Movies released on DVD this week are quite a mixed bag, from Oscar-nominees to throwaways.
"Notes on a Scandal" (Fox, 2006; R for language, sex, nudity; $29.98). A pair of powerhouse performances highlight this thriller about a sociopathic veteran teacher (Judi Dench) who obsesses over and attaches herself to a new younger teacher (Cate Blanchett). And when the younger teacher foolishly enters into an affair with a student, things get nasty.
This is the kind of material that Hitchcock could have had fun with, but he probably would have made Blanchett's character more palatable. As it is, there's no one to root for.
Still, from a distance it can be admired, and Dench and Blanchett deserved their Oscar nominations. An edgy music score by Philip Glass helps.
Extras: Widescreen, audio commentary, featurettes, Webisodes, trailer
"Freedom Writers" (MTV/Paramount, 2007, PG-13, $29.99). Hilary Swank stars in an overly familiar but effective true story about a well-intentioned white woman who tries to help her troubled ethnic students at an inner-city school (think "Dangerous Minds," "Blackboard Jungle," etc.). Meanwhile, her marriage to Patrick Dempsey is failing. Swank and the kids shine.
Extras: Separate widescreen and full-frame editions, deleted scenes, audio commentary, featurettes, photo gallery, trailer
"The Last King of Scotland" (Fox, 2006; R for violence, language, sex, nudity, drugs; $29.98). Forest Whitaker won the best-actor Oscar for his amazing performance as real-life monster Idi Amin. The film, however, a fictional story about Amin's relationship with a med-school graduate (James McAvoy) at a clinic in Uganda, is so graphic in its repugnant violence that it's hard to take.
Extras: Separate widescreen and full-frame editions, deleted scenes, featurettes, episode of "Fox Movie Channel Presents: Casting Sessions," trailers
"The History Boys" (Fox, 2006; R for language, sex, nudity, violence; $27.98). Richard Griffiths reprises his acclaimed stage role (as do many others in the cast) for this British comedy-drama about students in the early 1980s whose teachers vie for their attentions. Think "Dead Poets Society" with a gay twist.
Extras: Widescreen, audio commentary, featurettes, trailers
"Smokin' Aces" (Universal, 2007; R for violence, language, nudity, drugs; $29.98). The large cast of recognizable TV and music stars in cameos may work for star-spotters, but it tends to undermine this already too-twisty Tarantino-ish thriller. Jeremy Piven stars as a Vegas mobster hiding out in Lake Tahoe, dodging would-be assassins until he can testify against his bosses.
Extras: Widescreen, deleted scenes, alternate ending, audio commentaries, featurettes
"Le Petit Lieutenant" (Koch Lorber, 2006; unrated but R-level language, violence; $29.98). Earthy, matter-of-fact approach gives this cop drama a sense of realism as it follows a rookie police detective who learns the hard way about crime on the streets of Paris, ultimately leading to tragedy. Nathalie Baye stands out as boss, a recovering alcoholic who is given a second chance.
Extras: Widescreen, in French with English subtitles, trailer
"Thieves Like Us" (MGM, 1974; R for violence, sex, nudity, language, $14.98). This sort of low-rent "Bonnie and Clyde," with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall on the run during the Depression, gets a tremendous boost from the stylistic direction of the late Robert Altman, who soaks the film in atmosphere (and provides an interesting audio commentary).
Extras: Widescreen, audio commentary
"True Confessions"(MGM, 1981; R for violence, language, $14.98). An underrated, albeit slow-moving, character drama with two great performances from Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro, as brothers with an uneasy relationship — Duvall is a hard-nosed cop and De Niro is a powerful figure in the Catholic Church.
"The Chocolate War" (MGM, 1988; R for language; $14.98). This was actor Keith Gordon's first film as a writer-director, and it marks an impressive debut, especially in the performances (and particularly John Glover), in this tale of a power struggle and a secret society in a boys school. Based on a novel by Robert Cormier.
Extras: Widescreen, audio commentary, featurette
"Pulp" (MGM, 1972, PG, $14.98). Michael Caine co-produced and stars in this artsy comedy about a hack writer who receives a mysterious invitation to ghost write the autobiography of an aging entertainer with mob ties (Mickey Rooney). Flat and unfunny most of the way.
"Tom Brown's Schooldays" (Koch, 2004, $19.98). The Thomas Hughes novel gets the British TV-movie treatment in this story of a young boy in a private school where bullying is the order of the day.
Extras: Full frame
"Sons and Lovers" (Koch, 2003, two discs, $29.98). Lengthy, talky BBC adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel (with gratuitous female nudity) about a mother's domineering love for her son.
Extras: Full frame
"Spider-Man 2.1" (Columbia, 2004, PG-13, two discs $19.94). The second "Spider-Man" movie gets a special-edition release — with eight minutes of bonus footage — just in time for the upcoming third film in the series.
Extras: Widescreen, audio commentary, text commentary, featurettes, trailers