‘The Theory of Everything,’ ‘Birdman,’ ‘St. Vincent’ Arrive on Home Video

Forrest Hartman

 

It is an extremely busy week for home video, and it is anchored by several of the best films released into theaters during 2014.   

 

 

The Theory of Everything

4 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material
Universal
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

 

When Stephen Hawking was 21 years old, he was given two years to live. Today, he is 73. 

 

Hawking’s story isn’t amazing simply because he beat the odds in his battle with ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), it is remarkable because he continued to work, becoming one of the most renowned theoretical physicists in the world. Nominated for best picture at the upcoming Academy Awards, “The Theory of Everything” considers many of the major events in Hawking’s life, taking viewers from his days as a college student through some of his most important scientific discoveries. The film is based on “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” a memoir by Hawking’s first wife, Jane, and it also spends considerable time on their relationship.  

 

There is plenty of material for a movie because Hawking’s work and the obstacles that he overcame to achieve it are fascinating. That said, there are pitfalls in telling the story of a living legend, and director James Marsh skillfully avoids them all. “The Theory of Everything” moves rapidly, capturing the excitement that comes with scientific discovery, as well as the heartbreak tied to debilitating disease. It also features some of the finest performances of the year.

 

Eddie Redmayne earned a best actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Hawking, and he is the favorite to eventually win the award. In a performance best described as stunning, Redmayne begins as a healthy, spry version of Hawking and becomes increasingly debilitated as the movie roles on. Since the film covers a broad swath of Hawking’s life, the actor is also asked to age, and he does so convincingly.  

 

Felicity Jones, who plays Jane, doesn’t undergo the same remarkable physical transformation, but she is asked to portray a character who faces ever-increasing levels of stress. Because of Hawking’s worsening disability, many life responsibilities fell to Jane, and Jones is wonderful in the role. She also earned an Oscar nomination for her work. 

 

“The Theory of Everything” is engaging on so many levels that it isn’t easily classified. On one hand it is a straightforward drama about man’s ability to overcome overwhelming odds, but it is also a love story in the most obvious sense. The movie is also wonderful because Marsh refuses to canonize Hawking or Jane despite their achievements. Instead, he presents them as what they are … what we all are … human beings.

 

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and an audio commentary by Marsh.

 

 

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

3½ stars

Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence

20th Century Fox

Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and digital download

 

Writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman” is up for nine Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, best actor and best supporting actor. Garnering that many nods from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an impressive feat, and the movie is definitely one of the standouts of 2014. It is not, however, a crowd pleaser.  

 

Oddly enough, the elements that make “Birdman” great are also likely to alienate a percentage of its audience. The film boasts an A-list cast and well-liked director, but it’s the bracing and original storytelling that will strike most viewers.  

 

The story is centered on Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an actor who spends much of his down time communicating with a fictional character that he played in the movies. That’s where the title comes in. Riggan was once famous for portraying a superhero called Birdman in blockbuster films, but his heyday is long since past. In an attempt to re-launch his career, Riggan is mounting a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, but things are not going well.  

 

During rehearsals, one of Riggan’s co-stars is injured and forced to leave the play. Riggan and his co-producer (Zach Galifianakis) replace the man with a popular theater actor (Edward Norton) whose talent is matched only by his explosiveness. Riggan is also struggling with his finances, playing father to his former-addict daughter (Emma Stone) and dealing with the fact that New York’s biggest critic wants his head on a plate.

 

All of the performances are outstanding, and this was acknowledged by Oscar nods for Keaton, Norton and Stone. It would have also been reasonable for the Academy to recognize Galifianakis and Naomi Watts (who plays an up-and-coming actress) because each works brilliantly with their nominated co-stars.  

 

There’s a lot going on in “Birdman” and it’s made more complicated by Iñárritu’s insistence on putting viewers inside Riggan’s head. But that’s what makes the film such an engaging experience. The story is simple and relatable, but Riggan is not, and viewers get to know him from the inside out. 

 

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a photo gallery and an all-access featurette.

 

 

Dumb and Dumber To

1 star
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, partial nudity, language and some drug references
Universal
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

 

The first “Dumb and Dumber” was a broad, goofy comedy that relied on a merger of slapstick, potty humor and energetic performances by Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. It wasn’t smart, subtle or even particularly well made, but it did strike a chord with audiences. With “Dumb and Dumber To,” creators Peter and Bobby Farrelly try to recapture the magic, but they fall short at every turn.

 

Set 20 years after the original film, “Dumber To” reunites Lloyd Christmas (Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Daniels) for another road trip. This time, instead of travelling to Aspen to return a briefcase, they head to Texas in hopes of finding a girl (Rachel Melvin) that they believe to be Harry’s long-lost daughter.

 

The Farrellys obviously meant “Dumber To” as an homage to the original movie, and they offer plenty of in-jokes for fans. The trouble, of course, is that the first film wasn’t particularly good, and it’s hard to pay tribute to a loser.

 

“Dumber To” shares all of its predecessor’s flaws, including insipid plotting, an overabundance of crude jokes and long stretches that just aren’t funny. It is nice to see Carrey and Daniels riffing off one another again, but they are in desperate need of new material.

 

While “Dumb and Dumber” came with an element of surprise, everything about “Dumber To” seems tired. That’s partially because the Farrellys are so insistent about referencing the original, but it’s also because they’re short on fresh ideas.

 

There was a time when the Farrelly brothers were comedy superstars. In recent years, attaching their name to a project has been more of a warning sign than a sales pitch.

 

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a number of making-of featurettes.

 

 

Life Itself

4 stars
Rated R for brief sexual images/nudity and language
Magnolia Home Entertainment
Available on: Blu-ray and DVD

 

Despite all the movies about crusading newspaper journalists and their brave quests for truth and justice, the profession is mostly a quiet one. The majority of print reporters toil in relative obscurity, gathering facts, figures and quotes, before silently organizing them into digestible packages. If the work is good, a reader might glance at a story’s byline in appreciation, then move on. Usually, it’s only after a mistake that everyone knows the reporter’s name.  

 

There are, of course, exceptions, and the late Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert is among the most noteworthy. Because Ebert wrote subjectively about film, he was always more visible than, say, someone covering crime. But it was his deep appreciation for movies, his often-brilliant insight and his remarkable ability to turn a phrase that pushed him into the spotlight. Well, that and the fact that he and Gene Siskel popularized movie criticism on TV. 

 

In “Life Itself,” director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) paints an intimate portrait of Ebert with a look at his background, his many professional accomplishments and poignant interviews with the people he worked with and loved. The movie is also noteworthy because it features many of Ebert’s own words, and it has a great deal of footage gathered toward the end of his life.

 

When Ebert died, he had a gaping hole where his jaw used to be, and he could only speak with computer assistance. It is sad to see such a vivid and electrifying personality reduced to this state by a physical ailment, but “Life Itself” isn’t a tragedy. Rather, it is a celebration of the remarkable accomplishments of a man who changed the way the world looks at film.

 

Ebert was a movie lover’s critic, and in “Life Itself,” he seems dedicated to making his own documentary as earthy as possible. He even congratulates James for capturing a particularly brutal process where medical professionals would drain his throat with a suction tube. Ebert knew his type of film lover would want to see the reality, and – even when uncomfortable – he was willing to oblige.

 

For Ebert’s fans – and perhaps even detractors – “Life Itself” is a revelation. The film talks about his earliest exploits in journalism, his prickly (but ultimately loving) relationship with Gene Siskel, and his enduring love affair with his wife, Chaz. The movie talks about his Pulitzer Prize, it recalls his screenplay for the “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and it features lengthy interviews with some of the directors and fellow critics who were touched by his work. These include Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss. 

 

That “Life Itself” did not receive an Academy Award nomination for best documentary is unfortunate, but it is a great film nonetheless. Ebert touched the lives of almost every modern filmgoer, and with the help of James and “Life Itself” he continues to do so.

 

Blu-ray and DVD extras include deleted scenes, a Sundance tribute and an interview with James.  

 

 

St. Vincent

3½ stars
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language
Anchor Bay
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

 

In “St. Vincent,” Bill Murray plays Vincent MacKenna, a curmudgeonly retiree with a penchant for excess. He drinks too much, gambles to the point of indebtedness and has regular dalliances with a pregnant prostitute named Daka (Naomi Watts). He isn’t the prototypical father figure, yet that’s what he becomes as the film moves forward.

 

The movie, written and directed by Theodore Melfi, picks up when Maggie Bronstein (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door to Vincent with her 12-year-old son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie is a good mother, but she is also desperate, and she works long hours in an effort to raise Oliver alone.

 

One thing leads to another and Oliver eventually winds up in Vincent’s care. This is hardly an ideal situation, but Oliver and Vincent form a bond, and the man and boy provide each other with a form of emotional support that has long been missing from each of their lives. As this happens, viewers learn more about Vincent and come to understand the events that led to his questionable path.

 

Murray, as always, is terrific and he and Lieberher are delightful together. McCarthy’s role is understated by her standards, but she delivers exactly what is needed for the part and proves that she needn’t be typecast. Watts also turns in a fine performance, as do Chris O’Dowd and Terrence Howard in supporting roles.

 

At times, Melfi’s screenplay wanders and drags, but this is a small bother in an otherwise satisfying project. What’s more, “St. Vincent” closes with a sweetheart of an ending that more than makes up for early inadequacies.

 

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

 

 

The Homesman

3 stars
Rated R for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity
Lionsgate
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

 

Tommy Lee Jones continues his work as a director with a dark drama that refuses to romanticize the American West. The film, based on Glendon Swarthout’s novel, is set in the 1850s and centers on Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a 30-something woman who can’t find a husband despite the fact that she is pretty, talented and possesses considerable financial resources.

 

After three women from the Nebraska community that she calls home go insane because of the harsh frontier conditions, Mary Bee offers to transport them to a more suitable home. Although she is reasonably well-equipped for the journey, she offers to pay a claim jumper named Briggs (Jones) to help. The two then navigate the wild frontier, facing dangers that range from Indians to inclement weather. They also find themselves struggling to care for the three women who have descended into complete madness.

 

Jones and Swank are terrific, and anyone who appreciates good acting should enjoy their work in the film. Whether one appreciates the movie as a whole will have a lot to do with personal sensibilities.

 

Jones is honest in his portrayal of the frontier, and the film takes some unexpectedly dark twists. For viewers who are used to more idealized visions of the cowboy lifestyle, this could prove troubling. But for those who like their history with warts and all, “The Homesman” is an engaging and well-crafted drama.

 

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

 

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

 

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”: Writer-director Isao Takahata’s magical tale about a tiny girl who is discovered in a stalk of bamboo is up for best animated feature at the Oscars. The movie was originally voiced in Japanese, but a noteworthy cast of North American actors was assembled for the English-language release. Players include Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, James Marsden, Oliver Platt, Beau Bridges, Lucy Liu and Darren Criss.

 

“Game of Thrones” – The Complete Fourth Season: The 10 most recent episodes of HBO’s wildly popular fantasy drama about noble families battling for control of their land. Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey star. Based on the novels of George R.R. Martin.

 

“The Interview”: This raucous political comedy has been available for online streaming since its planned theatrical release was disrupted by terrorist threats. That means many interested viewers have already seen it. Nevertheless, Sony is releasing the feature on Blu-ray and DVD this week so big fans can add it to their physical libraries. The plot focuses on two broadcast journalists (Seth Rogen and James Franco) who score an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park). Sensing opportunity, the CIA hatches an assassination attempt. The film was co-directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

 

Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation's largest publications. For more of his work visit www.ForrestHartman.com.

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