Whodunnit High

Rian Johnson's feature debut as writer-director will wind up as one of the year's best films. A film noir set in a modern-day high school, it's Sam Spade roaming Ridgemont High; kids get doped up and knocked up and even rubbed out while speaking pulp-novel slang, but the gimmick never distracts. No doubt the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt has something to do with that; as Brendan Frye, the gumshoe in tennis shoes, his deadpan delivery of Johnson's dialogue keeps Brick from playing like a joke. The DVD has some 20 minutes of deleted-extended scenes, but they're unnecessary; Brick's perfect, and listening to the filmmaker and actors' commentary, or watching the excised footage, ruins a detective story you're better off solving yourself. -- Robert Wilonsky

(Troma)

Troma has been the king of the grindhouse for more than 30 years, delivering comedy-gore classics such as The Toxic Avenger, thanks to studio president/director Lloyd Kaufman. But by 1996, the studio was churning out more sequels and imitations than quality. That changed when Kaufman teamed with James Gunn, who would go on to make Dawn of the Dead and Slither. The result is a fun mix of Shakespeare, lesbian sex, lacerations and Motörhead. Troma is usually generous with DVD bonuses, and it has recorded dozens of commentaries and interviews with Kaufman and Gunn, editors, actors, and even production hands. It'll give you more info on making an independent movie than a year of film school, and you'll be less likely to make an indie snoozer when you're done. -- Jordan Harper

(HBO)

While HBO is killing Deadwood, and The Sopranos is on a respirator, The Wire has quietly prospered. That the Baltimore-set cops-and-dealers show is the most intricate crime drama on television is no surprise: Creator/writer David Simon also made Homicide, and executive producer/writer George Pelecanos is a top name in crime fiction. The Wire isn't flashy, but its characters and dialogue are brilliant, and its plots intricate. Watching the show on DVD is better than catching it on cable, where you have a week to forget the details. This season's drug-legalization subplot subtracted from the realism, and yet again the show relies on a deus ex machina to tie up loose ends, but when the show gets deep into the cat-and-mouse games of police and dealers, there's nothing on television as interesting. -- Harper

(Magnolia)

In the wrong hands, shaky-video realism produces more upset stomachs and headaches than style. But done well, as it is in this microbudget thriller, it puts you in the middle of the story. When a young Filipino-American returns home for a family emergency, he's faced with a choice: Obey every command of the Muslim terrorist speaking through his cell phone, or his mother and sister die. It's not really an original plot (see Die Hard 3), and the film is mostly made up of the main character walking from one place to another. But the mixture of thriller and Third World travelogue is inspired, with the mean streets of the Philippines being the most interesting character in the film. As usual with this type of flick, the acting is the weak link, but it isn't awful. -- Harper

Robert WilonskyJordan Harper

 
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