Blu Tuesday: Ex Machina, It Follows 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.

“Ex Machina”

WHAT: Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer at an Internet search engine, thinks that he’s just won an office-wide lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive but brilliant CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote home/research facility in Alaska. But Nathan has other plans for him – namely, to enlist Caleb’s assistance in conducting a Turing test on his newest creation, an incredibly lifelike robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), in order to determine whether the artificial intelligence can pass as human.

WHY: Screenwriter Alex Garland has worked almost exclusively in the science fiction genre, so it comes as no surprise that his directorial debut occupies a similar space, this time focusing on the decades-old debate of artificial intelligence. Making a movie about A.I. isn’t exactly a novel premise, but Garland excels at putting a fresh spin on familiar material, and he doesn’t disappoint with “Ex Machina,” which draws inspiration from other genre classics like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Frankenstein.” Garland’s film is intelligent science fiction operating at a very high level. The movie hits on some pretty big concepts without ever alienating the audience, and the sci-fi elements feel authentic despite being years away from creating such technology. The visual effects are also quite impressive, but they never overshadow the story by drawing too much attention to Ava’s beautiful but simplistic design. Though the film moves at a fairly slow pace, meandering towards its crackerjack ending via Caleb’s sessions with Ava and his post-meeting debriefings with Nathan, it’s never boring, and that’s to the immense credit of Garland’s clever script and some excellent performances. Anyone who’s seen Garland’s previous movies knows he can write, but with “Ex Machina,” he announces himself as a talented director who can not only spin a good yarn on the page, but on the screen as well.

EXTRAS: There’s a five-part making-of featurette, as well as eight additional behind-the-scenes vignettes and a Q&A with the cast and crew from SXSW.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“It Follows”

WHAT: Teenage suburbanite Jay (Maika Monroe) has just learned she’s been infected with a curse where the victim is ruthlessly stalked by a slow-walking entity that can assume the form of anyone. Nobody else can see it, but if it catches you, it’ll kill you, and the only way to get rid of it is by having sex with someone else and passing it on – at least until it kills that person and works its way back down the chain. Trapped in a constant state of fear, Jay must rely on the help of her friends to stop the monster from claiming any more lives.

WHY: Considering the role that sex has played in the horror genre throughout the years, it’s surprising that the supernatural STD angle hasn’t been done before, because it’s a really clever idea. Though the “sex equals death” rule isn’t as prominent in modern horror movies that defy those decades-old tropes, “It Follows” is very much a retro homage to ‘70s and ‘80s genre classics, from the “Halloween”-esque synth score, to the striking similarities to “Nightmare on Elm Street,” both in Jay’s perpetual helplessness and the film’s dreamlike atmosphere. But while “It Follows” has its merits as an innovative piece of filmmaking, the movie isn’t without its problems, beginning with writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s complete disinterest in digging any further into the mythology and logistics of the curse. Additionally, the acting is amateurish and the pacing could be a lot tighter. The characters spend too much time just sitting around waiting for something to happen, and although it’s initially effective in creating an ominous mood, it gets to the point where you wish they’d be a bit more proactive. The same goes for the movie itself, because despite its terrifying premise, “It Follows” is much scarier in concept than execution.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with film critics Eric D. Snider, Britt Hayes, Samuel D. Zimmerman, Alison Nastasi and Eric Vespe that’s hosted by Scott Weinberg, as well as an interview with film composer Richard Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Powers: Season One”

WHAT: After losing his powers to arch-nemesis Wolfe (Eddie Izzard), former superhero Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley) now works as a homicide detective for a special division that investigates crimes involving superhumans. When one of his former colleagues is found dead from a new drug designed specifically for those with powers, Christian and his partner, Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward), must track down the person responsible.

WHY: An adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s superhero-noir comic book, “Powers,” has been in development for more than a decade, first as a potential movie, and more recently, as a television series for FX. It eventually found a home on the PlayStation Network as the gaming platform’s first original series, and though fans should consider themselves lucky that it landed anywhere at all, if they weren’t going to do it right, then they shouldn’t have even bothered. The whole show seems to have been made on the cheap, resulting in a diluted version of its award-winning source material that’s marred by poor writing, inconsistent performances and second-rate visual effects. While there’s plenty of great talent in the cast, including Sharlto Copley, Michelle Forbes (as superhero Retro Girl) and Noah Taylor (as teleporting villain Johnny Royalle), many of the actors are horribly miscast in their roles. The series does eventually improve in the latter half of the season, but by that point, the damage has already been done. There are far better comic book shows on TV to invest your time in, because although “Powers” had the potential to be really great, it’s unable to rise above its obvious budgetary limitations.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of featurettes on adapting the comic book and filming the first season, there are some outtakes and deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut”

WHAT: In the near future, mutants are being hunted down by advanced versions of Sentinel robots that can adapt to any situation, making them impossible to defeat. With only a handful of X-Men remaining, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) uses her powers to send Logan’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back in time circa 1973 to reunite Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) for a single purpose: stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering the creator of the Sentinel program (Peter Dinklage) in the hope that it will alter the course of history.

WHY: Just when it seemed like Fox was engineering a smart reboot of its X-Men franchise with “First Class,” the series’ original director, Bryan Singer, returned to combine the old with the new in “Days of Future Past.” That’s not exactly bad news for fans who appreciate the lengths Singer has gone to in an attempt to fix the continuity issues within the X-movies, but by doing so, he’s tethered the prequels to the earlier films in a way that ensures they’ll never be able to exist on their own. And considering the potential of where the franchise was headed prior to this “sidequel,” it’s a little disappointing to see Singer turn his back on that initial vision. Granted, there’s still quite a bit to like about the movie, but it feels more like a step backward than the creative leap forward that Matthew Vaughn’s prequel pointed towards. There’s no denying that Singer made two great X-Men films with the self-titled original and 2003 sequel, but with the exception of a few cool set pieces (the Quicksilver scene chief among them), it feels like he’s just going through the motions. The new Rogue Cut adds about 17 minutes of never-before-seen footage on top of the theatrical version, and while it’s nice to see Anna Paquin reprise her role as the power-sapping mutant, it doesn’t really add anything to the story. In fact, it only cements why it was removed in the first place.

EXTRAS: In addition to a new audio commentary by director Bryan Singer and composer/film editor John Ottoman on the Rogue Cut, there’s another commentary with Singer and producer Simon Kinberg, a nine-part making-of featurette and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

WHAT: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has been in operation for eight months now, and owner Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) has grand ambitions to expand by purchasing a derelict hotel nearby. So when American tourist Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) arrives at the hotel just days after Sonny is told that an inspector will be sent over to check out the property, he believes that Guy is actually the inspector in disguise, waiting on him hand and foot instead of attending to his ceremonial duties for his forthcoming marriage.

WHY: When “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” opened in 2012, it was viewed as a smart piece of counterprogramming to “The Avengers.” But something strange happened along the way: the senior-targeted dramedy became a box office hit in its own right. Though the film’s success was unexpected, no one could have imagined that it would breed a sequel, and yet four years later, the gang was reunited for another Indian adventure like some sort of Avengers-style retiree supergroup. Including the words “second best” in the title probably wasn’t intended as a comment on the movie’s quality, but while it’s not as good as its predecessor, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” still skates by on the delightful charm of its ensemble cast. Each actor has been given their own subplot of varying significance (which contributes to the overlong runtime), but only a few have enough meat on their bones to be truly engaging, particularly the stuff between Judi Dench’s Evelyn and Bill Nighy’s Douglas, as well as the main storyline involving Sonny. The film is every bit as formulaic and overly sentimental as the last one, but it’s so fun to watch veteran actors like Dench, Nighy and Maggie Smith interact with each other that it keeps you invested in the story even at its schmaltzy worst.

EXTRAS: There’s a collection of short featurettes on the cast, the story, location shooting in India and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2”

WHAT: When he’s invited to attend a security officer convention in Las Vegas, Paul Blart (Kevin James) decides to bring along his teenage daughter, Maya (Raini Rodrgiuez), before she goes away to college. But after Maya is kidnapped by a group of art thieves who are pulling off a heist in the hotel where they’re staying, Paul must jump into action to rescue her and stop the bad guys again.

WHY: There’s a special place in hell reserved for the people responsible for making another Paul Blart movie, because these films are the cinematic equivalent of waterboarding. Not only is the sequel every bit as humorless as expected, but “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” is so idiotic that it somehow manages to be worse than its predecessor, propelled by an incredibly lazy and nonsensical script that puts Kevin James’ title character in all kinds of stupid situations (from fighting exotic birds, to interrupting a Vegas show) because someone, somewhere thought it would be hilarious. Except that it’s not. The fact that it took six years to even produce a sequel proves that there wasn’t much demand, so why waste money bankrolling another installment when Sony could have used it to give a young filmmaker the chance to make something original? On the upside, the movie ends with Blart getting kicked by a police horse into the side of his car with such cartoonish force that he’s almost certainly dead, so at least we’ll never have to be submitted to James’ annoying, not-so-loveable goof ever again. Pretty please?

EXTRAS: There are eight short featurettes (though most of them are admittedly pretty dumb), some deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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