Blu Tuesday: The Wolf of Wall Street, Veep and The Great Beauty

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 Wolf of Wall Street”

WHAT: After losing his job on Wall Street following the events of Black Monday, go-getter Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) opens up his own firm selling penny stocks to the wealthy, turning Jordan and his closest pals (including Jonah Hill) into millionaires overnight. Living the high life with his gorgeous new wife (Margot Robbie), Jordan thinks he’s invincible – that is, until he catches wind that the FBI has launched an investigation into the firm for stock market manipulation and other related crimes.

WHY: It’s been a while since Martin Scorsese’s last truly great film, but the director has rebounded in style with “The Wolf of Wall Street,” highlighted by Terrence Winter’s hilarious script and Leonard DiCaprio’s brilliant turn as Jordan Belfort. You’ve never seen the actor quite like this before, and he’s in top form as the notorious stockbroker, delivering what is arguably his best performance with Scorsese yet. The rest of the cast is great as well, especially Jonah Hill in another award-worthy turn, up-and-comer Margot Robbie and Matthew McConaughey in a short but memorable cameo. Loud, flashy and totally obscene, the movie is like a private tour through Belfort’s excessive, hard-partying lifestyle, including easily one of the greatest sequences of the year. (Hint: it involves a highly potent strain of Quaaludes.) Though it’s a little too long for its own good, the characters are so magnetic and the dialogue so fast and funny that “The Wolf of Wall Street” is hard not to enjoy. It’s Scorsese’s best film in years, and one that will only get better with time.

EXTRAS: Regrettably, there’s only one special feature in the form of “The Wolf Pack,” a behind-the-scenes look at bringing Jordan Belfort’s life to the big screen with interviews from Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and others

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Veep: The Complete Second Season”

WHAT: U.S. Vice President Selina Myers (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her staff navigate the murky waters of Washington, D.C. as she deals with a presidential scandal, crooked congressmen, a government shutdown and more

WHY: The first season of “Veep” showed immense promise, but it was clear that it still had some growing to do behind the scenes, and that growth is evident in the show’s second year. Granted, the situations that Selina and her staff find themselves in are still incredibly ridiculous (and if even remotely close to what actually happens at the White House, a little frightening), but it feels like there’s much more at stake this time around. The ensemble cast has also had more time to gel, and they’re even funnier than before as a result. Every actor plays their part perfectly – from Anna Chlumsky’s loyal chief of staff, to Matt Walsh’s blockhead publicist, to Timothy Simmons’ oddball White House liaison – and you needn’t look any further than Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Emmy speech for evidence of that. The addition of Gary Cole and Kevin Dunn to the cast was also a shrewd move on the part of Armando Iannucci, but the show lives and dies by Louis-Dreyfus’s hilarious performance as the so-called Veep. She’s one of the funniest women in show business, and with the exception of Elaine Benes, this will likely go down as the best role of her career.

EXTRAS: In addition to four audio commentary tracks featuring members of the cast and crew (including creator Armando Iannucci and star Julia Louis-Dreyfus), there are deleted and alternate scenes for each episode.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Great Beauty”

WHAT: For decades, journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has served as Rome’s self-described king of high society, gallivanting through an endless series of lavish nightclubs and parties with his equally pretentious friends. But on his 65th birthday, Jep begins to look back on his superficial life against the beautiful backdrop of the Eternal City.

WHY: “The Great Beauty” may have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but there were far better movies released last year. Felliniesque in its self-indulgence and general lack of focus, the film is unable to maintain the high-energy pace of the opening dance party, ultimately succumbing to its sluggish, 142-minute runtime. The root of the problem is director Paolo Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello’s script, which never seems sure what it wants to say. Characters and subplots come and go with little explanation, including a storyline involving Jep’s childhood love that’s brought up early on and never mentioned again until the very end. Toni Servillo delivers a solid performance in the lead role, but his character is too misanthropic for the audience to care what happens to him, contradicting his supposed reformation every chance he gets. If there’s any reason to invest the two-plus hours watching “The Great Beauty,” it’s for cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s gorgeous visuals, which capture the spirit and splendor of Rome in such a manner that it comes as a close to experiencing the real thing that some people will ever get.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a conversation between director Paolo Sorrentino and Italian cultural critic Antonio Monda, interviews with actor Toni Servillo and co-writer Umberto Contarello, deleted scenes and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Lopate.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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Movie Review: “Divergent”

Starring
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Miles Teller, Ray Stevenson, Tony Goldwyn
Director
Neil Burger

The young adult craze (“Twilight,” “The Hunger Games”) has recently crashed (“Beautiful Creatures,” “Vampire Academy,” “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”), and the media has decided that the fate of future young adult film adaptations will live and die on the box office returns of “Divergent.” This is patently unfair, of course; “The Hunger Games” sold 14 times as many books as “Vampire Academy,” so why should anyone expect anything less with their film adaptations? Answer: they shouldn’t, but somehow this is now “Divergent’s” problem. The good news is that “Divergent” should fare much better than the three ‘crashed’ movies. It’s intriguing, and asks valid questions about when we can reasonably expect a young adult to know who they truly are, and why we tend to punish people who prefer to think for themselves, but it has some issues as well, namely an absurd amount of exposition, a rigid story structure, and a lack of emotional impact.

Set in dystopian post-war Chicago at an undetermined time, all residents of the city are divided into five factions. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is a member of the selfless Abnegation faction, but she faces a big decision in the next few days. As a 16-year-old, she, along with her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and all other 16-year-olds, will choose whether to remain in their current faction or join a new one. Both Beatrice and her brother defect to other factions, with Caleb choosing Erudite (smart, fact-driven) and Beatrice choosing Dauntless (brave, fearless). As a “stiff” (A derogatory term for Abnegation), Beatrice has her work cut out for her, but she proves to be more resilient than most had expected, and a lot of that has to do with the results of her pre-ceremony exam, where she was found to be Divergent, meaning that she exhibited the qualities of more than one faction. Her examiner (Maggie Q) warns her against telling anyone that she was Divergent, and Beatrice (who rechristens herself Tris in Dauntless) quickly discovers why: the fluid (read: non-conformist) tendencies of Divergents have branded them as the enemy of Chicago’s faction world, and they are hunted and killed when exposed.

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Movie Review: “Muppets Most Wanted”

Starring
Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz
Director
James Bobin

Hats off to the sequel that begins with poking fun at its inherent shortcomings – in a musical number, no less – then proceeds to surpass its predecessor in nearly every way. “Muppets Most Wanted” has a plot that will challenge the kids without boring their parents, better songs (by a country mile), and a healthy dose of self-awareness. The main appeal of the Jason Segel-scripted “The Muppets” was its innocence and a longing for a less cynical time, but for the franchise to remain so naïve to the real world would have been disastrous. “Muppets Most Wanted” finds that ideal middle ground between their world and ours.

The story begins, in a behind-the-curtain manner, at the very end of the previous film, as the first of many cameos calls a wrap on the first film and the Muppets are left pondering what to do next. In steps agent Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais, and he insists it’s pronounced ‘Badgie’), who suggests that the Muppets do a European tour. What the Muppets don’t know is that Badguy is a world-class thief, as well as the right-hand man to Constantine, the world’s most dangerous criminal mastermind and a dead ringer for Kermit the Frog. Constantine escapes from his Siberian prison, while Dominic sets up Kermit to be mistaken for recent escapee Constantine. Kermit is sent to Siberia, and Dominic and Constantine revolve the Muppets’ European tour around the locations of the artifacts that will enable them to pull off the ultimate heist. Strangely, no one suspects that Kermit has been replaced, though certain members of the group smelled a rat from the beginning. Why doesn’t anyone listen to the drummer?

Speaking as a parent, one of the great things about “Muppets Most Wanted” is how it shows kids the dark side of always getting what they want, which is that it comes at the expense of getting what they need. Kermit has always been a father figure to the members of his troupe, and that role is magnified here when he’s replaced with a cold careerist who wins them over by indulging their egos. The plot may mandate that the rest of the Muppets cannot tell right away that Constantine isn’t Kermit, but in their hearts, they know that this newfound freedom and lack of discipline is wrong. Parental win!

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Movie Review: “Cheap Thrills”

Starring
Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Sara Paxton, Amanda Fuller
Director
E.L. Katz

While SXSW captured headlines recently for a rapper getting arrested for starting a riot and a pop icon being voluntarily puked on, one of the fruits of last year’s festival is hitting theaters this week with the appropriately named “Cheap Thrills.”

The cult classic in the making by first-time director E.L Katz starts off innocently enough, just like a crime drama or an episode of “Dr. Drew.” Loving husband and new father Craig (Pat Healy) is about to have one of the worst mornings ever as he rips an eviction letter off his door on the way to work. That’s not the only eviction he’s treated to, though, as he’s also fired from his job as a low-end auto mechanic. Instead of going home, he drowns his sorrows in the nearest dive bar he can find.

Of course, bars in the morning are filled with nasty drinks and even nastier characters, one of which is Craig’s old high school buddy, Vince (Ethan Embry), a collection agent who brags that he once broke a guy’s arm in front of his daughter for $80. And you thought collection calls were bad.

The two are approached by Colin (David Koechner), the type of guy that screams “I make good money in sales and can prove it.” He’s quick to hand out a handshake and, more importantly, free drinks alongside his trophy wife Violet (Sara Paxton), who has ten times the sex appeal and one tenth the need to talk. Before you can say “Fear Factor,” Colin is daring the pair to do crazy things for money. It starts out tame enough, like seeing who can down Tequila shots the quickest or get slapped by a cocktail waitress, but things take a turn at a nearby strip club where Craig takes the worst kind of dare by punching a bouncer. Our hero awakens in Colin’s home with a bloody nose and the introduction of Phase 2 of their night of Dollars for Dares. This time, the stakes are in the thousands and get as dangerous and seductive as their hosts.

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Blu Tuesday: American Hustle, Frozen 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.

“American Hustle”

WHAT: When con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are caught selling fake loans by an ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), they’re wrangled into working with him on an undercover sting targeting dirty politicians. But despite their deep mistrust in each another, the one thing that threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down is Irving’s wildly unpredictable wife (Jennifer Lawrence).

WHY: David O. Russell has always been a quality filmmaker, but he’s quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with thanks to movies like “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and this farcical con-artist caper. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ‘70s, “American Hustle” is immensely entertaining and features some of the best acting of the year. Forty pounds heavier and rocking the most elaborate comb-over you’ve ever seen, Christian Bale delivers a wonderfully nuanced performance as the straight man of the bunch. The other cast members aren’t quite as committed physically, but they’re just as good, including Amy Adams’ sexy and cunning partner in crime, Bradley Cooper’s short-tempered federal agent, and scene stealer Jennifer Lawrence, who’s an absolute riot as Bale’s unpredictable wife. The whole movie is also a lot funnier than you’d expect due to Russell and Eric Singer’s darkly comic script, and though some have argued that it’s too long, the characters are so richly developed and crackling with personality that I would have gladly spent another hour in their messed-up world.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a making-of featurette and some deleted and extended scenes, but sadly, that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Frozen”

WHAT: When her sister Elsa’s icy powers inadvertently ensnare the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter, Anna (Kristen Bell) teams up with a rugged mountain man (Jonathan Groff) and a talking snowman (Josh Gad) to retrieve Elsa (Idina Menzel) from her self-imposed isolation and prove that she’s not the evil witch the townspeople believe her to be.

WHY: In a year of underwhelming animated films, it’s hardly fair to place Disney’s “Frozen” so high on a pedestal, even if it is one of the best things that the Mouse House has produced in almost 20 years. But while “Frozen” is undoubtedly a good movie, it’s not quite as great as the recent love-fest would suggest. It’s also not nearly as progressive, with the lead heroine falling in love with one male character mere minutes after meeting him, and relying on the help of another shortly after. Then there’s the issue of those silly troll rock thingies that threaten to derail the film in the third act, not to mention the fact that it features of the lamest and least threatening villains in memory. With that said, “Frozen” isn’t without its charms. It has a few catchy tunes (particularly the Oscar-winning “Let It Go”), some excellent laughs and a solid voice cast led by Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel and the scene-stealing Josh Gad. It’s the kind of movie that has likely empowered young girls around the world, all while selling billions of dollars in merchandise. That’s what you call a win-win.

EXTRAS: There’s a short featurette about the 75-year journey to bring Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” to the big screen, a music video parodying the lack of an actual making-of featurette, some deleted scenes and the short “Get a Horse!”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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