Video Verdict: ‘Justin Bieber,’ ‘No Strings Attached,’ ‘Blue Valentine,’ ‘The Illusionist’

Natalie Portman, left, and Ashton Kutcher see if it’s possible to have attachment-free sex in the romantic comedy “No Strings Attached.”

This week’s home video releases include an Academy Award-nominated animated film, a dark drama starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, a sexy romantic comedy featuring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher and a biopic focused on one of today’s hottest young music stars.

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated G
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray May 13

The most compelling thing about teen sensation Justin Bieber’s concert film, “Never Say Never,” is the fact that it proves he’s not just another pre-packaged sensation. Yes, he has model good looks. Yes, he sings infectious bubble gum pop. And, yes, he has an entourage surrounding him at all times. But Justin Bieber also has immense talent.

“Never Say Never” drives home the fact that he was a musician – a real musician – before the world knew his name. Along with belting out a tune with the best of today’s teen singers, he plays drums, guitar and piano, and he seems to be a genuinely nice guy. None of this has convinced me to buy a Bieber album. The kid is, after all, playing for folks his age and younger. But one needn’t be suffering from Bieber fever to enjoy the film.

One part documentary and one part concert flick, “Never Say Never” offers a look at Bieber’s childhood, details his unlikely rise to stardom and delivers a healthy dose of concert footage, much of it culled from a sold-out show at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Teen fans will drool over the footage and the chance to get to know their idol better, but the movie works for non-fans as well, providing a fascinating glance at an American celebrity sensation. Without being preachy, the film also reinforces the fact that it’s not always easy being a child superstar and that sometimes hard work and dreaming have an extraordinary payoff.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a concert dance-off where Bieber and company show off their moves, a live concert performance of his song “Favorite Girl,” a bit on the Bieber crew’s tradition of giving away tickets before each show and live footage of the pop star cutting his hair.

No Strings Attached
3 stars
Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

A film like “No Strings Attached” may seem like lightweight Natalie Portman in a post-“Black Swan” world, but the young Oscar winner has always valued variety, which is why you find her in everything from space operas (the “Star Wars” saga) to children’s films (“Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium”).

In “Strings,” the one-time child actress is decidedly grown up, so much so that her character, a young doctor named Emma, is having lots and lots of sex. Emma is busy and doesn’t believe in romance, but she still likes a good roll in the hay. So, when she and a longtime acquaintance named Adam (Ashton Kutcher) hook up, she suggests that they keep seeing each other without actually becoming a couple.

For awhile things work, with Emma calling Adam at all times of the day and night so they can have commitment-free fun. The movie is, however, a romantic comedy, and that means the “sex friends” business is bound to backfire.

“No Strings Attached” was written by Elizabeth Meriwhether with Mike Samonek sharing a story credit, and they crafted a story that is decidedly predictable. Thankfully, that’s not the only adjective that applies. “Strings” is also frequently cute and funny, and Portman and Kutcher make the most of the material. The two stars have delightful onscreen personas and terrific chemistry when working together.

Credit also goes to director Ivan Reitman (“Stripes,” “Ghostbusters,” “Father’s Day,” “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”). As his filmography demonstrates, he’s a hit and miss guy, but he’s also talented enough to draw the best from people when he has the right project.

Here, the stars have aligned. Portman and Kutcher are great, the screenplay is solid and Reitman properly assembled the pieces.

The film is available on a bare bones DVD release and as part of a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack that includes deleted scenes, alternate storylines, a couple featurettes and a commentary by Reitman.

Blue Valentine
2½ stars
Rated R for strong graphic sexual content, language and a beating
Anchor Bay
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Despite the vast critical praise “Blue Valentine” has received, it’s a difficult film to warm to. It’s nicely made, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a wearing, dreary drama.

The story, co-written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, uses a fractured timeline to tell the story of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), a couple facing marital problems. Alternating between scenes of present-day turmoil and the bliss that was their courtship, Cianfrance delivers a fascinating look at their lives. Still, a gloomy pall hovers over the project.

Even when viewers are treated to scenes of the couple’s early romance – some of them extremely sweet – it’s impossible to forget the nightmare awaiting them. Cianfrance may have been shooting for this effect, but a better balance between passion and misery, love and hate, would have made the picture more interesting.

“Blue Valentine” also leaves a lingering, and troubling, question. The Dean that viewers see when his marriage is collapsing is considerably different than the one presented in flashback, yet the movie doesn’t explain his transition. Since the considerable personality shift likely contributed to the couple’s marital problems, the choice not to address it is frustrating.

Both Williams and Gosling received praise for their work in the film, and Williams earned an Academy Award nomination for best actress. The acclaim is merited, as both actors are exceptional. Sadly, earthy, realistic performances aren’t enough to make a movie great.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes, a making-of feature and an audio commentary by Cianfrance and co-editor Jim Helton.

The Illusionist
2 stars
Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

“The Illusionist” was one of three films nominated for best animated feature at the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony, and the European picture received mostly glowing critical notices while playing theaters.

Much of the praise is, no doubt, due to the movie’s extraordinary hand-drawn animation. Directed by Sylvain Chomet, who also made “The Triplets of Belleville,” the visuals are rich, striking and beautiful. Sadly, this masterful art is used to support a story that moves so slowly it could lull an insomniac to sleep.

The tale itself, based on a screenplay by the late French
actor/writer/director Jacques Tati, is charming enough. It focuses on a magician whose antiquated stage show is falling out of favor in 1950s Europe. The emergence of rock ’n’ roll has displaced more traditional acts, like his, forcing him to play increasingly minor venues. At one such venue, he encounters Alice, a young woman who is awed by his tricks. When he leaves, she stows away on a ship so she can accompany him, and they form a father-daughter-type relationship.

There’s a good story here, but Chomet takes way too long to set it up. Had the film been whittled to 30 or 40 minutes total, I might have agreed with those who consider it a classic. At 80 minutes, it’s both long and self-indulgent.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette, plus line tests and other special features focused on the animation process.


“Something Wild”: The Criterion Collection is releasing a director-approved edition of Jonathan Demme’s 1986 dramedy about a conservative businessman (Jeff Daniels) who finds himself taking a nutty – and dangerous – road trip with a free-spirited woman (Melanie Griffith). Ray Liotta also stars.

“Black Death”: Adventure film about a band of medieval warriors living in plague-ridden England. When they hear stories of a village that is untouched by disease, they set out on a dangerous journey to investigate. Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne star.

“Cougars, Inc.”: Direct-to-video comedy about a teen (Kyle Gallner) who starts an escort service targeting middle-aged women. Kathryn Morris, Denise Richards and Jim Belushi also star. Written and directed by K. Asher Levin. Directed by Christopher Smith.

“The Hit List”: Story of Allan Campbell (Cole Hauser), a down-on-his luck guy who meets a mysterious man (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who claims to be an assassin. When the stranger offers to kill five people free of charge, Allan jokingly gives him a list. Then, they begin turning up dead with all the evidence pointing to Allan.

My First Collection Featuring “Splat the Cat”: Scholastic Storybook Treasures release containing 14 narrated stories for children. Presented on three DVDs, the set features adaptations of the children’s books “Splat the Cat,” “The Story About Ping,” “The Napping House,” “Hondo & Fabian,” “The Most Wonderful Egg in the World,” “Bear Snores On” and more. The set is designed specifically to support literacy skills in young children.

“I Love Toy Trains – All Aboard!”: New addition to the “I Love Toy Trains” children’s video series. The DVD contains plenty of footage of model trains in action.

Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit E-mail him at

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