Video Verdict: ‘Labor Day,’ ‘The Legend of Hercules,’ ‘Devil’s Due’

Kate Winslet, left, and Josh Brolin star in “Labor Day,” a romantic drama from writer-director Jason Reitman.

Kate Winslet, left, and Josh Brolin star in “Labor Day,” a romantic drama from writer-director Jason Reitman.

This week’s home video releases reach into multiple genres, including horror, action and romance.

 

Labor Day

3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality
Paramount
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

Writer-director Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up In the Air”) has proven himself an engaging talent with a flair for making movies that are more thought-provoking and off-center than those produced by his famous father, Ivan (“Ghostbusters,” “Stripes”). His latest, “Labor Day,” works both as an unconventional romance and a coming-of-age tale.

The plot centers on Henry (Gattlin Griffith), a 13-year-old boy who lives an uneasy life with his severely depressed mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). Henry’s existence is thrown into turmoil when a rough-looking man named Frank (Josh Brolin) approaches him at a department store and “insists” on a ride. Frightened, Henry and his mother comply, driving the man to their home. There, it is revealed that Frank is an escaped convict and that he plans on hiding out until nightfall.

This sounds like the setup for a thriller, but Reitman, who adapted the screenplay from Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel, instead delivers a sentimental, often-sweet melodrama about three broken people who find themselves in a most unusual manner. This is possible because Frank, although he appears dangerous, slowly reveals himself to be a stand-up guy and Adele and Henry sense his goodness.

“Labor Day” isn’t believable, but it is likable, particularly for viewers willing to surrender to the weepy, melodramatic plot. It helps that Winslet and Brolin lead the charge. Both actors are immensely talented and working at the peak of their powers, and they have a nice onscreen chemistry. Although Griffith is a youngster, he plays well alongside the veterans, which is important because the movie is presented from Henry’s perspective.

Despite its merits, there is a creepy, dysfunctional tone to “Labor Day.” It is, after all, about a woman wooed by the man who kidnaps her. Not everyone will get past this. Those who do will be treated to a love story that is engaging and tender, no matter how strange the setup.

The DVD release contains no extras. The Blu-ray has a making-of feature, deleted scenes and a filmmakers’ audio commentary.

 

The Legend of Hercules

2½ stars
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense combat action and violence, and for some sensuality
Lionsgate
Available on: Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, digital download and on demand

When one considers the number of people working in Hollywood, it is baffling that the film industry is so bereft of fresh ideas, yet an endless string of sequels and remakes enter multiplexes each year. Even more confounding is the fact that competing studios regularly clone each other’s ideas, releasing movies on the same topic within months of one another.

Last year, viewers saw two movies about an attack on the U.S. Capitol: “White House Down” and “Olympus Has Fallen.” In 2012, “Mirror Mirror” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” offered competing versions of the Snow White fable.

In 2014, the film industry seems obsessed by Hercules, as two big-budget pictures are tackling the Greek demigod’s story within six months of one another. The first of these films is “The Legend of Hercules,” a 3D epic directed by action-film veteran Renny Harlin (“Die Hard 2,” “Cliffhanger”). On deck is a Brett Ratner-directed movie featuring Dwayne Johnson as the brawny hero.

When Ratner’s film hits theaters in July we can hope it’s more than a carbon copy of Harlin’s movie. We can also hope it’s better.

“The Legend of Hercules” isn’t so much bad as forgettable. The story begins by introducing our hero’s parents, a ruthless Greek king named Amphitryon (Scott Adkins) and his kind-hearted wife, Alcmene (Roxanne McKee). Disgusted by her husband’s unending thirst for power, Alcmene offers to bear the son of the great god Zeus. The understanding is that their child, Hercules, will bring peace to the land.

As Hercules (Kellan Lutz) comes of age, he proves both noble and strong, but he is forced to live in the shadow of his older brother, Iphicles (Liam Garrigan). The hero tolerates this until it’s announced that Iphicles will wed Hebe (Gaia Weiss), the woman Hercules loves. Devastated, Hercules vows to disrupt the marriage.

Harlin’s movie is essentially a romance, but it is regularly peppered with big, brutal action sequences that allow Hercules to demonstrate his might. These bits are well done, and viewers equipped to watch on Blu-ray 3D should find them particularly engaging.

Lutz is likable as the title character, and his heavily muscled frame makes his feats of heroism at least moderately believable. Unfortunately, it does nothing for the pacing.

The story of Hercules should be exciting and fun, but Harlin’s presentation is reminiscent of an elegy. The film looks great, but it is over-serious and slow.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include an audio commentary by Harlin and Lutz.

 

Devil’s Due

1½ stars
Rated R for language and some bloody images
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and digital download

The found-footage horror genre has become so tired that each new entry is increasingly painful to watch.

In 1999, the concept of a documentary-style horror film assembled from video that was supposedly captured by the on-screen characters was relatively novel. That made “The Blair Witch Project” fun despite its technical limitations. When “Paranormal Activity” writer-director Oren Peli returned to the “Blair Witch” playbook in 2009, the found-footage technique still felt raw and gripping. In the last five years, we have endured countless clones – most of them with nothing new to offer – and the allure has disappeared. That did not prevent directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett from making “Devil’s Due,” a found-footage flick that is so derivative it’s best described as “Paranormal Activity” meets “Rosemary’s Baby.”

“Devil’s Due” tells the story of newlyweds who run into creepy business while honeymooning in the Dominican Republic. Then, things get even creepier when they return to the United States.

Despite taking birth control pills faithfully, Samantha (Allison Miller) discovers that she is pregnant. This is a surprise, but she and her new hubby, Zach (Zach Gilford), gleefully plan for their bundle of joy, and watch their lives degrade as they do. Samantha’s pregnancy is plagued by a host of eerie events, ranging from problems with the ultrasound to otherworldly movements by the baby. The young couple is also troubled by changes in Samantha’s temperament.

Viewers see all this thanks to home video shot by Zach and a handful of other characters. Found-footage films call attention to themselves because the cinematography is necessarily shaky and poorly framed. As a result, moviegoers are forced to watch, grainy images that are supposed to be scary but are more often annoying.

On the up side, producers can make this sort of picture on the cheap, allowing them to blow their real money on actors and special effects. Since “Devil’s Due” is also light in these areas, the money folks got a real bargain.

This criticism isn’t meant to disparage Miller or Gilford. They do a credible job with what they’re given, but nobody is going to mistake them for A-list stars. Because of that, nobody had to pony up A-list paychecks.

The worst thing about “Devil’s Due” is that viewers have seen a variation on each of the movie’s scary sequences in other pictures. Good horror films are all about surprises, and because of its redundancy, “Devil’s Due” has none.

The DVD release contains no extras. The Blu-ray has deleted scenes, a photo album and an audio commentary with Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Gimme Shelter”: Drama starring Vanessa Hudgens as a pregnant teen who flees her abusive mother in hopes of finding the father that she’s never known. Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser and James Earl Jones also star. Written and directed by Ron Kraus.

“Gloria”: Spanish-language drama about an older woman (Paulina García) who discovers that her new love may be hiding something. Co-written and directed by Sebástian Lelio.

“Hill Street Blues” – The Complete Series: Impressive Shout Factory boxed set containing all 144 episodes of the Emmy Award-winning, 1980s police drama. Daniel J. Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Bruce Weitz and Dennis Franz star.

“Star Trek – Enterprise” – Season Four: Final 22 episodes of the science-fiction television series designed as a prequel to the original “Star Trek.” Scott Bakula, Jolene Blalock, Connor Trinneer and Dominic Keating star.

“Il Sorpasso”: Criterion Collection release of director Dino Risi’s 1962, Italian comedy. The film centers on a young law student who takes an unplanned road trip with a brash, middle-aged man. Presented in Italian with English subtitles.

“Escape From Tomorrow”: Surreal, black comedy about a man whose family trip to Disney World goes remarkably wrong. Roy Abramsohn stars. Written and directed by Randy Moore.

“Dynasty” – The Eighth Season, Volumes One and Two: More episodes of the 1980s, nighttime soap. The show revolves around members of a wealthy Colorado family. John Forsythe and Linda Evans 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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