Blu Tuesday: American Ultra, Shaun the Sheep 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.

“American Ultra”

WHAT: After bureaucratic brownnoser Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) orders the termination of an experimental super soldier program, the CIA agent behind the project (Connie Britton) activates one of its subjects – unambitious stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) – to give him a fair shot at survival. Marked for death and forced to go into hiding, Mike must utilize his newly discovered abilities to rescue his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) when she’s kidnapped by Yates and his team of programmed killers.

WHY: A high-concept movie that’s equal parts “Pineapple Express” and “The Bourne Identity,” “American Ultra” attempts to strike a balance between the pot-driven humor of the former and the super-spy action of the latter, but ends up as a bit of a tonal mess in the process. Though the film works in fits and starts, it never really finds its groove; for every great moment or idea, there are two more that fall flat. The opportunity was certainly there for some biting commentary on the irony of the U.S. government turning a stoner into a stone-cold killer amidst its War on Drugs, but sadly, “American Ultra” doesn’t seem interested in that kind of satire. Thankfully, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have such great chemistry that it saves the movie from being a complete disappointment. Not only do they handle the comedy and action beats with aplomb, but the pair adds an unexpected sweetness to their characters’ romance that you don’t normally find in this type of film. Though “American Ultra” will likely find an audience among the college crowd during late-night showings on cable TV, it’s a half-baked pot brownie of an action-comedy that gives you just enough of a buzz to make you wonder what it could have been in the hands of a more assured filmmaker.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Nima Nourizadeh, there are a pair of production featurettes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Shaun the Sheep”

WHAT: Shaun the Sheep decides to take the day off and have some fun, but when his actions inadvertently lead to the Farmer getting injured and deserted in the Big City with no memory, Shaun and the rest of the flock must risk their own safety in order to bring him back.

WHY: Aardman Animation has never been afraid of pushing the envelope when it comes to their stop-motion animated films, but “Shaun the Sheep” is an especially ambitious movie that it doesn’t include any dialogue over the course of its 85-minute runtime. Not even the human characters speak, instead resorting to a type of gibberish that will be very familiar to fans of “The Sims.” Though that might make the animation process a little easier, it’s much more difficult to pull off from a storytelling standpoint, and one that writers/directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak do an impressive job of executing. The whole thing plays out like a Buster Keaton silent film, with lots of clever sight gags befitting of Aardman’s trademark humor. Though it could have benefited from a better antagonist than the clichéd animal control officer that chases Shaun and his friends around the city, the movie’s frenetic pacing ensures that there’s never a dull moment. It’s not as great as Aardman’s “Wallace and Gromit” stuff, but it’s a smart and funny animated film that will entertain the whole family.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes footage of the animation process, character profiles and interviews with the crew.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Ricki and the Flash”

WHAT: When her estranged daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) has a mental breakdown after her husband leaves her for another woman, aging rocker Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) travels back home to Indianapolis to make things right with the family that she abandoned years ago.

WHY: Despite boasting the Oscar-winning talents of Meryl Streep, director Jonathan Demme and writer Diablo Cody, “Ricki and the Flash” is an incredibly generic family drama that fails to bring anything new to its familiar story of the absentee parent seeking redemption. Every single beat plays out exactly as you’d expect, right down to the happy ending that conveniently forgives Ricki’s decades of neglect in a matter of minutes. Cody’s script isn’t just predictable, but thematically and tonally inconsistent, completely abandoning the mother-daughter plot midway through the movie when it becomes obvious that it’s not going anywhere. If anyone was capable of salvaging such a mess, it would be Streep, but the actress is miscast in the role, delivering her worst performance since “It’s Complicated” with some serious overacting. The musical performances by Ricki and her cover band aren’t much better, particularly because Streep isn’t nearly as good of a singer as Hollywood seems to think she is. It’s hardly the worst part about “Ricki and the Flash,” but that’s not saying much for a movie swimming in mediocrity.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a making-of featurette, some deleted scenes and a profile on Rick Springfield.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“No Escape”

WHAT: American engineer Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) has just moved his family halfway across the world for a job opportunity in Southeast Asia, but when they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a violent rebellion, they must go on the run in order to survive.

WHY: “No Escape” isn’t nearly as awful or racist as some critics have suggested, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not problematic. The villains are just a bunch of faceless killers wielding machine guns and machetes, and although to call it xenophobic feels like a stretch, it’s a pretty ugly representation of an entire region. Additionally, while the movie creates some nice tension from its nightmarish premise, it begins to run out of steam around the hour mark, at which point it becomes more of a survival horror film where Jack and his family must endure some unsavory situations. Owen Wilson and Lake Bell deliver solid work as the husband and wife who will do anything to protect their young daughters (even if that means flinging them across rooftops), but it’s Pierce Brosnan who steals the show as a British sex tourist with a hidden agenda. Unfortunately, Brosnan’s role is an extended cameo at best, highlighted by one of the most unintentionally funny scenes of the year. It’s also not the only laugh-out-loud moment in the movie, and although that makes “No Escape” a bit difficult to take seriously at times, there are enough pulpy thrills to satisfy fans of the genre.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with director/co-writer John Erick Dowdle and producer/co-writer Drew Dowdle, some deleted scenes and a photo gallery.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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