Into the Woods. Throughout her longstanding career as Acting God, Meryl Streep has used her cinematic superpowers to, on occasion, expertly polish turds, turning them into beautiful pieces of holy excrement. But even La Streep has her limits. Mamma Mia! was a scenic snafu no matter what notes the actress nailed; Rob Marshall’s film adaptation of gay icon Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, luckily, extinguishes the leftover fumes from that ABBA stinker. This musical is not the Streep Show, however. Though she maintains a godly presence as the morphing witch, the dark magic is more than just Meryl’s. The actress, of course, gives heft (and some seriously solid singing) to the film’s heart, but praise is due all around — to Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, to Chris Pine as her Prince and to the fantastically paired James Corden and Emily Blunt, The Baker and his Wife. What’s lost in the translation from stage to screen — a minor gripe — is redeemed by way of transformative sets and Disney’s surprisingly faithful retelling of Sondheim’s upturned “happily ever after.” Deeper in the woods, there’s a fair array of supplements on the Blu-ray release, though none of them will change your life more than this one: “She’ll Be Back,” the Streep number not seen in the final film.
Selma. Martin Luther King Jr, we’re sorry. We’re sorry that your life was spent standing for racial equality, and yet here we are a half century later, black people still violently targeted on the basis of skin color. In light of recent events, then, the Oprah-produced MLK story, Selma, resonates with painful truth: strides still need to be made. The drama harrowingly depicts the civil rights movement in full swing, as MLK relentlessly pushes for the end to legalized segregation through demonstrations such as the historical Montgomery-bound march of 1965. A watershed cinematic experience, Selma is a galvanizing portrait of a fearless leader, brought to life with spirited authenticity by a spellbinding performance from English actor David Oyelowo. More than a mere by-the-book history lesson — and under the meticulous direction of Ava DuVernay — it’s a moving masterpiece, from the gut-punch beginning to the heart-healing conclusion. Among the bountiful extras are a featurette called Recreating Selma, centered on adapting a true story for film, and two commentaries, both with insight from DuVernay.
Maude: The Complete Series. Before wisecrackin’ her way into the hearts of every homo as Dorothy Zbornak on Golden Girls, Bea Arthur was already earning her queer icon cred on Maude. Playing the classic TV comedy’s namesake for six years in the mid ’70s, the Broadway actress earned affection (and Emmys) by proving she could dial up the sass simply by flashing her iconic stone-cold stare. Bold, prickly and politically liberal, Maude epitomized the qualities worthy of gay worship, and the character — in all her button-pushing brilliance — busted the doors down on topical, controversial political and social issues: race, homosexuality and abortion, to name a few. Arthur infused the hard-hitting commentary with her iconic comedic genius and sharp, acerbic wit, all while showcasing her signature real-life speaking voice. All 147 half-hour episodes of Maude are finally culled for the first time on DVD in this vast collection that includes never-before-seen footage, featurettes (among them: And Then There’s Maude: Television’s First Feminist) and Maude-centric episodes of All in the Family, the series that launched Bea into queer-culture stardom.
Interstellar. The mind-bending ways of Christopher Nolan (don’t pretend you’re still not trying to figure out Inception) return to exhaust your mental capacity during this dense, time-twisty behemoth. Forget details, though. Screw logic. You’re gonna erupt into a geyser of waterworks even if you can’t make sense of it all. Nolan goes all out, grounding his flashy CGI-prettied space odyssey with the emotional heaviness of a hero torn between leaving his family and saving the world — you know, just everyday problems we all have. Technical concepts and heady philosophical affirmations express a relatively simple antithesis to the hard science on hand: the enduring power of love. Poignancy comes courtesy of Matthew McConaughey, who radiates a deep emotional bond with his daughter (the always-radiant Jessica Chastain) that only strengthens as the three-hour epic culminates into a dizzying display of wondrous speculation about life on earth… and beyond. An entire supplemental disc delves into the film’s key scientific observations; the 50-minute, McConaughey-narrated feature on the visuals, theories and science behind Insterstellar is particularly intriguing.
Dear White People. The black people of Dear White People want you to know that, no, they aren’t all into Tyler Perry movies, and yes, they like, even love, Taylor Swift. Out writer-director Justin Simien’s funny and frank directorial debut wryly spotlights an astounding number of stereotypes and cultural misappropriations pertaining to a group of “don’t call us African-Americans” at a white-heavy Ivy League. As individual stories thread through a satirical narrative — one arc involves an aspiring gay journalist — race issues in post-Obama, 21st-century America are exposed by blowing the lid off “weaved” black chicks and black guys with big, thick…. Even the film’s classical chestnuts (the whitest of white music) have something profound to say about the racial divide that Dear White People blasts. The sneers don’t end there; “The More You Know” offers six minutes of stereotype debunking via PSA-style segments and “Racial Insurance” is essentially black eye for the white guy. Outtakes, deleted scenes and a making-of are also included.
The Theory of Everything. Whether he’s Marilyn Monroe’s boy-toy, the real-life physicist Stephen Hawking or, in the forthcoming The Danish Girl, a trans woman, Eddie Redmayne’s versatility is as alluring as the shiny, happy actor himself. And now he has an Oscar to prove it. Winner of best actor for his spot-on portrayal of Hawking in the magically moving The Theory of Everything, Redmayne fully embodies the shattered-but-inspiring life he depicts, perfectly capturing the charming sincerity, undying humor and gradual physical impairment required of someone afflicted with motor neuron disease. Special features are few: a director commentary, a brief behind-the-scenes and a handful of deleted scenes.
Birdman. The ego is a screaming nuisance in Birdman, an insane acid trip starring Michael Keaton as a washed-up actor who hangs out in the deep, dark corners of his own head. It’s messy in there, and for someone whose career has taken a nosedive — he’s aged out of “Birdman,” the superhero role that earned him notoriety — Riggan Thomson is plagued by being, well, Riggan Thomson. Keaton excels as a neurotic narcissistic whose hallucinations get the best of him as he attempts to reclaim his heyday glory with a Broadway production, unraveling in the process. Adding to the insanity is Emma Stone as his delirious daughter and the technical zippiness of the seemingly-but-not-actually ceaseless shot. Besides a peek into the making of Birdman, there’s also a striking exchange between actor and director during A Conversation with Michael Keaton and Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Olive Kitteridge. Just in case you somehow forgot that Frances McDormand is one of the greatest living actresses of our time, Olive Kitteridge is here to remind you. As the titular protagonist in this beautifully bleak four-part HBO miniseries, the Fargo dynamo is a despicable monster, bound to a graceless existence due in large part to a mentally unstable lineage. Why do you still feel so deeply for someone who’s so intolerable? Because McDormand. The masterclass mines the mind and heart of someone suffering mental illness, scaling her every emotion and experience to full effectiveness. At once dreary and life-affirming, Olive Kitteridge is television at its most poetic. Extras are non-existent, but with four hours of McDormand’s brilliance, it hardly matters.
The Babadook. Real-life horrors are, oftentimes, more horrific than the made-up yarns of the cinematic frights creeping our psyche. Paralyzed by her own, Amelia, a widowed mother (a sympathetic Essie Davis), falls into a psychological fit on the anniversary of her husband’s untimely death. The trigger? A children’s book called The Babadook, an ominous pop-up that devours Amelia’s mentally unstable, grief-stricken mind. The demon within is often the worst kind, as we learn in this clever and surprisingly touching nail-bitter about the toll tragedy can take, and the unbreakable bond between mother and child. Director Jennifer Kent’s original concept, the short film Monster, is included among a haunting heap of bonus features.
Wild. Reese Witherspoon leaves the pink résumé paper at home in Wild. Based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, the Legally Blonde bend-and-snapper steps into Strayed’s hiking boots, packing her bags and the shattered bits of her heart for a trek through the Pacific Crest Trail. The hope of healing her grief-stricken wounds and abating her recklessness follows her through this 1,000-plus-mile stretch of enlightenment and renewal. Jean-Marc Vallée directs a standout performance from Witherspoon, who acts alongside the also-compelling Laura Dern (as her mother in flashbacks), during his raw, picturesque followup to Dallas Buyers Club. Strayed relates the movie to her own life during the extras, which also include a Vallée commentary, deleted scenes and a look at the rustic Oregon shoot.
— Chris Azzopardi