R.I.P. Jan Hooks

Jan Hooks passed away today. She was part of one of the best SNL casts in history from 1986 to 1991 and was funny as hell. Here she stars with Phil Hartman, Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Victoria Jackson and Sting in the classic “Sinatra Group” sketch. Hooks plays Sinead O’Connor, who Frank refers to as Sinbad, cue-ball and Uncle Fester throughout the skit. RIP Jan . . .

  

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Blu Tuesday: Edge of Tomorrow, A Million Ways to Die in the West 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.

“Edge of Tomorrow”

WHAT: When he’s ordered onto the front lines as part of a synchronized attack against alien invaders, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is killed in action… only to discover that he’s been infected with the aliens’ ability to control time. Stuck in an infinite loop where he must repeat the same day over and over again (with his death serving as the reset button), Cage teams up with a celebrated war hero (Emily Blunt) to track down the alien hive and end the war.

WHY: Though it shares a similar plot device as “Groundhog Day” and “Source Code,” Doug Liman’s “Edge of Tomorrow” is a truly original piece of science fiction that Hollywood should make more often. Clever, fun and surprisingly bold, it also happens to be ultimate Tom Cruise movie. Those who like the actor will enjoy watching him thrive in one of his best roles in years, while those who hate Cruise get to watch him die about 50 times over the course of the film. Emily Blunt is also in top form as the face of the war effort – a total badass who wields a helicopter blade as a sword and is nicknamed Full Metal Bitch – and Bill Paxton delivers a hilarious supporting turn as a scene-chewing Master Sergeant in charge of Cage’s military unit. In fact, the movie as a whole is much funnier than you might expect, using comedy to break up the monotonous nature of the story, and it works remarkably well thanks to a combination of smart writing, great actors and pitch-perfect editing by James Herbert. “Edge of Tomorrow” isn’t without its faults – the script has some logistical problems and the final act is pretty generic – but those are minor annoyances for a film that proves to be such a satisfying breath of fresh air.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a making-of documentary, dedicated featurettes on the exo-suits, alien creatures and filming the Operation Downfall sequence, as well as some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“A Million Ways to Die in the West”

WHAT: When cowardly sheep farmer Albert (Seth MacFarlane) challenges his ex-girlfriend’s new beau (Neil Patrick Harris) to a duel in the hopes of winning her back, a beautiful stranger (Charlize Theron) agrees to help him become a better gunfighter, falling for the lovable loser in the process. But what Albert doesn’t realize is that the woman is married to a dangerous outlaw named Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who rides into town upon hearing of his wife’s infidelity to kill the man that stole his woman.

WHY: There’s a reason why there aren’t many comedy Westerns, and even fewer that are any good, and that’s because the subgenre as a whole is very difficult to pull off. So you have to credit Seth MacFarlane for not only having the cojones to follow up “Ted” with such an offbeat film, but actually succeeding where so many others have failed. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is probably his most ambitious project to date, and although that may sound strange for a man who made a movie about a talking teddy bear, it’s nice to see a filmmaker with that kind of confidence. By setting the film in the 1800s, MacFarlane has effectively forced himself to eschew from his usual pop culture references in favor of more observational humor about the general horribleness and idiosyncrasies of the American frontier. Not every joke works, and the toilet humor is totally unnecessary, but there’s a lot of great material. The movie starts to drag in the latter half as it meanders towards its conclusion (there’s no reason this needed to be almost two hours long), and it would have benefited from some stronger supporting characters, but “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is a really solid comedy with more than enough laughs to offset its minor shortcomings.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director/co-writer/star Seth MacFarlane, co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild and actress Charlize Theron, there’s a short making-of featurette, an alternate opening and ending, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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5 Questions with Isaac Hempstead-Wright of “The Boxtrolls” and “Game of Thrones”

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Whether you’re being raised by trolls, surviving a Westoros defenestration, or making a career in the wild and wacky world of international show business, it never hurts to be both enthusiastic and, believe it not, genuine. Now 15 years old, Isaac Hempstead-Wright is best known to most as Bran Stark on “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s Emmy-winning adult fantasy sensation based on George R.R. Martin’s gazillion-selling literary doorstops. His voice is also soon to become known to family film audiences as the heroic young Eggs in “The Boxtrolls,” the latest from Laika Studios, the stop-motion animation whizzes who brought us the rightfully acclaimed “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.”

An apparently very down-to-earth youth from an industrial English village, Hempstead-Wright seems unaffected by the fact that he’s spent several of his formative years working on a long-form dark fantasy spiked with graphic violence and NC-17-esque sexuality. Soulful and earnest on TV, in person, the young actor is eager and friendly to a fault – after we were told our interview was completed, he engaged us in some neighborly small-talk until yours truly was very nearly forcibly ejected by publicity.

That enthusiasm has no doubt been a plus in the physically and emotionally challenging role of the disabled, steadfast young Bran alongside the stellar “Game of Thrones” cast. It also must have factored into Laika’s decision to place Hempstead-Wright alongside the top-drawer “Boxtrolls” voice ensemble, which includes Elle Fanning, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Simon Pegg and Sir Ben Kingsley.

As the old saying goes, you need sincerity to succeed in show business and, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made. Here are five pretty sincere answers we don’t think young Hempstead-Wright had to fake.

1. Can you persuade the Bullz-Eye core audience of males, aged 18-35, that it’s safe to see “The Boxtrolls” despite it’s family-friendly PG rating?

IHW: I would say go and see “The Boxtrolls” just because the Boxtrolls are really cute, even if you’re sort of this big, butch person, I think you would enjoy how cute they are, because that’s kind of what they are. They look like, on the outside, they are these terrifying creatures, but you realize they are very soft and sweet inside.

[My character, Eggs] is a boy who thinks he’s a Boxtroll. He’s an orphan who was raised by Boxtrolls because they’re the only people who really care for him. If you look at a lot of the people in the upper world – the Boxtrolls live in an underground cavern – [the human parents are] all really horrible. Well, not horrible — they just don’t care for the children. If you look at [lead female character, voiced by Elle Fanning] Winnie’s parents, they are much more interested in cheese than in [their] daughter.

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6 Things Key and Peele Want You to Know About “Key & Peele”

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“MADtv” alums turned latter day sketch comedy saviors Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have sneaked up on the American consciousness in the last few years, but it’s a good kind of sneak. Both sons of African-American fathers and white mothers, they haven’t exactly hid from their mixed-race heritage, mining a good percentage of their cheerfully subversive humor from the ethnic codes and conundrums that still dominate so much of American life.

To those who might try to (lamely) argue that race is no longer a factor in Barack Obama’s America, they give us Peele’s brilliant impression of President Obama alongside Key as Luther, the politician’s “anger translator.” It falls on the eternally stressed out Luther to put the leader’s thoughts into the plain black English many of us wish he could use, and the rest know would have ended his career instantly. To those of us who might feel shy about noting that some African-American names can be a bit more imaginative and polysyllabic than Caucasian monikers, they’ve given us East West College Bowl roll calls dominated by names that sound like they were collaborations between George Clinton and Dr. Seuss. (Peele has acknowledged the collaboration of a certain “Mr. Weed” in the writing of these pieces.)

We were lucky enough to encounter the witty pair who, unlike some other famous comedy teams, actually appear to enjoy one another’s company, at Comic-Con. Flanked by director Peter Atencio, they were there, of course, to promote the return of their Peabody-winning Comedy Central show. While they apparently couldn’t say much about a possible upcoming project with Judd Apatow, they were able to discuss their already aired and rather brilliant comedy relief-turn on FX’s Emmy-winning “Fargo,” as well as an animated project.

1. Regarding the point of the President Obama/Luther the Anger Translator sketches (which received a positive review from no less than the eternally composed POTUS himself).

Key: The most important thing to us has always been, “Let’s try, for comedic effect, to express what we think this president is thinking.” If the confluence of events had been different and he’d been a different president of a different race, we still think the comedic concept’s sound. So, we still would have done it. We picked Obama because we figured, “Here’s a sketch only we can do” and it helps with job security.

Peele: I think maybe the first one [had more raw anger in it]… There was a little element, at the beginning – there was all this shit that wasn’t getting said. There was some wish-fulfillment. It felt like nobody was defending [Obama] on the birther issue definitively enough.

Key: There was the birther issue, and the other trigger was Senator Joe Wilson screaming in the [Senate] chamber, “You lie!” That’s never happened to a president before; so, why would that happen to this president?

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Blu Tuesday: Godzilla and Arrow

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.

“Godzilla”

WHAT: 15 years after the mysterious demolition of a nuclear power plant in Japan, American scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) remains adamant that it was more than just an earthquake, and he’s determined to prove it. But before he can convince the government that it’s about to happen again, a pair of insect-like monsters burst from their cocoons to wreak havoc on the planet, awakening the long-dormant Godzilla, whom Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) believes has been created by nature to restore balance.

WHY: How can a movie about giant monsters be so boring? That’s the biggest question surrounding Hollywood’s latest attempt to bring the King of the Monsters stateside. Though not as bad as Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version, “Godzilla” is a bewildering piece of blockbuster filmmaking, stuck somewhere between an old-school monster extravaganza and a po-faced thriller that’s afraid to have too much fun. Director Gareth Edwards delivers some great money shots by the end, but it’s a long, mostly dull slog to get there, relying more on the one-dimensional human drama and generic MUTOs to drive the action. In fact, just about everyone gets more screen time than Godzilla, who takes nearly an hour to make his first, full-fledged appearance before going MIA again until the final climactic battle. There’s nothing wrong with teasing the audience using a slow burn approach (“Jaws” does it masterfully), but you need actual suspense and interesting characters for it to be successful, and “Godzilla” has neither, instead packed with a bunch of unnecessary filler that does nothing to further the story. The one thing that Edwards gets right is Godzilla himself. He looks and sounds incredible, and you’re left wanting more when it’s all over. Sadly, that’s not because the movie is any good, but rather because you see so little of Godzilla that it feels more like an appetizer than the main course.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes featurettes on creature design, the HALO jump sequence and the Godzilla legacy, as well as some fictional videos about Project Monarch that provide additional backstory.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Arrow: The Complete Second Season”

WHAT: Following the destruction of the Glades, Oliver (Stephen Arnell) ditches his vigilante ways to become the protector that Starling City so desperately needs. But when his old friend Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett), whom he thought had perished on the island, resurfaces under the guise of Deathstroke, Oliver becomes the target of his vengeful plot.

WHY: It’s hard to imagine anything good coming out of The CW, but other networks should take note, because “Arrow” is exactly how you adapt a comic book character for the small screen. Though the first season was pretty hit-and-miss, the series really starts to find its groove in Season Two, focusing more on the superhero elements than the silly love triangles and soapy subplots. Granted, they’re not done away with completely (otherwise there’d be nothing for characters like Moira, Thea and Laurel to do on the show), but this season feels much more like the comic book series that fans were promised than just another a CW drama that happens to be about a superhero, which is an important distinction to make. Stephen Arnell continues to shine as the green-hooded protagonist, and David Ramsey and Emily Bett Rickards provide excellent support, but the show’s real MVP isn’t an individual at all, but rather the rotating cast of characters plucked from Green Arrow’s rich, 60-year history. The stunt work is also some of the best on TV, and the production team does a really good job of grounding everything in reality. “Arrow” still manages to be a little cheesy at times, but it’s almost always good fun, and that’s all you can ask for from a series like this.

EXTRAS: In addition to a featurette on Oliver’s character arc for the season, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at the show’s visual effects and stunts, the 2013 Comic-Con panel, a recap of Season One, some deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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