Video Verdict: Reviews of ‘Sex Tape,’ ‘Earth to Echo’ and ‘The Purge: Anarchy’

Cameron Diaz (left) and Jason Segel star in “Sex Tape.”

Cameron Diaz (left) and Jason Segel star in “Sex Tape.”

This week’s home video releases range from a science-fiction movie aimed at youth to a broad, R-rated sex comedy.

Sex Tape

2 stars (out of four)
Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use
Sony
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

Jason Segel is one of the most talented writers and comedic actors working in film today, which makes it a shame when he squanders energy on a project like “Sex Tape.” Segel co-wrote the relationship comedy with Kate Angelo and his frequent collaborator Nicholas Stoller, but the work doesn’t have the panache or wit of his best efforts.

The focus is on Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Segel), a likable married couple who used to have sex all the time. We know this because Annie is a semi-famous blogger (a profession more viable in movies than anywhere else), and she writes about their deteriorating love life. In an effort to spice things up, they decide to shoot a homemade porn film with Jay’s iPad. The trouble is, Jay loves Apple devices (yeah, there’s a lot of product placement) but doesn’t know how to use them. Because of this, the sex “tape” is uploaded to the cloud where it immediately synchronizes with a bunch of used iPads that Jay has gifted to friends. Oops!

When Jay and Annie discover the mistake, they are horrified and – being technologically inept – decide to track the gifted iPads and delete the videos by hand. Their efforts lead them through a series of mishaps, including uncomfortably intimate discussions with friends and a brutal showdown with a German shepherd.

Because Segel and Diaz are talented, one might expect “Sex Tape” to be brimming with laughs. It is not. There are funny moments, but Segel’s and Stoller’s work is more consistent in “The Muppets” and the great “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Even their film “The Five-Year Engagement,” which has a few hiccups, is a blast by comparison.

It’s hard to pinpoint the biggest problem with “Sex Tape,” but the minimalistic plot sticks out. Although the movie runs 94 minutes, there’s not a lot going on, so director Jake Kasdan and his actors attempt to carry the film with charm and observational gags that relate to – but don’t necessarily rely on – the plot. Some of the jokes work, but many do not.

Diaz and Segel get acting support from Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper, Rob Lowe and Jack Black, and each performer does reasonably well with what they’re given. The trouble is, they weren’t given much, and the audience is sure to notice.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include behind-the-scenes featurettes.

 

Earth to Echo

2½ stars
Rated PG for some action and peril, and mild language
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

“Earth to Echo” is no science-fiction classic, but it serves a purpose for the right, niche audience. The film, directed by Dave Green, is an ode to childhood, and it’s told from the perspective of a young filmmaker named Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley) who is chronicling the days before he and his two best friends will be forced to separate.

Viewers are supposed to believe the characters shot the film, so it fits into the burgeoning found-footage genre. It’s not fair, however, to lump “Earth to Echo” alongside “Paranormal Activity” and “The Last Exorcism” because Green never pretends that the footage was “discovered.” Rather, viewers are to believe that everything was carefully edited by Tuck after the events played out. Of course, that means Tuck survives the film, which is no spoiler because “Earth to Echo” is a PG-rated children’s flick.

Green’s approach is an improvement over the typical found-footage presentation because quick cuts of ridiculously grainy footage grow tiresome quickly. Tuck is good at what he does, and that means “Earth to Echo” has style and structure.

After Tuck explains to viewers that he and his buddies – Munch (Reese Hartwig) and Alex (Teo Halm) – are being separated because the government is building a freeway through their Nevada subdivision, he introduces a mystery. Days before Alex and Munch are to move, smart phones start going haywire near Alex’s home. Most notably, they display strange graphics that the boys interpret as a map. Soon, they are riding their bikes deep into the Nevada desert.

When the map leads to a seemingly worthless chunk of metal, the boys grow frustrated. Before they go home, however, the metal starts moving and making noises. Eventually, the friends realize that a tiny alien is hiding inside.

“Earth to Echo” owes a great deal to “E.T.” including the basic plot. But it would be unfair to call it a clone, as the latter film was focused primarily on one boy’s relationship with an alien. “Echo” fully involves all three youth, using their relationship to comment on the value of both human and extra-human friendships.

“Echo” is also less evolved than “E.T.” Director Steven Spielberg is a master of emotional filmmaking, and he made “E.T.” a near-perfect family movie. “Echo” is interesting, but it feels amateur when compared to the Spielberg classic. For one thing, the plotting grows increasingly silly as the film moves on. Children will, no doubt, enjoy the fact that the youthful protagonists drive all the action in the film, but there is a point when this makes little sense. Children are important, but adults hold most of the power in our world, and “Earth to Echo” refuses to acknowledge that.

Bradley, Hartwig and Halm are decent performers, and they do a nice job moving the action forward, but that doesn’t change the fact that the action is unbelievable. “Earth to Echo” will probably entertain the youthful audience it’s aimed at, but it’s a much tougher sell for adults who tag along.

DVD extras are limited to a single behind-the-scenes feature. The Blu-ray release has several additional making-of bits and a collection of deleted scenes.

 

The Purge: Anarchy

2½ stars
Rated R for strong disturbing violence, and for language
Universal
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

“The Purge,” writer-director James DeMonaco’s 2013 movie about a fictional future America, was a clever-but-flawed commentary on class disparity. DeMonaco’s sequel, “The Purge: Anarchy,” continues the themes introduced in the first film but fails to expand on them. For viewers looking for cheap thrills, this approach may be satisfactory. But the movie will be a disappointment to anyone hoping “The Purge” franchise would live up to its considerable potential.

Both movies are set in a near-future where a creepy, totalitarian group known as the New Founding Fathers runs the U.S. government. Strangely, things seem better. Unemployment is down and crime has fallen to record lows. Of course, the latter is true only because the government allows one 12-hour period each year when all criminal acts, including murder, are legal. This short window, known as the Purge, was designed, the Founding Fathers say, to allow citizens to release their inner demons.

Of course, one is more likely to survive the Purge if he or she has money for protective barricades and weapons, meaning it’s the poor and homeless who usually fall to the violence. Much of the power in DeMonaco’s setup comes in the knowledge that most Americans would scoff at the idea of something as barbaric as a Purge. Yet there is real-life statistical evidence to indicate that poverty has a direct link to increased mortality, and there’s plenty of poverty in the U.S. Clearly, DeMonaco wants viewers to think about this and to question whether society is doing enough to eliminate the social problems we face.

There are no easy answers to deep societal problems, but DeMonaco should be applauded for broaching the issue in a popular medium with the potential to reach millions. Unfortunately, he largely squanders this opportunity by allowing “The Purge: Anarchy” to fall victim to the same trap as his original movie. What starts as a thought-provoking commentary, almost immediately devolves into a color-by-numbers thriller about a group of good-hearted citizens attempting to survive the night.

Key to the plotting are Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), a young couple whose car breaks down before the Purge begins. This leaves them just as vulnerable as the homeless. The film also focuses on Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter, Cali (Zoë Soul). Although they have shelter, gunmen attack their apartment and take them prisoner. Through a series of plot twists, Shane, Liz, Eva and Cali end up under the protection of a heavily armed man (Frank Grillo) with significant combat training. Once gathered, this group spends most of the film running from the dangers of the Purge, and the action unspools as it would in any horror movie.

DeMonaco includes a subplot about a militant group that wants to overthrow the Founding Fathers, and this is the most interesting part of the film. Unfortunately, it is also the most underdeveloped.

From a visceral standpoint, “The Purge: Anarchy” has appeal. The pacing is solid, the action is relatively well presented and the acting is as good as one typically finds in this genre. The movie is not, however, smart; and that’s too bad because DeMonaco’s setup certainly is.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a behind-the-scenes feature.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Life After Beth”: Comedy about a young man (Dane DeHaan) who is ecstatic when his girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) mysteriously returns from the dead. Things get tricky, however, when she develops a taste for human flesh. Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly also star. Written and directed by Jeff Baena.

“The Fluffy Movie”: Film crafted from footage gathered during Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias’ Unity Through Laughter comedy tour. The home video release includes jokes that weren’t seen in theaters.

“Mad Men” – The Final Season, Part 1: Seven episodes from the seventh season of AMC’s Emmy-winning drama about advertising agency employees living and working in 1960s New York. Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery and January Jones star.

“Snowpiercer”: Science-fiction film set in a post-apocalyptic future where Earth has been plunged into an ice age and all humans live on a constantly moving train. Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, John Hurt and Octavia Spencer star. Directed by Bong Joon-ho (“The Host”).

“Pee-wee’s Playhouse” – The Complete Series: Paul Reubens’ children’s television show won 22 Emmy Awards during its five seasons on air. This set boasts remastered versions of all 45 episodes, plus the “Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special.”

The Vincent Price Collection – II: Just in time for Halloween, Scream Factory rolls out a set containing seven, creepy Vincent Price movies. Included is: “The Return of the Fly” (1959), “House on Haunted Hill” (1959), “The Raven” (1963), “The Last Man on Earth” (1964), “The Comedy of Terrors” (1964), “The Tomb of Ligeia” (1964) and “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” (1972).

“La Dolce Vita”: Criterion Collection restoration of writer-director Federico Fellini’s 1960 dramedy about a celebrity journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) looking for meaning in life. Presented in Italian with English subtitles.

“A Coffee in Berlin”: German drama about a twenty-something slacker (Tom Schilling) trying to find his place in modern-day Berlin. Directed by Jan Ole Gerster. Presented in German with English subtitles.

“Annie Oakley” – The Complete Series: Eleven-disc boxed set containing all 81 episodes of the 1950s TV series about female sharpshooter Annie Oakley (Gail Davis).

“F for Fake”: Criterion Collection restoration of the last major movie by writer-director Orson Welles. The free-form, 1974 documentary examines the life of famed art forger Elmyr de Hory.

“Duck Dynasty” – Seasons 4-6: The 29 most recent episodes of A&E’s reality drama about the Robertson family, operators of the Duck Commander hunting supply business. The set also includes the “Duck the Halls” holiday special.

“Billy Crystal – 700 Sundays”: HBO taping of Billy Crystal’s one-man theatrical show about his early childhood.

“The Red Skelton Show” – The Early Years (1951-1955): Ninety early episodes from comedian Red Skelton’s long-running TV series.

“Downton Abbey” – Seasons 1, 2, 3 & 4: Fans of this English historical drama can now own every episode as part of a handsome, PBS boxed set.

 

– 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.

 

NOTE: Blu-rays, DVDs and screening links are provided to the reviewer at no charge. This enables us to run reviews the day titles become public, but it does not influence the opinions expressed.
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One response to “Video Verdict: Reviews of ‘Sex Tape,’ ‘Earth to Echo’ and ‘The Purge: Anarchy’

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