Blu Tuesday: Insurgent, Strike Back 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: When Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) recovers a mysterious box containing a message from the colony’s founding fathers that requires a Divergent to unlock it, she orders her cronies to round up potential candidates to put through the box’s rigorous testing process. Meanwhile, Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) unite their Dauntless friends with the factionless rebels – led by Four’s presumed-dead mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts) – to take down Jeanine and the whole faction system.

WHY: Unlike some of the more successful YA book-to-film adaptations, the “Divergent” series has continually failed to prove why Veronica Roth’s trilogy is such a big deal. The first installment was plagued by a troubling lack of excitement, suspense and emotion, and those problems continue with “Insurgent.” Though it boasts some great talent in the form of Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet and Miles Teller (the latter two of whom are smartly given more to do this time around), it’s not enough to disguise the movie’s numerous issues, especially when it wastes so much time doing nothing. The end of “Divergent” seemed to point towards a move outside the walls surrounding the dystopian city where the story takes place, and yet all of “Insurgent” is set within those very walls, suspending its characters in narrative limbo in order to slog through an entire novel of mostly filler. “Insurgent” could have been the “Catching Fire” of the “Divergent” film series, building on the original premise in bold and fresh new ways, but instead, it’s a sluggish, twiddle-your-thumbs chapter that’s more about the setup than the payoff.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by producers Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher, a feature-length documentary about making the film, and a quartet of featurettes on adapting the source material, the cast, shooting the train fight sequence and Miles Teller’s character, Peter Hayes.


“Strike Back: The Complete Third Season”

WHAT: After one of their own is killed while working undercover in Beirut, Section 20 agents Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) and Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) are forced to cut their vacation short in order to stop a criminal group that is funding terrorists in the Middle East.

WHY: You’d be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable guilty pleasure on television than “Strike Back,” a show that cares so little about logic that you can practically see the writers bending over backwards behind the scenes to come up with new, ridiculous ways to defy it. The Cinemax action series doesn’t pretend to be smart (on the contrary, it almost revels in its shoot-first-think-later absurdity), but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. Though Season Three is probably the weakest installment to date, particularly due to some rocky storytelling that jumps from one loosely connected subplot to the next as if they’re making it all up as they go along, Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winchester boast such great chemistry that it’s easy to look past its obvious flaws. Their characters may have more lives than a cat, so you know they’ll make it out of whatever crazy situation they’ve gotten themselves into unscathed, but that’s part of its allure. Well, that and the fantastic action sequences, because what “Strike Back” lacks in great writing and acting, it more than makes up for with some of the best action on TV.

EXTRAS: There are audio commentaries for three episodes with various cast and crew (including stars Sullivan Stapleton and Phillip Winchester), as well as a collection of playful behind-the-scenes featurettes like “How to Act in Shit,” “How to Drive Through a Minefield,” “How to Interrogate While Driving” and “How to Dangle From a Helicopter.”


“True Story”

WHAT: After being fired from his job at the New York Times, disgraced journalist Mike Finkle (Jonah Hill) is given a chance to redeem his career when Chris Longo (James Franco) – an Oregon man who had been posing as Finkel while on the run in Mexico for the suspected murder of his wife and three kids – grants him the exclusive rights to tell his story. But as Mike spends more time with the imprisoned Chris and becomes convinced that he may actually be innocent, he’s unwittingly dragged into Chris’ mind games.

WHY: Jonah Hill and James Franco have shown off their dramatic chops in a number of projects over the past five years, but that doesn’t make it any less weird to see the jokesters sharing the screen in a starkly serious drama like “True Story.” The film is a pretty standard legal procedural that, considering the crazy-but-true nature of the real-life events, deserved something a little more memorable than this, but it’s to no fault of the actors involved, who do a commendable job with the material. It’s an intriguing premise made even more so by the questionable credibility of Finkel and Longo, who both seem to believe that an entertaining story is better than one tamed by the truth. The problem, however, is that it’s delivered in such a straight-forward, no-frills manner that you could just as easily read the book on which the movie is based. The sole difference is that whereas the book was written as a self-serving mea culpa that only put Finkel’s credibility into greater doubt, the film refuses to let either subject off the hook. It doesn’t change the fact that you’re still left to wonder how much of what Finkel wrote actually happened, but in using his story to explore larger themes like truth and deception, director Rupert Goold has created a captivating if unspectacular true crime drama.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Rupert Gould, there’s a making-of featurette, a pair of character profiles, an alternate ending and deleted scenes.


“The Casual Vacancy”

WHAT: In the small, idyllic English village of Pagford, parish council member Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) fights to protect the local community center from being turned into a health spa by the more materialistic, bourgeois members of the group. But when Barry suddenly dies of a brain aneurism, a pair of unlikely candidates are pressured by the opposing sides to compete for the vacant position, which represents the deciding vote on the matter.

WHY: Based on J.K. Rowling’s first post-“Harry Potter” novel, and her first crack at writing more adult material, “The Casual Vacancy” is an intriguing but somewhat dry look at class warfare in England. Part of the problem is that the story kills off its best character – who, unlike most of the folks in Pagford, is a genuinely good guy without any selfish personal agendas – midway through the first hour of the three-part miniseries. It’s a double-edged sword, since his death is what fuels the actions of every other character in town, and yet none of them are as interesting to follow. Rory Kinnear delivers a great performance as the charitable Barry (who appears via flashbacks in subsequent episodes), and bit players like Monica Dolan and Keeley Hawes turn in solid work, but no one else from the large ensemble cast really stands out, including Michael Gambon as the head of the parish council. Despite its three-hour runtime, “The Casual Vacancy” feels like it’s barely scratching the surface as far as some characters are concerned, and while that was obviously a conscious decision by screenwriter Sarah Phelps to make the narrative flow better, it’ll no doubt annoy fans of Rowling’s book, which contained much darker plot twists that were cut from this adaptation. Although, considering how depressing the story already is, that was probably for the best.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a trio of featurettes on casting, adapting J.K. Rowling’s novel and an overview of the miniseries.


“Adult Beginners”

WHAT: When his tech company implodes on the eve of a major product launch, Jake (Nick Kroll) leaves Manhattan to move in with his estranged pregnant sister, Justine (Rose Byrne), at their childhood home in the suburbs. In exchange for her hospitality, Jake agrees to watch Justine’s three-year-old son during the day, forcing him to take some responsibility and finally grow up.

WHY: “Adult Beginners” isn’t going to win any awards for originality – it’s riddled with indie film clichés and a host of predictable plot turns – but unlike other movies suffering from the same issues, it survives on the charm of its likable cast, even if just barely. Though Nick Kroll hasn’t given audiences any reason to be taken seriously as an actor with his appearances on juvenile TV series like “The League” and “Kroll Show,” the comedian delivers a surprisingly mature performance that highlights his acrebic wit and proves himself as a viable leading man. Rose Byrne also turns in some good work as Jake’s unhappy older sister, while the always-reliable Bobby Cannavale rounds out the cast as her attention-starved husband. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t particularly funny or dramatic (blame Jeff Cox and Liz Flahive’s screenplay), and while that prevents “Adult Beginners” from rising above its frustrating mediocrity, it’s not a bad film by any means. The problem with the movie, however, is that it’s not an entirely memorable one, either.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, but that’s all.


“Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead”

WHAT: As a zombie apocalypse descends upon the Australian bushland, turning all but those with an A-negative blood type into flesh-eating monsters, Barry (Jay Gallagher) teams up with a group of survivors to rescue his sister Brooke (Bianca Bradley) from a deranged doctor who’s performing experiments on human survivors.

WHY: Sibling duo Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner’s debut feature has been described as a mix between “Mad Max” and “Dawn of the Dead,” but apart from the fact that it takes place down under and features a protagonist that wears “Road Warrior”-esque battle armor, the comparisons to George Miller’s cult film series are totally unfounded. Instead, it’s just another low-budget zombie movie that’s marginally better than the usual offerings thanks to its unique approach to the genre. Though the film stumbles early on as a result of a disjointed opening act that details how its main characters were affected by the plague, it eventually picks up once Barry joins the other survivors. The mad scientist subplot isn’t as exciting, but it does yield an interesting plot twist where Brooke learns that she has the ability to control the zombies with her mind after being injected with their blood. Unfortunately, the other additions to the traditional zombie mythology aren’t as successful, particularly a premise involving fuel sources, which doesn’t even make sense. Horror fans won’t mind, though, because while “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead” is also hindered by some subpar acting and overly ambitious action scenes, it’s still a mildly amusing midnight movie that should earn a cult following of its own.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with director/co-writer Kiah Roache-Turner and producer/co-writer Tristan Roache-Turner, as well as a behind-the-scenes featurette, their crowdfunding pitch video, deleted scenes and more.



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