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How Spielberg got onto a spacecraft - and back off

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Steven Spielberg can't stop tinkering. The director revisited his 1982 film E.T.: The Extraterrestrial in 2002 to digitally remove guns from the hands of police officers, and he has taken two return swipes at his 1977 here-come-the-aliens movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A new DVD set includes all three versions of Close Encounters along with a flow chart of how and when Spielberg made his changes and an interview in which he says it's still a work in progress (but swears there won't be a fourth version).

So the second version shows everyman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in the interior of the alien ship at film's end, a scene that Columbia Studios required Spielberg to shoot in return for financing other reshoots for his 1980 "special edition" of the film. He eliminated the scene in his later "director's cut," since, as he says in a new interview, "I really, really felt that the inside of that mothership was the exclusive property of the imagination of audiences everywhere. I should never have gone there." Still, his other 1980 changes impressed The Globe's film critic at the time, Jay Scott, who wrote, "The first half is now paced as if it were a cartoon (which it often is), and it moves breathlessly and brilliantly."

Those who don't obsess over the shifting length of scenes in which Neary builds replicas of the mountain Devils Tower - the site of the aliens' planned rendezvous - may prefer a stroll through the making-of feature. Among the tidbits: Spielberg's first choice for the Neary role was Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he didn't think he could cry on screen; Spielberg cast the great French director François Truffaut as a senior scientist because Truffaut had such a compassionate on-screen presence in The Wild Child; and Bob Balaban won the role of Truffaut's translator by assuring everyone he could speak French fluently, though he had only his high-school French to go on. "I think it's very important for actors to lie in interviews," Spielberg comments. "It does get you parts, you know. But just don't lie about [whether]you can swim when you can't, 'cause that wouldn't be smart."

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Only a year after Rob Reiner's 1987 fantasy-adventure The Princess Bride was released in a two-disc package brimming with bonus features, a new "20th anniversary edition" jettisons all those extras and offers a DVD game and three nine-minute segments on fairytales, fencing and cast reminiscences. The film is an odd duck. Its best villain (Wallace Shawn) dies early. Its most exciting swordfight, between the hero (Cary Elwes) and the villain-about-to-turn-sidekick (Mandy Patinkin), occurs in the first part of the film and makes the duels at film's end anticlimactic. And you have to wonder about a light fantasy where the hero is gruesomely tortured to death, his screams echoing through the forest; it's thin consolation that he is resurrected by magic. Yet the film as a whole is charming, funny and well cast, and the frustrated liaison between Elwes's hero and Robin Wright's Buttercup (she later married Sean Penn, and is now, oh happy pun, Wright Penn) is very, very romantic.

When Charles Burnett was at film school in the mid-1970s, he despised the blaxploitation films that painted the world of black Americans as one of drug dealers and superpimps. In response, he directed Killer of Sheep (1977), a straightforward, even offhand account of the life of a black family whose income is low (the husband works in a slaughterhouse) and whose Los Angeles environs are clouded by crime. The movie has been beautifully restored from disintegrating film elements, and the two-disc package Killer of Sheep contains that restoration, two versions of Burnett's 1983 film My Brother's Wedding (like Spielberg, he offers a later director's cut), a cast reunion, and several shorts, including one shot after Hurricane Katrina in which a displaced father, mother and son bemoan their lot.

Also out: Shrek the Third, for which somebody felt the need to hire Justin Timberlake to voice a reluctant prince; La Vie en Rose, a biopic of Edith Piaf; Ocean's Thirteen, a return to form after the disappointing Ocean's Twelve, sequel to the Clooney-Pitt-Roberts heist film Ocean's Eleven; Amazing Grace, about the drive to abolish the British slave trade in the early 1800s; and Perry Mason: Season 2 Volume 2, with Raymond Burr as the defence lawyer who never loses in an entertaining series whose format (melodramatic setup, murder, questioning, courtroom) seldom varies.

Extra! Extra!

In 1975, John Hirsch, then head of CBC drama, wanted a CBC situation comedy, and he assigned Perry Rosemond to produce one. King of Kensington: Season One (1975) is set half in a gambling parlour and half in a family home in Toronto's Kensington Market, with Al Waxman as a "bleeding-heart liberal" (as Rosemond says in one of two episode commentaries), Fiona Reid as his wife and Helene Winston as his "right-wing fascist" mother. Despite the non-stop guffaws from the unseen audience, the humour is often sapped by the earnest tone; every week was big-issue week, be it immigration law or halfway houses. Among the guest stars: Dave Thomas, Helen Shaver, Eugene Levy and 12-year-old Mike Myers as a foul-mouthed, long-haired Boy Scout.

Classics for kids

For much of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), it's not a wonderful life. The hero (James Stewart) is so distraught at losing money that he makes life hell for his family. He tries to commit suicide. When a guardian angel shows him how life would have been if he hadn't been born, he spends half the time yelling at people. But the notion of life as it might have been remains a powerful conceit, Stewart gives a virtuoso performance and older children who aren't put off by the dark turns it takes before its abruptly sunny conclusion will find a sure-footed classic - director Frank Capra's favourite among his many films. The new "two-disc collector's set" has both the black-and-white original and a colourized version.

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