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DVD Review: Epitafios: The Complete First Season/Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier

By Glenn Abel

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photo Here's a mystery: Why would HBO bury alive one of its best and wildest TV series?

The victim is "Epitafios," a 13-part miniseries about a brilliant serial killer that was co-produced in Argentina by HBO Latin America.

Based on the buzz and heat from down south, the network imported the 2004 series for HBO Latino. Then, early this year, it ran subtitled on HBO's back-door channel Signature. It'll repeat on Latino this month.

To say "Epitafios" achieved cult status here is even a stretch. A hey-you survey of 20 or so media pros - including a TV critic - turned up no one who had even heard of the show.

Most likely, the not-ready-for-the-bigs treatment was because of the language barrier - it's hard to imagine any major U.S. network gambling on 13 hours of subtitles. Or, quite possibly, the content: "Epitafios" is more violent than "The Sopranos," stranger than "Carnivale" and features characters at least as damaged as the "Six Feet Under" undertakers.

But for El Norte viewers with savory tastes and strong stomachs to match, "Epitafios" is a seriously cool find. Think "Seven" churned with "Millennium," "The Wire" and a dash of telenova passion.

Sneaking into the marketplace now is the five-disc DVD set "Epitafios: The Complete First Season" (subtitled, letterboxed, retail $59.98). The Season 1 reference seems optimistic, as Argentine co-producer Pol-ka appears unlikely to revive the series.

"Epitafios" means epitaphs, which are the calling cards of the story's brilliant young psychopath, Bruno. He's an evildoer pulled from the same Jungian well as Hannibal Lecter - only meaner and better looking. His obsessions include torture as an art form and Bizet's "Carmen." He's kind to corpses and his pet rat.

Bruno (Antonio Birabent) fell into madness after a group of his high school classmates were burned alive in a hostage situation. Botching the negotiations to free the doomed kids were a weary police detective (Julio Chavez) and a sexy psychiatrist (Paola Krum), who later became lovers.

Five years on, Bruno initiates his Rube Goldberg-esque scheme to kill off everyone connected with the massacre, in ways appropriate to what he sees as their crimes. (As in, the school treasurer who infuriated the hostage-taker is force-fed coins until she chokes to death.) The killer's list is long enough to stretch 13 hours. Final targets: the cop and shrink.

"All those potential victims may also be potential murderers," writer Walter Slavich says in the DVD featurette. "That's the subject." Or, as a retired cop puts it in the show, "One way or another, everyone's guilty of something."

There's one featured murder per episode, with plenty of collateral damage. The bodies pile up in a darkly beautiful Buenos Aires, rendered by cinematographer Jorge Fernandez and art director Horacio Pigozzi.

Midway through, a hardhearted female profiler (the terrific Cecilia Roth) with a taste for Russian roulette joins the chase. By then we've learned not to get too attached: "Epitafios" specializes in making its audience care about key characters, and then ripping them away. Part of the show's voodoo is its deep reserve of ways to creep out viewers.

Good as it is, "Epitafios" isn't consistently up to first-rate horror/thriller standards - the writing goes brain-dead here and there; the romance feels like daytime TV; the villain eventually comes off like a gay Terminator. The series' momentum sags in the middle, as the filmmakers struggle with the task of making what is essentially a 13-hour horror film.

Nevermind the quibbling. If you've read this far, you gotta check it out. "Epitafios" comes guaranteed as addictive, creepy as hell and intellectually challenging. It remains true to its grisly aesthetic to the final stop.

Buy "Epitafios: The Complete First Season" at 21% off.

photo Francis Ford Coppola delivers one of the year's best commentaries in the double-disc release of "Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier."

"I wanted to make it as a great big Hollywood movie," Coppola says. "I wanted it to have the biggest picture - the greatest sound." Paramount's DVD set carries out Coppola's orders:

Both films looked outstanding on the previous DVDs, but the video quality takes another step up here, to near reference quality, thanks to a transfer at an improved bit rate. Colors seem more saturated in spots, like the Charlie-don't-surf scene. The aspect ratio comes in at 2.0:1, a crop that cinematographer Vittorio Storaro intended to split the difference between pan-and-scan and widescreen, according to the extras. The detailed and powerful 5.1 audio carpet-bombs the soundstage.

Paramount exposes itself to friendly fire with the set's title - as many fans have groused, no "Apocalypse" project is complete without the superb documentary "Hearts of Darkness," filmed by Coppola's wife, Eleanor. (That film is not out on DVD, apparently because of rights issues.) The set does deliver a robust selection of extra features, mostly new short films dealing with the production and postproduction. There are numerous deleted scenes, mostly curiosities in rough shape. (A few other extras have been released in a promotional Circuit City edition.)

The set includes the original theatrical version of 1979 and the director's cut "Redux" from 2001. Viewers will experience flashbacks to the early days of DVD, as both versions require a disc change midway through. (The first copy provided for review froze in the opening scene, but a second copy worked fine.)

Coppola spends a lot of time discussing the film's transformation from a straight-up war picture to a "journey into the surreal." He tells some great war stories of filming in the Philippines with wild men Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper. "We started to be like these psychedelic soldiers ourselves," he recalls. "We were changing (as people) as we went along. ... We picked up ideas like hitchhikers."

The director eventually discarded his shooting script, taking guidance from a green paperback edition of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." The film became a work of improvisation, with key contributions from Brando, "one of the few really brilliant men I've ever met." (Disc 1 includes 17 minutes of Brando reading T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men.")

Coppola puzzles over the criticisms of "Apocalypse Now" when it first came out, and its current enshrinement as a movie classic: "The far-out art of the past becomes the wallpaper of the future." Now, he says, "what I'd like to do is make little films."

Buy "Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier" at 36% off.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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