Video Verdict: ‘Prisoners,’ ‘Elysium,’ ‘Kick-Ass 2,’ ‘The Lone Ranger,’ ‘One Direction: This Is Us’

Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Hugh Jackman star in the thriller “Prisoners.”

Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Hugh Jackman star in the thriller “Prisoners.”

Home video releases typically slow during Christmas and New Year’s week, but the days leading up to the holidays are jam-packed. That means we have a host of newcomers this week, and they range from a new take on the Lone Ranger to a dark drama centered on child abduction.

Prisoners

4 stars (out of four)
Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

Few 2013 movies have the raw, emotional power of “Prisoners,” a thought-provoking drama exploring the human capacity for good and evil and the fine line that sometimes separates the two.

The movie begins by introducing viewers to the Dovers and Birches, working-class neighbors and friends who share a pleasant Thanksgiving meal. The celebration rapidly gives way to panic, however, when the families discover that their two, young girls have disappeared while playing outside. The only potential clue is a strange van that was parked on the street earlier in the day. Police, led by the aggressive Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), act quickly and arrest the driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but this only confuses the matter.

Although Jones is an adult, he has the mental capacity of a boy, and Loki finds no indication that he kidnapped the girls. Despite this, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is convinced that Jones took his daughter, and he pledges to do whatever it takes to get her back, even if that means breaking the law. Enlisting the help of his friend Franklin (Terrence Howard), whose daughter is also missing, Keller conducts his own surreptitious investigation.

Director Dennis Villeneuve moves the 153-minute film with precision, leading viewers through a thriller that bolsters its clever, surface-level twists with deep thematic roots that force viewers to identify with multiple characters. This should stimulate debate about everything from vigilantism to torture, and it allows the movie to live in one’s mind long after it has played out.

“Prisoners” could have been even better if Villeneuve had addressed a few underplayed plot points, but focusing on minor flaws in an otherwise masterful film is neither fair nor productive. “Prisoners” is wonderful on nearly every level, and it should satisfy fans of dramas and thrillers alike.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include two making-of features.

 

Elysium

3½ stars
Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout
Sony
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

“Elysium” ranks among the best science-fiction films of 2013, and it has been a terrific year for the genre. The movie, directed by Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”), is set in a future Earth where resources have been largely depleted, leaving most of the populace in poverty. Technology has, however, allowed the extremely wealthy to thrive. While the masses live in squalor, the rich inhabit a luxurious, paradise-like space station where crime is virtually nonexistent and disease is easily eliminated by technological wonders known as Med-Bays.

Early in the film, the protagonist, a former car thief named Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at his job. Because he doesn’t have access to Elysium Med-Bays, he is informed that he has only five days to live. Desperate, Max turns to an organized crime boss named Spider (Wagner Moura). Spider agrees to help Max gain access to a Med-Bay, but only if he steals valuable information from a corporate CEO who is about to travel from Earth to Elysium.

“Elysium” is an obvious commentary on the increasing wealth divides in America, as well as a criticism of those who see adequate healthcare as anything other than a basic human right. Because of this, one’s overall impression of the film will be informed by his or her political biases.

Regardless of one’s thoughts on the issues that Blomkamp addresses, the director deserves credit for creating a science-fiction film that is smart and challenging. The best works in the genre always address political, social and moral issues, and Blomkamp does this with flair.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include making-of features about the cast and the design of the Elysium space station.

 

Kick-Ass 2

3 stars
Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, crude and sexual content, and brief nudity
Universal
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

“Kick-Ass 2” is so over-the-top and violent that it convinced one of its stars, Jim Carrey, to condemn it in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Although the movie wasn’t released until months after the massacre, Carrey said he was unable to conscionably promote the film because of the onscreen bloodshed.

While Carrey’s willingness to take a stand is admirable, one has to wonder about the sudden change of heart. “Kick-Ass 2” is, after all, a sequel, and the original film is as bloody and violent as comic book movies get.

Like its predecessor, “Kick-Ass 2” focuses on Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an everyday high school student who decides that a goofy green suit is the only thing standing between him and superhero status. When the film opens, Dave has more or less retired, realizing that life as the masked hero Kick-Ass is both difficult and dangerous. Still, he misses the action and longs to be part of something bigger, so he trains with Mindy Macready (Chlöe Grace Moretz), who is better known as the deadly teen superhero Hit-Girl.

Although she’s younger than Dave, Mindy is an experienced crime fighter because her recently deceased father, the masked vigilante Big Daddy, trained her. Eventually, however, Mindy’s new guardian, Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut), begs her to stop fighting crime, and she complies. This leads Dave to team with other everyday citizens who have transformed themselves into costumed heroes, largely thanks to his inspiration.

Leading the group is a former mob enforcer (Carrey) who calls himself Colonel Stars and Stripes. Other heroes include Battle Guy (Clark Duke), Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison), Insect Man (Robert Emms), and a heroine whose name includes a profanity (Lindy Booth). As the newly formed group fights crime, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) transforms himself into a supervillain and hatches a plot to kill Kick-Ass, who he blames for his father’s death. D’Amico takes a vulgarity as the name of his alter ego, and pays a bunch of nasty thugs to become his costumed sidekicks. This leads to an eventual showdown between the heroes and villains.

Although one can understand Carrey’s concern about the violence in “Kick-Ass 2,” it’s important to put the movie in context. While it is bloody and violent, it does not promote atrocities, like the massacre at Sandy Hook. In fact, the most troubling thing about the movie is that it could be seen as supporting violent vigilante justice as a reasonable response to criminal activity. Although I don’t believe that was the intent of writer-director Jeff Wadlow, viewers could easily glorify the actions of Hit-Girl, a “hero” who willingly kills any criminal who stands in her way. The fact that she is also a teen makes the images particularly startling.

Still, “Kick-Ass 2” is a fantasy film and, as with the works of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. In fact, the movie can be analyzed as a cautionary tale, as Wadlow makes it painfully clear that vigilantism comes with a price.

Plus, when viewed purely as an action flick, “Kick-Ass 2” is good, goofy fun. The characters are larger than life, the screenplay boasts a nice mix of parody and drama, and the performances are universally strong. Like many sequels, “Kick-Ass 2” isn’t as fresh as its inspiration, but it’s still a good time.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include several making-of features, extended scenes and an audio commentary with Taylor-Johnson, Moretz, Mintz-Plasse and Wadlow.

 

The Lone Ranger

2 stars
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence and some suggestive material
Disney
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

Considering his success with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, Disney was likely hoping director Gore Verbinski could reinvent the Lone Ranger, giving the Mouse House another long-running series. But Verbinski’s attempt to bring the Ranger into the 21st century fails in numerous ways.

The movie’s biggest problem is that Verbinski seems most interested in Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s trusty sidekick. That may have something to do with the fact that Johnny Depp plays the former character, while the lesser-known Armie Hammer has the title role.

Hammer is a fine actor and a reasonable choice to portray a Western hero, but Verbinski never gives him the chance. By design, Hammer’s character, is bookish and silly.

The movie starts in a museum where Tonto, as a very old man, relates his story. In flashback, the audience meets John Reid (Hammer), an educated young man who returns to his Texas hometown after years living in the city. Audiences learn that John’s brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), is a well-known lawman, and he promptly deputizes his brother so they can track a dangerous fugitive together. Alas, Dan’s posse is ambushed, and a badly wounded John is the only survivor. Tonto finds and revives him, and the two agree to hunt the men responsible for the massacre.

This setup would be fine except that John is no warrior. Not only does he prefer words to action, he makes it clear that he dislikes firearms. That makes his evolution to a vengeful masked gunfighter seem both unlikely and unbelievable. It doesn’t help that Verbinski apparently asked Hammer to portray the masked hero as a bumbling savior along the lines of Inspector Clouseau in the “Pink Panther” films and Jar Jar Binks in “Star Wars.”

Without Tonto, one believes, the Lone Ranger would be nothing. This is inconsistent with the legend of the character, as well as a hugely unlikable reading.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a blooper reel.

 

One Direction: This Is Us

2½ stars
Rated PG for mild language
Sony
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, digital download and on demand

It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t already a One Direction fan dedicating 90 minutes of their lives to a documentary about the band, so the audiences for “This Is Us” will be naturally biased. They should also be largely satisfied with the film.

In many ways, One Direction represents all that is wrong with art in our increasingly corporate world. Like a number of today’s biggest acts, one gets the feeling that the individual members are less important than their packaging and marketing. It’s not that the five members of the band – Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson – lack talent. They are all fine singers, excellent performers and seem to be likable guys. However, it would be a simple matter to replace any one of them with another golden-voiced stud and keep the group going indefinitely.

The movie is to be commended for accurately depicting the band’s less-than-organic origins. Simon Cowell appears prominently and talks about his decision to combine the five guys into a group for the British version of “The X-Factor.” The individual members then explain how they formed a friendship as they were learning to work together.

As with most band documentaries, there are plenty of segments showcasing the group’s music, which is best categorized as bubblegum pop. But “This Is Us” is not a concert film. It’s a movie that includes the group’s music while taking viewers behind the scenes during its tours.

The film seems an odd choice for director Morgan Spurlock, who made his name with gimmicky-yet-entertaining first-person documentaries, including “Super Size Me.” Spurlock isn’t seen in “This Is Us,” as he approaches the movie traditionally, choosing to focus on the personalities of the band’s members and the Beatlemania-like fervor they have inspired.

Spurlock does a good job with the history of the group, and he gives viewers a fascinating look at what it’s like to have legions of fans. He does not, however, deliver anything approaching intimacy. Each of the band mates says the expected: they’re all great friends, they love what they’re doing and they owe it all to their fans. Missing is anything revelatory or dramatic, like the tension directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky captured in the outstanding, 2004 music documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.”

This doesn’t make “This Is Us” a failure. On the contrary, the group’s rabid fans should eat it up. The movie does not, however, contain anything likely to change the minds of undecided listeners or offer insight into the group’s creative process.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include extended scenes, featurettes focused on the personal lives of each member and the music video for “Best Song Ever.”

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Percy Jackson – Sea of Monsters”: Second film in the movie franchise based on Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson fantasy novels. In this sequel, Percy, the half-human son of Poseidon, goes in search of the Golden Fleece with his friends. Logan Lerman, Alexandra Daddario, Douglas Smith, Brandon T. Jackson and Stanley Tucci star. Directed by Thor Freudenthal.

“The Family”: Comedy starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as the mother and father of a crime family that is relocated to France as part of the witness protection program. Because of their previous lives, they have a difficult time fitting in. John D’Leo, Dianna Agron and Tommy Lee Jones also star. Co-written and directed by Luc Besson.

“The Sound of Music Live!”: NBC offered a fresh staging of “The Sound of Music” as a live television event Dec. 5, and it was such a rating’s hit that the network re-aired it Dec. 14. Fans now have the opportunity to watch (or own) the Carrie Underwood-starring production on home video.

Indiana Jones on Blu-ray: In September 2012, Paramount released the complete adventures of Indiana Jones on Blu-ray, but consumers had to buy the entire boxed set in order to have a high-definition copy of any one film. This week, Paramount is making the first three movies – “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Temple of Doom” and “The Last Crusade” – available individually. That should be welcome news to anyone who enjoyed Indy’s early adventures but felt that the franchise lost steam as it rolled on. Individual, high-definition copies of the movies are also available as digital downloads.

“Night Train to Lisbon”: Film adaptation of Pascal Mercier’s 2004 novel about an aging professor (Jeremy Irons) who abandons his job and travels to Portugal to investigate the life of a mysterious author. Directed by Bille August (“Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” 1998’s “Les Misérables”).

“Shameless” – The Complete Third Season: The fourth season of this Showtime comedy will bow in early January. In the meantime, fans can enjoy the 12 episodes available on this set. As with earlier seasons, the plotting centers on the dysfunctional lives of the Gallagher family. William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum star.

“Justified” – The Complete Fourth Season: A new season of “Justified,” about a hard-nosed U.S. Marshal (Timothy Olyphant) who fights crime in and around his Kentucky hometown, will debut Jan. 7 on FX. Anyone who wants to catch up, can check out the 13 episodes available here.

 

– 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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