Video Verdict: ’50/50,’ ‘Real Steel,’ ‘Paranormal Activity 3’

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (left) and Seth Rogen star in the dramedy “50/50.”

This week’s major home video releases include a third addition to the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, a family film about boxing robots and a terrific dramedy featuring Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

50/50

3½ stars (out of four)
Rated R for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use
Summit Entertainment
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Since “50/50” was released into theaters in September, it has racked up an impressive string of accolades, including a Golden Globe nomination for best motion picture (comedy or musical) and a National Board of Review award for best original screenplay. Written by Will Reiser and directed by Jonathan Levine, the movie walks a fine line between drama and comedy, creating a truly moving viewing experience.

The focus is on Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 27-year-old public radio employee who learns that he has cancer. Naturally, the news hits hard, especially when an Internet search reveals that his chances for survival are about 50/50. Although this is unusual comedy fodder, Reiser and Levine keep the tone surprisingly upbeat by focusing not only on Adam’s disease but the reactions of those around him.

Most important is Kyle (Seth Rogen), Adam’s brash and mouthy best friend. Kyle is stunned by Adam’s plight, but he doesn’t take a dire outlook. Rather, he supports his friend with a brassy optimism that comes across as both crass and funny. Kyle is also a breath of fresh air for Adam. His girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), doesn’t cope with the illness well, and his mother (Anjelica Huston) is a wreck. That leaves Adam to rely on Kyle and his inexperienced therapist (Anna Kendrick) for emotional support.

“50/50” is frequently funny, but it also treats the issues within the movie with respect. Most importantly, it reminds viewers that cancer isn’t an instant death sentence. Regardless of whether a cancer victim is cured or succumbs to the disease, he/she is very much alive while battling it. Gordon-Levitt makes this point nicely by taking Adam through various stages of denial and acceptance and by imbuing him with emotions ranging from happiness to anger. Rogen is also terrific, as he taps into his comic talents, yet restrains himself enough to make his character plausible.

Reiser’s script is exceptional, and Levine executed it to perfection. Each scene moves at just the right pace, and the movie never becomes too maudlin or too goofy, despite the fact that it possesses both elements.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and an audio commentary by Rogen, Levine and Reiser.

 

Real Steel

3 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language
Disney
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

“Real Steel” is pure fiction, but it’s easy to believe in the world director Shawn Levy has created on screen. Set in the near future, the film focuses on robot boxing, a sport that pits giant human-shaped machines against one another in favor of actual human-to-human combat.

Robot boxing is loud and brutal because the competitors are frighteningly powerful, yet the sport has a human element since the robots are controlled by people. At the center of the action is Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a former boxer trying to recapture his glory days by taking robots into battle. Trouble is, he’s compulsive and irresponsible, and this has left him deeply in debt.

Charlie’s situation gets more complicated when he learns that the mother of his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), has died, leaving him to care for the boy for several months. Charlie has never attempted to be a proper father, so he and the boy don’t know each other, but they form a tenuous bond over their mutual love of robot boxing.

“Real Steel” is one part sports film and one part relationship drama, and director Shawn Levy (“Date Night,” “Night at the Museum”) does a nice job blending the elements. Although the film received a PG-13, it makes for reasonably good family viewing, with robot violence and brief moments of foul language being the only problematic elements.

The film’s commentary on what it means to be a parent is reasonably good, and Levy and Jackman get points for refusing to let Charlie go overly soft. The character progresses and changes during the course of the story, but the shifts are subtle enough to be believable.

Of course, one of the major draws of a movie like this are the robot combat sequences, and Levy does these well. The battles are impressive and fun, and the special effects are very good, leaving viewers with a futuristic drama that both parents and youngsters can enjoy.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include two making-of features and a blooper reel.

 

Paranormal Activity 3

2½ stars
Rated R for some violence and language, brief sexuality and drug use
Paramount
Available on: Blu-ray/DVD/digital combo pack and on demand

When “Paranormal Activity” was released in 2007, it was a reminder that suspense is more important to a horror film than special effects and a big-name cast. Made on a shoestring, the movie, which claimed to be comprised of “found video,” succeeded simply because it was creepy.

Now that the franchise has delivered a second sequel, it has become just as tired as the big-budget peers it originally displaced. The film is a prequel, and it focuses on the childhood of Katie and Kristi, the sisters referenced in the first two movies.

Set in 1988, the film introduces viewers to the girls’ mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her videographer boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). As in the earlier films, strange supernatural happenings occur, and this convinces Dennis to set cameras up around their house.

As in the previous movies, the story is told through video footage that was supposedly taken by the characters. This adds a sense of realism and immediacy to the project, but it’s not nearly as effective as it has been in the past, primarily because viewers have come to expect it. The one thing a horror film can’t afford is predictability, but directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have made “Paranormal Activity 3” a retread from start to finish.

The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack includes both theatrical and unrated cuts of the film.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Wings”: Paramount is giving the very first best picture Oscar winner its DVD and Blu-ray debut. The 1927 silent film tells the story of two World War I fighter pilots who are in love with the same woman. Clara Bow, Richard Arlen, Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Gary Cooper star. Directed by William A. Wellman.

“The Whistleblower”: Rachel Weisz stars as a U.N. peacekeeper who finds herself in danger after uncovering a sex-trafficking ring in Bosnia. David Strathairn, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Anna Anissimova, Monica Bellucci and Vanessa Redgrave also star. Co-written and directed by Larysa Kondracki.

“Restless”: Director Gus Van Sant’s story of a troubled man (Henry Hopper) who falls in love with a terminal cancer patient (Mia Wasikowska). Written by Jason Lew.

“Godzilla”: Criterion Collection release of the 1954 Japanese monster movie that changed cinema forever. The film, directed by Ishiro Honda, received a high-definition digital restoration, and it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray. Presented in Japanese with English subtitles.

“Another Happy Day”: Drama featuring Ellen Barkin as a woman forced to confront family drama when she attends the wedding of her eldest son. Kate Bosworth, Ellen Burstyn, Thomas Haden Church, George Kennedy, Ezra Miller and Demi Moore also star. Written and directed by Sam Levinson.

“The Moment of Truth”: Freshly restored release of Italian director Francesco Rosi’s 1965 drama about the rise and fall of a bullfighter (Miguel Mateo “Miguelin”). Presented in Italian with English subtitles.

Lethal Ladies Collection, Vol. 2: Two-DVD set featuring three exploitation films from the 1970s: “The Arena,” “Fly Me” and “Cover Girl Models.” “The Arena” stars Pam Grier and Margaret Markov in the story of four women kidnapped by Romans and forced to become gladiators. “Fly Me” focuses on a group of stewardesses who fight back when their plane is hijacked. “Cover Girl Models” is about three models implicated in a dangerous spy game.

 

— 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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