This week’s home video releases include a new Jackie Chan comedy plus two smart dramas that were nominated for top honors at the most recent Academy Awards ceremony.
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
Clint Eastwood turns 80 this month, yet he continues to make some of the finest movies to grace American theaters. Perhaps his greatest feat is his ability to explore multiple story types – thrillers, westerns, war films – with the same, first-rate artistry. For “Invictus,” he returns to the sports drama, a genre he had success with in “Million Dollar Baby.”
Eastwood, known as much for acting as directing, often opts for dual roles in movies, but with “Invictus” he stayed behind the camera, allowing stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon to carry the day. The film is set in South Africa during the early part of Nelson Mandela’s run as president, and it focuses on Mandela’s attempts to unite his nation through a symbolic support of rugby. It was a bold move, as many black South Africans hated the national rugby team, the Springboks, because it was seen as a symbol of apartheid.
In the movie, Mandela (Morgan Freeman) defies the advice of advisors and promotes the Springboks, encouraging the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to win the Rugby World Cup for South Africa. Throughout the film, Eastwood cuts between Mandela’s political exploits and Pienaar’s efforts to make the team competitive, demonstrating that both men – one white and one black – were working toward a common goal.
Freeman is outstanding as Mandela and Damon – who appropriates a spot-on South African accent – turns in one of the finest performances of his career. Accordingly, both men received Oscar nominations for their work, Freeman for best actor and Damon for best supporting actor.
Because “Invictus” focuses almost entirely on Mandela’s push to bring a world cup title to South Africa, it paints a limited picture of his efforts to unite his nation. That makes it simplistic as a history lesson, but I don’t think Eastwood was attempting the definitive Mandela biography. Rather he was looking to demonstrate the spirit of the man while also capturing a dramatic and fascinating moment in time. From that standpoint, he succeeds mightily.
Extra features for the DVD-only release are limited to an “Invictus” music trailer and a six-minute film about Damon’s rugby training. The Blu-ray release, which is packaged in a combo pack with a standard DVD, includes those features, plus three lengthy pieces about the making of the film. One is a 100-minute picture-in-picture bit where Eastwood explains what drew him to the story and how he brought it to the screen.
Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
There are a lot of lousy jobs in the world, but it’s hard to imagine one more depressing than working as a U.S. Army Casualty Notification Officer. In “The Messenger,” Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) discovers just how miserable the duty is when he is assigned to tell next of kin that their loved ones have died in action. Because the young officer is new to the job, he is assigned to work with Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a long-time veteran who does everything by the book.
It is both gripping and painful to watch as Will and Tony go about their duty, delivering the worst possible news to heartbroken parents and spouses. Some respond to the men with kindness or attempt to hide their grief, others break down or attack them. For Will, the mission is particularly difficult because he is still recovering from a harrowing tour of duty in Iraq where he was injured in combat, and when he breaks protocol by starting a friendship with the widow of a fallen soldier (Samantha Morton), it creates tension between him and Tony.
“The Messenger” was nominated for two Academy Awards – one for the screenplay by director Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon and one for Harrelson as best supporting actor. Harrelson’s Oscar nominated performance is strong, but he’s not the only actor who deserves kudos. Foster’s outing is equally powerful, and both men do an excellent job reminding us that military personnel have been trained to present a hardened faced to the world even when they’re struggling to keep themselves together.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include a filmmakers’ Q&A, a documentary about Army Casualty Notification Officers and an audio commentary featuring Moverman, Foster, Harrelson and producer Lawrence Inglee.
Rated PG-13 for sexual material and brief partial nudity
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
With “Valentine’s Day,” longtime director Gary Marshall (“Pretty Woman,” “The Princess Diaries”) must have tapped all his Hollywood resources because he’s produced a film boasting more legitimate stars than any in recent memory.
As the title suggests, the story is set on Valentine’s Day, and it follows a number of people through their relationship ups, downs, and loop the loops. Among the many characters are flower shop owner Reed Bennett (Ashton Kutcher), U.S. Army Capt. Kate Hazeltine (Julia Roberts), heart surgeon Harrison Copeland (Patrick Dempsey), sportscaster Kelvin Moore (Jamie Foxx), schoolteacher Julia Fitzpatrick (Jennifer Garner) and a phone sex operator named Liz (Anne Hathaway). Even more amazing than that list of players, is the fact that I could ramble off 10 more names that most everyone would recognize.
Clearly, “Valentine’s Day” is banking on star power because there’s so much going on story-wise, that none of the characters get particularly meaningful arcs. Much credit goes to writers Katherine Fugate, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein for at least bringing each mini-story to a satisfying conclusion (no small feat with only two hours to work with). Sadly, the movie bogs down in sections even though it’s cramming so much material in.
It would have helped if Marshall had been willing to drop one or two stories in order to better invest viewers in the others. Still, Valentine’s Day (the holiday) is about glamour, romance and fun, and this cast proves you can still find all those things at the movies.
DVD extras are limited to deleted scenes and a trailer for “Sex and the City 2.” The Blu-ray release includes those features plus a gag reel, a bit where the stars share their Valentine’s Day stories, a music video from Jewel, and an audio commentary by Marshall.
The Spy Next Door
Rated PG for sequences of action violence and some mild rude humor
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
“The Spy Next Door” is a straightforward family film that, like countless pictures before it, takes a guy who doesn’t know much about child rearing and makes him the primary caregiver to a houseful of kids.
In this incarnation of the story, it’s a seemingly mild mannered man named Bob Ho (Jackie Chan) who gets to play Mr. Mom. Bob is head over heels in love with his next door neighbor Gillian (Amber Valletta), but her kids don’t like him. So, when she has to leave town for a family emergency, Bob volunteers for babysitting duty. Trouble is, Bob is really an international spy, and he is targeted by a group of Russian thugs after one of the kids accidentally downloads sensitive data.
This setup allows Chan to engage in some fast-paced but family friendly martial arts action, and that’s when the movie is at its best. Even in predictable movies, its fun to watch Chan’s elaborately staged fights, and “The Spy Next Door” is pleasant enough if all you’re looking for is mindless entertainment.
The adult cast is rounded out by George Lopez and Billy Ray Cyrus, who are OK in supporting roles and all of the kids (played by Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley and Alina Foley) are cute. Just don’t expect much from the plotting because “The Spy Next Door” is as predictable as fast cars in a James Bond movie.
The film is available on standard DVD and as part of a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Extra features on the latter include a blooper reel and two making-of features.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“Extraordinary Measures”: The story of two parents (Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell) who form a biotechnology company in hopes of saving their children from a rare disease. Harrison Ford plays Dr. Robert Stonehill, the researcher who might be able to make it happen. Directed by Tom Vaughan.
“Walkabout”: Criterion Collection release of the 1971 coming-of-age story of two siblings stranded in the Australian outback by their father. While navigating the desert and trying to escape the harsh conditions, the children happen upon an aborigine boy on his “walkabout,” a traditional spiritual journey. Together, the three form a special bond of friendship. Directed by Nicolas Roeg.
Louis L‘Amour Western Collection: Four-disc set that includes three films adapted from L’Amour’s novels. “The Sackets” stars Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott, and Jeff Osterhage as brothers who move west to settle on their own. Elliott also stars In “Conagher,” the story of a cowhand who falls for a widowed ranch owner (Katharine Ross). Finally, Yul Brynner plays an outlaw trying to score a gold heist in “Catlow.” Richard Crenna and Leonard Nimoy also star.
“Gamera – The Giant Monster”: This Japanese film bares similarities to the Godzilla franchise, but Gamera is a gigantic sea turtle. The film is set during the Cold War, when the massive turtle is awakened by an atomic explosion and begins to wreak havoc across the world. Presented in Japanese with English subtitles.
“Jermal”: Orphaned by the death of his mother, 12-year-old Jaya is sent to live with his father, Johar, on a fishing platform in North Sumatra. Johar had no idea of his son’s existence but accepts him as a worker nonetheless. Rejected by his father and bullied by other boys, Jaya toughens up and learns how to survive while the relationship between father-and-son evolves. Presented in Indonesian with English subtitles.
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