Blu Tuesday: Spectre, Crimson Peak 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.

“Spectre”

WHAT: When he receives a cryptic message from the recently deceased M (Judi Dench), James Bond (Daniel Craig) goes on an unsanctioned mission to bring down the terrorist organization known as Spectre, whose enigmatic boss (Christoph Waltz) shares a deep connection with the secret agent.

WHY: Director Sam Mendes should have trusted his first instinct and called it quits after “Skyfall,” because while that movie was always going to be difficult to top, “Spectre” doesn’t even come close. Though it hits all the beats of a typical Bond adventure, it feels like it’s just going through the motions. Daniel Craig looks bored for most of its bloated 150-minute runtime, while Christoph Waltz is wasted in a role more concerned with hiding his identity than properly integrating him into the story. The sole highlight is Léa Seydoux, who plays one of the more intriguing Bond girls in recent times; she’s sexy, smart and can take care of herself. Unfortunately, she doesn’t arrive until the second half, at which point you’ll likely have already tuned out. One of the running themes in “Spectre” is that Bond has become obsolete, and it applies to the production as well, because while Craig may have helped usher in a new era of the franchise, he nearly undoes all that hard work with this listless installment.

EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on shooting the opening sequence and a series of video blogs about director Sam Mendes, the cars, the action and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Crimson Peak”

WHAT: After she’s whisked away to England to live with charming baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his ice-cold sister (Jessica Chastain) in their crumbling mansion, young American heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) uncovers terrible secrets about the Sharpe family history when tortured apparitions begin to haunt

WHY: It’s no secret that Guillermo del Toro has a slightly deranged imagination, but there’s a beauty to his madness that flows through all of his movies, none more so than “Crimson Peak,” which delivers a different kind of horror from the typical haunted house story. Though the film drags a bit in the first hour, it picks up considerably in the latter half thanks to the chemistry between its three leads. Jessica Chastain is particularly good as the villain, digging into her juicy role with a quiet intensity that could have easily devolved into camp. However, the movie’s real MVP is the mansion itself, a remarkable piece of craftsmanship that highlights del Toro’s visually distinct style and functions as its own character. “Crimson Peak” could have been better if del Toro paid as much attention to the story as the lavish costumes and production design, but it’s an enjoyable piece of gothic horror that adds a dash of prestige and sophistication to a genre not usually known for those qualities.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro, there’s a making-of featurette, interviews with the cast, additional featurettes on costumes, make-up effects and production design, a tour of Allerdale Hall and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Show Me a Hero 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.

“Show Me a Hero”

WHAT: As the newly elected mayor of Yonkers, New York, rising politician Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) is thrown in at the deep end when he’s forced to deal with a controversial, court-ordered plan to build public housing within the mostly white, middle-class side of town.

WHY: After spending five years exploring the socioeconomic landscape of Baltimore with the HBO series “The Wire,” it’s fitting that David Simon would want to tackle this true story about racial and political tensions in Yonkers during the late 80s and early 90s. The six-part miniseries boasts a fantastic lead performance from Oscar Isaacs and great supporting turns by Catherine Keener, Winona Ryder and Alfred Molina, but unfortunately, it just isn’t as compelling as Simon’s previous work. For starters, there are no real heroes in this story, despite what the title (a play on the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote) might suggest. Though Wasicsko may have been responsible for pushing through the housing legislation, he only did so out of compliance and fear of bankrupting the city, not because he felt like it was the right thing to do. Additionally, while the attempts to show both sides of the conflict are commendable, the minority characters aren’t afforded the same depth as their political counterparts. “Show Me a Hero” is either too long or not long enough, because in trying to juggle so many different storylines, it lacks the focus that would have made it truly excellent.

EXTRAS: The two-disc set includes a making-of featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Our Brand Is Crisis”

WHAT: Disgraced campaign strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is hired by an elite management team representing Bolivian presidential candidate Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) as a last-ditch attempt to save his campaign. Despite the seemingly impossible odds, Jane agrees to take the job after discovering that the competition has hired its own American strategist, longtime rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who she’s never defeated.

WHY: For a movie about selling lies through a carefully crafted message, “Our Brand Is Crisis” feels hopelessly thrown together. There’s a complacency to the storytelling that prevents the film from ever moving outside its comfort zone, even though that’s exactly what it should be doing, while the talented ensemble cast is squandered in marginal roles. Even Sandra Bullock’s character is pretty one-dimensional, although at least she has the benefit of sharing the screen with Billy Bob Thornton’s reptilian sleazeball, who is hands-down the highlight of the movie. Thornton excels at playing the self-righteous asshole, and the ensuing tête-à-têtes between him and Bullock result in some entertaining moments of political puppetry. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to mask the film’s many flaws. “Our Brand Is Crisis” could have been a biting satire about U.S. politics and our insistence on forcing American culture on other countries, but it takes the easy Hollywood route instead – one more concerned about its protagonist’s contrived journey to redemption than the millions of people being affected by her actions.

EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on Sandra Bullock’s development of the lead character, but sadly, that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: The Martian 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.

“The Martian”

WHAT: During a manned mission to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind by his crew after he seemingly dies in a storm. But when it turns out that Watney has survived, he must use his skills and intelligence to keep himself alive on the barren planet long enough to make contact with NASA and await rescue.

WHY: Although it’s the third film in as many years about astronauts in distress, “The Martian” is a smart, captivating and humorous adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestselling novel that covers very different narrative and emotional territory than “Gravity” and “Interstellar.” For starters, it’s a lot more uplifting than most sci-fi fare, eschewing the usual doom-mongering for a story about the power of optimism and perseverance that also doubles as one heckuva recruitment video for NASA. (Who knew science and math could be this much fun?) Matt Damon is perfectly cast as the Everyman astronaut forced to “science the shit” out of his seemingly impossible predicament, while the supporting cast – including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejifor and Jessica Chastain – is absolutely stacked with talent. This is hands down Ridley Scott’s best movie since “Gladiator,” and it owes a lot to Drew Goddard’s screenplay, which takes a lighthearted approach to the high-stakes drama in order to produce one of the most purely entertaining crowd-pleasers in years.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of production featurettes, there are some fictional promo videos made for the film and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Mr. Robot: Season One”

WHAT: Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a cyber security engineer who suffers from social anxiety disorder, is recruited by a mysterious hacker named Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) to help take down an evil corporation that he believes is destroying the world.

WHY: USA Network hasn’t garnered much acclaim with its recent crop of original series, so when “Mr. Robot” debuted last summer to rave reviews, audiences were quick to stand up and take notice. Though the psychological thriller isn’t quite as groundbreaking as many have suggested – largely because its big twists have been executed better before – it gets off to a strong start thanks to Rami Malek’s breakout performance and a solid supporting cast. The hacker elements are really compelling, but once the show starts to dive more into Elliot’s psyche, it begins to unravel. Not only is Elliot an incredibly unreliable protagonist, giving the writers free reign to do whatever they want with little consequences, but the drastic change in direction midway through the season is so sudden that it feels like creator Sam Esmail got impatient allowing the story to develop organically. He burns through nearly two seasons’ worth of story in only 10 episodes, and while some viewers will appreciate that type of gung-ho attitude, a more disciplined approach would have resulted in a more rewarding payoff.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Fear the Walking Dead, Mississippi Grind 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.

“Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: When a mysterious outbreak causes Los Angeles to go into complete meltdown, a dysfunctional blended family led by high school guidance counselor Madison (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis) is forced to band together in order to survive the chaos.

WHY: Why: It’s easy to understand why AMC would be attracted to the idea of producing a companion series to “The Walking Dead” (after all, it’s the most-watched show in cable TV history), but there was always the risk that it would have an adverse effect on their flagship drama. Thankfully, the poorly titled “Fear the Walking Dead” distances itself enough from the original series that it doesn’t tarnish the brand, even if the new show pales in comparison. Not only is the writing heavy-handed, but the characters and their various relationships just aren’t as interesting. Though it makes sense that Madison and Co. wouldn’t be as savvy as anyone on “The Walking Dead” due to the story taking place during the early stages of the zombie outbreak, the characters come across as being especially whiny and foolish. Additionally, although the first season only contains six episodes, it’s a very slow burn that doesn’t hit its stride until the penultimate hour. If there’s any reason to stick around, it’s for Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis, both of whom are such good actors that they manage to hold your interest even when you’ve given up hope that the show will improve. But while Season Two promises bigger and better things, whether anyone will still be watching is another matter entirely.

EXTRAS: There are two brief featurettes about the series and the characters.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Mississippi Grind”

WHAT: Down-on-his-luck gambling addict Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) owes everybody in town, and instead of paying off his debts, he continues to dig himself further into a hole. But his fortune begins to change when he meets a charismatic drifter named Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), who agrees to accompany Gerry on a road trip down the Mississippi River to play in a high stakes poker game in New Orleans.

WHY: After making a splash with the emotional one-two punch of “Half Nelson” and “Sugar,” writers/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden were unable to replicate that success with their first studio project, the lackluster “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” It’s been five years since Fleck or Boden did anything of significance, but the duo has bounced back nicely with their latest movie, a character-driven drama that plays like a gritty mash-up of “Rounders” and “Sideways” and is bolstered by a pair of fantastic performances. This is arguably the best that Ryan Reynolds has ever been, showcasing a subtler, more mature side that’s been missing in his previous work, while Ben Mendelsohn proves that he’s not just an amazing character actor, but a viable leading man as well. Both of their characters are deeply flawed, and it’s to their credit (as well as the script, which crackles with wit and heart) that you care about them even when they seem beyond all help. “Mississippi Grind” starts to drag in the final act, exposing its barebones plot in the process, but Reynolds and Mendelsohn have such great chemistry that it’s rarely boring.

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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2015 Holiday Gift Guide: Television

Television fans must love the holidays, because it’s the one time of year when studios unleash a host of massive box sets collecting their favorite dramas and comedies. This year is no different, with several critically acclaimed shows getting the complete series treatment. But while we like to devour an entire TV show just as quickly as the next person, sometimes a little self-discipline is required, which is why we’ve also included some less time-consuming (and more affordable) suggestions as well.

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

Justified: The Complete Series

Justified” is one of those shows that never really got the credit (or the audience) it deserved, because it’s a sharply written and well-acted neo-Western that managed to pull off what most series have failed to do: stick the landing. Though it started out as a more formulaic, crime of the week-type drama, “Justified” evolved into something much richer over the years by focusing on the relationship between U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens and smooth-talking outlaw Boyd Crowder, two men who grew up in the same poor, coal-mining town in Kentucky, but ended up on different sides of the law. Both Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins deliver strong, well-rounded performances in their respective roles, but while it would be difficult to imagine the show without either of them, the supporting cast is just as important, especially Nick Searcy as Givens’ crusty boss, Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel as fellow Marshalls, and Joelle Carter as Boyd’s fiancée/partner in crime. The rotating cast of guest stars is also impressive, adding to the series’ rich tapestry of down-and-dirty hillbillies, criminals and lawmen to create a lived-in world that feels more genuine than just about anything else on television. The fact that “Justified” was able to maintain its high quality throughout all six seasons is pretty extraordinary, but it’s also one of the few shows to produce a satisfying series finale, and that definitely earns it a spot among the TV drama elite.

Californication: The Complete Series

With Hank Moody, David Duchovny created a character that ranks as one of the greatest hedonists in television history. “Californication” was loaded with great characters and it thrived on introducing countless examples of the bizarre and interesting people you’ll find in L.A., but everything revolved around Hank and all of his crazy exploits. He could be arrogant and often self-destructive, but watching his endless exploits with the flaky but often beautiful women of La La Land made you want to hop on a plane and rent an apartment in Venice Beach. The best part was that Hank always found a way to enjoy the ride, even as things got a little rough. Through it all he was still crazy in love with his ex, Karen, played by the lovely Natascha McElhone, and Evan Handler was excellent as Charlie Runkle, his dopey but ever-loyal agent and sidekick who had his own ups and down with his hilarious and nutty wife Marcy. Now you can enjoy all 84 episodes on 14 discs in this new box set. Give it to someone who needs to learn how to enjoy life again, or at least can use a vehicle to live vicariously through someone else’s crazy adventures.

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