CINDERELLA MAN (2005). No filmmaker in his right mind would want his boxing picture to be released a scant few months after Million Dollar Baby, but Cinderella Man is so structurally and tonally different from Clint Eastwood's masterwork that it might as well be about jai alai. Almost every summer has one classy Oscar-bait production geared toward older audiences, and Cinderella Man, which relates the real-life story of pugilist James J. Braddock, adequately filled the role for 2005 -- although its disappointing box office may or may not have hurt its upcoming shot with the Academy. Russell Crowe's touching portrayal is instrumental in recruiting the audience's sympathies from the get-go, and director Ron Howard and his A Beautiful Mind scripter Akiva Goldsman (co-writing with Cliff Hollingsworth) take care to spend as much time detailing the ravages of the Depression as they do Braddock's exploits in the ring. The film may not break new ground, but in its ability to provide old-fashioned entertainment, the gloves come flying off. DVD extras include audio commentary by Howard, Goldsman and Hollingsworth, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes features, a discussion of the original Max Baer-Jim Braddock fight and a piece on Braddock's life featuring interviews with family members. And while most DVDs include optional subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, this title admirably also includes a DVS option, which provides descriptive commentary so the movie can be enjoyed by the blind as well.
Extras: *** 1/2
FORBIDDEN GAMES (1952). Only a person with a heart of stone -- or a right-wing zealot who sees nothing wrong with the US's mass slaughter of innocent women and children in Iraq -- would fail to be moved by Forbidden Games, Rene Clement's still-timely, still-affecting drama about a little girl whose parents are killed during an aerial raid by the enemy. In this case the setting is World War II France, and after witnessing the strafing deaths of her parents and her dog by swooping German planes, little city girl Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) gets "adopted" by older country boy Michel (Georges Poujouly), who brings his find home to his family. Feeling protective of the precocious moppet, Michel caters to her whims, so when she requests that her dog be buried with the same measure of pomp and circumstance given to humans, he responds by building her a pet cemetery. Soon, all manner of critters get buried in that makeshift plot -- some killed by Michel for the sole purpose of burying them -- but matters get complicated once the kids start stealing crosses and other artifacts from actual cemeteries to decorate their own memorial. Perhaps not until Ponette in 1996 had another movie looked so closely at how death might be absorbed through the eyes of a small child. Forbidden Games is more complex, however, in that it's up to each individual viewer to decide whether these children's actions signify that they're little angels, little demons or blank slates rolling with the punches in a volatile world. Released four years before the Academy established the Best Foreign-Language Film category, this earned a special Oscar as the year's best import. DVD features include an alternate opening and ending to the film, new and archival interviews with Clement and Fossey and the theatrical trailer.
Movie: *** 1/2
Extras: ** 1/2
MADAGASCAR (2005). Unlike such banal hits as Robots, Shark Tale and Chicken Little, this animated delight strikes an appropriate balance: It's hip without being obnoxious, and it's sentimental without being cloying. Through a wild chain of events, four animal pals from a New York zoo -- Lion (Ben Stiller), Zebra (Chris Rock), Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Giraffe (David Schwimmer) -- find themselves stranded on the title island. Despite the ingratiating leads (Rock, for one, has never been better), despite the eye-popping animation and despite the presence of other scene-stealers (check out the lemurs), the main reason to see this is to catch the penguins, four no-nonsense types who plan to dig their way to Antarctica but instead end up hijacking a ship. First Bloom County's Opus, then This Modern World's Sparky and now these guys and the birds in March of the Penguins -- the lion may be comfortably ensconced as king of the jungle, but when it comes to the thick brier of popular culture, it's the penguin who reigns supreme. DVD extras include The Penguins in A Christmas Caper (the short cartoon currently playing theatrically before the Wallace & Gromit feature), audio commentary by directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, a penguin commentary on select scenes, the music video for "I Like to Move It, Move It," a live-action look at the island of Madagascar and games and activities for the kids.
Movie: *** 1/2
Extras: *** 1/2
WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). Steven Spielberg, who's helmed several of the greatest popcorn entertainments of the past 30 years, has now given us a popcorn picture with a difference -- this one's been generously sprinkled with salt, causing a stinging sensation as it rubs against the open wound of our national psyche. Spielberg has crafted War of the Worlds as a fantasy film for a post-9/11 age. It is a work that, in the same manner as his excellent 2002 Minority Report, views science fiction not as a source of endless wonder and delight but as a realm fraught with cautionary tales about the erosion of our personal freedoms and our sense of despair in an increasingly hostile world. Americanizing and updating H.G. Wells' novel, this follows a working-class dad (Tom Cruise) and his kids as they attempt to escape the aliens wiping out mankind. Boasting excellent effects, this is a harrowing thrill ride that's merciless in its methods, though it's hampered by a warm and fuzzy conclusion that's simply shameless. The only DVD extra is a 14-minute feature on the creation of the aliens and their imposing tripods; however, a two-disc limited edition with additional features is also available.
Extras: * 1/2