Video Verdict: ‘Tron: Legacy,’ ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader,’ ‘Life Unexpected,’ ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’

Olivia Wilde, left, talks to Garrett Hedlund in a scene from the sci-fi adventure “Tron: Legacy.”

This week’s major home video releases are anchored by two high-profile fantasy movies. One is the latest installment of the “Narnia” franchise. The other is a long-awaited Disney sequel.

 

Tron: Legacy
2½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language
Disney
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, digital download and on demand

Disney is releasing both the original “Tron” and its 2010 sequel “Tron: Legacy” on home video this week, and watching them back to back is a reminder of how far special effects have come in the last three decades. The original film seemed cool enough in its time, but the shifts from live-action to animated bits feel antiquated and distracting today.

Interestingly, the special effects aren’t the only things improved for Disney’s long-awaited sequel. The movie is considerably better scripted and more engaging than the film that inspired it.

Garrett Hedlund stars as Sam Flynn, the son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). It was Kevin who got sucked into a computer in the original film, and in “Tron: Legacy” we learn that Flynn went on to have a remarkable career and amass great wealth in the non-digital world. Then, he simply disappeared. Sam thinks his dad ran off or died, but when family friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) tells him he received a page (you remember pagers, right?) from the long-missing Kevin, Sam investigates.

Soon enough, Sam is sucked into the computer world, just like his father was in the original “Tron.” Once there, he discovers that his dad has been trapped for decades and that an evil program is in charge of everything.

Bridges’ part in the film is fascinating, as he plays himself at his current age but also – with the help of computer effects – as a younger man. It’s eerie how seamlessly this effect is handled. In fact, there are many impressive things about “Tron: Legacy.” A modernized version of the original film’s Light Cycle battle is thrilling, and Hedlund is a likable and believable protagonist.

Sadly, director Joseph Kosinski’s pacing is uneven. Also, Bridges makes the odd choice to play older Kevin Flynn as a sort of distant cousin to his hippie-esque character in “The Big Lebowski.”

These off-kilter elements don’t ruin “Tron: Legacy” but they do limit its potential. Fans will just have to be satisfied with the fact that it’s better than the original.

The movie is available as part of multiple home video releases, including a four-disc combo pack that includes Blu-ray 3D, standard Blu-ray, DVD and digital copies of the feature. Extras vary.

 

 

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader
2 stars
Rated PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray April 8

Fantasy films have finally come into their own. Not only are studios willing to invest in them, but special effects have reached the point where it’s relatively easy to convince viewers that the unbelievable can happen. However, special effects alone cannot carry a movie, and “The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader” illustrates that point. The film is the third installment in the Narnia franchise that was launched in 2005 by writer-director Andrew Adamson. It’s also the worst.

Adamson, who also directed 2008’s worthy “Prince Caspian,” isn’t on board for “Dawn Treader.” Instead the reins have been handed to Michael Apted, a veteran filmmaker who works technical wonders but doesn’t build the emotional connections the material needs. It may be that the source for the film – all “Narnia” movies are based on the novels of C.S. Lewis – isn’t as strong as in previous outings. Or it may be that Apted wasn’t able to properly tap into the vibe Adamson had going. Most likely, both factors played a role.

In the first two movies, the four Pevensie children were whisked into the alternate universe of Narnia where they performed heroic feats to help save the land. In “Dawn Treader,” only the two youngest children, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), are called upon. To fill the gaps, they bring their cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) along for the ride.

At first, it’s unclear why the children have been transported to Narnia. Then, they discover they’re to help King Caspian (Ben Barnes) defeat a strange, evil force that is casting a pall over the land.

The first two movies weren’t heavy on character development, but there was enough to encourage an investment in their plight. In “Dawn Treader,” we get mere sketches, meaning it’s not only hard to invest in the characters, but their flaws actually become irritating. Particularly troubling is Eustace, who Poulter purposely plays as grating and unlikable.

Sadly, this is a problem Apted can’t overcome. “Dawn Treader,” along with the previous “Narnia” films, is meant to carry important spiritual messages, but for these to come through one needs to empathize with the players. With “Dawn Treader” the only things worth investing in are special effects.

The movie is available as part of multiple home video releases, including a three-disc Blu-ray combo pack that also has DVD and digital copies of the feature. Extras vary, but every release includes deleted scenes and an audio commentary by Apted and producer Mark Johnson.

 

 

Life Unexpected: The Complete First and Second Seasons
3 stars
Unrated
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD

As nighttime soap operas go, “Life Unexpected” is surprisingly well-written and enjoyable … at least for its first half season. As happens with many such productions, the writers seem to run short on ideas as things progress, leading to a handful of story arcs that strain credibility. Still, the winning cast sells the material with verve, meaning “Life Unexpected” is better than most of its peers even when at its worst.

The show focuses on Lux (Brittany Robertson), a 15-year-old foster child who goes in search of her biological parents because she wants them to help her become an emancipated minor. Since her mother, Cate Cassidy (Shiri Appleby), kept Lux’s birth a secret, her father, Nate Bazile (Kristoffer Polaha), is astonished to learn that he has a child. Ultimately, Cate and Nate decide it’s time to fulfill their parental duties and take Lux in.

Plot lines cover everything from the difficulties of raising a teenager to Cate’s and Nate’s romantic struggles. Although they agree to raise Lux together, they aren’t a couple … despite oodles of sexual tension.

As mentioned, the cast, which also includes Austin Basis and Kerr Smith, is a strong unit that builds characters worth caring about. Even when the material gets silly, as it does frequently toward the end of season two, the group delivers.

Knowing that the show wasn’t going to last, the producers were even able to shoot a final episode that brings everything to a reasonable close. The ending feels rushed – no doubt because it was – but this cast deserved the opportunity to put an exclamation point on its work, and its nice to see the now-defunct series get a solid home video treatment.

DVD extras include a making-of feature and a bit about the casting.

 

 

I Love You Phillip Morris
3½ stars
Rated R for sexual content including strong dialogue, and language
Lionsgate
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and digital download

Although it didn’t receive much attention in theaters, “I Love You Phillip Morris” contains Jim Carrey’s finest cinematic performance to date. He plays Steven Jay Russell, a real-life conman whose actual life has so many unlikely chapters it seems lived for the screen.

The movie begins with Russell in a seemingly conservative existence as a married, heterosexual police officer. Then, the film reveals that he is actually gay, and it follows him as he breaks the news to his wife and engages in an increasingly opulent lifestyle supported by risky and elaborate frauds. The film also spends much of its run focused on Russell’s passionate affair with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), an effeminate man he meets while serving jail time.

“Morris” isn’t unlike director Steven Spielberg’s excellent 2002 film “Catch Me If You Can.” Each movie introduces unscrupulous men who are remarkably good at separating others from their money, yet somehow avoids portraying them as monsters. In fact, it’s hard not to admire Russell’s uncanny ability to con his way out of even the most desperate situations.

Fans of “Catch Me If You Can” should, however, approach “Morris” with caution. Although the pictures have similarities, Spielberg’s movie was a relatively tame PG-13 and “Morris” earned a hard R, primarily for language and the frank sexual situations it portrays.

Glenn Ficara and John Requa, who co-wrote and co-directed the film, deserve praise for not only pacing it deftly but for drawing wonderful lead performances from their stars. Carrey, who has a tendency to take roles over the top, is beautifully reined in. In fact, it’s somewhat ironic that he has delivered one of his most naturalistic and believable performances portraying a guy who many see as larger than life.

McGregor is typically strong, and his portrayal of Morris is handled with skill. Although Phillip is not an innocent, McGregor imbues him with a quiet uncertainty that makes him the ideal counterpart for uber-confident Russell.

In theaters, “Phillip Morris” made around $2 million, a paltry sum for a film as well-executed and fascinating as this. Packing a deft mix of comedy, drama and spectacle, it deserves a more serious look on video.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and an audio commentary with Ficara, Requa and producer Andrew Lazar.

 

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Little Fockers”: Yet another sequel to the ongoing “Meet the Parents” franchise. This entry sees hard-nosed former CIA agent Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) once again suspecting that his son-in-law (Ben Stiller) isn’t worthy of his family. Owen Wilson, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner and Teri Polo also star. Directed by Paul Weitz (“About a Boy,” “American Pie”).

“Casino Jack”: Drama featuring Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoff, the real-life Washington, D.C., lobbyist who went to prison after a massive scandal involving fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion. Spacey was nominated for a best actor Golden Globe for his work in the film. Directed by George Hickenlooper.

Gregory Peck classics: Universal is re-releasing four Peck films: “Arabesque” with Sophia Loren, “Captain Newman, M.D.” with Tony Curtis, “Mirage” with Diane Baker and “The World in His Arms” with Ann Blyth. Each is available individually, but if you like them all, consider buying “The Gregory Peck Film Collection” instead. Released in 2008, that boxed set has all the previously mentioned titles plus “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Cape Fear.”

“Fiddler on the Roof”: MGM is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1971 musical with a Blu-ray edition. Directed by Norman Jewison, the film was nominated for multiple Academy Awards and it won three: best music, best sound and best cinematography. Topol, Norma Crane and Leonard Frey star.

“Taxi Driver”: This 1976 classic from director Martin Scorsese is also receiving its Blu-ray debut. The film focuses on an unstable former marine (Robert De Niro) who becomes determined to change society and rescue a pre-teen prostitute (Jodie Foster) in the process. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture.

“The Cove”: The 2009 Academy Award winner for best documentary is getting the high-definition Blu-ray treatment. The investigative piece follows a group of animal lovers who go on a covert mission to expose dolphin killings in Japan.

“iCarly” – Season 2, Volume 3: Fifteen episodes from the Nickelodeon series about a girl who produces a Web-based video show with her friends. The three-disc set also includes two TV movies and a couple extra features. Miranda Cosgrove, Jennette McCurdy, Jerry Trainor and Nathan Kress 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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