- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009

State of Play (Universal, $29.98 for DVD, $39.98 for Blu-ray) — Set in Washington, this film is a pretty by-the-books — make that by-the-papers — political thriller, but the sheer amount of talent on display makes it surprisingly gripping. Russell Crowe stars as a veteran reporter who, while investigating a murder, might have gotten the scoop of his life. But the story is one that could destroy the lives of his friends — a congressman (Ben Affleck) he’s known since college and the pol’s wife (Robin Wright Penn), with whom he had an affair years before. Mr. Crowe’s usual intensity is put to full effect here, but he also shows some underutilized comedic skills (take note, casting agents), while Miss Penn takes an archetype we’ve seen on the news a great deal over the last few years and makes her human. Director Kevin Macdonald hasn’t made a film quite as politically insightful as his “The Last King of Scotland,” but with help from screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and an uncredited Peter Morgan, he certainly injects some intelligence into a frequently preposterous genre.

More surprising than the film itself, though, is the fact this release is almost bereft of extras. There are just two deleted scenes that deal with the always-juicy sex scandal aspect of the story. Those who took pleasure in finally seeing the real Washington on screen will be disappointed to find there’s just a 20-minute making-of featurette. You don’t often see anything outside Capitol Hill or the White House on film, but “State of Play” showed a living, breathing city. We might have seen even more but for the fact, as this extra makes clear, some authorities make it difficult to film in the capital.

Sin Nombre (Universal, $29.98) — Hollywood never ignores the headlines, and there have been many movies in the last few years about illegal immigration — “Babel” and “Crossing Over,” to name just two. “Sin Nombre,” though it doesn’t have Brad Pitt or Harrison Ford, manages to eclipse both. The confident debut of 32-year-old writer-director Cary Fukunaga, “Sin Nombre” follows a Honduran teen (Paulina Gaitan) making her way to the United States through Mexico. Riding on top of a train, she forms an unlikely bond with a member of the vicious Mara Salvatrucha gang who’s on the run from his angry associates. This film, which won directing and cinematography awards at Sundance, shows that even the most hopeless lives can contain moments of great beauty.

Extras include a commentary with Mr. Fukunaga and producer Amy Kaufman, and some deleted scenes.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation — The Ninth Season (Paramount, $99.99 for DVD and Blu-ray) — William Petersen did a risky thing: He left one of the most popular shows on television. Many actors have done the same, only to find their career prospects pretty dim afterward — such as another star of the franchise, “CSI: Miami’s” David Caruso (who famously departed “NYPD Blue” after its first season). Mr. Petersen is still keeping a hand in, though, continuing to serve as executive producer of the series focusing on the Las Vegas crime lab. He appeared in part of this last season to hand things over to a newbie, played by big-screen star Laurence Fishburne. Like Mr. Petersen, Mr. Fishburne isn’t a youngster — but though he’s a practiced physician, he’s new to the crime lab and his inexperience brings a different sort of tension to the team. His character seems as thoughtful as that of a predecessor, but more professorial — not that it keeps him from taking risks that anger his more cautious colleagues.

All 24 episodes of the ninth season are here on six discs, as well as extras including deleted scenes and a farewell to Mr. Petersen. Two episodes have commentaries, including the one that guest-starred country music phenom Taylor Swift, who also appears on the commentary.

Unwigged and Unplugged: Live Concert DVD (Courgette, $15.97) — Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer — better known to many as the members of Spinal Tap — take off the mullet wigs and unplug those amps that go to 11 for a tour through America showcasing songs not just from the classic mockumentary, but also from comedies directed by Mr. Guest, like “A Mighty Wind” and “Waiting for Guffman.” These guys can actually play those instruments they liked to destroy.

Kelly Jane Torrance

Shaun the Sheep: Little Sheep of Horrors (Lionsgate; $14.98). Sheep and sheepdog play tricks on farmer. Not a super unique idea perhaps, but in the hands of the creators of “Shaun the Sheep” (and also of “Wallace & Gromit”) it’s a hysterically funny one.

In this latest release, Shaun and his claymation buddies are as mischievous as ever. In one of the six episodes (clocking in at about six minutes each) they get hold of the Farmer’s magic kit and make things — including the sheepdog Bitzer — disappear left and right.

But as always, the antics and hilarious slapstick (which happens while they’re fixing a tractor, having a dance party or doing magic tricks) created by Bitzer, Shaun and the gang are never detected by the Farmer. In fact, every time the Farmer looks out the window, the game-face sheep somehow manage to do only sheep-like things such as grazing.

Aside from six shorts, this uproariously funny DVD also features a couple of games, including “whack-a-pig” game.

Not surprisingly, Shaun and company recently won an International Emmy Award for Children & Young People.

Gabriella Boston

Earth (Disney Nature, $29.99 for DVD, $39.99 for Blu-ray and DVD) — Disney Nature’s “Earth” is essentially the Cliff’s Notes version of the Discovery Channel’s groundbreaking documentary series, “Planet Earth.” The 11-part miniseries has been in near-constant rotation on the cable network since its introduction to audiences in 2007 and remains near the top of Amazon’s movie and TV rankings.

Due to time constraints, much of the most interesting footage had to be jettisoned in favor of crafting a narrative that could fit into the movie’s 89-minute running time. “Earth” focuses more closely on giant mammals and their cubs — polar bears, elephants and humpback whales are the protagonists here. The greatest strength of the miniseries was its fascination with the rarely seen wonders of the planet: the cave-and mountain-dwellers never before caught on camera.

“Earth” is still a beautiful glimpse into the planet’s bounty, and James Earl Jones’ narration lends the picture instant gravitas. However, those looking for an in-depth appreciation of nature’s variety are better off sticking to the unabridged version.

Sonny Bunch

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