Blu Tuesday: Interstellar, Veep 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.

“Interstellar”

WHAT: Set in the near future, when Earth’s resources have all but been depleted, former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) joins a group of explorers – Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi) – on a secret NASA expedition through a newly discovered wormhole in the hopes of finding an inhabitable planet for mankind.

WHY: Shrouded in secrecy throughout production, Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi mindbender was originally intended to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who first sparked the idea back in 2006. But when he dropped out to focus on other projects, Nolan took over the reins, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting replacement. Unfortunately, while “Interstellar” is the filmmaker’s most ambitious movie to date, it’s also one of his least accessible, filled with complex scientific ideas (from black holes to the space-time continuum) that make for incredibly dense viewing at times; and in the case of the more theoretical concepts, results in some silly moments as well. The main story is actually quite simple, dealing with well-worn themes like love, survival and time, which is why it’s strange that Nolan wastes so much of the latter (169 minutes, to be exact) trying to make his point. The acting is all top-notch, with great performances from Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain, but the arrival of a big movie star in the final act proves distracting. There are also some really amazing visuals and genuinely heartbreaking scenes, though it’s ultimately a disappointingly messy affair, lacking the discipline and uniqueness of Nolan’s past films like “Memento,” “The Dark Knight” and “Inception.” It was never going to live up to the colossal expectations placed on it by fanboys and the media, but a movie like “Interstellar” still should have been a lot more, well, stellar.

EXTRAS: There’s a 14-part making-of documentary that runs nearly two hours long and covers just about every aspect of the production process, as well as a featurette on the science of the movie narrated by Matthew McConaughey.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Veep: The Complete Third Season”

WHAT: When Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) learns that POTUS isn’t seeking re-election, she begins putting together a campaign team in the hopes of taking over the Oval Office. The usual screw-ups and humiliation follow, only this time around, all of America is watching.

WHY: You’d think that calling your show “Veep” would box you into a corner when it came to exploring potential career changes for the title character. After all, there’s no way Selina Meyer can have any position besides Vice President, otherwise it doesn’t make sense, right? Technically, yes, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered creator Armando Iannucci, because the third season of his HBO series is entirely about Selina campaigning to become the next Commander in Chief… and perhaps more surprisingly, actually gets the job when the current president resigns. That was a bold choice (and one that audiences won’t see the full effects of until the show returns next month), but it takes the series in an intriguing new direction while still allowing for the usual political-driven antics. The addition of Sam Richardson as the incompetent aide assigned to Selina on her book tour is completely unneeded (and not very funny, either), but the rest of the cast continues to fire on all cylinders, including unsung heroes like Timothy Simons, Kevin Dunn and Sufe Bradshaw. Though Julia Louis-Dreyfus receives a majority of the attention from critics and award groups for her hilarious portrayal of Selina Meyer, and deservedly so, “Veep” has always been a team effort, and that’s never been more evident than this season.

EXTRAS: The two-disc set includes four audio commentary tracks with various cast and crew, as well as some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to April

april

As we edge closer to summer season, you’d think that the quality of films would increase, but one look at the April movie slate suggests the complete opposite. Not only are there a surprising lack of new releases this month, but only a few of them show any sort of promise, like the latest installment in the “Fast and Furious” franchise and the directorial debut from Alex Garland, which still doesn’t make up for the fact that a “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” sequel actually exists.

“Furious 7″

Who: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Jordana Brewster, Kurt Russell and Lucas Black
What: Criminal mercenary Deckard Shaw seeks revenge against Dominic Toretto and his “family” for the death of his younger brother.
When: April 3rd
Why: The “Fast and Furious” movies have always been about fast cars, beautiful women and ridiculous stunts, but the upcoming seventh installment in the long-running series has a weight on its shoulders unlike any sequel/prequel before it. The unexpected death of Paul Walker not only effected the film’s production, but the manner in which he died has cast a morbid shadow over the project. As a fan, it’s great that they found a way to honor Walker and still complete the movie, but it’ll be interesting to see how the red-hot franchise continues going forward. If “Furious 7” does end up being the checkered flag at the end of an incredible Hollywood story, at least it’s going out in style with new additions like Jason Statham and Kurt Russell, and what looks to be some of the craziest set pieces to date.

“Ex Machina”

Who: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Sonoya Mizuno
What: A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.
When: April 10th
Why: Writer 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. The debate on artificial intelligence may not exactly be a novel premise, but Garland has proven with films like “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” that he’s capable of bringing a fresh spin to familiar material. And while are certain aspects of “Ex Machina” that we’ve definitely seen before, the trailers hint at something much more intriguing, beginning with the stunning design of Alicia Vikander’s A.I character. The movie also garnered rave reviews following its premiere at SXSW, and between Garland’s reputation for thought-provoking sci-fi and the brilliant casting, “Ex Machina” is shaping up to be something special indeed.

“Child 44″

Who: Tom Hardy, Joel Kinnaman, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke
What: A disgraced member of the military police investigates a series of nasty child murders during the Stalin-era Soviet Union.
When: April 17th
Why: Based on Tom Rob Smith’s bestselling novel of the same name, “Child 44” isn’t the type of movie you’d normally expect to see released during this time of year. The material seems more appropriate for awards season, which suggests that the film didn’t live up to the studio’s expectations and was dumped instead, because there’s nothing about April that screams Russian period drama. Though it’s hard to believe the movie isn’t any good with such an impressive cast, director Daniel Espinosa has yet to convince me that he deserves to be working with top talent like Denzel Washington (“Safe House”), Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman. It probably doesn’t help that the trailer is a complete bore, because it only highlights the potential issue plaguing the film.

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Movie Review: “Get Hard”

Starring
Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Alison Brie, Craig T. Nelson, T.I.
Director
Etan Cohen

“Get Hard” feels like the filmmakers are playing a prank on the audience. It has all of the beats and clichés of an ‘80s-era buddy cop action comedy, right down to the innuendo-laden one-liners, the score (just above porn quality) and the off-color jokes, which are ‘holy shit they did not just say that’ offensive. That seems to be the point – love ‘em or hate ‘em, a lot of the jokes in the ‘80s action films are in very poor taste – but that is also what makes the movie feel like a con. Are they merely trying to cast an unflattering light on the films from that era in order to show how tacky they are, or are they trying to trick modern-day audiences into laughing at a series of tasteless jokes, when deep down the audience knows that it shouldn’t? Either way, the movie isn’t playing fair, and even if it had played fair, it wouldn’t have mattered; there’s a condescension to it all that undercuts every barrier-pushing joke. Had they respected the audience, this could have been a much better movie. But they didn’t, and here we are.

James King (Will Ferrell) is a very successful hedge fund manager, engaged to the smoking hot daughter (Alison Brie) of his boss (Craig T. Nelson). He is living the dream, until he is arrested for a litany of fraud charges (of which James proclaims his innocence), and the judge throws the book at him, sentencing him to 10 years at San Quentin. James knows he’s a dead man walking in a prison like that, so he asks Darnell (Kevin Hart), who runs a small-budget car washing service that James uses, to teach him how to toughen up, to “get hard.” Why does James ask Darnell this? Because Darnell is black, and courtesy of his sabermetric expertise, James concludes that Darnell has spent time in jail. Darnell, of course, has not spent time in jail, but he needs cash to put a down payment on a house in a better neighborhood, so he takes James’ money and fakes it the best way he can. This plan will go horribly wrong for all concerned.

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Movie Review: “While We’re Young”

Starring
Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin
Director
Noah Baumbach

After “Frances Ha” and Noah Baumbach’s upcoming film, “Mistress America,” it felt safe to assume the writer-director had taken on a new demeanor, because there’s a joy to those films rarely seen in his past work. As it turns out, it was wrong to presume that he was done with his days of making audiences squirm, because that side of Baumbach has returned with a vengeance. “While We’re Young” is perhaps the filmmaker’s most unpleasant picture to date, and that’s a compliment.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a happily married couple. They’re comfortable with the choices they’ve made, including not having kids, but they begin to question those choices when they see the family their friends have built and, especially, after they meet a young and overly hip couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). The two youngsters are wild and free, which is a lifestyle Josh and Cornelia attempt to emulate. The middle-aged couple begins to feel young again, thanks to some funky hats and hip hop dance classes, but his fantasy doesn’t last too long, as the older couple begins to realize that maybe this isn’t how people their age should be acting.

“While We’re Young” is a mix of the old and new Baumbach. It’s as cringe-inducing as his early work, but it’s also as accessible as “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America.” The film is filled to the brim with jokes and awkwardly comedic scenarios, almost to the point of exhaustion. Baumbach has recently exhibited a strong eye for pacing; he’s telling his stories with a faster pace, without ever making them contrived, rushed or any less human. His recent work is as driven by story as it is by character, and Baumbach balances the two rather nicely.

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Blu Tuesday: The Hobbit, Unbroken and Into the Woods

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.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

WHAT: After successfully defeating Smaug, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the surviving citizens of Lake-town head to the Lonely Mountain seeking refuge. Thorin (Richard Armitage), who’s since been consumed by the dragon sickness, refuses to help, leading the humans and elves to declare war on the dwarves. But when Azog the Defiler and his battalion of orcs attack the dwarven stronghold, the three armies must put aside their differences and fight alongside each other in order to stop them.

WHY: Splitting “The Hobbit” into three movies has been a point of contention among fans ever since it was first announced, and the futility of that decision has never been more evident than with “The Battle of the Five Armies,” a 144-minute marathon of masturbatory excess in which the titular set piece (one that’s contained within a single chapter in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel) makes up almost half of its bloated runtime. Much like the first two installments, the movie has its share of great moments, but they’re surrounded by a lot of extraneous filler that pushes Bilbo even further into the background. These films were supposed to be about Bilbo’s journey “there and back again,” but you wouldn’t know it from the ever-changing protagonists, shifting focus between Bilbo, Thorin and Bard the Bowman with such frequency that it leaves little room for actual character development. But while “The Battle of the Five Armies” may be the weakest entry in the “Hobbit” series, it’s a nonetheless fitting end to a trilogy that’s biggest problem was taking so long to get there. Could it have been better? Absolutely, especially when measured against the far superior “Lord of the Rings” films, but fans will love it regardless, and that’s to the credit of the fantastic ensemble cast, incredible visuals and Jackson’s limitless creativity.

EXTRAS: There’s a featurette about the five armies, a retrospective on Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth saga, and the final part of “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth.”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Unbroken”

WHAT: The true story of Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), who spent a harrowing 47 days stranded in the Pacific Ocean with two fellow soldiers (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) after their plane crashed during WWII, only to eventually be rescued by the Japanese navy and sent to a POW camp run by a merciless commander known as The Bird (Miyavi).

WHY: It’s taken decades for a Louis Zamperini biopic to get made, and although that may be surprising considering his extraordinary story, it’s easy to see why some of Hollywood’s most powerful and talented filmmakers had so much trouble adapting it for the big screen. This is a movie that singles out one man for his bravery and perseverance in a war where thousands of other men were going through the exact same thing. Granted, none of those guys were Olympic athletes or survived 47 days on a raft, but you don’t really feel any more emotion for Zamperini just because he suffered more than the rest. Angelina Jolie still deserves a lot of credit for succeeding where so many failed, and the opening act – which intermixes scenes from Zamperini’s childhood and the 1936 Berlin Olympics with his pre-crash days in WWII – is really smartly handled. Jack O’Connell also turns in another star-making performance as the resolute war hero, reaffirming his status as an actor to watch, while Japanese rocker Miyavi does some good (if uneven) work as Zamperini’s sadistic tormentor. The film looks great as well thanks to some stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins, but despite its fascinating source material, “Unbroken” isn’t as powerful or inspiring as it sets out to be.

EXTRAS: In addition to a making-of featurette, there’s a profile on the real-life Louis Zamperini, a concert performance by Miyavi, some deleted scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Into the Woods”

WHAT: A vengeful witch (Meryl Streep) tasks a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) with collecting a series of magical items from popular fairy tale characters – including a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold – in exchange for reversing a family curse preventing them from having children.

WHY: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” probably seemed like a pretty clever idea when it debuted back in 1986, but the musical doesn’t feel quite as fresh or groundbreaking in a post-“Shrek” world. Though there’s a lot of great talent on display in Rob Marshall’s big screen adaptation, many of the actors are wasted, including Meryl Streep, whose performance is so mediocre that it makes her recent Oscar nomination look like a complete joke. Johnny Depp, meanwhile, is in the film for about five minutes, despite his face being splashed across every piece of promotional material in a pathetic attempt at drumming up interest. James Corden just about holds the movie together, and youngster Lilla Crawford stands out as the brash Little Red Riding Hood, but it’s not enough, especially when the music is so unmemorable, save for one hilariously bad duet between Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s princes that’s fittingly titled “Agony.” “Into the Woods” is supposed to be a witty and unabashedly adult deconstruction of famous fairy tales, but that’s rarely evident in Marshall’s film. Instead, it’s a giant bore that wears out its welcome long before the torturous final act.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Rob Marshall, a four-part making-of featurette, interviews with the cast and crew about working on the movie, and a deleted song performed by Meryl Streep.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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