Video Verdict: ‘John Carter,’ ‘Safe House,’ ‘Act of Valor,’ ‘Journey 2’

Taylor Kitsch finds himself in a tight spot playing the title character in “John Carter.”

A thriller starring Denzel Washington and an adaptation of a much-loved science-fiction novel anchor this week’s home video releases.

John Carter

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

“A Princess of Mars,” Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel about a former Civil War officer who travels to the Red Planet, was an influence on George Lucas’ “Star Wars” franchise. It is therefore surprising that Hollywood took so long to produce a big-budget film adaptation. Fortunately, the delay resulted in an excellent movie.

Director Andrew Stanton’s take on the novel is a space opera of the first order, and it bears more than a few resemblances to Lucas’ films. The special-effects-laden effort features bizarre aliens, a beautiful princess and loads of swashbuckling action, all presented with panache.

Although the film is based on “A Princess of Mars,” Stanton and company opted to name the film after its main character, the previously mentioned Confederate Civil War officer. Shortly after viewers meet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), he is mysteriously transported to Mars, a planet where he becomes something of a superhero thanks to the reduced gravity.

“John Carter” had a disappointing theatrical run in the U.S., but one has to wonder if that’s because it lacks an A-list cast. The film itself is first rate and can stand proudly alongside 2012 blockbusters like “The Hunger Games” and “The Avengers.”

Stanton, the Pixar animation guru whose previous films include “WALL-E” and “Finding Nemo,” seems perfectly at home with live-action moviemaking. In fact, “John Carter” boasts an excellent blend of character development, special effects and flat-out action.

Kitsch isn’t a household name, but his portrayal of the title character is winning, and he gets solid support from Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Mark Strong. In fact, it’s hard to find flaws in “John Carter” without pointing to problems inherent to space operas. As fanciful science-fiction tales go, “John Carter” is a classic.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include an audio commentary with the filmmakers and a feature on converting Burroughs’ novel to the screen.

Safe House

3 stars
Rated R for strong violence throughout and some language
Universal
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and on demand

“Safe House” is a smartly scripted espionage drama that takes numerous twists during its fast-paced 115-minute run.

The film focuses on Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a junior CIA agent charged with running a safe house in Cape Town South Africa. His duties are painfully bland until Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a traitorous former agent turns himself in, prompting U.S. officials to send Frost to Weston’s post for interrogation. Before much can happen, the safe house is stormed, and everyone except Weston and Frost are killed. This sends the two men on the run and leaves Weston in the precarious position of trying to keep the cunning prisoner in captivity while evading unknown assassins.

When he has good material, Reynolds is a pleasure to watch, and “Safe House” suits his talents well. He is completely believable as a capable agent dumped into a situation above his pay grade. It’s a tribute to Reynolds that he also stands toe to toe with Washington, one of the finest actors of his generation. Washington’s version of Frost is extremely satisfying. Although he’s a traitor and master manipulator, Frost has a moral code that allows viewers to identify with him and appreciate his exploits… even when he’s working against Weston.

Espionage films often grow so complicated that they’re difficult to follow, but director Daniel Espinosa does a fine job keeping the audience in the loop. He also avoids monotony by presenting a series of wild plot turns. In fact, the movie’s biggest flaw may be that it has one twist too many.

The DVD and Blu-ray releases have several making-of features, including a bit about a CIA veteran who served as the film’s technical adviser and a short on the movie’s hand-to-hand combat sequences.

Act of Valor

2½ stars
Rated R for strong violence including some torture, and for language
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

In a unique project, directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh pay homage to U.S. military personnel, allowing real-life Navy SEALs to star in their fictionalized thriller. The concept is inventive although not a complete success, in part because SEALs are good at their day jobs but don’t spend a lot of time training as actors.

That means many of “Act of Valor’s” quieter scenes come across as stagey and forced, in stark contrast to the bits featuring professional performers. On the up side, McCoy and Waugh have done a fine job demonstrating the sort of ridiculously dangerous missions SEALs are trained for and just how good they are at accomplishing their goals.

The plot centers on a Chechen radical named Abu Shabal (actor Jason Cottle) who teams with an international drug dealer named Christo (Alex Veadov) in an attempt to smuggle terrorists into the United States. The SEALs, none of whom reveal their real names, spring into action when Christo’s men abduct an undercover CIA agent (Roselyn Sanchez). They’re assignment? To infiltrate the heavily guarded compound where the agent is trapped.

The rescue sequence is extraordinarily well staged and exciting. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t as strong when the gunfire stops. That makes the project feel unbalanced and an awful lot like a Navy recruiting flick.

“Act of Valor” is admirable as a reminder of the devotion and sacrifice required of American military personnel. Unfortunately, it isn’t nearly as good when viewed as pure entertainment.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes and an audio commentary by McCoy and Waugh.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

2 stars
Rated PG for some adventure action, and brief mild language
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and digital download

In 2008, Warner Brothers tapped into the world of Jules Verne with “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” a film that served as a sequel to Verne’s like-titled novel. “The Mysterious Island” is a loose continuation of that earlier film, although one needn’t have seen it to understand what’s going on.

In fact, the only returning cast member is Josh Hutcherson. Once again, he plays Sean Anderson, a young man whose father believed that Jules Verne’s novels were non-fiction. The original movie proved this to be true, and Sean spends much of his time hoping to find the locations of the mysterious worlds that Verne wrote about.

Sean catches a break when he discovers a coded radio broadcast that may be from his long-lost grandfather (Michael Caine). With the help of his skeptical stepfather, Hank (Dwayne Johnson), Sean breaks the code and discovers coordinates that supposedly lead to an uncharted island.

Hank isn’t convinced, but he wants to bond with Sean, so he agrees to take him to the designated location. Soon, a helicopter pilot named Gabato (Luis Guzman) and his daughter, Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens), are shuttling them out to sea. Not surprisingly, they are involved in a horrific crash that leaves them stranded on Vernes’ island. From then on, the group struggles to find a way back home while coming face to face with all sorts of bizarre phenomenon, including tiny elephants and giant lizards.

“Mysterious Island” has some fanciful appeal, but it’s diminished by a weak script and uninspired special effects. In a movie like this, a realistic rendering of the creatures is a prerequisite, but most of the special effects are undercooked. It also doesn’t help that none of the characters seem particularly perplexed by their situation. In fact, most of them act as though the strange things happening around them are only mildly surprising. My guess is most people would react with more than curiosity after being chased by a lizard four times their size.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a gag reel and deleted scenes.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Machine Gun Preacher”: Action film based on the life of Sam Childers, a motorcycle-riding preacher dedicated to saving African children from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Gerard Butler plays Childers and Michelle Monaghan plays his wife, Lynn. Directed by Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “Monster’s Ball”).

“Falling Skies” – The Complete First Season: First 10 episodes of the TNT science-fiction drama about Americans fighting back after a catastrophic alien invasion. Noah Wyle stars as Tom Mason, a former history professor who helps lead a ragtag militia. Moon Bloodgood, Drew Roy, Maxim Knight and Sarah Carter also star.

“Fairly Legal” – Season One: Sarah Shahi stars as a mediator doing her best to resolve legal conflicts while dealing with her own issues, including the death of her father. Virginia Williams and Michael Trucco also star.

The Three Stooges Ultimate Collection: Sony is releasing an essential package for Stooges fans. It includes all 190 Three Stooges short films, plus 11 hours of previously unreleased material. The set includes 20 discs at a suggested retail price of $95.99.

“Pretty Little Liars” – The Complete Second Season: This video release is tied to the debut of the show’s third season on ABC Family. The program focuses on a group of teen girls receiving threatening messages from a source known only as “A.” Even more frightening is the fact that A seems to be referencing Alison, a deceased friend who knew all their secrets. Troian Bellisario, Ashley Benson, Lucy Hale, Shay Mitchell and Sasha Pieterse star.

“Breaking Bad” – The Complete Fourth Season: The fifth and final season of this AMC drama is scheduled to debut in July, and the 13 episodes on this four-disc set can bring you up to speed. The plot centers on Walter White (Bryan Cranston) a high school chemistry teacher who begins manufacturing drugs after learning that he’s dying of cancer.

Universal’s 100th Anniversary series: Universal studios is delivering new Blu-ray versions of several great titles as part of its impressive 100th Anniversary series. These include the legal thriller “Erin Brockovich” (2000), the smuggling flick “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) and the classic con-game film “The Sting” (1973).

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” – The Complete Eighth Season: Ten most recent episodes of HBO’s hit series based on the life of “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David. David stars as a fictionalized version of himself.

“Workaholics” – Season Two: Another collection of episodes from the Comedy Central series about recent college grads working for a telemarketing firm. Blake Anderson, Adam DeVine and Anders Holm star.

“Hondo”: Blu-ray debut of the 1953 John Wayne Western about a cavalry rider who decides to protect a woman and her son living in a dangerous area of the old West. Geraldine Page, Lee Aaker and Leo Gordon also star. Directed by John Farrow.

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit http://www.ForrestHartman.com. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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17 Comments

Filed under Video Verdict

17 responses to “Video Verdict: ‘John Carter,’ ‘Safe House,’ ‘Act of Valor,’ ‘Journey 2’

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