This week brings an excellent crop of home video releases, including an outstanding animated film from Disney and an eerie drama that helped Natalie Portman win a best actress Academy Award.
4 stars (out of four)
Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
During his impressive filmmaking career, director Darren Aronofsky has made everything from stylized, abstract think pieces (“The Fountain”) to gritty, realistic dramas (“The Wrestler”). With “Black Swan,” he found middle ground, creating an intense thriller that is based in reality yet takes wild, fanciful swings that demand audience interpretation.
The focus is on Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a driven professional ballerina who desperately wants the lead role in her company’s production of “Swan Lake.” Trouble is, artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) isn’t sure she has what it takes to execute his vision, portraying both the innocent White Swan and more sensual Black Swan. As Nina tries to prove herself, she develops a rivalry with another dancer (Mila Kunis) who lacks precision but performs with passion.
Aronofsky presents much of the story in a straightforward manner but breaks things up with dreamlike excursions that viewers must mull and decipher. This was a bold artistic choice, as some audiences will be alienated by the presentation, but Aronofsky was rewarded with five Academy Award nominations, including best picture and director nods.
“Black Swan’s” only win went to Portman for best actress, but that doesn’t negate the film’s overall merit. Portman deserves her Oscar, but she received plenty of help from the screenplay and Aronofsky’s deft direction.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include a three-part, behind-the-scenes feature that considers the making of the film.
Rated PG for brief mild violence
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D
Disney’s “Tangled” was mysteriously left out of the Academy Awards race for best animated feature, instead scoring a nomination only for best original song. The song nomination, for “I See the Light,” was deserved, but “Tangled” has more going for it than a delightful Alan Menken score.
The film is built on the classic fairy tale of Rapunzel, but the fable has been thoroughly updated to play to a modern audience. Much of the action centers on Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi), a good-hearted bandit who discovers Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) by accident. She lives in a remote tower, where she is prisoner to the evil Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), only Rapunzel doesn’t know she’s an inmate.
Gothel kidnapped Rapunzel when she was just an infant, intent on using the girl’s magical hair to maintain her youth. This may sound complicated, but directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard make sure everything is crystal clear. Bottom line? Rapunzel thinks she’s Gothel’s daughter and that her mother is simply overprotective. So, when Ryder shows up, she seizes the opportunity to escape her tower and check out the real world.
It should come as no surprise that Moore, who started her performing career as a singer, is great as Rapunzel. More surprising is the fact that Zachary Levi (best known for his starring role on the TV series “Chuck”) also has a terrific voice.
The film is best watched on Blu-ray 3D because the animators did a nice job with the multi-dimensional effects. But even without an advanced home theater system “Tangled” is a winner.
The movie is available as part of multiple home video releases, including a four-disc combo pack that includes Blu-ray 3D, standard Blu-ray, DVD and digital copies of the feature. Extras vary.
Rated PG-13 for some language
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
The further we get from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the clearer it becomes that the war was sold to the public using major political maneuvering behind the scenes. Director Doug Liman’s “Fair Game” examines some of that maneuvering while placing a particular focus on the case of Valerie Plame-Wilson, a CIA operative who’s cover was blown after her husband publicly criticized the Bush administration.
The story has been dramatized, and one will, no doubt, find numerous opinions about its authenticity. There are certain things, however, that are beyond question. For instance, Plame-Wilson WAS a U.S. operative and her cover WAS blown by a highly placed member of government.
Liman, who also directed “The Bourne Identity,” is the right man to tell the story because he understands how to portray political intrigue on screen. “Fair Game” is talky in parts, but the information provided is never excessive or unnecessary. Rather it frames the story, giving viewers just the amount of political detail needed to understand what’s going on.
The cast is outstanding, with Naomi Watts portraying Plame-Wilson and Sean Penn serving as her husband, Joe Wilson. Both actors are among the best working today and, with the help of a superb supporting cast, they make it easy to invest in the tale. Even if “Fair Game” weren’t grounded in reality, it would be an outstanding story about patriotic people standing up to a political machine larger than themselves. The fact that the movie also has something credible to say about our current political situation makes it even more exciting.
DVD and Blu-ray extras are limited to an audio commentary by Plame-Wilson and her husband.
Made in Dagenham
Rated R for language and brief sexuality
Sony Pictures Classics
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
“Made in Dagenham” would have been hard pressed to find a more timely video release date. The film tells the real-life story of a 1968 labor dispute in Dagenham, England, and it should play especially well in an America still on edge over massive public employee protests in Wisconsin.
The specific issues presented in “Dagenham” vary considerably from those in Wisconsin, but the film still demonstrates the power of collective bargaining. The focus is on a group of saucy, female sewing machine operators employed as seat cover makers in Ford Motor Company’s Dagenham plant.
The women are angered when they learn that Ford has re-graded their jobs to less-skilled status and that they will be paid considerably less than men performing similar work. Disgusted, they stage a walkout led by Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), an average housewife who decides it’s time to draw a line in the sand.
As with most movies that deal with strikes, director Nigel Cole demonstrates that walking out isn’t easy, financially or emotionally. At times, O’Grady finds herself at odds not only with Ford executives but her own husband (Daniel Mays).
“Dagenham” drags here and there but it’s mostly an exhilarating tale of girl power and the value of a united workforce. Hawkins and the rest of the cast – including Bob Hoskins in a key supporting role – are terrific, and Cole does a great job capturing the look and feel of the 1960s.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes, outtakes, a making-of featurette and a commentary by Cole.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“Mesrine – Public Enemy #1”: The second part of director Jean-Francois Richet’s ambitious two-movie series about the exploits of French gangster Jacques Mesrine. The movie, a followup to “Mesrine: Killer Instinct,” again features Vincent Cassel in the title role. The film is presented in French with English subtitles.
Gilbert and Sullivan on film: The Criterion Collection is rolling out two films built on the fruitful musical partnership of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. The first is “The Mikado,” the 1939 cinematic adaptation of the duo’s politically charged comic opera. The second film is “Topsy Turvy,” director Mike Leigh’s 1999 drama about the duo’s original staging of “The Mikado.” Leigh’s film stars Jim Broadbent as Gilbert and Allan Corduner as Sullivan.
“Dennis the Menace” – Season One: The first 32 episodes of the 1959 television series inspired by Hank Ketcham’s popular Dennis the Menace comic strip. As in the comic, the focus is on Dennis Mitchell (Jay North), a good-natured boy who can’t stay out of trouble. Herbert Anderson, Gloria Henry, Joseph Kerns and Sylvia Field also star.
“Treme” – The Complete First Season: The first 10 episodes of HBO’s dramatic series about New Orleans residents trying to rebuild their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The show is hitting video about a month ahead of the planned, April 24 debut of season two.
“Mad Men” – Season Four: This AMC TV show about the players at an advertising firm during the 1960s has won three consecutive Emmy Awards for outstanding drama series. The program stars Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser and January Jones, and the home video release collects all 13 episodes from the most recent season.
Original “Scream” trilogy: With “Scream 4” coming to theaters April 15, Lionsgate is rolling the first three movies onto Blu-ray. Each film mixes satire and horror while delivering bloody, slasher-film action. Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette star.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection: MPI Home Video is delivering an impressive Blu-ray set packed with all 14 Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The included titles are: “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror,” “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon,” “Sherlock Holmes in Washington,” “Sherlock Holmes Faces Death,” “The Spider Woman,” “The Scarlet Claw,” “The Pearl of Death,” “The House of Fear,” “The Woman in Green,” “Pursuit to Algiers,” “Terror by Night” and “Dressed to Kill.”
“The Ten Commandments”: Paramount Home Entertainment is celebrating the 55th anniversary of director Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic with a fully restored home video release. The movie, which tells the story of Moses, stars Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter. The restored version of the film is being released in multiple incarnations, including a six-disc Blu-ray/DVD gift set.
“Apocalypse – World War II”: This six-part documentary feature about the Second World War was originally shown on the National Geographic Channel. One of the biggest selling points for the series is the fact that it contains archival footage which was unseen prior to the TV release.
Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at email@example.com