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Three couples in three different modern relationships are the focus of this week's DVD highlights:
●Blue Valentine (Anchor Bay Entertainment/The Weinstein Company, $29.98/$39.99 Blu-ray, rated R): A couple falls in love, a couple falls apart. The rest -- what happened to them during the six or so years in between -- is left to a viewer's imagination by director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance in this compelling look at romance and marital discord. Cianfrance employs a technique of continuously cutting between these two places in time to let us see how the marriage between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) has unraveled.
The roots of their marital disintegration are apparent even in the happy scenes of their meeting, courtship, pregnancy, and marriage. Cindy, escaping a brutish boyfriend and father, is attracted to Dean's sweetness and spontaneity. Six years later, the spontaneity looks more like immaturity and irresponsibility, and his behavior seems passive-aggressive. She has advanced in her career, demonstrating obvious skill as a nurse, while he, chain-smoking, chugging beers, and working as a house painter, seems to have no ambition other than being a loving husband and father.
In his audio commentary and the DVD documentary, The Making of Blue Valentine, director Cianfrance explains that the early scenes were shot in Super 16 millimeter film with a hand-held camera, while he used high-definition video for the present-day scenes. This gives the film two distinct looks. (We also can tell the difference in time periods by Dean's receding hairline and in Cindy's loss of the spark she displayed earlier.) Cianfrance also discusses why 12 years passed between his writing the first draft of the script to the movie's completion.
Cianfrance hurts his own film with his overly self-conscious directorial style. As Blue Valentine proceeds, his cutting back and forth between eras becomes more rapid and more tiresome. It feels as if the director is continually insinuating himself into the film. Yet Cianfrance also deserves credit for drawing such vividly naturalistic performances from Williams and Gosling and presenting a realistic, if very depressing, look at a marriage on the rocks.
●Something Wild (Criterion Collection, $29.95/$39.95 Blu-ray, rated R): Director Jonathan Demme's captivating 1986 film starts off like the second coming of Howard Hawks' 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, with Jeff Daniels starring as an uptight businessman whose world is turned upside down by a free-spirited woman, played by Melanie Griffith. The nearly half-century gap between the two movies, and the changes in what is permitted onscreen, allows Demme to include lots of non-gratuitous nudity and sex, as well as some shocking violence after the story takes a sharp dramatic turn.
Something Wild also is a road movie, in which Griffith, as Lulu (we later find out her real name is the less exotic Audrey), takes the initially unwilling Charlie Driggs (Daniels) on a wild car ride from lower Manhattan to her hometown in Pennsylvania and her 10th high school reunion. It's not hard to imagine the straitlaced Charlie becoming unhinged by the libertine Lulu. He's fascinated and obviously attracted to her, but her impulsive behavior scares the stuffing out of him.
At first, the contrast between Lulu and Charlie is played for laughs, but in a surprise twist Demme introduces danger -- in the form of Lulu's ex, a recently paroled convict, played by Ray Liotta (in his first significant movie role) with an intensity that barely hides his homicidal insanity. In the process, Demme reveals other dimensions of Charlie and Lulu, ones they didn't know existed within them.
This new DVD comes with a restored digital transfer that has been supervised by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and approved by Demme. The director also provides an enthusiastic new 30-minute interview about his film, discussing its origins, casting, filming, cinematography, World Music soundtrack, and more. Demme says he's particularly fond of Something Wild because it marked his rebirth as a director, following his awful experience filming Swing Shift, a movie taken away from him and re-edited by the movie studio (Warner Bros.). He soon would go on to make Married to the Mob, Silence of the Lambs (winning the best director Oscar), and Philadelphia.
●No Strings Attached (Paramount Home Entertainment, $29.99/$39.99 Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo, rated R): Emma and Adam meet as young teens in summer camp. He's sweet, she's awkward, but they can talk to each other. Ten years later, after a few brief connections over the years, during which they have become Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, Adam shows up at Emma's apartment, drunk and naked.
The unsuccessful son of a narcissistic TV star (Kevin Kline), Adam works as a lowly producer's assistant on a Glee-like high school musical TV series. With a dad whose parenting skills include sleeping with his son's ex-girlfriend, one can understand why Adam got drunk, though his nakedness seems included just for a few "adult" jokes about how "nice" his, um, penis looks.
But he's a genuinely nice guy with a big heart. Emma, in contrast, is brilliant and successful -- she's a doctor doing her medical residency at a teaching hospital. But she remains as she was when they first met -- hostile to romance and its entanglements. However, the sexual attraction between them is so strong that they adopt a no-strings-attached-sex on call relationship; in other words, "friends with benefits." How modern.
For Portman, in her first movie following her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan, this romantic comedy definitely is a step down. Kutcher, who is at his best in light comedy, seems more at home and fares a little better. But neither can overcome the weak and obvious material they've been given by screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether and producer-director Ivan Reitman.
Consider this a spoiler alert, but it is inconceivable that anyone watching this movie will not figure out within the first half hour that the two will eventually fall in love.
Maybe I don't get around much anymore, but No Strings Attached comes across as a movie that declares itself hip and modern when it comes to relationships, is filled with jokes about male endowment, PMS, public drunkenness, the missionary position, pornography, and threesomes, but really has nothing to say.
Viewers who would like to find out more about the film can listen to Reitman's commentary and watch several short features and deleted scenes.