Video Verdict: ‘The Butler,’ ‘Fruitvale Station,’ ‘Enough Said,’ ‘The Spectacular Now,’ ‘Riddick,’ ‘Carrie,’ ‘You’re Next’

Robin Williams, left, plays President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

Robin Williams, left, plays President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

This week, movie studios opened the home video floodgates, rolling out more than a half dozen noteworthy titles, including several films that are likely to land Academy Award nominations.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking
The Weinstein Company
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

Director Lee Daniels (“Precious”) offers a poignant look at black American life in “The Butler,” a movie inspired by Eugene Allen, a real-life White House butler who served eight presidents.

As good as the film is, too much has been made of its ties to reality. Although the onscreen protagonist – Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) – serves at the White House for decades, most of the movie’s dramatic arc is fiction. Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong realize that a film needs dramatic tension to hold viewer interest for 132 minutes, so they invented a host of melodrama for their protagonist.

In the film, one of Cecil’s sons, Louis (David Oyelowo), is a civil rights activist who joins the Black Panthers. Daniels uses this fact to put Cecil’s service in historical context and to inspire heated political discussions between father and son. Gaines’ real-life son was no activist. In fact, he is a retired State Department investigator.

Although the movie is more fiction than fact, Daniels spins a good – albeit histrionic – yarn that recounts many of the highs and lows in American race relations. “The Butler” is also worth seeing for the exceedingly fine cast. Whitaker is wonderful as Cecil, and he receives solid supporting work from an ensemble featuring Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard, Robin Williams, John Cusack and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a music video, deleted scenes, a gag reel and a making-of feature.

 

Enough Said

3½ stars
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, some thematic material and brief language
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and digital download

We didn’t need anything to underscore the sadness of the June 2013 passing of actor James Gandolfini, but “Enough Said” does the job anyway.

The romantic drama is a quiet gem that ranks among Gandolfini’s finest contributions to cinema and proves that he was a more versatile actor than his Tony Soprano-driven career suggested. Gandolfini plays Albert, a divorcé and single dad recovering from a nasty marriage. He finds what seems to be happiness with Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a good-natured masseuse who is also a single parent. At first, the two seem like a perfect match. Both are charming, sweet and willing to look past surface-level flaws. Things devolve, however, when Eva discovers that one of her new clients (Catherine Keener) is Albert’s ex-wife. As time wears on, the ex-wife’s continual complaints about life with Albert begin to taint Eva’s views.

Writer director Nicole Holofcener broaches big ideas in subtle ways, and she forces viewers to confront the fact that relationships are built on more than the feelings of two people. The script is clever, and Holofcener helps her actors create layered, exciting characters who act like real people rather than movie stereotypes.

Gandolfini stands out because his performance is wonderful and the tragedy of his death is still fresh. He does not, however, steal the show. Louis-Dreyfus is perfect as Eva, painting the character as a flawed woman who is still lovable and kind. This is the sort of role that could expand her career, opening doors to parts she hasn’t been offered in the past.

Spectacle-driven blockbusters dominate today’s multiplexes, but there will always be room for well-written, beautifully crafted character dramas like “Enough Said.” The only sad note is that Gandolfini is no longer around to put his mark on them.

Extras on the DVD release are limited to promotional featurettes and the movie’s trailer. The Blu-ray has these features plus a collection of second takes.

 

Fruitvale Station

3½ stars
Rated R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use
The Weinstein Company
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

The 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant III was so sad and pointless that it provided plenty of fodder for a motion picture, and writer-director Ryan Coogler did a good job bringing the true story to life.

Grant was just 22 years old when a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Police Department officer shot him during an altercation at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, Calif. Grant was unarmed, and the police officer was charged with murder and, ultimately, found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. According to the officer’s defense, he intended to stun Grant with a Taser but grabbed his pistol by mistake.

Coogler’s film approaches the material by shifting the focus from the shooting and murder trial to Grant himself. He achieves this by following the man (played beautifully by Michael B. Jordan) through the last day of his life. Included are moments with Grant’s former boss, his mother (Octavia Spencer) and his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz).

All actors are outstanding, and Coogler deserves credit for refusing to deify his protagonist. Although the film makes it clear that the shooting was unjust, Grant has plenty of flaws. His background as a convicted drug dealer is never hidden, and Jordan depicts the man acting both kind and dangerously explosive.

Since Coogler wasn’t with Grant in the hours before his death, creative license was required and moviegoers may not receive an entirely accurate portrait of Grant. Still, Coogler is true to the most important moments from the public record, and the film forces viewers to recognize the real human tragedy in an incident that could easily be dismissed as just another sad news story.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a short centered on Grant and a Q&A with the filmmakers.

 

The Spectacular Now

3½ stars
Rated R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality – all involving teens
Lionsgate
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

When Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) gets dumped by his girlfriend (Brie Larson), he mourns the loss by drinking heavily and passing out on the front lawn of a stranger. Several hours later, he is discovered by Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a high school classmate who runs in different social circles and enjoys a less hedonistic lifestyle. It’s a chance meeting that changes both of their lives.

With “The Spectacular Now,” director James Ponsoldt uses these disparate characters to explore teen problems ranging from substance abuse to daddy issues, and he does so with considerable skill. Ponsoldt asks his actors to do most of the heavy lifting, and they respond impressively, creating fine and memorable characterizations.

Sutter is a party boy who gets plastered at every opportunity and has a difficult time deciding between Aimee and his former love. Because of this, his life is in constant disarray, and Teller does a wonderful job crafting a character best described as a charismatic mess.

Aimee, a classic good girl, isn’t nearly as complicated, but that doesn’t mean she’s boring. Woodley portrays her as genuinely sweet, the sort of girl who is willing to sacrifice her own dreams in order to help her mother pay the bills.

Since Sutter and Aimee are so different, their relationship is hardly the stuff of fairy tales, and that’s what makes “The Spectacular Now” a joy. Fairy tale moments are rare in real life, but people like Sutter and Aimee are plentiful, and Ponsoldt’s coming-of-age tale is better because of the realism.

“The Spectacular Now” stumbles as it moves into its third act, primarily because it rushes the evolution of its characters. This does not, however, eliminate the many good qualities of the film, and anyone who is willing to embrace Ponsoldt’s vision will be rewarded with a better-than-usual teen drama.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include deleted scenes, a making-of feature and an audio commentary by Ponsoldt.

 

Riddick

1 star
Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexual content/nudity
Universal
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

Science-fiction fans were treated to a number of great movies in 2013, making “Riddick” look particularly bad by comparison. This third entry in the live-action “Riddick” film franchise again stars Vin Diesel as the title character, a humanoid warrior with the ability to see in the dark.

The film is set after the events of 2004’s “The Chronicles of Riddick” with our protagonist attempting to return to his home planet. Instead, he finds himself trapped on a hostile alien world. In an effort to escape, Riddick triggers the communication system at a mercenary outpost, luring two vessels to the surface. Of course, the visiting mercenaries are more interested in collecting the considerable bounty on Riddick’s head than they are in offering him a ride. This leads to a showdown between Riddick, the mercenaries and the monstrous inhabitants of the planet.

Writer-director David Twohy, who also helmed the previous two Riddick movies, does a good job with the special effects and the movie’s many action sequences. Unfortunately, that’s about all “Riddick” has going for it.

The plot is a simplistic man-hunts-man fable that rarely offers surprises, and the characters are so one-dimensional that it’s difficult to care what happens. Riddick has the most depth, which isn’t saying much because he is depicted as little more than a survivalist tough guy.

Done well, science-fiction is a smart genre that forces viewers to think about the world they live in and the way their actions could impact future generations. “Riddick” is nothing but an action film, and a formulaic one at that.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a motion comic prequel to the movie and featurettes on the actors.

 

Carrie

2½ stars
Rated R for bloody violence, disturbing imaages, language and some sexual content
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

With school shootings regularly making the news, Stephen King’s “Carrie” was ripe for a movie remake. King’s novel, and the 1976 film that it inspired, offer excellent meditations on the dangers of bullying and the lasting impact of child abuse.

Although the topics broached by King’s story are even more relevant today than in the past, director Kimberly Peirce brings nothing new to the table with her remake. In fact, Peirce’s new “Carrie” does little more than update the setting and insert fresh-faced actors into the story.

Chloë Grace Moretz plays the title character, a young woman whose life is controlled by her mother’s (Julianne Moore) extreme religious beliefs. Although she longs to be a regular girl, Carrie doesn’t receive credible adult guidance, and this makes her a naïve and easy target for bullies. Carrie’s situation grows worse when she learns that she is developing incredible telekinetic powers.

Peirce’s setup is solid, and Moretz makes it easy for viewers to identify with Carrie. The supporting cast is also good, and Peirce does a reasonably good job with pacing.

“Carrie’s” biggest problem is an unwieldy third act that shifts the focus from compelling morality tale to gruesome horror spectacle. This is not only boring, it fails to differentiate the new “Carrie” form the 1976 original.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include the theatrical trailer and a making-of feature.

 

You’re Next

1 star
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Lionsgate
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

In 2013, “The Conjuring” proved that horror films can still be fresh and exciting. “You’re Next” reminded us that they seldom are.
The Adam Wingard-directed thriller starts with the children of a wealthy family bringing significant others to a remote country home for their parents’ (Rob Moran and Barbara Crampton) wedding anniversary. Things go bad when masked assailants attack the clan, unleashing terror with weapons ranging from a crossbow to a splitting maul.
One gets the feeling that “You’re Next” wants to be different, but it isn’t. After a brief introduction, the film settles into the comfortable slasher mold where one character after another is brutally murdered. This is made possible by a host of stupid decisions. A young woman abandons her family and runs to the woods alone. The family patriarch calms his wife by sending her to bed. The only sensible character is Erin (Sharni Vinson), girlfriend to one of the family’s sons. She rallies the survivors in an effort to fight back, an action which leads to what is supposed to be a thrilling twist. In reality, it’s just OK.
Fans of blood and gore may delight in watching the characters fall victim to arrows, machetes and nail-spiked boards, but anyone who prefers true suspense should look elsewhere.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include a making-of feature and two audio commentaries.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Short Term 12”: Drama focused on two young counselors (Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.) trying to help the residents of a foster home for at-risk youth. The movie, written and directed by Destin Cretton, has received considerable critical attention, and it is nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards.

“20 Feet From Stardom”: Documentary film focused on the relatively unknown singers who provide backup to some of the world’s best-known musical acts. Directed by Morgan Neville.

“Rififi”: New, high-definition restoration of writer-director Jules Dassin’s 1955 French-language drama about former convicts who plan an extraordinary heist. The movie was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. Although it didn’t take that honor, Dassin was named best director. Presented in French with English subtitles.

“Thief”: Freshly restored, Criterion Collection release of director Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature. James Caan stars as a talented safecracker who wants to lead a normal life but agrees to take one more job… for the mafia. Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson, James Belushi and Dennis Farina also 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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  1. Pingback: Video Verdict: Reviews of ’22 Jump Street,’ ‘If I Stay,’ ‘And So It Goes’ and ‘Into the Storm’ |

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