There is a strong slate of home video releases this week, and it is anchored by a movie that helped actor Robert Duvall earn his seventh Academy Award nomination.
3 stars (out of four)
Rated R for language including some sexual references
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand
Robert Duvall has again entered the Oscar race thanks to his portrayal of a grumpy-but-fair-minded legal professional in “The Judge.” The movie features Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer, a flashy, big-city defense attorney who returns to his tiny, Indiana hometown for his mother’s funeral. Director David Dobkin wastes no time establishing that Hank and his father, Joseph (Duvall), have unresolved problems. The latter is a no-nonsense judge known for dispensing firm rulings. Hank is a showy courtroom diva who pulls no punches when defending clients. Their personality differences are magnified by old disputes, making all interactions awkward.
Things change, however, when Joseph is accused of killing a convicted murderer who once appeared in his court. In an effort to give his father the best defense possible, Hank delays his trip home and remains with his family. But Joseph is not a cooperative client.
Duvall is terrific, playing Joseph as a stubborn man who insists on doing things his way, even when they aren’t in his best interest. He also has such a firm respect for the law that he is willing to sacrifice his own defense for a sense of fairness and justice.
Downey is both an excellent actor and a box office draw, but for “The Judge” he draws on riffs we’ve seen before. Hank is an essentially good-hearted guy who hides that fact beneath narcissism, bluster and witty banter. This schtick is enjoyable even though predictable and audiences seem to like it when Downey takes this road.
The Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque screenplay is less compelling than the performances, but the project is satisfying overall. “The Judge” addresses themes ranging from family dysfunction to the role one’s hometown plays in his or her development. Along this line, there’s a likable – if unresolved – subplot involving one of Hank’s youthful loves (Vera Farmiga).
Director David Dobkin would have done well to trim the project because it feels long at 141 minutes, and a number of scenes drag. Fortunately, the performances and worthwhile thematic elements largely make up for inconsistencies in pacing.
DVD extras are limited to a behind-the-scenes featurette. The Blu-ray combo pack contains that, plus deleted scenes, a making-of short and an audio commentary by Dobkin.
Rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand
It’s interesting to note that the Clint Eastwood war drama “American Sniper” made more on its opening weekend than “Fury” managed during its entire theatrical run because the latter film is arguably the better of the two. This statement isn’t meant to diminish “Sniper” but to point out that “Fury” has been largely underappreciated. The movie, which is set during the final days of World War II, generated respectable-but-unremarkable box office numbers and was snubbed from the Oscar race despite early recognition from the National Board of Review. “Fury” received that group’s award for best acting ensemble and made its list of the top 10 films of 2014.
It is unfortunate that “Fury” failed to generate more interest in theaters because it was not only the best war film of the past year, it ranks among the best of the past decade. Written and directed by David Ayer (“Harsh Times,” “End of Watch”), the movie focuses on a five-man tank crew fighting its way through Germany as the European theatre comes to a close. The tight-knit group is traumatized when its long-time assistant driver is killed, and replacement comes in the form of Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a rookie with no combat experience.
Norman is frightened, and the battle-hardened veterans around him are skeptical about his ability to do the job, but their sergeant, Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), is a master at turning boys into warriors. As the group presses on, Collier forcefully introduces Norman to the horrors of combat, acting as the young man’s teacher, father figure and, ultimately, friend.
Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal play the remaining members of the crew, and each actor fully inhabits his role, allowing viewers to invest in their characters. The men in this film aren’t war-movie archetypes. Instead, they are real people, and it’s easy to imagine them as electricians, carpenters or doctors rather than soldiers. This is important because only a handful of the combatants in World War II were professionals. Ultimately, it was citizen soldiers who won most battles, and “Fury” honors this truth.
Ayer’s combat sequences are brutal and gory, which should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the director’s work. He seems to delight in revealing the violent, gritty underbelly of our world, and he doesn’t hold back here. Considering the ugly things that happen on screen, “Fury” in no way glorifies war. The film does, however, honor the actions of the ordinary men and women who put their lives on the line in defense of our nation.
DVD extras are limited to one behind-the-scenes feature. The Blu-ray release has three additional featurettes, a photo gallery and more than 50 minutes of deleted and extended scenes.
The Book of Life
Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD and digital download
Animated films don’t get more colorful than “The Book of Life,” a lively musical that draws inspiration from Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. The film features a story within a story, and it begins with a group of unruly children who arrive at a museum for a field trip. Recognizing the disciplinary challenge the children present, a guide whisks them through a back entrance and wins them over with a fanciful tale of Mexican history.
The guide’s story centers on a bet between La Muerte and Xibalba, spirits who rule over the lands of the dead. La Muerte is a kind-hearted figure who oversees the Land of the Remembered, a lively place where the dead have fun interacting with ancestors. Xibalba is more treacherous, and he oversees the Land of the Forgotten, a depressing and dingy place populated by beings whose friends and family no longer remember them. Because he wants out of this dismal abode, the mischievous Xibalba proposes that he and La Muerte wager on which of two boys will win the heart of a beautiful girl named Maria. Xibalba, it is decided, will be allowed to rule the Land of the Remembered if he wins. If La Muerte wins, however, Xibalba must stop his constant interference with the lives of mortals.
Viewers then watch as the two boys – Manolo and Joaqúin – grow to adulthood, all the while competing to win Maria’s heart. The storytelling is mostly straightforward and predictable, but co-writer and director Jorge R. Gutierrez assures that the presentation is lively and fun. He also offers a few twists that momentarily distract from the conventional nature of the story arc.
The 3D computer animation is extremely bright and colorful, and the characters have a unique look that plays nicely with the movie’s Hispanic themes. Gutierrez also deserves credit for his skillful use of music. He works both original compositions and well-known pop songs into the storytelling.
Although “The Book of Life” earned a best animated feature nomination at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, it didn’t make the cut for the Oscars. Still, children should enjoy the music and fast-moving story while older animation fans bask in the unique and wonderful visuals.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include photo galleries, several behind-the-scenes featurettes and an audio commentary by Guitierrez.
Before I Go to Sleep
Rated R for some brutal violence and language
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray and DVD
Writer-director Rowan Joffe’s film adaptation of the S.J. Watson novel “Before I Go to Sleep” is a fascinating work marked by excellent moments and a strong lead performance by Nicole Kidman. Unfortunately, it also begs for comparison to writer-director Christopher Nolan’s far-superior 2000 film “Memento.” It’s not necessarily fair to judge a movie based on the standards of a predecessor, but in this case it feels inevitable. “Memento” is, after all, the kingpin of anterograde amnesia flicks.
“Before I Go to Sleep,” like “Memento,” features a lead character who wakes each morning with no memory of recent events. The drama in both films is in watching the characters piece their lives together time after time. In “Sleep,” the focus is on Christine (Kidman) a middle-aged woman who wakes in a strange bed next to a man she can’t remember. He introduces himself as her husband, Ben (Colin Firth), and numerous photographs are offered for confirmation. The plot thickens, however, when Christine learns that she has been under the treatment of a doctor (Mark Strong) without Ben’s knowledge. Among other things, the physician encourages her to keep a video journal, and Christine begins most mornings by watching her recordings in an effort to rebuild memory.
Joffe’s setup is solid, and the more viewers think about Christine’s predicament, the more horrifying it becomes. Without her short-term memory, Christine begins each day fresh, forcing her to relive past tragedies continuously. She also quickly forgets any abuse suffered during the day, meaning she is an easy target for everyone around her.
Kidman is a fine performer, and she is completely believable as a woman on the edge. Each day is a roller coaster of emotion, and Kidman swings from happiness to sadness with ease.
Firth’s character also follows a fascinating arc, and his work is typically strong. The biggest problem with “Sleep” is its similarities to – and weakness in comparison to – “Memento.” Anyone who has seen both pictures is likely to reminisce about Nolan’s more creative and better-executed narrative structure. They may also guess some of “Sleep’s” key plot twists in advance, and that’s never a positive for a thriller.
Those who haven’t seen “Memento” will likely enjoy Joffe’s film more than others. Viewed without the baggage of film history, “Sleep” is a workmanlike thriller about personal tragedy, and it does leave viewers with interesting subjects to ponder.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include four behind-the-scenes featurettes.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“Downton Abbey” – Season 5: The fifth season of this massively popular period drama is making its way to DVD and Blu-ray even before the last few episodes air on PBS. That makes this release a boon for fans that can’t wait to see what happens.
“My Old Lady”: Comedic drama about an American man (Kevin Kline) who inherits a lush Paris apartment, only to find that he can’t sell it because law allows its tenants (Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas) to remain. Written and directed by Israel Horovitz.
“La Ciénaga”: Fresh Criterion Collection restoration of director Lucrecia Martel’s 2001 drama about an Argentine family doing its best to survive in cramped quarters during an oppressively hot summer. The film won numerous honors, including the Alfred Bauer Award from the Berlin International Film Festival. Presented in Spanish with English subtitles.
“Justice League – Throne of Atlantis”: New, feature-length animated adventure centered on the DC Comics heroes Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Flash and Wonder Woman. This time the group must try to stop a war between Atlantis and the surface world.
“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”: Documentary film about producer Toshio Suzuki and famed Japanese directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Written and directed by Mami Sunada.
– 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.