Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.
WHAT: American art conservationist Frank Stokes (George Clooney) leads a small platoon of specialists into Europe during the final year of World War II to protect various monuments and buildings from being needlessly destroyed by Allied forces, as well as locate and retrieve the Nazi-stolen paintings and sculptures hand-picked for Hitler’s planned Führer Museum.
WHY: Based on the 2009 book by Robert M. Edsel, the real-life story of the Monuments Men is practically tailor-made for the big screen; a unique slant on the typical WWII movie that, at least on paper, appeared to be equal parts “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Inglourious Basterds.” Unfortunately, it’s nothing like that at all. The movie is stuck in first gear for most of its sluggish two-hour runtime, and by the time it finally begins to take shape into the film that many were expecting from the start, it’s over. It’s also a giant mess tonally, shuffling back and forth between lighthearted comedy and serious drama with such reckless abandon that it’s as if co-writer/director Clooney was caught in two minds as to which kind of movie he wanted to make. That carries over to the screenplay as well, which is packed with so many different subplots that there’s no room for character development. We never get to know any of the men beyond their names and job titles, and they spend so much time apart on side missions that they barely have the chance to interact as an ensemble. “The Monuments Men” is a lot better than most of the dreck that’s forced down our gullets during the winter season, but for a film overflowing with promise, it’s hard not to feel the sting of disappointment.
EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes, two deleted scenes, interviews with the surviving members of the Monuments Men mission, and a profile on the real-life woman that served as the inspiration for Cate Blanchett’s character.
FINAL VERDICT: RENT
WHAT: 17 years after his tribe was slaughtered and he was sold into slavery, gladiator Milo (Kit Harrington) catches the eye of a Roman lanista and is shipped off to Pompeii. But when he’s forced to fight in the upcoming games by the smarmy Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) – the man responsible for his family’s death – Milo is given a chance to exact revenge when Mount Vesuvius suddenly erupts, causing mass panic throughout the city as it crumbles.
WHY: Paul W.S. Anderson must have had “Titanic” playing on a loop for his cast and crew during the making of “Pompeii,” because the director’s sword-and-sandals/disaster movie borrows heavily from the James Cameron drama. That’s not to say that “Titanic” was a wholly original story, but you’d think that Anderson could have done a better job of not making its influence so blatantly obvious. Of course, everything about “Pompeii” feels half-assed – from its bland romance, to its terrible dialogue, to the worthless addition of 3D, to some incredibly dull and uninspired action. The final act in particular should have been more fun, but instead, it’s a chore to sit through as a never-ending chain of CG explosions is vomited across the screen. You can barely tell what’s going on amid all the death and destruction, not to mention the absurdity of watching two men fight over a girl as giant fireballs rain down on them. Roland Emmerich may be criticized for his schlocky disaster movies, but at least he makes a spectacle out of it. That’s something that “Pompeii” is desperately missing, because for a film about gladiators and an active volcano, it’s about as exciting as a grade school science fair project.
EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary with director Paul W.S. Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at making the movie, five additional featurettes (on the cast, special effects, stunts, production design and costume design) and a whopping 20 deleted scenes.
FINAL VERDICT: SKIP
WHAT: When CIA operative Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) decides to quit the international spy game after he’s given only a few months to live, he’s persuaded into doing one last job in exchange for an experimental drug that could save his life. Furthering complicating matters is Ethan’s estranged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), who he’s foolishly agreed to look after while hunting down a dangerous terrorist.
WHY: On the surface, “3 Days to Kill” had the potential to do for Kevin Costner’s career what “Taken” did for Liam Neeson. After all, both movies were co-written by Luc Besson and contain similar father-daughter relationships imbedded within an action-thriller plot. But unfortunately, “3 Days to Kill” is nowhere near as good as “Taken,” let alone its inferior sequel. Though Costner turns in a solid performance as usual, the film is lacking any sort of consistent tone, with the forced attempts at quirky humor missing their mark entirely. The scenes with Amber Heard’s CIA handler are especially painful to watch, not only because she’s a terrible actress, but because her character comes across more like a high-end prostitute than someone who could be considered a “top shelf” government agent. The whole thing is utterly ridiculous (from Ethan’s conveniently timed hallucinations, to the clichéd teaching moments between him and his daughter), and although you could say the same thing about any of Besson’s scripts, “3 Days to Kill” takes the cake as one of the Frenchman’s dumbest movies in recent memory.
EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, a short profile on director McG and an interview with a former CIA agent. Viewers can also watch an extended cut of the movie, which includes about six minutes of additional footage.
FINAL VERDICT: SKIP
WHAT: Five years after a disastrous performance, renowned concert pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) returns to the stage to perform in honor of his late mentor. But when an anonymous sniper (John Cusack) threatens to kill him and his wife (Kerry Bishe) unless he plays flawlessly, Tom must overcome his stage fright and outwit the shooter without being detected.
WHY: Though its premise is every bit as preposterous as it sounds (in fact, it’s even crazier in execution), “Grand Piano” is an intriguing little thriller that just barely gets by on the sheer silliness of the plot. Reminiscent of films like “Phone Booth” and “Speed” in that it takes place in a single setting and features a villain who spends most of the movie as a voice through an earpiece, director Eugenio Mira tackles the crackpot setup with impressive poise. The acting is pretty subpar, but Elijah Wood and John Cusack hold things together as the movie becomes more absurd with each new plot twist, and eagle-eyed viewers will no doubt get a kick out of seeing Alex Winter (the Bill to Keanu Reeves’ Ted) after all these years. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that “Grand Piano” isn’t exactly a good film, but it’s so oddly captivating in its dogged commitment to the story that it succeeds as a perfectly entertaining midnight movie – the kind whose flaws aren’t nearly as distracting as they might normally be.
EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a making-of featurette, interviews with director Eugenio Mira and star Elijah Wood, six additional featurettes (ranging from the soundtrack, to Wood’s piano training, to stunts and visual effects), and a short EPK promo for AXS TV.
FINAL VERDICT: RENT
WHAT: After ditching school and going on the run, teenage half-human/half-vampire Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch) is dragged back to St. Vladmir’s Academy to continue her training as a bodyguard to best friend Lissa Dragonir (Lucy Fry), a mortal vampire princess with whom she shares a psychic bond. But when someone within the school threatens Lissa’s life, Rose breaks protocol to protect her at all costs.
WHY: Like most films based on popular YA book series, “Vampire Academy” has an extremely devoted fanbase that swears by author Richelle Mead’s novels, but the movie isn’t any better than the other failed Hollywood adaptations hoping to be the next “Twilight” or “Hunger Games.” It’s just another supernatural teen romance with perhaps the most disturbing coupling to date, and not even the sibling duo of Mark and Daniel Waters (best known for directing “Mean Girls” and writing “Heathers,” respectively) are able save it from mediocrity. The film jumps from plot point to plot point with the nonchalance that only a fan of the book could follow, although that may be for the best, since spending too much time on any one scene would only further highlight the story’s many inadequacies. The only thing “Vampire Academy” has working in its favor is Zoey Deutch, who delivers such a spirited and funny performance that it’s like she’s in a completely different movie. The actress nails the humorous tone that the Waters brothers were clearly striving for, but unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the rest of the cast, resulting in a great performance that’s been left to rot in a bad film.
EXTRAS: There’s an alternate opening, some deleted scenes and an interview with author Richelle Mead about the book-to-film adaptation.
FINAL VERDICT: SKIP
WHAT: After agreeing to tag along on a double date with their best friends, Danny (Michael Ealy) and Debbie (Joan Bryant) immediately hit it off, and before long, they’re spending every waking minute together. But when the honeymoon period ends and the fighting begins, Danny and Debbie must decide if they’re truly meant for one another.
WHY: There’s an unspoken rule that you should only remake a film if you can improve upon the original, and in the case of Edward Zwick’s 1986 romantic drama, “About Last Night,” it’s the perfect movie to get the remake treatment. Having never seen or read the David Mamet play (“Sexual Perversity in Chicago) on which the films are based, it’s hard to judge just how much of his work translates to the screen, but there’s a blunt honesty to the way that relationships are treated in both movies that is unequivocally Mamet-esque. That’s where the comparisons between the films end, however, because although they follow the same basic story beats, they couldn’t be more different tonally. Zwick’s version is a much more somber affair, with characters that aren’t particularly likeable and don’t even seem that happy when they’re frolicking through the cheesy, 80’s-styled montages. Steve Pink’s update, on the other hand, is lighter and much funnier, balancing the dramatic moments with some genuine laughs. It’s typical rom-com fare, but it’s a much more enjoyable movie that’s elevated by some smart direction, a solid cast (including a very funny Kevin Hart), and a willingness to make sex and dating every bit as funny, charming and sincere as it is in real life.
EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, some promotional fluff with the cast, and a bit called “Word on the Street” where complete strangers give advice on romance.
FINAL VERDICT: RENT