Blu Tuesday: Selma, Black Sea 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.

“Selma”

WHAT: When Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Council are invited to Selma, Alabama to stage their latest fight in the civil rights movement, they organize a series of non-violent protests in the hopes that it will force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the Voting Rights Act.

WHY: Who would’ve thought that a movie that takes place nearly 50 years ago would feel so relevant today? And yet while the parallels between Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and the current racial tension across the country are indisputable, the film deserves to be judged on its own merits, because it’s a deftly made drama that takes a page from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” by focusing on a single (but very important) chapter in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. To DuVernay’s credit, she manages to make almost every moment – from the backroom politics, to King’s rousing speeches – as riveting as the last, and a big part of that success falls on the casting, even those in bit roles. David Oyelowo is fantastic as the pastor turned civil rights activist, playing him with an expected gracefulness, but also a hint of exhaustion and self-doubt that reveals the toll his crusade for equality has taken on him. It’s hard to imagine the film being nearly as effective with another actor in the role, because it’s Oyelowo’s powerful performance that transforms “Selma” from yet another stuffy biopic into a stirring political drama worthy of Dr. King’s legacy.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries – one with director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo, and another with DuVernay, cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Spencer Averick – there are behind-the-scenes featurettes on the film’s origins and production, some deleted scenes, a collection of newsreels and photos from the period, and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Black Sea”

WHAT: After he’s fired from his job at a marine salvage company, submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law) assembles a group of former employees (half British, half Russian) to search the Black Sea for a Nazi U-boat rumored to be carrying approximately 80 million dollars in gold.

WHY: Submarines are the perfect setting for a thriller – they’re dark, claustrophobic and offer no hope of escape – which is why it’s so surprising that there aren’t more films that take advantage of them. Granted, there are probably more than you think, but very few are any good, and “Black Sea” can count itself among that exclusive group. Not only is the movie a welcome return to form for director Kevin Macdonald, who sort of fell off the map after his 2009 remake of “State of Play,” but it reaffirms why Jude Law is one of the most underrated actors in the business. Law delivers yet another excellent performance as the under-pressure captain who sees the mission as his last chance at redemption, and he’s surrounded by a cast of reliable supporting players like Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn and Michael Smiley. The “us vs. them” mentality between the British and Russian crew members provides plenty of suspense as their greed and paranoia builds throughout the film, and while certain character actions don’t exactly make sense (as things go from bad to worse, the wrong people are blamed), “Black Sea” manages to stay afloat thanks to its engaging premise, solid performances and taut direction.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Kevin Macdonald and a short making-of featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Starring
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany
Director
Joss Whedon

Seconds into the film, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is already overdoing it. It opens with an assault on a Hydra base, and the team is kicking ass, but with the exception of a fantastic shot straight out of “Kung Fu Panda 2,” it’s underwhelming, a more elaborately choreographed and at the same time less thrilling version of the battle sequence at the end of “The Avengers.” The ‘bigger is better’ mentality is to be expected, but what isn’t expected, or appreciated, is the “Transformers”-like fixation it has with breaking stuff (as in entire cities) for no reason, and worse, there are no consequences for doing so. On top of that, writer/director Joss Whedon’s normally snappy dialogue is woefully lacking. Whedon has said that he’s walking away from the Marvel universe after this (Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” are taking the reins on the next two “Avengers” movies), and after seeing “Ultron,” it makes sense; from the looks of things, this movie killed him.

Inside the aforementioned Hydra base is a gold mine of military weapons, both mechanical and human, created by Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). He’s used Loki’s scepter to give orphaned twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively) superhuman powers, namely (and again, respectively) super speed and all sorts of telekinetic abilities. The Avengers do not get any of Hydra’s data, but they do acquire the scepter, and in studying it, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) gets the brilliantly stupid idea to convert the scepter’s alien power source into an artificial intelligence that will work to achieve world peace, an idea he’s had for years but has never been able to perfect. This time, it works, and the new consciousness, which he had nicknamed Ultron (James Spader), has a plan for peace on Earth. Unfortunately, his plan involves the extinction of mankind.

Wanda can get people to see things, namely their worst fears. We see the nightmares of everyone she touches, except for Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who goes on to do the most damage: he terrorizes a large city, the very thing he spent years of his life in exile in order to prevent. Of all the nightmares that the audience absolutely has to see, this is the one. Instead, we get Hulk’s reaction to his visions without context, which culminates in a ridiculous street fight between Hulk and Iron Man that does tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage (though it admittedly has a good laugh halfway through). Everything about this is wrong, and the opposite of what Whedon normally stands for as a storyteller. Just one line explaining that Stark will pay for everything, or that the Avengers are losing the people’s trust, would do. We get neither.

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Blu Tuesday: The Gambler, Inherent Vice 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 Gambler”

WHAT: After falling into debt with a pair of dangerous men, college English professor and degenerate gambler Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is given seven days to pay or else. When his mother (Jessica Lange) gives him the money to clear his debt, only to blow it at the casino instead, Jim is put in a precarious position when one of the loan sharks (Michael K. Williams) threatens the lives of his two students.

WHY: Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler” is a curious beast. It’s based on a film that’s just obscure enough that a remake wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers, yet is well-regarded by those who have seen it. In other words, the 1974 original starring James Caan isn’t exactly holy ground, but there’s not much to improve on either, which makes this Mark Wahlberg vanity project feel every bit as irrelevant as the story it’s trying to tell. Wahlberg’s character is such a miserable asshole that it’s very difficult to identify with him, despite some punchy dialogue from writer William Monahan, and to make matters worse, the actor is terribly miscast in the role. At least the gambling scenes are handled with style and verve, dripping in tension and absolutely painful to watch. But while the movie does a great job of illustrating Jim’s self-destructive nature, it never digs any deeper into the root of the problem, which makes it seem fairly hollow as a result. “The Gambler” had all the right ingredients – a great cast, a talented director and source material that’s already proven to work – but it’s a disappointing misfire that fails to capitalize on its intriguing premise.

EXTRAS: There’s a collection of featurettes covering the production process (including the differences between the 1974 original and Rupert Wyatt’s remake, location shooting and costumes), as well as six deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Inherent Vice”

WHAT: Pothead private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) investigates the disappearance of his free-spirited ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterson) and her real estate mogul boyfriend, Mickey (Eric Roberts), which may be connected to a series of other cases involving a presumed-dead musician (Owen Wilson), the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards and a mysterious Indo-Chinese drug syndicate called the Golden Fang.

WHY: After years of toying with my patience, Paul Thomas Anderson has finally made a movie that’s almost impossible to defend. Fans of the director will make excuses for the film’s myriad problems anyway, but the fact that they find it necessary at all only confirms what a giant mess “Inherent Vice” really is. Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, the so-called inherent vice of Anderson’s slacker noir is the narrative itself. It’s as if the movie, like many of its characters, is in a constant state of a drug-addled high, unable to remain focused or make sense of anything that’s going on. And while that may be the film’s big joke, it’s not a very funny one. It feels complicated for the sake of being complicated, eventually becoming so mired in all the twists and pointless subplots that it doesn’t even know what it’s about anymore. Even worse than the gaps in logic is the punishingly long runtime, which is filled with dense, drawn-out conversations that go nowhere except lead to another similarly long-winded exchange. Joaquin Phoenix nearly holds the whole thing together with his amusingly daffy performance, but he’s the only bright spot in a movie that really should have been a lot more enjoyable.

EXTRAS: There’s a deleted scene and some fluffy promotional material, but that’s all.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to May

may

Summer is finally here, and what better way to start off the blockbuster season than with the sequel to the biggest film from three years ago: Marvel’s “The Avengers.” Though it may seem like it could only go downhill from there, May has plenty of exciting films on its slate, from the “Mad Max” reboot, to the “Pitch Perfect” sequel, to the shrouded-in-secrecy “Tomorrowland.” And while not every title is guaranteed to hit its mark, there’s enough potential here that 2015 is shaping up to be one of the best summers at the movies in years.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Who: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany and Don Cheadle
What: When Tony Stark’s robotic peacekeeping program goes awry, it is up to the Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.
When: May 1st
Why: Joss Whedon was given the unenviable task of one-upping “The Avengers” (a job made even more difficult on the heels of “Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”), but it certainly looks like he’s done it with “Age of Ultron.” Though there was always the risk that adding more characters to the Avengers roster would cause the movie to feel overstuffed (just look at that cast list!), there aren’t many directors who can handle large ensembles better than Whedon, because he always finds a way to make everyone feel like an integral part of the story. “Age of Ultron” may be Whedon’s Marvel swan song, but if early word is any indication, he’s gone out on a high note.

“Hot Pursuit”

Who: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara and Robert Kazinsky
What: An inept police officer must protect the widow of a drug dealer from criminals and dirty policemen.
When: May 8th
Why: Pairing Reese Witherspoon with Sofia Vergara may have sounded like a good idea on paper, but this looks absolutely awful. Witherspoon hasn’t made a good comedy since the original “Legally Blonde,” while Vergara has been living off her funny foreigner shtick for way too long. It works as part of an ensemble like “Modern Family,” but just watching the trailer gives me a headache from her incessantly loud and nasally screaming, let alone the thought of having to sit through 90 minutes of it. Hollywood may be desperate to prove that women can be funny, but while there’s no disputing that fact, you’d be better off just waiting one more week for “Pitch Perfect 2.”

“Maggie”

Who: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin and Joely Richardson
What: A teenage girl becomes infected by an outbreak of a disease that turns the infected into cannibalistic zombies. During her transformation, her loving father stays by her side.
When: May 8th
Why: Though the whole zombie subgenre has been played to death (no pun intended) over the past five years or so, Henry Hobson’s “Maggie” offers an interesting take on the subject by spinning those genre roots into a father-daughter relationship drama that feels more like “The Road” than “The Walking Dead.” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return from retirement hasn’t exactly gone the way he hoped, so it’s nice to see the actor stretching himself here with a more subtle turn as opposed to his usual action fare. Whether he has the dramatic chops required for such a role remains unseen, but in a month jam-packed with blockbuster films, this small indie has definitely piqued my interest.

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Movie Review: “The Age of Adaline”

Starring
Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Amanda Crew
Director
Lee Toland Krieger

There is no pleasure in putting down a movie that is in love with science, to the point where the screenplay invents a new law of molecular biology – one that won’t be discovered for another 20 years, no less – in order to justify the fantastical plot. Indeed, we’ll give “The Age of Adaline” credit for taking a left-field approach to the love story of the girl who won’t/can’t stop running, but in this case, the opposites don’t attract; the science talk is almost exclusively done via narration (THE MOVIE IS EXPLAINING ITSELF TO YOU BECAUSE YOU WON’T UNDERSTAND IT OTHERWISE), and it’s actually even more jarring when it’s inserted into the dialogue. However it’s delivered, it never gels with the love story. In fact, the love story never gels with the love story.

Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) was born in 1908. She met a man, fell in love, got married, had a daughter, and lost her husband in an accident. One night, while driving to visit her parents, she had an accident that sent her car plunging into a lake. The cold temperatures of the water stopped her heart, but she was revived when her vehicle was struck by lightning (again, the science behind this is decades away, they assure us), and as a result, she stops aging. This obviously makes it difficult for Adaline to forge long-lasting relationships (both friend and other), and avoid the suspicions of law enforcement. She eventually learns to guard her privacy to the present day (her daughter is now played by Ellen Burstyn), but handsome philanthropist Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman) refuses to leave her alone. Adaline, who now calls herself Jenny, wants to let him into her life, but decades of running is a hard habit to break. She agrees to spend the weekend with him as his parents celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, and it is there that Jenny, for the first time in ages, comes face-to-face with her past.

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