In recent weeks, a number of feature films have been released on DVD, which tackle any number of controversial subjects.
Subjects such as child abuse, political controversy, educational methods, and drug addiction have been confronted, and while a given person is likely to agree with some and disagree with others, any and all of these films can be the starting point of some excellent discussion, if the viewer is willing to consider all sides of an issue. That's what the arts are supposed to do.
This week, let's look at feature films from the past year, all of which have recently been released on DVD:
RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
''Rachel Getting Married,'' a rather low intensity film about tensions within a family received a great boost in public attention when its principal actress, Anne Hathaway, was nominated for about a dozen of the big awards, including a ''Best Actress'' nomination for the Oscar.
A friend of mine recently mentioned that he hadn't seen the film, but when I tried to describe the plot, he responded, ''I can't get excited about rich, beautiful people, dealing with problems they've brought on themselves.''
While I disagree about the attention-worthiness of the film, he's described its content very well.
The central character is a young woman named Kym. She's beautiful, she's well educated, she's rich and she's miserably unhappy. When we first see her, she is being temporarily released from an enforced rehab facility, so she can attend her sister's wedding.
Her parents are divorced. She lives with her father and his current wife in a huge, upper, upper middle class home, in a Connecticut suburb of New York City. Her mother lives nearby, in a similarly upper crust home, with her current husband.
The family uses a good many Yiddish terms, but their home contains no symbols of any religion, nor do we ever see them practice one. The wedding itself has a Hindu motif, but the ceremony is performed by a man in a suit who seems to be a public official. They don't explain.
When Kym arrives, the house is positively packed with strangers. Her sister, who is equally attractive, but dresses and behaves far more conventionally, is about to marry a professional musician. Not only are he and members of his family scattered around, a number of his friends and colleagues are constantly playing music, on everything from electric guitars to the occasional lute.
Kym heads off to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, where she tells those in attendance part of the story of her incarceration and rehabilitation. Also attending is a good looking young man, who turns out to be the best man at her sister's wedding.
Kym is soon in fierce competition with her sister's best friend. Emma feels it is her role to protect the bride from her addicted sister's annoying self-preoccupation and eccentricities, while Kym feels the need to reassert herself as a member of her family.
The script is by Jenny Lumet, daughter of famed director Sidney Lumet. One gets the feeling that director Jonathan Demme has allowed a great deal of improvisation by the cast, which is sometimes distracting and makes the scenes ''fuzzy.'' However, because the roles are so very well cast, it does bring a reality with which the audience can readily identify.
Hathaway is like a restaurant menu of self-destructive behaviors, and projects her self-pity and her desperate need to find someone else to blame for her problems in such a way that we can still feel genuinely sorry for her.
Bill Irwin does a fine job of portraying the father of the family. He seems like a decent guy who is genuinely trying to do what's best for his family, but he has bought into the valueless standards of contemporary society. He bends over backwards to placate everyone in the family, and indeed, even the strangers in his home, but he's like a straw in the wind. He doesn't stand for anything.
Debra Winger emerges from a long retirement to play Abby, the mother of the bride. Abby has a high paying and successful career, and tends to consider it her right that her home and family will take care of themselves, and do it in a way they are an asset to her, both socially and professionally.
Winger is such an open book, we can read a whole wealth of thoughts and emotions which she doesn't even have to mention, when all we do is look at her.
If you care about people, it's an incisive, believable look at some classic cases in contemporary America. If you get tired of people whining and complaining, you might not want to let yourself in for more of it.
The film had its theatrical release last October.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
The correct title of this film is ''Lat den Ratte Komma In,'' and it also was released last October. The only difference is that it was released in Norway, so chances are that you didn't have a chance to see it before its release on DVD.
If you like the grim and intensely personal films of Scandinavian filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, you may very well enjoy this vampire-based horror flick.
Set in a contemporary suburb of a Stockholm, in the darkness-filled, colorless winter, the film proves that banal silence can be every bit as frightening as lightning strikes and howling winds.
The central character is Oskar, a 12-year-old with pale, nearly colorless hair and eyes. Few people in Oskar's life bother to notice him at all, but those who do, push him around, take things from him, and fill him with a burning desire for vengeance that has him brandishing a vicious-looking knife when nobody is around, but cringing in fear when actually confronted.
One evening, sitting alone in the featureless courtyard of his contemporary apartment building, Oskar meets a plain but inventive girl of his own age. Her name is Eli, which is pronounced ''Ellie.'' In her company, he has his first happy experiences of the film, and they're ordinary enough.
They become friends, but there is one problem. Eli has been Oskar's age for several centuries. She is a vampire.
We watch their relationship grow, based on mutual tolerance. We wonder if he will become her victim or if she will become his, or if he will find himself enslaved like the sixty-ish man who looks after her living conditions. He wonders, from time to time, how true are the well-known fables about vampires. Does Eli grow fangs? Does she burst into flames, if exposed to sunlight? Does she have a reflection in the mirror? Will garlic keep her away? Will a crucifix?
The title of the film comes from a song originally performed by Jim Morrison, of The Doors, but it resonates when he wonders whether it's true that a vampire can't enter a home unless he or she is invited to come in. If he invites her in, will he get a friendly visit? a lover? a gruesome death?
This isn't a film for mindless monster films. To really enjoy, you have to look at the characters as metaphors. You have to be willing to spend some time in a colorless, bleak setting, both visually and emotionally. How much of it is real and how much of it is a fantasy in the mind of a lonely, disturbed boy?
I'm glad I saw it. You can decide for yourself, if you'll feel the same.
HAPPY GO LUCKY
Going from one extreme to the other, I recently saw ''Happy Go Lucky.''
The film is a story of the life of one Poppy Cross, a 30-ish elementary school teacher, living with a roommate in an apartment, over a store.
Unlike the bleak setting of the previous film, Poppy's world is a riot of color. She likes to wear huge earrings, knee-high cowgirl-like boots with sky high heels, and a variety of frothy outfits which seem more determined to sample every shade of every color than to coordinate with anything.
Poppy laughs and giggles and teases and pratfalls. She's one of those people who - if you're in the right mood - is a joy to be with.
If you're not in the right mood, you might consider throttling her.
As the film opens, we see Poppy attempting to exchange cheerful small talk with a clerk in a bookstore, who is preoccupied and busy and doesn't want to listen to her endless chirping. Giving up, she steps outside and finds that her bicycle has been stolen. ''Ahhh, I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye,'' she moans, before cheering back up and heading home on foot.
Instead of replacing the bike, she decides to take driving lessons, and that brings her into a relationship with Scott. He is a driving instructor. He's a gloomy, anti-intellectual, paranoid, angry, hostile young man, and something about him just spurs Poppy on to new heights of teasing, prattle and foolishness.
Poppy's confrontational driving lessons are interspersed with scenes from her life, including a visit to a trampoline center, a number of lessons in dancing Flamenco, a family visit with her two sisters, and a date with a handsome young social worker who is trying to help a troubled student in her class. At one point, she hears a homeless man, talking to himself, and forms a relationship with him which the audience can't help feeling could be very dangerous.
There's even a medical exam, which leaves her osteopath laughing uproariously.
She is certainly one of the most original and memorable characters I've experienced in quiet a while. Actress Sally Hawkins makes her very believable. We never get the slightest sense of a word or a gesture, used for effect on someone else. She is who she is, and she enjoys it. She truly doesn't care how anyone else feels about her.
Director Mike Leigh seems to find Poppy more delightful than she really is, and it might have been advisable to rein her in just a bit. All that chirping cheerfulness can grate on the nerves, after a while.
Still, there's no nudity and no real violence. The ''Rotten Tomatoes'' website gave the film a 95 percent positive rating. Minute by minute, Poppy is daunting, but after a while, we begin to note how her interactions are so much more satisfactory for her than other people's more typical interactions. It's a lesson which might be envied by Normal Vincent Peale.
''Happy Go Lucky'' had its theatrical release in the U.S. in October of last year.
Filmmaker Oliver Stone has been controversial throughout his career, especially in the biographical films of recent American presidents which he has made.
After filming ''JFK,'' and ''Nixon,'' in October of 2008, Stone released ''W,'' which he presents as an accurate biography of President George W. Bush.
Few, if any of our presidents have been so divisive of public opinion as our penultimate chief executive. People tend to defend him hotly, or to ridicule and dismiss him utterly. Both groups are going to dislike this film, because it offers a relatively negative view of the man and his presidency, but it doesn't stoop to exaggeration, ridicule or overkill.
The film portrays Bush as the oldest son of a successful, wealthy and powerful man, who spends the first 40 years of his life trying to find a place for himself. He is first portrayed in a revolting fraternity initiation, kneeling in a tub while expensive liquor is poured over his head and into his mouth through a funnel.
We see him fail at various jobs, and finally confess to a clergyman that he feels he is nothing but a name. He gets good jobs and into the nation's best schools, not through his own talents nor his hard work, but because his father uses political and financial influence and gets him into those things.
The first President Bush is portrayed as a stubborn, judgemental man, deeply doubtful of his oldest son, but determined to drag him to success, whether he wants it or not.
At the age of 40, Bush meets Laura Welch, portrayed by actress Elizabeth Banks, who bears a strong resemblance. One of the weaknesses of the film is that it fails utterly to even address why she chooses to ally herself with her husband.
The future president enters Alcoholics Anonymous, and is converted to radical right wing Christianity. He puts himself into the hands of Karl Rove, who contrives to get him elected Governor of Texas and eventually president.
The sections of the film dealing with the Bush presidency rely heavily on actual transcripts of interviews and the minutes of meetings.
Stone portrays a president who dislikes thinking about issues and who believes in going with his gut feelings, even in the face of evidence. He doesn't dwell on the famous mis-pronunciations which haunted Bush's speech, settling on presenting only one, when the prison at Guantanamo Bay was called ''Guantanamara.''
Bush's belief that if people didn't agree with him they supported terrorists, is shown as a powerful element in the meetings which led up to the launching of the war in Iraq. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, the successful general of the first Gulf War, is humiliated and brushed aside by the goading to war of Vice President Dick Cheney.
The portrayals of the Bush administration are startlingly accurate in sound and appearance. Richard Dreyfuss presents a driven and determined Cheney which has none of the quacking silliness of portrayals from popular television programs.