This week, we begin in the Old South:
12 Years a Slave
Rated R, 133 minutes.
Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray. Available now in various download formats.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a free man in 1841 New York who is abducted and sold into slavery in the South. The Oscar-nominated Ejiofor turns in a powerful, passionate yet unaffected performance as Northup, who documented his experiences of torture and humiliation at the hands of his various owners in a best-selling book of the time, which Oscar-nominated John Ridley used for the screenplay.
Paul Dano plays a cruel slave master, while plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) proves an even more sadistic brute. He rapes the slave women, but even his cruelty is surpassed by his wife (Sarah Paulson). Often hard to watch, the film conveys both the physical tortures as well as the slaves’ humiliating, dehumanizing experiences.
Director Steve McQueen shows a rhythmic storytelling progression, deftly using Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s musical score.
The DVD, in all formats and downloads, contains commentary, deleted scenes, a “making of” featurette and more.
Hunger Games: Catching Fire (3 stars) This second filmed edition of Suzanne Collins’ popular novels sees more of the heightened action, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) facing off against a team of rivals. But this time, the political intrigue back at the capital casts a shadow over the games, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) providing the fireworks.
Much of the settings and outlandish costumes look familiar but are still impressive, while the special effects serve as visual treats. Director Francis Lawrence works with an excellent supporting cast that includes Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz.
In January, the film became the top-grossing film released during 2013, the first annual leader since The Exorcist to star a sole female lead.
Rated PG-13, 146 minutes. The DVD, in all formats and downloads, contains commentary, deleted scenes, a “making of” featurette and much more.
Hours (3 stars) Before his death in November, Paul Walker had made attempts to branch out from his narrow Fast and Furious profile. This often-gripping drama may have helped his cause because it shows a range not seen in his action films.
Walker plays Nolan Hayes, whose pregnant wife, Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez), gives birth prematurely as Hurricane Katrina shuts down New Orleans. The hospital loses its power and subsequently evacuates everyone, yet unknowingly leaves behind Nolan with his ventilator-bound daughter. But the battery proves faulty, and Hayes must crank it by hand for only minutes at a time.
Writer-director Eric Heisser creates a series of inventive challenges for Nolan — dilemmas that echo those for Robert Redford’s character in All Is Lost, but with a little more human interaction. At times the film strains to sustain the narrative, but Heisser mostly keeps it engaging.
Rated PG-13, 97 minutes. The DVD holds a music video and a public service announcement.
Nocturne (2 1/2 stars) and Roadblock (3 stars) The Warner Archive Collection is releasing two mid-century dramas from its RKO Radio Pictures library, and both have a distinct noirish feel about them.
Nocturne (1946) stars ever-wooden tough guy George Raft as Joe Warne, a detective who lives with his mother. But he’s no softie. When a composer, Keith Vincent (Edward Ashley), the author of a work called Nocturne, commits suicide, Warne believes it was murder, a hard-held belief that lands him a suspension from police duty.
Warne’s task proves even more difficult because of the string of jealous girlfriends Vincent left behind. And to complicate the investigation, Vincent called all the women “Dolores.” But Warne stays on the trail until the surprise killer is pinned. Not rated, 87 minutes.
Perennial bad guy Charles McGraw stars in our second offering, Roadblock (1951), as intrepid but honest insurance investigator Joe Peters. When he meets and falls for Diane (Joan Dixon), he feels he must provide her with more than his insurance salary allows. He orchestrates a big heist with Diane’s former, mob-connected boyfriend. Before long, naturally, things go wrong.
Steve Fisher and George Bricker’s screenplay may take license with Double Indemnity, while director Harold Daniels succeeds in squeezing Joe Peters for maximum discomfort. Released in 1951, 73 minutes.
A few offerings for the kids:
Thomas and Friends: Spills and Thrills In these six episodes, Thomas the Tank Engine and his buddies James, Stephen, Hiro and others try to be helpful but often find themselves stymied. The disc also includes a game, a music video, and a puzzle. Not rated, 67 minutes.
Angelina Ballerina: Spring Fling Six episodes highlight Angelina and her friends Gracie, AZ and others as they discover traditions from around the world. The disc also offers a game and a music video. Not rated, 61 minutes.
And, finally, from this week’s TV arrivals:
The Middle: Season 4 ABC’s harried Heck family from the middle of the country — Orson, Ind. — returns in this eventful season in 23 episodes that include Frankie (Patricia Heaton) question her career choices, Mike (Neil Flynn) further encouraging lazy son Axl (Charlie McDermott), Sue (Eden Sher) trying to get a driver’s license, and young Brick (Atticus Shaffer) still keeping to himself.
Not rated, 512 minutes. The collection also includes a gag reel and deleted scenes.
Also available Tuesday on DVD: Girl Rising, The Grandmaster, The Iran Job and Oldboy.