Blu Tuesday: House of Cards 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.

“House of Cards: The Complete Third Season”

WHAT: After being sworn in as President of the United States following his predecessor’s resignation, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) fights battles domestically (both in his marriage at home and with his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill) and internationally as he tries to form a peace coalition with bullheaded Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen). Meanwhile, Claire (Robin Wright) is no longer content with her role as First Lady and seeks some power of her own as the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

WHY: The first two seasons of “House of Cards” delivered such top-notch storytelling that it was never going to be easy replicating it a third time, but while Season Three isn’t without its problems, it’s still an incredibly well-acted and sharply written drama that ranks as one of the best shows on TV. Though it certainly makes sense why creator Beau Willimon would want to take the series in a slightly different direction – with Frank no longer several steps ahead in his scheming, but rather struggling just to keep his head above water – the story feels a little stretched creatively. For starters, the rock-solid relationship between Frank and Claire is fractured far too easily for a couple that supposedly makes each other stronger (and Claire, in particular, is even pettier than usual), while the whole Doug subplot isn’t engaging enough to warrant spending an entire season on. Some stories work better than others, but the cast continues to fire on all cylinders, including newcomers like Kim Dickens and Paul Sparks, as well as Mahershala Ali and Molly Parker, who are given more to do this season. Still, “House of Cards” is Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright’s show, and they never let you forget it, because even when they’re saddled with mediocre material, the two actors command the screen like no other couple on television.

EXTRAS: In addition to a making-of featurette, the Blu-ray edition includes an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at filming a key scene from the season finale.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Slow West”

WHAT: Set in 1870, a young Scottish man named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels across the American frontier in search of the woman he loves, escorted by a quiet drifter (Michael Fassbender) he’s hired for the journey. But what Jay doesn’t realize is that he’s being used by his traveling companion to lead him straight to Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father (Rory McCann) in order to collect the sizable bounty placed on their heads.

WHY: Though he’s not the first musician to make the transition over to filmmaking, former Beta Band keyboardist John Maclean’s “Slow West” is an incredibly confident directorial debut that breathes new life into the Western without abandoning its roots. Gorgeously shot and remarkably vibrant for the genre, the movie is a well-paced, character-driven piece that boasts a pair of great performances from Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee, as well as a wry sense of humor that will have you laughing at some pretty morbid stuff. (The literal “salt on the wound” gag is probably the best of the bunch, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as Maclean’s darkly comical script is concerned.) While it’s disappointing to see a fantastic character actor like Ben Mendelsohn wasted in such a small role, he makes the most of his limited screen time, especially considering his rascally outlaw doesn’t even enter the story until the final act. “Slow West” is an odd but amusing little movie, and though it’s not above having fun with certain genre tropes, it’s still very much a Western in style and spirit, which is to say that the American frontier is a pretty nasty place to go chasing your dreams.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Get Hard, While We’re Young 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.

“Get Hard”

WHAT: When millionaire stockbroker James King (Will Ferrell) is arrested for illegal trading and sentenced to ten years in a maximum security prison, he hires Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart) – the owner of a car wash business whom James wrongly assumes is an ex-con – to prepare him for life behind bars, which proves more difficult than either one imagined.

WHY: Will Ferrell’s movie career isn’t what it used to be, so it was a really smart move to team up with Kevin Hart, the current king of the comedy box office, for his latest film. Though it’s not the most obvious pairing, they actually have some pretty good chemistry, even if the film doesn’t always know what to do with their partnership. Ferrell delivers one of his better comedic performances in quite some time, while Hart keeps his annoying outbursts to a minimum. The problem is that the jokes simply aren’t there. While the film is occasionally funny when Ferrell and Hart are allowed to let loose, the racial and homophobic humor doesn’t land quite as intended. The blatant stereotyping might be part of the message that “Get Hard” is trying to make, but director Etan Cohen doesn’t execute it particularly well. Additionally, the villains are absent for a majority of the movie, and the final act is nothing more than a hackneyed throwback to every buddy comedy from the ‘80s. “Get Hard” isn’t as bad as expected, but it’s still an incredibly uneven film that only fans of Ferrell and Hart will truly enjoy.

EXTRAS: In addition to some deleted scenes, alternate line readings and a gag reel, there are a number of short, mostly pointless featurettes on things like Will Ferrell’s wardrobe, John Mayer’s cameo and the white supremacist biker gang.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“While We’re Young”

WHAT: Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are happily married, but while all of their middle-aged friends are busy raising children, they’ve fallen into a comfortable rut both personally and professionally. So when they start hanging out with a much younger couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), Josh and Cornelia can’t help but be charmed by their carefree lifestyle, only to discover that the couple may have ulterior motives.

WHY: After being disappointed by 2010’s “Greenberg” and downright incensed by 2012’s “Frances Ha,” my expectations were pretty low going into director Noah Baumbach’s latest film, so it’s with great pleasure to be proven wrong. Not only is “While We’re Young” the director’s best work since “The Squid and the Whale,” but it doesn’t contain nearly the same level of nastiness as his previous movies, despite treading very similar ground thematically. While some of the commentary and digital/analog comparisons between the two couples feels a little too on the nose, there are plenty of great comedic moments that arise from them, at least until the final act, when Baumbach’s story gets overly serious and starts to go off the rails. Ben Stiller’s character isn’t the most likable guy, but he’s not the annoying neurotic he played in “Greenberg” either, and that goes a long way in keeping him on the audience’s side when everything goes to shit in the final 20 minutes. It’s some of the actor’s finest work in years, and he receives excellent support from Adam Driver and Naomi Watts as well. “While We’re Young” is far from perfect, but it’s a refreshingly lighthearted (although no less honest and thoughtful) side to Baumbach that he should really showcase more often.

EXTRAS: There are six behind-the-scenes featurettes on the cast, director Noah Baumbach, working with Charles Grodin, the Ayahuasca ceremony sequence and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “Terminator Genisys”

Starring
Emilia Clarke, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke, J.K. Simmons, Byung-hun Lee, Matt Smith
Director
Alan Taylor

“Terminator Genisys” marks the second sequel to a seemingly dead franchise this summer. Following the massive success of “Jurassic World” comes the fifth “Terminator” movie to date. The last two sequels were failed reboots, and for good reason, as neither of them had the intensity or awe James Cameron brought to the original films. “Terminator Genisys” doesn’t recapture the series’ former glory, but it is an actual “Terminator” movie, and it’s certainly more ambitious and entertaining than its recent predecessors.

The film begins in 2029, with John Connor (Jason Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) leading an ambush against Skynet. We see the events that influence Connor’s decision to send Reese back in time to save his mother, making this both a reboot and a surprisingly faithful sequel. Reese expects a helpless Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) back in 1984, but she’s nothing of the sort; she’s a trained, skilled soldier. At her side, once again to Reese’s surprise, is a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who Sarah refers to as “Pops.” For a reason that’s being saved for a potential sequel, someone sent the T-800 back in time to protect Sarah as a child, which answers one of the most of obvious questions in this franchise: Why doesn’t Skynet simply kill Sarah as a kid? Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese and the T-800 have to work together to prevent Skynet’s takeover and, surprisingly, defeat John Connor, who’s working for the bad guys this time around.

Screenwriters Patrick Lussier and Laeata Kalogridis rewrite the past, but they don’t erase it. There is no shortage of time travel talk in the film, and one of the key decisions made is to establish this as an alternate timeline, so the other timelines, meaning the first two films, still exist. Do the time travel rules always make sense? No, but neither does time travel. Sometimes, the less explained, the better – and the first hour struggles with that. There is a cluster of exposition in the setup, often explaining what we’re literally seeing. At first, Jai Courtney’s performance suffers because of how many questions and obvious statements he has to deliver, but once the wheels start moving, “Terminator Genisys” improves as it goes along.

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Movie Review: “Magic Mike XXL”

Starring
Channing Tatum, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Adam Rodriguez, Kevin Nash, Jada Pinkett Smith, Amber Heard
Director
Gregory Jacobs

One of the biggest complaints about “Magic Mike” was that it was a lot more serious than people were expecting for a film about male strippers, and producer/star Channing Tatum addressed that issue with the promise that the upcoming sequel would be a much lighter affair. And you can’t say that Tatum isn’t a man of his word, because “Magic Mike XXL” couldn’t be any more different from the original. Whereas Steven Soderbergh’s movie was a moody drama about the dark underbelly of the stripper lifestyle that focused on character and story, “XXL” (which was directed by Soderbergh understudy Gregory Jacobs) is an upbeat and whimsical bro-fest that plays like a racier, bizarro version of “Entourage.” Both films are good for their own reasons, but “XXL” is definitely the more enjoyable of the pair.

Three years after leaving the stripper life to pursue his dream of starting his own custom furniture business, “Magic” Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) reunites with the remaining Kings of Tampa – Ken (Matt Bomer), Big Dick Ritchie (Joe Manganiello), Tito (Adam Rodriguez) and Tarzan (Kevin Nash) – for a wild night out on the town. When he learns that the group is being disbanded after their boss, Dallas (played by Matthew McConaughey in the first movie), fled to Macau for greener pastures, Mike agrees to join them on their road trip to the annual stripper convention in Myrtle Beach for one last blow-out performance. But after their MC (Gabriel Iglesias) gets injured in a car accident, Mike is forced to call on an old friend from his past, former lover and business partner Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), for help in pulling off their one-night show, complete with new, personalized routines.

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Movie Review: “Ted 2″

Starring
Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane, Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, Morgan Freeman
Director
Seth MacFarlane

“Ted 2” is a sweet but profane love letter to Universal Pictures. Writer/director/star Seth MacFarlane references several high-profile Universal properties, with the plot serving as the connective tissue. This naturally makes for a threadbare story, to be sure, but this is Seth MacFarlane we’re talking about. The man has never let story get in the way of a good joke, or even a bad one. To the surprise of no one, “Ted 2” has plenty of each.

The story begins at the wedding of magical, real-life teddy bear Ted (MacFarlane) and Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). Ted’s best friend John (Mark Wahlberg) is happy for the couple, but still reeling from his recent divorce. Ted and Tami-Lyn have a perfect wedding day, but one year later, they are fighting nonstop. Ted suggests that having a baby might solve their problems (this is a terrible, terrible idea, for the record), but after their attempts to do in vitro or adopt fail, Ted finds his life unraveling as his creditors begin terminating his accounts on the grounds that the government doesn’t recognize him as a real person.

John and Ted retain a top-rate lawyer to fight for Ted’s civil rights, and he assigns it to his niece and junior attorney, Samantha (Amanda Seyfriend), who does the case pro bono. While they’re working on Ted’s defense, Ted stalker Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) conspires with the president of Hasbro to kidnap Ted pending him losing the case (as he will officially be considered property at that point), so they can use his mojo to mass produce “human” Teds.

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