This week’s DVD, Blu-Ray releases

Posted Feb. 19, 2010, at 5:29 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:56 a.m.

“The Box” DVD, Blu-ray: This surprisingly tense film opens in Richmond, Va. It’s 1973 and Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden, Cameron Diaz) are on the brink of financial ruin when a box appears on their doorstep. Inside is a device with a red button, but what to do with it? The mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) gives the couple a moral choice. They can push the button and receive $1 million in cash, though someone they don’t know will die should they do so. If they don’t, Arlington will just walk away with the box — and his money — which Arthur and Norma desperately need. The lot of this sounds cut-and-dry, but director Richard Kelly follows his movie “Donnie Darko” in that nothing here is what it seems — the movie exists as if in a dream, with paranoia mounting amid a hive of complexities that lead the viewer straight into the marrow of surrealism. If there’s a downside here, sometimes the movie bleeds absurdity and the performances can be a bit overwrought, but neither is enough to kill it. This is a good thriller, alive with ideas and recommended because of their execution. Rated PG-13. Grade: B-

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“Midsomer Murders: Early Cases Collection”: Based on Caroline Graham’s novels, this ingenious detective series has run for years in Britain, and here, in this “Early Cases Collection,” it enjoys a bundled set of the show’s first 18 episodes. Murder and arched eyebrows are a mainstay, with John Nettles’ Chief Inspector Tom Nettles and his assistant, Detective Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey), wading through the dead bodies, secrets and mayhem with their typical wit and aplomb. Also available from Acorn Media is the equally recommended and most recent set in the collection, “Midsomer Murders: Set 14,” which includes four feature-length episodes — ”Death and Dust,” “Picture of Innocence,” “They Seek Him Here” and “Death in a Chocolate Box.” For fans of the new wave of British mysteries, which are darker than what came before them, each set offers enough manners and murder to lift your heart. Grade: B

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“Miss Congeniality/Miss Congeniality 2” Blu-ray: Bring out the Bullock! With her recent Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for “The Blind Side,” Sandra Bullock is hotter than ever — and Warner wants its share. Here, in this Blu-ray double feature, they offer “Miss Congeniality” and “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous,” two comedies that cater to the sequins and tiara set, though with mixed results. In the first film, Bullock’s Gracie Hart is a graceless, unkempt, ill-mannered FBI agent who goes undercover at the Miss United States pageant when word gets out that a madman plans to blow up the festivities in a decidedly noncongenial fashion. Throughout, Bullock leans hard on her gifts for physical comedy while those around her — Michael Caine as a fussy pageant consultant, Candice Bergen as the pageant’s organizer, William Shatner as the pageant’s syrupy host — get laughs from the film’s witty script, much of which pokes fun at an easy target: beauty pageant contestants. And yet the jokes aren’t cruel. Instead, they’re surprisingly gentle. It’s as if the movie not only wanted to understand these women, most of whom live to raise their manicured middle fingers to feminism, but also to like them very much. With Benjamin Bratt in a nice performance as Gracie’s macho colleague, “Miss Congeniality” is at its best when it swirls around Gracie’s funny transformation from tomboy to glamour queen. “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous,” on the other hand, doesn’t live up to its title. “Armed with a Few Laughs” would come closer to the mark. “Amputated by a Weak Script” would nail it. This time out, Bergen, Bratt and Caine are missing, which sounds like a mistake because it is a mistake. Still, there is Shatner, who is in rare form here, and also there is Regina King as Gracie’s FBI nemesis Sam Fuller, a brooding woman with a nasty left hook who brings to the movie the edge it needs, particularly in Bergen’s absence. Though the plot is seriously misguided, Bullock is Bullock and that’s almost enough. Along with King, she’s working hard here, pressing against the ongoing mediocrity to create a worthwhile diversion for her fans. They’ll appreciate the effort. “Congeniality” — Grade: B; “Congeniality 2” — Grade: C+

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“The Mob Box Set”: “Bugsy,” “Donnie Brasco” and “Snatch,” along with a fair bonus documentary, “The American Gangster.” The standout is the Academy Award-winning “Bugsy,” with Warren Beatty as Siegel and Annette Bening in a fiery, unforgettable performance as Virginia Hill. Watching them together, you know why they’ve remained married. Watching Al Pacino and Johnny Depp together in “Brasco,” you know why they signed on to make the movie; in this smart, cliche-skirting genre movie, their charisma is electric. The least satisfying of the lot is Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch,” which is all dizzying technique, no substance. Grades: “Bugsy”: A; “Donnie Brasco”: B+; “Snatch”: C; “Gangster”: B-.

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“Oscar Classics Collection”: Seven movies, 11 Academy Awards, all repackaged and re-released by Warner Home Video. Highlights include Edna Ferber’s “Cimarron,” the 1930 Western in which Richard Dix and Irene Dunne have a go of it as pioneers in the Old West; the 1956 drama “Lust for Life,” in which Kirk Douglas gives one of the best performances of his career as the troubled Vincent van Gogh (without overdoing it, he cuts right to the heart of van Gogh’s desperation); and Victor Fleming’s 1937 film, “Captains Courageous,” in which Freddie Bartholomew plays a spoiled brat mellowed by Spencer Tracy’s Portugese fisherman — it’s a stirring retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s tale (Tracy won his first Academy Award for the role), with man and boy bonding at sea. In 1937’s “The Good Earth,” Paul Muni and Luise Rainer star in this monumental adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, with Rainer winning the Academy Award for her portrayal as kitchen slave, O-Lan. The locust sequence alone makes this hugely expensive, classic melodrama worth a look. “Johnny Belinda,” “Kitty Foyle” and “The Champ” round out the collection, which is no sucker punch for those who love movies. Grade: A

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“Prom Night” Blu-ray: Carrie had it better. This bloodless bloodletting is a risible remake of the R-rated, 1980 horror movie of the same name, which starred Jamie Lee Curtis when she was busy making a career out of avoiding the business end of butcher knives. Nelson McCormick’s version comes with a more violence-friendly PG-13 rating, which would have been fine had the movie amped up the tension with good writing and a solid undercurrent of suspense. It doesn’t. Instead, we get a silly movie in which a hive of young adults are slaughtered and gutted on what should be one of the happiest nights of their lives. Who is wielding the knife? That would be Richard Fenton (Johnathon Schaech), a deranged former high school teacher who once caused cute Donna (Brittany Snow) a groundswell of grief when he murdered her family. Bummer! Now, on the very night Donna has pulled herself together to shine on prom night, Fenton is on the loose from a maximum security prison and determined to knock her off, as well as all of her friends. So, yes, Fenton is something of a joy kill. And like this rote movie of no surprises, he’s a sorry one at that. Rated PG-13. Grade: D

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“Running with Scissors” Blu-ray: An odd, fractured film that impales itself on camp, but not before generating a wealth of appealingly eccentric performances in the process. Based on Augusten Burroughs’ best-selling 2002 memoir of growing up dysfunctional in the 1970s, the movie fails to strike that uneasy shift from book to film, a literal environment that demands — especially with a quirky story such as this — just the right touch. Writer-director Ryan Murphy doesn’t have it. What he has is his cast, which lifts the movie’s shortcomings with an eager jolt of dark humor. His film is at its best with Annette Bening’s Dierdre, who is so deluded about her alleged poetic greatness that she makes life hell for most of those around her. Also strong are Alec Baldwin as Dierdre’s long-suffering husband, Brian Cox as her questionable psychiatrist, and Joseph Cross as Augusten. Gwyneth Paltrow, Jill Clayburgh, Evan Rachel Wood and Joseph Fiennes round out the cast. Rated R. Grade: C+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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