Video Verdict: ‘Funny People,’ ‘Angels & Demons,’ ‘Four Christmases,’ ‘Shorts’

Tom Hanks, left, plays symbologist Robert Langdon and Ayelet Zurer portrays physicist Vittoria Vetra in the thriller “Angels & Demons.”

This week’s DVD releases cover a lot of territory. They include a family film from the director of “Spy Kids,” a holiday comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, an Adam Sandler feature helmed by writer-director Judd Apatow and a big-budget thriller starring Tom Hanks.

Funny People
3 stars
DVD contains rated and unrated versions of the film. The rated version received an R for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality
Universal
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

There are enough funny people in writer-director Judd Apatow’s appropriately titled relationship dramedy to keep things interesting through the movie’s 155-minute run, but the filmmaker is awfully lucky he assembled the cast that he did.

Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, a wildly popular actor-comedian who seems to have it all: Hit movies, a palatial Southern California home and the adoration of fans everywhere. But when Simmons learns he’s contracted a deadly disease that could very well end his life, he begins to question his place in the world, and he latches onto a fledgling comedian named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) for support. Although funny, Ira is yet to perfect his standup routines, so he’s ecstatic when the veteran Simmons agrees to hire him as a personal assistant, and the two men quickly form an awkward but genuine friendship.

Apatow sets up the premise with style, and its interesting to watch Simmons, who is jaded and miserable, interact with George, who is still full of hope and excitement. Unfortunately, the movie takes a negative turn when Apatow leads us into a subplot built around the one big love (Leslie Mann) that George let slip away. Because Sandler and Rogen are a lot of fun to watch, and because they get good supporting performances from Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman, we can forgive Apatow for straying. Still, there’s little doubt that “Funny People” would have been funnier if it skipped the romantic stuff and put all its energy into George’s bout with mortality and his relationship with Ira.

The movie is available as part of multiple home video releases, including a two-disc Unrated Collector’s Edition. Extra features vary.

 

 

Angels & Demons: Extended Edition
2½ stars (out of four)
Unrated
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

You have to give director Ron Howard credit for consistency. His adaptation of writer Dan Brown’s “Angels & Demons” shares precisely the same pace and tone as his earlier take on Brown’s bestseller “The DaVinci Code.” Trouble is, “The Da Vinci Code” movie is merely a workmanlike thriller, while the book was a breathtaking piece of genre fiction.

“Angels & Demons” is arguably a weaker novel, but I had higher expectations for the film because the plot is more cinematic. While “The Da Vinci Code” spent a lot of time focused on ancient codes and ciphers, “Angels” is a fast-paced footrace through the streets of Rome. As in “Da Vinci,” Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is at the center of the action.

Langdon is called upon by the Vatican when it appears that a secret society known as the Illuminati has surfaced and placed a devastatingly powerful bomb at the heart of Vatican City. Equally horrifying is a message claiming that four cardinals — the most likely successors to the just-deceased pope — have been kidnapped and will be publicly executed. The perpetrators have left hints as to when and where they will commit their nasty deeds, but they are steeped in historic riddles that only Langdon has the ability to decipher.

Intent on stopping the murders, he embarks on a desperate race to solve the riddles and beat the Illuminati at its sick game. He’s aided by the Vatican police, Swiss Guard and a beautiful physicist named Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer).  Also helping is Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor) who — because of the pope’s death — is temporarily the lead authority at the Vatican.

Howard does a good job recreating the events depicted in the book, and Hanks captures the Robert Langdon spirit perfectly, all of which leaves us with a decent movie. Decent, but not great. What the film lacks is the breathlessness one feels while reading the novel. Yes, there are exciting moments on screen, but they are frequently countered by extended dialogue sequences that relieve much of the tension. Part of the trouble is that Brown’s plotting is complicated and cerebral, and it’s tough to condense that type of storytelling into a two-and-a-half hour movie. It can be done, but it takes an extraordinary effort, and everything about this film is painfully ordinary.

DVD extras include more than a half dozen making-of features, focused on everything from the adaptation of the novel to the film’s elaborate props.

 

 

Four Christmases
2½ stars
Rated PG-13 for some sexual humor and language
New Line Cinema
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

With most DVD releases hitting stores less than six months after a film was released into theaters, it feels odd to get “Four Christmases” a full year after its theatrical run. But, clearly, New Line Cinema decided the video would attract more attention during the holiday season. The studio is probably right because, as a comedy, “Four Christmases” is slight, but there aren’t many holiday films to choose from, and it’s always nice to have something new to throw in alongside “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas.” 

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon star as Brad and Kate, a modern power couple that have never married and spend their holidays trying to dodge their fractured relations. Things go awry, however, when bad weather stops their planned flight to Fiji and a television news crew interviews them about the bad break. Suddenly, their parents — all divorced — are aware that they’re available for the holiday, forcing them to accept invitations to four separate Christmas celebrations … one with Brad’s crotchety father (Rober Duvall), one with Kate’s newly spiritual mother (Mary Steenburgen), one with Brad’s anything-goes mom (Sissy Spacek) and one with Kate’s surprisingly normal dad (Jon Voight).

Like “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” the film considers the stress of family gatherings, but never in a mean-spirited or distressing way, and Vaughn and Witherspoon are typically charming. “Four Christmases” is a generic comedy in every sense, but it has enough funny moments to make it viable for anyone who enjoys Vaughn and Witherspoon. The film will never replace “Miracle on 34th Street,” but it does go down awfully well with a nice glass of egg nog. 

The DVD has no extra features. 

 

Shorts
2½ stars
Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

In one of the more bizarre careers in film history, do-it-all filmmaker Robert Rodriguez regularly shifts between, ultra-violent action movies — “Planet Terror,” “Sin City,” “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” — and family friendly material — “Spy Kids,” “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl.” “Shorts” falls into the latter category, telling the story of several children who discover a mysterious charm called a Wishing Rock. The kids soon learn that any wish made with the rock in hand will come true, leading to wild adventures with space aliens, upright crocodiles and even a booger monster.

All the craziness is set against the backdrop of the ultra-corporate world they call home. You see, the children’s parents work for a gigantic corporation run by a nasty CEO named Mr. Black (James Spader). Predictably, his kids, Helvetica (Jolie Vanier) and Cole (Devon Gearhart), are the town bullies.

Rodriguez chose to tell his story through a series of short films that are replayed out of order, leaving viewers to piece things together a little at a time. The most important player is Toby “Toe” Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), the narrator of the each piece.

“Shorts” is wild, wacky and childlike enough to appeal to most elementary school-age children. It is not, however, as carefully crafted as today’s better family films. Rodriguez’s plotting is so over-the-top, it seems he was focused solely on letting his inner child loose, forgetting that a great family picture also includes something for parents.

Along with the movie, the DVD includes one of Rodriguez’s “Ten Minute Film School” extras, this one focused on the making of “Shorts.” Also included is a “Ten Minute Cooking School” episode devoted to the making of Chocolate Chip Volcano Cookies.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“2009 World Series Film — Philadelphia Phillies Vs. New York Yankees”: A detailed account of the season that led the Yankees to their 40th American League pennant and 27th World Series title. Available on DVD Nov. 24 and coming to Blu-ray Dec.15.

“The Witches Hammer”: Horror story about a woman named Rebecca (Claudia Coulter) who is brought back from the brink of death and turned into a vampire by a secret agency. Then, she is used as a weapon against her own kind. 

“Gomorrah”: Award-winning Italian drama based on undercover Italian reporter Roberto Saviano’s expose on Naples’ mafia underworld. The film is being released as part of the Criterion Collection, and it’s presented in Italian, Mandarin and French with English subtitles.

“Golden Age of Television”: This three-Disc set features kinescopes of the live broadcasts of “Marty” (1953), “Patterns” (1955), “No Time for Sergeants” (1955), “A Wind from the South” (1955), “Bang the Drum Slowly” (1956), “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1956), “The Comedian” (1957), and “Days of Wine and Roses” (1958).  These shows were a combination of theater, radio and filmmaking when TV technology was growing rapidly. The set also features interviews with a number of acting legends, including Andy Griffith, Piper Laurie, Jack Palance, Mickey Rooney, Rod Steiger and Mel Torme.

“Megafault”: Syfy Channel thriller about a massive earthquake that creates a crack in the Earth’s crust and threatens to tear the world in half.  Stars Eriq LaSalle (“ER,” “Without a Trace”), Brittany Murphy (“Sin City,” “8 Mile“), Justin Hartley (“Smallville”) and Bruce Davison (“X-Men,” “Knight Rider”)

“Evergreen”: Coming-of-age film about Henrietta (Addie Land), a 14-year-old who believes she’s missing out on life. Desperate to change her family situation, she inserts herself into the lives of wealthy Chat Turly (Noah Fleiss) and his mother Susan (Mary Kay Place), only to find that she may have it OK after all.

“Toi & Moi (You & Me)”: French romantic comedy about Ariane (Julie Depardieu), a writer who pens stories for a magazine inspired by her sister Lena’s (Marion Cotillard) love life.  Both women are in relationships with commitment-phobic men, and they fantasize about finding Mr. Right. Presented in French with English subtitles.

“Beverly Hills 90210” — The Eighth Season: Life after graduating high school is no cake walk for Brandon (Jason Preistley), Kelly (Jenny Garth), Donna (Tori Spelling), David (Brian Austin Greene) and the rest of the original “90210” gang. During season eight, they explore issues such as Kelly being victimized by a drive-by shooting, Donna’s drug overdose, and Brandon and Kelly’s wedding plans.

“Melrose Place” — Fifth Season Volume 2: This season had a huge shift in cast members, as the final 13 episodes introduced Rob Estes, Lisa Rinna and Alyssa Milano. Also, Grant Show, Marcia Cross and Laura Leighton left the show.

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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6 Comments

Filed under Video Verdict

6 responses to “Video Verdict: ‘Funny People,’ ‘Angels & Demons,’ ‘Four Christmases,’ ‘Shorts’

  1. smilingldsgirl

    I think you are too kind on four Christmases. I thought it was terrible. I can think of 2 moments that made me laugh. Every other joke fell flat. Plus, I didn’t think there was any chemistry. You think with 5 Oscar winners they could come up with better jokes.
    I think romantic comedy writers need to sit down and watch Hist Girl Friday, Shop Around the Corner, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mr. Deed’s Comes to Town, Roman Holiday, and Bringing Up Baby and see how romantic comedies should be made. It’s a good genre but boy have there been a lot of turkeys lately- like 4 christmases.

    Like

  2. Hi:

    Thanks so much for the response. I had a decent time with “Four Christmases,” probably because (as noted) I really like the two leads. So, I guess I was predisposed to like it.

    That said, it is certainly nothing like “Roman Holiday” or any of the other great romantic comedies you mentioned. If only we could get back to those days. The one recent film that reminds me a little bit of them is “Leatherheads.” It won’t be a classic, like the movies you mentioned, but it is an obvious tribute to the genre. The dialogue, acting styles and everything else are clearly designed to recall an earlier era of filmmaking. You might check it out if you haven’t seen it yet.

    Also, I failed to reply to one of your earlier posts about “Up.” I think you asked if it might get nominated for a best picture Oscar. I think, with 10 nominations for best picture this year, it will be a travesty if “Up” isn’t in the mix. This hasn’t been a great year for film, but “Up” is just delightful.

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  3. Yeah, I wasn’t a huge fan of “Four Christmases.” It started out with potential, but then the writing got a little careless. If they’d stretched a little bit more, it would have been laugh-out-loud funny, as well as touching.

    By the way, what was up with the totally unnecessary Carol Kane cameo? When I first saw her, I was thinking, Cool, she’ll probably do something hilarious. But she didn’t. I’m not sure she even spoke.

    Like

  4. Good points Allen. I’m not sure what was up with the Carol Kane bit. She’s uncredited in the film.

    Maybe she saw the cast list and thought it would be fun to be part of it. If I was an actor, I’d want to work with the folks they assembled for this film. It’s just too bad they didn’t do more with it. As smilingldsgirl said, “You think with 5 Oscar winners they could come up with better jokes.”

    🙂

    Like

  5. You have an cool site!

    Like

  6. Thanks for the kind words, ER Episodes!

    Like

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