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.


“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.


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Movie Review: “Creed”

Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish
Ryan Coogler

After garnering critical acclaim for his directorial debut “Fruitvale Station,” the last thing anyone expected from Ryan Coogler’s much-anticipated follow-up was a spin-off/sequel to a movie franchise that’s last meaningful installment was released 30 years ago. Coogler is just the latest in an ongoing trend of indie directors (Colin Trevorrow, Josh Trank, etc.) who have been plucked by the studios to revive major Hollywood properties despite their lack of experience, though you wouldn’t know it from watching “Creed.” Reuniting with his “Fruitvale Station” star Michael B. Jordan, Coogler has created an energizing addition to the “Rocky” series that doesn’t just succeed as a respectful passing of the torch, but as one of the best “Rocky” movies ever made.

Jordan stars as Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of former boxing champion Apollo Creed, who was taken in at a young age by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), after bouncing around the foster care system as a kid. Born after Apollo was tragically killed in the ring, Adonis grew up never knowing his father (which is why he goes by his mother’s maiden name), but has chosen to follow in his footsteps. When he gives up a promising job at an investment firm to focus on his boxing career, Adonis leaves Los Angeles for Philadelphia in the hopes of convincing local legend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. Though Rocky declines the offer at first, he eventually agrees to take the young Adonis – a self-taught fighter with raw talent, but who’s lacking the refinement of proper training – under his wing. Adonis is adamant about forging his own path without the help of his father’s legacy, but when his secret is revealed and he’s offered a fight against the reigning world champion, he must prove to himself (and his detractors) that he’s worthy of the Creed name.

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Movie Review: “The Good Dinosaur”

Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Steve Zahn, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand
Peter Sohn

An unsettling trend is starting to appear in Pixar’s work. When the visuals are more eye-popping than usual, it’s a sign that something more important is lacking (see: “Brave”). “The Good Dinosaur” is visually breathtaking, featuring the most lifelike water that has ever graced an animated film. The story structure, however, is one of Pixar’s weakest, feeling more like old-guard Disney than the kind of thing Pixar normally produces. There are valuable lessons for children to learn here, but there is also a fair amount of trauma. Little Arlo gets his ass handed to him early, then spends the rest of the movie trying to survive.

In “The Good Dinosaur’s” universe, the meteor that is believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs misses Earth. Fast forward a few million years, and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), an Apatosaurus of below average size, is born into a family of farmers. Arlo is also timid, and his father’s attempts to get Arlo over his fears come to a head when Arlo is tasked with killing the critter that keeps eating their winter food supply. The creature is caught, and it’s a little, feral, human child. Arlo can’t bring himself to kill the boy and sets it free. Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) insists on chasing the creature, but they lose the trail in a ravine, and then Arlo loses his father in a flash flood while in the ravine. First rule of Disney: kill at least one of the parents, and if possible, do it in such a way that the child feels guilty about it for the rest of his life.

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Movie Review: “Spotlight”

Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci
Tom McCarthy

Writer/director Tom McCarthy’s reputation took a pretty hard hit following the release of his abysmal fantasy-comedy “The Cobbler,” but he’s quickly redeemed himself with “Spotlight,” an excellent, no-nonsense newspaper drama that falls closer in line with his previous work. It also happens to be one of the finest movies of the year and a safe bet for a Best Picture nomination. Though the film is fairly low-key for a potential awards contender, “Spotlight” relies on some top-notch acting and writing to recount the fascinating true story about a group of journalists who lifted the lid on a massive child molestation scandal within the Boston archdiocese that changed the way we looked at the Catholic Church forever.

Set in 2001, the movie begins with the arrival of the Boston Globe’s new Editor-in-Chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an outsider from Miami who was brought in by the newspaper’s parent company to help shake up the newsroom and stop the leak in the dwindling subscriber base. When Marty takes an interest in a recent column about a local priest who was accused of sexually abusing children in his parish, he convinces editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) – who leads the four-person investigative team (played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James) known as Spotlight – to drop what they’re doing and discreetly poke around to see if there’s more to the story. Robinson reluctantly agrees, but is skeptical that they’ll find anything of substance. As the team begins to dig further into the list of allegations, however, they expose a decades-long cover-up that’s bigger and more far-reaching than any of them could have possibly imagined.

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Movie Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2″

Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin
Francis Lawrence

Amid the glut of YA book-to-film adaptations, “The Hunger Games” has always stood head and toe above the competition – a movie franchise that actually improved upon its source material by treating the audience with respect. That’s what makes “Mockingjay: Part 2” such a hard pill to swallow, because while it seemed like the stage was set for an exciting finale after the tedious third installment, it’s yet another incredibly slow burn that only highlights just how boring the final book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is. If anything good comes out of “Mockingjay: Part 2,” it’s that it will finally convince studios to stop dragging out these stories for the sake of their own greed.

The film picks up almost immediately after the events of the last movie. As Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) recovers from the brutal attack by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), rebel leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) plots her assault on the Capitol now that all 12 districts have been united under one cause. Katniss wants to go fight on the frontlines, but when Coin refuses because she’s too valuable to the rebellion, she sneaks into the Capitol on her own to assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Coin and her right-hand man, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), decide to use Katniss’ defiance to their advantage by assigning her to a specialized military unit – which also includes Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and a mentally unstable Peeta – to shoot more propaganda videos on the war-town streets of the city. With Capitol soldiers and deadly booby traps awaiting them at every turn, Katniss and company slowly make their way to Snow’s mansion. But as is usually the case with war, casualties are inevitable, and that’s something Katniss has difficulty accepting.

For a franchise that’s always relied on deliberately paced storytelling that gradually builds towards each film’s climax, “Mockingjay: Part 2” never really gets going. It hits all the major moments (including the countless deaths) within Collins’ grim novel, but there’s very little emotion to it, as if director Francis Lawrence is just ticking off boxes as he goes along. There are a couple of good action sequences once Katniss arrives in the Capitol, but while the story tries to replicate the feeling of being inside the arena with the addition of booby traps (called “pods”), it doesn’t provide the same thrill. In fact, it’s actually quite repetitive, as the second act is largely comprised of Katniss’ unit scanning for pods, safely activating said pods and resting for the night. Wash, rinse, repeat. Further compounding the lack of action is the monotony of the dialogue scenes, which dwell on the same issues (the love triangle, Peeta’s condition, Coin’s true intentions) over and over again.

“Part 1” may technically be the worst installment in the series, but at least that movie felt like a necessary evil in order to deliver a satisfying payoff in “Part 2,” which is why the latter is a much bigger disappointment. It doesn’t even have the strong performances to fall back on this time around, because with the exception of its main trio, no one else has very much to do. Julianne Moore fades into the background for most of the second half (likely due to some adjustments made as a result of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death), while Hoffman himself is in maybe two scenes total, his big speech at the end now awkwardly delivered by Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch via a letter that Plutarch penned. Even Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t appear particularly enthused about having to slog through this downer of a finale, and it’s hard to blame her, because instead of going out on the high note that the franchise and its loyal fans deserved, my first thought when the film ended was, “Thank God it’s finally over.”


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