- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount Home Entertainment, $29.98 for standard DVD; The Criterion Collection, $34.98 for two-disc edition; $39.99 for two-disc Blu-ray edition) — Taraji P. Henson credits tough love from Howard University’s theater arts program for setting her on the path to this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.

If a Howard acting student gave a bad performance, Miss Henson recalls, he or she heard about it in no uncertain terms.

“Sit down. Next,” Miss Henson says of the hard-nosed atmosphere during her student days. “It helped me develop a very tough skin for this industry.”

That industry honored Miss Henson, a D.C. native, last year with her first Oscar nomination. Miss Henson’s performance as Queenie, the maternal presence at the heart of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” gave the film a blast of unconditional love.

The 2008 movie, to come out Tuesday on DVD, follows the odd tale of one Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a man who ages in reverse.

Miss Henson drew upon her own experiences as a mother to help shape Queenie — and identify with a child who didn’t fit in with society.

“I felt like it was my son’s story — being black and growing up in America can be tough,” she says. “The conversations she’d have with Benjamin were like the ones I had with my son: ‘Some people will judge you.”

Miss Henson studied her own grandmother to flesh out the physical dimensions of the role.

“I spent time with her, watching where her body was breaking down and why,” says Miss Henson, who invited her grandmother as her guest on Oscar night. “I had to decide where Queenie’s body would be giving her the most pain.”

Miss Henson didn’t win an Oscar on Feb. 22 — Penelope Cruz walked away with the best-supporting-actress honors for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — but the nomination has given her career a boost.

One of Miss Henson’s next projects, “I Can Do Bad All by Myself,” re-teams her with writer-director Tyler Perry. They first worked together on last year’s film “The Family That Preys.”

Mr. Perry’s approach echoes her Howard University days.

“If [Mr. Perry] isn’t getting what he wants, he’ll come onto the set and get right in the scene with you,” she says. “He’ll say, ‘I don’t believe you.’ He’ll push me as an artist to find another, deeper level.”

Christian Toto

Enchanted April (Miramax, $29.99) — Can there be such a thing as a cult costume drama? If it’s been one nearly impossible to see, there can.

“Enchanted April” won two Golden Globes — for actresses Miranda Richardson and Joan Plowright — and three Oscar nominations — for Miss Plowright, screenwriter Peter Barnes and costume designer Sheena Napier. The delightful 1992 film is only now being released on DVD, finally, after repeatedly appearing on lists of most-wanted movies on the format for years. Sadly, it doesn’t seem the film has been remastered, and it shows its years. Those glorious views of the Italian coast that effected such change on the four Englishwomen who stayed there a month still look bright and beautiful, though.

Based on the witty 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, “Enchanted April” follows four dissimilar women seeking refuge from their lives who share the expenses of an Italian villa one spring. Josie Lawrence is the highly strung Lottie Wilkins, Miss Richardson the sainted Rose Arbuthnot, Miss Plowright the Victorian Mrs. Fisher and Polly Walker the beautiful aristocrat Caroline Dester. The first two are escaping loveless marriages, the third modern life and the last the attentions of all of London society. Alfred Molina and Jim Broadbent provide delicious comic relief as the two husbands who can’t resist the lure of Italy, either.

The charming film comes off as gentler and less satirical than the novel. The late Mr. Barnes did an impressive job of turning a story told mostly in introspection into a film and added a few nice touches of his own.

The only extra on the disc is a nostalgic commentary track with producer Ann Scott and director Mike Newell, whose next film was the wildly successful “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” This one was rather lower budget, made for about 1 million pounds. Mr. Newell notes that in the London scenes, the camera barely moves because the 1990s were constantly visible just beyond the shots.

“There aren’t many advantages to a tiny budget, but the real, major, huge one is you’re below the radar, and you can cast it exactly as you want,” Miss Scott says. Indeed, Mr. Newell says he doesn’t think this very English story could have been made quite so well had foreign investors had a hand in it.

Miss Scott, who instigated the project, says she felt rather like Lottie, who is prone to premonitions, when she tried to find financing. Everyone told her the film wouldn’t work, but she insisted, “I see it!” In fact, the film looks rather like the novel — the Italian castle used for filming was the exact one in which the author wrote the novel, during an April many years before. Mr. Newell had no idea of its history, and for a while, he wondered why the rooms matched the book’s descriptions so well.

Crusoe: The Complete Series (Universal, $29.98) — “Crusoe” might have garnered rather dismal ratings for NBC, which started airing it on one bad night for television (Fridays) and moved it to an even worse one (Saturdays), but the 2008 series must be considered a success in one sense: The Daniel Defoe novel on which it’s based was a popular seller on Amazon when the series aired last fall. Not all of its loyal viewers seemed to realize its origins, though. One, complaining about the show’s early cancellation in an Amazon review of the DVD set being released next week wrote, “Hopefully, sometime in the future, someone will make a film, write a book or just release one more episode to tie things up and get Crusoe back to England and his family.”

Chandni Chowk to China (Warner, $27.95) — After the success of “Slumdog Millionaire,” many articles were written about an increased interest in the films of Bollywood — even though “Slumdog” was made by a Brit and, except perhaps for the credit sequence, is nothing like a Bollywood film. This year’s “Chandni Chowk to China,” on the other hand, received the biggest U.S. release of any Bollywood movie, though the interest in “Slumdog” didn’t seem to help its fortunes much. The Hindi film actually was something of a hybrid of Bollywood and Asian action, with all the silliness of both. It must be said, though, the theme music is as catchy as an overproduced American pop song.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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