Video Verdict: ‘Avatar,’ ‘Lovely Bones,’ ‘Crazy Heart,’ ‘The Young Victoria’

Writer-director James Cameron’s science-fiction film “Avatar” is the highest-grossing movie of all time, and his blue-skinned Na’vi protagonists are one of the reasons behind its success.

Each of the four major films coming out on home video this week was in competition at the 82nd Academy Awards, and all but one of them – “The Lovely Bones” – left the ceremony with at least one Oscar.

 

Avatar
3 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Writer-director James Cameron already had the top-grossing movie of all time – “Titanic” – when he rolled “Avatar” into theaters. Now, he has the two highest-grossing films in history, as “Avatar” not only out-earned his disaster epic, it was nominated for nine Oscars and won three: art direction, visual effects and cinematography.

That “Avatar’s” wins came only in technical categories is no fluke. As entertaining as the science fiction epic is, the screenplay has flaws, including the fact that most of the characters have less depth than the lyrics of a Paris Hilton song.

The movie is set on a distant world knows as Pandora, a place important to humans because it’s the source of a valuable mineral known as unobtainium (clever, huh?). The head of a human corporation, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), is intent on harvesting massive deposits that lay directly below the home of the Na’vi, a humanoid species that calls Pandora home. Naturally, the Na’vi aren’t up for this.

Selfridge and his head of security, Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), are shoot-first-negotiate-later guys, but they have agreed to let a group of scientists study the Na’vi by mentally linking to avatar bodies that give them the same appearance and physical abilities as the aliens. When the avatar-driving brother of a paraplegic soldier named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) dies, Jake becomes the only genetic match for his avatar. So, he’s offered the opportunity to take over where his brother left off and get to know the Na’vi. Not only that but Quaritch promises Jake a surgery that will fix his legs … if he provides valuable intelligence on the aliens. Jake agrees, but falls in love with a Na’vi woman and, well, you get the idea.

Essentially, “Avatar” is a prototypical David Vs. Goliath story in which nature-loving natives are threatened by an evil corporate machine. Although Cameron is a fantastic director, he’s an average writer, and that’s obvious in his cliché-laden plot. Fortunately, he is so good with special effects and pacing that he’s able to overcome most of the shortcomings in his story.

Cliché or not, “Avatar” is a lot of fun, in part because it’s one of the most technically impressive movies ever made. The rendering of Pandora is gorgeous, and the movie’s action sequences are flat-out breathtaking. No wonder it made so much money in theaters.

The DVD and Blu-ray releases of “Avatar” come with no special features, so folks who like extras may want to wait before making a purchase. Twentieth Century Fox says it will release an “ultimate edition” of the film, with bonus material, in November.

 

The Lovely Bones
3½ stars
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language
Paramount
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

After gaining worldwide fame for helming the three “Lord of the Rings” pictures and the 2005 “King Kong” remake, Peter Jackson became synonymous with big, bombastic entertainment. It may seem odd, then, to watch him tackle the intimate story of a 14-year-old girl who is murdered yet continues to watch her family from the afterlife. Still, Jackson succeeds.

Based on the novel by Alice Sebold, the film introduces viewers to Susie Salmon (portrayed wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan), a luminous teen who makes the mistake of trusting her unhinged neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci in an Oscar-nominated role). She ends up dead, but not gone, as she slips into an after-death state known as the “In-Between.” From there, Susie watches as her father (Mark Wahlberg) obsessively investigates her murder, her mother (Rachel Weisz) comes apart at the seems, her sister (Rose McIver) tries to move on with life and her hard-drinking grandmother (Susan Sarandon) does her best to keep the family together.

Although the plotting of “Lovely Bones” isn’t as fanciful as that in “Lord of the Rings,” Jackson taps into his special effects expertise when presenting the In-Between, an astonishingly portrayed afterlife that gives the story power. Still, the real stars of this show are the actors. Everyone in the cast is outstanding and Jackson drew the most out of them, proving he’s a great director no matter what genre and scale he’s working with.

DVD extras are limited to trailers for other films, but the Blu-ray release includes an introduction by Jackson and a making-of feature.

 

Crazy Heart
3½ stars
Rated R for language and brief sexuality
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Jeff Bridges won a deserved best actor Oscar for his portrayal of fictional country music star Bad Blake in this drama from writer-director Scott Cooper. Bridges not only seems at home strumming a guitar on stage, he has an excellent voice for old-style country tunes. What’s more, his character spends much of the movie stumbling drunk, so it’s one heckuva performance.

Bridges isn’t the only one who deserves a pat on the back, though. Cooper did a nice job adapting the screenplay from Thomas Cobb’s novel, leaving his star with great material to draw on.

Like 2008’s “The Wrestler,” the film is the story of a broken star who has outlived his legend. Bad is squeaking by playing dive bars and bowling alleys, and he spends most of his down time with a bottle of booze. Adding insult to this hardscrabble existence is the fact that one of his protégés (Colin Farrell) is the toast of country music.

“Crazy Heart” seems like your typical man-in-decline story until Cooper takes a massive u-turn. Bad agrees to an interview with a young, music-loving journalist named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and, not surprisingly, becomes infatuated by her. Oddly enough, she shares his interest, and the two start a relationship that might just give Bad something to live for.

Although this is Bridges’ show, Gyllenhaal is a great foil, and she earned a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her work. In fact, the entire “Crazy Heart” cast is strong. Farrell, an Irishman, is surprisingly believable as an American country singer, and the always-great Robert Duvall provides supporting work as one of Bad’s long-time pals.

We’ve seen a lot of music movies over the years, but only the best have been this authentic and engaging.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a collection of deleted scenes and alternate music cuts.

 

The Young Victoria
3 stars
Rated PG for some mild sensuality, a scene of violence and brief incidental language and smoking
Sony
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

This biographical tale about the early days of England’s longest-serving monarch, Queen Victoria, earned Oscar nominations for art direction, makeup and costume design. It won the costuming prize, but it’s not just the lush look of the film that deserves praise.

Emily Blunt is delightful as Victoria, a member of the British royal family who was asked to mature before her time. She was only a teen and still unmarried when she took the throne and, according to the movie, was a victim of much political maneuvering. On screen, even her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), works to usurp her power. Much of the film’s runtime also considers Victoria’s courtship with her eventual husband, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), and her friendship with British politician Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany).

Since the movie contains fictionalized moments and condenses years into just 105 minutes, it is hardly an authoritative look at Victoria’s early days. It is, however, sprightly entertainment anchored by strong performances and a beautiful representation of historical England.

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

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Naked Ambition – An R Rated Look at an X Rated Industry”: Porn industry documentary inspired by the work of photographer Michael Grecco. The film considers the inner workings of the adult video business and gives insight into the lives of several of its actors. Jenna Jameson, Jesse Jane, Ron Jeremy, Sunny Lane and industry activist Larry Flynt are featured.

French dramas from the Criterion Collection: Criterion always churns out terrific home video treatments, and this week it’s delivering the French movies “Summer Hours” (2008) and “Vivre Sa Vie” (1962). “Summer” stars Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche and Jeremie Renier and focuses on three siblings who are deciding how to divvy up their mother’s estate. “Vivre Sa Vie” is a Jean-Luc Godard picture about an aspiring actress’ decent into prostitution. Both films are in French with English subtitles.

“Mammoth”: Story of a successful Manhattan couple (Gael Garcia Bernal and Michelle Williams) who are so caught up in their professional lives that the rearing of their 8-year-old daughter is left mainly to their Filipino nanny. Written and directed by Lukas Moodysson.

“Falcon Crest – The Complete First Season”: This 1980s nighttime soap is set at a winery in Northern California. Jane Wyman stars as Angela Channing, a scheming, power hungry matriarch who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Robert Foxworth, Lorenzo Lamas, Billy R. Moses and Jamie Rose also star.

“Peacock”: Psychological thriller about a derailed train that upsets the life of a bank teller (Cillian Murphy) with a deep secret. Susan Sarandon, Ellen Page, Keith Carradine, Josh Lucas, and Bill Pullman also star.

“Uncertainty”: A young couple, unsure how to proceed with their relationship and surprise pregnancy, have their lives changed by a coin toss on the Brooklyn Bridge. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lynn Collins and Olivia Thirlby star.

“Wake”: Offbeat romantic comedy about a woman (Bijou Philips) who finds comfort in attending the funerals of strangers and, through a series of mixups, falls in love with a grieving fiancé (Ian Somerhalder). Jane Seymour and Danny Masterson also star.

 

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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