Blu Tuesday: Whiplash, Horrible Bosses 2 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.

“Whiplash”

WHAT: Jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) doesn’t just want to be great; he wants to be one of the greats. When he’s given an opportunity to attend Shaffer Conservatory, the top music school in the country, under the tutelage of tyrannical instructor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew is pushed to his limits and beyond by Fletcher’s extreme teaching methods.

WHY: A gripping, electrifying and brutally unrelenting thriller, Damien Chazelle’s sophomore effort draws you in from the very first beat of the drum and never lets go, like a freight train of intensity and emotion that leaves you breathless and your heart still pounding when it’s over. “Whiplash” isn’t just one of the best movies of the 2014; it features perhaps one of the best endings to a movie ever. Chazelle doesn’t waste a single frame in this pressure cooker of a story about a young musician so determined to achieve greatness that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there, even if that means enduring the physical, verbal and psychological abuse of the one man capable of squeezing out every last drop of potential. Miles Teller is phenomenal in the lead role, capturing Andrew’s commitment and passion to his craft with an all-in performance that’s soaked in literal blood, sweat and tears, but it’s J.K. Simmons who steals the show with his turn as the borderline psychotic Fletcher, hurtling insults like a drill instructor (think R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket”) that are as funny as they are frightening. The film has earned a lot of attention for these two performances, although it would be short-sighted not to mention the superb writing and dynamic editing as well, because they’re just as essential to its success. For a movie about perfection, “Whiplash” comes pretty damn close.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director Damien Chazelle and actor J.K. Simmons, there’s a featurette about famous drummers and their craft, footage from the movie’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, a deleted scene and the original short film.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Horrible Bosses 2″

WHAT: Following the events of the last film, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) decide to become their own bosses by inventing a product called the Shower Buddy. But when their key investor (Christoph Waltz) backs out at the last minute, leaving them with thousands of dollars in inventory, the guys decide to kidnap his jerk son (Chris Pine) and hold him for ransom.

WHY: When it was announced that Warner Bros. was moving ahead with a sequel to their breakout hit, “Horrible Bosses,” it sounded like a pretty awful idea, especially due to the nature of the original premise. That’s probably why Seth Gordon decided not to return as well, so credit to co-writer/director Sean Anders for not only having the balls to take over the reins, but for coming up with an idea that actually makes sense. Sadly, while the kidnapping plot does allow for Nick, Kurt and Dale to embark on yet another criminal misadventure, the film itself is a mixed bag. Though there are some really funny bits thanks to the chemistry between the three leads (as well as a scene-stealing cameo by Kevin Spacey), the characters themselves have been downgraded from bumbling fools to complete idiots. It may have been cute the first time around, but there’s simply no way these guys could be this dumb and still expect the audience to root for them. “Horrible Bosses 2” is better than expected thanks to its ensemble cast, even if Jennifer Aniston and Christoph Waltz are mostly wasted in their roles, but unlike the first movie, it fails to give you a reason to care.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, alternate line readings/outtakes, a brief look at filming the high speed chase sequence and some silly infomercials.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Game of Thrones, Birdman 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.

“Game of Thrones: The Complete Fourth Season”

WHAT: Following the events of the Red Wedding, King’s Landing turns its attention to the royal wedding between Joffrey Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell, with guests arriving from all over Westeros, including the vengeful Oberyn Martell. Meanwhile, Arya and The Hound continue their journey to the Eyrie; Daenerys Targaryen leads her slave army towards Meereen; Bran and Co. head north to track down the three-eyed raven; and the Night’s Watch prepare for an attack by the Wildlings.

WHY: “Game of Thrones” is one of the best dramas on television, boasting rich storytelling, great writing and a massive ensemble cast with nary a weak link among them. But while the exhaustive world building is impressive in both size and scope, it often can’t be fully appreciated until you see how some of the storylines pay off later down the road, whether in future episodes or seasons. What really makes it appointment television, however, and one of the few genuine water-cooler shows left today, is the endless amount of shocking moments weaved throughout George R.R. Martin’s complex fantasy world. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Though nothing that occurs in Season Four is as monumental as the Red Wedding from the previous year, the bombshells came faster and more frequent, with several notable characters biting the dust, including heavy hitters like Joffrey Baratheon and Tywin Lannister, fan favorite Oberyn Martell, and quite possibly The Hound, depending on how you interpret his final scene. No other show on television makes you care about the death of a character as much as “Game of Thrones,” and it’s only one of many reasons why the series continues to perform at such a high level, constantly upping the stakes even when it no longer seems possible.

EXTRAS: There are 11 cast and crew audio commentaries spread across the four-disc set, along with an overview of Season Three, featurettes on filming the ninth episode (“Battle of the Wall”) and the role bastards play in the Seven Kingdoms, a roundtable discussion with the actors whose characters died in the fourth season, deleted scenes, a blooper reel and some interactive features.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

WHAT: Desperate to revive his career, washed-up actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) mounts an ambitious adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. When one of the actors is injured in a freak accident, Riggan brings in theater luminary Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a last-minute replacement, only for Mike’s unconventional methods to lead to a clash of egos between the two men that puts the whole production in danger of shutting down before it even begins.

WHY: Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be the most prolific director around, but that hardly matters when you make movies like “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a remarkable piece of filmmaking that’s as refreshingly original as it is wildly ambitious. While it’s a pretty incisive satire of Broadway and fame, the movie goes even deeper than that, digging into themes of ego, family and artistic integrity vs. commercial success. More than anything else, though, it operates as a character study of a broken man trying to reclaim his former glory, and in that regard, the film reminded me a lot of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” Some of it is played for laughs, but it’s mostly a profoundly sad look at one man’s struggle to validate his existence. The acting is top-notch across the board – especially Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone – however, the real magic comes from Iñarritu’s decision to stage the movie as one long tracking shot. The balletic precision and sheer ballsiness required to pull that off is mind-boggling, but it results in a more immersive and seamless viewing experience akin to a theater performance, and it’s one that’ll be mimicked for years to come.

EXTRAS: There’s a fairly extensive behind-the-scenes featurette, a conversation between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and star Michael Keaton about the movie, and a photo gallery.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“The Theory of Everything”

WHAT: While studying at Cambridge in the 1960s, physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) falls in love with and marries literature student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), only to be diagnosed with motor neuron disease and given two years to live. Miraculously, Hawking fought the disease with the help of Jane and went on to become one of the leading minds of his generation.

WHY: “The Theory of Everything” is the prototypical Oscar movie. It’s based on an incredible true story (bonus points if the subject is suffering from a disease) and boasts an extraordinary lead performance from Eddie Redmayne. But sadly, the film itself is quite ordinary, falling victim to the usual biopic conventions by trying to cover too much material in too little time. This happens surprisingly often when making movies about real-life people, and it’s especially disappointing here, because Redmayne is simply amazing as Hawking, investing himself completely in the physicality of the role without losing the essence of the character. It’s every actor’s dream job, but for as much credit as Redmayne deserves for the performance, it wouldn’t be as effective without Felicity Jones beside him, because she’s the soul of the film, providing an alternate view of Hawking’s struggle with every heartbreaking and inspiring turn. “The Theory of Everything” is about the power of the human spirit, and while the first half makes for more compelling viewing compared to the generic story beats that encompass Hawking’s later years, Redmayne and Jones are so good that even if their performances overshadow the movie itself, it’s still very much must-see viewing.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director James Marsh, there’s a featurette titled “Becoming the Hawkings” and eight deleted scenes with optional commentary by Marsh.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “Kingsman: The Secret Service”

Starring
Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Sofia Boutella, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Sophie Cookson
Director
Matthew Vaughn

After subverting the superhero genre with “Kick-Ass,” the creative team behind that film (director Matthew Vaughn, co-writer Jane Goldman and comic book writer Mark Millar) has returned with an equally over-the-top homage to spy movies. Developed separately from the Millar-penned comic on which it’s loosely based, Vaughn’s film improves on that version in just about every way, delivering a smarter (but no less absurd) take on Cold War-era spy movies that embraces as many genre conventions as it breaks. A mix of the old and new school, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a lot cooler than its clunky title might imply – a hyper-stylized, gratuitously explicit action film that would make James Bond blush. After all, this is a movie that cartoonishly blows up Barack Obama’s head without even blinking.

The movie opens 17 years earlier when, while on a mission in the Middle East, secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is unable to prevent the death of a fellow agent. Feeling personally responsible, he visits the man’s wife (Samantha Womack) and young son, Eggsy, giving them a medal with a special phone number on the back should they ever need a favor. Fast-forward to present day and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has grown up to become a lower-class delinquent who’s wasted his incredible potential. When Eggsy gets in trouble with the law, Harry bails him out, eventually recruiting him as a candidate for the same secret agency his father worked for, the Kingsmen, an independent organization of highly-trained agents who put their lives on the line to protect the world. While Eggsy undergoes the ultra-competitive training program (with only one recruit earning a spot as a Kingsman), Harry investigates a potential threat involving a tech-genius billionaire named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) who wants to save the Earth from the dangerous effects of climate change by wiping out most of humanity.

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Movie Review: “Fifty Shades of Grey”

Starring
Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Jennifer Ehle, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Marcia Gay Harden
Director
Sam Taylor-Johnson

It’s well established that “Fifty Shades of Grey” began life as fan fiction by a “Twilight” devotee who was frustrated with the lack of sex in the books, and that’s fair; there is but one sex scene in the entire series, after all. However, this married mother of two (!) didn’t just write about Bella and Edward (here named Ana and Christian) having sex: she wrote about them having rough sex, BDSM-type stuff that tries to present itself as a confident woman owning her sexuality, when in fact the sex is completely about him, and he is constantly looking for reasons to “punish” her. Christian Grey is basically the Patrick Bateman (“American Psycho”) of sex, to the point where “American Psycho” author Bret Easton Ellis saw so much of Patrick in Christian that he actually begged “Grey” author E. L. James for the right to write the film’s screenplay. She turned him down. That’s unfortunate; he might have made something watchable out of this.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a college senior who does her journalism major roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford) a solid by doing an interview on her behalf when Kate gets the flu. The interviewee is Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a 27-year-old billionaire who is giving her school’s commencement speech. Ana is intimidated by Christian – yet conducts the most passive-aggressive interview in history – but something about Ana intrigues Christian. He visits her at the hardware store where she works, and later tracks her down at a bar after she drunk calls him to tell him off. She wakes up in his hotel room, and after a brief (and hilariously awkward) chat, it is clear that there is chemistry between them, and each wants to consummate the relationship.

However, Christian plays a different sport than Ana does. He doesn’t want a lover: he wants a submissive (honest to God quote from the movie: “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.”), and asks Ana to look over a lengthy contract that spells out the terms of their sexual relationship, unaware that Ana is a virgin. Once he discovers this, he softens his approach and gives her the loving first experience that girls wish for, but after that, it’s all business, and business is this: you will do what I want, when I want, or you will be punished. Ana refuses to sign the contract, though the two continue to see each other. They have lots of sex, he spanks and whips her, and despite his insistence that he is not a candy and flowers kind of guy, Ana thinks that this arrangement has the potential to blossom into something greater. Fool.

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Movie Review: “What We Do in the Shadows”

Starring
Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham
Directors
Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement

“What We Do in the Shadows” sounds like a bad comedy sketch – a “Real World”-esque reality show with vampires in place of horny millennials – but it’s actually a really funny satire of the vampire subgenre that’s done in the deadpan style of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Of course, because of the loose, improvisational nature of the film, not every joke lands, but the ones that do are laugh-out-loud hilarious. As a result, the movie can feel a bit uneven at times, especially when it begins to lose steam in the latter half, though that’s partially due to the fact that many of the best gags occur early on. And while that inconsistency prevents it from being the comedy masterpiece that some people have suggested, the funny bits (as well as the ones you’ll likely miss the first time around) are what make “What We Do in the Shadows” such an entertaining import worthy of repeat viewings.

Filmed in the months leading up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball, a documentary crew granted protection from its subjects follows a group of vampires – including Victorian dandy Viago (Taika Waititi), medieval torturer Vladimir (Jemaine Clement), resident bad boy Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) – living together in Wellington, New Zealand as they deal with the dull minutiae of everyday life as an ancient bloodsucker. But the vampire lifestyle isn’t as glamorous as it’s hyped up to be, which unwitting victim Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) soon learns when he’s invited to one of their dinner parties, only to be served as the main course. After being sucked dry and given the mixed blessing of eternal life, Nick attempts to make the most of his newfound vampire abilities, while ushering his fellow housemates into the 21st century with the help of human friend and computer specialist Stu (Stuart Rutherford).

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