DVD Picks

CorrespondentJuly 17, 2009 

'Cinema history is the history of boys photographing girls." -- Jean-Luc Godard

I thought about this quote several times -- for all the wrong reasons -- watching " The Edge of Love," a British historical drama starring Keira Knightley new to DVD this week. In the film, director John Maybury composes several scenes in which the impossibly beautiful Ms. Knightley sings to the camera in extreme close-up and appears to be, from all indications, the luminescent center of creation. This may not be the best reason to see "The Edge of Love," but it's also not the worst.

Knightley plays Vera, a singer in World War II London who reunites one evening with her childhood love, the celebrated Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys). As the Germans bomb the city, Vera sings to the crowds in Underground tunnels while the bohemian Dylan composes his poems and begs drinks and money. It seems the perfect set-up for glamorously tragic romance until the rather inconvenient arrival of Caitlin, Dylan's wife (played by Sienna Miller.)

The first third of the movie details the improbable friendship of these two women, each in orbit of the great poet. Knightley and Miller share the film's best early scenes, as poverty and the war oblige the three to live together in a cramped one-room flat. Further complicating matters is the arrival of the furloughed soldier William (Cillian Murphy), who wins Vera's affections through decency and sheer tenacity.

The rest of the story, which elaborates upon actual biographical details of Dylan Thomas' life, follows these four as love and war take their toll. "The Edge of Love" has all the requisite pieces of an Academy Award-contending prestige picture, but it never quite gels. The script -- written by British playwright Sharman Macdonald, who happens to be Knightley's mother -- meanders a bit too much in the middle, and director Maybury never quite settles on a consistent tone.

But the movie does evoke a potent sense of time and place, particularly in the early London scenes and later in a Welsh seaside village. The photography is indeed beautiful throughout, and not just when Maybury lingers on the ladies. The movie also confirms that old adage: Never trust a poet.

Also new to DVD this week is the surprisingly effective " A Haunting in Connecticut," a delightfully scary ghost story that steals from a dozen or so horror classics and somehow gets away with it all.

When her teenage son is diagnosed with cancer, Sara Campbell (Virginia Madsen, "Sideways") moves the family into a rental house, closer to the hospital, but with a disturbing past. The basement is an old mortuary. Violent supernatural events take place regularly, and corpses keep popping up with runes carved into their skin. Subsequent revelations suggest that the former morticians took a rather freethinking approach to necromancy and the embalming process. On the plus side, the rent is cheap.

I have a real soft spot for horror movies that at least try to play by the rules, generate suspense and provide good scares. When "Haunting" starts to feel familiar, bear in mind that as a species we've been telling ghost stories to ourselves for several millennia now. There are only so many ways to cut the ectoplasm. Suspend your disbelief and roll with it, and you'll find a movie that's generous with creepy visuals and spooky surprises. The filmmakers go beyond the call of duty to create characters we care about, and the cancer element provides some genuine emotional resonance.

Lots of good extras on the DVD, too. The movie is "based on real events," a phrase that in modern movie marketing means exactly nothing. But the documentary supplements provide that quality of truthiness that somehow always enriches ghost stories.

A couple final notes this week. Criterion just reissued the excellent 1989 documentary " For All Mankind" on Blu-ray, probably the single best film document we have regarding the U.S. lunar landings. In recent years, we've rather lost our sense of wonder about the space program and the idea of sending people off the planet. Here's a great package, chock full of extras, to remind you of this pinnacle of human endeavor. The new high-def digital transfer of orbital footage is breathtaking and artfully enhanced by Brian Eno's ambient soundtrack.

More 1960s fun: Fans of AMC's terrific Golden Age of advertising series " Mad Men" can now get the entire second season in a great new box set featuring audio commentaries on all 13 episodes and severalsupplementary docs.

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