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‘Mystic’ Pizazz

One can understand why critics received Mystic River so rapturously, and at the same time be completely baffled as to what is so great about the film’s story, which reads more “made for TV” than “silver screen.” Clint Eastwood directs the rather unremarkable crime narrative about three longtime friends from a lower-class Boston neighborhood who drift apart, but are reunited later in life after the murder of one’s teenage daughter.

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, the film’s direction is much like the Dirty Harry star’s own acting style: no frills. Watching dramatically raw scenes like a distraught Sean Penn getting wrestled to the ground by a gang of police officers, you can practically hear Mr. Eastwood’s raspy whisper: “Go ahead, Oscar-make my day!”

No wonder the actors love him (or so we learn from the DVD’s special “featurettes”): His direction never detracts from their performances, as so many of the C.G.I.-laden big-budget spectacles do today. He understands their craft personally, with an empathetic understanding of where, exactly, to put the camera to capture their brilliant conveyances.

And that is the essence of Mystic River ‘s popularity. It’s a film buoyed by excellent, career-defining performances by Mr. Penn and Tim Robbins (who both won Academy Awards), Marcia Gay Harden (who was nominated), Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne and Laura Linney.

Though Mr. Eastwood was also nominated, being a great director of actors, alas, was not enough to beat out a director of one of those C.G.I.-laden, big-budget movies.

[ Mystic River (2003), R, 137 min., $39.98.]

Tales of the Ape

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan , the epitome of the strong, silent type, has seen countless onscreen permutations over the years: multiple movies, a TV series, a cartoon, not to mention too much pornography for even our young, willing fist. There doesn’t seem to be much more that can be mined from this franchise (though surely Jerry Bruckheimer will find a way).

Now, for your viewing pleasure, Warner Home Video has released “The Tarzan Collection,” six films starring former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan; as well as Tarzan the Ape Man (1981), directed by John Derek and starring his wife Bo and the beefy Miles O’Keeffe; and the failed 1984 epic Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, The Lord of the Apes with Christopher Lambert and introducing Andie MacDowell (in her first movie role, though Glenn Close’s voice was famously dubbed in after Ms. MacDowell, a Southerner, couldn’t pull off a proper British accent).

Even though the Weissmuller films were made over 60 years ago, they prove to be the easiest to watch, a sort of proto–Discovery Channel. Unfortunately, squirm-worthy scenes in which African tribesmen are whipped like cattle by the intrepid white ivory hunters show the films’ true age.

The latter titles, however, are just more proof that Hollywood was in extremely dire straits in the early 80’s. Mr. Derek took every chance to dunk his white-dress-clad wife in water. It’s Girls Gone Wild: The English Classics Edition . Meanwhile, Greystoke is a three-hour odyssey that remains as faithful to the source material as possible (it even eliminates Tarzan’s trademark call), which is a horrible idea. There is only so much “authentic” grunting and whooping one can take.

All the films have certain specific things in common. Never, ever does Tarzan appear unshaven, even in Greystoke , where Tarzan’s first language lesson is conducted at the same time he learns to wield a razor. All the male leads boast bulging pecs, bulging loincloths and dim visages. And, of course, Tarzan always shags Jane-eventually. Ms. O’Sullivan is the most prudish of all the Janes, holding out until the second film. Obviously, in the Weissmuller-O’Sullivan films (dating back to the F.D.R. administration), Jane and Tarzan never do the jungle boogie onscreen; rather, as in Tarzan Escapes , we see a budding flower dropping from her hand and floating listlessly downstream.

[The Tarzan Collection: Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), NR, 99 min.; Tarzan and His Mate (1934), NR, 116 min.; Tarzan Escapes (1936), NR, 90 min.; Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939), NR, 82 min.; Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941), NR, 81 min.; Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), NR, 71 min., $59.92; Tarzan the Ape Man (1981), R, 107 min., $19.97; Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), PG, 143 min., $19.97.]

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