DVD 4/29/08: The Orphanage, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Starting Out in the Evening, Nanking, Friday Night Lights S2, 27 Dresses

The Orphanage (R, 2007, New Line)
Laura (Belén Rueda) developed such an affinity for the orphanage in which she grew up, she’s moved her own family there in hopes of reopening the place for a new legion of children with special needs. Unfortunately, the spirits of children long gone haven’t quite left the premises, and shortly after Laura’s son (Roger Príncep) makes what she first assumes is a harmless imaginary friend, we’ve got ourselves one creepy little haunted house story. “The Orphanage” doesn’t stray wildly from ghost story conventions, which might be a problem if it had ambitions of being nothing more than a mere scarefest. But with so much energy spent on Laura confronting past demons and bracing herself with the gravity of what she might lose next, “The Orphanage” focuses on a completely different, and arguably far more real, brand of scary than its images would suggest is at play. None of that is to suggest the film doesn’t deliver the conventional goods if that’s all you want. “The Orphanage” is a stunningly pretty picture of ugly, and it complements its incredible attention to artistic detail with a smart and genuinely spooky mystery that can captivate regardless of how much Laura’s own story pulls you in. Just be sure to pay close attention: “The Orphanage” is thick with detail, and those who let their minds drift for even a few moments risk not appreciating the full brilliance of the film’s climax and conclusion. In Spanish with English subtitles.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features, rehearsal footage, photo gallery.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (PG-13, 2007, Miramax)
We see only what our main character sees during “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s” first 14 minutes, every second of which takes place in the first person. But watching “Butterfly” isn’t about discovering who is hiding behind the camera. That question is answered during minute 15, and that’s only if you’re unfamiliar with the book of the same name, which itself is based on a fairly well-documented true story and was written by the man — Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) — who happens to be our not-so-mysterious main character. Besides, it’s what happens next that provides “Butterfly’s” real gift of surprise, and the less you know going in, the better chance the film’s extremely unique approach to storytelling has to grab you in some unexpected way. Putting it vaguely and without spoiling anything, “Butterfly” is a story about the gift an imagination can give — and the limitations it has to endure — when nothing else can or will do. What happens to Bauby is indeed very sad, but what Bauby does with these sad circumstances makes “Butterfly” a source of inspiration rather than one of despair. If he can tell such a remarkable story under the limitations placed upon him, precious few of us have any excuse not to do the same. Originally in French with English and Spanish subtitles, but the optional English and Spanish dubs are surprisingly well done if you’d prefer not to do any reading.
Extras: Director commentary, director interview, two behind-the-scenes features.

Starting Out in the Evening (PG-13, 2007, Lions Gate)
A decade after starting his latest novel, aging and ill writer Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) has yet to finish it, and it seems a matter of time before full-blown irrelevancy becomes the latest source of his troubles. What a perfectly wonderful time for a grad student (Lauren Ambrose) to walk against the tide and attempt not only to study him, but reintroduce his work to a new legion of readers. Question is, does Leonard want the attention? It means confronting past and present demons, which pretty much is what “Starting Out in the Evening” is all about. Leonard isn’t alone, either: His daughter (Ariel Schiller), who enters as a supposed secondary character, soon develops an entire arc of her own, which in turn almost splits the film in half. Once our student also gets into the act, “Evening” suddenly is gifted with a means of picking apart three (and, arguably, four) people in very different stages of life. Worry not: It handles this balance with surprising ease. And what “Evening” lacks in blazingly exciting plot advancement, it redeems admirably with very smart and meticulously nuanced character sketching. If you have the patience and don’t mind an ending that isn’t particularly neat, “Evening” has the goods to surprise, however quietly.
Extra: Director commentary.

Nanking (R, 2007, ThinkFilm/Image Entertainment)
“Nanking” tells the story behind the horrific events of oft-called 1937 Rape of Nanking, in which Japanese forces invaded Nanking, China, and committed scores of atrocities against hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese. The intent is an admirable one: Like other accounts of human rights violations during World War II, the story of Nanking is running increasingly low on firsthand accounts and in danger of being undermined by scores of people who denounce these accounts. Survivors from both sides of the conflict appear in the film, and their stories — and the images and sparse video footage that complement them — are exceptionally powerful and heartbreaking on a graphic level words alone rarely achieve. On the other hand, “Nanking” also features letters and journal entries as read by a gaggle of out-of-costume actors (Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Stephen Dorff, John Getz and others). Shuffled in between the firsthand accounts, and certainly without intention, these dramatic readings feel disconnected and slightly patronizing, and it’s hard to imagine what a bunch of actors staring at the camera accomplish that simple voiceover narration couldn’t have done better. Fortunately, the disjointed pace that emerges as result provides no match for the incredible true story that “Nanking” wants to, and ultimately does, tell. No extras.

Friday Night Lights: The Second Season (NR, 2007, Universal)
So the writer’s strike is over, and you don’t have any souvenirs by which to remember it. That all changes if you pick up this DVD set, which is a complete second season in the technical sense only. Had the entertainment world operated as planned, the big news about year two of “Friday Night Lights” is how little, at least in comparison to the first season, it focuses on football. Most episodes roll by without a single minute of game footage. Even more surprisingly, the season’s most prominent face is a once-secondary character (Jesse Plemons as Landry Clarke) who wasn’t even on the team the season prior, and his chief plotline has as much to do with high school football as your typical episode of “Law & Order.” Just about every face from season one returns in some capacity, and “Lights” remains reasonably entertaining despite a penchant for predictability and a staunch aversion to subtlety. It’s a shame, then, that the season ends so abruptly after the 15th episode, which clearly was neither written nor shot with any designs of it being the season finale. Fortunately, and barring any other surprising industry developments, “Lights” will return for a third (and likely final) season to tie together all these loose ends.
Contents: 15 episodes, plus commentary, cast interviews and deleted scenes.

27 Dresses (PG-13, 2008, Fox)
Considering seeing “27 Dresses?” Fine, but know this: You probably already have seen it. You know the drill: The always-a-bridesmade-never-a-bride heroine-slash-wedding planner (Katherine Heigl) keeps losing out on life until she meets this guy (James Marsden) who makes cracks about her profession and has a witty answer for every flustered and frustrated lob she throws at him. And she can’t stand him for the first half of the movie, but don’t worry! He keeps it up, and she inevitably, after some cute mishaps and a musical montage or two, softens her dislike just in time for him to do something really terrible, deliver a spectacularly apologetic gesture, and make her fall in love with him. This is script-by-numbers at its most rote. Stuff inevitably happens in between — “Dress” runs nearly two hours despite going nowhere new — but it’s mostly the same lukewarm jokes, mishaps and unfunny faces that are interchangeable with any number of patently mediocre films about love, loss and happy endings that never happen anywhere but in bad movies. Still want to see it?
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes.