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.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
WHAT: When S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised by members within the organization, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is forced to go on the run with fellow operative Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), in order to smoke out the traitors. But standing in their way is a super-powered, metal-armed assassin called the Winter Soldier who looks suspiciously like someone from Steve’s past.
WHY: Hands-down the best Marvel sequel to date, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a major improvement upon the character’s first solo adventure, thanks in large part to a more interesting arc for its titular hero. The whole conspiracy plot not only creates a sense of foreboding and suspense, but in addressing real-world issues like national security, it lends itself to the moral battle that’s been waging inside Rogers since joining S.H.I.E.L.D. in “The Avengers.” That distrust allows Evans to play the character with a lot more complexity than the typical goody two-shoes Boy Scout, though he receives great support from Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon, who all play an important part in the story. The action in the movie is also top-notch, which is somewhat surprising considering Anthony and Joe Russo have virtually no experience in the genre. The sibling duo is just the latest in Marvel’s line of left-field director choices, and they acquit themselves remarkably well, so much so that they’ve already been invited back for another installment. That’s certainly a just reward for the Russos, because “The Winter Soldier” is a superb continuation of its hero’s cinematic evolution that also serves as a natural bridge to next year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Blu-ray includes a short making-of featurette, a look at the different region-specific versions of Steve Rogers’ notebook, some deleted scenes and a gag reel.
FINAL VERDICT: BUY
“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: The Complete First Season”
WHAT: After miraculously surviving the Battle of New York, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) assembles a small team – including civilian hacker Skye (Chloe Benet) – to tackle strange new cases involving superpowers, alien artifacts and other phenomenon deemed too top secret for normal authorities, but not important enough for the Avengers.
WHY: As with most Joss Whedon-created shows, the first season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a bit rocky at times, struggling to find its voice as the small-screen companion to Marvel’s bigger and better movies. But while the first 13 episodes are incredibly hit-and-miss, the series eventually finds its groove in the latter half of the season, delivering the kind of supplemental stories that further enrichens the Marvel cinematic universe. The show feels a little cheesy at times due to the budgetary restraints, and some of the cast members (namely Chloe Benet and Brett Dalton) have a daytime soap opera feel to their performances, but when it’s firing on all cylinders, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a lot of fun. That’s never truer than in the final batch of episodes featuring Bill Paxton as a traitorous S.H.I.E.L.D. agent working for Hydra – a subplot that was introduced concurrently with the theatrical release of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” This kind of integrated storytelling is what “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” promised from the very beginning, and although it may seem gimmicky, it allows Marvel Studios to connect the two mediums in a way that expands their cinematic universe without making the show feel essential to understanding the movies.
EXTRAS: The Blu-ray set includes cast and crew audio commentaries, five behind-the-scenes featurettes, the “Marvel Studios: Assembling a Universe” TV special, a VFX breakdown montage, deleted scenes and a gag reel.
FINAL VERDICT: RENT
WHAT: When his good-for-nothing stepson (Caleb Landry Jones) is killed while working at a construction site – an act of self-defense covered up to look like an accident – Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) scrambles to raise the money for his funeral.
WHY: John Slattery couldn’t have asked for a better ensemble cast for his directorial debut – including screen veterans like Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins and Eddie Marsan – but sadly, “God’s Pocket” is a prime example of how to make a bad movie with good actors. Though it’s competently shot, the story isn’t particularly interesting and the characters aren’t given a whole to do. The film also fails to establish a consistent tone, sampling a variety of genres (from dark comedy, to crime thriller, to blue-collar drama) like a kid at an ice cream shop who can’t make up his mind. That should come as no surprise to those that saw Lee Butler’s “The Paperboy,” because both movies were based on novels by author Pete Dexter, and much like that film, “God’s Pocket” feels incredibly aimless at times, due in large part to its thinly-scripted story and pointless subplots. Hoffman delivers a typically solid performance as the sad-sack protagonist – though it’s hardly the most fitting end to an otherwise excellent career – while the rest of the actors pretty much phone it in, especially Slattery’s “Mad Men” co-star Christina Hendricks as the grieving mother.
EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with co-writer/director John Slattery and some deleted scenes.
FINAL VERDICT: SKIP