A clever animated film, a quirky drama and a big-budget superhero movie anchor this week’s home video releases.
Man of Steel
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, digital download and on demand
After director Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” films became a resounding success, it was clear that Superman was also in need of an update. Filmmakers attempted this in 2006 with “Superman Returns,” but that movie was as much a tribute to the earlier, Christopher Reeve films as an independent feature. It, therefore, failed to reinvent the franchise.
With “Man of Steel,” director Zack Snyder (“Watchmen,” “300”) teamed with “Dark Knight” screenwriter David S. Goyer and Nolan, who served as a producer. Together, they created a Superman movie that offers a fresh look at the hero’s origin, a new actor in the title role and a series of spectacular and bombastic battle sequences.
“Man of Steel” is bigger, bolder and louder than Nolan’s Batman films, and this works both to its advantage and detriment. Since Superman is a larger-than-life hero, it makes sense to have action sequences that push limits. Unfortunately, Snyder takes them too far, allowing some sequences, particularly one climactic battle, to run far too long.
This cinematic excess weakens the movie, but Snyder does so many things right that it’s easy to look past the flaws and celebrate the merits. For starters, actor Henry Cavill delivers a fresh and emotionally appealing reading of Superman. This is important because Superman, more than any other comic book hero, requires humanization. The character is, literally, a space alien. He is also so strong, so indestructible and so generally good that it’s easy to see him as machine-like and dull. Cavill doesn’t allow this. Instead, he recognizes that Superman’s heroism stems not from his extraordinary powers but from his willingness to sacrifice so much of his own life to protect others.
None of this means that Cavill’s Superman shies from his powers. Snyder pits the hero against one of his most fearsome enemies, the Kryptonian military figure General Zod (Michael Shannon), and this allows Superman to unleash every ounce of his incredible strength. Because Zod is from the same planet as Superman, the heroes have near-equal abilities, and their battles are so brutal that they wreak havoc on everything around them.
This new take on Superman and Zod is exciting, and the filmmakers also deserve credit for reinventing other characters from the hero’s mythology. Superman’s lady love, journalist Lois Lane, is beautifully portrayed by Amy Adams, and “Man of Steel” also features Russell Crowe as Superman’s biological father, Jor-El, and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as his adoptive parents.
The quality of all the performances more than make up for Snyder’s action excess, and the result is a reboot that redefines Superman for older viewers and opens him up to a new generation of fans.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include several features on the making of the movie.
Rated R for sexual references and language
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and on demand
Writer-director Noah Baumbach made a name for himself with offbeat, talky movies that favor character-centered drama over more traditional story arcs, and “Frances Ha” fits nicely within his catalog.
The movie focuses on Frances Haliday (Greta Gerwig), a woman who has managed to reach 27 without acquiring either major responsibilities or a sense of her true self. In the opening frames, she breaks up with her boyfriend after he asks her to move in with him. While doing so, she argues that her roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), needs her to maintain the apartment they share. It soon becomes clear, however, that Frances is more dependent on Sophie than vice versa, and several unexpected turns force Frances to examine both her interpersonal relationships and her flailing career as a dancer.
Baumbach co-wrote the screenplay with Gerwig, and the latter – an underused actress – does a fine job in the title role. It, no doubt, helps that Gerwig had such intimate familiarity with the material because the film is more concerned with the things going on in Frances’ head than those taking place in her life.
Baumbach opted to shoot the movie digitally and release it in black and white, a move that results in a classic, arty feel, even though the characters and events are decidedly contemporary. There is no question that the film is skillfully made, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete success.
As lovely as “Frances Ha” is to look at and as fine as the performances are, there’s not much else going on. The movie is best described as a character study, but Frances isn’t particularly interesting. The film does capture the zeitgeist of the current era, a time when many young people are going years without settling into the adult routines that their parents expect. But that alone doesn’t make the project meaningful.
In the end, “Frances Ha” is the story of a young woman who is struggling to find herself. It’s up to viewers to decide whether she does, but Baumbach’s and Gerwig’s storytelling is so offbeat and sluggish that many will wind up just as scattered and lost as poor Frances.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include several making-of features, including conversations with Gerwig, Baumbach and others involved in the making of the film.
Rated PG for some mild action and thematic elements
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and digital download
DreamWorks Animation lacks the near-flawless track record of Pixar, but it has still turned out a number of excellent animated movies, including “Chicken Run,” “Shrek,” “Flushed Away,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Rise of the Guardians.” Because of that, the studio has become a noteworthy player in the animation field, and its latest picture should reinforce its status.
“Turbo” is a sweet and adventurous movie that uses personified snails to remind viewers that optimism and the pursuit of one’s dreams are important elements to a fulfilling life. The focus is on a tiny, orange garden snail named Theo. Although he’s no faster than any snail, Theo spends his evenings watching auto races and dreaming of one day becoming a speed demon himself.
Theo’s fellow snails – including his brother, Chet – ridicule him, arguing that there is no way a snail can race. They also tell him that the sooner he accepts his limitations, the happier he’ll be. Then, something remarkable happens. Theo is exposed to nitrous oxide and is suddenly able to move at car-like speeds. This not only delights him, it makes him a star in the eyes of Tito, a young human who races snails in his spare time.
Like Theo, Tito is a dreamer, and he believes Theo’s astonishing abilities can help draw business to the taco stand that he and his brother, Angelo, run. Before long, the two dreamers are attempting to land a spot in the Indianapolis 500 where Turbo hopes to race against drivers that he has worshipped for years.
“Turbo” is inherently silly, and the plotting is straightforward and predictable. While these aren’t exactly selling points, the simple structure isn’t as devastating as it might be in a live-action film. “Turbo” isn’t likely to surprise anyone other than children, but it still packs a rewarding message into an attractive package. The characters are nicely drawn and well fleshed out by the voice cast, which includes Ryan Reynolds as Turbo, Paul Giamatti as Chet, Michael Pena as Tito and Luis Guzman as Angelo.
The animation is also terrific, especially considering that snails aren’t naturally expressive. Writer-director David Soren and his crew pull an astonishing amount of emotion from the creatures’ eyes and mouths alone. They also do a terrific job with the many action sequences, and that makes “Turbo” fast-moving, entertaining and, most importantly, fun.
The DVD and Blu-ray releases feature several extras designed to help kids enjoy the feature even more. These bits include a short where animator Dave Burgess teaches viewers how to draw Turbo and a feature where Turbo and other snails show off the components that make up their shells.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“Paradise”: Dramedy about a conservative, young woman who, after surviving a plane crash, travels to Las Vegas to experience the things she’s been missing. Julianne Hough, Holly Hunter, Russell Brand and Octavia Spencer star. Written and directed by Diablo Cody.
“Prince Avalanche”: Director David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express”) tells the comedic story of two extremely different men (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) who find friendship while repainting traffic lines in a remote country area.
“City Lights”: The Criterion Collection is releasing a combined Blu-ray/DVD release of Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 romantic comedy about a tramp’s efforts to help a blind woman that he has fallen in love with.
“Dexter”: Showtime is delivering “Dexter – The Complete Final Season” and “Dexter – The Complete Series Collection” this week. Obviously, fans that have already invested in past seasons will lean toward the smaller set, but those who are yet to experience “Dexter” may want to dive into the entire series.
– 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.