There are two films about male-female relationships coming home this week, each an opposing view of love and sex. One is a realistic and, ultimately, depressing take on the beginning, middle and end of a marriage that pulls no punches in its depiction of sex, anger and disappointment as Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling play doomed lovers/marriage partners in 'Blue Valentine.' The other is a rather innocuous piece of fluff, 'No Strings Attached,' that uses gratuitous sex to try to get laughs out of a relationship -- meant to mimic the openness of male-female couplings based on sex-without-romance -- that also follows the beginning, middle and end of an affair, but with a happy ending. Read on.
What It's About: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams star in this honest, moving, and uninhibited love story that is a complex portrait of a contemporary American marriage. David and Cindy have been together for several years -- married with a daughter -- but are at an impasse in their relationship. While Cindy has blossomed into a woman with opportunities and options (she's a talented nurse who wants to expand her horizons), David is still the same person he was when they met (he is a house painter with no ambition), and is unable to accept either Cindy's growth or his lack of it. The narrative unfolds in two distinct time frames, juxtaposing scenes of first love and youthful sexuality in the past, with those of disenchantment and discord in the present.
It's Kinda Like: 'Revolutionary Road' meets 'Scenes From a Marriage'
What We Say: 'Blue Valentine' was definitely one of the best films of 2010 but -- because of its ultimately depressing story arc -- it didn't please mainstream audiences. And that's a shame because director Derek Cianfrance has created a moving work of art that deconstructs the best -- and worst parts -- of a marriage. It's a painful and tender character study that makes the viewer an interloper in the relationship, hearing private words and seeing private actions that make you flinch in their honesty. There's a brutal sadness in this tale -- and you will not walk away from the experience humming a happy tune. But you will be enlightened and uplifted by the film -- it allows you to get closer to the feelings that bind -- and then unglue -- people. And Gosling and Williams are superb. Don't miss this one.
• Extras: Commentary by director Derek Cianfrance and co-editor Jim Helton, a "making-of" featurette, deleted scenes.
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'No Strings Attached'
What It's About: Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) are acquaintances -- with no romantic spark -- whose paths keep crossing from high school through college to adulthood. Thrown together one night, their tentative friendship is almost ruined when they have sex the next morning. In order to protect that friendship, they make a pact to keep their relationship strictly "no strings attached." "No strings" means no jealousy, no expectations, no fighting, no flowers, no "baby voices." It means they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, in whatever public place they want, as long as they don't fall in love. The question becomes -- who's going to fall first? And can their friendship survive? What do you think happens -- this is Hollywood, after all?
It's Kinda Like: 'Love and Other Drugs' meets 'Last Tango in Paris'
What We Say: This sex comedy is the exact opposite of 'Blue Valentine': Rather than trying to build a meaningful relationship and work at it, this pair of lovers just want sex with "no strings attached." And while there's nothing wrong with that (no hate mail, please), there's no nuance or depth to the situations. Portman, who always seems a bit cold to us on-screen, doesn't disappoint here -- she seems to have trouble letting go, and thus keeps the viewer at a distance. Kutcher, on the other hand, is still playing Kelso from 'That '70s Show,' though a little older, and his character is too frivolous to care about. With weak characters, you need to beef up the situations for the rom-com to have some foundation, but even those situations are way too bland for its conceit -- especially coming after 'Love and Other Drugs,' which tackled a similar coupling but was more earnest and deep in its characterization. It's all too predictable and generic.
• Extras: Commentary by director Ivan Reitman, a couple of talky behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted scenes and alternate story lines. The Blu-ray version adds a "Modern Love: The Do's and Don'ts" featurette.
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Other New May 10 DVD Releases:
'Black Death': Set during the time of the first outbreak of bubonic plague in England, a young monk is tasked with learning the truth about reports of people being brought back to life in a small village. Stars Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, David Warner and Carice Van Houten.
'Cougars, Inc.': Kicked out of every high school across the country, a young man steps up to help his mother pay for his education by launching Cougars, Inc., an escort service that allows a generation of women trying to hold onto their youth a second chance at love. Stars Sarah Hyland, Denise Richards, James Belushi, Kyle Gallner and Kathryn Morris.
'The Hit List': A down-on-his-luck businessman meets a mysterious stranger at a bar who claims to be a professional hit man and who offers to take out five targets, free of charge. Thinking it's a bad joke, the man jots down his own private hit list but, to his shock, the hit man starts to make good on his promise. Stars Cuba Gooding Jr., Cole Hauser, Jonathan LaPaglia and Ginny Weirick.
'I Saw the Devil': (2010 -- South Korea) When his pregnant fiancee becomes the latest victim of a serial killer, a secret agent blurs the line between good and evil in his pursuit of revenge.
'The Illusionist': Based on a script by French comic legend Jacques Tati and directed by two-time Oscar-nominee Sylvain Chomet ('The Triplets of Belleville'), this is a rich and touching animated feature about the "father-daughter" relationship between an aging magician whose art is slowly becoming obsolete and a young orphan girl just at the start of life's journey.
'Justin Bieber: Never Say Never': Inside look at the rise of Justin Bieber from street performer in the small town of Stratford, Ontario, to internet phenomenon to global super star culminating with a dream sold-out show at New York's famed Madison Square Garden. In 3D no less.
May 10 Blu-ray Debuts:
'Something Wild' (1986) A straitlaced businessman meets a quirky, free-spirited woman at a downtown New York greasy spoon. Her offer of a ride back to his office results in a lunchtime motel rendezvous -- just the beginning of a capricious interstate road trip that brings the two face-to-face with their hidden selves. Featuring a killer soundtrack and electric performances from Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith and Ray Liotta, 'Something Wild,' directed by oddball American auteur Jonathan Demme ('Stop Making Sense,' 'The Silence of the Lambs'), is both a kinky comic thriller and a radiantly off-kilter love story. From The Criterion Collection.
Other Blu-ray debuts:
'The Horse Soldiers' (1959), 'The Misfits' (1961), 'Rocky Limited Edition' (1976), 'Some Like It Hot' (1959)
Check out other new May 10 DVD releases at OnVideo.