Video Verdict: ‘Men In Black 3,’ ‘ParaNorman,’ ‘Lawless,’ ‘Step Up Revolution,’ ‘Sparkle,’ ‘The Apparition’

From left to right, Michael Stuhlberg, Will Smith and Josh Brolin star in “Men In Black 3.”

There’s no doubt the holiday shopping season is underway, as movie studios are trotting out a swarm of new video releases this week. The good news is that several are actually worth gifting.

Men in Black 3

3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and brief suggestive content
Sony
Available Nov. 30 on DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and on demand

It’s been 10 years since a ‘Men In Black’ film was released, but director Barry Sonenfeld brought the franchise back with a bang. Too many movie sequels are simply an attempt to cash in on the name recognition of earlier, better predecessors, but “Men In Black 3” is a carefully crafted film that is action packed, funny and even poignant.

Once again, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones star as agents J and K, government employees who police the many alien beings living amongst us on earth. Only this time, Jones doesn’t get much screen time because the plot centers on a diabolical alien who travels back to the 1960s to assassinate his character.

In order to set things right, agent J also travels to the past, meeting a younger version of K (Josh Brolin) in the process. Brolin was an inspired choice to play young K, as he has excellent chemistry with Smith and does a spot-on impersonation of Jones.

No matter how good a cast is, the players require decent material, and the “MIB 3” script is first rate. Screenwriters Etan Cohen and Lowell Cunningham did a fine job with the time travel elements, and Sonnenfeld makes sure the story moves at just the right pace. The fact that he also directed the two previous “Men In Black” films gives the franchise a welcome sense of consistency.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include two making-of features and a “Spot the Alien” game.

 

ParaNorman

3½ stars
Rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language
Universal
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and on demand

Pixar’s “Brave” is the obvious frontrunner in this year’s Oscar race for best animated feature, but this solid upstart deserves to be in the conversation. The action centers on Norman Babcock, a kind-hearted young man with the ability to see and speak to the dead. Unfortunately, few people share his gift, so most – including his schoolmates – believe he’s talking to thin air. This leads to merciless teasing at school and less-than-supportive treatment from his parents.

Things change, however, when a powerful witch unleashes a curse on Norman’s town. As the only person with any understanding of the supernatural, it’s up to Norman to save the day.

Writer-director Chris Butler and co-director Sam Fell have created a work that looks great, and they do a nice job guiding viewers through a story that is both action-packed and well meaning. Among other things, the film conveys the worthwhile messages that it’s OK to be different and that forgiveness is always better than revenge.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (“Let Me In,” “The Road”) does a great job voicing Norman, and his fellow voice actors include Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann and Elaine Stritch. This is a good group, and they help make “ParaNorman” one of the most original and enjoyable animated films of the year.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include preliminary animatic sequences, seven making-of featurettes and an audio commentary by Fell and Butler.

 

Lawless

3 stars
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Anchor Bay
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

This winning historical drama is an adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel “The Wettest County in the World,” and it tells the story of a family of moonshine bootleggers living in prohibition-era Virginia. Although the plot is heavily fictionalized, it’s based in reality, as Bondurant’s ancestors were actual bootleggers and his grandfather, Jack Bondurant, is the main character in both the book and film.

Director John Hillcoat (“The Road,” “The Proposition”) begins by introducing the three Bondurant brothers: Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf). All three are making a handsome living selling liquor until a hard-nosed special agent named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) decides to shake them down.

Forrest refuses to cooperate, leading to increasing tension and violence between the moonshiners and the law. Within this setting, Hillcoat focuses on Jack, the youngest and least worldly of the Bondurant siblings. Although he isn’t nearly as rough or physically powerful as his brothers, Jack wants to be a bootlegger of the first order, and the movie follows his ambitions.

Hillcoat does a nice job capturing the essence of the prohibition era, and the actors – particularly Hardy and Pearce – are great. The only major weakness in “Lawless” is an anticlimactic ending that doesn’t do justice to the intensity of the film’s first two acts.

DVD extras include deleted scenes, a Willie Nelson music video, two historical features and an audio commentary by Hilcoat and Matt Bondurant.

 

Step Up Revolution

2½ stars
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive dancing and language
Summit Entertainment
Available on DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, digital download and on demand

The fourth film in the “Step Up” franchise doesn’t offer much in terms of plot or character development, but it’s easy to admire the imaginative dance sequences that tie everything together. The action centers on Sean (Ryan Guzman), leader of a large Miami dance crew that gets attention by performing flash mob routines in high-profile locations.

When he isn’t dancing, Sean works as a waiter at a high-end resort, and that job leads him to Emily (“So You Think You Can Dance” star Kathryn McCormick), the daughter of a wealthy property developer (Peter Gallagher). Although the young pair grew up in different worlds, they share an immediate attraction because Emily is also a dancer. Their situation gets complicated, however, when Emily’s father decides to build a development that will force Sean and many of his friends out of their homes.

This is generic “Romeo and Juliet”-style stuff that doesn’t hold many surprises, meaning the dancing has to carry the day. For the most part, it does. The cast members can move, and the choreography is terrific, particularly in a sequence where Sean’s flash mob infiltrates an art gallery.

Speer deserves credit as well. Filming dance is an art, and he has the right touch, allowing the camera to linger just long enough on one angle before cutting to the next. None of this improves the film’s bland and predictable storytelling, but knowing a great dance routine is just moments away makes the dialogue sequences easier to stomach.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include several making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, music videos by J Lo and Timbaland and an audio commentary featuring Speer, McCormick, Guzman and choreographer Jamal Sims.

 

Sparkle

2 stars
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence language and smoking
Sony
Available Nov. 30 on DVD, Blu-ray and on demand

It’s too bad “Sparkle” marks Whitney Houston’s last appearance on screen because the film is largely forgettable, particularly coming on the wake of the similarly themed 2006 hit “Dreamgirls.” “Sparkle” isn’t especially bad, mind you, it just isn’t as good as the many works that it clones.

This version of “Sparkle” is a remake of the like-titled 1976 film, which was in turn inspired by the story of The Supremes. Since “Dreamgirls” did a fine job telling a parallel story just six years ago, it’s difficult to work up much enthusiasm for the project.

The plot centers on Sparkle Anderson (Jordin Sparks), a young singer-songwriter who dreams of making it in the music business. Alas, her domineering mother, Emma (Houston), doesn’t approve of that career choice. Nevertheless, Sparkle pursues fame with the help of her two siblings, Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and Dolores (Tika Sumpter).

Sparks is respectable in the lead role, and Houston is convincing as a domineering mother, but neither performer moves their characters beyond stereotyped expectations. Likewise, director Salim Akil offers a straightforward reading of the story, meaning the presentation is just as predictable as the plot.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a making-of feature, a tribute to Whitney Houston and an audio commentary by Akil.

 

The Apparition

½ star
Rated PG-13 for terror/frightening images and some sensuality
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

In 2007, writer-director Oren Peli reminded moviegoers just how effective suspense can be in a ghost story. Rather than blow money on gore and special effects, he made “Paranormal Activity” a hit the old fashioned way, by creeping viewers out with a nice slow burn.

“The Apparition” tries to copy this formula, albeit with a bigger budget and more-refined filmmaking style. Alas, the money doesn’t help writer-director Todd Lincoln because his story just isn’t that scary. The focus is on Ben (Sebastian Stan) and Kelly (Ashley Greene), a young couple haunted by increasingly strange happenings in their new home. At first the creepy events are relatively harmless. For instance, they awaken to find all their doors wide open. As time passes, the intrusions grow more frightening and dangerous, and it becomes clear that simply ignoring them isn’t an option. Even worse, Ben knows more about these events than he’s letting on.

Structurally, there isn’t much separating “The Apparition” from “Paranormal Activity” or any of its three sequels. That’s a problem not only because it illustrates a profound lack of creativity, but because “The Apparition” isn’t as well executed, despite boasting better production value.

Lincoln’s movie looks good, and he has likable, young stars in Greene and Stan, but the things that occur on film are never that frightening. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Lincoln isn’t good at building suspense, but it doesn’t help that the script is as cliché as they get. Even worse is the fact that – even at 84 minutes – the movie feels long.

A good ghost story can be a lot of things, but slow-moving isn’t one of them.

Extras on the DVD release are limited to one making-of feature. The Blu-ray combo pack (which also includes a DVD) contains several additional extras.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“The Day”: Horror film about five young people trying to survive in a bleak, apocalyptic future. When they find a seemingly abandoned farmhouse and settle in for rest, predators that have been lying in wait attack them. Shawn Ashmore, Ashley Bell, Cory Hardrict, Dominic Monaghan and Shannyn Sossamon star. Directed by Douglas Aarniokoski.

“Thunderstruck”: Story of a high school basketball player (Taylor Gray) who magically switches skills with NBA star Kevin Durant (playing himself). This makes the kid an instant sensation but sends Durant’s career into a nosedive. Directed by John Whitesell (“Malibu’s Most Wanted”).

“Hot in Cleveland” – Season Three: The 24 most-recent episodes of TV Land’s sitcom about aging entertainment industry professionals who find an entirely new lifestyle in Ohio. Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Windie Malick and Betty White star.

“Perry Mason” – Season 8, Volume 1: Fifteen episodes of the now-classic TV drama about a Los Angeles defense attorney (Raymond Burr) and his intrepid colleagues.

 

– 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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