This is a good week for home video, as most of the mainstream offerings are solid and several are downright outstanding.
Four stars (out of four)
Rated R for some violent and disturbing content, and language
Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray
Angelina Jolie received a well-deserved best actress Oscar nomination for her work in this beautifully crafted drama about the Wineville Chicken Coup Murders, which occurred in Wineville, Calif. (now Mira Loma) in the late 1920s and early ’30s.
Jolie portrays Christine Collins, a devoted single mother who reluctantly leaves her son, Walter, home alone when she is called in to work. When she returns, Walter is gone and Christine panics. She goes to the Los Angeles Police Department but officers refuse to mount a search for 24 hours, and when they finally do nothing turns up.
Five months later, Christine is elated when a grinning LAPD captain (Jeffrey Donovan) tells her that Walter has been found. But when she goes to pick the boy up she sees that he isn’t her son. That does not, however, prevent the LAPD — desperate for positive press — from insisting that Christine has simply forgotten her boy.
It sounds so ludicrous one would think the story is fiction, but director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski based the movie largely in fact, making it all the more compelling.
Not only is Jolie outstanding but she has great people to play off. Donovan is stunning as the deliciously egotistical police captain, John Malkovich is wonderful as a crusading preacher and the film’s youthful stars shine like pros. Together, with Eastwood, this cast crafted the best film released into theaters in 2008.
Unfortunately, DVD extras are limited to two featurettes on the making-of the movie.
Body of Lies
3 1/2 stars
Rated R for strong violence including some torture and for language throughout
Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray
Director Ridley Scott is excellent with military dramas, so it should come as no surprise that “Body of Lies” is a superior film. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Roger Ferris, a hands-on CIA operative fighting the war on terror in the Middle East. After he loses a friend during a daring mission in Iraq, Ferris is sent to Jordan in hopes of bringing down a terrorist cell, but he runs into complications with both the Jordanian secret service and his CIA handler, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe).
Although a powerful man, Hoffman does most of his intelligence work from the safety of an office in the United States, allowing Ferris to do the dirty deeds on the ground. Because of this, and because of Hoffman’s cavalier attitude about collateral damage, the two men repeatedly butt heads.
The film, which clocks in at just over two hours, is beautifully paced and DiCaprio and Crowe have terrific on-screen chemistry. Just don’t get distracted while watching because the plotting is complex enough to leave inattentive viewers in the dust.
“Body of Lies” is available on multiple DVD releases, including a two-disc special edition with a digital copy of the film. Extra features vary.
High School Musical 3: Senior Year
Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray
The “High School Musical” series is clearly targeted at teens and pre-teens, and for that reason folks outside those groups have limited interest. That’s not really criticism, though, because the series serves its fans well.
Although it’s the third entry in the “High School Musical” series, “Senior Year” was the first to earn a theatrical release, and it brought in more than $90 million on the big screen. Here’s betting it scores just as big on DVD because the picture is filled with catchy song and dance numbers supported by a solid, albeit typical, plot.
“Senior Year” follows the popular teen characters from the first two movies as they make decisions about what they’re going to do after high school, deal with interpersonal relationships and, of course, produce an impressive theatrical work. The title has dual meaning because the students are not only working to create a musical for their school, East High, they frequently express themselves through song and dance.
The talented young cast includes Zac Effron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu and Monique Coleman; and director Kenny Ortega showcases their work with finesse.
“Senior Year” is available on multiple DVD releases, including a two-disc extended edition. Extra features vary.
How to Lose Friends & Alienate People
Rated R for language, some graphic nudity and brief drug material.
Available Tuesday on DVD
Director Robert B. Weide’s highly fictionalized adaptation of writer Toby Young’s 2001 memoir is inconsistent but always entertaining thanks to the cast.
Comedian Simon Pegg stars as Sidney Young, a cocky British writer trying to make it at the influential Sharps Magazine. Thing is, Sidney’s brash manner and reluctance to kiss up doesn’t sit well with the A-list celebrities he’s hobnobbing with.
Because Pegg is a delightful performer, it’s fun to watch him bobbing through a host of fish-out-of water gags and slowly winning the friendship of his beautiful co-worker Alison (Kirsten Dunst). “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People” has dead spots but they are, fortunately, spaced far enough apart to forgive.
DVD extras include a making-of featurette and two commentary tracks, one a solo effort by Weide and one featuring both Weide and Pegg.
Rated R for some language and sexual material
Available Tuesday on DVD
Everybody knows the best way to stir controversy is to talk religion or politics, and comedian Bill Maher chose the former for his inciting and engaging documentary “Religulous.”
Like most documentaries these days, the film is not a journalistic investigation but the cinematic equivalent of a newspaper editorial. It is one-sided and carefully edited to allow Maher’s viewpoint to shine, meaning Maher and director Larry Charles (“Borat!”) gave only limited screen time to their most credible interview subjects.
Most of the movie focuses on folks like a “formerly gay” preacher and an evangelist claiming to be a direct descendent of Christ. While they make the movie funny and illustrate Maher’s point that religion has been corrupted, they don’t allow for a serious theological discussion.
That’s too bad because Maher begins the film modestly, saying he doesn’t know what comes after death and suggesting that he was approaching the film with an open mind. Clearly, that was rhetoric because he wraps with an over-the-top monologue that all but pleads for people to give up their religious convictions.
“Religulous” has flaws, but it also broaches a serious topic in a lighthearted and fast-moving manner. Those who can handle a film that challenges their religious beliefs — or are looking for one to reinforce atheism — should find something to talk about after watching.
DVD extras include deleted scenes, a collection of monologues by Maher and a commentary with Maher and director Larry Charles.
ALSO OUT TUESDAY
“Quarantine”: Documentary-style horror film about the outbreak of a strange disease in a Los Angeles apartment building. When it becomes apparent that residents are becoming infected by a virus that causes them to go mad and become homicidal, authorities quarantine the building, leaving the healthy to fend for themselves. Jennifer Carpenter, Steve Harris, Johnathon Schaech and Columbus Short star.
“Flash of Genius”: Greg Kinnear plays Dr. Robert Kearns, inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper system. Where’s the drama? Well, Ford and GM appropriated Kearns’ idea without giving him payment or credit, and he spent more than a decade fighting the massive automobile manufacturers.
“Choke”: Film adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel about a sex-addicted man (Sam Rockwell) who pretends to choke in upscale restaurants as a way of conning people out of money. The film was directed by Clark Gregg, and the cast is filled out by Anjelica Huston, Kelly MacDonald, Bijou Phillips and Brad William Henke.
“I Served the King of England”: Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, this Czech film tells the story of an ambitious man who ignores World War II politics in pursuit of his monetary goals. The film was directed by Jiri Menzel (“Closely Watched Trains”), and it is presented in Czech and German with English subtitles.
“Still Waiting…”: Direct-to-DVD follow-up to the 2005 independent comedy “Waiting…” Like its predecessor, “Still Waiting…” focuses on the comic adventures of the wait staff at the restaurant Shenaniganz. Ryan Reynolds, Anna Farris and Justin Long — anchors of the first film — are nowhere to be seen, but Luis Guzman, Chi McBride and Andy Milonakis are back for round two. The movie was written by Rob McKittrick and directed by Jeff Balis.
“Dead Like Me”: Feature-length DVD follow-up to the short-lived Showtime dramedy about grim reapers living in Seattle. Callum Blue, Ellen Muth, Sarah Wynter and Henry Ian Cusick star.
John Cassavetes films: The Criterion Collection is delivering restored, high-definition transfers of director John Cassavetes’ 1959 debut, “Shadows,” and his 1968 drama, “Faces.” Both films are relationship dramas, the former focusing on an interracial romance and the latter on the disintegration of a marriage.
“Hobson’s Choice”: Another entry from the Criterion Collection, this 1954 comedy stars Charles Laughton as a Victorian businessman who winds up in a battle of wills with his fiery daughter (Brenda De Banzie). The 1954 picture was directed by the great David Lean.
— Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose work has been published in some of the largest publications in the United States, and Video Verdict is available for syndication is most markets. For more information, contact him at Forrest@ForrestHartman.com.