Blu Tuesday: Selma, Black Sea 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.

“Selma”

WHAT: When Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Council are invited to Selma, Alabama to stage their latest fight in the civil rights movement, they organize a series of non-violent protests in the hopes that it will force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the Voting Rights Act.

WHY: Who would’ve thought that a movie that takes place nearly 50 years ago would feel so relevant today? And yet while the parallels between Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and the current racial tension across the country are indisputable, the film deserves to be judged on its own merits, because it’s a deftly made drama that takes a page from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” by focusing on a single (but very important) chapter in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. To DuVernay’s credit, she manages to make almost every moment – from the backroom politics, to King’s rousing speeches – as riveting as the last, and a big part of that success falls on the casting, even those in bit roles. David Oyelowo is fantastic as the pastor turned civil rights activist, playing him with an expected gracefulness, but also a hint of exhaustion and self-doubt that reveals the toll his crusade for equality has taken on him. It’s hard to imagine the film being nearly as effective with another actor in the role, because it’s Oyelowo’s powerful performance that transforms “Selma” from yet another stuffy biopic into a stirring political drama worthy of Dr. King’s legacy.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries – one with director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo, and another with DuVernay, cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Spencer Averick – there are behind-the-scenes featurettes on the film’s origins and production, some deleted scenes, a collection of newsreels and photos from the period, and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Black Sea”

WHAT: After he’s fired from his job at a marine salvage company, submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law) assembles a group of former employees (half British, half Russian) to search the Black Sea for a Nazi U-boat rumored to be carrying approximately 80 million dollars in gold.

WHY: Submarines are the perfect setting for a thriller – they’re dark, claustrophobic and offer no hope of escape – which is why it’s so surprising that there aren’t more films that take advantage of them. Granted, there are probably more than you think, but very few are any good, and “Black Sea” can count itself among that exclusive group. Not only is the movie a welcome return to form for director Kevin Macdonald, who sort of fell off the map after his 2009 remake of “State of Play,” but it reaffirms why Jude Law is one of the most underrated actors in the business. Law delivers yet another excellent performance as the under-pressure captain who sees the mission as his last chance at redemption, and he’s surrounded by a cast of reliable supporting players like Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn and Michael Smiley. The “us vs. them” mentality between the British and Russian crew members provides plenty of suspense as their greed and paranoia builds throughout the film, and while certain character actions don’t exactly make sense (as things go from bad to worse, the wrong people are blamed), “Black Sea” manages to stay afloat thanks to its engaging premise, solid performances and taut direction.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Kevin Macdonald and a short making-of featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Lost River”

WHAT: In the rundown, mostly abandoned city of Lost River, single mother Billie (Christina Hendricks) is forced to take a job at a fetishistic underground club in order to pay the mortgage on her childhood home. Meanwhile, her teenage son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) investigates the mysterious origins of Lost River while being hunted by a psychotic bully (Matt Smith).

WHY: Ryan Gosling has worked with some pretty daring filmmakers over the past few years, including Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive,” “Only God Forgives”) and Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine,” “A Place Beyond the Pines”), so it’s only natural that he’d be influenced by their work. Unfortunately, despite boasting some gorgeous visuals and a hypnotic score by Johnny Jewel, Gosling’s directorial debut (which he also wrote) gets so lost in capturing a specific style and tone that it fails to deliver a cohesive story with any substance. It looks absolutely stunning, combining its gritty Detroit setting with pops of color that give the movie a dreamlike quality, but while Gosling proves that he has a great eye for composition, “Lost River” is severely lacking in other departments. Iain De Caestecker’s protagonist is the only character who’s given even the tiniest amount of development (especially compared to Matt Smith’s enigmatic villain, who’s so silly that it’s a mystery why anyone would be afraid of him), while the attempt to instill a David Lynchian weirdness feels forced and half-baked. Gosling deserves credit for putting his reputation on the line with such an ambitious debut, but although “Lost River” is a beautiful and occasionally intriguing failure, it’s a failure all the same.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release is as barebones as it gets.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Mr. Turner”

WHAT: An intimate look at eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) spanning the last 25 years of his life.

WHY: It amazes me how a movie could look so beautiful and yet be such an incredible bore, but Mike Leigh’s latest film pulls it off with aplomb. Though his longtime cinematographer Dick Pope delivers some lush visuals to counterbalance the sheer boorishness of its title character, “Mr. Turner” is akin to watching paint dry, which is ironic considering that it’s about one of Britain’s most revered painters. The movie is horribly uneventful, plodding around as it jumps from one trivial event to the next until, a near-torturous 150 minutes later, Turner finally croaks. How Timothy Spall managed to win the Best Actor prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival is beyond me, because the performance is nothing more than a calculated series of squints, grunts and mumbles that quickly wears out its welcome. The rest of the cast has very little to add, save for Marion Bailey as the sweet landlady with whom Turner becomes romantically involved, and some of the scenes are so unintentionally comical that it makes the film feel more like an amateur production of “Masterpiece Theater” than a fascinating portrait of someone of actual worth. It’s nice to see a talented character actor like Spall get a leading role for once, but “Mr. Turner” is a waste of his charm and the audience’s time.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary by writer/director Mike Leigh, a pair of production featurettes and a deleted scene.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: After leaving IBM under mysterious circumstances, visionary businessman Joe McMillian (Lee Pace) talks his way into a job at Cardiff Electric to spearhead their personal computer department. When Joe convinces washed-up but brilliant computer engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) to join his project by reverse-engineering an IBM PC, he draws the ire of his former company, leading him to hire young prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) – someone capable of writing source code with no connection to Cardiff – to cover their tracks.

WHY: “Halt and Catch Fire” may not be a bonafide hit (either critically or commercially) like fellow AMC dramas “The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” but it’s still a solid piece of storytelling fueled by a trio of excellent performances from its leads. Lee Pace plays the success-obsessed McMillian like some kind of androgynous android, burying any emotion behind his ice-cold façade; Scoot McNairy does his squirmy nerd shtick as the tech genius who can’t seem to get out of his own way; and though Mackenzie Davis is undoubtedly the least famous of the three actors, if you didn’t know who she was before the show, you’ll definitely remember her after, because she’s bound for bigger and better things. Unfortunately, while the 1980s PC race makes for compelling television, there’s an argument to be made that even at 10 episodes, the first season starts to drag towards the final stretch. “Halt and Catch Fire” is such a niche series that it never would have been given a chance on another network, but although Season One is a bit wobbly at times, the potential for improvement is certainly there, especially with Pace, McNairy and Davis leading the charge.

EXTRAS: There’s a trio of production featurettes on recreating the 1980s and Texas Silicon Prairie setting, as well the previously released “Inside Episode” content.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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