Has the acting in American movies ever been better?
In the fact-based drama “The Soloist” (Paramount Home Entertainment, $30 DVD, $40 Blu-ray), Robert Downey Jr. plays Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist who discovers former musical prodigy Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) homeless in the street. Downey and Foxx are outstanding in their roles, bringing a compelling energy to the film, so the movie never once feels like the good-for-you, manipulative drama it appears to be.
Foxx, in particular, is excellent, completely disappearing into the role of a schizophrenic man who can only quiet the voices in his head when he’s playing his two-string violin. Foxx continues to improve as an actor with each role, and his pairing opposite Downey, who seems to be genetically incapable of giving a boring performance, is the secret to “The Soloist’s” engrossing power.
Director Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice”) provides a commentary track to accompany the film, in which he reveals that he told the executives at DreamWorks who had handpicked him to direct that he would only take the gig if he was allowed to cast real homeless people for the film’s skid-row scenes. Wright also talks about how making “The Soloist” changed his perception of crack addicts, who, he now realizes, are ill, like alcoholics.
Both DVD and Blu-ray versions are accompanied by several featurettes, including the 20-minute “An Unlikely Friendship: Making the Soloist,” in which Downey praises Foxx for the way he handled ‘‘a high-degree-of-difficulty role.’’ (In addition to nailing a believable portrayal of mental illness, Foxx also had to learn to play various instruments.) Foxx says the hardest part of the experience was letting the role go once filming was completed, because he had gotten used to being so deeply into the character.
Other extras include a nine-minute featurette on the plight of L.A.‘s homeless, and a five-minute conversation with the real-life Lopez and Ayers, who give “The Soloist” two hearty thumbs-up. We concur.
‘BART GOT A ROOM’
The sweet but slight comedy “Bart Got a Room” (Anchor Bay, $30 DVD) tells of the increasingly desperate efforts by the teenaged Danny (Steven Kaplan) to avoid being the only member of his senior class without a date for the prom.
The feature-length debut of writer-director Brian Hecker, “Bart Got a Room” has an endearing disposition and a good supporting cast, including William H. Macy, sporting a ridiculously curly rug, as Danny’s dad.
But the autobiographical story is awfully thin material — so thin, in fact, that the film runs only 78 minutes — and the ending is a bit of a dud. The DVD contains only one worthwhile extra, a pop-up ‘‘production notebook’’ that points out various facts about the movie, such as the way Hecker paid tribute to Woody Allen by using the same windsor font in the opening credits that Allen uses, the South Florida locations where filming took place (there’s Sheridan Street!, etc.), and the various cameos by egrets sprinkled throughout. Most of the extras in “Bart Got a Room” were volunteer non-actors — in the restaurant scene set at Padrino’s, for example, the waiters really work there — so the DVD will probably be of interest to a lot of South Floridians. Just lower your expectations about the movie.
BLU-RAY FORMAT GETS A BOOST
Paramount Pictures has announced it will release “Dance Flick” on Sept. 8 in two versions: A bare-bones, movie-only DVD available for rental only, and a Blu-ray edition loaded with extras. You won’t be able to buy a standard DVD version until four to eight weeks later.
This tactic follows a similar move by the Walt Disney Co. to release its upcoming special edition of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” exclusively on Blu-ray on Oct. 6. A standard DVD of “Snow White” won’t be available until Nov. 24, although Disney’s family-oriented Blu-rays all include a DVD copy of the film.
While sales and rentals of DVDs are dropping, Blu-ray sales continue to increase, and studios see the new format as an opportunity to revitalize the stagnant home-video market. Last week, Blu-ray accounted for 36 percent of the total sales of “Watchmen,” a new record for the format.
A movie as inconsequential as “Dance Flick” won’t have much impact on Blu-ray sales figures. A much more interesting test will come when Paramount tries pulling the exclusivity deal on a major catalog title such as “The Godfather” or a hot new release like “Star Trek.” What if Disney made Pixar’s “Up” a Blu-ray exclusive for the holiday season?