This week’s home video releases include an offbeat adaptation of a popular children’s book and a big-budget disaster film from a man who knows the genre.
2½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
For most directors, the end of the world would be dramatic enough without wild car chases, death defying airplane rides and a sequence in which characters literally outrun an erupting supervolcano. But Roland Emmerich isn’t most directors. He’s the man who brought us “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Independence Day,” and he loves to make stuff go boom.
That’s why “2012” features a sequence where John Cusack, playing misunderstood Dad Jackson Curtis, races a car through Southern California streets as the ground literally crumbles behind him, threatening to engulf his vehicle with one wrong turn. It’s also why Cusack, in a later but remarkably similar sequence, is forced to jump a recreational vehicle over a widening ravine.
The idea of the picture is that the world is ending, as was supposedly predicted by the ancient Mayans. Forget that most Mayan scholars will tell you that’s hooey because you have to allow a movie its premise, and the premise behind “2012” is all-out destruction.
During the course of the film, viewers get to watch as Los Angeles is obliterated, Yellowstone National Park is splattered with lava and Las Vegas literally falls to pieces. Through all this, we’re supposed to root for the survival of Jackson; his two children (Liam James and Morgan Lily); his ex-wife, Kate (Amanda Peet); and her new lover, Gordon (Thomas McCarthy). That’s a lot easier when we forget about the fact that millions of other human beings are perishing at an astonishing rate, but hey it’s a movie.
Jackson finds himself at the center of the action when he’s tipped to the forthcoming carnage by a nutty-but-ultimately-wise radio show host (Woody Harrelson) who says the governments of the world are building arks designed to save our species. Trouble is, only a handful of citizens will be allowed on the vessels, and average folk aren’t on the guest list. That doesn’t stop Jackson from fighting for survival, and viewers get a front-row view to the seemingly endless series of near-death experiences he and his family endure.
“2012” also devotes plenty of time to sequences built around an earnest scientist named Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is doing his best to provide the U.S. president (Danny Glover) with a timeline for the disaster. When he’s not pontificating, Adrian likes to spend his time lecturing a ruthless administration official (Oliver Platt) on what it means to be human. It’s all pretty silly and cliché, but it’s also entertaining in the in-your-face manner that disaster films have. Cusack, Harrelson and company are charismatic enough to give the film a boost, and while “2012” may not be a great picture, it is a smashing good time. Emphasis on the smashing.
The movie is available as part of multiple home video releases, including a three-disc special edition that includes Blu-ray, DVD and digital copies. Extra features vary.
Where the Wild Things Are
Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
Writer-director Spike Jonze is known for his oddball approach to storytelling, and the eccentricities of his work are often endearing. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, many other directors delivering a movie as uniquely appealing as Jonze’s 1999 effort “Being John Malkovich.”
Alas, the director’s singular vision doesn’t work so well when applied to a children’s picture book. Not only is his take on “Where the Wild Things Are” drawn out, but the tone he’s created is more akin to a drug hallucination than a children’s fairy tale.
The film, based on the popular book by Maurice Sendak, is about a boy named Max (Max Records) who runs away from home, floats out to sea and meets up with a group of monstrous creatures. On the page this sounds pretty exciting, but Jonze’s take on the story is as creepy as it is wondrous and as sinister as scintillating. There’s little doubt that the director intended the film to be a rather adult meditation on childhood angst, but it’s so slow and offbeat that I suspect both adults and children could be left scratching their heads.
Jonze and his crew do deserve credit for the art direction, cinematography, set design and costuming. According to several reliable sources, the monsters were created, in part, using practical costuming, and computer-generated effects helped add detail. The result is magnificent. In fact, “Where the Wild Things Are” is a great-looking movie in all respects. Its problems lie not in presentation, but in Jonze’s and co-writer Dave Eggers’ decision to turn Sendak’s book into a wacky, adult fever dream. As with most of Jonze’s work, “Where the Wild Things Are” is unique, but different isn’t always good.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include a series of “Where the Wild Things Are” Webisodes by director and documentarian Lance Bangs.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“Ponyo”: The latest film from acclaimed Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki. The movie, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” tells the story of a young boy named Sosuke who strikes up a friendship with a magical goldfish called Ponyo. Although Ponyo longs to become human and stay with Sosuke, her father insists that she live in the water. The movie is presented in Miyaki’s typically lush animated style, and famed American animation director John Lasseter worked with an English-speaking cast to provide the voiceover. The voice actors include Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Chloris Leachman, Betty White, Lily Tomlin and Liam Neeson.
More films by Hayao Miyazaki: With “Ponyo” out this week, Walt Disney Studios decided to release two-DVD special editions of several earlier films by Miyazaki. Available are “Castle in the Sky” (1986), “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989).
“Cold Souls”: Paul Giamatti stars as an actor who, feeling that his soul is weighing him down, goes to a specialized doctor who removes it. When he decides he must have his soul back, the actor learns that it has been misplaced, forcing him to go “soul searching.” Written and directed by Sophie Barthes, the movie was a Grand Jury Prize nominee at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. David Strathairn and Emily Watson also star.
“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee”: Pippa Lee (Robin Wright) sees her existence start to unravel when she is forced to move to a retirement community with her husband (Alan Arkin) who is 30 years her senior. Restless in her new situation, Pippa confides in a young man named Chris (Keanu Reeves) and sparks fly. Winona Ryder, Maria Bello, Julianne Moore, and Blake Lively also star.
“We Live in Public”: Documentary film examining how the Internet and social networks, like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have transformed society and made our lives transparent. At the center of the project is Josh Harris, a leading Internet developer that director Ondi Timoner followed for more than a decade. The movie won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
“Alice in Wonderland” on home video: With Tim Burton’s new version of “Alice in Wonderland” hitting theaters March 5, numerous studios are releasing prior readings of the tale. Among them is a Universal release of director Norman Z. McLeod’s 1933 version featuring Charlotte Henry, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Richard Arlen and W.C. Fields. Vivendi Entertainment is getting in on the act by releasing the 1999 Emmy Award-winning TV-movie version starring Tina Majorino, Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Short, Gene Wilder and many other big names. Also, Lionsgate is releasing “Alice,” the 2009 reimagining of the story that ran as a miniseries on Syfy.
“Elvis”: DVD release of the 1979 TV movie starring Kurt Russell as Elvis Presley. The biopic covers everything from Elvis’ poor childhood and quick rise to fame to his comeback in Las Vegas. DVD extras include a featurette that includes archival interviews with Russell and director John Carpenter.
“Have Gun-Will Travel – The Fourth Season – Volume One”: This popular western TV series aired from 1957 to 1963. Richard Boone stars as Paladin, a debonair, gun slinging gentleman who resides at the Carlton Hotel in San Francisco. Though Paladin prefers to solve matters without drawing his weapon, he’s willing to do what it takes in the fight against evil.
“Matlock – The Fourth Season”: Courtroom drama starring Andy Griffith as Ben Matlock, a defense attorney whose Southern country charm hides his intelligent courtroom strategies. This six-disc set includes all 23 episodes from season four.
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