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Small treasures

Three films that may not have made it to your multiplex. By Michael Ventre

“Capturing the Friedmans”Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki set out to make a documentary about people who work as clowns for kids’ birthday parties in New York. Three years later, what he wound up with was a film about men who should never work a children’s party, or even get within a 10-mile radius of one. Or should they?

“Capturing the Friedmans” is an astounding work, a gut-wrenching and riveting piece of storytelling that owes it success to many elements, not the least of which is a gifted director completely obsessed with his subject, yet wise enough to provide balance and impartiality.

The story centers around the Friedmans of Great Neck, New York, in the late 1980s, and a scandal involving the patriarch, Arnold, who was first accused of possessing child pornography, and later arrested and charged with molesting students who attended his private computer class. To compound the family’s misery, Arnold Friedman’s youngest son, Jesse, was also charged as an accomplice.

What gives the documentary special power are videotapes taken of the family by the oldest son, David, shortly after the father was charged. Jarecki uses these home videos to portray a family falling apart under the pressure of nightmarish developments. He mixes those with current-day interviews with police, students, parents of the kids, an investigative journalist, prosecutors and the judge in the case.

After this movie is over, you’ll probably agree that Arnold Friedman had some major issues, but the rest is up for debate. The tagline on the movie poster is, “Who Do You Believe?” and it is that uncertainty about what is true or not that makes this picture so compelling.

“Capturing the Friedmans” is not only one of the best movies of 2003, it is also now one of the best DVDs. The two-disk set has loads of additional footage and interviews that follow up with many of the individuals involved after the making of the movie.

Disk One has the feature and a terrific audio commentary. Disk Two is called “Outside the Frame” and contains various aspects of the case, including footage from the prosecution’s star witness and contentious question-and-answer sessions at premieres in New York City and in Great Neck.

Simply put, this is a movie — and a DVD — not to be missed.

Check out this special feature: The youngest son, Jesse, might be the biggest mystery in the entire film. There is a follow-up to his life after the events of this case on Disk Two that is extraordinary in the way it casts light on his personal situation as well as the torn-apart family dynamic and whether it can be, or should be, repaired.

HBO Video, $29.95

Columbia Tristar

Based on the Jane Smiley novella, “The Age of Grief,” this is a dark, dark comedy, but I’ve found that anything involving dentists usually features a mixture of severe pain and chuckles. This picture is like having a tooth yanked while you’re high on laughing gas. You can’t help but laugh, yet after it’s over, you wonder what was so funny about it.

Campbell Scott plays Dr. Dave Hurst, who shares a dental practice with his lovely wife, Dana (the incomparable Hope Davis). One day the doc spots his wife in what he believes is a canoodling posture, and his mind begins to race. A nonconfrontational sort, he then struggles with the possibility that his perfect life — house, three daughters, successful career, lovely and talented wife — might all be unraveling.

Adding to the madness is Denis Leary, who plays a belligerent patient early on, then becomes the devil on Hurst’s shoulder as a fantasy sidekick. This film festival favorite mixes the real and the surreal in order to capture the lunacy of one dentist’s obsession.

The acting is exceptional. Scott is perfect, Davis is sublime, and Leary is delightful. Even Robin Tunney as Scott’s assistant shines.

The DVD includes a commentary track as well as a short feature made by the Sundance Channel called, “Anatomy of a Scene,” where they break down the sequence when Davis’ character is seen in a doorway backstage at her amateur opera, apparently pitching woo with a mysterious male. It is the crux of the entire story and this mini-doc is insightful and revealing.

Also on the disc is a blooper reel, which is weak, and some deleted scenes, which don’t really work out of context.

“The Secret Lives of Dentists” is not for everybody, but it is worthwhile for the adventurous, although you may feel the need to spit and rinse when you’re finished.

Check out this special feature: The commentary with Rudolph and Scott is one of the best you’ll ever hear. These two are old friends and their banter is informative and often hilarious. As opposed to some commentary tracks where the director either pontificates to no end, or sounds like his arm is actually being twisted in order to gain his cooperation, Rudolph and Scott bring a jovial spirit and a warm camaraderie to the discussion.

Columbia Tristar, $26.99

Hardwicke and co-screenwriter Nikki Reed (who also acts in the film) do a commendable job of creating a portrait of a young girl’s flirtations with sex, drugs and crime at a particularly rebellious and desperate time. Evan Rachel Wood gives a career-making performance as Tracy, whose transition into the junior-high ranks causes her to transform from a youngster into a monster, relatively speaking of course. Wood steals every frame she’s in, and that’s not easy to do with the magnificent Holly Hunter alongside, playing her panic-stricken mom. Reed plays Evie Zamora, the bad-influence girl who inspires Wood’s personal upheaval.

Alas, the cinematography by Elliot Davis is as annoying as a bratty child and even more distracting. Davis and Hardwicke chose to go the hand-held route with the camera in an apparent attempt to create an intimate, documentary feel, but all it does is take away from the power of the subject matter.

The DVD includes both the widescreen and fullscreen versions of the feature. It also has a rather entertaining commentary track done by an ensemble consisting of Hardwicke, Reed, Wood and Brady Corbet, who plays Tracy’s brother.

There is also a rather skimpy behind-the-scenes featurette as well as 10 deleted scenes with commentary.

“Thirteen” is worth seeing for its edgy, harrowing look at the life of an incorrigible. But try and ignore the camera acrobatics. I know this was a low-budget affair, but here’s hoping the producers spring for a tripod next time.

Check out this special feature: The commentary track is above average. This is the way commentaries should be done on independent films, because it provides enough opportunity for a talented filmmaker like Hardwicke to express herself, but doesn’t require her, as a relative newcomer, to carry the whole load.

20th Century Fox, $27.98