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Dvd releases

‘The Help’ well served by strong cast

By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2011
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Going in, “The Help’’ (2011) certainly needed no help at all with its profile, given the success of the Kathryn Stockett bestseller that launched it. But how did such a recognizable title end up handled - engagingly, at that - by a director as little known as Tate Taylor? Fittingly, the behind-the-scenes story all comes out on Blu-ray. The film stars Viola Davis (“Doubt’’) as deep-feeling Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as spirited Minny, women struggling with all of the abuses and fears that come with a black maid’s life in Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s. Emma Stone is Skeeter, a privileged, likable misfit and aspiring writer determined to put the maids’ stories in print; Bryce Dallas Howard is prim housewife Hilly, the nasty epitome of New South racism. The actresses are remarkably well cast and their performances are strong enough to limit any reader laments about what the movie leaves out. Extras: A Blu-ray featurette shows us Stockett and Taylor as real-life best friends from their early childhood in Jackson, and Spencer as another pal from way back. (Spencer admits that when she was first sent the vernacular-heavy material, she would have dismissed it if Taylor hadn’t recommended it.) Another segment interviews real maids, including one who worked for Taylor’s mom. With all the ground the featurettes try to cover, there isn’t much about Davis, unfortunately. Ditto for Jessica Chastain, who deftly handles playing an ostracized belle in a story already gingerly filtering black experience through a white prism. (Touchstone, $29.99; Blu-ray, $39.99)

COMEDY

THE HANGOVER PART II (2011)

Ed Helms is getting married in Thailand, so naturally Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis tag along to make sure he has one very wild night in Bangkok before the ceremony. We’re not part of the pack that rates this stuff as iconic comedy - and the movie boasts several self-referential moments that assume you do - but Galifianakis is amusing, and a couple of Billy Joel flourishes are screwy fun. Extras: A flat production mockumentary “exposes’’ the behavior of the guys on location. Still, costar Justin Bartha humorously wonders why the movie’s monkey gets a 7-Eleven cup and he doesn’t. (Warner, $28.98; Blu-ray, $35.99)

SCIENCE FICTION

COWBOYS & ALIENS (2011)

It’s clear from what director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man’’) has to say in commentary that cast and crew felt a certain level of anxiousness about having audiences take this one seriously. Great title, but goofy, no? Not a problem - Favreau, Daniel Craig, and Harrison Ford make a polished genre entry. Or cross-genre entry, as the case may be. If only there had been some way of selling the movie with a different title, and making its sci-fi reveal a surprise. Impossible, obviously, but we can dream. Extras: Favreau amiably chats with all the principals; an extended cut adds 15 minutes. (Universal, $29.98; Blu-ray, $34.98)

THRILLER

THE DEBT (2011)

Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds play former Israeli operatives still haunted by their mission to kidnap a notorious Nazi doctor from East Berlin back in the ’60s. (The characters are played in flashback by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas of “The Lord of the Rings,’’ and Sam Worthington.) Mirren summons her “Prime Suspect’’ raggedy strength, but the standout is Chastain, who anchors the story (and also shines in “The Help’’ this week). She makes spying from an ob-gyn’s office nearly as ugly to contemplate as anything else in the movie. Extras: Commentary by director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love’’). (Universal, $29.98; Blu-ray, $34.98)

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