Blu Tuesday: House of Cards 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.

“House of Cards: The Complete Third Season”

WHAT: After being sworn in as President of the United States following his predecessor’s resignation, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) fights battles domestically (both in his marriage at home and with his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill) and internationally as he tries to form a peace coalition with bullheaded Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen). Meanwhile, Claire (Robin Wright) is no longer content with her role as First Lady and seeks some power of her own as the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

WHY: The first two seasons of “House of Cards” delivered such top-notch storytelling that it was never going to be easy replicating it a third time, but while Season Three isn’t without its problems, it’s still an incredibly well-acted and sharply written drama that ranks as one of the best shows on TV. Though it certainly makes sense why creator Beau Willimon would want to take the series in a slightly different direction – with Frank no longer several steps ahead in his scheming, but rather struggling just to keep his head above water – the story feels a little stretched creatively. For starters, the rock-solid relationship between Frank and Claire is fractured far too easily for a couple that supposedly makes each other stronger (and Claire, in particular, is even pettier than usual), while the whole Doug subplot isn’t engaging enough to warrant spending an entire season on. Some stories work better than others, but the cast continues to fire on all cylinders, including newcomers like Kim Dickens and Paul Sparks, as well as Mahershala Ali and Molly Parker, who are given more to do this season. Still, “House of Cards” is Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright’s show, and they never let you forget it, because even when they’re saddled with mediocre material, the two actors command the screen like no other couple on television.

EXTRAS: In addition to a making-of featurette, the Blu-ray edition includes an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at filming a key scene from the season finale.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Slow West”

WHAT: Set in 1870, a young Scottish man named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels across the American frontier in search of the woman he loves, escorted by a quiet drifter (Michael Fassbender) he’s hired for the journey. But what Jay doesn’t realize is that he’s being used by his traveling companion to lead him straight to Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father (Rory McCann) in order to collect the sizable bounty placed on their heads.

WHY: Though he’s not the first musician to make the transition over to filmmaking, former Beta Band keyboardist John Maclean’s “Slow West” is an incredibly confident directorial debut that breathes new life into the Western without abandoning its roots. Gorgeously shot and remarkably vibrant for the genre, the movie is a well-paced, character-driven piece that boasts a pair of great performances from Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee, as well as a wry sense of humor that will have you laughing at some pretty morbid stuff. (The literal “salt on the wound” gag is probably the best of the bunch, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as Maclean’s darkly comical script is concerned.) While it’s disappointing to see a fantastic character actor like Ben Mendelsohn wasted in such a small role, he makes the most of his limited screen time, especially considering his rascally outlaw doesn’t even enter the story until the final act. “Slow West” is an odd but amusing little movie, and though it’s not above having fun with certain genre tropes, it’s still very much a Western in style and spirit, which is to say that the American frontier is a pretty nasty place to go chasing your dreams.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Maggie”

WHAT: When a deadly epidemic sweeps across the country, turning its victims into zombies, a loving father (Arnold Schwarzenegger) battles the authorities from placing his infected daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), into quarantine so that he can spend her final days by her side.

WHY: “Maggie” is one of those films that you really want to like but is constantly giving you reasons not to. Though Henry Hobson’s directorial debut offers a unique take on the zombie genre by spinning it into a thoughtful family drama about death and love, it never really goes anywhere with the material. It’s nice to see Arnold Schwarzenegger stretching himself with a more subtle (and very different) role as opposed to his usual action fare, but the performance is hindered by his limited abilities as an actor. Perhaps that explains why he goes missing for most of the middle act, with the movie turning its attention to Abigail Breslin’s title character, who makes for a more interesting protagonist anyway. The actress has been popping up a lot lately in the horror/thriller genre, and although most of it has been junk, she does a great job of externalizing the fear and regret of Maggie’s prolonged, tragic demise. Unfortunately, the film moves slower than a zombie, and despite some good moments scattered throughout, it lacks the consistency and focus that such a low-key, thinly-plotted premise required.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with director Henry Hobson, a making-of featurette, cast and crew interviews, and a deleted scene.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Kill Me Three Times”

WHAT: Professional hitman Charlie Wolfe (Simon Pegg) is hired to kill a woman named Alice (Alice Braga) after her abusive husband (Callan Mulvey) suspects her of cheating. But when Charlie learns that his client’s sister (Teresa Palmer) and her husband (Sullivan Stapleton) are also planning on murdering Alice as part of an elaborate insurance scam, Charlie figures he can get paid without getting his hands dirty. But his mistake is trusting amateurs to do a professional’s job, setting into motion a cycle of murder, blackmail and revenge.

WHY: “Kill Me Three Times” is the sort of Quentin Tarantino poser film that peaked in the early ‘00s, when Blockbuster was still the king of home video. That’s how dated director Kriv Stenders’ movie feels, and unlike Tarantino’s oeuvre (as well as the really good imitators), it lacks the colorful dialogue and characters to make up for its derivative story. Though Stenders deserves some credit for assembling such a game cast, the film never quite comes together. “Kill Me Three Times” wants to be both a dark comedy and a stylish crime thriller, but the contrasting tones only end up stifling one another. While Simon Pegg is clearly enjoying himself playing against type, his talents are wasted in a role that consists mainly of him watching from the sidelines in amusement as others botch up their criminal plans. And while he may technically be a bad guy, Pegg is the only likeable character in the entire film, partly because everyone else is so poorly developed. “Kill Me Three Times” had the potential to be better, but it never once makes good on that promise.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries – one with director Kriv Stenders and cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, and another with Stenders and the film’s producers – there’s a making-of featurette, a deleted scene, a Q&A from the BFI London Film Festival and more.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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