Editor’s Notes: Serena and The DUFF are all out on their respective formats June 9th.
Set in Depression-era America, Serena (Magnolia Home Entertainment) stars two of today’s biggest stars, focusing on newly-married George and Serena Pemberton (Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence), who set out to build a lumber empire in the mountains of North Carolina. Serena soon proves she’s up to the challenges of rough territory hunting rattlesnakes, and even saving a man’s life in the wilderness. As their power and influence grows, the Pembertons refuse to let anyone stand in the way of their ambitions. Their happiness hits an obstacle when Serena discovers George’s hidden past and she learns that she’s unable to bear children.
As effective as the two actors were in Silver Linings Playbook, they look awkward and uncomfortable in this costume dramatization of the bestseller by Ron Rash. It’s interesting to see how chemistry between actors in one picture can differ so markedly from their chemistry in another. This is a textbook example. Under the direction of Susanne Bier, both Cooper and Lawrence look uncomfortable and may not have been the best choices for this fairly static character study of a volatile marriage against the background of an exciting, often dangerous industry.
Two supporting performances stand out: Toby Jones (Muppets Most Wanted) as the local sheriff, and Rhys Ifans (The Amazing Spider-Man) as Galloway, a local brute. They add color and contribute memorable characterizations, but are not enough to raise the movie from mere mediocrity.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray release include deleted scenes, making-of featurette, and behind-the-scenes looks at the film’s production design and screenwriting process.
The DUFF (Lionsgate) is an acronym for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) is a high school senior who’s devastated when she learns that the kids in her high school refer to her as a DUFF. Bianca is smart, funny, and frequently sarcastic. To rid her of this reputation, she drops her two closest friends and enlists the aid of next-door neighbor hunk Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell) in exchange for tutoring him in science.
Though neither ugly nor fat, Ms. Whitman has a flair for comedy, with razor-sharp timing and a natural delivery. Though 26, she passes for a high school kid and easily manages to get us in her corner in what is essentially a movie about simultaneously getting even with one’s social circle and asserting one’s individuality.
Allison Janney adds comedy of her own as Bianca’s single Mom, who attempts to be supportive and helpful by issuing questionable self-improvement suggestions while seeking Bianca’s advice on online dating.
The DUFF is a witty Cinderella story in which lots of conventions are turned upside down. Character types are familiar, but the script is sharp and clever, with a winning performance by Ms. Whitman.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include an extended gag reel, the featurettes “Teen Comedies and The DUFF” and “I Am the DUFF,” and footage of “The DUFF” on the Red Carpet.
For over 25 years, I was the Film and Home Entertainment Reviewer for "The Villadom TIMES," a New Jersey weekly newspaper, and have written for several other publications. I developed and taught a Film Studies program for two New York City high schools that included Film History, Horror/Fantasy, and Film Making.