DVD/Blu-ray: Noteworthy films this week include ‘The Butler,’ ‘Fruitvale Station'

By Rich HeldenfelsBeacon Journal popular culture writer

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Forest Whitaker stars in Lee Daniels' The Butler.

With the Golden Globes airing tonight and the Oscar nominations just days away, debate about the best movies in the land is peaking — and distributors aim to take advantage of the interest. Tuesday, for example, will include the release of half a dozen highly praised features, three of which showcase black performers.

Those three are Lee Daniels’ The Butler (Weinstein/Anchor Bay, $29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 DVD/Blu-ray/digital combo), Fruitvale Station (Anchor Bay, $29.98 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray/DVD/digital combo) and 20 Feet from Stardom (Anchor Bay, $19.98 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray).

The Butler, based on a newspaper article and later book by Wil Haygood, was about a butler (Forest Whitaker) who long worked in the White House and his family life during those turbulent decades. While somewhat hamfisted and at times oddly cast (Robin Williams as Eisenhower, Alan Rickman as Reagan), the movie has a strong emotional punch and serves as a dramatic reminder of American life during the civil rights era. Whitaker is very good, but the best performance in the movie comes from Oprah Winfrey as Whitaker’s wife.

Extras include a making-of piece, deleted scenes, bloopers and a music video. Haygood, by the way, will speak at Case Western Reserve University on Jan. 24; you can find more information at www.case.edu.

Fruitvale Station was one of my favorite movies of 2013. It chronicles the final hours in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), who in 2009 was shot dead by San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit officers — in the back, while he was unarmed and lying down. While Grant had problems in his life, the film — directed by Ryan Coogler — uses the mundane details of Grant’s life to show how pointless his death was. Jordan, of Friday Night Lights, is excellent, as is Octavia Spencer as his mother.

Extras include a making-of piece and a Q&A with the cast and filmmakers.

As much as I liked Fruitvale Station, 20 Feet from Stardom is a more transcendent movie because of two elements: Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love, and Merry Clayton.

The documentary by Morgan Neville follows some of the great background singers in music history, including Clayton, whose vocal power made the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter a classic, and Love, who not only was part of Phil Spector’s ensemble of talent, but also proved how much she deserved to move to the front of the stage with classics like the original Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).

Both are interviewed in the film, which also presents singers like Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill along with interviews with admiring musicians, including Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting. And if you ever doubt the merits of the vocalists, there are plenty of music clips to remove those doubts. But the film makes clear that talent and skill were not enough for many of these performers; Love, for one, notes the way Spector would use her vocals but not give her full credit.

Extras include deleted scenes and a Q&A with Love, Clayton, Fischer and Neville.

Other notable films coming Tuesday include Enough Said (Fox, $29.98 DVD. $39.98 Blu-ray), the romantic comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini; Rush (Universal, $29.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray/DVD/digital combo), the racing drama directed by Ron Howard; and The Spectacular Now (Lionsgate, $19.98 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray), a coming-of-age drama with Shailene Woodley (The Descendants).

Of local note on DVD Tuesday is Underdogs (Freestyle Digital, $14.99), the football drama set and shot in the Canton area, and directed by former local resident Doug Dearth. Interlocking the stories of a young player (Logan Hufman), his inventor father (William Mapother) and a new football coach (D.B. Sweeney), it won the Local Heroes Competition at the Cleveland International Film Festival in 2013.

The week also brings the Blu-ray release of Sunrise (Fox, $29.99), a winner at the first Academy Awards for best cinematography and best actress (Janet Gaynor). And Carrie (Fox, $29.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray) is the third screen adaptation of Stephen King’s horror tale.

Down video road: The documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer arrives on DVD on Feb. 11. That same day brings All Is Lost, with Robert Redford, directed by College of Wooster alum J.C. Chandor. Dallas Buyers Club, with Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, will be on DVD and Blu-ray on Feb. 4.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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