This week’s home video releases include comedies starring Ben Stiller and Ice Cube, as well as an excellent drama featuring Dame Judi Dench.
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand
Judi Dench received her fifth best actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the title character in director Stephen Frears’ “Philomena.” The movie was inspired by Martin Sixsmith’s non-fiction book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” and it tells the true story of the Irish woman’s quest to find the child taken from her when she was a teen.
In the early 1950s, Philomena became pregnant and was sent to live in a Catholic convent. While she was there, her young son was given to adoptive parents from America.
Frears’ movie departs substantially from the book while telling a fascinating tale of motherly love and indicting the Catholic Church’s operation of Magdalene laundries. These facilities, which were designed as rehabilitation centers for unwed mothers, often operated like prisons, and Philomena’s story puts a face to the tragedy many young women endured.
In the film, Sixmith (portrayed winningly by Steve Coogan), a journalist, learns that the now-elderly Philomena wants to find her lost son. He decides this will make a compelling human-interest story, so he accompanies her as she attempts to track the child.
Dench is best known for playing steely, in-charge women, but Philomena is different. Although determined to find her son, she continues to harbor guilt about her pregnancy and remains devoted to the Catholic Church. Sixmith doesn’t understand this, and he is sometimes confrontational with both Philomena and the nuns who refuse to help. This adds dramatic tension to the story and makes it easy for viewers of varied backgrounds to relate to the characters.
Frears has made a number of fine movies, including “The Queen,” “Dirty Pretty Things” and “High Fidelity.” “Philomena” can stand proudly alongside each of these.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include an audio commentary and featurettes about Dench, Coogan and the real Philomena Lee.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and digital download
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a showcase for Ben Stiller, the movie’s producer, director and star. It’s also one of the finest films of his career.
Based loosely on James Thurber’s 1939 short story and an earlier, 1947 movie version, “Mitty” focuses on Walter (Stiller), a mild-mannered Life magazine employee with a tendency to daydream. The film is set during Life’s transition from a print publication to an online presence, and Walter faces chaos through much of the picture.
Life employees are in danger of losing their jobs due to the digital transition, and Walter feels like a particular target because a new executive (Adam Scott) is amused by his tendency to zone out. Things get worse when Walter realizes he’s lost the negative to a cover shot by famous photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn).
Because O’Connell is always travelling and doesn’t carry a cellular phone, Walter is forced to track him like a detective, a process that makes the man embrace the real world rather than living in his dreams. The movie also contains a nice romantic subplot involving Walter and a coworker (Kristen Wiig).
Stiller is always a winning presence, but subpar scripts plague him. With “Mitty,” everything comes together. The story is funny and engaging, Stiller’s direction is tight and competent and his performance is terrific. The movie is also unique – particularly among Stiller’s work – in that it rarely gets crude while hunting for laughs. Movies that are adult enough for parents, yet tame enough for young ones, are a rarity, but “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” fits the bill.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include a photo gallery and several behind-the-scenes features.
The Nut Job
Rated PG for mild action and rude humor
Available on: Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, digital download and on demand
“The Nut Job” has a lot going for it in terms of voice acting and animation. Unfortunately, the film is saddled with an inconsequential and predictable script that places it in the second tier of animated movies.
The story focuses on a squirrel named Surly who likes to do things his own way. Although he is extremely clever, most fellow animals view him as a dangerous maverick, and he is ultimately banned from the park where they live. The tide turns when Surly discovers an inner-city nut store that a group of bank robbers are using as a front.
Convinced that the store can eliminate their food concerns, the park animals agree to work with Surly in an effort to steal nuts. In the meantime, the human robbers plan a bank heist.
It’s clever that co-writer and director Peter Lepeniotis decided to set the nut theft against a robbery by human beings, but little else is novel. Avid animation fans have seen countless characters with Surly’s traits, and the story plays out exactly as one would predict.
For kids, this may be OK. The colorful animation and high-energy voice work by Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson, Katherine Heigl and Maya Rudolph should maintain their attention. What’s missing is complexity.
Today’s better, animated movies have layers and layers of material to unearth, but “The Nut Job” is as basic as a picture gets.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include two short, animated films.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, sexual content and brief strong language
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand
If you need proof that a movie needn’t be good to land a sequel, look no further than “Ride Along.” The comedy was a success at the box office, grossing about $135 million on a $25 million budget. It is not, however, an artistic winner.
The film centers on Ben Barber (Kevin Hart), a loud-mouthed, video game aficionado who wants to become a police officer and marry his beautiful girlfriend, Angela (Tika Sumpter). The only trouble is, she wants him to get the blessing of her hard-edged brother, James (Ice Cube).
James is already an Atlanta Police detective, and he doesn’t think Ben has what it takes to become a cop or keep his sister happy. So, James proposes that Ben accompany him on a ride along in order to prove that he has the right stuff. Of course, James also stacks the deck against his potential brother-in-law.
“Ride Along” is another tired variation on the buddy cop formula, and about the only thing it has going for it is casting. Ice Cube and Hart are charismatic performers, and their fans may find enjoyment watching them riff off one another. Unfortunately, the premise is so lightweight and the script so bland that there’s little else to like.
As for the comedy, there isn’t much. Director Tim Story (“Fantastic Four,” “Barbershop”) takes a straightforward approach to the material, and neither the gags nor the plotting draw many laughs. Maybe producers are saving the good stuff for the sequel.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include a gag reel, behind-the-scenes features and an audio commentary by Story.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“Breaking the Waves”: Fresh, digital restoration of director Lars Von Trier’s 1996 movie about a troubled woman (Emily Watson) whose paralyzed husband (Stellan Skarsgård) encourages her to have sex with other men. Watson received an Oscar nomination for her work.
“Better Living Through Chemistry”: Sam Rockwell plays a small-town pharmacist whose wild affair threatens to ruin his life. Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Jane Fonda and Ray Liotta also star. Directed by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier.
“The Carol Burnett Show – Carol’s Crack Ups”: Seventeen uncut episodes of Carol Burnett’s 1960s and ’70s TV show. The six-DVD set includes performances by show regulars Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Dick Van Dyke, as well as numerous guest stars.
“Anger Management” – Volume Three: Twenty-four episodes of the FX TV series starring Charlie Sheen as a therapist who has issues of his own. Selma Blair, Shawnee Smith and Martin Sheen also star.
“Flowers in the Attic”: TV-movie adaptation of the V.C. Andrews novel. The story centers on four children who are abused by their grandmother after their father dies. Heather Graham and Ellen Burstyn star.
“Date and Switch”: Comedy about long-time friends who have their relationship tested when one of them comes out as gay. Nicholas Braun, Hunter Cope, Dakota Johnson and Zach Gregger star. Directed by Chris Nelson.
– 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.