Blu Tuesday: Game of Thrones, Birdman 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.

“Game of Thrones: The Complete Fourth Season”

WHAT: Following the events of the Red Wedding, King’s Landing turns its attention to the royal wedding between Joffrey Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell, with guests arriving from all over Westeros, including the vengeful Oberyn Martell. Meanwhile, Arya and The Hound continue their journey to the Eyrie; Daenerys Targaryen leads her slave army towards Meereen; Bran and Co. head north to track down the three-eyed raven; and the Night’s Watch prepare for an attack by the Wildlings.

WHY: “Game of Thrones” is one of the best dramas on television, boasting rich storytelling, great writing and a massive ensemble cast with nary a weak link among them. But while the exhaustive world building is impressive in both size and scope, it often can’t be fully appreciated until you see how some of the storylines pay off later down the road, whether in future episodes or seasons. What really makes it appointment television, however, and one of the few genuine water-cooler shows left today, is the endless amount of shocking moments weaved throughout George R.R. Martin’s complex fantasy world. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Though nothing that occurs in Season Four is as monumental as the Red Wedding from the previous year, the bombshells came faster and more frequent, with several notable characters biting the dust, including heavy hitters like Joffrey Baratheon and Tywin Lannister, fan favorite Oberyn Martell, and quite possibly The Hound, depending on how you interpret his final scene. No other show on television makes you care about the death of a character as much as “Game of Thrones,” and it’s only one of many reasons why the series continues to perform at such a high level, constantly upping the stakes even when it no longer seems possible.

EXTRAS: There are 11 cast and crew audio commentaries spread across the four-disc set, along with an overview of Season Three, featurettes on filming the ninth episode (“Battle of the Wall”) and the role bastards play in the Seven Kingdoms, a roundtable discussion with the actors whose characters died in the fourth season, deleted scenes, a blooper reel and some interactive features.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

WHAT: Desperate to revive his career, washed-up actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) mounts an ambitious adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. When one of the actors is injured in a freak accident, Riggan brings in theater luminary Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a last-minute replacement, only for Mike’s unconventional methods to lead to a clash of egos between the two men that puts the whole production in danger of shutting down before it even begins.

WHY: Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be the most prolific director around, but that hardly matters when you make movies like “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a remarkable piece of filmmaking that’s as refreshingly original as it is wildly ambitious. While it’s a pretty incisive satire of Broadway and fame, the movie goes even deeper than that, digging into themes of ego, family and artistic integrity vs. commercial success. More than anything else, though, it operates as a character study of a broken man trying to reclaim his former glory, and in that regard, the film reminded me a lot of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” Some of it is played for laughs, but it’s mostly a profoundly sad look at one man’s struggle to validate his existence. The acting is top-notch across the board – especially Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone – however, the real magic comes from Iñarritu’s decision to stage the movie as one long tracking shot. The balletic precision and sheer ballsiness required to pull that off is mind-boggling, but it results in a more immersive and seamless viewing experience akin to a theater performance, and it’s one that’ll be mimicked for years to come.

EXTRAS: There’s a fairly extensive behind-the-scenes featurette, a conversation between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and star Michael Keaton about the movie, and a photo gallery.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“The Theory of Everything”

WHAT: While studying at Cambridge in the 1960s, physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) falls in love with and marries literature student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), only to be diagnosed with motor neuron disease and given two years to live. Miraculously, Hawking fought the disease with the help of Jane and went on to become one of the leading minds of his generation.

WHY: “The Theory of Everything” is the prototypical Oscar movie. It’s based on an incredible true story (bonus points if the subject is suffering from a disease) and boasts an extraordinary lead performance from Eddie Redmayne. But sadly, the film itself is quite ordinary, falling victim to the usual biopic conventions by trying to cover too much material in too little time. This happens surprisingly often when making movies about real-life people, and it’s especially disappointing here, because Redmayne is simply amazing as Hawking, investing himself completely in the physicality of the role without losing the essence of the character. It’s every actor’s dream job, but for as much credit as Redmayne deserves for the performance, it wouldn’t be as effective without Felicity Jones beside him, because she’s the soul of the film, providing an alternate view of Hawking’s struggle with every heartbreaking and inspiring turn. “The Theory of Everything” is about the power of the human spirit, and while the first half makes for more compelling viewing compared to the generic story beats that encompass Hawking’s later years, Redmayne and Jones are so good that even if their performances overshadow the movie itself, it’s still very much must-see viewing.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director James Marsh, there’s a featurette titled “Becoming the Hawkings” and eight deleted scenes with optional commentary by Marsh.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Interview”

WHAT: When TV personality Dave Skylark (James Franco) and producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) discover that Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a fan of their celebrity tabloid show, they land a once-in-a-lifetime interview with the North Korean dictator, prompting the CIA to recruit them for a covert mission to assassinate him.

WHY: It’s hard to believe that a comedy as silly and sophomoric as “The Interview” has caused so much controversy, because the film is by no means deserving of the nation-rallying support that it received in the wake of the much-publicized Sony hacks. While it’s scary to think that the threat of a terrorist attack is enough to bully studios into surrendering their right to free speech, the fact that North Korea would get its panties in a bunch over a freaking Seth Rogen movie proves why the country (and Kim Jong-un, in particular) is such an easy target. After all, “The Interview” makes fun of Western media just as much as the quick-tempered dictator, and although it could have done with a little more political satire to balance out the dick and fart jokes, it’s exactly what you’d expect from the guys behind “Superbad,” “Pineapple Express” and “This Is the End.” James Franco provides a majority of the laughs thanks to his goofball performance, and Randall Park and Diana Bang are both amusing in supporting roles, but the film’s needlessly long runtime prevents it from being as funny as it could have been.

EXTRAS: The so-called “Freedom Edition” Blu-ray includes an audio commentary with directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, five production featurettes, Randall Park’s audition video, deleted scenes, alternate takes, a blooper reel and a Discovery Channel special featuring Rogen and co-star James Franco.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“St. Vincent”

WHAT: A young boy named Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) finds an unlikely friend and mentor in his new neighbor, Vincent (Bill Murray), a cynical, hedonistic old man who agrees to babysit him after school (for a fee, of course) while the kid’s recently divorced mother (Melissa McCarthy) struggles to make ends meet.

WHY: On paper, “St. Vincent” is a pretty standard coming-of-age flick about a wide-eyed youngster who learns important life lessons, albeit by rather unconventional means, from the crusty curmudgeon that lives next door, all while helping the self-anointed babysitter to become a better person in the process. Fortunately, the film rises above its formulaic premise thanks to some great performances from the cast, particularly Bill Murray, who’s largely responsible for its success. The actor has proven himself capable of comedy and drama on numerous occasions, and he draws upon his strengths from both for what is easily his best leading role since “Lost in Translation.” Newcomer Jaeden Lieberher holds his own against Murray’s larger-than-life personality, Melissa McCarthy turns in some solid (and surprisingly subtle) work as the under-pressure mother, and Naomi Watts shines as a pregnant Russian prostitute, but this is Murray’s film through and through, and he knows it. Granted, the story was better the first time around when it was called “About a Boy,” but while writer/director Theodore Melfi’s screenplay is hardly original, “St. Vincent” hits all the right notes without ever feeling like it’s pandering to the audience.

EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A with star Bill Murray and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Dumb and Dumber To”

WHAT: When Harry (Jeff Bridges) discovers that an old flame (Kathleen Turner) gave up their daughter for adoption 22 year earlier, Harry and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) set off to track her down in the hope that the gorgeous but dumb Penny (Rachel Melvin) will donate a kidney to the biological dad she never met. Along the way, the duo gets caught up in a plot to kill Penny’s adoptive father (Steve Tom) by his duplicitous trophy wife (Laurie Holden) and groundskeeper (Rob Riggle), who are after the scientist’s inheritance.

WHY: Sequels are rarely a good idea, but particularly when the original was released so long ago that part of the new film’s target audience wasn’t even born yet. Unfortunately, while the promise of seeing Lloyd and Harry together again may sound like a fun slice of nostalgia, it’s obvious within minutes of “Dumb and Dumber To” that, despite trying to recapture the goofball magic of the first movie, it never quite clicks. If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because the movie follows the same basic story beats of the original, and while that’s not as problematic as it would be for most sequels – after all, these guys are so dumb they transcend logic – there’s something that just feels off about this installment. Whether it’s because Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels play their characters slightly differently (you can practically see them dusting off the proverbial cobwebs in certain scenes), or the fact that the Farrelly brothers’ brand of slapstick potty humor is no longer innocently perverse, but instead lazy, mean-spirited and tone-deaf, the movie comes across like a bad impersonation. The only thing that makes the sequel somewhat watchable is Carrey and Daniels, but although it’s nice to see the two actors rekindle their winning chemistry on screen, this is one property that Hollywood would have been better off leaving alone.

EXTRAS: In addition to a five-part making-of featurette, the Blu-ray includes deleted and extended scenes, an alternate opening and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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