Production budget and box office haul certainly aren’t the end-all, be-all measure of artistic success, but they became an enormous part of the story of “The Lone Ranger,” and not merely because the summer action tent-pole represented the latest collaboration between the “Pirates of the Caribbean” brain trust of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp. No, the film was scuttled in pre-production at least once, put into turnaround owing to cost concerns before finally being greenlit by distributor Disney with a budget of around $220 million. When the summer dust had settled, and both critics and audiences had sighed deeply, “The Lone Ranger” ended up grossing under $90 million Stateside and only $260 million total worldwide — a massive money loser once advertising and marketing costs are figured into the equation.
So the revisionism started almost immediately, with Bruckheimer and his stars, Depp and Armie Hammer, accusing film critics of having already written reviews before the movie released, based on vague and sketchy buzz, or their hatred of Westerns or, I don’t know, their distaste for dead-bird hats. Anything and everything other than, you know, having delivered a manic yet somehow still creatively stillborn, two-and-a-half-hour slice of yawn.
Look, “The Lone Ranger” isn’t the worst film of the year — not by a long shot. That dubious honor belongs to something like “Grown Ups 2,” where you can almost feel participants laughing at viewers for having forked over money to view the slapdash whimsy of their entitled summer camp work-vacation. But it does bear the distinction of being the rare studio would-be blockbuster whose screenplay draft seams remain entirely visible in the final cut. Things happen with the villain’s motivation — major things, portending a mystical bent — that are then just sort of discarded.
Yielding to Depp’s desire for quirky characterization, “The Lone Ranger” takes the old masked-hero serial and refashions the tale through the eyes of his trusted Native American sidekick, Tonto (Depp). In 1869 Texas, lawyer John Reid (Hammer) gets deputized by his lawman brother to help chase down nasty outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). When Cavendish and his gang kill his brother and leave Reid for dead, he’s rescued by Tonto, who deems him a “spirit walker,” unable to be killed in battle. They then set off to right some wrongs, in seriocomic action-adventure fashion.
What Verbinski’s movie most has going for it is a dusty look and production design — lensed by Bojan Bazelli and scored in rousing fashion by Hans Zimmer — that is a bit quirky and off-center but still accessible. And, of course, a couple nice action scenes; particularly effective is a wild ladder sequence that serves as an informal callback to the “Pirates” films. But it lacks a unifying personality and charm, and the movie’s pastiche sensibility is its undoing; it’s overstuffed with dead-end ideas and half-sketched metaphors, all in service of a misshapen narrative that arduously ladles on backstory and flashbacks, to detrimental effect. Whenever you have a character exclaim “What just happened?” — as happens here with an unscrupulous railroad tycoon played by Tom Wilkinson — you know you’re watching a film that’s written (and re-written) its way into a corner, and doesn’t know how to convincingly get out.
“The Lone Ranger” comes to Blu-ray and DVD in a two-disc combo pack with an additional code for a digital copy of the film that can be played across various devices — smartphone, tablet, TV or computer. This is all housed in an attractive complementary silver cardboard slipcover, with raised lettering and images of Depp and Hammer in focused stride. Its 1080p transfer and 2.40.1 aspect ratio presentation, along with a thundering 7.1 DTS-HD master audio track, deliver a truly superior and immersive home video presentation. Amongst the special features, which in total run a bit under a hour, a four-minute blooper reel and an 11-minute featurette that explores the massive trains physically constructed for the film are the best inclusions. There’s also a look at the Southwestern location filming, and an eight-minute featurette that walks viewers through the “cowboy boot camp” that Bruckheimer put the actors through — riding and roping horses, firing guns and the like.
With its cast and pedigree, “The Family” is a movie that should be a lot better. Based on the book “Malavita” by Tonino Benacquista, director Luc Besson’s violent comedy brings together Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones, in telling the story of a Mafia boss who gets relocated to a sleepy burgh in the south of France under the witness protection program. Unfortunately, Besson and Michael Caleo’s adaptation never locates a convincing tone, much less a steady pulse of excitement; the result feels like an indeterminate collection of marking-time scenes, capped off with a bunch of late action.
De Niro stars as Giovanni Manzoni, now known as Fred Blake; Pfeiffer is wife Maggie, while Dianna Agron and John D’Leo are his two teenage children, Belle and Warren. The Blakes’ FBI agent handler, Robert Stansfield (Jones), is doing his best to keep their whereabouts under wraps, but Fred’s shall we say combative impulses have a knack for making that difficult. Not long after we first meet him, he’s secretly burying the body of a former colleague he just whacked, while the family was in the process of moving (yet again). Later, he takes a plumbing issue to all sorts of extremes, visiting violence upon a chain of people giving him unsatisfactory answers about why his house’s water comes out of the tap brown.
In theory, a lot of “The Family”‘s comedy lies in culture clash — this coarse American nuclear unit coming into contact with some snooty Frenchies. But the Blakes’ story isn’t specific enough; Giovanni/Fred never feels like a real informant, cooperative or otherwise. And a big part of the movie is also about an awakening within Fred, when he poses as a novelist on a whim and then gets it in his head that he wants to write his (real) memoirs. “Dying for these words is nobler than the death I’m destined for,” he says at one point — words which the film doesn’t earn.
There are a couple good gags; one involves Fred being recruited as a guest expert on American cinema, only to suffer a last-minute switch-out on movies, much to Stansfield’s consternation. Bits like this are sullied, though, by wan stabs at parallelism that have Belle and Warren running scams and visiting beat-downs upon other high school kids, and a discovery of the Blakes by their understandably angry former Mob kin that results from a coincidence so winkingly fanciful it’s meant to be funny but just comes across as lame. And this isn’t even mentioning stupid third act contrivances wherein an attacking Mafia hitman hems and haws and tells Maggie that he “has to dirty [her] first” (i.e., beat her up before killing her)… after a rocket grenade has already been launched indiscriminately into the Blakes’ home. Sigh…
Arriving to home video in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack with cardboard slipcover that also includes a Digital HD Ultraviolet copy of the movie, “The Family” is split up into two dozen chapter stops and presented in what’s called a 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio, though I honestly didn’t detect any hedging from the more typical 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Its DTS-HD master audio 5.1 track, on the film’s Blu-ray presentation, leaves plenty of room for third-act go-boom shenanigans, but otherwise seems mixed a bit low.
As with the movie, unfortunately, the release’s supplemental extras leave much to be desired. There’s a one-minute throw-away (to even call it a featurette would be to lie) noting the different meanings of Giovanni’s various uses of the word “fuck.” Then, in addition to the movie’s theatrical trailer, there’s also a 10-minute making-of featurette. This doesn’t really have any replay value, but it is okay for a one-off viewing; in addition to featuring sit-down interview tidbits from all of the major on- and off-screen players (“It has an irony and style that I like,” says De Niro), it includes a nice blend of on-set rehearsal laid underneath their musings, rather than just stale film clips. Pfeiffer talks about the joy of sharing scenes with De Niro, after having done two films with him previously without sharing the screen. Besson, meanwhile, notes that De Niro was of course a fount of information with regards to Mob movie costuming and other details, but says that his daughter was most impressed/excited by Agron, since she was a huge “Glee” fan. The segment highlight, though, occurs when Agron reminisces about D’Leo thinking she was a hair/make-up assistant upon first meeting her — a faux pas which cemented their jocular sibling bond. Props to the heady behind-the-scenes cameraman who captured this, and a thumbs up for including the footage of this anecdote, rather than letting it merely lay flat, as a recollection. It’s just a shame there isn’t more genuine surprise like this in “The Family.”
Young adult novel adaptations are of course super-hot, in the wake of the barrels of disposable-income dollars raked in by the “Twilight” and (now) “Hunger Games” films. But not every would-be franchise can be a hit; some have to be sacrificed on the rocky shores of a fickle movie-going public. Such was the case with Andrew Niccol’s “The Host” (which pulled in a mere $48 million worldwide), and such would also seem to be the case with “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” which grossed just over $80 million cumulatively earlier this fall, putting the brakes (at least momentarily) on plans for a sequel.
Director Harold Zwart’s adaptation of the first of a series of five novels by author Cassandra Clare’s blends together vampires, werewolves, warlocks, demons, portals to other dimensions and enough self-serious symbology to make even Dan Brown giggle. The story centers on Clary Fray (Lily Collins), a young New York City girl who discovers she’s the descendant of a secret cadre of half-angel warriors locked in an ancient battle to protect our world from nasty demons. When her mother (Lena Headey) goes missing, Clary hooks up with Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower), a “Shadowhunter” who provides all sorts of clues to her backstory and destiny. The actors give this material some punch, but at 130 laborious minutes, this tween-stamped CGI mayhem loses steam about one-fifth of the way in, cycling through a bewildering mixture of painfully familiar tropes and never quite recovering. The pacing and length would matter less as a set-up for a more expansive series if the characters weren’t so dishearteningly bland and under-sketched. As is, this sci-fi/fantasy quest is more shrug-inducing than thrilling.
“The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” comes to DVD in a regular plastic Amaray case, presented in a 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen treatment that preserves the aspect ratio of its theatrical exhibition. The Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track is suitably robust, and in addition to a music video (“Almost is Never Enough,” by Ariana Grande) and five minutes’ worth of deleted scenes, there are two featurettes — running around 11 minutes in aggregate — that throw a spotlight on the film’s cast, characters and action sequences.
If 1984’s “Splash” was Tom Hanks’ big commercial splash, director Penny Marshall’s “Big,” for which he received his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination, was the movie that augured future dramatic successes. It too was a hit with audiences (the young actor’s first $100 million grosser), but with its carefully honed, pitch-perfect blend of humor, sweetness and pathos, this wish-fulfillment fable summoned up laughs and wistfulness in equal measure; it was a movie that put a smile on one’s face because it seemed connected to known-in-your-bones truths about both adolescence and adulthood, and it remains deeply pleasurable a quarter-century later.
Spurned by a girl he likes and tired of being a kid, short, 12-year-old Josh Baskin makes a wish of a boardwalk fortune teller machine — that he was big. And voila — when he wakes up the next morning, he’s a 30-year-old man… well, physically. He’s understandably freaked out, but in short order, Josh rents a flophouse in New York City and gets a job at a toy company, where he eventually charms the boss (Robert Loggia) and earns a promotion. Josh gets paid to start testing toys, and his young-at-heart behavior catches the attention of Susan Lawrence (Elizabeth Perkins), an executive at the company. But Josh longs to return to the life of a kid, and with the help of his friend Billy (Jared Rushton) he finally tracks down the boardwalk machine that altered his form, hoping to change himself back.
“Big: 25th Anniversary Edition” is a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and it comes housed in a complementary cardboard slipcover with gate-fold packaging that — if you’re lucky — plays a little tune when one opens it. AVC-encoded, 1.85:1 widescreen versions of both the theatrical and extended cut of the film are included herein (the latter running about 15 minutes longer), along with a DTS-HD master audio 5.1 audio track. Supplemental extras from the movie’s 2007 DVD release have been ported over, including eight deleted scenes with a smattering of optional introductions by Marshall. In addition to footage from the film’s premiere and a snatch of a half dozen or so different trailers and TV sports, there’s also an AMC-produced retrospective on the film, a behind-the-scenes featurette that includes loads of cast interviews, and a fun 10-minute look at the sort of people who have toy-testing jobs like Josh in real life. In total, this material runs a bit over a hour. One of the more interesting anecdotal takeaways, though, comes from an audio documentary/commentary track featuring producer James L. Brooks and co-writers Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg. In discussing the genesis of the story and its winding path toward production, they reveal that none other than Robert De Niro was originally cast in Hanks’ role, only to depart some time into pre-production. After learning that, one may never view the film’s iconic electronic keyboard tap-dance sequence in quite the same fashion.
Bullying is much in the news these days, and a white-washed, tween-friendly look at the phenomenon arrives in the form of “Contest,” a dramedy written and directed by Anthony Joseph Giunta. A debut several months ago on the Cartoon Network as part of their “Stop Bullying, Speak Up” promotion, the movie centers around an awkward high school kid, Tommy Dolen (Daniel Flaherty), who begrudgingly accepts the friendship-truce of the popular Matt Prylek (Kenton Duty) in an effort to enter a cooking contest with a big prize and impress his crush, Sarah O’Malley (Katherine McNamara). The movie’s aim is admirable, but its cast — perhaps not surprisingly, given the Disney Channel roots of many of them — peddles demonstrative pantomiming that effectively neuters “Contest”‘s message.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a complementary cardboard slipcover, “Contest” comes to DVD presented in a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track and 16 chapter stops. In addition to a pair of rather forgettable, affectedly earnest music video inclusions from Duty and McNamara, 20-plus minutes of bloopers and deleted and extended scenes round out the film’s supplemental offerings. There’s no advice, unfortunately, on how to handle anyone who bullies you for buying or renting this title.
Their appeal is much more broadly defined, but “Jackass,” “Wild Boys” and that show Bam Margera used to torment his parents all, by degrees, aim for a certain male-heavy demographic that appreciates pranks, gloriously stupid DIY-style stunts and bonding through ritual shaming. Imagine waaaay less gross-out mischief but a sampler platter of the same type of humiliating consequences and one has at least a vague sense of truTV’s “Impractical Jokers,” which sees a DVD collection of its first season hit stores in advance of its forthcoming 15-episode third season bow.
Centering around four real-life pals — Brian Quinn, Sal Vulcano, Joe Gatto and James Murray — who dare one another to do ridiculous things in public, “Impractical Jokers” debuted in December 2011, and quickly became a hit for truTV. The conceit of the hidden camera show finds one cast member performing a prank or random degrading scenario amidst a bunch of unsuspecting strangers, typically while his friends feed him instructions and lines via an earpiece. Grades of success and failure are meted out, and at the end of each show the guy with the most “thumbs down” faces a mortifying punishment. The quick-witted improvisational nature of the material can be hit or miss, but undeniably benefits from the rapport of the guys (who’ve performed together since high school as the Tenderloins), and their go-for-the-jugular sense for one another’s weaknesses.
“Impractical Jokers: The Complete First Season” comes to DVD in a regular plastic Amaray case. Its Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound track more than adequately handles the relatively meager and straightforward aural requirements of the title, and there’s even a nice complement of bonus material. In addition to some behind-the-scenes introductions that sketch out a bit more about the guys (useful for those new to their comedy), there are fifteen-plus minutes of deleted scenes, a condensed highlight reel and five episodic audio commentary tracks.
Fans of grim, nasty revenge thrillers in the vein of “I Spit on Your Grave” get a reheated helping of morally bankrupt brutality in the form of “The Seasoning House,” a movie centering around young girls kidnapped and prostituted to the military. Orphaned deaf mute Angel (Rosie Day), however, has special plans for the men who murdered her family, and perpetuate this terrible exploitation. The directorial debut of acclaimed prosthetic effects designer Paul Hyett, this film has a stark, weighty visual palette, but its hopelessness is so suffocating as to virtually overwhelm its piecemeal technical accomplishment.
“The Seasoning House” comes to Blu-ray in a complementary cardboard slipcover, presented in 16×9 widescreen with Dolby stereo, 5.1 HD surround sound and DTS-HD master audio tracks. In addition to the movie’s trailer, there is also a behind-the-scenes featurette that puts an emphasis on some of the gorier special effects.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.