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: After being sworn in as the new Vice President, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) continues his quest for absolute power alongside his equally manipulative wife, Claire (Robin Wright). Meanwhile, a team of D.C. journalists investigate Frank’s involvement in Peter Russo’s death, witnessing first-hand the level of corruption at work in their government.
WHY: Season Two of “House of Cards” will likely be labeled a disappointment by some, but while it’s noticeably weaker than the Netflix drama’s debut season, it’s still better than a vast majority of the shows on television. After all, there aren’t many series that would kill off one of its main characters in the first episode, especially in such ruthless and shocking fashion, but it’s a necessary move that signals a change in the direction of the show. The ancillary subplots aren’t nearly as interesting this time around (particularly the stuff between Michael Kelly’s Chief of Staff and Rachel Brosnahan’s reformed call girl), and even the main story feels a bit stretched at times with the constant back and forth between Underwood and Raymond Tusk, but there’s rarely a dull moment thanks to the excellent writing and performances. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are in top form once again as the conniving husband-and-wife duo, while Molly Parker (of “Deadwood” fame) is a welcome addition to the cast as the new House Whip. And when you have characters as brilliantly realized as the ones that populate “House of Cards,” you’re allowed a few missteps every once in a while.
EXTRAS: The four-disc set boasts a quartet of production featurettes (including an examination of the differences between the British and American versions of the show) and a behind-the-scenes look at a table read for two episodes from Season One.
FINAL VERDICT: BUY
WHAT: When an ordinary LEGO construction worker named Emmet (Chris Pratt) stumbles upon an ancient artifact, he’s declared “The Special” by an underground group of rebels led by the blind prophet Vitruvis (Morgan Freeman), who believes that Emmet is the only one capable of stopping the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) from destroying their world.
WHY: When “The LEGO Movie” was first announced, there were obvious concerns about whether it would just play like one long commercial for the popular toy brand. But while the folks at LEGO have undoubtedly seen a nice bump in business since its release, the film is so much more than that – smart, funny and surprisingly heartfelt. A lot of that credit goes to directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who bring the LEGO universe to life with the sort of boundless imagination that the movie preaches to its audience. Though the script borrows heavily from “The Matrix” (from its main story, to the three leads, to its anti-conformatist message), that’s merely the setup for a much more sophisticated payoff that is equally daring and brilliant. For as great as the film’s ending may be, however, it wouldn’t feel earned if the first two-thirds weren’t so enjoyable. And thanks to some incredible visuals, great voice work (particularly by Chris Pratt) and hilarious gags, “The LEGO Movie” isn’t just one of the best animated films in years, but it’s also one of the best movies of 2014 thus far.
EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary with directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (along with actors Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Alison Brie and Charlie Day) and a host of bonus material like a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, outtakes and a series of fun mini-featurettes.
FINAL VERDICT: BUY
WHAT: The enigmatic owner of the once-majestic Grand Budapest Hotel recounts how it came into his possession, dating back to his days as a lobby boy under the guidance of charismatic concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), who’s framed for the murder of a wealthy female patron when she leaves him a priceless painting in exchange for years of companionship.
WHY: At this point in Wes Anderson’s career, you either like his movies or you don’t, which is good news for fans of the eccentric director, because “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is very much a case of more of the same. You know what to expect when watching one of Anderson’s films, and his latest doesn’t disappoint, overflowing with colorful characters, zany plot twists and sublime production design. Though the script comes across as being a little too busy at times – a likely consequence of Anderson forgoing his customary writing partner and the added discipline that comes with one – he makes up for that lack of focus with the pitch-perfect casting of Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H., by far one of the most memorable characters that Anderson has ever created. Fiennes is absolutely hilarious as the sweet and sour concierge, boasting impeccable comic timing and once again demonstrating that he’s unparalleled in the art of profanity. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is also considerably darker than his past work, although Anderson’s trademark whimsy still bleeds through, resulting in a movie that, while hardly among his greatest achievements, proves why he’s one of the best and most original directors working today.
EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, a trio of vignettes, a brief tour of the film’s shooting locations with Bill Murray, and profiles on Wes Anderson and his cast.
FINAL VERDICT: BUY
WHAT: A hotheaded ex-con named Joe (Nicolas Cage) takes a troubled 15-year-old boy (Tye Sheridan) under his wing after he witnesses how the hard-working teenager’s abusive and alcoholic father treats him, only to get dragged into the middle of the familial dispute.
WHY: David Gordon Green’s career has been almost as erratic as that of “Joe” star Nicolas Cage, but both men deliver some of their finest work in this gritty thriller based on the novel by Larry Brown. Though it feels a lot like Jeff Nichols’ Southern Gothic crime drama, “Mud” (which is ironic since Green reportedly cast youngster Tye Sheridan based on his work in that film), they’re very different stories apart from the father-son dynamic between the two leads. But while “Mud” is an engaging movie in its own right, “Joe” just barely edges it thanks to some strong performances from Cage, Sheridan and newcomer Gary Poulter, a real-life homeless man discovered on the streets of Austin who plays a truly nasty villain. Poulter’s acting is about as one-note as you’d expect from someone with no experience, but his character oozes so much authenticity that he’s mesmerizing to watch. Just like “Mud,” however, “Joe” has some serious pacing issues – not because it’s a slow burn, but because it’s easily 20 minutes too long – and that ultimately hinders the film from being as great as it could have been.
EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director David Gordon Green, actor Brian D. Mays and composer David Wingo, as well as a making-of featurette, some deleted scenes and look at adapting Larry Brown’s novel for the big screen.
FINAL VERDICT: RENT