Video Verdict: ‘The Hangover Part III,’ ‘The Purge,’ ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ ‘After Earth’

Will Smith, left, and his son, Jaden Smith, star in the science-fiction adventure “After Earth.”

Will Smith, left, and his son, Jaden Smith, star in the science-fiction adventure “After Earth.”

It’s a busy week for home video with new releases ranging from an intimate Shakespeare adaptation to a new “Hangover” sequel.

The Hangover Part III

2½ stars (out of four)
Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, some violence and drug content, and brief graphic nudity
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray digital download and on demand

Director Todd Phillips’ third entry in “The Hangover” franchise is supposed to be his last, and we should be thankful. I say this not because “The Hangover Part III” is particularly bad, but because it is entirely forgettable.

Worthwhile sequels should move a franchise’s characters and plotting in new and interesting directions. Although “Part III” is a significant improvement over the horrid “The Hangover Part II,” it doesn’t come close to matching the original film in terms of creativity or laughs.

This time, the guys in the Wolf Pack – Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) – take part in an intervention for their buddy Alan (Zach Galifianakis). After Alan’s father dies, it becomes clear that he needs psychiatric care, and the Wolf Pack convinces him to check into a first-rate facility in Arizona. During the drive to the treatment center, a gangster named Marshall (John Goodman) runs the guys off the road and takes Doug hostage. Marshall then explains that the notorious Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) owes him money and that Phil, Stu and Alan must locate him if they want Doug to live.

For the rest of the movie, the guys struggle to locate and apprehend Chow, and they run into plenty of trouble as they do. The screenplay, written by Phillips and Craig Mazin, wisely avoids the use of memory loss as a key plot point because that trick got old when it was rehashed in “Part II.” This entry is a straightforward adventure tale that is likable but never extraordinary. It is also amusing, but rarely laugh-out-loud funny.

This leaves one to wonder why it was made in the first place. The original “Hangover” was inventive, comical and a tad subversive. “Hangover III” is just a standard-order Hollywood comedy populated by familiar characters. For fans, that may be enough, but it shouldn’t be.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include outtakes, extended scenes and several behind-the-scenes features.

The Purge

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

With “The Purge,” writer-director James DeMonaco is obviously looking to make bold statements about violence and social justice. Toward that end, he invented an extremely clever and engaging premise yet failed to fully capitalize on its potential.

The movie is set in 2022, an era of seemingly unending prosperity for the United States. Unemployment is at 1 percent and violence – the audience is told through an onscreen graphic – is virtually non-existent. This is only true, however, because the nation’s new “founding fathers” have set aside an annual, 12-hour period during which criminal activity – including murder – is legal. Apparently, the atrocities committed during this time, known as The Purge, are not counted in crime statistics because the violence that viewers are subsequently exposed to is widespread and brutal.

The reason the government allows The Purge, at least as explained in the film, is that citizens are able to exorcise their violent tendencies during this one, short period, making the rest of the year a cakewalk. The logic is absurd, and the chances of anything like this happening in reality are slim. Still, it’s interesting to think about, and DeMonaco lays the groundwork for a movie that should be smart and daring. Sadly, this clever foundation mostly rots, as “The Purge” turns into a standard-order thriller.

To make the plot more relatable, DeMonaco focuses on a single family: the Sandins. The patriarch is James (Ethan Hawke) a security system salesman who has done nicely selling high-end home-protection systems to his upscale neighborhood. He lives what seems to be an affectionate and happy life with his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), their son, Charlie (Max Burkholder) and their daughter, Zoey (Adelaide Kane). James is in an interesting position because his financial success is largely due to the dangerous atmosphere created by The Purge, yet he and Mary never participate. Their ritual is to lock the house tight and wait for the outside violence to end.

The Sandins are tested, however, when a frightened and bloody man runs down their street begging for help. Without asking permission, Charlie lets him into their home. Shortly after, a heavily armed group shows up at the Sandins’ door, and the leader explains that they must send the man out or become victims themselves.

There are problems with the plotting. For instance, one wonders why the youngsters – who spend much of the movie outside and unprotected – aren’t afraid for their own lives. One also wonders why – if the attackers can move about freely – the Sandins don’t simply arm themselves and slip out a back door.

“The Purge” is not, however, a thinking person’s film. Rather than ask his audience to confront the picture’s fascinating moral dilemma in a realistic way, DeMonaco produces a pure thriller. “The Purge” is littered with bloodshed, and the violence easily overshadows the thoughtful premise. This is frustrating, yet the movie is intense from start to finish.

Hawke and the rest of the cast – especially a Purge baddie played by Rhys Wakefield – play the material straight, and this allows willing viewers to get sucked into the silliness. Once that happens, it’s awfully hard to stop watching.

The only extra on the Blu-ray and DVD releases is a making-of feature titled “Surving the Night.”

Much Ado About Nothing

3½ stars
Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief drug use
Lionsgate
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and digital download

Few people in Hollywood can match writer-director Joss Whedon’s remarkable artistic track record. He not only delivered the most successful superhero movie of all time with 2012’s “The Avengers,” he went on to spin that project into the TV series “Agents of SHIELD.” And those are just his latest accomplishments.

Whedon became a cult hero in the late 1990s as creator of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV series and its well-liked spinoff, “Angel.” After those shows left the air, he suffered through a short commercial slump when two science-fiction dramas, “Firefly” and “Dollhouse,” failed to gain network traction. But they weren’t exactly duds. Despite short lifespans, both series developed devoted fans.

The Whedon faithful are now being rewarded with one of his most surprising works to date, a 109-minute screen adaptation of the William Shakespeare comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.” The filmmaker reportedly shot the film in just 12 days, during a break before final edits on “The Avengers.” More importantly, he built the film around performances by a host of his best-loved actors. Most notably, Alexis Denisof (“Buffy,” “Angel,” “Dollhouse”) and Amy Acker (“Angel,” “Dollhouse”) play the romantic leads Benedick and Beatrice.

Shakespeare’s play is considered a comedy, but it has dark overtones, most notably in the way that men and women treat one another. Benedick and Beatrice are obviously attracted, yet they spend much of the film mercilessly sparring.

Benedick’s friend Claudio (Fran Kranz) is more emotionally open, and he makes this clear by fawning over the daughter of the noble Leonato (Clark Gregg). Of course, love is not simple, particularly in a Shakespeare play. In order to find happiness, Claudio and Benedick must overcome shenanigans by the evil Don John (Sean Maher).

Although Whedon maintains the Bard’s original language (with edits for the screen) he moves the setting to the present day. That means the players strut about in suits and ties rather than period dress.

Whedon also made the interesting choice to shoot the film digitally and release it in black and white. This is presumably a nod to the screwball comedies and noir films of Hollywood’s past, but it isn’t entirely successful from an artistic standpoint. Because the footage is digital, it has a slick, modern feel that isn’t the least bit nostalgic. In fact, a full color version would have likely been preferable.

With more time and a larger budget, Whedon might have achieved a more technically polished product. But there’s no need to mourn what might have been. Whatever flaws the movie has, the performances are great.

Acker and Denisof are as likable as any actors to bring Shakespeare to the screen, and equally strong players surround them. Interestingly, many of these players are unknowns in a broad sense but beloved to anyone who follows Whedon’s work. For those fans, “Much Ado About Nothing” should feel strangely intimate, and that’s when a play like this is at its best.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include two making-of featurettes, one audio commentary with Whedon and the cast and one featuring Whedon alone.

After Earth

3½ stars
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images
Sony
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

When “After Earth” hit theaters, most critics savaged it, a phenomenon that left me wondering if the reviews had been written before anyone had seen the film. The project did, after all, arrive with baggage.

Prior to “After Earth,” co-writer and director M. Night Shyamalan had been on a downward spiral that was seemingly out of control. After delivering a trio of great films – including “The Sixth Sense” – between 1999 and 2002, Shyamalan lost his footing and produced an unbroken string of bad movies. It is natural, I suppose, for one to expect that trend to continue. But it didn’t.

“After Earth” is not perfect, but it is Shyamalan’s best movie since 2002’s “Signs.” It is also a compelling science-fiction adventure that works as both a coming-of-age tale and a parable about father-son relationships.

The film is set in a distant future where human beings – having damaged Earth beyond repair – are living on a new world. During a routine military mission, a famous human general named Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his 13-year-old boy, Kitai (Smith’s son, Jaden), crash land on the old human home world. Because Earth is unstable and populated by a host of deadly creatures, Kitai and Cypher are in remarkable danger.

As with most science-fiction efforts, “After Earth” has points that strain credibility. For instance, the characters possess only crude, close-range weapons despite being advanced enough for intergalactic travel. Focusing on this could ruin one’s appreciation for the picture. But beneath the surface-level problems lays a movie that is both action-packed and emotionally stirring.

Shyamalan does a fine job with pacing, and Will Smith is solid as a hardened military veteran who realizes that he and his son are facing long odds. Jaden Smith is less polished than his father, and he speaks in a poorly chosen (and never explained) accent. But this is a minor matter.

“After Earth” is a film that should have helped Shyamalan regain his stature in the film industry. Unfortunately, the early backlash was so nasty that it may have actually sped his fall.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include three featurettes on the making of the film and a never-before-seen version of the opening sequence.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Stuck In Love”: Romantic drama about the quirky family life of a novelist (Greg Kinnear) who can’t get over the fact that his ex-wife (Jennifer Connelly) left him. Lily Collins, Logan Lerman, Nat Wolff and Kristen Bell also star. Written and directed by Josh Boone.

“Curse of Chucky”: Direct-to-video sequel to the ongoing “Child’s Play” horror franchise. The movie, like its predecessors, centers on Chucky, a red-haired doll that is possessed by the spirit of a serial killer. Brad Dourif again voices Chucky, and co-stars include his daughter, Fiona Dourif. The film, which was written and directed by Don Mancini, is available on its own or as part of “Chucky – The Complete Collection.” The latter release packs all six “Child’s Play” movies into one boxed set.

“American Horror Story – Asylum”: “American Horror Story” is set up so that each season is self-contained. This release collects all the episodes from its sophomore season, which is focused on the residents of a hospital for the criminally insane. Jessica Lange, Lily Rabe, Joseph Fiennes, Zachary Quinto and James Cromwell star.

“I Married a Witch”: The Halloween season is here, and even the venerable Criterion Collection is getting in on the action. This week, Criterion delivers a freshly restored version of director René Clair’s 1942 romantic comedy “I Married a Witch.” The film tells the story of a 17th century witch who tries to exact revenge on the 20th century descendant of the puritan who burned her. Comedy ensues when the plot fails. Veronica Lake, Frederic March and Susan Hayward star.

“Transformers Prime Beast Hunters – Predacons Rising”: Animated movie designed to conclude the story arcs introduced in the “Transformers Prime” TV series. The show debuted on Hub Network Oct. 4, so this release is about as fresh as they get.

“90210” – The Final Season: Fifth season of the nighttime soap inspired by the 1990s TV drama “Beverly Hills, 90210.” This new version lasted only half as long as the original series, but five years is a respectable run. Now fans can relive every episode on video. Shenae Grimes, Tristan Wilds, AnnaLynne McCord, Jessica Stroup, Michael Steger and Jessica Lowndes 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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7 Comments

Filed under Video Verdict

7 responses to “Video Verdict: ‘The Hangover Part III,’ ‘The Purge,’ ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ ‘After Earth’

  1. Forest, glad you liked “Much Ado.” My grown daughters both loved it and got a copy so I could watch it at home. Another contemporary setting of this same play was the 2011 London stage version with David Tennant and Katharine Tate (both formerly of Doctor Who), which is a bit more broadly played (available via Netflix, I thin). But the cast in Whedon’s film pulled out even more of the meaning from Shakespeare’s lines. In our home, we are still mourning the death of “Firefly.”

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  2. Hey Joyce. Glad you liked “Much Ado” as well. I think Whedon did a great job with it, as he does most everything he touches.

    I actually hadn’t watched “Firefly” until recently when my boys and I started going through it on demand. We love it and I can tell that I will miss it when we finally finish. I guess, after that, I’ll have to watch “Dollhouse,” but I hear it’s not as good.

    Thanks for dropping by my site.

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  3. smilingldsgirl

    You liked After Earth. How shocking (just kidding). I’m so excited to see Much Ado About Nothing. I love that play and wanted to see the movie but didn’t get a chance.

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  4. I think you’ll like “Much Ado.” It’s good even if you don’t like Joss Whedon. If you like him, it’s a plus because of all the familiar faces he brought to the project.

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  5. smilingldsgirl

    I’m way excited! I like Joss Whedon. I even liked the Avengers and I don’t normally like superhero movies.

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  6. smilingldsgirl

    Saw Much Ado last night. I thought it was brilliant. I hope Joss Whedon uses his vacations to do more Shakespeare! It’s amazing how the words still ring true all these years later.
    It was a movie that felt like real art. I loved the shots through windows and the layers in the frames.
    I’d love to do a play someday. Shakespeare is just amazing.
    The only thing that is hard about the cast is all of the men kind of looked the same to me so I had a hard time remembering who was who but small critique.
    Loved it.

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