast, The Shield entered its fourth season with tensions high and tempers flaring. Aceveda (Benito Martinez) has gained political clout on the City Council, and former Farmington district officer Monica Rawling (Close) is introduced as the new Captain of "the Barn," where she immediately confronts a maelstrom of personal and professional turmoil. His strike team now splintered, Mackey (Michael Chiklis) has returned to routine detective duty, while Shane (Walton Goggins) and new partner "Army" Renta (Michael Peña) are neck-deep in trouble with Farmington's "untouchable" drug-lord, Antwon Mitchell, a new villain played to perfection by actor/comedian Anthony Anderson. This seemingly traitorous predicament places Shane at further odds with former strike-teammates Mackie, Lemon (Kenneth Johnson) and Ronnie (David Rees Snell), and while Wyms (CCH Pounder) resents Rawling's promotion, the "Dutch" (Jay Karnes) makes a selfish backroom deal that causes further friction with Wyms and Mackey. Tensions are intensified by Rawling's aggressive seizure of homes and property paid for with drug money -- an effective campaign that forces "Danny" (Catherine Dent) and Julien (Michael Jace) and the entire police force to take sides in a hotly divisive civil rights debate that culminates in the murder of two Farmington cops.

Although some critics felt Close was too refined for a series as gritty as The Shield, she quickly found her place in the show's tight ensemble, earning an Emmy nomination (along with Pounder) and giving Mackey a formidable boss who earns his respect. And while Aceveda wrestles with psychosexual demons resulting from his humiliation in season 3, the high-stakes threat of Antwon Mitchell embroils the Barn in a cauldron of mistrust and political upheaval. More than any previous season, this 13-episode story arc is character-based and internally driven by clashing agendas. Sub-plots run the gamut of neighborhood killings and gang-banger conflict, but as always The Shield also finds room for plenty of mordant wit and tension-relieving sarcasm. Like all previous Shield DVDs, this four-disc set includes informative episode commentaries from the entire cast (including Close) engaged in revealing discussions of their creative process with creator Shawn Ryan and several primary writers and directors. Best of all, the "Under the Skin" documentary is a way-above-average, 60-minute survey of The Shield's day-to-day production, offering plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and eloquent insight about the challenge of maintaining high-quality drama during a fast-paced guerilla production schedule. It's essential viewing for Shield fans and anyone considering a career in television. --Jeff Shannon

Price: £26.98

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Prison Break - Season 1 - Complete [2005] (buy now)

Season one of Prison Break is great television. Here's the set-up. Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) is framed and wrongfully convicted for assassinating the Vice President's brother. Lincoln's brother Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), who just happens to have designed Illinois' Fox River Penitentiary where Lincoln is on death row, hatches an elaborate escape plan. Michael's plan involves getting himself incarcerated in Fox River and smuggling the prison's blueprints by having them hidden in tattoos that cover his entire torso. Once inside, Michael must form alliances with a rogue's gallery of felons with their own sometimes unsavory motives. Meanwhile, on the outside, Lincoln's lawyer and one-time girlfriend Veronica Donovan (Robin Tunney), pursued by Secret Service agents, attempts to unravel the conspiracy that sent her man to the slammer.

Prison Break is anchored by tight, suspenseful writing clearly relished by the largely little-known cast. Standouts include Robert Knepper as the murderer/pedophile T-Bag, who somehow makes such a despicable character likeable. Stacey Keach of Mike Hammer fame plays the warden-with-a-heart-of-gold, who clashes with Captain Brad Bellick (Wade Williams) over whether to rehabilitate the inmates or makes their lives more miserable. Peter Stormare, famous for his skills with a wood chipper in Fargo, turns in a deliciously menacing performance as mob boss John Abruzzi, while Amaury Nolasco's winsome Fernando Sucre shares a cell and secrets with Miller's Scofield. Watching the show one gets a sense that this is the opening salvo of Wentworth Miller's career, which will doubtless include roles as assassins, detectives, super heroes, and perhaps the champion of staring contests. Midway through the season it's explained that Scofield is a genius with an heightened sensitivity to other peoples' suffering, which sums up what makes the show so great--the mind-bendingly intricate plot is a framework for moments when people make others suffer and cope with the burden of their own suffering.

The six-disc set includes 22 addictive episodes, audio commentary on selected episodes, three featurettes, and alternate and deleted scenes. As with most TV shows on DVD, the "previously on Prison Break" intros can get tiresome, but that's what the fast forward button is for. --Ryan Boudinot

Price: £44.98

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Rome: The Complete HBO Season 2 (6 Disc Box Set) [2006] (buy now)

Unlike another certain celebrated HBO series, Rome's end will satisfy those swept up in its lavishly mounted spectacle and invested in the human dramas of the historical figures and fictional characters. Series 2 begins in the wake of Julius Caesar's assassination, and charts the power struggle to fill his sandals between "vulgar beast" Mark Antony (James Purefoy) and "clever boy" Octavian (Simon Woods), who is surprisingly named Caesar's sole heir. The series' most compelling relationship is between fellow soldiers and unlikely friends, the honorable Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus "Violence is the only trade I know" Pullo (Ray Stevenson), who somewhat reverse roles when Vorenus is overcome with grief in the wake of his wife's suicide. Series 2 considerably ups the ante in the rivalry between Atia (an Emmy-worthy Polly Walker), who is Antony's mistress, and Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) with attempted poisonings and sickening torture. Another gripping sub plot is Vorenus's estrangement from his children, who, at the climax of the season opener are presumed slaughtered, but whose true fate may be even more devastating to the father who cursed them.

Rome's second season does not scrimp on the series' sex and violence, in both cases exceedingly brutal. But in this cauldron of treachery and betrayal, words, too, are vicious, as when a defiant Atia ominously tells Octavian's new wife, Livia, "Far better women that you have sworn to [destroy me]. Go look for them now." In writing Rome's epitaph, we come to praise this series, not to bury it. Although two seasons was not enough to establish a Rome empire, it stands as one of HBO's crowning achievements. --Donald Liebenson

Price: £36.48

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Ben Hur (4 Disc Special Edition) [1959] (buy now)

Price: £4.97

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Grey's Anatomy - Series 2 [2006] (buy now)

The medical drama's second season could be diagnosed as bipolar; in other words, it got much worse and much better at the same time. Whiny, self-involved surgical intern Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), arguably the weakest spot in the otherwise likeable ensemble, had already left viewers annoyed. But season two, in which Meredith coped with being dumped by her married McDreamy (a.k.a. neurosurgeon Derek, a.k.a. Patrick Dempsey) by excessive drinking, sleeping around, gazing like a sad puppy and--unforgivable!--breaking the heart of longtime admirer/friend George (the cuddly T.R. Knight), could have alienated audiences for good. (Seriously, sometimes you want to shake the girl and feed her some cookies.) Thankfully, what Meredith's storyline threatened to derail was held together by some emotional episodes, including "Into You Like a Train," in which a pair of strangers are impaled together on a metal pole, and "Much Too Much," featuring a mother's quintuplets in critical condition. But the standout show that turned Grey's Anatomy into a television force came with a two-part episode involving a "code black" lockdown when a live bomb is housed inside a patient.

Romance also remained key to the staff at Seattle Grace: Steely Cristina (Golden Globe winner Sandra Oh) softens, to her great dismay, as her relationship with Dr. Burke (Isaiah Washington) gets serious; Izzie (Katherine Heigl) pairs up, then breaks up, with Alex (Justin Chambers, the villain of the cast if you had to name one) before falling in love with flirty, tender heart patient Denny (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Derek and estranged wife Addison (Kate Walsh, who somehow managed to win over Meredith-McDreamy fans despite being the Other Woman) make attempts at fixing their marriage, and Dr. Bailey (Chandra Wilson, easily a standout) tries to balance a medical career with mommyhood. Even George finds a new love with orthopedic surgeon Callie (Sara Ramirez). The season wraps up with a weeper of a two-part finale, set at the hospital during a "prom" (it's complicated). But with the fancy gowns and tuxes, tears and romantic tension, leading to a crossroads for Meredith and Derek, you can bet the episodes are a delight for any Grey's fan. The show also continues to rely heavily on narration (not a good thing) and soundtracks (a good thing), using tracks from artists before they hit it big (KT Tunstall, Brandi Carlisle, Snow Patrol).

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Dirty Dancing [1987] (buy now)

It's inspired a hit musical. The soundtrack has sold in its millions. And it's still, arguably, the most popular film on Patrick Swayze's curriculum vitae. Most worrying of all, perhaps, is that Dirty Dancing is now more than twenty years old. Now that's scary.

Still, it does offer the excuse for a special anniversary release, and that's exactly what we have here. And, to be fair, the film has never looked better. The story is still as straightforward and simple as it always was, baked just to the point where it can support the aforementioned Swayze and Jennifer Grey strutting their stuff. But Dirty Dancing nonetheless continues to work well to this day, with its rarely-rivalled, sizzling mix of romance, energy and music.

Of course, it's an easy film to pick holes in, should you be inclined to do so. After all, at heart it's a well packaged piece of hokum, that's never likely to contend in a Top 100 movies poll. But to pick holes would be churlish, and perhaps to miss the point. Because Dirty Dancing's mantra is to entertain, and it delivers on that promise with some conviction. The late Emile Ardolino wisely keeps his direction zippy, and the two leads really do look like they're having the time of their life.

Granted, this latest re-release isn't going to convert sceptics to the ways of Dirty Dancing, and the unfortunate, unwelcome sequel will remain a blot on its copybook. But this original is hard to beat, and it's still a hard dish to resist. --Jon Foster

Price: £10.99

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Volver (Almodovar) [2006] (buy now)

Spanish for "Coming Back," Volver is a return to the all-female format of All About My Mother. Unlike Pedro Almodóvar's previous two pictures, the story revolves around a group of women in Madrid and his native La Mancha. (The cast received a collective best actress award at Cannes.) Raimunda (a zaftig Penélope Cruz) is the engine powering this heartfelt, yet humorous vehicle. When husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) is murdered, Raimunda makes like Mildred Pierce to deflect attention away from daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). After telling everyone the lout has left, she struggles to conceal his body. The other women in her life all have secrets of their own. Her sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), for instance, has taken in their mother, Irene (a sprightly Carmen Maura). Since Irene perished in a fire, is this person a ghost or simply a woman who looks like her? Then there's their childhood friend, Agustina (Blanca Portillo), who is desperate to find out why her mother disappeared after the blaze. Was she responsible? Almodóvar deftly blends the ghost story with the murder mystery in his tribute to the Italian neo-realist films of the 1950s. The resilient Raimunda is a throwback to the earthy heroines of Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani. The latter appears in Luchino Visconti's Bellissima, which shows up on Sole's television one night (thus confirming the link). If Almodóvar's 16th feature lacks the emotional punch of the more audacious Talk to Her, it's less heavy-handed than Bad Education and Cruz is a revelation. --Kathleen C. Fennessy

Price: £7.97

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Shortbus [2006] (buy now)

In his aim to make an honest film about sex, John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) has taken a somewhat documentary approach to Shortbus, a film describing various New Yorkers' sexual pathos. Framed by shots roving a homemade diorama of the city, Shortbus is comprised of vignettes featuring actors who helped craft this story of people's disconnect in sexual endeavors. Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson), a gay couple experiencing a lull in their relationship, visit Sophia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist whose inability to orgasm results in her clients inviting her to a sex club after which the film is titled. Sophia's husband, Rob (Raphael Barker), is also willing to experiment, so the two independently embark on adventures in self-pleasure. Dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish) plays a crucial role in Sophia and Rob's lives, as her search for real humanity overlaps with their desire for passion.

As each character's plot complicates, the viewer sees a similar melancholy bulldozing its way into these seemingly disparate lives. The depression is repeatedly used in comedic scenes, such as when James is asked on a date while still hospitalised for his attempted suicide. Yo La Tengo's score, which includes Animal Collective among others, lends this film a graceful ambience. Unlike porn, Shortbus has a resonance that encourages the viewer to consider one's own sex life as an important aspect of happiness. --Trinie Dalton

Price: £13.98

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NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service). Season 1 (buy now)

Equal parts JAG and C.S.I. , NCIS does a formidable job of blending relevant military headlines with quirky characters who are tenaciously determined to solve a crime--even if it means having to sleep in the morgue to get a few minutes of shut eye. Created by Donald P. Bellisario (JAG, Quantum Leap), NCIS actually began as a two-part episode of JAG in 2003. Later that year, the drama made its full-season debut on CBS in the States. On this six-disc set, which includes all 23 non-JAG episodes plus optional commentary by Bellisario on the first episode, viewers are introduced to an elite squad of special agents, led by Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon). Gibbs is a hard-nosed investigator who doesn't say much. But when he does, an insult usually comes out of his mouth. He's brilliant when it comes to ferreting out the truth, but he's not savvy enough to figure out how to block his ex-wife's nagging phone calls. Instead, he makes do by destroying his cell phone. Gibbs' team is fleshed out by an eclectic and somewhat eccentric set of colleagues, including medical examiner Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard (David McCallum from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ), wannabe playboy and former homicide detective Anthony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), forensics expert and resident Goth chick Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette), and former Secret Service agent Caitlin Todd (Sasha Alexander).

The murder of a peripheral NCIS agent halfway through the season is a taste of what's to come in future seasons when core characters leave the show (voluntarily or not). But in its first year, the show sets up a strong premise that (while not wholly original) is well executed. One of the more stickling aspects of the show is its reluctance to allow Tony to show signs of maturity. At times, he behaves more like a rambunctious puppy than an ace investigator. --Jae-Ha Kim

Price: £22.97

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The Illusionist [2006] (buy now)

The Illusionist offers welcome proof that "arthouse" quality needn't be limited to the arthouses. Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, this stately, elegant period film benefited from a crossover release in mainstream cinemas, and showed considerable box-office staying power--granted, teenage mallrats and lusty males may have been drawn to the allure of Seventh Heaven alumna Jessica Biel, who rises to the occasion with a fine performance. But there's equal appeal in the casting of Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, who bring their formidable talents to bear on the intriguing tale of a celebrated magician named Eisenheim (Norton) whose stage performance offends the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a vindictive lout who aims to marry Duchess Sophie (Biel), Eisenheim's childhood friend and now, 15 years later, his would-be lover. This romantic rivalry and Eisenheim's increasingly enigmatic craft of illusion are investigated by Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), who's under Leopold's command and is therefore not to be trusted as Eisenheim and Sophie draw closer to their inevitable reunion. Cleverly adapted by director Neil Burger from Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," and boasting exquisite production values and a fine score by Philip Glass, The Illusionist is the kind of class act that fully deserved its unusually wide and appreciative audience. --Jeff Shannon

Price: £11.98

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