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DVDs In Brief: January 27, 2010

Before Michael Jackson’s body had entirely cooled, Sony spent $60 million on rehearsal footage from what would have been his comeback tour, and rushed the hastily assembled documentary Michael Jackson: This Is It (Sony) into theaters. Though it wasn’t quite the box-office phenomenon some industry analysts were expecting, This Is It proved a little more candid and interesting than cynics might have anticipated. It’s still a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, but it reveals Jackson as a gentle taskmaster who presided over every detail of his concert productions…

After spending the 17 years since The Piano in the creative wilderness, Jane Campion returned to form with Bright Star (Sony), a lush period telling of the chaste romance between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and girl-next-door Fanny Brawne, played by a luminous Abbie Cornish. There’s much to admire here: a tactile approach to period that was also one of The Piano’s greatest strengths, a refusal to succumb to birth-to-death biopic conventions, and the incorporation of poetry into everyday language. Paul Schneider is especially good as Keats’ skeptical, frank-talking friend…

In Surrogates (Buena Vista), Bruce Willis plays an FBI agent trying to unravel a conspiracy in a near future in which almost everyone experiences the world via robotic avatars. The clever premise (taken from a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele) never elevates the film above a murky mix of familiar genres. But Surrogates does feature a mini Pulp Fiction reunion whenever Ving Rhames shows up. Not many films can boast that, right?…

Drew Barrymore’s capable directorial debut, Whip It, is one of the more curious flops of last year: It’s accessible and commercial, it features a cast loaded with gifted actresses (Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Alia Shawkat, and many others), and it has a girl-power bubbliness that’s unmistakably Barrymore. Maybe potential audiences were turned off by idea of a movie about the roller-derby scene, but this winning (albeit deeply conventional) film stands to find more appreciators on DVD…

If health-care legislation gets hopelessly compromised or scotched altogether, it won’t be for Jigsaw’s lack of trying. Saw VI (Lionsgate), the latest entry in the wheezing torture-porn franchise, turns out to be surprisingly topical, sending a sleazy health-insurance executive (Peter Outerbridge) through a series of trials where he literally has to make life-or-death decisions for other people. It’s actually a pretty smart metaphor, but still in service of the dumb, ugly mechanized gratuitousness that defined the Saw movies from the start.