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'Help' yourself to some rich cinema soul food

Nothing leaves movie-lovers feeling more nourished and content than a good drama. Watching a finely observed human struggle played out on screen is like cinema soul food, providing sustenance through its vital new connection to the world.

Indeed, the more emotional and compelling the story, the greater our satisfaction. So it is wonderful to report that we have not one but two new, powerful movie dramas to recommend this week.

Already attracting Oscar buzz is "The Help" (DreamWorks , rated PG-13, DVD $29.99; Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack $39.99), and with good reason. It is a very smart adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel about domestic upheavals in the Deep South during the early-1960s civil rights era.

Emma Stone ("Easy A") plays a young would-be writer who senses rich material in the hypocritical attitudes of her segregated community toward their African-American housekeepers and nannies. Most of the other Southern white characters here speak and act like modern-day Scarlett O'Haras, without a shred of regard for the humanity of the folks who have helped raise their children.

If some of this seems a bit overdrawn and even one-dimensional, it still serves to throw into bold relief the issues of shared humanity under discussion.

The real stars of the movie are its gallery of black actresses, beginning with Viola Davis, Oscar-nominated for her role in "Doubt," and screen newcomer Octavia Spencer. Their performances, as shaped and guided by writer-director Tate Taylor, are so vivid and nuanced, so rich with humanity and affection, that they are certain to lodge in any viewer's heart and provide warmth for weeks to come.

On one level, "The Help" seems like an act of repentance designed to assuage national guilt, but that remains only a subtext to a very engaging story.

The subject of a nation's guilt is wrestled powerfully to the fore in another new video release — a French look back at the Holocaust titled "Sarah's Key" (Anchor Bay Entertainment/Weinstein, rated PG-13, DVD $29.98; Blu-ray Disc $39.98). This French- and English-language import was taken from a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, and also deals with a writer trying to make sense of a grave social injustice.

This time the injustice is the systematic elimination of the Jewish population from Nazi-occupied France. Kristin Scott Thomas of "The English Patient" stars as a present-day journalist who begins to unravel a mystery involving the French deportation of a Jewish family from what eventually has become her fiancee's apartment building.

Slowly the indelible stain of anti-Semitism from two generations past begins to bleed through the fabric of the writer's present, leaving everyone scrambling to avoid being contaminated by the legacy of a grave communal dishonor. The scenes recreating the plight of young Sarah and her eventual fate in America are guaranteed to evoke tears for the abusive treatment of innocent humans everywhere.

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner marshals a large, international cast that also includes Aidan Quinn in a pivotal role, and hardly sounds a single wrong or misplaced note. Both "The Help" and "Sarah's Key" arrive on DVD looking very good, and even better on Blu-ray Disc, where there are also extras explaining how both dramas were so successfully planned and executed.

Also new on DVD

"13" (Anchor Bay, rated R, DVD $26.98, Blu-ray Disc $29.99). A digit or two must have been lost in the Atlantic crossing, because Gela Babluani's own American remake of his surprise European hit offers more stock value than shock value. Jason Statham stars as a desperate bystander who unwittingly signs aboard for the ultimate round of high-stakes Russian roulette at an underground "sportsmen's" club. What you see is all you get in a scenario short on believable characters or thematic subtext. Mickey Rourke and Ben Gazzara are among the other visible actors in dire need of better agents.

"Carjacked" (Anchor Bay, rated R, DVD $26.98, Blu-ray Disc $29.99). Stephen Dorff and Maria Bello are pretty much the whole show in this claustrophobic suspense drama of a sort that live TV once excelled at. Dorff plays a smooth-talking fugitive with a gun who invites himself along for a long ride in a car already occupied by Bello and her young son. She tries every trick in the book to shake him loose and head off a tragedy. Somehow the script fails to make a good case for either of them prevailing, but watching these two fine actors going head-to-head is fun while it lasts.

"Five Days of War" (Anchor Bay Entertainment, rated R, DVD $26.98; Blu-ray Disc $29.99). Action director Renny Harlin turns geopolitics into something like a big-screen video game in this action drama about the real-life 2008 Soviet crackdown on the breakaway Russian state of Georgia. Rupert Friend and Richard Coyle play American photo-journalists caught by surprise in a hot combat zone that no one in the world seems to notice. The questions the film raises are more interesting than the cliffhanger predicaments it places its stars in. Numerous real-life witnesses appear at the end to testify to Soviet atrocities and "collateral damage," which the U.N. still chooses to ignore. The Blu-ray boasts True-HD 5.1 sound, deleted scenes and a director's commentary.

"The Hangover Part II" (Warner Home Video, rated R, DVD $28.98; Blu-ray Disc $35.99). If you've been thinking it's time to watch the first "Hangover" again, this sequel might fill the bill — though it probably won't inspire any return visits. Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis travel to beautiful Bangkok to witness pal Ed Helms' marriage but their pre-nuptial bachelor party gets out of hand again and the boys must pull together all the missing pieces before they are found to be in violation of any number of international and moral laws. The gags are never as extreme nor as surprising as in the original hit, but the likable cast has its comedy timing down to a pseudo-science.

"Helldriver" (Well Go USA, not rated, DVD $24.98, Blu-ray Disc $29.98). Genre fans of Japanese zombie director Yoshihiro Nishimura ("Tokyo Gore Police," "Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl") returns with this cheesy, blood-letting action film. Japan is divided by a fortified wall that separates north— where the flesh-eating zombies prowl — and south — where their potential food supply must stay on the alert. A slapdash gang of dropouts led by Kika (Yumiko Hara), a beautiful high school girl armed with a chain saw sword, is recruited by the government to invade the dead zone and exterminate the zombie queen, or something like that. Extras on the Blu-ray include three short spin-off films and a director's introduction.

"Our Idiot Brother" (Anchor Bay Entertainment/Weinstein, rated R, DVD $29.98; Blu-ray Disc $39.99). Paul Rudd plays the amiable title figure, a gentle, furry man-child whose studied lack of guile makes a shambles of his and his dysfunctional sisters' lives. At times the comedy plays like a long overdue and pointed satire of all things piously new-agey and idiotic. No one we meet seems quite up to facing the challenges of the real world, so it's amusing in the same way as watching blind-folded third-graders playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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