This week’s home video releases include two gritty dramas, a cute children’s film and an R-rated superhero adventure.
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use – some involving children
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Digital Download and On Demand
Judging only by the trailers it would be easy to mistake “Kick-Ass” for a goofy superhero comedy. It’s not. In fact, it’s one of the most audaciously violent and disturbing films to hit theaters this year, and in a bizarre way, it’s also quite brilliant. Think “Sky High” meets “Pulp Fiction.” Think Harry Potter meets Dirty Harry. Better yet, forget the comparisons altogether because “Kick-Ass” belongs in its own twisted category.
The movie, which is based on a comic book series, focuses on a comic-loving teen named Dave (Aaron Johnson) who wonders why nobody has ever become a superhero. So, he cobbles together a costume and sets out to fight crime under the name Kick-Ass. When an Internet video of Kick-Ass battling thugs goes viral, Dave’s alter ego becomes a celebrity. Among other things, this inspires a more serious vigilante team – made up of Damon MacReady (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter, Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz) – to don costumes of their own. Only thing is, their hero personas – Big Daddy and Hit Girl – shoot first and take prisoners later. As Big Daddy and Hit Girl take an ever-larger bite out of crime, superheroes become unpopular with the organized crime folks, and that’s bad news for Dave.
The plotting in “Kick-Ass” is solid and the film uses the appropriate amount of comic relief to break up its action sequences. Just don’t get fooled into thinking it’s OK for kids. The R-rated picture is packed with gory action and profanity, much of it courtesy of the pre-teen Hit Girl. Watching a pint-sized costumed crusader slice and dice her way through bad guys is a little off putting, and the Hit Girl sequences generated controversy upon the film’s theatrical release.
That’s understandable, but viewers will do well to consider the roots of the character before condemning the filmmakers. The movie makes it clear that Hit Girl’s crime-fighting exploits were engineered by her father, and that makes the rather poignant argument that parents often go too far when molding their children in their own image. “Kick-Ass” also makes interesting observations about heroism, vigilantism and the price one can pay for both.
It’s difficult to say whether “Kick-Ass” director Matthew Vaughn was attempting to lead viewers into this sort of highbrow analysis or whether he was simply making an unapolagetically raw and entertaining action movie. Really, it doesn’t matter, because the film has it all.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include a feature on the comic book origins of “Kick-Ass,” a gallery of “Kick-Ass” art and an audio commentary by Vaughn.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Rated PG for some rude humor and language
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” based on the books of Jeff Kinney, focuses on a pre-teen named Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) who is determined to be one of the most popular kids in school even though he considers most of his peers morons. Greg is so arrogant and self-centered, in fact, that he has no problem running down everyone, including his genial, fun-loving best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron). Oddly enough, Greg isn’t nearly as cool as he thinks he is, and the harder he tries to become uber-popular, the further down the social scale he falls.
I suspect director Thor Freudenthal wants viewers to identify with Greg, remembering how awkward the pre-teen years can be. Sadly, the film fails in that respect because Greg’s superior and generally ungracious attitude makes him a relatively unlikable protagonist.
Fortunately, viewers get Rowley as a touchstone. As portrayed by Capron, Rowley is an exceedingly sweet-natured boy who is absolutely comfortable being himself, even when that leads to ridicule from Greg or others at school. In short, he’s the type of kid you’d like to meet, and it’s him – not Greg – who keeps viewers invested in the story.
Freudenthal and his team of writers do deserve credit, however, for crafting an arc that has meaning. Greg may not be likable through much of the movie, but he ultimately learns his lesson, and the kid we see at the end of the film is a deeper and more genuine person than the one we meet at the beginning.
DVD extras include deleted scenes and an audio commentary by Freudenthal and writer Gabe Sachs.
The Ghost Writer
Rated PG-13 for language, brief nudity/sexuality, some violence and a drug reference
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
If one looks beyond writer-director Roman Polanski’s long-running legal troubles, they’ll see a filmmaker who is still churning out terrific movies after decades in the business. I maintain that his 2002 drama, “The Pianist,” was the best movie of its year. And “The Ghost Writer,” although not as strong, is definitely a worthy political thriller.
The film, based on a novel by Robert Harris and screenplay by Polanski, stars Ewan McGregor as a writer hired to craft the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) after the politician’s original scribe is found dead. Because his work won’t be acknowledged in print, McGregor’s character is referred to as a ghost, and he goes unnamed throughout the film.
Although the Ghost is assured that writing Lang’s memoir is the opportunity of a lifetime, he discovers that the task will be difficult. Before he can begin interviews with Lang, the former prime minister is accused of aiding the U.S. in the commission of war crimes and protestors and the press descend on the compound where the two are supposed to be working. This leaves the Ghost with an up close view of Lang’s affairs, including his strained relationship with his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), and personal assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall). And the more the Ghost learns about Lang, the more he questions the circumstances surrounding his first ghost writer’s death.
McGregor is outstanding as the protagonist, and the entire supporting cast is first rate. Polanski has taken a thoughtful approach to the film and the complex plot unwinds slowly and methodically, with just enough twists to keep viewers off balance. At times, things get a bit talky, but that’s forgivable, especially since brainy thrillers are few and far between.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include a bit on the cast and an interview with Polanski.
Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material
Sony Pictures Classics
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
“A Prophet” didn’t make its way into a regular theatrical run in the U.S. until early 2010, and by that time it had already made a mark on the international stage. The dark crime drama won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and ultimately received best foreign film nominations at both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards.
The French drama tells the story of a young Arab thug named Malik (Tahar Rahim) who ends up in a French prison for assaulting a police officer. Shortly after his arrival, he is approached by a Corsican crime boss named Luciani (Niels Arestrup) and ordered to kill another prisoner. Although Malik doesn’t want to commit murder, it becomes apparent that he will be killed if he doesn’t. So, he goes through with the crime, and worms his way into the Corsican mafia in the process.
The film is presented in French, Arabic and Corsican with subtitles, and director Jacques Audiard leads viewers on a fascinating cultural journey through his representations of both prison life and the ethnic gangs within. “A Prophet” is also the fascinating story of a man who wants a better existence, but sees crime as the only reasonable way to achieve that.
Rahim and Arestrup are outstanding throughout, and their supporting cast is strong as well. The result is a well-drawn and intense crime drama that is frightening in its authenticity.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, screen tests and an audio commentary with director and co-writer Jacques Audiard, co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain and Rahim.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“After.Life”: After a car accident, Anna (Christina Ricci) wakes to find herself in a funeral home being prepared for burial. The funeral director (Liam Neeson) explains that she is dead and he’s helping her transition to the afterlife, but things may not be that simple. Justin Long also stars.
“Open House”: Psychological thriller about a couple who, while attempting to sell their home, meet a dangerous potential buyer. Anna Paquin, Brian Geraghty, Rachel Blanchard, Stephen Moyer and Tricia Helfer star.
“James and the Giant Peach” – Special Edition: The movie version of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story about a young boy’s magical adventure is receiving its Blu-ray debut. The 1996 film, produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi and directed by Henry Selick, mixes computer-generated effects with stop-motion and live-action footage.
Roger Corman films: Shout Factory is trotting out three new entries to its Roger Corman’s Cult Classics collection: “Piranha,” “Humanoids from the Deep” and a double-feature disc contaiing “Deathsport” and “BattleTruck.”
“Heroes” – Season Four: Earlier this year, NBC announced the cancellation of its fantasy drama “Heroes,” so the 18 episodes presented on this five-disc set may be the last that fans will get.
“Hawaii Five-O” – The Ninth Season: This vintage police drama is set in Hawaii and stars Jack Lord as detective Steve McGarrett and James MacArthur as his partner Danno. Season nine features 23 episodes on six discs.
“The Dungeon Masters”: Documentary film exploring the lives of three people obsessed with the fantasy board game Dungeons & Dragons. Directed by Keven McAlester.
The Rosemary Wells Collection featuring Max and Ruby: Scholastic Storybook Treasures is releasing narrated, home video versions of eight stories by children’s author and illustrator Rosemary Wells. The two-disc set includes: “Max’s Chocolate Chicken,” “Max’s Christmas,” “Morris’s Disappearing Bag,” “Otto Runs for President,” “Noisy Nora,” “Emily’s First 100 Days of School,” “Voyage to the Bunny Planet” and “Reading to Your Bunny.”
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