Blu Tuesday: The Newsroom, Hercules and More

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.

“The Newsroom: The Complete Second Season”

WHAT: Following an exclusive report on a top-secret U.S. drone strike that turns out to be untrue, the “News Night” staff becomes embroiled in a legal battle when the producer responsible for the story sues the network for wrongful termination. Meanwhile, Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) goes on the campaign trail with the Romney press bus and Maggie (Alison Pill) deals with the aftermath of a traumatic trip to Uganda.

WHY: Some people really love to hate “The Newsroom,” and for the life of me, I don’t understand why. Though the show can be a tad exaggerated at times (both dramatically and comically), it has great characters and the kind of clever, rapid-fire dialogue that’s become synonymous with every Aaron Sorkin production. Season Two isn’t as strong as its debut season – due to the more focused, season-long drone storyline and certain subplots that remove key characters from the very environment they thrive best – but with the exception of the new title sequence, it’s the same old “The Newsroom,” particularly when taking on real-life topics like the 2012 Elections, Occupy Wall Street and Trayvon Martin. Sorkin’s writing dazzles as always, but it’s the performances by the ensemble cast (from stars Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer, to supporting players like Sam Waterson, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel and Thomas Sadoski) that makes it such a joy to watch. It’s a shame that more people didn’t feel the same way, because although the series is returning for a shortened third season, it still feels like a loss, especially with so few great shows left on HBO outside of “Game of Thrones.”

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray set includes four audio commentaries with various cast and crew, the usual collection of “Inside the Episode” featurettes and deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Hercules”

WHAT: After enduring his legendary 12 labors, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) and his band of mercenaries are hired by the King of Thrace (John Hurt) to protect his people from a tyrannical warlord, only to discover that he may be fighting on the wrong side.

WHY: It’s actually quite surprising that someone hasn’t tried making a Hercules movie with Dwayne Johnson sooner, because it’s a role that he was born to play. But while the film is marginally better than Renny Harlin’s “The Legend of Hercules,” it’s rooted even less in the original myth, instead using Steve Moore’s comic book series as its inspiration, which suggests that Hercules wasn’t a demigod at all, but rather a mortal man whose legend far exceeds his abilities. Johnson does a good job in the title role, though he doesn’t have a lot to work with, and Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell (as fellow swords-for-hire) add some color to the otherwise drab story, but there’s nothing really special that sets it apart from the many other sword-and-sandal movies. The action sequences are incredibly generic, the twists aren’t surprising at all, and although the story offers a unique interpretation of the Hercules tale, it’s hard not to feel disappointed by the bait-and-switch approach to the material. After all, would you rather see a movie about the Hercules from Greek mythology, or one about an ordinary guy named Hercules who just happens to be stronger than most? Exactly.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Brett Ratner and producer Beau Flynn, there’s an introduction to the film from Ratner and Dwayne Johnson, featurettes on the characters, weapons and specials effects, a behind-the-scenes look at filming one of the major actions sequences and 15 deleted/extended scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Maleficent”

WHAT: When she’s tricked by her human friend, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) – who steals her wings in exchange for a place on the throne – vengeful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) curses the king’s newborn daughter with a spell that will take effect on her 16th birthday. Sent away to a remote cabin for her protection, Maleficent comes to care for Princess Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning) after realizing that she may be the land’s only hope for peace.

WHY: Hollywood loves a good fad, and two of the more popular trends these days are fairy tales and villains, so it’s not surprising that Disney would want in on the act, especially after the mild success of Universal’s “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Just like that movie, “Maleficent” attempts to humanize its iconic baddie by turning her into a misunderstood antihero whose fall from grace wasn’t entirely of her own making. But just like every other cinematic villain to get the revisionist treatment (from Dracula to the Evil Queen), Maleficent is stripped of everything that made her such a great character in the process, and perhaps even more troubling, as the victim of a creepy drug rape that’s never addressed. Angelina Jolie has the physicality and talent required for the role, but while she does a good job with the material provided, it would’ve been more fun to see her play a full-fledged villain compared to the morally gray character here. Though “Maleficent” is an admirable attempt at breathing new life into a classic tale, there are so many problems with the story and supporting characters that it would have made more sense to go the direct route and make a live-action “Sleeping Beauty” movie instead.

EXTRAS: There are five short featurettes – including a look at Elle Fanning’s involvement in the film, Maleficent’s costume design and the various stages of the writing process – as well as a handful of deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug – Extended Edition”

WHAT: Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and the band of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) continue their quest to reclaim Erebor. Along the way, they must contend with orcs, giant spiders, humans and the Elvenking himself in order to reach the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) dwells.

WHY: For as much fun as “The Desolation of Smaug” is at times, the film suffers from many of the same problems as its predecessor. Not only are there too many subplots, but the story is bursting at the seams with so many characters (including new faces like Beorn, Bard the Bowman and Tauriel) that not even Bilbo is given very much to do this time around. The dwarves, meanwhile, are treated like background characters, with only a few truly standing out – namely Thorin, Ken Stott’s Balin and Aiden Turner’s Kili, the latter of whom is part of a Peter Jackson-invented love triangle with Evangeline Lilly’s elven warrior, Tauriel, and Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. In fact, though it may not have been a popular decision with fans, the Legolas/Tauriel scenes (which are mostly action-oriented) are some of the best in the movie. The barrel escape from the Elvenking’s dungeon, in particular, is even better than the Goblin Town sequence from “An Unexpected Journey.” But if you thought that the first installment was too long, Part Two only further proves that expanding the book into three movies wasn’t the wisest decision, and that’s even more evident with new extended edition. Jackson spends so much time on trivial material that when it comes time for Bilbo and the dwarves’ big showdown with Smaug, you just want him to get on with it. There are some really great moments along the way, but it would have been more enjoyable if the whole thing didn’t feel like such a chore.

EXTRAS: In addition to the extended cut of the film, which boasts 25 minutes of never-before-seen footage, the three-disc set includes an audio commentary with director Peter Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyens, as well as the next two parts of the ongoing Appendices series – “Into the Wilderland” and “The Journey to Erebor” – each housed on a separate disc and running five hours long. Though the latter offers some extremely in-depth coverage of things like Smaug’s evolution and Howard Shore’s musical score, “Into the Wilderland” is broken up into smaller featurettes on the production process, from filming key sequences in Lake-town and Smaug’s lair, to stunts, special effects, VFX and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The One I Love”

WHAT: Desperate to rekindle their marriage after Ethan (Mark Duplass) cheats on his wife, Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), the pair escapes to a vacation home for the weekend on the advice of their therapist, only to discover a surprise waiting for them in the detached guest house.

WHY: “The One I Love” is the kind of movie where the less you know, the better, but that also makes it difficult to talk about, since the secret details of the plot (and the actions of its characters that follow) are exactly why the film doesn’t quite work for me. WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! If you haven’t yet watched Charlie McDowell’s bizarre relationship dramedy, do yourself a favor and stop reading now. For what it’s worth, the whole doppelganger subplot is introduced pretty early on, but while it delivers a fascinating premise, none of it makes a shred of sense. Why would Ethan and Sophie return to the guest house after witnessing such a weird phenomenon? How is the therapist involved? And more importantly, why do the doppelgangers exist? All important questions, and yet they’re never fully explored. Justin Lader’s script even tries to dance around the issue with a story about an aardvark that’s meant to be insightful, but feels like a cheap non-answer meant to distract from the film’s many plot holes and hypocritical behavior by Sophie. Despite its flaws, “The One I Love” is an interesting twist on the genre, but while it sticks the landing with its unsettling final shot, everything that precedes it is too messy to be as effective as McDowell intended.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Charlie McDowell and star Mark Duplass, as well as a short visual effects reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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