Blu Tuesday: Fear the Walking Dead, Mississippi Grind 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.

“Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: When a mysterious outbreak causes Los Angeles to go into complete meltdown, a dysfunctional blended family led by high school guidance counselor Madison (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis) is forced to band together in order to survive the chaos.

WHY: Why: It’s easy to understand why AMC would be attracted to the idea of producing a companion series to “The Walking Dead” (after all, it’s the most-watched show in cable TV history), but there was always the risk that it would have an adverse effect on their flagship drama. Thankfully, the poorly titled “Fear the Walking Dead” distances itself enough from the original series that it doesn’t tarnish the brand, even if the new show pales in comparison. Not only is the writing heavy-handed, but the characters and their various relationships just aren’t as interesting. Though it makes sense that Madison and Co. wouldn’t be as savvy as anyone on “The Walking Dead” due to the story taking place during the early stages of the zombie outbreak, the characters come across as being especially whiny and foolish. Additionally, although the first season only contains six episodes, it’s a very slow burn that doesn’t hit its stride until the penultimate hour. If there’s any reason to stick around, it’s for Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis, both of whom are such good actors that they manage to hold your interest even when you’ve given up hope that the show will improve. But while Season Two promises bigger and better things, whether anyone will still be watching is another matter entirely.

EXTRAS: There are two brief featurettes about the series and the characters.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Mississippi Grind”

WHAT: Down-on-his-luck gambling addict Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) owes everybody in town, and instead of paying off his debts, he continues to dig himself further into a hole. But his fortune begins to change when he meets a charismatic drifter named Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), who agrees to accompany Gerry on a road trip down the Mississippi River to play in a high stakes poker game in New Orleans.

WHY: After making a splash with the emotional one-two punch of “Half Nelson” and “Sugar,” writers/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden were unable to replicate that success with their first studio project, the lackluster “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” It’s been five years since Fleck or Boden did anything of significance, but the duo has bounced back nicely with their latest movie, a character-driven drama that plays like a gritty mash-up of “Rounders” and “Sideways” and is bolstered by a pair of fantastic performances. This is arguably the best that Ryan Reynolds has ever been, showcasing a subtler, more mature side that’s been missing in his previous work, while Ben Mendelsohn proves that he’s not just an amazing character actor, but a viable leading man as well. Both of their characters are deeply flawed, and it’s to their credit (as well as the script, which crackles with wit and heart) that you care about them even when they seem beyond all help. “Mississippi Grind” starts to drag in the final act, exposing its barebones plot in the process, but Reynolds and Mendelsohn have such great chemistry that it’s rarely boring.

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Mistress America”

WHAT: After finding it difficult to make friends at her new college, lonely freshman Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) is encouraged to contact her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), who happens to live in the city. Brooke is more than happy to take the impressionable Tracy under her wing, and after a fun night on the town together, the two become inseparable – that is, until an impromptu road trip to Connecticut threatens to tear it all down.

WHY: Real-life couple Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig clearly enjoy working together, but their films are far from enjoyable. The pair’s first collaboration, 2012’s “Frances Ha,” was a painfully obtuse look at self-entitled millennials living in New York City, and although “Mistress America” isn’t as bad, it suffers from many of the same problems. The movie wants to have its cake and eat it too. While it’s technically about Tracy’s journey into adulthood, as soon as Brooke enters the fray, the focus immediately turns to her, unfairly shoving Tracy into the background. Brooke is self-important, borderline delusional and incredibly obnoxious, and though that’s obviously the way the character was written, she’s such a self-made calamity that it’s difficult to empathize with her, no matter how hard Baumbach tries to win you over. The film does have one saving grace, and that’s newcomer Lola Kirke, an indie star in the making who outperforms Gerwig at every turn. Unlike her overrated co-star, Kirke is the real deal, and Baumbach would be wise to find a way to showcase her talents more in the future, preferably without Gerwig around to hog the spotlight.

EXTRAS: There’s a trio of featurettes on the story and the film’s main characters.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Cooties”

WHAT: Aspiring writer Clint Hadson (Elijah Woods) returns to his old elementary school as a substitute teacher on the same day that a mysterious virus transforms the kids into feral, flesh-eating zombies. Trapped in the school with no means of escape, Clint and the other teachers – including former crush Lucy (Alison Pill) and her jerk boyfriend Wade (Rainn Wilson) – must work together in order to get out alive.

WHY: Though it was written by the co-creators of “Glee” (Ian Brennan) and “Saw” (Leigh Whannell), “Cooties” is one of those movies that sounds a lot better on paper than in execution. The premise itself is pretty clever (true to its title, only those who haven’t yet reached puberty are affected by the virus), but while there are some funny bits scattered throughout, they’re overshadowed by the sheer stupidity and dullness of the rest of the film. There’s so much wasted potential on display, and a lot of that blame falls on the shoulders of first-time directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, who don’t quite know what to do with the material. The movie’s tone seesaws between horror and goofy comedy, but neither one works particularly well, due in part to some subpar make-up effects, poor pacing and awful child actors. While the casting of Elijah Wood is a fun nod to his role in the far superior “The Faculty,” he and his co-stars are unable to overcome the host of problems plaguing the film. “Cooties” gets bonus points for its creative use of a pitching machine as a makeshift weapon, but when that’s the highlight of what should have been an entertaining horror comedy, it’s hard not to feel letdown.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, co-writers Leigh Whannell and Ian Brennan, and most of the main cast, there’s a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, an alternate ending with optional commentary and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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