Video Verdict: New DVDs for March 10

Josh Brolin, left, plays Dan White and Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk in the drama "Milk."

Josh Brolin, left, plays Dan White and Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk in the drama "Milk."

It’s an exceptionally busy week on the home video front, with film lovers gaining access to a 2008 best picture nominee, a crude-but-funny Hollywood comedy, a Jason Statham action flick and a handful of notable indies.

4 stars (out of four)
Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence
Universal Studios
Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray

One could ceaselessly debate the merits of this year’s Oscar nominees for best picture because all were good films. But, for my money, “Milk” outclassed all contenders, including the eventual winner, “Slumdog Millionaire.”

“Milk” recalls the surprising and inspiring real-life story of Harvey Milk, an outspoken businessman and political leader who became one of the first gay men to land a major political office in the United States. Sean Penn deservedly won this year’s best actor Oscar for his portrayal of the politician because the superstar actor disappears in the role like a ship in the fog. And what a role it is.

After years of campaigning — building alliances with groups as divergent as drag queens and union workers — Milk was elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors only to be gunned down in a double homicide that also robbed the city of mayor George Moscone. Making the story even more dramatic was the shooter: a former supervisor and police officer named Dan White (Josh Brolin).

Dustin Lance Black’s Academy Award-winning script is a fine piece that recalls the events leading up to Milk’s and Moscone’s assassination in vivid detail, and director Gus Van Sant interpreted the material with style and grace. The result is one of the greatest movies to hit DVD this year.

Extra features include deleted scenes, a Harvey Milk remembrance and a couple pieces on the making of the film.


Role Models
3 stars
DVD contains rated and unrated versions of the film. The rated version received an R for crude and sexual content, strong language and nudity
Universal Studios
Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray

Too many Hollywood comedies sell themselves on one or two good gags, but “Role Models” is remarkably consistent.

The film is centered on Danny Donahue (Paul Rudd) and his buddy Wheeler (Seann William Scott), two energy drink pitchmen with maturity issues. Danny is frustrated that he hasn’t done more with his life, and he spends his days moping while Wheeler seems perfectly happy skating around as a costumed beverage mascot. The two men get a nasty awakening when they land in court thanks to a bigger-than-average meltdown by Danny.

Rather than send the two men to jail, a judge orders them to volunteer for an organization called Sturdy Wings, which is essentially a Big Brothers Big Sisters clone. The sentence seems light until Danny and Wheeler meet the youngsters they’re supposed to partner with. Wheeler is assigned to Ronnie (Bobb’e Thompson), a street smart kid with a chip on his shoulder, and Danny gets Augie (Christophe Mintz-Plasse), a super-geek who lives and dies by a Medieval role playing game.

There are plenty of laughs as Danny and Wheeler try to connect with their difficult, young charges, and director David Wain keeps the film moving at a brisk and enjoyable pace. While that in itself is good, the most noteworthy thing about “Role Models” is its heart. The characters are genuinely endearing, and the movie’s well-meaning message is just as important as the off-color gags and over-the-top, comic situations. Just don’t mistake this for a children’s picture. The profanity is free flowing and there’s plenty of sexual content and nudity.

The DVD is being released unrated, but viewers have the option to view the R-rated theatrical cut. Extras include deleted scenes, bloopers, several making-of features and a commentary by Wain.


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
3 1/2 stars
Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust
Available Tuesday on DVD

There have been many excellent films about the Holocaust, and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” can stand proudly among them. Based on the novel by John Boyne, the film tells of a precocious 8-year-old named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) whose father is a proud member of the German SS. Bruno likes the fact that his dad is a soldier, but when his father takes charge of a countryside concentration camp, the boy gets a different look at the war.

Disobeying his mother, Bruno repeatedly sneaks to the edge of the camp, meeting a Jewish boy (Jack Scanlon) and striking up an eye-opening friendship. Writer-director Mark Herman aptly demonstrates the simplicity and open-mindedness of childhood, and he reminds that many adults would do well to regress.

The film’s young stars are joined by Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis and Rupert Friend, and the acting is superb throughout.

DVD extras include deleted scenes and a commentary track by Herman and Boyne.


Transporter 3
2 1/2 stars
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, some sexual content and drug material
Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray

If you’re into the “Transporter” franchise, it’s a safe bet you weren’t hooked by deep plotting and philosophical dialog. Nope. This series is about Jason Statham kicking but, and film No. 3 continues the tradition.

Statham once again plays Frank Martin, a guy who makes his living transporting sought-after cargo from one spot to another. This time, he’s charged with driving the kidnapped daughter of a Ukranian political official (Natalya Rudakova) across Europe. Although she’s an unwilling passenger, the girl forms a bond with Frank as he gets them out of one mess after another. The film uses their budding romance as a major subplot but it never works because Rudakova and Statham lack chemistry.

What does work is Statham in action. He battles his way through several elaborately staged action sequences and each is a blast to watch, making “Transporter 3” an enjoyable, if forgettable, affair.

The movie is available on multiple DVD releases, including a two-disc Fully Loaded Edition. Extra features vary.


Synecdoche New York
3 stars
Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity
Sony Pictures Classics
Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray

Writer Charlie Kaufman has long been a favorite of film lovers thanks to his complicated plots and insightful ideas. For his debut as a director, he went deeper than ever, crafting an unusual drama centered on Schenectady, NY, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

After his wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him, Caden pursues relationships with other women, including a box office attendant named Hazel (Samantha Morton) and a young actress named Claire (Michelle Williams). But Caden’s real passion is theater, and Kaufman’s story turns a corner when the eccentric director scores a grant that allows him to build a mini version of Schenectady within a warehouse. The actors inside play actual people engaging in day-to-day life, and there are doubles even for Caden, Hazel and Claire.

It is impossible to adequately describe “Synecdoche New York” in a short, newspaper-length article because to do so is to leave out any number of Kaufman’s intricacies. Suffice it to say that the film is an ambitious, sometimes labored, work that packs comic wit and searing drama into a package requiring multiple viewings for full understanding.

DVD extras include screen animations, a roundtable of bloggers discussing the film, a bit where Charlie Kaufman talks about his career and making-of featurettes.


Rachel Getting Married
2 1/2 stars
Rated R for language and brief sexuality
Sony Pictures Classics
Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray

Anne Hathaway earned a best actress Academy Award nomination for her role in “Rachel Getting Married,” and she is easily the best part of this bleak drama.

Hathaway stars as Kym, a reforming drug addict trying to come to terms with a terrible event in her past. When she leaves rehab to attend her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding, she spurs family tensions that turn the presumably happy affair into a brooding event.

Director Jonathan Demme has crafted a feature that is often interesting but rarely more, and stretches of his nearly two-hour movie are downright dull. Even worse, he opted for shaky, handheld cinematography which constantly distracts from the characters and situations.

Hathaway, DeWitt and a collection of fine supporting players do their best to elevate the material, but actors can only do so much.

DVD extras include deleted scenes, two audio commentaries, a cast and crew Q&A session and a behind-the-scenes featurette.


2 stars
Rated R for language
Available Tuesday on DVD

Director Mike Leigh’s offbeat British comedy garnered critical favor when it was released theatrically, and star Sally Hawkins won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of endlessly optimistic schoolteacher Pauline Cross, or Poppy. I don’t see the appeal.

The film sends ever-cheery Poppy through one trial after another with the apparent intent of testing her optimism. Among her challenges is a stolen bicycle, a bully at school and a racist driving instructor with anger issues (Eddie Marsan).

While cheerful films serve a purpose during difficult times, “Happy-Go-Lucky” doesn’t resonate. Perhaps it’s because Poppy is such a one-note character that she never appears a real person. Or maybe it’s because optimism, although a wonderful trait, isn’t nearly so funny as cynicism.

It’s true that Hawkins is reasonably good at playing a Pollyanna, but that alone doesn’t merit a rental.

DVD extras include a commentary by Leigh and a couple making-of features.



“Cadillac Records”:  Writer-director Darnell Martin’s movie about the rise of Chess Records and some of its major artists. Adrien Brody stars as label founder Leonard Chess, and he’s joined by Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, Mos Def as Chuck Berry and Beyonce Knowles as Etta James.

“Pinocchio” — 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition: Disney periodically rolls its animated classics in and out of the video vaults, and this release celebrates the 70th anniversary of the studio’s film about a puppet who dreams of becoming a real boy. Although “Pinnochio” has been on DVD in the past, this marks the first time the film is available on high definition Blu-ray disc. And folks who buy the Blu-ray version get a standard-definition DVD to boot.

Max Fleischer’s “Gulliver’s Travels”: Academy Award-nominated, 1939 animated film about a shipwrecked sailor who finds himself surrounded by tiny people. The movie has been digitally restored and is available on both DVD and Blu-ray.

“Escape to Witch Mountain” and “Return to Witch Mountain”: With “Race to Witch Mountain” slated to hit theaters March 13, Disney decided to release new DVD editions of the films that inspired it. Both “Escape to Witch Mountain” and “Return to Witch Mountain” relate the adventures of orphaned siblings who have paranormal abilities.

“The Miracle Worker”: Emmy-winning, 1979 television drama about the life of Helen Keller. The film stars Melissa Gilbert as Keller, a deaf, blind and mute girl who seems beyond help until she meets a kind-hearted teacher named Annie Sullivan (Patty Duke).


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

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