Lee Daniels’ The Butler
When “The Butler” – excuse me, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” – was released last year, it seemed Oscar bound. It had social issues. It had the “inspired by a true story” handle that makes the Academy wet. For heaven’s sake, it had The Oprah. No matter, the all-star orgy/civil-rights caper was shut out, but don’t be too surprised. Daniels’ film about Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a White House butler trying to do the best he can for his family (including Oprah as his wife), is highly watchable, even riveting and risk-taking at times, but its showy stunt casting (that’s Mariah Carey going diva-less as a cotton-picking field slave), clunky dialogue and just plain hamminess get in the way of the storytelling. Oprah, who you’d think would be distractingly Oprah, is actually quite amazing. And that inspiring-but-campy end? I cried when I should’ve laughed. Special features include a doc covering the film’s historical relevance, deleted scenes and a brief look at the real freedom riders.
Check your Xanax supply before this chilling and tensely searing story of child abduction gets your blood boiling. It’s a rough watch from all sides: the parents agonizing over their lost girls who mysteriously vanish on Thanksgiving Day, and the suspect they torture to find them. In a powerful, award-caliber role, Hugh Jackman is the protective patriarch (newly out lesbian actress Maria Bello plays his grieving wife) who will stop at nothing to save his daughter, even if it means getting in the way of Detective Loki’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) investigation. Superbly acted (Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo round out a terrific cast) and expertly plotted, the macabre, moral-challenging “Prisoners” keeps you guessing all the way through its unnerving finish. With just two short behind-the-scenes featurettes, only the extras are a letdown.
A movie in which a bare-chested Joseph Gordon-Levitt watches porn and spanks his monkey is already high on the Things To See list, but it just so happens that the directorial debut from the actor, variety-show creator and just cool-as-shit guy is an admirable comedic commentary on how media alters our expectations and ignites Scarlett Johansson fantasies. Johansson plays Barbara, the girl eager to ride off with her prince charming. She has balls, and so does Don Jon – the problem is he can’t stop playing with his. Levitt’s dramedy, also featuring the master-class acting of Julianne Moore, is an entertaining, sexy and stylized exploration of gender roles, unrealistic wants and JGL’s beefed-up body. The extras aren’t as generous – what, no director commentary? – but all that semi-nakedness should satisfy you.
A gut-punch of a movie, “Fruitvale Station” is even more tragic and upsetting and emotional because it actually happened. It’s the story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant (an electrifying Michael B. Jordan), a just-released-inmate who starts getting his life together – and being the father, son and boyfriend he wasn’t in prison – when a New Year’s night out ends in his death after a cop turns a gun on him. Was it an issue of race? Was this another Trayvon? The intent of director Ryan Coogler, who focuses on capturing the people and events of Oscar’s last day (his mother is played by acting powerhouse Octavia Spencer), isn’t to place blame or even to blast the officer who was clearly in the wrong for pulling the trigger – it’s to honor a life cut way too short. The cast and filmmakers sit down for a post-screening discussion during one of two bonus features.
Mary Poppins: 50th Anniversary Edition
Winner of five Academy Awards and revered for the casting of Julie Andrews in the titular role, Disney’s classic about a magic nanny and the kids she grows to love (and who grow to love her) is deemed a national treasure – but it’s really not as good as you remember it. Sure, there’s the irresistibility of those sunny song-and-dance numbers (“A Spoonful of Sugar” will still cast a big smile across your face) – and Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, her playful pal, are pretty much magical themselves – and then other stuff happens. Boring stuff. And for two-and-a-half hours. A spoonful of sugar? How about three cups of coffee to go with it? Still, its 50th anniversary Blu-ray debut dazzles with a big spread of special features: an Andrews/Van Dyke commentary, a page-to-stage doc, music and more.
One Direction: This Is Us
One Direction wants you to know that, despite how rich and famous they are, they still have moms and dads – and they haven’t forgotten about the famine in Africa. “This Is Us” is clearly made for fans eager to watch this boy band pitch a (real) tent in the woods, learn to drink miso soup and tear it up on stage. And they obviously know how to work their girl/gay fans into a frenzy. But while their ear candy is pretty tasty, maybe there should’ve been a story – their “struggle with fame” doesn’t count – to go with all that music. Extras include a backstage peek, music videos and more of Harry and Liam fishing – see, just your average boys with a lot of money. And Africa. They love Africa.
The Sound of Music Live!
After “The Sound of Music Live!” made its TV premiere in December, star Carrie Underwood told haters they needed to find Jesus. But Carrie, doomed even before stepping into Julie Andrews’ Maria von Trapp shoes, could’ve used some divine intervention herself. Or, at the very least, an acting coach. Underwood nails the singing, but the emotion? The passion? The joy? You’d find more of it staring at a piece of wood for a couple of hours. Thank god, then, for the show-stealing Audra McDonald. As for the rest of this hot mess? Don’t be surprised if Jesus is shaking his head and pouring another drink, too. If you make it to the extras, there’s a behind-the-scenes feature.
We’re the Millers
Fake family is as awkward and funny and dysfunctional as the real thing – or at least it is in “We’re the Millers,” the movie starring Jennifer Aniston as a stripper. The actress gets down to her sexy undergarments as Rose, a woman roped into her drug lord neighbor David’s scheme to smuggle marijuana from Mexico to clear his debt. So David, Rose and two youngsters – their “kids” (Emma Roberts and Will Poulter) – pile into a van and pretend to be the happiest family you’ve met since the Bradys. It’s a laughable premise with almost enough pseudo gayness, fake-family sexy time, TLC sing-alongs and blow-job bribery to keep it interesting. A gag reel, extended scenes and “Stories from the Road” are also included.