Blu Tuesday: Guardians of the Galaxy, Frank 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.

“Guardians of the Galaxy”

WHAT: After stealing a mysterious orb with untold power, intergalactic thief Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) becomes the target of a bloodthirsty alien named Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). Captured by the authorities and thrown into prison, Quill teams up with a quartet of fellow misfits – deadly assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), revenge-driven bruiser Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), gun-toting raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and tree-like humanoid Groot (Vin Diesel) – to mount an escape. But when the group discovers the true power of the orb, they agree to stick together in order to prevent it from falling into Ronan’s hands.

WHY: Marvel Studios has a history of taking some big risks, from the men behind the camera to those in front of it, and “Guardians of the Galaxy” is perhaps their biggest one yet. Not only is the comic book on which it’s based an unknown quantity to most filmgoers, but James Gunn isn’t exactly the first person you’d think of to direct a big-budget comic book movie. Despite his lack of experience, Gunn repaid the faith that Kevin Feige placed in him by producing one of the most purely fun Marvel films to date, absolutely nailing the offbeat tone of the source material like some kind of punk rock “Star Wars.” Chris Pratt oozes charisma as the Han Solo-like ruffian, and Michael Rooker gets some of the best moments as mohawked space pirate Yondu, but it’s the boisterous Rocket (as voiced by Bradley Cooper) who steals the show in hilarious fashion. Finding that balance where all five characters are represented equally isn’t an easy feat, but Gunn does a good job of giving each one the attention they deserve, both in the action and the more low-key dialogue scenes. The movie isn’t perfect by any means, but if the objective was to make a funny, action-packed and slightly off-kilter space opera that introduced audiences to the Guardians and left them wanting more when it ended, well… mission accomplished.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary by director/co-writer James Gunn, a pair of production featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and an exclusive look at “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Frank”

WHAT: A wannabe songwriter named Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to join an eccentric pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears a giant fiberglass head wherever he goes. But when Jon becomes obsessed with making the band famous, he threatens to ruin everything that makes the band (and the offbeat Frank, in particular) so special.

WHY: Loosely based on Chris Sievey’s papier-mache-headed alter ego, Frank Sidebottom, “Frank” transcends the kitschy nature of the cult comedy character to tell a story that’s much deeper and funnier than anything the real-life personality ever did. Anyone who’s seen clips of Frank Sidebottom knows that isn’t very difficult, but the film wouldn’t work nearly as well if it wasn’t for Michael Fassbender’s outstanding performance, which takes acting to a whole other level by hiding the one thing that actors rely on the most: their facial expressions. It’s more than just a simple vocal performance, however, as Fassbender works overtime to not only create a three-dimensional character, but one that’s relatable as well… and all while wearing a giant head. Unfortunately, while Fassbender’s Frank is a lot of fun, the rest of the characters are so miserable (especially Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sourpuss bandmate) that it’s hard to enjoy. Director Lenny Abrahamson can’t even decide if Domhnall Gleeson’s protagonist is a calculated jerk or a misguided fool, and though the movie has some important things to say in the end about fame, mental illness and fitting in, they come much too late to have the desired effect. See it for Fassbender and the brief moments of black comedy brilliance, but keep your expectations low.

EXTRAS: There’s a short behind-the-scenes look at the film from AXS TV.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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2014 Holiday Gift Guide: Movies

These days, if you don’t own a Blu-ray player, you’re missing out, especially with a variety of classic movies being offered in high definition for the first time ever. But while we could easily fill several pages with suggestions of great films and cool box sets that deserve a spot on any holiday wish list, we’ve picked some of our favorites released over the past 12 months. If you can’t find anything worth buying here, then chances are that the person you’re shopping for doesn’t like movies.

Click the links to purchase each product online, and for more gift ideas, check out the other categories in our Holiday Gift Guide.

Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection

spielberg

It may come as a surprise that Steven Spielberg has only won the Oscar for Best Director twice over the course of his illustrious career, because he’s made some of the most popular and critically-acclaimed films of the past 40 years. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Spielberg spent a majority of his time working under the Universal Pictures banner, and all of those movies have been collected in this fantastic box set, four of which (“Duel,” “Sugarland Express,” “1941” and “Always”) are making their Blu-ray debuts. The other films include perennial favorites like “Jaws,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World,” though for some strange reason, 1993’s “Schindler’s List” (his last Universal picture to date) is nowhere to be found. All of the movies have received gorgeous high-def video transfers, while the included booklet provides background info like fun facts, concept art and storyboards. Though the lesser known films will undoubtedly receive individual releases in the future, this is the only way to own them on Blu-ray at the moment, and that makes the “Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection” a must-have for any self-respecting cinephile.

Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection

kubrick

There are many stories about the difficulties of working with Stanley Kubrick. He was a perfectionist and an introvert, but he was also a cinematic genius responsible for directing some of most innovative and influential films of the past 60 years. Though it doesn’t include any of his earlier work (specifically “Paths of Glory” and “The Killing,” which you can pick up from Criterion), this new Blu-ray set is the closest thing to a definitive collection that you’re likely to find, featuring all eight movies that Kubrick directed between 1960 to 1999: “Spartacus,” “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atom Bomb,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” The 10-disc set also boasts a pair of discs dedicated to bonus material, including the previously released documentaries “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures” and “O’ Lucky Malcolm” (about actor Malcolm McDowell), as well as a trio of new featurettes, “Kubrick Remembered,” “Stanley Kubrick in Focus” and “Once Upon a Time… A Clockwork Orange.” If you don’t already own these films on Blu-ray, now is the time to rectify that.

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Blu Tuesday: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Hundred-Foot Journey and Kite

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.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

WHAT: A decade after the events of the last film, the Simian Flu (a virus spread by Will Rodman’s Alzheimer’s drug) has wiped out most of humanity, while the apes continue to thrive in their forest community outside the city. But when a small group of humans (led by Jason Clarke’s Malcolm) accidentally wanders onto the apes’ home turf while searching for a hydroelectric dam capable of bringing power back online, their arrival re-ignites the feud between leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and right-hand ape Koba (Toby Kebbell), who have vastly different opinions on how to handle the trespassers.

WHY: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2011, but while Matt Reeves’ much darker sequel aims to hit the same emotional notes of its predecessor, it falls a bit short. Like that movie, “Dawn” touches on some interesting themes of power, trust and gun control, though the script isn’t exactly subtle about it, hammering the audience over the head to the point of exhaustion. The story is also fairly predictable, populated with characters we’ve all seen a hundred times before, and as a result, it’s just not as engaging on a dramatic level. What it lacks in originality, however, it makes up for in sheer visual spectacle. The action sequences look amazing, but it’s the relationships between man and ape, as well as ape and ape, that are the driving force behind the film, and they wouldn’t be as effective without the groundbreaking technology on display. Andy Serkis is excellent once again as Caesar, but with so many ape characters fighting for face time this time around, the gimmick loses some of its “wow” factor. Even with those flaws, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is still a damn good sequel that, while not as smart and poignant as the 2011 sequel, is still a step up from most summer blockbusters.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Matt Reeves, there are some deleted scenes (with optional commentary) and seven production featurettes covering a range of topics including the cast, special effects, motion capture and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Hundred-Foot Journey”

WHAT: Following a family tragedy, the Kadam clan leaves India for Europe, eventually settling in a small town in southern France where they open a restaurant directly across from a Michelin-starred eatery operated by the snooty Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). But when the two establishments become embroiled in a childish war, the Kadams’ star-in-the-making chef (Manish Dayal) seeks to unite them through the power of food.

WHY: Movies like “The Hundred-Foot Journey” have been Disney’s bread and butter for years, although they’re usually packaged in the form of an underdog sports drama. But while the story (based on Richard C. Morais’ novel) has nothing to do with sports, the film follows the same basic formula of the subgenre, and the results are uninspired to say the least. Swap out the restaurant world for professional baseball and you could make the exact same movie about a talented but unorthodox minor league pitcher who rises through the ranks against all odds. You need only to watch the trailer to know how the film is going to play out, populated with stock characters that are as one-dimensional as the story itself. The performances aren’t anything special either, including Helen Mirren, who seems to be on auto-pilot for most of the movie, even if she’s easily the best thing about it. But while there’s definitely an audience for these kinds of cheesy, feel-good films (if there wasn’t, director Lasse Hallstrom would be out of a job), “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is so afraid to step out of its comfort zone that it isn’t just predictable – it’s pedestrian.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette, a discussion with producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, a tour of the set with Oprah and a recipe for Coconut Chicken.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Kite”

WHAT: After her parents are murdered, a young woman named Sawa (India Eisley) teams up with her cop father’s ex-partner (Samuel L. Jackson) to take down a human trafficking cartel run by the same man responsible for making her an orphan.

WHY: Based on the ultraviolent 1998 anime of the same name, “Kite” is about as good as you’d expect for a movie that was dumped into theaters (likely due to a contractual obligation) with little fanfare. In other words, not very. Despite being somewhat of a cult hit within the anime community, the original film wouldn’t be nearly as memorable if not for its controversial graphic content. But in a post-Hit-Girl world, that stuff just isn’t as shocking as it once was, especially when the violence and sex is as watered down as it is in the live-action version. Though the filmmakers were smart to attach a big name (and self-professed anime fan) like Samuel L. Jackson to the project, the actor is unable to rescue the movie from a poor script, amateur direction and some terrible performances by his co-stars. More than anything else, though, it’s just incredibly boring. The uncut version of Yasuomi Umetsu’s anime was only 60 minutes long, so the fact that anyone thought that taking an already paper-thin plot and expanding it into a 90-minute movie was a good idea probably shouldn’t be making films in the first place.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, but that’s all.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Movie Review: “Penguins of Madagascar”

Starring
Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, Christopher Knights, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich
Directors
Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith

And so it’s come to this: spinoffs.

To be fair, “Penguins of Madagascar” makes perfect business sense on a number of levels. The penguins have been a TV staple for six years, so giving them a full-length feature has zero risk and a built-in audience. As an added bonus, launching a spinoff buys time for DreamWorks to plan the next “Madagascar” movie (currently scheduled for 2018). The tail is clearly wagging the dog here, for better and for worse. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s a shallow one. It’s also strange to get an origin story, and a hollow one at that, for characters we’ve known for almost 10 years.

The movie begins with Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller) and Rico (Conrad Vernon), as young penguins, daring to go against the conformist penguins and battling leopard seals in order to save a runaway, unhatched penguin egg, which would ultimately be Private (Christopher Knights). From that day forward, the four vowed to go against the grain and live for adventure. One day, they are captured by Dr. Octavius Brine (John Malkovich), who’s actually an octopus in disguise that is fed up with the overall cuteness of penguins, and plans to ruin them for all mankind. Enter the North Wind, a government agency assigned to protect animals in danger. Their leader is a wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose name is classified. Skipper does not like having to answer to Classified, but as penguins begin disappearing around the world, the two must find a way to coexist and catch Brine.

“Penguins of Madagascar” has a fantastic running joke that, frankly, I’m surprised no one has done before. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it is, because spoilers. It’s the best thing about the movie, though, and for that alone, you don’t want this to be spoiled by a film critic.

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Movie Review: “Horrible Bosses 2″

Starring
Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, Chris Pine, Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey
Director
Sean Anders

The basic rule for sequels is to make everything bigger than the original. For action movies, that makes sense, even if it’s often unwise. For comedies, it makes no sense whatsoever, and “Horrible Bosses 2” is the proof. The three leads go from likable bumblers in the 2011 original to complete idiots here. Jennifer Aniston’s character has been grossly compromised, emphasis on “grossly.” Kevin Spacey is the only returning actor whose character survives with his dignity intact, but his character is an even bigger square peg than Aniston’s. The movie’s most egregious offense, though, is that it’s lazy. Not only is the plot a “22 Jump Street”-type rehashing of the original, but the opening scene would make the cast of “American Pie” blush. Really, guys, you’re sending love letters to “American Pie”? You’re better than that, or at least you used to be.

Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) have decided that the best way to avoid having a boss is to be the boss, and the three launch a new product that attracts the interest of global shipper Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz). Bert and the boys agree to a deal where they will supply his company with a huge order of their product, but Bert double-crosses them after they’re up to their eyeballs in debt, with the intention of stealing the product from them for pennies on the dollar. After ruling out a few extreme ideas, the three decide to kidnap Bert’s son Rex (Chris Pine), and hold him for enough ransom to make up their expenses. Much to their surprise, Rex is down with the plan, and encourages them to raise both the ransom and their game in return for a larger cut. The boys quickly realize, though, that Rex causes more headaches than the ransom money will solve.

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