Video Verdict: ‘Skyfall,’ ‘Wreck-It Ralph,’ ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower,’ ‘The Sessions,’ ‘Robot & Frank’ and ‘Silent Hill: Revelation’

Daniel Craig;Javier BardemHollywood studios are releasing a host of home video titles this week, including an Oscar-nominated animated film and the 23rd entry in the James Bond movie franchise.

Skyfall

4 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking
MGM
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

When director Martin Campbell rebooted the James Bond franchise in 2006 with “Casino Royale,” fans were delighted. The series received a superior new Bond in actor Daniel Craig, and the plot was fresh and exciting. It seemed as though producers had come up with a reasonable plan to keep secret agent 007 alive for years to come.

Then, “Quantum of Solace” undid much of the magic. When that film moved into theaters in 2008, it was disappointing not only because of the so-so execution but because it seemed that the Daniel Craig era might burn out before really taking hold.

If time has proven anything, however, it’s that James Bond is resilient. The movie franchise celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012 with a massive Blu-ray boxed set and the theatrical release of “Skyfall,” a film that is arguably the best in series history. Directed by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Revolutionary Road”), “Skyfall” embraces Craig’s new reading of Bond while offering plenty of nods to the franchise’s iconic trappings. The movie has Bond girls, booze and a dangerous villain, but it also has a plot that is exciting and emotionally compelling.

Craig’s reading of Bond was great from day one, but he’s at his best when the character is allowed to show vulnerability. There are plenty of opportunities for this in “Skyfall” because the movie starts with an astonishing action sequence where Bond is seemingly betrayed by M (Judi Dench), the leader of MI6. Then, MI6 comes under direct attack, and the aging spy must decide whether to put the past behind and return to action. When he does, he finds himself pitted against an adversary (Javier Bardem) who seems to know the British secret service better than he does. Bardem makes an excellent villain, and the scenes where he and Craig face off are particularly strong.

Mendes takes every opportunity to pay homage to James Bond history by creatively incorporating everything from music and props to beloved characters, but “Skyfall” avoids falling into the nostalgia trap. Longtime fans will appreciate the references to earlier movies, but they are subtle enough that newcomers should let them slip by unnoticed. “Skyfall” would be a great espionage film even if James Bond weren’t involved. The fact that he is – and that he’s played by Daniel Craig – makes it a classic.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include an audio commentary by Mendes.

Wreck-It Ralph

3 stars
Rated PG for some rude humor and mild action/violence
Disney
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and digital download

Filmmakers produced such a standout crop of animated movies in 2012 that the Oscar race is shaping up to be one of the most exciting and unpredictable in years. Five movies are competing for best animated feature on Feb. 24, and most of them – including “Wreck It Ralph” – have landed major pre-Oscar honors.

Although “Ralph” lost the best animated feature Golden Globe to Pixar’s “Brave,” it took the top prize from the National Board of Review and the Broadcast Film Critics’ Association, and it’s still very much in contention for an Academy Award. Ultimately, awards don’t mean much to anyone but the filmmakers, but they are useful in underscoring the quality of a movie, and “Wreck it Ralph” is one of the most inventive animated efforts in recent memory.

The story is set in the land of video games and focuses on the fictitious title character (voiced by John C. Reilly). Despite being the star of a long-running game, Ralph is dissatisfied because he’s tired of being the bad guy. During the day, his job is to smash a tall building and destroy the contents. In the meantime, the hero of the day, Fix it Felix, makes repairs and earns medals. The work wouldn’t be so bad except that the other characters in the game treat Ralph like a pariah even once the arcade is closed.

In an effort to prove that he can do more than wreck things, Ralph leaves his game intent on earning a hero’s medal elsewhere, but he does so at great personal risk. Although a character can regenerate if killed within his or her own game, death in any other environment is fatal.

Co-writer and director Rich Moore makes countless references to real-life video games, particularly old-school gems like Pac-Man and Q*Bert, and that’s part of the fun. Parents may not be fully engaged in Ralph’s plight, but they’re sure to enjoy reminiscing about games they played as a child. Youngsters, in the meantime, should have a blast with the gorgeous computer-animated visuals.

“Wreck it Ralph” moves slower than some of this year’s other animated Oscar contenders, but it’s among the most original in terms of plotting and characterization. Because of that, it’s worth a look whether or not Oscar voters give it top honors.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include the animated theatrical short “Paperman.”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

3½ stars
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight – all involving teens
Summit Entertainment
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, on demand and pay-per-view

Few coming-of-age films are as thoughtful, poignant and carefully crafted as writer-director Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Adapting the movie from his own epistolary novel, Chbosky brings his characters to brilliant life, fully involving the audience in their emotional upheavals.

The primary focus is on Charlie (Logan Lerman), a withdrawn high school freshman who has no friends. That changes when he meets Sam (Emma Watson) and her step-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller), two seniors who are proud to call themselves outsiders. Sensing that Charlie needs companionship, they initiate the underclassman into their unique group, and the three become tight.

As the movie plays out, each of the major characters faces ups and downs related to relationships, bullying and other traditional high school struggles. There are also subplots related to less typical problems, including sexual abuse and teen suicide.

Perhaps because of his familiarity with and love for the material, Chbosky’s cinematic adaptation is remarkable. Too often, film adaptations of books leave well-drawn literary characters feeling like empty shells, but that’s never a problem here. Charlie, Sam and Patrick have oodles of depth, and the youthful-but-seasoned cast assures that the characters are easily relatable.

It would be easy to write “Wallflower” off as one more teen film in an ever-growing and overpopulated genre, but it would be a mistake. Like Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything,” this is a teen drama with staying power, and audiences should enjoy it for years to come.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and two audio commentaries.

The Sessions

3½ stars
Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

Actress Helen Hunt earned her second Oscar nomination for her supporting role in “The Sessions,” a movie based on real-life polio survivor Mark O’Brien’s quest to experience sex. Although the material is graphic, it isn’t particularly lurid because the movie is actually an argument that severely disabled people can lead rich and rewarding lives.

Hunt plays sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Green (Helen Hunt), a woman hired to help O’Brien (John Hawkes) lose his virginity and realize that he is capable of having an enjoyable sex life. Much of the movie’s press has focused on her frank and fearless portrayal (nudity included) of a sex professional, but Hawkes is also astounding in the lead role. Because polio left O’Brien confined to an iron lung for much of his life, most of Hawkes’ acting involves only his face and voice, yet his performance is one of the most memorable of 2012. Also strong is William H. Macy as Father Brendan, a kind priest who supports O’Brien’s decision to see Cohen-Green even though her work is strictly against church policy.

The story doesn’t lend itself to movement, yet director Ben Lewin (a polio survivor himself) manages to maintain a brisk pace. In fact, a scene where O’Brien’s iron lung temporarily shuts down is among the most suspenseful and terrifying you’ll find on film.

Obviously, “The Sessions” is not intended for children because of the graphic sexual nature of the material, but the film is recommended viewing for all adults. The acting is tremendous, Lewin’s direction is smart, and the story is one of hope, inspiration and enlightenment.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include several making-of featurettes.

Robot & Frank

2 ½ stars
Rated PG-13 for some language
Sony
Available on: DVD and on demand

Director Jake Schreier’s first feature film is a clever, if not entirely successful, project about an elderly man who develops an unexpected bond with a mechanical being.

The movie is set in the near future and focuses on Frank (Frank Langella), an aging jewel thief whose memory is rapidly fading. One day, his son, Hunter (James Marsden), arrives with a caretaker robot designed to assist with household chores and keep Frank as healthy as possible. At first, Frank is resistant, but when he learns that the robot has no moral code, he trains it in the art of thievery.

Schreier and writer Christopher Ford obviously want viewers to think about big ideas like the roles that memory and friendship play in our lives, and they present these issues in an appealing manner. It helps, too, that Langella – who commands most of the screen time – is a brilliant actor and that the robot is voiced by the likable Peter Saarsgard. Marsden is also solid, as are Liv Tyler and Susan Sarandon in small supporting parts.

As original and well-acted as “Robot & Frank” is, it suffers from a lethargic narrative that bogs down. Had Schreier given the project a little more pep, it would have been a delight. As is, the clever premise wears thin, leading to an amusing but dissatisfying experience.

DVD extras include a robot poster gallery and a commentary by Schreier and Ford.

Silent Hill: Revelation

½ star
Rated R for violence and disturbing images, some language and brief nudity
Universal
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, digital download and on demand

As a rule, video game movies are dull, lifeless affairs built around subpar plotting. Only rarely, however, are they as nonsensical and difficult to watch as “Silent Hill: Revelation.”

A sequel to the original “Silent Hill,” the movie focuses on a young woman (Adelaide Clemens) who – along with her father (Sean Bean) – has spent years hiding from a dangerous, supernatural cult. Although the two have taken many identities, they start the movie as Heather and Harry, a seemingly average pair trying to settle in a new town. It doesn’t take long, however, for the cult to catch up and land them both in Silent Hill, a largely abandoned community with a dark secret.

Although Heather doesn’t remember the events that occurred in the first “Silent Hill” movie, fans will understand that she is actually Sharon, the little girl at the heart of the story. Newcomers may be slower to pick this up, but they should at least get the fact that Heather is linked to the town of Silent Hill through some sort of otherworldly force. They should also have little trouble figuring out that Heather has the entirely unwelcome ability to suddenly materialize in frightening alternate realities populated by monsters. That, however, is about as much as anyone can be expected to comprehend.

How and why the dimension shifts occur is never adequately explained, but even if they were the movie would be a failure. Writer-director Michael J. Bassett does a nice job creating eerie visuals, and creepy monsters, but there isn’t a single sequence that’s particularly frightening.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“The Man With the Iron Fists”: Martial arts film starring RZA as a blacksmith who attempts to defend his village against an onslaught. RZA also co-wrote and directed the film, which features performances by Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Cung Le, Byron Mann, Rick Yune, David Bautista and Jamie Chung.

“Bully”: Documentary film that follows five bullied kids through a year of school. The well-regarded picture has received numerous honors, including a best documentary nomination for the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and best documentary awards from the Las Vegas Film Critics Society and Washington DC Area Film Critics Association. Directed by Lee Hirsch.

“The Kid With a Bike”: Belgian film about a 12-year-old boy (Thomas Doret) who is living in foster care but refuses to accept that his single father has abandoned him. Written and directed by brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Presented by the Criterion Collection in French with English subtitles.

“Weeds” – The Final Season: This dramedy about a widowed-mother-turned-drug-dealer (Mary-Louise Parker) had a remarkably successful run on Showtime, but it finally ended in September. Now, fans can relive the last 12 episodes on video.

“Gossip Girl” – The Complete Sixth and Final Season: Last 10 episodes of the CW drama about wealthy young people living in New York City. Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Penn Badgley, Chace Crawford and Ed Westwick star.

“Nurse Jackie” – Season Four: Ten most recent episodes of the Showtime drama about a drug-addled emergency room nurse (Edie Falco).

“Family Matters” – The Complete Third Season: This sitcom – featuring the classic character Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) – ran for nine seasons on network television. This release features 25 early episodes.

 

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit http://www.ForrestHartman.com. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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