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Lady and the Tramp, A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, The Piano among new home entertainment titles 

DREAM HOUSE (2011). Between the tell-all trailer and the tell-all poster both employed for its brief theatrical run, there's not much to tell about Dream House except that it's a crushing disappointment considering all the Herculean talent on display. A bastard child of a movie that got caught in one of those ugly divorces between a studio and a filmmaker, this was wrested away from director Jim Sheridan (In America) and reshaped by Universal Pictures into the mess that's been foisted upon paying viewers. To be honest, I'm not sure that Sheridan's version would have been a rousing success — the script was written by David Loucka, whose past credits include Whoopi Goldberg's shot-in-Charlotte turkey Eddie — but I have to assume it would have been better than this cut, which doesn't even have the support of the stars who initially were excited enough about the project to sign up but quickly refused to promote it. That would be Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, playing a married couple who move into a quaint house with their two young girls. Before long, they learn that the house was previously owned by a man who murdered his wife and children, and that said killer has just been released from prison. Craig and Weisz are fine (Naomi Watts is on hand as well, but she's wasted as a supportive neighbor), but this movie will prove to be obvious and illogical even to those who weren't privy to what surely must rank as the clumsiest marketing campaign of last year.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; interviews with Sheridan and his three stars; and a piece in which the production designers discuss the creation of the title edifice.

Movie: *1/2

IN TIME (2011). Can a movie survive on premise alone? That would be a resounding no, since its success also rests squarely on the shoulders of the execution. Yet in the case of In Time, the premise is ingenious enough to cut some slack elsewhere. The movie may not probe as deeply into its subject as desired, but it's nevertheless an enjoyable watch, full of propulsive action and intriguing scenarios. Comparisons to Logan's Run are absurd, since this picture sports its own ideas on what the future might hold. It's a world order in which everyone is genetically designed to live until 25 years of age, at which point they're given one extra year to keep for themselves or use as currency. Because in this story, time literally is money, as a cup of coffee costs four minutes, a bus ride costs two hours, and so on. The rich have the means to acquire hundreds of years to tack onto their lives, while the poor barely have enough time to struggle from day to day. In Time focuses on one of the 99%: Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), whose life is turned upside down after a disillusioned millionaire (Matt Bomer) transfers a full century to him. Amanda Seyfried co-stars as the rich kid who joins Will on the lam, Cillian Murphy plays the Timekeeper (aka lawman) who's in hot pursuit, and writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) is the one who deserves credit for crafting this heady mix of science fiction and social commentary.

Blu-ray extras include deleted and extended scenes; The Minutes, a featurette about the origins of the film's time-based society; and access to the In Time game app.

Movie: ***

LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955). Ranking the Disney animated features is an exercise in futility along the lines of ranking Beatles singles or ranking James Bond flicks: Each person has his or her own personal favorite, and woe be to the foolish mortal who tries to convince them otherwise. For me, it's "Eleanor Rigby," Goldfinger and Lady and the Tramp — and that's my final answer. In the case of the Disney flick, it transcends being merely one of the greatest animated movies ever made — it's accomplished enough to rest alongside live-action features as one of the best love stories ever filmed. Taking the notion of "puppy love" to another level, this adds another variation to the "wrong side of the tracks" theme, as the incorrigible mutt Tramp woos the prim and proper (and hopelessly naïve) Lady. The candlelit dinner sequence, with "Bella Notte" playing in the background and our canine protagonists struggling with that long strand of spaghetti, is as romantic a movie scene as any since Rick said farewell to Ilsa at the Casablanca airport. That's not to say Disney and his minions ignore the crowd-pleasing comedic elements: The devious cats Si and Am provide some malicious fun, while the word-whistling beaver (voiced by toon mainstay Stan Freberg, still active today at 85) proves to be a potent scene-stealer.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece; three deleted scenes; the never-recorded song "I'm Free as the Breeze"; a dramatic reenactment of transcribed conversations between Walt Disney and his staff that led to the creation of the film; a reminiscence from Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller; PuppyPedia, a feature that includes facts about the characters' real-life breeds; and a music video for "Bella Notte."

Movie: ****

THE PIANO (1993). One of the all-time greats — certainly, one of the key films of its decade — writer-director Jane Campion's The Piano is in many ways unlike any other movie I have ever seen. Set in the mid-19th century, the tale follows a mute woman named Ada (Holly Hunter) as she and her 9-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin, making her film debut) travel from Scotland to New Zealand for an arranged marriage. Things start off poorly as her intended, Stewart (Sam Neill), refuses to haul her one prize possession — her piano — from the beachfront to their home. Leaving it to be battered by the waves, Stewart eventually trades it for some land to his illiterate neighbor Baines (Harvey Keitel). Baines, a European settler who has integrated himself into the Maori culture, offers Ada a proposition she reluctantly accepts: She can eventually have her piano back in exchange for a series of intimate encounters. His real goal, we're surprised to learn, is to use this physical intimacy as a foothold for a more spiritual romance; indeed, something has stirred in Ada, as she risks the wrath of her husband for this unlikely suitor. All four actors are terrific, yet one can't dismiss the "performance" of the piano itself: It goes without saying that it serves as a metaphor for a host of ideas, chief among them an expression of the creative impulse that all too often gets pummeled by unfeeling types as well as an illustration of Ada's true voice, the feminist one that refuses to be silenced by patriarchal empowerment. Needless to say, the film experienced massive backlash from the insecure sections of the male population (including right-wing film critic Michael Medved, the same dork who once called Jodie Foster's rape scene in The Accused "very sexy"), but for everyone else, it's a one-of-a-kind viewing experience further distinguished by Stuart Drybergh's evocative cinematography (countless shots linger in the mind's eye) and Michael Nyman's passionate score (a top-selling soundtrack in its day). The Piano took the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Hunter's Best Actress win there was the first of well over a dozen honors for her superb turn. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (inevitably losing both to Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List), it copped three major Oscars: Best Actress, Supporting Actress (Paquin) and Original Screenplay.

Shamefully, nothing was done to spruce this up for its Blu-ray debut, which marks its first home video release since a barebones DVD back in 1998(!). The only extra is the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ****

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998). In one of the biggest — and most absurd — upsets in Academy Award history, Shakespeare in Love beat Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan for the Best Picture statue, largely through a combination of Miramax head Harvey Weinstein's peerless Oscar-mongering campaigns and members receiving the film on DVD screeners (conversely, Spielberg rightly felt his movie should be seen on the big screen). As a result, this period romp has taken quite the beating over the years, but while it's no Saving Private Ryan, it remains a witty romantic comedy. Unlike most period pieces, which take themselves so seriously that any anachronistic cracks or historical inaccuracies stick out like a sore thumb, this one immediately reveals itself as a fictional lark that takes nothing (save perhaps love and literature) seriously; in turn, this open declaration allows screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman to get really creative. Joseph Fiennes stars as the young Bard, who comes down with a massive case of writer's block as he struggles to spit out a new play titled Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter. Eventually, he finds his muse in a free spirit named Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow); she returns his affection, but both are crushed by the fact that her hand in marriage has already been promised to the intolerable Lord Wessex (Colin Firth, once again losing a woman to a Fiennes brother; see also The English Patient). It's rather ingenious how the script posits that many events in young Will's life worked their way into his plays, and it also takes delight in tweaking modern show biz staples, including profit sharing, cast billing, and even a souvenir coffee mug that reads, "A Present From Stratford-Upon-Avon." The exemplary supporting cast includes Geoffrey Rush as the befuddled theater owner, Ben Affleck as a conceited actor, and Judi Dench as a tart Queen Elizabeth. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, this won seven, including Best Actress (Paltrow) and Best Supporting Actress (Dench).

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Madden; separate audio commentary by the cast and crew; deleted scenes; a making-of featurette; and a piece on the Oscar-winning costumes.

Movie: ***1/2

THE THING (2011). Based on the title, one would assume that last year's version of The Thing (filmed before in 1951 and 1982) is a remake, but that's not the case. This is actually a prequel to the 1982 movie, leading one to wonder why they didn't more accurately name it The Thing: The Beginning, The Thing: The Early Days or even I Was a Teenage Thing. Whatever its moniker, this endeavor is, like many prequels, a movie that adds little to the conversation, filling in details that audiences frankly didn't care to discover. The '82 edition opened with the evil alien invader, in the guise of a dog, escaping from a pair of Norwegians stationed at an Antarctic research station and into the safety of a nearby American camp. This new version backtracks to show how the Norwegians first came across the frozen creature, and how, after it thawed, they soon discovered its frightful ability to perfectly absorb and replicate any life form, including themselves. Lead Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as an American paleontologist) is about the only one afforded a personality; that's a far cry from Carpenter's take, in which all of the characters were unique individuals. The visual effects and makeup designs by Rob Bottin (The Howling) in the '82 version offended many critics with their gruesomeness, but the rest of us were astonished by the imagination that went into them, particularly since this was before the advent of CGI. To his credit, this new film's director, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., also employs some hands-on FX-building in addition to the expected CGI, but with little variation in the (sometimes laughable) designs — and since they're in the service of a movie that only sporadically grabs us on a gut level — The Thing turns out to be much ado about nothing.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by van Heijningen and producer Eric Newman; a making-of featurette; and deleted and extended scenes.

Movie: **

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN - PART 1 (2011). TTS:BD-P1, the latest in Stephenie Meyer's wildly successful page-and-screen franchise, opens with 18-year-old Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) preparing to marry the considerably older - but still Tiger Beat pinup-worthy - vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Although she plans to allow Edward to eventually bite her and turn her into a fellow vampire, she decides to remain human for the honeymoon - a fact that disturbs romantic rival and part-time werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Jacob believes that hanky panky between a vampire and a human might lead to the latter's death, a theory he possibly picked up from enjoying too much hentai. At any rate, the inadvertent S&M sessions between the newlyweds yield something more unexpected than a few bruises on Bella: a pregnancy that will result in either a human baby, a vampire suckling or some ungodly combination of both. Writer-director Bill Condon, who deservedly won an Oscar for penning the adaptation of Gods and Monsters, has only been assigned helming duties here, with Melissa Rosenberg retaining her job as scripter of all the films. They both deserve equal blame for the first half of this picture, which plays like a drably lit, monotonously written and indifferently acted soap opera. But as the movie is set to reach a point of no return (around the time Bella and Edward gaze into each other's eyes for, oh, the 268th time), some interesting dynamics come into play: Jacob's love for Bella forces him to side with the hated Cullens against the rest of the wolf pack, while the Rosemary's Baby-esque drama results in some modest tension. Even during the superior second half, there are so many pop tunes crammed onto the soundtrack that viewers might feel like the movie was made only to support CD sales, and a sequence involving talking wolves ranked among the most risible of last year. But critiques really have no weight when it comes to movies like this. The haters are gonna hate, the fans are gonna swoon, and everyone else will check the available Netflix or Red Box selections before deciding if this is the best option for a night on the couch.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Condon; a six-part making-of documentary; and Bella and Edward's wedding video.

Movie: **1/2

A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR CHRISTMAS (2011). Thankfully closer in spirit — and abundance of laughs — to 2004's Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle rather than 2008's Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, the third outing in this stoner series takes place several years after the second film, with Harold (John Cho) now married and living in the suburbs and Kumar (Kal Penn) still perpetually under the influence back in the former roommates' old apartment. But the unexpected arrival of a mysterious package containing — what else? — a giant joint ends up bringing the estranged buddies back together again, as they embark on a madcap series of adventures involving the perfect Christmas tree, a waffle-making robot, Russian mobsters, and the return of Neil Patrick Harris as "Neil Patrick Harris," the profane, drug-addled entertainer who, it's revealed here, only pretends to be gay so he can nail hottie females ("Girlfriends!" he gingerly yells out whenever his target starts to get suspicious of his intentions). A film with far more hits than misses — the mobster storyline is underdeveloped, and a wild sequence that turns our heroes in Claymation characters goes on too long — this latest entry again benefits from the likable performances by Cho and Penn, and it gets an added boost from the unexpected casting of Danny Trejo as Harold's surly, Yuletide-loving father-in-law. Don't miss the scene in which Harold and his assistant (Bobby Lee) get assaulted by a group of egg-carrying activists, a sequence that should draw laughs from folks on both sides of the Occupy Wall Street divide.

The Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Digital Copy combo pack contains both the R-rated theatrical cut and the unrated "Extra Dope Edition" that runs six minutes longer. Extras include deleted scenes; a look at the Claymation sequence; and musings from co-star Tom Lennon.

Movie: ***

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