Blu Tuesday: Fury, The Book of Life 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.


WHAT: It’s April 1945, and while World War II has all but ended, the U.S. military makes its final push through the Germany to wipe out the remaining Nazi resistance. On the front line is Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), a seasoned tank veteran who’s been fighting with the same crew since North Africa. But when their assistant driver is killed in action, clerk typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is ordered to replace him, despite having no experience on the battlefield.

WHY: Dayid Ayer has always made macho movies, and it’s a trademark that he wears like a badge of honor in his WWII drama, “Fury.” Though it’s nice to see the writer/director taking a much-needed break from the crime thrillers that have dominated his career, “Fury” also represents” a more mature piece of work for him, showcasing his growth as a storyteller without abandoning the gritty style that sets the Fury movie apart from the countless others in the genre. Revolving an entire film around a tank may not seem very compelling, but it’s actually what makes “Fury” such a refreshing take on the WWII conflict. Ayer captures the claustrophobia and helplessness of the whole tank experience, while the actors form a great camaraderie that feels every bit as genuine as the bond that real-life tank crews undoubtedly developed from spending so much time together. Though it doesn’t stray from the psychological horrors of warfare, “Fury” is most enjoyable when the titular vehicle is unleashed on the battlefield, including an edge-of-your-seat showdown between three American tanks and the bigger, stronger German Tiger tank, as well as a climactic standoff between Wardaddy’s crew and a battalion of SS soldiers. It’s fantastically intense stuff, delivering a raw and unflinching look at the brutality of WWII that stands as one of the best war movies of the past decade.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes over 50 minutes of deleted scenes and four featurettes covering production, the film’s authenticity and more.


“The Book of Life”

WHAT: The spirits La Muerte (Kate de Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, make a wager about which childhood friend – bullfighter/musician Manolo (Diego Luna) or heroic soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum) – will marry the beautiful Maria (Zoe Saldana). But when Xibalba interferes by tricking Manolo into the underworld, he enlists the help of his deceased family members to escape.

WHY: If you happened to catch any of the TV spots for “The Book of Life” – which were largely comprised of footage of the voice actors in the recording booth – you’d think that the studio was trying to hide a bad film behind famous faces like Channing Tatum and Zoe Saldana. Thankfully, that’s not the case, because although “The Book of Life” is a pretty formulaic kid’s film, what it lacks in originality from a narrative standpoint, it makes up for with some gorgeous visuals, unique art design and a strong message. It also boasts some cool mariachi-style versions of popular songs by Radiohead, Mumford & Sons and more, though the film isn’t without its flaws. The story’s love triangle is so lopsided in favor of Manolo that it’s embarrassing, while the casting of Tatum (even if he’s just providing a voice) seems really insensitive considering there are plenty of Hispanic actors that would have been a better fit. Granted, they don’t have the same box office draw, but for a movie that’s so engrained in Mexican culture, “The Book of Life” should have taken the high road, even if it doesn’t have a drastic effect on the overall experience.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Jorge R. Gutierrez, a trio of featurettes on production, art direction and the soundtrack, a new short film and more.


“Open Windows”

WHAT: When celebrity blogger Nick (Elijah Woods) learns that the dinner date he won with his favorite actress, Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey), has been cancelled, he’s given the opportunity to spy on her via his laptop with the help of a man claiming to be Jill’s manager (Neil Maskell). But after the mystery man reveals his true intentions, Nick is pulled into a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with deadly results.

WHY: Director Nacho Vigalondo made a name for himself with 2007’s twisty sci-fi thriller, “Timecrimes,” but over the past eight years, he hasn’t even come close to fulfilling the potential hinted at by his debut feature. Though his newest movie also boasts a clever plot device – telling the story in real-time using video chat and surveillance footage presented as open windows on a laptop – he not only fails to stick the landing, but bumbles through the whole routine. It’s a really neat idea, but the gimmick eventually wears thin, exposing the film’s numerous problems in the process. The script is absolutely ridiculous, requiring a suspension of disbelief that makes most episodes of “24” seem realistic in comparison, and the acting isn’t much better, although you can hardly fault Elijah Wood, who’s more than game. The actor has been doing a lot of interesting, gimmick-driven genre films lately (including the 2012 remake of “Maniac”), but if you’re going to watch one, it should be the thematically similar “Grand Piano” instead, because while Vigalondo’s attempt to produce a modern day “Rear Window” is admirable, it doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the Hitchcock classic.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and a visual effects reel.


“Why Don’t You Play in Hell?”

WHAT: Ten years after yakuza mid-boss Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi) led an assault on rival boss Muto (Jun Kunimura), the latter is finally plotting his revenge. As a welcome home gift to his wife, who spent those years in prison for killing some of Ikegami’s men, Muto plans to film the raid with his wannabe actress daughter, Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaido), in the starring role. All he needs is a movie crew crazy enough to make it a reality, an opportunity that amateur director Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa) has been waiting for his whole life.

WHY: Sion Sono’s ode to 35mm cinema and guerilla filmmaking probably isn’t the best place to start in the director’s oeuvre, but it’s an occasionally entertaining, grindhouse-styled farce that’s equal parts goofy and gory. Though it might seem strangely contradictory that Sono would make this grand statement about the lost love of filmmaking with a digital camera and CG blood effects, that’s the whole point, especially when the movie-within-the-movie relies on real-life violence as Hirata captures the yakuza showdown in all its bloody glory. The film takes a while to get going due to all of the setup in the first act, and although it’s necessary to create the connected narrative in the later stages, it could have been shorter, trimming some of the less interesting subplots (like the “relationship” between Mitsuko and secret admirer Koji) in order to get to the big climax sooner. “Why Don’t You Play in Hell” is every bit as deranged and twisted as audiences have come to expect from Japanese cinema; the kind of movie that combines an infectious toothpaste jingle with blood-spurting decapitations. It’s not exactly my cup of tea, but fans of the genre will absolutely love it.

EXTRAS: In addition to a press conference with director Sion Sono, there’s a 24-page booklet and a fold-out poster by comic artist James Callahan.