Blu Tuesday: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Hobbit

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 Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

WHAT: In 1963, during the height of the Cold War, the United States and Russia agree to temporarily put aside their differences and combine forces when they learn that a secret criminal organization has kidnapped former Nazi scientist Udo Teller to build an atom bomb. The CIA and KGB assign their top agents – Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), respectively – to infiltrate the cabal and prevent a global disaster.

WHY: Hollywood hasn’t been shy about its love for sequels, reboots and remakes this year, but as far as big screen adaptations of mildly popular television shows go, you could do a lot worse than “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” In fact, though director Guy Ritchie has admitted that he wasn’t overly familiar with the 1960s TV series before signing on to the project, it’s the ideal property for a filmmaker like Ritchie to tackle, because it allows him to cherry-pick the show’s best bits and put his own spin on the material without worrying about stepping on too many toes. It worked well for “Sherlock Holmes,” and it has a similar effect here. While Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer may not sound like the most exciting duo on paper, they form a surprisingly charming team with lots of great banter between them. It’s the kind of polite but playful English wit that’s present in most of Ritchie’s films, and it allows the movie to be self-aware without resorting to winking satire “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” runs a little long despite its relatively straightforward plot, and the half-baked romance between Hammer and Alicia Vikander’s characters never really takes off, but it’s an entertaining homage to retro spy films that makes up for what it lacks in substance with plenty of laughs and undeniable style.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes six featurettes highlighted by a behind-the-scenes look at production and recreating the music, costumes and props of the 1960s.


“The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies – Extended Edition”

WHAT: After successfully defeating Smaug, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the surviving citizens of Lake-town head to the Lonely Mountain seeking refuge. Thorin (Richard Armitage), who’s since been consumed by the dragon sickness, refuses to help, leading the humans and elves to declare war on the dwarves. But when Azog the Defiler and his battalion of orcs attack the dwarven stronghold, the three armies must fight together in order to stop them.

WHY: Splitting “The Hobbit” into three movies has been a point of contention among fans since it was first announced, and the futility of that decision has never been more evident than with “The Battle of the Five Armies,” a 144-minute marathon of masturbatory excess in which the titular set piece – one that’s contained within a single chapter in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel – makes up almost half of its bloated runtime. (The new extended edition tacks on an additional 20 minutes of footage, including more from the actual battle, that only adds to the film’s pacing issues.) Though the movie has its share of great moments just like the first two installments, they’re surrounded by a lot of extraneous filler that pushes its main hero even further into the background. But while “The Battle of Five Armies” is arguably the weakest entry in the series, it’s a nonetheless fitting end to a trilogy that’s biggest problem was taking so long to get there. Could it have been better? Absolutely, especially when measured against the far superior “Lord of the Rings” films, but fans will love it regardless, and that’s to the credit of the fantastic ensemble cast, incredible visuals and Peter Jackson’s limitless creativity.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Peter Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyens, there are two discs filled with over nine hours of supplemental material that covers virtually every aspect of production.



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Movie Review: “The 33″

Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Lou Diamond Phillips, Jacob Vargas
Patricia Riggen

The story of the Chilean miners who were trapped over 200 stories underground, and their subsequent rescue after a whopping 69 days, is one of humanity’s finest. It is a story of hope, courage, faith and determination, and it had ‘major motion picture’ written all over it. Unfortunately, the word ‘major’ proves to be the biggest problem with the eventual motion picture. “The 33” had an intimate, claustrophobic film within its grasp, but chose to paint by numbers instead. They even recorded all of the dialogue in English. Ninety-nine percent of the characters are Chilean; this movie has no business being in English.

On August 5, 2010, a group of men working for the San Jose Mining Company went to work in a mine in the Atacama Desert, despite concerns from staffers – and clear signs from the mine itself – that the mine was becoming unstable. While the men were in the mine, the rock shifted above them, cutting off their access to the surface. The men retreated to a shelter 2,300 feet below ground, where there was to be a radio, rations, medical supplies and a way out. The initial plan was to climb the escape ladders in the shelter, only to discover that their employers never finished building them. To add insult to injury, the radio was disconnected, and there were no medical supplies.

Faced with limited rations, Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas) takes the lead to make sure everyone gets a fair share, even though that means one very small amount of food per day. On the surface, Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), head of the Ministry of Mining, convinces Chilean President Pinera (Bob Gunton, of all people) that it is their moral imperative to rescue those miners, and Golborne brings drills to dig for the miners, and shelter for the miners’ loved ones, whose homes are almost 30 miles away but refused to leave the site out of fear that San Jose will abandon the miners if no one’s watching them and keeping them honest. Before long, the United States, Australia and Canada are all lending a hand in the effort to rescue “Los 33.”

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Blu Tuesday: Trainwreck, Terminator Genisys 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.


WHAT: Convinced by her father (Colin Quinn) at a young age that monogamy isn’t realistic, commitment-phobic magazine writer Amy Townsend (Amy Schumer) has gone through life without having a single, meaningful romantic relationship. But when she’s assigned to do a profile on sports doctor Aaron Connors (Bill Hader), only to end up sleeping with him and realize that she wants more than the usual one-night stand, Amy doesn’t know how to respond.

WHY: Amy Schumer has been making people laugh for years, both on stage and on her Comedy Central TV sketch show, so it was only a matter of time before she made the jump to the big screen, and as the star and writer of “Trainwreck,” Schumer officially announces herself as a legitimate Hollywood double-threat. While her raunchy humor has a tendency to take some jokes a little too far, Schumer has an incredibly likable presence, even when playing a borderline asshole like she does here. What’s most surprising about her work in the film, however, is that she showcases some real dramatic chops in addition to the comedy. Bill Hader also turns in a solid performance as Schumer’s love interest despite being given the short end of the stick as far as character development goes, while supporting players like Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton and LeBron James (yes, that LeBron James) are very funny in their respective roles. But while the jokes come fast and furious in the first act, the movie eventually gets sucked into the same tropes that plague the rom-com genre, and that causes the middle section to really drag. In typical Judd Apatow fashion, it’s also about 20 minutes too long. Still, it says something that “Trainwreck” is the first movie Apatow has directed that he didn’t also write, because it’s his best film in years.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/actor Amy Schumer and producer Judd Apatow, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at making the film, a featurette on the athlete cameos, deleted scenes, alternate line readings, a gag reel and more.


“Terminator Genisys”

WHAT: In the year 2029, resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent back in time to 1984 to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), the future mother of rebel leader John Conner (Jason Clarke), from a time-traveling Terminator designed to kill her. But when he arrives, Kyle discovers that the timeline has been radically altered, forcing him to team up with Sarah and an antique Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in order to save the world by resetting the future.

WHY: It may surprise you to learn that “Terminator Genisys” was only written by two people, because the film is such a narrative mess that it feels like the result of a design by committee. Unlike J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” (which is fast becoming the gold standard for franchise reboots), “Genisys” isn’t nearly as precious with the series’ history as it would like you to believe, relying on muddled time travel logic to hold together its incomprehensible plot. No amount of twists or character deviations changes the fact that “Genisys” is basically a less interesting rehash of the first two movies, especially when John Connor’s villainous turn makes about as much sense as anything else that happens in the film. Though Arnold Schwarzenegger is enjoyable as the aging Terminator, and the main trio fares well in their respective roles, there’s very little that sets “Genisys” apart from the other installments. Say what you will about “Terminator Salvation,” but at least that movie tried to expand the mythology by telling a different part of the story. “Terminator Genisys,” on the other hand, may look different on the surface, but it’s the same end-of-the-world yarn that James Cameron already told twice before.

EXTRAS: There’s a trio of featurettes on casting, location shooting and visual effects.


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Movie Review: “Spectre”

Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Naomi Harris, Ben Whishaw, Dave Bautista
Sam Mendes

“Spectre” is like a brand-new greatest hits album from that band that your parents loved. Only the hits have been re-recorded… with a new lead singer. It’s new in that it was recently created, but everything about it feels old and outdated, the legacy brand struggling for relevance in a world that has passed it by. The worst part is that they have no one but themselves to blame. The Broccoli family, who have owned the rights to Ian Fleming’s stories since time immemorial, has always been risk-averse when it came to messing with the James Bond formula, and they largely got away with it because they were the only spy thriller in town. With the debut of the spectacular “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” they’re lucky to lay claim to being the fourth best spy franchise in operation, even lagging behind the currently-dormant Jason Bourne.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) is in Mexico City to investigate a posthumous tip from his former boss M (Judi Dench), and in the process prevents a massive terrorist attack. Even better, he steals a ring from his target, one with a curious insignia engraved on its side that ultimately opens several doors in terms of useful intel. Unfortunately, Bond also made worldwide news with his stunt, and the new, living M (Ralph Fiennes) suspends him. Bond, of course, continues following the trail, which leads to seducing the wife of the man he killed in Mexico, and using the information he acquires from her to crash a top-secret meeting of international bad guys, who plan to manipulate governments via terrorist attack to join together for the purpose of sharing intelligence, ultimately putting the bad guys in complete control of all information.

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James Bond and the Specter of SPECTRE


James Bond #24 officially hits U.S. theaters this Friday and old-school Bond fans are chomping at the bit. For starters, the end of 2012’s “Skyfall” essentially brought the old band back together. It reunited everyone’s favorite oversexed, functionally alcoholic spy/professional assassin with a new M (Ralph Fiennes, stepping into Bernard Lee and Judy Dench’s shoes), a younger Moneypenny (Naomie Harris, stepping into the very big pumps of the great Lois Maxwell), and a vastly younger Q (in reality, super-youthful 35-year-old Ben Whishaw, taking the part that once belonged to Desmond Llewelyn, who was pretty much born craggy).

All that’s missing is just the right super-nemesis, but never fear: “Spectre” will be our first chance to see the reassembled team in action against its most famous opponent, a stateless organization bent on world domination for profit and for the sheer fun of being really, really evil.

The Face of Evil

But what will today’s SPECTRE be like? The original Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion and it’s leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, was alluded to in the first Bond movie, “Dr. No” (1962), and haunted the series for years afterward. Even so, at first, Blofeld was just a disembodied voice and a hand stroking an unusually compliant white cat. It wasn’t until 1967’s “You Only Live Twice” that we finally saw the face of the man behind the international organization dedicated to world domination at any cost.

That face changed considerably as he was played three times by three very different actors, beginning with the diminutive, creepy and bald Donald Pleasance as the original Dr. Evil. He would morph into the much more testosterone-driven Telly Savalas (later TV’s “Kojak”) in 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and would then grow a full head of hair to be played by the imposing Charles Gray in 1971’s “Diamonds are Forever.” As much as this might be an artifact of the lack of concern with continuity that was standard before the comic book geek takeover of Hollywood, it actually lines up somewhat with the Blofeld of Ian Fleming’s original novels, who lost and gained large amounts of weight and underwent major plastic surgery to elude detection.

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