This week’s new home video releases include a gritty crime drama from director Oliver Stone, an uneven comedy featuring Ben Stiller and a terrific animated movie from the geniuses at Pixar.
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG for some scary action and rude humor
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, digital download and on demand
It seemed like the animation world stopped spinning last year when the gurus at Pixar released “Cars 2.” The movie was, by most accounts, the studio’s first bad film, and despite making more than $550 million worldwide, it was largely written off as a flop.
Fortunately, Pixar returned to form with “Brave,” a sweet, animated fable about a spunky Scottish princess who refuses to bend to tradition. The movie is set in the days when clans ruled Scotland, and it focuses on Merida, daughter of the elected king.
Despite her mother’s constant nagging, Merida prefers horseback riding and archery to the normal pursuits of a royal lady. This leads to a thorny relationship that comes to a head when Merida learns that she is to be thrust into an arranged marriage. Frustrated, she disrupts the competition meant to determine her husband and storms into the forest. While there, Merida meets a witch who agrees to help, but the magical intervention has unforeseen consequences.
“Brave” mixes current sensibilities with ancient storytelling techniques, and the result is a movie that feels modern, yet wears the hallmarks of timeless myth. In essence, this is an old-time story with a girl-power message, and Pixar is to be applauded for making a movie that actively battles female stereotypes.
“Brave” is also beautifully animated. Even with “Cars 2,” the Pixar crew created dazzling visuals, so it’s not surprising that “Brave” is a feast for the eyes. Directors Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell make sure that everything from Merida’s flowing red hair to the fish swimming in a rocky, Scottish river are luxuriously rich in detail.
The voice cast for “Brave” isn’t particularly high profile, but it is top notch. Merida is handled by “Boardwalk Empire” actress Kelly Macdonald, and she is joined by Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane and Craig Ferguson.
“Brave” should land an Oscar nomination for best animated feature and, although there are worthy competitors, it’s hard not to view it as the favorite to win.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include two animated shorts and an audio commentary by the directors.
Available in both rated and unrated versions. The rated version received an R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand
Although once viewed as a can’t-miss director, Oliver Stone’s projects have been spotty in recent years, and it’s been more than a decade since he produced a truly extraordinary film. Still, his long-term track record makes any project he helms worthy of attention.
With “Savages,” Stone doesn’t recapture his glory days, but he does deliver a solid crime thriller that blends good performances with a compelling – albeit far-fetched – story. The action centers on Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), close friends who make a fortune growing Marijuana in Southern California. Having developed a relatively clean, violence-free business, they’re living the good life, which includes sharing a beachfront home and the love and sexual favors of their mutual girlfriend, O (Blake Lively).
Things take a dark turn, however, when a Mexican drug cartel makes a play for part of their business. When Ben and Chon make it clear that they’re loners, a cartel enforcer (Benicio Del Toro) kidnaps O. Chon and the normally mild-mannered Ben respond by becoming increasingly ruthless in their efforts to not only stay alive but recover their lover.
Stone does a nice job presenting the necessarily gritty material, and his young cast is impressive throughout. Both Kitsch and Johnson are becoming increasingly familiar faces at the movies, and they make Chon and Ben believable as gangsters, but also likable enough to root for. That’s appropriate because, in the world of this movie, they aren’t nearly as bad as the guys they’re going up against. Lively, who proved she has the chops for down-and-dirty dramas in “The Town,” is once again portraying a character with problems, and she does so with grace.
The biggest trouble with “Savages” is that the plotting gets far-fetched, particularly toward the end, but that’s no reason to dismiss the entire project. After all, if Hollywood eliminated every film that took an unrealistic turn, there wouldn’t be much to watch.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include two audio commentaries, one featuring Stone and another with the screenwriters, production designer and several producers.
Rated R for some strong sexual content
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and on demand
With the cast that director Akiva Schaffer assembled for “The Watch,” one could reasonably expect comic gold. Alas, a subpar script and an overreliance on potty humor undermines the movie’s potential.
The film focuses on Evan Trautwig (Ben Stiller), the senior manager of a Costco in Glenview, Ohio. When the store’s overnight security guard is brutally murdered, Evan decides to fight back by forming a neighborhood watch group. Alas, he’s only able to recruit a handful of guys, and most of them are more interested in socializing than fighting crime. There’s Bob (Vince Vaughn), a construction worker; Franklin (Jonah Hill), a wannabe cop; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a recently divorced man who thinks the watch will help him meet women.
Shortly after this dysfunctional group starts patrolling the streets, they discover a piece of alien technology and become convinced that shape-shifting space creatures are planning an attack. So, they dedicate themselves to finding the aliens and saving their town.
The premise behind “The Watch” is clever, and the cast is a lot of fun. Stiller, Vaughn, Hill and Ayoada are all talented comics and they do a nice job playing off one another. Unfortunately, they’re saddled with material that just isn’t that good. Schaffer moves the film at a decent pace, but his best gags are often followed by jokes that miss their marks completely. The movie is also filled with crass, R-rated humor that will have a hard time drawing laughs from anyone over age 18.
The wacky plotting and the strong performances of Stiller and company make “The Watch” better than it should be, but it’s still a second-tier Hollywood comedy.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes, a gag reel and a bit on “casting the alien.”
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“Friends” – The Complete Series on Blu-ray: This sitcom, which ran for 10 years on NBC, is one of the most-loved shows of all time, and this release marks its Blu-ray debut. Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer star, playing pals who lean on each other through life’s ups and downs. The loaded Blu-ray set includes all 236 episodes, plus more than three hours of new bonus features. For a fan, it seems like the ultimate Christmas gift.
“Dark Horse”: Writer-director Todd Solondz tells the story of two emotionally stunted adults (Jordan Gelber and Selma Blair) who begin a whirlwind romance. Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow and Justin Bartha also star.
“Weekend”: This 1967 comedy by French director Jean-Luc Godard is getting a deluxe treatment from the Criterion Collection. The movie tells the story of a married couple who come face to face with the collapse of French bourgeois society. The freshly restored feature is presented in French with English subtitles.
“Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life”: Boxed set collecting Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s bawdy interpretations of three works of medieval literature: “The Decameron,” “The Canterbury Tales” and “The Arabian Nights.” The movies, which were released theatrically in the early 1970s, are filled with nudity, sex and slapstick humor. Presented in Italian with English subtitles.
“Pixar Short Films Collection – Volume 2”: Pixar not only produces great feature-length animated films like “Brave,” it consistently makes great shorts. This release collects 12 of Pixar’s animated short films into one convenient set. Included are “BURNE,” “Dug’s Special Mission,” “George & AJ,” “Air Mater,” “Time Travel Mater,” “Your Friend the Rat,” “Partly Cloudy,” “Presto,” “Day & Night,” “Hawaiian Vacation,” “Small Fry,” and “La Luna.” Animation buffs will be excited to know that the set also includes seven student films by Pixar directors John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter.
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding” – 10th Anniversary Special Edition: This sweet, independent romance became a smash hit in 2002 and eventually became the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time. Nia Vardalos stars as a Greek woman who falls in love with a non-Greek man and tries to endear him to her family. Although the film has been out on DVD for some time, this release marks its Blu-ray debut.
“Duck Dynasty” – Season One: First 15 episodes of the A&E reality series about the Robertson family of Monroe, Louisiana. Although they were originally poor, the family members achieved wealth and fame by creating high-end duck calls and decoys.
– 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 email@example.com.