Video Verdict: ‘The Impossible,’ ‘Promised Land,’ ‘Gangster Squad,’ ‘A Haunted House’

Tom Holland, left, and Naomi Watts star in the disaster drama “The Impossible.”

Tom Holland, left, and Naomi Watts star in the disaster drama “The Impossible.”

After several slow weeks, the home video field is crowded once again. This week’s hefty slate of new releases includes a star-studded crime film, a lightweight horror spoof and a disaster movie that landed actress Naomi Watts her second Oscar nomination.

The Impossible

3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity
Summit Entertainment
Available on DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

During movie awards season, “The Impossible” received most of its accolades thanks to the remarkable lead performance of actress Naomi Watts. As good as she is, focusing on such a singular component of the film is unfair because it is great in so many respects.

The feature, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, was inspired by the real-life survival story of a family caught in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Watts is the matriarch, a physician named Maria Bennett who is on vacation in Thailand with her husband, Henry (Ewan McGregor), and three sons. When the tsunami hits, all family members survive, but they are separated by the chaos and destruction. This allows Bayona to tell the tale from multiple viewpoints, building suspense as he does.

Most of the screen time is devoted to Maria and her oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland). Despite being pummeled and nearly drowned by the tsunami, the two manage to stay together and support one another. Their situation grows dire, however, when the seriously injured Maria becomes sick due to injuries and inadequate medical supplies.

“The Impossible” is often difficult to watch because Bayona does such a remarkable job depicting the horrors of the mass tragedy. Still, it would be inaccurate to call it a depressing film. As dark as the material is, the movie is a reminder that there are many loving, caring people in the world and that horrible circumstances often bring out the best in humanity.

Watts is deserving of the attention she received, as her performance was easily one of the best to grace movie screens last year. She was not, however, working in a vacuum. Holland is just as strong, despite his young age. McGregor is also compelling, although his role isn’t nearly as demanding.

Bayona’s direction is simple and traditional, but that’s the best approach to a story like this. The characters and the terrible reality of the situation are all that’s needed to keep audiences engaged, and Bayona doesn’t allow the pacing to lag for a second.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes, two making-of featurettes and a filmmakers’ audio commentary.

 

Promised Land

3 stars
Rated R for language
Universal
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray digital download and on demand

Director Gus Van Sant (“Milk,” “Goodwill Hunting”) has produced some of the finest films of the past 15 years, but he is fallible, particularly when dealing with a subpar screenplay. For “Promised Land,” two of his stars – Matt Damon and John Krasinski – delivered four-fifths of a great script, leaving Van Sant with enough material to make a good film, but not a great one.

The problems lay in a finale that struggles not only because it’s typical and manipulative, but because it asks the central character to do things totally outside his nature. That character is Steve Butler (Matt Damon), the hard-working representative of a large energy company. Steve is an up-and-comer because he and his partner (Frances McDormand) are particularly good at convincing farmers to sign contracts allowing the extraction of natural gas from their land.

The process Steve’s company uses is known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and he seems truly devoted to his work. With many family farms failing, Steve sees the money that his company offers as a blessing. He meets a roadblock, however, when the respected science teacher in a rural Pennsylvania town (Hal Holbrook) questions the safety of fracking. After this, landowners aren’t as open to Steve’s advances. Things get especially dicey when a self-proclaimed environmentalist (Krasinski) joins the anti-fracking fray.

Facing obstacles he has never encountered before, Steve must decide on the correct and honorable path. Damon does a fine job portraying a good man in a difficult spot, and McDormand and Krasinski are equally strong.

One can’t watch “Promised Land” without addressing its politics, but they are surprisingly muddy. The film seems to argue that fracking is harmful, but never presents a particularly strong case against it. In fact, Steve’s feelings on the subject are obscured behind one smiling sales pitch after another. If Van Sant had focused on Steve’s inner struggles, he would have had a movie that anyone could relate to. As delivered, “Promised Land” is an interesting and well-acted exercise, but it feels phony in the end.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include an extended scene and making-of feature.

 

Gangster Squad

3 stars
Rated R for strong violence and language
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

Director Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad” isn’t particularly smart, but it is enjoyable as both an action yarn and a tribute to the film noir efforts of yesteryear. The movie is set in 1949, and it centers on a group of Los Angeles lawmen given the OK to wage war on gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) and his organized crime syndicate. The leader of the squad is John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a former soldier sickened by the fact that Cohen is gaining increasing influence in his city. When an official invites John to skirt the law, he assembles a team of misfits that is willing operate almost as ruthlessly as Cohen himself.

The group includes a hardnosed detective (Anthony Mackie), an expert marksman (Robert Patrick), a surveillance guru (Giovanni Ribisi), an eager young cop (Michael Pena) and a brusque officer (Ryan Gosling) who is sleeping with Cohen’s girlfriend (Emma Stone). Together they make an effective group, especially since Cohen initially believes he’s the victim of rival mobsters.

Fleischer (“30 Minutes or Less,” “Zombieland”) is best known for offbeat comedy, but he does a nice job capturing the spirit of 1940s Los Angeles. In fact, his movie plays like a modern version of film noir efforts created during that era. That’s both a merit and a flaw.

Classic film buffs should enjoy the similarities to old-school favorites, and the ensemble cast does a nice job with the material. Still, “Gangster Squad” skimps on things like plot and character development, and Fleischer frequently jumps from one place to another without fully explaining the happenings. Similarly, most of the characters act more like movie archetypes than real people. In a way, that’s fun, but it also leaves “Gangster Squad” a step below the best crime dramas.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and an audio commentary with Fleischer.

 

A Haunted House

1 star
Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and some drug use
Universal
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray digital download and on demand

Considering the popularity of the found-footage movie genre, a parody makes perfect sense. Sadly, “A Haunted House” is about as weak an effort as one can imagine.

The film was co-written by Rick Alvarez and Marlon Wayans, and it stars the latter as Malcolm, a single man who invites his girlfriend, Kisha (Essence Atkins), to move in with him. Almost immediately, bad things occur, and it becomes clear that a malevolent spirit is haunting their home.

Michael Tiddes allows events to play out as they do in the “Paranormal Activity” films, with viewers watching footage that was supposedly recorded by the characters themselves. The big difference, of course, is that “A Haunted House” sacrifices scares for satire.

In a better-scripted movie, the concept might have worked, but Wayans and company rely almost entirely on over-the-top, potty humor. That means gags about flatulence and dirty sex rule the day, and most of them aren’t very funny. The movie features appearances by a number of solid character actors, including David Koechner, Nick Swardson and Cedric the Entertainer, but not even they can elevate the material.

When a film is this poorly written, the actors don’t matter.

DVD and Blu-ray extras are limited to an extremely short featurette titled “How to Survive a Paranormal Presence.”

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Jurassic Park 3D”: Director Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film about business people who build a theme park around genetically engineered dinosaurs was recently converted to 3D. Now, fans can own it on a Blu-ray 3D combo pack.

“Richard III”: Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play has been freshly restored, meaning this is the preferred release for all film buffs and collectors. Olivier plays the title character and directs.

“Family Weekend”: R-rated comedy about a neglected daughter (Olesya Rulin) who holds her parents (Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Modine) hostage in hopes of reminding them what it means to be a family. Joey King, Eddie Hassell and Shirley Jones also star. Directed by Benjamin Epps.

Pierre Etaix: This multi-disc set from the Criterion Collection contains all the feature films and shorts directed by French comedian and actor Pierre Etaix. Included are “The Suitor” (1962), “Yoyo” (1965), “As Long as You’ve Got Your Health” (1966), “Le Grand Amour” (1969) and “The Land of Milk and Honey” (1971).

“Any Day Now”: Story of a gay couple (Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt) who agree to raise an abandoned teen with Down Syndrome. Despite loving the boy as their own, they are forced into a court battle when authorities question their unorthodox living situation and try to remove him from their care.

“Happy People – A Year in the Taiga”: Documentary film about approximately 300 people who live almost entirely hidden from modern society in a remote region of Siberia. Directed by Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov.

“Touched by an Angel” – The Seventh Season: Twenty-five episodes of the inspirational drama about angels who help people at important turning points in their lives. Della Reese, John Dye and Roma Downey 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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