Video Verdict: New DVDs for March 3

Piper Perabo, left, and Jamie Lee Curtis with the canine star of "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."

Piper Perabo, left, and Jamie Lee Curtis with the canine star of "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."

This week is relatively light on major video releases, but the quality of the titles more than makes up for the slight number.


Australia
4 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality, and brief strong language
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

When announced, director Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia” seemed likely to generate major Oscar buzz. After all, Luhrmann and star Nicole Kidman teamed for a best picture nomination with 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!”

But when “Australia” hit theaters, the critical reaction was mixed and the film never got the momentum or support of eventual Oscar winners “Milk” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” So, it slowly drifted out of theaters to be reborn on video this week, and I for one am excited.

Kidman is wonderful as Lady Sarah Ashley, a British aristocrat who travels to Australia to convince her husband to sell their cattle ranch only to find her man dead. That leaves her to run things while simultaneously battling an underhanded takeover scheme. Fortunately, she gets a hand from a rugged frontiersman (Hugh Jackman), and of course, romance is on the horizon.

Luhrmann’s film is at times stilted, often melodramatic and remarkably American for a film about Australia. But I’m convinced that’s exactly what the director was shooting for. “Australia” is basically a 21st-century version of a Golden Age, Hollywood epic, and as such, it should be treasured by anyone who loves classic cinema.

The cinematography in “Australia” is astonishingly beautiful, and that helps Luhrmann recall the 1940s and ’50s epics he so clearly adores. Anyone who shares his passion should appreciate what he’s done with this endlessly entertaining melodrama.

Sadly, DVD extras are limited to two deleted scenes.

 

Beverly Hills Chihuahua
3 stars
Rated PG for some mild thematic elements
Disney
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Let’s face it. With the exception of the “Babe” franchise, talking-animal movies have never given “Citizen Kane” and “Gone With the Wind” a run for their money. Anyone thinking “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” is about to change that, probably spends more time drinking than watching movies. But a film needn’t be dismissed just because it falls short of brilliance.

“Chihuahua” is obviously what it’s creators wanted: a clean, likable family film that will make kids laugh while keeping their parents moderately entertained.

The focus is on Chloe, a cute, white Chihuahua (voiced by Drew Barrymore) living high on the hog with her wealthy master, Vivian (Jamie Lee Curtis). Chloe is the sort of pup who drinks bottled water, dines on home-cooked meals, has play dates with her pals, and even visits the spa.

So, it’s quite a shock when Vivian’s moderately irresponsible niece Rachel (Piper Perabo) makes an error in judgment that leads to a dognapping in Mexico. Suddenly, the pampered Chloe is running Mexican streets with no idea how to fend for herself.

Fortunately, a powerful German shepherd (voiced by Andy Garcia) takes Chloe under his paw, and the shell shocked Rachel mounts a full-scale search with the help of Vivian’s landscaper (Manolo Cardona) and his pooch (voiced by George Lopez). The plotting of “Chihuahua” is routine, but director Raja Gosnell keeps the pace brisk and the animal stars are awfully cute.

DVD extras include deleted scenes, an animated short on Chihuahuas, and a commentary by Gosnell.

 

Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic
4 stars
Unrated
Warner Premiere
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

With the “Watchmen” live-action movie due in theaters Friday, March 6, both longtime comic fans and newcomers may find themselves interested in the source material, a groundbreaking comic book series that hit the streets in the mid-1980s and has since been compiled as a graphic novel.

The story is set during an alternate-history version of 1980s America in which the world is edging ever-closer to nuclear war. One thing that’s preventing such a catastrophe is the presence of an all-powerful government-sponsored superhero named Doctor Manhattan.

When a masked vigilante named Rorschack finds another hero dead and Doctor Manhattan drops into a self-imposed exile, it seems somebody is trying to eliminate the heroic class. This spawns an investigation that leads other heroes out of retirement and produces increasingly unsettling results.

The story is adult and addresses big picture themes like the nuclear arms race and the moral codes that heroes live by. For those who haven’t read the comic series, it is highly recommended.

The motion comic is essentially a hybrid of comic book and animated movie, taking viewers through the comic series using panels that have limited motion but never attempt realism. Adding to the experience is a haunting musical score and narrator Tom Stechschulte, who voices the dialogue audiobook style. The great thing about this presentation is that it offers an expanded view of the “Watchmen” universe while maintaining the text and visual style of the comics. It is so well done, in fact, that the live-action movie will have to be outstanding just to compete.

There aren’t any DVD extras to speak of, but that’s likely because it required two discs just to transfer the lengthy graphic novel to a cinematic version. It takes well over five hours to get through the whole comic, but it can be watched in chapters to make things more manageable.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“I’ve Loved You So Long”: This French drama earned Kristin Scott Thomas a Golden Globe nomination for best actress for her portrayal of an ex-convict who moves in with her sister (Elsa Zylberstein) and struggles to adapt to “outside” life. In the U.S., the movie was presented theatrically in French with English subtitles, but the DVD includes both the French version and an English dub with Thomas translating her own lines. Along with the acting nomination for Thomas, “I’ve Loved You So Long” received Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice Award nominations for best foreign language film.

“Wonder Woman”: It’s quite a week for comic book lovers. First the “Watchmen” motion comic and now this direct-to-DVD animated film about the origin of the world’s premiere female superhero. Keri Russell leads the voice cast with her portrayal of Wonder Woman.

“Air Bud” — Special Edition: With “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” making the rounds, Disney decided it was time to give this family favorite a DVD revival. The 1997 film tells of a lonely boy (Kevin Zegers) who strikes up a friendship with a basketball savvy golden retriever.

Scarlett Johansson Collection: For a young actress, Scarlett Johansson has done far too many pictures to get her due in a three-disc set. That said, this collection — “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” “A Good Woman” and “An American Rhapsody” — offers at least a cursory look at her work.

“Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.” : This 1983 television movie picked up 15 years after the exploits of the original “U.N.C.L.E.” TV series, and it once again had super-spys Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) working to save the world. Now fans can revisit the adventure on DVD.

“My Two Dads” — The Complete First Season: Paul Reiser and Greg Evigan star as bachelors charged with raising a 12-year-old girl (Staci Keanan) in this vintage family sitcom.

“SpongeBob Vs. the Big One:” A collection of seven episodes from the popular children’s animated series about a loveable sponge and his undersea buddies.

 

— Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose bylines have appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications.

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