Video Verdict: ‘The Conspirator,’ ‘Jane Eyre,’ ‘Something Borrowed,’ ‘Priest,’ ‘Hoodwinked Too!’

Robin Wright plays Mary Surratt and James McAvoy portrays Frederick Aiken in director Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator.”

This week’s home video releases include a post-apocalyptic vampire thriller, a wonderful literary adaptation and Robert Redford’s latest directorial effort.

The Conspirator

3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for some violent content
Lionsgate
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

Toward the end of “The Conspirator,” a key character quotes the Roman philosopher Cicero, who said, “In times of war, the law falls silent.” That single line makes the point of the film, which, although a historical drama, is clearly meant to shed light on our modern political landscape. In particular, “The Conspirator” takes aim at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, but one can certainly extend its message to broader territory.

The movie is centered on Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a boarding house owner who was put on trial for an alleged role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Surratt’s trial was controversial, and the film, directed by Robert Redford, alleges that the U.S. government stacked the deck against her.

Although the action revolves around Surratt, the movie’s protagonist is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union Civil War hero who served on her defense team. As depicted on screen, Aiken was reluctant to take the case but became passionately involved after being convinced that his client was set up.

Redford, who also directed “A River Runs Through It” and “Quiz Show,” is just as talented behind the camera as he is in front of it, and he moves the story along nicely. He also assembled a wonderful cast. McAvoy and Wright do the heavy lifting, but Redford gets solid supporting performances from Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Danny Huston and Evan Rachel Wood.

The movie’s only major flaw is a dangling subplot between Aiken and his wife and the actual depiction of Lincoln’s assassination. The latter is frustrating because Redford visualizes several simultaneous events using quick cuts, and it’s often difficult to tell what’s going on. Still, “The Conspirator” is one of the best movies to make its way onto video this year.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a number of making-of featurettes, a commentary by Redford, and a feature-length documentary about the plot to kill Lincoln.

Jane Eyre

3½ stars
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements including a nude image and brief violent content
Universal
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

Novelist Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” has been adapted to the screen many times, but there’s always room for another quality interpretation, and director Cary Fukunga delivers just that.

The movie, like the book, focuses on the title character, an orphan girl who endures terrible hardships before becoming governess to a troubled man named Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Although he is above Jane’s station, Rochester treats her as an equal, leading both of them to disrupt societal norms.

“Jane Eyre” is a social commentary as well as a tale of female empowerment and romance, and the skill with which these issues are addressed is one reason it has staying power. Since many modern filmgoers haven’t seen director Robert Stevenson’s 1943 movie adaptation – or even Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 effort – this feels like an appropriate time for an update.

Fukunga handles the material deftly, drifting back and forth in time to give viewers a sense not only of Jane’s present but of the events that made her the woman she is. Much credit also goes to Mia Wasikowska, a young actress plucked from relative obscurity to star in several high-profile films over the past few years. Here, she portrays Jane, and it’s her best outing yet.

Wasikowska is often playing against more experienced actors, including Fassbender and the great Judi Dench (who plays Rochester’s housekeeper), but she holds her own in every scene. That’s a feat to be proud of, and the payoff is a beautiful, new interpretation of a timeless piece of literature.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include several making-of featurettes, deleted scenes and a commentary by director Fukunaga.

Something Borrowed

2½ stars
Rated PG-13 for sexual content including dialogue, and some drug material
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and digital download

The problem with many romantic comedies is they rely almost exclusively on the stupidity of their protagonists. Without fail, we’re presented with two people who are obviously meant for each other but separated by obstacles. Typically, overcoming the difficulties requires little more than one of the characters realizing he/she is in love, something viewers already knew.

In “Something Borrowed,” the obvious couple is Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Dex (Colin Egglesfield), attractive 30-somethings who met during law school. Despite an immense, immediate attraction, the two somehow kept their hands off one another long enough for Rachel’s brash best friend, Darcy (Kate Hudson), to sneak into the picture. A few years later, Dex and Darcy are engaged and Rachel is relegated to the role of maid of honor. Sadly, she’s still in love with Dex, and it’s pretty obvious he’s into her as well.

Folks with average intelligence might have discussed this little problem before the wedding invitations were printed, but this is a Hollywood romantic comedy, meaning everyone is daft.

Fortunately for director Luke Greenfield, the “Something Borrowed” cast is as charming as the characters are dimwitted. That means Rachel and Dex are darn cute even when they’re doing stupid things. Darcy, who is written as a harpy, isn’t exactly likable, but Hudson does a nice job giving her dimension. John Krasinski is also a treat playing Ginnifer’s best friend, but his role is diminished by an underdeveloped subplot.

All this adds up to a romantic comedy that moves along at a respectable pace and doles out plenty of screen time to its attractive and talented stars. Watching them is enjoyable enough but it also leaves one wondering what they might have achieved with better material.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a gag reel, a collection of deleted scenes and several shorts featuring the stars of the film.

Priest

2½ stars
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, disturbing images and brief strong language
Sony
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D

Vampire films have long been a staple of the cinema, but their popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. With the “Twilight” franchise raking in millions and shows like “The Vampire Diaries” and “True Blood” cultivating fans on TV, romanticized visions of bloodsuckers are everywhere. For that reason, “Priest” deserves credit for steering in a different direction.

The vampires in this full-throttle action film bare zero resemblance to “Twilight’s” hunky Edward Cullen. Instead, they are full-on monsters that – aside from a humanoid shape – bare little resemblance to people. Also interesting is the film’s take on religion.

Holy men are often portrayed as heroes in movies about demons, but rarely are they shown as men of action. That changes here.

The film, based on the Korean comic series by artist Min-Woo Hyung, is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the Church controls everything. At the heart of the action is Priest (Paul Bettany), one of the last in an order of warrior monks who helped lead humans in a war against vampires. Although Priest is now living a civilian life – in fact the Church has forbidden him from hunting vampires – he leaves retirement when a desert sheriff named Hicks (Cam Gigandet) notifies him that his brother’s daughter, Lucy (Lily Collins), has been abducted by bloodsuckers. With Hicks in tow, Priest disobeys the Church and sets out to rescue the girl.

It’s nice to see a vampire story that brings the creatures back to their nasty, terrifying roots, but director Scott Stewart’s picture has flaws, the most notable being that if feels like an episode of a series rather than a self-contained work. To start with, the movie plops viewers down in the middle of its bleak setting with a 30-second voiceover explaining that humans and vampires have always been at war. It would have been nice to have visualizations for some of this backstory. Also bothersome is an abrupt close that will leave most viewers expecting more. In other words, Stewart has laid the groundwork for a sequel without first creating a film that demands one.

The Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D releases of “Priest” feature an unrated cut of the film, while the standard DVD release is limited to the PG-13 theatrical cut. All formats contain deleted and extended scenes, two making-of features and an audio commentary with several of the filmmakers, including Stewart and Bettany.

Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil

1½ stars
Rated PG for some mild rude humor, language and action
Anchor Bay
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D

The original “Hoodwinked!” was quirky, inventive and a darn good time. Its follow-up – the awkwardly titled “Hoodwinked Too!: Hood vs. Evil” – shares none of those traits.

Despite a considerably larger production budget and much of the same creative team, “Hoodwinked Too!” is just bad. The animated story, which is set in an alternative fairy tale world, begins with the Big Bad Wolf feeling jilted because Red Riding Hood left him behind in order to train with a group known as the Sisters of the Hood.

While she’s away, the Wolf, Red’s Granny and a handful of other characters are busy keeping the peace as part of a law enforcement group known as the Happily Ever After Agency. Then, Granny gets kidnapped, prompting Red to leave her training early and attempt a rescue.

The first “Hoodwinked!” was a pleasure because it took a satirical look at fairy tale characters while paying homage to the great Japanese film “Rashomon.” In other words it was brainy.

“Hoodwinked Too!” sacrifices all thoughtfulness for a structure that is essentially action-oriented. After Granny is kidnapped, Red, the Wolf and other characters from the first film spend most of the picture chasing after her … and nothing else.

The movie’s lone bright spot is its voice cast. Hayden Panettiere does a reasonable job replacing Anne Hathaway as the voice of Red, and Patrick Warburton is a hoot as the Wolf. We also hear from Glenn Close, Cheech Marin, Joan Cusack, Bill Hader and Amy Poehler. Collectively, they make the film better … just not good enough.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include storyboard sequences, production artwork, three music videos and a short on the voice cast.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“The Grace Card”: Faith-based movie about a police officer (Michael Joiner) who loses his son in an accident and becomes angry at the world. Michael Higgenbottom and Louis Gossett Jr. also star. Directed by David Evans.

“The Gruffalo”: Twenty-seven minute animated film based on the picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. The story centers on a mouse who meets several dangerous predators during a walk in the woods. The movie was nominated for best animated short film at the most recent Academy Awards ceremony, and it received the Best of the Fest honor from the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival.

“The Killing”: Director Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film noir about a daring racetrack robbery is receiving the deluxe treatment from the Criterion Collection. Making this release particularly special is the inclusion of Kubrick’s second feature film, 1955’s “Killer’s Kiss,” as a bonus feature.

“Cul-de-sac”: Criterion Collection release of director Roman Polanski’s 1966 thriller about an Englishman (Donald Pleasence) and his French wife (Francoise Dorleac) who are held captive by an American gangster (Lionel Stander). The video features a restored, high-definition digital transfer and several extras, including a documentary on the making of the film.

“Dexter” – The Complete Fifth Season: Showtime’s popular drama about a crime scene analyst who is also a serial killer is returning for a sixth season in October. That leaves fans a month and a half to dig into the 12 episodes on this boxed set.

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Video Verdict: ‘The Conspirator,’ ‘Jane Eyre,’ ‘Something Borrowed,’ ‘Priest,’ ‘Hoodwinked Too!’

  1. smilingldsgirl

    I enjoyed the new Jane Eyre also. It is not my favorite version but I thought chemistry was good between the leads and the gothic feel well done. The dialogue was also very crisply written. I had issues with a few of the cuts from the book and the staging of certain scenes but overall I liked it. (It is one of my favorite books so I’m inclined to be picky!).
    Like the most recent pride and prejudice I felt it could have been 20-30 minutes longer which would have allowed it to flesh out the characters more and include more of Jane’s backstory. The Lowood scenes were woefully abrupt. Still, I enjoyed it very much.

  2. smilingldsgirl

    The most recent BBC version is perfect. Sets the bar high.

  3. It’s not perfect, but I do think it’s one of the best films of the year so far. Also, I am not a rabid fan of the book, so I’m less inclined to be picky about cuts, etc. Thanks for posting. It’s great for people to get both perspectives.

  4. smilingldsgirl

    I agree. Despite its flaws, one of my favorite movies of the year. Favorite movies so far- Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, Midnight in Paris and the Help.

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