Blu Tuesday: A Hard Day’s Night, 300: Rise of an Empire 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.

“A Hard Day’s Night”

WHAT: The Beatles travel from Liverpool to London for a live television performance, with Paul’s mischievous grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) tagging along on the trip.

WHY: The first of many feature-length films starring the iconic rock group, “A Hard Day’s Night” is a bit of a mixed bag, but it’s one that fans of the Beatles will undoubtedly enjoy. Though the movie drags a little in the second half as the band prepares for their concert (the Ringo subplot is especially sluggish), there’s so much great material in the scenes leading up to it that it’s easy to forgive. The opening 30 minutes in particular are chockfull of laughs, fully embracing the zany humor of the band members with such manic energy that it’s almost impossible to keep up at times. (The infamous Lennon/Coke bit is practically treated like a throwaway gag.) And as you’d expect from a film starring the Beatles, “A Hard Day’s Night” also features some excellent musical performances, with director Richard Lester wisely shooting each one in a different style so that they don’t become stale by the time the big finale rolls around. But while it’s always a joy to see the Beatles perform, the movie works first and foremost as a comedy with musical bits in between. And running. Lots and lots of running.

EXTRAS: Criterion has packed this release with a treasure trove of bonus material, including a cast and crew commentary, a brand new behind-the-scenes featurette, Walter Shenson’s 1994 making-of documentary, the 2002 documentary “Things They Said Today” and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“300: Rise of an Empire”

WHAT: As King Leonidas and the brave 300 hold their ground at the Battle of Thermopylae, Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads his own army into combat against the invading Persian forces, which are commanded by Xerxes’ right-hand woman, the vengeful Greek warrior Artemisia (Eva Green).

WHY: It’s been so many years since the original “300” hit theaters that it’s hard to imagine many people still care about this long-gestating prequel/sequel, even if the very idea of a spinoff was ridiculous from the start. With that said, credit to writer Frank Miller for coming up with an idea that actually complements the first film, because “Rise of an Empire” would feel even more like a silly cash grab without a decent story in place. The CGI blood looks really fake, the dialogue is dreadful, and the attempts at providing a backstory for Xerxes are pointless. Plus, every time the movie flashes back to events from “300” or introduces some new connective tissue (like the returning Lena Headey), it only makes you wish you were watching that film instead. “Rise of an Empire” isn’t a complete waste of time, but that’s mostly thanks to Eva Green’s magnetic performance as the female villain, who uses her skills on the battlefield as well as in the bedroom (in one of the most awkward sex/fight scenes in cinematic history) to destroy the Greeks. The movie is almost worth watching for that scene alone. Almost.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a four-part featurette on the making of the film, a look at the real-life leaders and legends involved in the Greek/Persian wars, and additional featurettes on the female characters and the cast’s intense training regime.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: House of Cards, The LEGO Movie 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: Season Two”

WHAT: After being sworn in as the new Vice President, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) continues his quest for absolute power alongside his equally manipulative wife, Claire (Robin Wright). Meanwhile, a team of D.C. journalists investigate Frank’s involvement in Peter Russo’s death, witnessing first-hand the level of corruption at work in their government.

WHY: Season Two of “House of Cards” will likely be labeled a disappointment by some, but while it’s noticeably weaker than the Netflix drama’s debut season, it’s still better than a vast majority of the shows on television. After all, there aren’t many series that would kill off one of its main characters in the first episode, especially in such ruthless and shocking fashion, but it’s a necessary move that signals a change in the direction of the show. The ancillary subplots aren’t nearly as interesting this time around (particularly the stuff between Michael Kelly’s Chief of Staff and Rachel Brosnahan’s reformed call girl), and even the main story feels a bit stretched at times with the constant back and forth between Underwood and Raymond Tusk, but there’s rarely a dull moment thanks to the excellent writing and performances. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are in top form once again as the conniving husband-and-wife duo, while Molly Parker (of “Deadwood” fame) is a welcome addition to the cast as the new House Whip. And when you have characters as brilliantly realized as the ones that populate “House of Cards,” you’re allowed a few missteps every once in a while.

EXTRAS: The four-disc set boasts a quartet of production featurettes (including an examination of the differences between the British and American versions of the show) and a behind-the-scenes look at a table read for two episodes from Season One.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“The LEGO Movie”

WHAT: When an ordinary LEGO construction worker named Emmet (Chris Pratt) stumbles upon an ancient artifact, he’s declared “The Special” by an underground group of rebels led by the blind prophet Vitruvis (Morgan Freeman), who believes that Emmet is the only one capable of stopping the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) from destroying their world.

WHY: When “The LEGO Movie” was first announced, there were obvious concerns about whether it would just play like one long commercial for the popular toy brand. But while the folks at LEGO have undoubtedly seen a nice bump in business since its release, the film is so much more than that – smart, funny and surprisingly heartfelt. A lot of that credit goes to directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who bring the LEGO universe to life with the sort of boundless imagination that the movie preaches to its audience. Though the script borrows heavily from “The Matrix” (from its main story, to the three leads, to its anti-conformatist message), that’s merely the setup for a much more sophisticated payoff that is equally daring and brilliant. For as great as the film’s ending may be, however, it wouldn’t feel earned if the first two-thirds weren’t so enjoyable. And thanks to some incredible visuals, great voice work (particularly by Chris Pratt) and hilarious gags, “The LEGO Movie” isn’t just one of the best animated films in years, but it’s also one of the best movies of 2014 thus far.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary with directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (along with actors Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Alison Brie and Charlie Day) and a host of bonus material like a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, outtakes and a series of fun mini-featurettes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

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Movie Review: “How to Train Your Dragon 2″

Starring
Jay Baruchel, American Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harrington, Craig Ferguson
Director
Dean DeBlois

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” does something simple yet amazing: they allowed their characters to age. That is unheard of in animated films, but it’s a savvy move here, for two reasons: it gives the writers the opportunity to truly make a man out of Hiccup, and it also allows them to be more forthright about the romance between Hiccup and Astrid, because watching two 15-year-olds kiss on screen, real or CGI, is kinda icky. Twenty-year-olds, totally different story.

Kung Fu Panda 2” seems to be the blueprint for the story (and that makes sense, since they’re both DreamWorks properties), in that it raises the stakes about the importance of what Hiccup has accomplished, and it develops Hiccup’s family. Sadly, it doesn’t work as well as it did for “Panda.” It’s entertaining and gorgeous, but disjointed, veering between wildly emotional scenes on both ends of the spectrum without much thought for how they should flow together.

Five years after the events of the first film, Berk is doing remarkably well now that the residents have embraced the dragons (and vice versa), and the tribe’s chief Stoick (Gerard Butler) plans to swear in his son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) as the new chief. Hiccup isn’t sure if he’s ready for that much responsibility, but he forgets about becoming chief after he runs across dragon trapper Eret (Kit Harington), who works for a madman named Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is building a dragon army. Stoick knows Drago and prepares for war. Hiccup, however, wants to try and reason with Drago, and receives some help in the form of someone who’s known him since the day he was born: his long-lost, presumed-dead mother Valka (Cate Blanchett).

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5 memorable James Bond moments

James Bond movies are a bit of a Marmite “love them or hate them” type of thing. But it seems most people are firmly in the latter camp – and here are five good reasons why we love the peculiarly British super-spy:

Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger” has many great moments to choose from but the best has to be the Aston Martin DBS car chase. This is the first Bond movie where our hero really gets to use all his tricks and gimmicks in a high speed chase. Among these are smokescreens and oil jets as we speed along the road.

However, it isn’t enough to stop Bond from getting caught and being forced to drive at high speeds with a gun to his head. But then, of course, the ejector seat comes into play – a gimmick Bond had previously scoffed at when it was first shown to him!

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Movie Review: “22 Jump Street”

Starring
Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Peter Stormare
Directors
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

For a while, it seemed like everything that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller touched turned to gold, adapting difficult source material – from a children’s book (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”), to a cheesy ‘80s cop drama (“21 Jump Street”), to a popular toy brand (“The LEGO Movie”) – into successful comedies with a flair for visual gags. But they haven’t had quite the same luck with sequels, as evidenced with their work on “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” (albeit only as writers and producers) and their latest film, “22 Jump Street.” Lord and Miller were reportedly so busy making “The LEGO Movie” that they didn’t have time to do script revisions on the buddy cop comedy, and that was a major oversight on their part, because “22 Jump Street” is a fitfully funny sequel that lacks the surprise factor of its predecessor.

After going undercover at their old high school to bust up a drug ring, Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) have been assigned more grown-up police work, only to end up humiliating themselves and the department in the process. So instead, they’re shipped back to the Jump Street program (having moved to the Vietnamese church across the street, hence the address and title change) to “do exactly what [they] did the last time.” The only difference is that now they’re going undercover at the local city college to find the source of a new synthetic drug called WhyPhy (pronounced “Wi-Fi”) that resulted in the death of a student. But when Jenko becomes friends with the main suspect, football star and frat boy Zook (Wyatt Russell), his relationship with Schmidt becomes strained as they split up to investigate different leads, which threatens to derail the entire mission.

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