Blu Tuesday: The Knick, Unfriended 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.

“The Knick: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: In New York City during the turn of the 20th century, the extremely talented Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) takes over as chief surgeon at the Knickerbocker Hospital (dubbed The Knick) after his mentor/boss commits suicide. While Thackery and his staff attempt to overcome the medical limitations of the era by making new discoveries of their own, they’re forced to deal with major issues like race relations, class warfare, sexism, drug addiction and more.

WHY: When Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking, it seemed a bit premature for someone so young. But while the director has remained true to his word as far as the big screen is concerned, he’s taken his talents to the small screen in the interim, most notably with this excellent period drama from Cinemax. Loosely based on real-life events and people, “The Knick” is different from traditional (and more contemporary) medical dramas in that the surgical procedures actually serve the characters and story, not to mention offer a fascinating look at just how far the medical field has come since then. The supporting cast is great, particularly Andre Holland and Michael Angarano as two of the surgeons on Thackery’s team, but the series succeeds largely thanks to Clive Owen’s commanding lead performance. And because Soderbergh directed and shot every episode, it’s also one of the best-looking shows on television. Though the first season starts to drag in the last few episodes due to lackluster subplots involving Typhoid Mary and a jealous surgeon dealing with problems at home, “The Knick” is a well-acted prestige drama that deserves to be on a much bigger stage like HBO.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes cast and crew audio commentaries on three episodes (although sadly, both Clive Owen and Steven Soderbergh are absent), as well as “Post-Op” recap featurettes for every episode but the first.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Unfriended”

WHAT: On the one-year anniversary of the death of classmate Laura Barns, who committed suicide after being cyberbullied due to an embarrassing video posted on the web, a group of friends are stalked by a mysterious intruder on their Skype call claiming to be the vengeful spirit of Laura.

WHY: Technology has become so integral to our daily lives that it was only a matter of time before someone made a film that unfolds entirely on a computer screen, and though “Unfriended” isn’t the first to employ this gimmick, you can be certain it won’t be the last. But while there’s a lot to admire about the concept and technical skill required to pull off such a seamless visual trick, the movie is constantly getting in its own way. For a film made for tech-savvy teenagers who can juggle multiple apps with their eyes closed, there’s a maddening amount of hand-holding that takes place, from the way its main character hovers over text with her cursor to ensure the audience is following along, to the time it takes her to perform a simple task. The movie builds some nice tension with delayed chat messages, slow-moving download status bars and the worst Skype connection in history, but it doesn’t have any genuine scares. Though “Unfriended” should be applauded for addressing such a serious issue in today’s culture of anonymity-driven public shaming, it’s surrounded by so much stupidity – including the same poor writing, tired clichés and shallow characters that constantly plague the horror genre – that it only weakens its message.

EXTRAS: No bonus material is included.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: Fantastic Four

Starring
Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Tobey Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson
Director
Josh Trank

“Fantastic Four” is perhaps this summer’s most frustrating movie. Films that are consistently terrible are generally not frustrating, because they rarely show any potential beyond what they are. But that’s not the case with co-writer/director Josh Trank’s “Fantastic Four,” a movie full of potential that it’s not allowed to deliver upon.

Years after director Tim Story’s bland take on the superhero team, the filmmaker behind 2012’s “Chronicle” gives us a grounded vision of the Marvel heroes. The players – Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Susan Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) – remain the same, except they’re much younger and, at the start of the film, aren’t very close, with the exception of Ben and Reed.

Ever since Reed was a little kid, he showed signs of genius, but that genius was always misunderstood. The only person who truly gets him is Ben, who supports his dream of teleportation. One day, Reed’s teleporting device is noticed by Susan and Johnny’s father, Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey), at a science fair, which lands him a spot at the Baxter Building, a place for brilliant minds. Dr. Storm has been trying to crack interdimensional travel for years, and he uncovers the final piece of the puzzle in Reed. With the help of Susan, Johnny and the brilliant by cold Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), Reed gets the job done, but unfortunately, the government doesn’t want to send a bunch of kids to another dimension. While drunk one night, the young scientists (along with Ben) suit up and transport themselves to that other dimension, which leads to disastrous results.

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Movie Review: “The Gift”

Starring
Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Busy Philipps
Director
Joel Edgerton

There is a reason that stalker thrillers fell out of vogue: in terms of story structure, even the good ones have a lot in common with the bad ones. It’s a rigid narrative, which means it’s virtually impossible to surprise the audience. Joel Edgerton’s “The Gift” (in which he also stars) falls victim to the same trappings as stalker thrillers past, but only for the first half of the movie. From there, the movie breaks from tradition, offering several pleasant surprises in the process. There are no ‘boo’ moments in the score, and Edgerton’s script is transparent in ways that these films are rarely allowed to be. It’s almost unfair in how the movie is able to have its cake and eat it, too. And the ending will have people buzzing, and most likely wanting to take a shower.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have recently moved to California for Simon’s new job. As the two are shopping for furnishings, Simon runs into Gordon (Edgerton), a high school classmate that Simon hasn’t seen since they were teenagers. “Gordo” goes out of his way to be helpful to Simon and Robyn, and leaves multiple gifts for the two at their front door. Robyn is touched by Gordo’s generosity, and can relate to his social awkwardness, but Simon isn’t comfortable with the affection that Gordo lavishes on Robyn, and asks Gordo to leave them alone. Gordo does, but in doing so, he leaves a clue for Robyn that suggests that Simon is not being forthright about his and Gordo’s shared past.

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Movie Review: “Cop Car”

Starring
Kevin Bacon, Hays Wellford, James Freedson-Jackson, Shea Whigham, Camryn Manheim
Director
Jon Watts

After receiving mostly positive reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Cop Car” is guaranteed to become one of the most talked-about indie releases of the year following the announcement that director Jon Watts has been chosen to helm Sony’s upcoming Spider-Man reboot. Though it’ll be interesting to see how Watts handles a big tentpole movie considering the stripped-down nature of “Cop Car,” his ability to wring suspense out of the simplest moments goes a long way in making the film a lot more engaging than you’d expect. “Cop Car” doesn’t quite rival the classic Coen brothers crime thrillers that have clearly influenced Watts as a filmmaker, but it’s a confident sophomore effort that benefits from a great performance by Kevin Bacon.

Set somewhere in rural Colorado, a pair of 10-year-old boys – cocky instigator Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and meek sidekick Harrison (Hays Wellford) – discover an abandoned cop car in the middle of the woods. After daring each other to touch it, and then mustering the courage to investigate further, the boys find the driver’s side door unlocked and the keys hidden inside, so they decide to take the car for a joy ride. The vehicle belongs to the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon), who’s gotten caught up in some kind of criminal activity (the details of which are very sparse) and was off burying a body down the road at the exact time that Travis and Harrison happened upon his car. But unbeknownst to them, there’s another body in the trunk of the car that connects Kretzer to his bad deed, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it back.

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Movie Review: “Ricki and the Flash”

Starring
Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer, Sebastian Stan, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, Ben Platt
Director
Jonathan Demme

It’s been seven long years since director Jonathan Demme’s last narrative feature film, “Rachel Getting Married.” Over the course of his career, Demme has captured a variety of human emotions and experiences, whether in his thrillers, dramas or rock concert documentaries, and he returns to the big screen once again with the deeply human, honest and heartfelt film, “Ricki and the Flash,” written by fellow Oscar winner Diablo Cody (“Juno”).

Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) isn’t exactly living her dream. The once-promising musician, now in her 60s, works in a grocery store while also performing at a half-empty bar at night. She hasn’t let failure stop her, though. Ricki still goes on stage giving everything she’s got, even when the rocker has to sing Lady Gaga for the young crowds. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of her relationship with her three kids, who are all grown up and off living their lives without her. But when her daughter, Julie (real-life daughter Mamie Gummer), hits rock bottom after her husband leaves her for another woman, Ricki – who still sports leather pants and no shortage of jewelry – gets a second chance at being a mother by confronting her past mistakes in an attempt to finally be a part of her childrens’ lives.

This all sounds rather familiar, and it is. “Ricki and the Flash” mostly goes where one expects, but it does so with grace. None of the tropes are clichés; they all feel organic to the story Cody is telling, and the story she’s telling is incredibly sweet. Her scripts have always been sincere, whether you’re talking about her overlooked horror-comedy, “Jennifer’s Body,” or her best work to date, “Young Adult,” which has an incredible amount of empathy for a damaged character. Lately, Cody’s stories have gotten even sweeter, and while that tone didn’t quite work in her directorial debut, “Paradise,” it’s tremendously successful here.

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