Video Verdict: New DVDs for June 24

A wealth of new titles hit video stores this week, including two of the best films from the first half of 2008.

Freddie Highmore in "The Spiderwick Chronicles."

Freddie Highmore in "The Spiderwick Chronicles."

In Bruges
4 stars
Rated R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language and some drug use
Universal Studios
Available on: DVD
At the midpoint of 2008, this small but beautifully made film is the best picture to receive a theatrical release.

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson star as Ray and Ken, assassins who are ordered to take downtime in Bruges, Belgium, after botching a job in England. As writer-director Martin McDonagh unspools his clever plot, viewers learn that Ray — a fledgling hit man — is struggling to come to terms with his English debacle. Meanwhile, Ken — an aging veteran — is worried about what’s next.

Both men have reason for concern, as their hard-nosed boss (Ralph Fiennes) isn’t the type to tolerate mistakes, and he’s letting them sweat things out in the best-preserved Medieval city in Belgium. That means Ray and Ken spend their days sightseeing while their minds wander in anticipation.

The film is an oddball mix of dark humor, drama and action-violence, but McDonagh has so carefully crafted the feature that the parts gel beautifully. Like the best work of Quentin Tarantino, “In Bruges” is funny, poignant and just plain entertaining.

DVD extras include a making-of feature, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

 
The Spiderwick Chronicles
3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Rated PG for scary creature action and violence, peril and some thematic elements
Paramount
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray
It’s not as remarkable as “In Bruges,” but “The Spiderwick Chronicles” also ranks among the best of 2008. Freddie Highmore is featured, in an amazing dual-role performance, as twin brothers Jared and Simon Grace.

When the Grace boys move from New York City to a country home with their mother (Mary-Louise Parker) and sister, Mallory (Sarah Bolger), they discover a world of fanciful creatures living just beyond human perception. Trouble is, not all those creatures are friendly, and a particularly nasty ogre leads an assault against the children.

“Spiderwick” is often frightening, particularly for a PG-rated movie, but it’s also a terrific fantasy effort that can stand proudly alongside the Harry Potter franchise. Director Mark Waters and his crew did a great job with the special effects and the young cast is believable whether battling monsters or simply discovering the wonders of the strange new world surrounding them.

The movie is available in multiple versions, including a two-disc special edition. Extra features vary by release.

 
10,000 BC
2 stars
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray

It’s not often that one gets to watch herds of wooly mammoths saunter across the screen, so “10,000 BC” has value in terms of spectacle. Look beyond the flash, however, and the picture derails.

The action centers on a prehistoric hunter named D’Leh (Steven Strait) who is forced to become a hero when his small tribe is attacked by marauders. They kidnap many of D’Leh’s people, including the woman he loves, Evolet (Camilla Belle). In hopes of freeing their friends, D’Leh and fellow hunters track the marauders across untamed lands.

The action sequences are decently staged, and the special effects are respectable, especially considering the grand scope of the film. Unfortunately, the relationships between characters — including that of D’Leh and Evolet — have little resonance.

DVD extras include an alternate ending and deleted scenes.

 
Definitely, Maybe
3 stars
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, including some frank dialogue, language and smoking
Universal Studios
Available on: DVD
Disturbed by her parents’ choice to get a divorce, Maya Hayes (Abigail Breslin) asks her father, Will (Ryan Reynolds), to detail his relationship with her mother. What follows is a complicated but extremely likable romantic story in which Will frankly recounts his romantic ups and downs with several women. The catch is, he uses assumed names for each of the ladies, so Maya — and audience members — have to guess which is her mother.

Reynolds and his leading ladies — Rachel Weisz, Isla Fisher and Elizabeth Banks — turn in nice performances, and the plotting is smarter and considerably more entertaining than that of the average romantic comedy.

The movie is available in both widescreen and full screen DVD transfers, and extra features include making-of features, an audio commentary by Brooks and Reynolds, and deleted scenes.

 
The Hammer
3 stars
Rated R for brief language
Weinstein Company
Available on: DVD

Radio host and comedian Adam Carolla is the writer-producer-star of this underdog sports comedy. He plays Jerry “The Hammer” Ferro, a 40-year-old construction worker who loses his full-time job, becoming dependent on his part-time gig as a boxing coach. But what seems like bad luck, turns good when the middle-aged fighter — a former Golden Gloves slugger — is offered the opportunity to compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

“The Hammer” could have become a typically sappy sports flick, but Carolla filled it with enough of his trademark humor to keep things fresh even when the plotting isn’t groundbreaking. Fans of the comic’s radio show should have a great time with the film, but his shtick is unique, so those on different bandwidths could be left cold.

Fan or not, Carolla is a likable screen presence, and “The Hammer” has more heart and creativity than much of what makes the multiplex circuit these days.

DVD extras include a commentary by Carolla and co-producer Kevin Hench, behind-the-scenes promotional bits, outtakes, deleted scenes and a photo gallery.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Charlie Bartlett”: Anton Yelchin stars as Charlie, a wealthy teen who becomes the self-appointed “psychiatrist” for his new high school. Robert Downey Jr., Kat Dennings and Hope Davis also star.

“Persepolis”: Oscar-nominated animated film that tells of an Iranian girl’s coming of age in a difficult political environment. Presented in multiple languages with subtitles when necessary.

“Honeydripper”: The owner of a 1950s juke joint (Danny Glover) teams with a hotshot guitar player in a desperate attempt to save his club. Written and directed by Academy Award nominee John Sayles.

“The Furies”: Director Anthony Mann’s 1950 melodrama starring Walter Huston as a wealthy ranch owner and Barbara Stanwyck as his impetuous daughter. Presented by the Criterion Collection.

“Before the Rain”: Multi-pronged story with elements of everything from political intrigue to romance. The film, released by the Criterion Collection, is noteworthy as the first made in the newly independent Republic of Macedonia.

“Futurama — The Beast With a Billion Backs”: Feature-length, direct-to-DVD movie featuring characters from the animated television series.

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