Video Verdict: ‘Michael Jackson’s This Is It,’ ‘Surrogates,’ ‘Whip It,’ ‘Saw VI’

Ellen Page plays roller derby star Babe Ruthless in Drew Barrymore’s first feature as a director, “Whip It.”

This week’s home video releases include a Bruce Willis action flick, a new entry to the “Saw” franchise and Drew Barrymore’s first feature as a director, but it’s a documentary about late pop star Michael Jackson that leads the pack in terms of both quality and stature.

Michael Jackson’s This Is It
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG for some suggestive choreography and scary images
Columbia Pictures
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and UMD for PlayStation Portable

For years, Michael Jackson’s eccentric behavior and ever-changing looks garnered more attention than his music, so it’s nice to see a documentary that puts the spotlight back where it belongs. Jackson was one of his generation’s finest performers, a fact that holds true regardless of what one thinks of his personal life, and the concert rehearsal footage used to assemble “This Is It” proves he was still magnificent at 50 years old. In fact, it’s hard to believe the man moving with such precision and grace in “This Is It” was destined to die of heart failure.

People who want a documentary painting a complete portrait of Jackson, may be disappointed that the movie ignores his low points, including allegations that he sexually abused children, but “This Is It” is not meant as a definitive look at his life. Rather, it is a chronicle of the rehearsal process for his planned comeback shows in London, and from that perspective it’s fantastic.

The movie makes Jackson seem more human than he ever did in press interviews. Because of his often bizarre appearance, soft-spoken manner and unconventional ways, the Michael Jackson who gave interviews was hard to relate to. This movie, however, demonstrates just how knowledgeable he was about music and dance and how much he wanted to put on the best possible show. Some of the film’s best moments are his interactions with the musicians and dancers who would have backed him in the London performances. Jackson is painted as a man who knew exactly what he wanted out of his music but was gracious and kind in asking for it, a side of the celebrity that wasn’t regularly shown in the years leading up to his death.

While the movie offers wonderful insight into Jackson’s life and work, it should also please fans who are only in it for the music. A variety of the singer’s hits are represented, including “Smooth Criminal,” “Thriller,” “Jam,” “Beat It,” “I’ll Be There” and “Man in the Mirror.” Sadly, Jackson is merely breezing his way through many of the numbers because he was conserving his voice for the actual shows. Still, most of the performances are solid, making one wonder just how spectacular those London dates could have been.

DVD extras include several bits about Jackson’s planned comeback tour, a piece on his costumes, a look at dance auditions for the show and a “Memories of Michael” feature. The Blu-ray release includes all of these extras plus constantly updated BD Live content and several impressive video vignettes that Jackson and his creative staff shot for use in the London shows.

 

Surrogates
3 stars
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene
Touchstone
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Several months before James Cameron’s “Avatar” had the world wondering what it would be like to lay in a tube and inhabit another body, director Jonathan Mostow (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”) tackled similar themes in “Surrogates.” Mostow’s film imagines a world where the majority of humans live by jacking their brains into robots, or surrogates, that they send into the world for everything from work to sex.

The upside of this lifestyle is that mortality rates are extremely low because human beings do everything from the safety of their own homes, living even if their robot is damaged in a deadly accident. The significant downside is that human contact is minimal because everyone has a surrogate. Although there are groups of humans who have resisted the surrogate movement and live in robot-free zones, the majority of the populace has embraced the technology.

Viewers learn early that the system isn’t perfect. Using a never-before-seen device, a human criminal shoots two robots, destroying both them and their human operators. The result is the first homicide case FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) has come upon in years. So, he and his partner, agent Peters (Radha Mitchell), try to find the killer while also investigating how he was able to murder humans by attacking only their surrogates.

The movie has slow points, particularly when focused on an underdeveloped subplot about the death of Greer’s son and his deteriorating relationship with his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike). Science fiction fans should find these bits forgivable, however, because the movie’s murder mystery is considerably more intriguing than the plot presented in “Avatar.” Also, Mostow deserves a slap on the back for his representation of the surrogates and the way human beings use them to make themselves feel better and stronger than they actually are.

“Surrogates” has flaws, but it’s still an entertaining movie made all the better because Willis – a stalwart action star – is part of it.

Extra features include the “I Will Not Bow” music video by Breaking Benjamin and an audio commentary by Mostow.

 

Whip It
2½ stars
Rated PG-13 for sexual content including crude dialogue, language and drug material
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

With “Whip It,” actress Drew Barrymore takes her first stab at becoming a feature film director and the result shows promise. The movie, about a small-town Texas girl who dreams of becoming a roller derby star, feels choppy in places, but it’s still better than much of what passes for film these days.

Barrymore had plenty of help, much of it coming from actress Ellen Page, who abandoned her role as the sassy pregnant teen in “Juno” to play Bliss Cavendar, “Whip It’s” equally sassy lead. Bliss isn’t very worldly, but she knows she wants more out of life than competing in the beauty pageants that her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) has always pushed her into. So, she secretly attends a roller derby match, then decides to try out even though she’s not old enough. Although she is small and relatively fragile, the coach of an underdog team known as the Hurl Scouts is impressed by her speed.

In no time at all, Bliss has toughened up and is racing around roller derby tracks scoring points and winning fans under the nickname Babe Ruthless. The only problem is she has to hide the whole venture from her mother and father (Daniel Stern).

Barrymore tells her story in an upbeat, wistful manner, but the basic plot has been done to death, and that seriously hurts the project. Also damaging is the fact that several characters, including a skater played by Barrymore herself, are underdeveloped. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy “Whip It,” but it does mean Barrymore likely has better directorial efforts in front of her.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include an alternate opening and a handful of deleted and extended scenes.

 

Saw VI
2½ stars
DVD is available in both rated and unrated versions. The rated version received an R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture and language
Lionsgate
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

As “Saw” movies go, this sixth entry in the franchise is well-paced, intense and extremely gory. In other words, fans will probably like it just fine, thank you. Everyone else will have to think long and hard about what they want out of a movie.

All of the “Saw” films involve characters being placed into a complex series of traps where they are asked to make unthinkable life-and-death decisions and often mutilate their own bodies in order to live. In other words, the films are built around approximately 60 minutes of gory torture sequences tied together by bits where law enforcement officers try to figure out what the heck is going on.

Because the original “Saw” killer, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), died long ago, the murders in “Saw VI” are left to his successor, detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). Fans of the series will want to catch this latest edition because it furthers the “Saw” mythology, and Jigsaw is frequently shown in flashback.

While the “Saw” movies serve a purpose in the slasher genre, I’ve always had a problem with them from a moral standpoint, primarily because the directors tend to paint Jigsaw and his helpers as vigilantes, targeting people who “deserve it.” This, of course, makes the rather perilous argument that someone can actually be deserving of hideous, prolonged torture. It also fails to take into account that many presumably innocent people are killed while Jigsaw and Hoffman play games with their “deserving” victims.

Truth is, the killers in “Saw” movies are madmen without any actual sense of right and wrong, and individual viewers must decide if they can make peace with the fact that they are being glorified.

“Saw VI” is available as part of multiple home video releases, including DVD and Blu-ray editions featuring an unrated cut approved by director Kevin Greutert. Extra features vary, but each release is being sold as a two-disc set that also includes the original “Saw.”

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Bright Star”: Independent drama that considers a short-lived-but-passionate romance between poet John Keats (Ben Wishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). The film was written and directed by Jane Campion (“The Piano”).

“Tennessee”: Two brothers, Carter and Ellis, are searching for their estranged father in hopes that he can save one of them who has been diagnosed with leukemia. Along the way, they meet a troubled woman named Krystal (Mariah Carey) and the three confront their pasts as they look to the future. Also starring Adam Rothenberg (“Mad Money”) and Ethan Peck (TV’s “10 Things I Hate About You”).

“The Boys Are Back”: Forced into being a single parent by his wife’s sudden death, Joe Warr (Clive Owen) has to learn how to raise his precocious six year-old and rebellious teen. Life is interesting for the three while Joe figures out how to balance work with running a household on his own.

“Paris, Texas”: This 1984 drama by director Wim Wenders focuses on a man named Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) who has lost all memory of who he was. When his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), finds him, he tries to reunite Travis with the life he used to have. The well-loved feature is being released as a Criterion Collection special edition.

“Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy”: The three films included in this Criterion Collection set are “Rome Open City,” “Paisan” and “Germany Year Zero”. The films were made by Rosellini, one of Italy’s best-known directors, during and after World War II.

“Pawn Stars” — Season One: This TV series provides an inside look at a Las Vegas pawn shop business, and the two-DVD release includes all 14 episodes from the debut season.

“WWII In HD”: Documentary of World War II told through first-hand accounts from 12 Americans. The set is particularly noteworthy because of its stunning archival footage, and it is available in both DVD and Blu ray formats.

“The Waltons” — The Movie Collection: A selection of TV movies spawned by the 1970s hit TV show. The three-disc set includes “A Wedding on Walton’s Mountain,” “Mother’s Day on Walton’s Mountain” and “A Walton Easter.”

“You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown”: Mini animated musical where Snoopy and the gang pay tribute to their lovable “blockhead” friend Charlie Brown. The film is made up of a collection of skits mixed with Clark Gesner’s Broadway show tunes.

 

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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