- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

It’s Valentine’s Day next week, and boys, let me tell you that one sure way to score points with your lady is to sit through an entire chick flick.

Studios are making it easy for you by offering a glut of romantic releases — some out of the ordinary — just in time for the big day.

Few women don’t have a soft spot for the highbrow romance of one of the greatest novelists who ever lived. After a glut of adaptations in the last decade — how many times can you remake “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma”? — filmmakers offered two films last year that gave us Jane Austen with a twist.

The Jane Austen Book Club (Sony, $26.96 for DVD, $38.96 for Blu-ray) is based on the best-selling book of the same name. It follows six people — five women and a man — who decide to start the titular book club. Each character’s life, in ways obvious and subtle, echoes an Austen novel. For Jocelyn (Maria Bello), it’s “Emma”: The matchmaker brings Grigg (Hugh Dancy) into the reading group for her friend Sylvia, only to find herself falling for him instead.

Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) thinks about “Persuasion” and its theme of second chances: Her husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) leaves her for a younger woman. “There is a logic to us quitting while we’re ahead,” he says in a hilarious and horrifying scene.

British actress of the moment Emily Blunt plays Prudie, who is as prissy as some see Fanny Price, the heroine of “Mansfield Park.” The married young teacher finds herself increasingly attracted to one of her students.

“The Jane Austen Book Club” does a good job of showing how 200-year-old books still have a lot to say. Like most romcoms, it’s a little too pat in the end. But in showing how people can fall in love through books, particularly the delightful books of Jane Austen, the film makes up for its flaws with a real sense of intelligent fun.

Becoming Jane (Buena Vista, $29.99 for DVD, $34.99 for Blu-ray) is a fun, if fluffy, film that offers a fictional answer to the question: How did Jane Austen, a woman who never married, write such penetrating books about the human heart?

Director Julian Jarrold suggests it’s because she had a passionate but doomed romance. Anne Hathaway is radiant and witty as the young authoress, and James McAvoy, now on screen in “Atonement,” is charming as the roguish city boy who first spars with her and then falls in love with her.

The gorgeous movie looks even better in Blu-ray, and there are plenty of extras on both that and the regular DVD, including a plethora of deleted scenes, a featurette on the making of the film and an audio commentary.

Most original, though, is the option that allows you to watch the film with pop-up facts and footnotes. Some are tedious — “During Jane Austen’s day, a woman had no rights of her own.” Others are more interesting. For example, we see Jane’s sister Cassandra worry about her fiance, who goes off on a naval expedition. What a pop-up note tells is that the group was sent to collect slaves.

For Austen traditionalists, the two best feature-film adaptations of her work are being released in a two-pack by Sony for $29.95. Sense and Sensibility was directed by “Brokeback Mountain” director Ang Lee and adapted by its star, Emma Thompson. She plays the sense, while the luminous Kate Winslet is the sensibility. Persuasion is pitch perfect in every way, with Amanda Root as the heroine reunited with the dashing naval officer (Ciaran Hinds) she rejected years before.

For a more traditional romcom — rather too traditional — there’s No Reservations (Warner Home Video, $28.98). With a stellar cast (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart and Abigail Breslin), some nice direction from Scott Hicks and a score from composer Philip Glass, the film looks like haute cuisine. However, the predictable plot is as familiar as your local greasy spoon. It centers on a chef who deals with upset in her kitchen in the form of a new male sous chef and upset in her life when her niece is left in her care. Foodies may enjoy this film, but they’ll be disappointed to find that the only extra is a single episode of the Food Network’s “Unwrapped” that went behind the scenes of the movie.

Most children’s shows today seem aimed at one or the other sex — there’s “Dora the Explorer” for girls and “Bob the Builder” for boys. Before I shared Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown (Warner Home Video, $19.98) with a couple of young girls, it never really occurred to me that part of the reason for the Charles M. Schulz cartoon’s lasting appeal is its full complement of boys and girls. “What did you like best about it?” I asked. “The girls,” they replied, talking about those classic characters Lucy, Sally, Violet and others.

The special, here in a remastered deluxe edition, still holds up after 33 years. Who can’t identify with Charlie Brown’s hope that he’ll get a Valentine from someone special?

They don’t make them like they used to — Sally reads the entirety of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” complete with mimes from Snoopy.

The disc includes two other love-themed shows, as well as a brand-new featurette. Producer Lee Mendelson thinks Peanuts hit it big because it was the first comic strip to deal with feelings. Others take a more unlikely tack: Novelist Jonathan Franzen actually compares it to “War and Peace.”

Another classic cartoon arrives just in time to celebrate love with the whole family: The Aristocats: Special Edition (Disney, $29.99). What says romance better than Paris? Set in the City of Light in 1910, the 1970 feature starred Eva Gabor as the voice of a pampered feline heiress named Duchess. She and her three kittens are kidnapped by their mistress’ butler after he finds out he’ll inherit a fortune after the cats are dead. The kitties make their way home with help from Thomas O’Malley the alley cat.

The jazzy soundtrack to this Disney film is particularly wonderful — Maurice Chevalier came out of retirement just to record the opening song.

The extras are great, too. There’s a deleted song and a featurette on the great Sherman Brothers, who did the songs for this film, as well as “Mary Poppins” and others. Youngsters will love the games. There’s even a virtual kitten for them to take care of.

Other releases of note:

Across the Universe (Sony, $28.96) also features some impressive musical numbers by — maybe you’ve heard of them — the Beatles.

Julie Taymor’s rock musical ultimately fails in its high ambitions. Dramatizing so many of the Beatles’ sometimes surreal lyrics eventually grows a little silly (like when Prudence came in through the bathroom window). But there are many memorable moments.

Jim Sturgess, who plays the Liverpool boy Jude who falls in love with American anti-war protester Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), is one of the best finds of recent years. He can sing, he can act — and he even looks a little like Paul McCartney.

The cameos are a mixed bag — Bono as Dr. Robert is terrible, Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite is inspired — but Beatles fans will want to at least see what all the fuss is about.

Extras on the two-disc set include commentary with Miss Taymor and her husband, composer Elliot Goldenthal, extended musical performances and five behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Dedication (Weinstein, $19.95) looks on the surface like a romantic comedy. But the directorial debut of actor Justin Theroux is anything but a typical genre flick. Billy Crudup plays a somewhat unlikable children’s book writer who must win over not only the audience but a new illustrator (played by Mandy Moore) he’s forced to work with when his collaborator (Tom Wilkinson) dies. One of 2007’s overlooked gems.

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