Video Verdict: ‘Up in the Air,’ ‘Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,’ ‘Capitalism,’ ‘Planet 51,’ ‘Old Dogs’

Gabourey Sidibi plays Claireece Precious Jones in the Oscar-nominated movie “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.”

Many titles are hitting home video this week, including two films that competed for multiple Oscars during Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony.

 

Up In the Air
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated R for language and some sexual content
Paramount
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Only rarely does a movie reach home video feeling as timely and relevant as this George Clooney drama about a man who fires people for a living.

As Ryan Bingham, Clooney travels the United States handling layoffs for bosses who are either too cowardly or disinterested to do it themselves. He is rewarded handsomely and is remarkably good at the job, often soothing the dispatched employees while explaining the nuts and bolts of their severance packages. Bingham is unusual in that he wants nothing more than to fly from here to there without developing long-term attachments to his home or other people. Despite his freewheeling lifestyle, he is quite charming, and he starts an on-again-off-again fling with another business traveler named Alex (Vera Farmiga). This works well for Ryan because he and Alex can meet up only when they happen to be in the same cities on business.

Ryan’s routine is shaken up, however, when his boss, Craig (Jason Bateman), tells him that a just-graduated wunderkind named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) has developed a way to streamline their business, leaving travel largely unnecessary. Dismayed, Ryan argues that this won’t work because Natalie has no idea what the business is like, so Craig sends them on the road together.

Co-written and directed by Jason Reitman, “Up in the Air” is both absorbing and thematically deep. The film considers everything from what it means to be connected to other human beings to what’s truly important in life, and it does this without sermonizing. The relatively small cast is outstanding, and even bit parts are handled by great performers. Look for J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliott and Danny McBride in key scenes.

“Up in the Air” was rightfully nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor for Clooney, best supporting actress for both Farmiga and Kendrick, and best director for Reitman.

Supplemental features include a storyboard video, deleted scenes and an audio commentary featuring Reitman with director of photography Eric Steelberg and first assistant director Jason Blumenfeld.

 

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
3 stars
Rated R for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language
Lionsgate
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” is one of the most critically acclaimed films of the last 12 months. It’s also one of the most depressing. An intimate examination of the life of an overweight 16-year-old named Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), the movie places viewers in an atmosphere that few will be motivated to return to. Claireece lives in a rundown Harlem apartment, has been repeatedly raped and impregnated by her father and is routinely abused –mentally and physically – by her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique).

Claireece deals with her traumatic life by escaping into a world of imagination where things are better. Sadly, the visions in her mind have little to do with reality, as Claireece’s problems escalate during the course of the movie. As noted by the title, “Precious” is based on the novel “Push,” and director Lee Daniels deserves credit for making a film that avoids Hollywood formulas. Sadly, that doesn’t make his work any easier to view. Although beautifully made, “Precious” is a desperately gloomy film that is, sadly, rooted in reality.

Despair and all, the movie was nominated for six Oscars, and it walked away with two of them: best supporting actress for Mo’Nique and best adapted screenplay for writer Geoffrey Fletcher.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include several making of featurettes, deleted scenes and an audio commentary by Daniels.

 

Capitalism: A Love Story
4 stars
Rated R for some language
Anchor Bay
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Director Michael Moore’s “Capitalism” didn’t make its way into this year’s Oscar race for best documentary, but it should have. An activist filmmaker, Moore often inspires controversy, but it’s hard to imagine many middle-class American arguing against the views he presents here. Rather than staying on one side of the political fence, Moore contends that Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs are being crushed by the oppressive hand of big business.

He looks at everything from the country’s ongoing real estate crisis to the massive government bailout of big business, and he does so with the good humor that is typical in his movies. But don’t get Michael Moore wrong. His films may make people laugh, but he’s dead serious about the subject matter, and you should be, too.

Among other things, “Capitalism” contains an expose on “dead peasant insurance,” specialized life insurance policies that allow corporations to profit when employees die. The movie also contrasts our current political and social state to the Golden Age of America, when Dr. Jonas Salk willingly gave the patent to his polio vaccine to the people.

“Capitalism” is a must see for anyone who is angry about the direction America is headed, and it’s suggested viewing for those who aren’t but should be.

Both the DVD and Blu-ray releases are loaded with bonus features that further explore some of the topics raised in the film.

 

Planet 51
2½ stars
Rated PG for mild sci-fi action and some suggestive humor
Sony
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Considering the heavy themes dominating most of this week’s releases, the animated “Planet 51” may be the perfect escape. The action is set on a distant world that bears many resemblances to 1950s Earth. Residents of the planet are little green men and women who, not unlike Earthlings six decades ago, are obsessed with the possibility of alien invasion.

Their fears are fueled when an American astronaut named Chuck lands on the planet expecting to find it unoccupied. Immediately, the government seizes his ship and paints him as a hostile alien invader, forcing him to go on the run. Fortunately for Chuck, a budding scientist named Lem realizes that he’s friendly and risks everything to help him get back to his ship.

The animation in “Planet 51” is first rate and the voice cast, which includes Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel, Justin Long, Seann William Scott and Gary Oldman, is solid. Although the setup is clever, writer Joe Stillman doesn’t exploit the story’s premise as well as he could. The movie is entertaining throughout and youngsters will likely have fun watching the aliens prance about, but “Planet 51” doesn’t have the depth or attention to detail found in the best animated features.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include extended scenes, a music video montage, animation progression reels and several shorts related to the film.

 

Old Dogs
1½ stars
Rated PG for some mild rude humor
Disney
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

John Travolta and Robin Williams may be huge stars, but their talents are wasted on this over-the-top comedy about aging men who must suddenly become fathers to two children. They play Charlie Reed (Travolta) and Dan Rayburn (Williams), partners in a successful sports marketing firm that’s on the verge of closing a huge account. Before that can happen, Dan learns that he unknowingly fathered twins with a woman named Vicki (Kelly Preston) years before. Wanting to be a good dad, he volunteers to watch the kids while she is serving jail time for a minor offense.

Because Dan has no idea how to relate to children, he calls on Charlie for help, and both men struggle mightily. The plotting includes misadventures built around the concept of old guys dealing with young kids, and the humor is primarily of the physical sort – think golf balls to the groin.

Although the film delivers a few good laughs, they’re spaced too far apart and the overall story is exceedingly dull. One can imagine Travolta and Williams making a good movie together, but this isn’t it.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes and bloopers, two music videos and an audio commentary by director Walt Becker, producer Andrew Panay and writers David Diamond and David Weissman.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Boondock Saints II – All Saints Day”: Writer-director Troy Duffy’s sequel to the 1999 cult favorite “Boondock Saints.” In this story, the McManus brothers (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) leave quiet lives in Ireland to seek revenge for the killing of a Catholic priest in Boston.

“The Stoning of Soraya M”: Story of a journalist (Jim Caviezel) who learns that an innocent Iranian woman is being set up for execution on untrue charges of infidelity.

“Celestial Navigations – The Short Films of Al Jarnow”: More than three dozen films by the artist, sculptor and filmmaker best known for creating shorts for educational TV shows, including “Sesame Street.”

“Scarecrow and Mrs. King – The Complete First Season”: This early 1980s crime dramedy stars Kate Jackson (“Charlie’s Angels”) as Amanda King, a single mom/secret agent, and Bruce Boxleitner (“Babylon 5”) as veteran agent Lee Stetson. All 21 first-season episodes are included in this five-disc set.

“Greek – Chapter Four”: ABC Family series about friendships and rivalries in the Greek system at Cyprus-Rhodes University. The 12 episodes on this set feature Jesse McCartney as a guest star who mixes things up on Greek Row.

“Hannah Montana – Miley Says Goodbye?”: Hannah must decide if she wants to live the jet set life in Malibu or head back to Tennessee. This “movie” is made up of both parts of the “Hannah Montana” season-three finale. Because part two of the finale won’t air on TV until March 14, DVD viewers get the first look.

“Walker Texas Ranger – The Seventh Season”: This popular Western police drama is centered on the adventures of lawman Cordell Walker (Chuck Norris), and it aired from 1993 to 2001. Fans get all 25 season-seven episodes on this five-disc set.

“Barbie in A Mermaid Tail”: Underwater adventure where Barbie stars as a surfer girl who discovers that she is a mermaid.

 

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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