This week’s major home video releases include an old-West comedy by Seth MacFarlane, an inspirational sports movie from Disney, and an action-packed science-fiction picture with Tom Cruise.
Edge of Tomorrow
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive material
Available on Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, digital download and on demand
Time travel movies are tricky, but director Doug Liman has delivered a science-fiction gem with “Edge of Tomorrow,” a fast-paced, action-heavy affair that plays like a mash up of “Groundhog Day” and “War of the Worlds.”
The picture is set in a near future where frightening, tentacular creatures have launched an all-out assault on Earth. Just when it looks like the alien beings are invincible, Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) leads humanity to an impressive victory using a heavily armed exoskeleton. Suddenly convinced they can win, human military leaders prepare to throw all their resources into one devastating attack. The human commander (Brendan Gleeson) knows casualties will be high, and he hopes to assuage criticism by embedding the U.S. Army’s top public relations man, Maj. William Cage (Tom Cruise), with the attacking soldiers.
This doesn’t sit well with Cage, a smooth-talking salesman who makes it clear that he knows nothing about combat. Nevertheless, Cage is thrown into battle, where he dies almost instantly. And that’s when things get interesting.
For reasons Cage doesn’t discover until later, his death transports him back in time, allowing him to relive the invasion repeatedly. Since he retains memories from his previous encounters, he can also make adjustments to his actions. Sensing opportunity, he searches for Vrataski, hoping the two of them can lead the humans to victory.
In a sense, “Edge of Tomorrow” is a story of redemption. Cage, as portrayed by Cruise, has no problem convincing other men to die for the human cause, yet he shamelessly avoids combat until given no choice. After his first death, however, he begins a slow progression toward selflessness. This aspect of the story is fascinating, and “Edge of Tomorrow” could have been even better had Liman given it additional focus. The fact that he chose not to is disappointing, but not devastating.
“Edge of Tomorrow” still works as a first-rate thriller anchored by well-staged action sequences, outstanding special effects and a surprisingly strong plot. The film also makes impressive use of Blu-ray 3D technology. It wasn’t originally shot in 3D, but the post-conversion adds depth to every scene without falling back on screen-popping gimmicks.
From a story standpoint, “Edge of Tomorrow’s” reliance on time travel opens the door for plot holes, but Liman mostly avoids the pitfalls with a succinct and satisfying explanation of all that happens. There are still moments that will leave fans debating, but that’s OK. In fact, science fiction is often most fun when it leaves one dissecting a movie days after the original viewing.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include deleted scenes and a number of making-of featurettes.
A Million Ways to Die in the West
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand
Some comedians work best when handcuffed, and Seth MacFarlane seems like one of those guys. The writer, actor, producer and director made his name creating smart, funny animated TV shows, including “Family Guy” and “American Dad!” Film has allowed him to stretch his humor into R-rated territory, which seems like a good idea in theory. But, in practice, the work has been disappointing.
MacFarlane’s 2012 comedy “Ted” contained lots of F bombs and crude gags, but these were only intermittently funny, making one wonder if MacFarlane views the R rating as an opportunity to sacrifice story for shock value. With “A Million Ways to Die in the West” he continues his R-rated journey, and the material is again littered with obscenity for obscenity’s sake.
There will, no doubt, be those who argue that detractors are too prude to “get” MacFarlane’s material, but “West” isn’t a failure because it’s too vulgar. It’s a failure because most of the jokes – crude or otherwise – fall flat.
The story centers on Albert (MacFarlane), a mild-mannered sheep farmer living in the American West during the 1800s. He repeatedly laments the terrible living conditions, noting that death – whether by rattlesnake or gunshot wound – is the only constant.
Albert’s miserable existence grows darker when his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), leaves him and takes up with a braver, richer man (Neil Patrick Harris). The only solace Albert finds is in the company of Anna (Charlize Theron), a mysterious woman who rolls into town with her troublemaking brother.
MacFarlane, who co-wrote and directed the picture, has his stamp everywhere, and there are funny moments, most notably when the actors are poking fun at Western curiosities, like the fact that nobody smiles in old-time photos. There’s also an appealing wit to MacFarlane’s directorial approach. Although the movie is set in the distant past, the characters carry themselves with a knowing, 21st century swagger that leads to a number of good chuckles.
Alas, the good moments are regularly undermined by a routine plot and underwritten script. It often feels like the story exists only to move characters from place to place so they can deliver preconceived one-liners about Western life. And when the one-liners run out, it’s back to stale sex gags and profanity.
MacFarlane is a talented man, and he probably has a good feature film waiting to come out. We just aren’t likely to see it until he remembers that the freedoms an R rating affords are only beneficial when an artist has reason to exploit them.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include a gag reel, a making-of feature and an audio commentary.
Million Dollar Arm
Rated PG for mild language and some suggestive content
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand
In 2003, writer-director Thomas McCarthy delivered a sweet dramedy titled “The Station Agent.” The movie – starring Peter Dinklage as a reclusive little person who makes friends despite a shattered self-image – is one of the best of its year. “Million Dollar Arm,” written by McCarthy and directed by Craig Gillespie (“Fright Night,” “Lars and the Real Girl”), is not as original, but it possesses the same lighthearted charm that made “Station Agent” so good.
The Disney movie tells the story of J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), the real-life sports agent who helped Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) become the first Indian men to join a professional, American sports franchise. In the film, Bernstein is portrayed as a struggling businessman who is barely keeping his sports marketing firm afloat. In a desperate bid to save the company, he travels to India with the idea of finding cricket players who have enough raw talent to move into Major League Baseball.
“Million Dollar Arm” is fictionalized, and it’s thematically similar to other Disney sports movies, including “The Rookie,” “Miracle” and “Remember the Titans.” It would be easy to write the film off as a clone, but it wouldn’t be fair.
Disney sports films have become a genre of their own, but they have more than distribution in common. Each of the previously mentioned pictures is a terrific human drama that celebrates unlikely feats by determined protagonists. In other words, story comes first.
With “Million Dollar Arm,” McCarthy deserves much of the credit because his screenplay is familiar and melodramatic, yet never cloying. Gillespie paces the material appropriately, and he and Hamm work hard to keep viewers invested in Bernstein’s gambit, even when the character’s often self-centered actions are off-putting. This is important because the movie isn’t just about young Indian athletes who make it in America, it’s about a businessman forced to recognize that people are more important than “the deal.”
Hamm is a fine actor, and his star power helps sell the project, but the supporting players are equally important. Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton and Aasif Mandvi show up in key supporting roles. Sharma (best known for his portrayal of the title character in “Life of Pi”) and Mittal are also excellent.
The biggest drawback to “Million Dollar Arm” is, oddly enough, also a selling point. The movie is undeniably formulaic, and that makes it predictable. But that also makes it comforting, and that’s a fine trait for a sports drama, particularly one that’s meant to remind us of the importance of our own humanity.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include a making-of featurette.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“Black Nativity”: This holiday drama from “Eve’s Bayou” writer-director Kasi Lemmons opened in theaters nearly a year ago, but 20th Century Fox wisely decided to tie the video release to the 2014 holidays. The film is a modernized take on Langston Hughes’ musical play, which was written as an all-black retelling of the Nativity story. Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige and Jacob Latimore star.
“American Horror Story – Coven”: This anthology series features a different storyline each season, and “Coven” is centered on women descended from those persecuted during the Salem witch trials. When these women come under attack because of their bloodline, they are invited to a boarding school that is dedicated to their protection.
“The Wonder Years” – The Complete Series: “The Wonder Years” drew a dedicated following and won numerous awards during its six seasons on ABC. Although the show aired in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, it tells the story of a boy (Fred Savage) coming of age during the 1960s. Fans can now purchase every episode of the series (packaged in a metal box shaped like a school locker), but it is only available online at TimeLife.com/WonderYears. Folks who like the show but don’t want to spring for the complete, 26-disc set, can opt for “The Wonder Years: Season One,” which is available at regular retail outlets.
“Bates Motel” – Season Two: Ten most-recent episodes of the A&E drama designed as a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, “Psycho.” Freddie Highmore stars as Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga plays his mother.
“Vikings” – The Complete Second Season: The 10 most recent episodes of History Channel’s series about Norse hero Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel).
“Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart”: French animated film about a boy whose damaged heart is replaced by a clock. Although the swap saved his life, he must avoid strong emotions, as they have the potential to stop the clock and end his life. The movie, directed by Stéphane Berla and Mathias Malzieu, features an English-language soundtrack as well as the original French with English subtitles.
“Houdini”: Home video release of History Channel’s four-hour miniseries about the life of famed magician Harry Houdini. Adrien Brody stars as the title character. Directed by Uli Edel.
“Sleeping Beauty” – Diamond Edition: Disney has made a practice of releasing its classic films on home video for a limited time, then locking them away in the vaults. That makes the emergence of this 1959 princess story a treat for fans.
“The Following” – The Complete Second Season: Fox’s drama, about a serial killer (James Purefoy) who develops a cult of dangerous followers, took small steps backward during it’s second season, but it’s still one of the more entertaining shows on network TV. This boxed set includes all 15 episodes. Kevin Bacon, Shawn Ashmore, Jessica Stroup and Natalie Zea star.
“Obvious Child”: Comedy about a stand-up comic (Jenny Slate) who is forced to reevaluate her life when she gets pregnant during a one-night stand. Co-written and directed by Gillian Robespierre.
“Duck Dynasty” – Season 6: Nine recent episodes from A&E’s reality series about the Robertsons, the Louisiana family that built a small duck call business into a multi-million dollar organization.
“China Beach” – The Complete Series: This 1980s and 1990s TV show – set at an evacuation hospital during the Vietnam War – has been available directly from Time Life for some time. This week, the series moves into wider, retail distribution.
“Rude Dude”: Documentary film about famous comic book artist Steve Rude and his decision to change pace and become a fine artist. Directed by Ian Fischer.
“Ancient Aliens” – Season 6, Volume 1: Eight episodes of the History Channel show that speculates on the impact extraterrestrials may have had on ancient Earth.
“Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated” – The Complete Season 2: Final 26 episodes of the 2010-2013 Cartoon Network series dedicated to Scooby-Doo and his mystery-solving pals.
“Adventure Time” – The Complete Fourth Season: Cartoon Network’s series about a boy and dog living in a bizarre, post-apocalyptic world. This set includes 26 episodes aired between April and October 2012.
“School Dance”: Teen comedy about a high school student (Bobb’e J. Thompson) who hopes to win the girl of his dreams (Kristinia DeBarge) by joining a popular dance crew. The film is the directorial debut of writer-producer-actor Nick Cannon.
– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at email@example.com.