Blu Tuesday: Draft Day, They Came Together and Night Moves

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.

“Draft Day”

WHAT: After taking over for his father as general manager of the Cleveland Browns, Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) finally has the chance to craft the team in his image when he trades for the number one pick in the NFL Draft. But while the Browns’ owner (Frank Langella) expects him to make the obvious choice, Sonny must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice in order to do what he thinks is best for the team.

WHY: In a strange case of life imitating art, Cleveland Browns fans experienced déjà vu when their team’s actual 2014 NFL Draft ended up being just as eventful as the film version, including the shocking fate of poster boy Johnny Manziel, who was drafted (by the Browns, no less) much later than anyone projected. For all the excitement of that night, however, Ivan Reitman’s “Draft Day” manages to make the stakes seem even higher by ramping up the tension with slickly edited sequences of Sonny striking deals with fellow GMs while he plans the next move with his inner circle. It takes split-screens to a whole other level, and though you’ll likely be sick of them when it’s over, the material would be much duller without the flashy tricks that Reitman employs. While not quite on the same level as “Moneyball,” “Draft Day” offers a similar look at the behind-the-scenes minutiae involved in running a professional sports team, and frankly, that’s far more interesting than watching the same old sports clichés play out for the millionth time. That’s not to say that the movie is any better than the typical underdog sports drama, but it’s a refreshing change of pace for Kevin Costner and the genre itself.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary by writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, a pair of featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“They Came Together”

WHAT: While out to dinner with their two friends, Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) recount the story of how they met and fell in love – an extraordinarily cheesy romance that sounds like the plot of a romantic comedy film.

WHY: David Wain’s latest movie may seem clever in theory, but while he’s clearly watched enough romantic comedies to recognize the various genre tropes begging to be satirized (and not just satirized, but completely skewered in some cases), he doesn’t do very much with the material. It’s almost too wacky for its own good, and though there are some good gags and a great cameo along the way, the joke wears thin after 15 minutes, especially when you realize that Wain is basically just pointing out rom-com clichés without delivering much of a punchline. “They Came Together” would work just fine as a sketch or trailer parody, but as a full-length feature, it starts to resort to the very conventions that it’s trying to send up. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler appear totally game for whatever goofiness is thrown their way, but they’re so much better than this, as is a majority of the talent involved. Fans of Wain’s previous work (like “The State” and “Wet Hot American Summer”) will find more to enjoy than the typical moviegoer, but even those people will probably agree that “They Came Together” isn’t nearly as funny as it should have been.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director/co-writer David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter, a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and a table read from 2012’s San Francisco Sketchfest.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Night Moves”

WHAT: Three radical environmentalists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam in order to raise awareness. But when the mission doesn’t go according to plan, the eco-terrorists deal with the repercussions in their own ways, causing paranoia within the group.

WHY: Director Kelly Reichardt is best known for pensive, slow-moving dramas like “Wendy & Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” which is a big reason why I’ve stayed away from her films until now. But while “Night Moves” takes a very similar approach, the three leads deliver such great work that it doesn’t feel nearly as laborious to sit through as its minimalistic plot would suggest. In fact, that lack of complexity (at least from a narrative standpoint) actually works in its favor, because it allows Reichardt to really ratchet up the tension by stretching out seemingly simple tasks into nail-biting affairs as the trio plans and executes their mission. Unfortunately, while the first hour succeeds in building suspense, the payoff in the subsequent half – turning its focus to the fallout and the characters’ guilty consciences when they learn that an innocent camper may have died in the explosion – isn’t nearly as engaging. It’s a much stronger examination of the whole ecoterrorism movement than the likeminded “The East,” but it starts to come unraveled in the final 20 minutes when it shifts from thriller to horror, concluding with a quasi-ending that’s more irritating than thought-provoking.

EXTRAS: Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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Movie Review: “Life After Beth”

Starring
Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler
Director
Jeff Baena

It’s incredible to think that in the short 10 years since the release of “Shaun of the Dead,” the zombie comedy has practically become its own subgenre, even spawning several “rom-zom-coms” (romantic zombie comedies, a term coined during the marketing for that film) in the process. But while Edgar Wright’s 2004 debut was a blisteringly funny homage to zombie movies, there’s yet to be another film that even comes close to matching its genre-bending wit and sense of fun. Which brings me to “Life After Beth,” the latest rom-zom-com to try and fail at duplicating that success. Surprisingly dull and unfunny for the talent involved, “Life After Beth” is a dead-on-arrival comedy that’s just as much in need of some brains as its title character.

Dane DeHaan stars as Zach, a gloomy teenager mourning the death of his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza), after she was killed by a snakebite while hiking alone in the woods. Depressed and seeking comfort from Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), Zach is offended when the couple suddenly cuts him off without so much as an explanation. So when Zach goes to their house looking for answers, he’s shocked to discover that Beth is very much alive, although without any memory of the past few days. While they’re not exactly sure how it happened (the possibility of a Jesus-like resurrection is debated), the Slocums are just happy to have their daughter back, and they’re willing to let Zach continue to see her if he promises to keep Beth’s return from the grave a secret. But as Zach attempts to rekindle their relationship, he can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right with her.

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Movie Review: “The November Man”

Starring
Pierce Brosnan, Olga Kurylenko, Luke Bracey, Will Patton, Bill Smitrovich
Director
Roger Donaldson

Think of “The November Man” as “Mission: Impossible” with extreme prejudice. Ethan Hunt wouldn’t kill anyone that he didn’t absolutely have to kill, but Pierce Brosnan’s ex-CIA spook Peter Devereaux lives by no such code. If anything, he’s a “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of guy, which would normally make someone an antihero, but we’re talking about Pierce Brosnan here. He doesn’t know how to do antihero: even as he steals booze and downs it like it’s his last night on Earth, he’s just too damn likeable. Ultimately, this works in the movie’s favor, as Brosnan’s presence excuses a fair amount of shortcomings. The end result is boilerplate, but entertaining, just twisty enough to keep the audience guessing.

The movie opens in 2008 with Devereaux showing the ropes to new recruit David Mason (Luke Bracey) on a mission. Mason doesn’t follow Devereaux’s instructions to the letter, and though the two accomplish their mission, a civilian dies in the process. Fast forward five years, and a now-retired Devereaux is roped in by former colleague John Hanley (Bill Smitrovich) to help extract a CIA contact who has valuable intel on Russian general and soon-to-be president Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski). The extraction is botched on a number of levels, but Devereaux is able to get the name of the person the contact is protecting. Devereaux discovers that the mystery person is a refugee, and contacts a local shelter to ask for help. Shelter employee Alice (Olga Kurylenko) doesn’t have any answers, but Devereaux knows that her life is now in danger and that if he doesn’t protect her, she will be dead by sunset. In a second, Devereaux inherits three tasks: find the mystery girl, protect Alice, and continue to play cat and mouse with Mason, who’s clearly out to prove himself to his former mentor.

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Movie Review: “Starred Up”

Starring
Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, Peter Ferdinando, Sam Spruell
Director
David Mackenzie

Anyone that watches movies for a living must constantly keep their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in cinema, but it’s easy for one to slip through the cracks, which is why it’s so exhilarating when a small indie like “Starred Up” comes out of nowhere and knocks you flat on your ass. Penned by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser, who spent time working as a therapist within the British prison system, the film is scary in just how realistic it feels at times. From the cell block politics, to the crooked authorities supposedly in charge of keeping the peace, “Starred Up” doesn’t pull any punches in its tough and gritty depiction of prison life.

The movie’s title refers to the act of transferring a young offender from a juvenile detention center to an adult penitentiary prematurely, and in the case of 19-year-old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), he’s been relocated two years early due to the frequency and severity of his violent outbursts. When his volatile temper quickly earns him enemies among both the guards and fellow inmates, Eric is approached by a volunteer psychotherapist (Rupert Friend) about attending his anger management class, which he believes will provide hope to the young man that he can someday function normally in society. But while his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who also happens to be doing time in the same prison, encourages him to accept the free help, his constant meddling causes Eric to wonder whether he’s actually there to protect him or contribute to the abuse.

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Blu Tuesday: The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy 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 Walking Dead: The Complete Fourth Season”

WHAT: Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Co. continue to struggle for survival as they face a whole new set of challenges, including a deadly virus and the vengeful return of the Governor. But when the group is forced to flee the safety of the prison, the survivors get separated from one another and head for a sanctuary called Terminus.

WHY: The fourth season of “The Walking Dead” may be plagued by many of the same problems as previous years, but while its tendency to let plotlines drag on for too long causes the show to grind to a halt at times, the renewed focus on keeping the story moving even when its characters aren’t plays a huge part in its success. Though the first half of the season is bogged down by the silly virus storyline, the Governor’s return (from the pair of episodes detailing his whereabouts, to his eventual assault on the prison) serves as the impetus to the much stronger second half. It was a pretty gutsy move on the part of the writers to split up the group dynamic that makes the series so compelling, but it’s probably the best thing they could have done, because it’s refreshing to spend certain episodes focused on a handful of characters. Not only does it allow for more character development, but it gives some of the more peripheral characters their chance to shine. That may result in less thrills, but Season Four seems to have finally struck the perfect balance between zombie action and human drama, and although audiences love the former, there aren’t many shows that do drama better than “The Walking Dead.”

EXTRAS: In addition to cast and crew audio commentaries on four episodes, the Blu-ray set includes “Inside ‘The Walking Dead’” and “The Making of ‘The Walking Dead’” featurettes for each episode, some deleted scenes and additional featurettes on the parallels between the comic book and TV series, visual effects and more.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Sons of Anarchy: Season Six”

WHAT: Just as Jax (Charlie Hunnam) is beginning to legitimatize the motorcycle club’s business ventures, SAMCRO is targeted by a tough-as-nails district attorney (CCH Pounder) when the weapon used in a school shooting is traced back to them. Meanwhile, Clay (Ron Perlman) attempts to save his skin by striking a deal with the Irish, and Gemma (Katey Sagal) and Tara (Maggie Siff) butt heads once again.

WHY: Why: Ask any “Sons of Anarchy” fan what their least favorite season is and many will probably list the oft-criticized third season (AKA the Ireland one). But while the series has had enough crazy plotlines over the years to justify why some might view the show as nothing more than a male soap opera, it’s always backed them up with great characters and writing. That is, until Season Six, when it finally became too ridiculous for its own good. Though the biker drama’s penultimate season has plenty of things worth celebrating (including a larger role for Mark Boone Junior and excellent guest stars like CCH Pounder, Donal Logue and Walton Goggins), a lot of the conflict this time around seems to be less about driving the narrative than shocking the audience, none more so than the death of Maggie Siff’s Tara. While fans have been waiting to see Clay’s demise for years (and rightfully so), Tara’s murder-by-carving-fork comes across more like a desperate attempt at a cool cliffhanger than a fitting end to her season-long arc. Tara was destined to die, but not like this, and the treatment of that character is just one of the reasons why this season is the most disappointing to date.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes cast and crew commentaries on the season premiere and finale, deleted scenes, a gag reel, character goodbyes and all three episodes of the post-show specials “Anarchy Afterword.”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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