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: In a dystopian future where society has been divided into five factions – Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity and Candor – 16-year-old Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) discovers that she’s Divergent, one of the rare few with an aptitude for multiple factions. But there are those that feel threatened by her kind, so Beatrice joins Dauntless in an attempt to hide her secret, finding an unlikely ally in trainer Four (Theo James).
WHY: Yet another young adult book series adapted for the big screen, “Divergent” spends so much time trying to educate the audience on all the nuts and bolts of author Veronica Roth’s complex universe that it never quite gets off the ground. The mythology itself is pretty sketchy, with so many unanswered questions about how the faction system operates and the motivation behind certain characters’ actions that it’s difficult to fully invest in the story. Though there’s an interesting concept regarding government and societal classes at its core, “Divergent” ultimately feels like two and a half hours of (mostly boring) exposition – the setup to the bigger story that is seemingly explored in the other books. The problem, however, is that despite assembling a stellar cast of young up-and-comers, Oscar winners and veteran character actors, director Neil Burger fails to make you care enough to want to see those future installments. “Divergent” is apparently very faithful to the source material, and in that regard, fans won’t have much to complain about, but as a potential franchise-starter, it falls disappointingly short.
EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a pair of audio commentaries (one with director Neil Burger and another with producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher), a making-of documentary, a featurette on the five factions and some deleted scenes.
FINAL VERDICT: RENT
WHAT: After an illegal racing accident lands small-town mechanic Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) in prison, he emerges determined to exact revenge on the man responsible, former rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), by competing in a top secret, invite-only race called the DeLeon. But before he can get justice, Tobey must race against the clock to get from New York to San Francisco in time for the event, all while evading the various law enforcement authorities hot on his trail.
WHY: It’s amazing that it’s taken this long for another studio to exploit the success of the “Fast and Furious” franchise with a racing movie of its own, but considering that Electronic Arts’ “Need for Speed” video game series predates the adventures of Dominic Toretto and Brian O’Connor by several years, you can hardly blame DreamWorks for wanting a piece of the pie. Unfortunately, apart from casting Aaron Paul in the lead role, there’s not much to like about Scott Walsh’s racing flick, which takes itself a little too seriously compared to the winking self-awareness of the “Fast and Furious” movies. “Need for Speed” is in desperate need of a lot of things – a better script, stronger direction, better pacing – but one thing you wouldn’t think it’d be lacking is excitement, and although the film has more its share of piston-pumping driving sequences, most of them are pretty tame, often dragging on for too long or cutting away to needless reactions from other characters. Gearheads will get some joy out of watching the assortment of beautiful cars speeding around the screen, but “Need for Speed” fails to be a worthy competitor to the “Fast and Furious” series, let alone a potential heir to the grease-streaked throne.
EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary by director Scott Walsh and actor Aaron Paul, four production featurettes covering things like the car race sequences and sound production, a handful of deleted scenes and a short outtakes reel.
FINAL VERDICT: RENT
WHAT: Ten years after her parents were brutally murdered and her brother was sent to a mental institution, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) devises a plan to clear her family’s name by exposing (and then destroying) the antique mirror that she believes houses a mysterious entity capable of controlling anyone within its vicinity.
WHY: “Oculus” may be a horror movie in theory, but those expecting big scares will only result in disappointment, because the film is much more of a psychological thriller with a supernatural angle. It’s also a really slow burn that doesn’t exactly pay off in the way that you might hope, and a big part of that has to do with the fact that writer/director Mike Flanagan seems to be making it all up as he goes along. Though Karen Gillan delivers a solid performance in the lead role, her character starts to get on your nerves as the movie progresses – at first a smart and incredibly prepared heroine whose seemingly foolproof plan falls apart as she continuously makes stupid mistakes and is outwitted by the mirror. One could even argue that Kaylie never had a chance from the start, but that kind of unwinnable situation makes it difficult to root for the protagonists at all, or for that matter, maintain your interest in the initially promising concept. “Oculus” does a good job of creating a sense of dread and screwing with the audience’s perception of reality, but while it’s a fairly decent genre flick, it could have been even better.
EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director Mike Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy, there’s a making-of featurette, Flanagan’s original short film and some deleted scenes.
FINAL VERDICT: RENT
WHAT: The year is 1985, and while on his family’s annual summer vacation to Ocean City, Maryland, shy 13-year-old Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte) challenges the local bully to a game of ping pong in the hopes of winning over popular girl Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley).
WHY: Michael Tully’s “Ping Pong Summer” is so terrible that it makes me wonder if it was done on purpose, but even if that’s case, that doesn’t make it any less miserable to watch. This movie is awful on many levels, from the wooden acting by the child stars (especially Marcello Conte and the best friend played by Myles Massey), to the horrible dialogue (including such gems as “The Fun Hub is for real ping pong players” and “Inseminate him!”), to the rich kid bully characters. The movie is basically just a poor man’s mash-up of “The Way, Way Back” and “The Karate Kid” without any of the humor, heart or charm, and the fact that it features veteran actors like Susan Sarandon and Lea Thompson is only more mind-boggling. Granted, there are a few laughs as a result of the hilariously bad script, but Tully is so obsessed with nailing the retro feel of the era that even if the film is supposed to be intentionally cheesy, he hasn’t done a very good job of getting that across to the audience. That’s because “Ping Pong Summer” takes itself just seriously enough that instead of being the kind of so-bad-it’s-good movie that the 1980s were famous for producing, it simply just sucks.
EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with writer/director Michael Tully and producer George Rush, as well as a making-of featurette.
FINAL VERDICT: SKIP