- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

This is a good week for great performances. An acting-Oscar winner and a nominee — and three should-have-been Oscar nominees — make their way to DVD all at once.

Rachel Getting Married (Sony, $28.96 for DVD, $39.95 for Blu-ray) — With her small role in “Brokeback Mountain,” Anne Hathaway started to grow up and shed her adorable Disney beginnings. The transformation was complete with this film by Jonathan Demme, which earned the actress her first, but unlikely her last, Oscar nomination for best actress. Miss Hathaway is the center of this visually and thematically chaotic film, even if she’s not the title character. The actress plays Kym, a former model sprung from rehab just in time to attend her sister’s wedding. Kym’s troubles aren’t just her own; they spring from a family tragedy the Buchman clan is forced to face when Kym decides to make her fumbling attempts at redemption all too public during what should be a happy event.

Strangely, neither the actress whose performance drives the film nor the director whose indulgent hand is all over the final product is featured on either of the disc’s commentary tracks. One features screenwriter Jenny Lumet, producer Neda Armian and editor Tim Squyres, while the other has actress Rosemarie DeWitt, who brings the put-upon and putting-upon Rachel to vibrant life.

Mr. Demme does feature in a question-and-answer public panel in which cast and crew participated. (Miss Hathaway is still nowhere to be found, though.) The “Silence of the Lambs” filmmaker talks about how he thought he would be devoting the rest of his career to documentary film when another filmmaker called to say his daughter had just written a great screenplay.

“I wasn’t interested in fiction movies anymore, but I didn’t want to be disrespectful to Sidney Lumet,” Mr. Demme told the audience. “Then I read it and fell madly in love with it.”

I mentioned that this meandering film feels very self-indulgent. I was surprised to learn that might not have been the filmmaker’s fault. During the Q&A, Mr. Demme talked about the free and easy way the movie was shot, not expecting it all would end up in the final product. Of his editor, Mr. Squyres, he says, “Tim used so much more of the fun stuff that just happened than I ever would have dared to use.”

The DVD also includes deleted scenes and two behind-the-scenes featurettes.

I’ve Loved You So Long (Sony, $28.96 for DVD, $39.95 for Blu-ray) — “Rachel Getting Married” was one of last year’s critically acclaimed films. This critic didn’t warm up to it very much, but perhaps that’s because “I’ve Loved You So Long” screened on the same day. This French film is very similar thematically to the American one — both tell the stories of sisters reunited after one of them has been locked away for years. “I’ve Loved You” is superior in every way: deeper, rawer emotions; a more lifelike, less melodramatic feel; and a seriousness in its storytelling that makes the often-cliched “Rachel” pale in comparison.

Kristin Scott Thomas wasn’t Oscar-nominated for this role, but she should have been. It’s her best work since “The English Patient” — and the English actress gave this miraculous performance entirely in French. Her aging face is in frequent close-up without makeup. Her character, Juliette, won’t open up to her formerly estranged sister, but her pain is on-screen for all to see. Juliette has just been released from prison for a crime whose true complicated nature it takes the entire film to discover. The former doctor tries to find a low-level job while attempting to regain something of the close relationship she once had with her sister. Those efforts are monumental and heartbreaking.

It’s not often that you can sit in your living room and hear a novelist talk in depth about his work. That’s just what you get when you listen to the immensely talented Philippe Claudel talk about his directorial debut on a commentary track on this disc.

Happy-Go-Lucky (Buena Vista, $29.99) — Miss Scott Thomas wasn’t the only actress robbed of an Oscar nomination this year. Perhaps the biggest omission of all was that of Sally Hawkins. She won the Golden Globe Award for best actress in a comedy for her luminous, unforgettable performance in this glorious Mike Leigh film.

Miss Hawkins plays Poppy, an effervescent young London schoolteacher who always sees the silver lining in the clouds — and despite the title, a fair number of clouds come into Poppy’s life. Speaking of Oscar omissions, Eddie Marsan certainly deserved a supporting-actor nod for his work as the bitter, slightly bigoted driving instructor who is, as often happens, simultaneously drawn to and put off by Poppy. The title is misleading in more ways than one. This isn’t simply a lighthearted look at a lighthearted woman. It’s one of the most intelligent films of last year, a wise look at how happiness is created, not given.

The extras on this disc are a particular delight. There’s a look at how the crew filmed so much of the movie behind the wheel of a car. “Happy-in-Character” takes a look at how a Mike Leigh film is made. The director famously improvises his films, working with his actors a great deal beforehand.

“Mike’s process suits me,” says Mr. Marsan, who also was in Mr. Leigh’s “Vera Drake.” “I find him very inspiring.”

Mr. Leigh himself was inspired by his lead actress to make this film. He worked with her in two other films in smaller roles and wanted to create a starring vehicle for her, he says, “something that would tap into Sally’s energy,” her “emotional generosity” and her “skills as a character actor.” The center of “Happy-Go-Lucky,” he notes, was “more a feeling I had than any actual idea.”

Every actor seems to find Mr. Leigh’s methods fascinating. “You think that you’ve based your character on different people, but in fact, you’re basing it on different elements of yourself. Because your opinion of those people is you,” Mr. Marsan explains.

Mr. Leigh proves to be a very enjoyable companion on the commentary track. Some filmmakers take a didactic tone, but Mr. Leigh offers instead plenty of fun. As we start to get to know Poppy at the beginning of the film, he asks, “Who is she? And how is she?” That’s not to say you don’t learn anything about how he works. He notes that this is his first film shot in widescreen. Because the actress’s energy and spirit are the center of the film, he decided to shoot it in “these bold, clear, sexy colors.” He also identifies the London locations in the film and speaks of his love of London and its art. In a club scene featuring the Pulp hit “Common People,” he says of the band’s lead singer, “Jarvis Cocker and I are mutual fans, and we couldn’t possibly have afforded to use this particular number on our track, but Pulp are very friendly, and Jarvis Cocker in particular.”

Milk (Universal, $29.98 for DVD, $39.98 for Blu-ray) — Millions of film fans saw Sean Penn pick up the Oscar for best actor last month, but a much smaller number saw the film that won him the trophy. Those who wondered how one of the toughest of tough-guy actors transformed himself into a once-reluctant gay rights activist can satisfy their curiosity now that “Milk” is coming to DVD. Mr. Penn certainly disappeared into the role of assassinated San Francisco politician Harvey Milk. The film itself, which also won Dustin Lance Black a best-adapted-screenplay Oscar, doesn’t often feel like much more than a very well done television movie, though. Director Gus Van Sant at times even gets so cutesy as to seem amateurish. The performances are all fine, though, and the film certainly highlights a part of American history that continues to be relevant.

The DVD includes deleted scenes and three featurettes: “Remembering Harvey,” “Hollywood Comes to San Francisco” and “Marching for Equality.”

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