Blu Tuesday: The Newsroom, Hercules 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 Newsroom: The Complete Second Season”

WHAT: Following an exclusive report on a top-secret U.S. drone strike that turns out to be untrue, the “News Night” staff becomes embroiled in a legal battle when the producer responsible for the story sues the network for wrongful termination. Meanwhile, Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) goes on the campaign trail with the Romney press bus and Maggie (Alison Pill) deals with the aftermath of a traumatic trip to Uganda.

WHY: Some people really love to hate “The Newsroom,” and for the life of me, I don’t understand why. Though the show can be a tad exaggerated at times (both dramatically and comically), it has great characters and the kind of clever, rapid-fire dialogue that’s become synonymous with every Aaron Sorkin production. Season Two isn’t as strong as its debut season – due to the more focused, season-long drone storyline and certain subplots that remove key characters from the very environment they thrive best – but with the exception of the new title sequence, it’s the same old “The Newsroom,” particularly when taking on real-life topics like the 2012 Elections, Occupy Wall Street and Trayvon Martin. Sorkin’s writing dazzles as always, but it’s the performances by the ensemble cast (from stars Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer, to supporting players like Sam Waterson, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel and Thomas Sadoski) that makes it such a joy to watch. It’s a shame that more people didn’t feel the same way, because although the series is returning for a shortened third season, it still feels like a loss, especially with so few great shows left on HBO outside of “Game of Thrones.”

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray set includes four audio commentaries with various cast and crew, the usual collection of “Inside the Episode” featurettes and deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Hercules”

WHAT: After enduring his legendary 12 labors, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) and his band of mercenaries are hired by the King of Thrace (John Hurt) to protect his people from a tyrannical warlord, only to discover that he may be fighting on the wrong side.

WHY: It’s actually quite surprising that someone hasn’t tried making a Hercules movie with Dwayne Johnson sooner, because it’s a role that he was born to play. But while the film is marginally better than Renny Harlin’s “The Legend of Hercules,” it’s rooted even less in the original myth, instead using Steve Moore’s comic book series as its inspiration, which suggests that Hercules wasn’t a demigod at all, but rather a mortal man whose legend far exceeds his abilities. Johnson does a good job in the title role, though he doesn’t have a lot to work with, and Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell (as fellow swords-for-hire) add some color to the otherwise drab story, but there’s nothing really special that sets it apart from the many other sword-and-sandal movies. The action sequences are incredibly generic, the twists aren’t surprising at all, and although the story offers a unique interpretation of the Hercules tale, it’s hard not to feel disappointed by the bait-and-switch approach to the material. After all, would you rather see a movie about the Hercules from Greek mythology, or one about an ordinary guy named Hercules who just happens to be stronger than most? Exactly.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Brett Ratner and producer Beau Flynn, there’s an introduction to the film from Ratner and Dwayne Johnson, featurettes on the characters, weapons and specials effects, a behind-the-scenes look at filming one of the major actions sequences and 15 deleted/extended scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Maleficent”

WHAT: When she’s tricked by her human friend, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) – who steals her wings in exchange for a place on the throne – vengeful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) curses the king’s newborn daughter with a spell that will take effect on her 16th birthday. Sent away to a remote cabin for her protection, Maleficent comes to care for Princess Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning) after realizing that she may be the land’s only hope for peace.

WHY: Hollywood loves a good fad, and two of the more popular trends these days are fairy tales and villains, so it’s not surprising that Disney would want in on the act, especially after the mild success of Universal’s “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Just like that movie, “Maleficent” attempts to humanize its iconic baddie by turning her into a misunderstood antihero whose fall from grace wasn’t entirely of her own making. But just like every other cinematic villain to get the revisionist treatment (from Dracula to the Evil Queen), Maleficent is stripped of everything that made her such a great character in the process, and perhaps even more troubling, as the victim of a creepy drug rape that’s never addressed. Angelina Jolie has the physicality and talent required for the role, but while she does a good job with the material provided, it would’ve been more fun to see her play a full-fledged villain compared to the morally gray character here. Though “Maleficent” is an admirable attempt at breathing new life into a classic tale, there are so many problems with the story and supporting characters that it would have made more sense to go the direct route and make a live-action “Sleeping Beauty” movie instead.

EXTRAS: There are five short featurettes – including a look at Elle Fanning’s involvement in the film, Maleficent’s costume design and the various stages of the writing process – as well as a handful of deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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DVD Review: “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series”

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Cult classic sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” now making its complete series DVD debut, takes viewers to a much different time – a time before iPods and Sirius, when AM radio was still a very real thing that people listened to and relied on for news and entertainment. Yes, radio once upon a time had character, and helped dictate and define our culture, pop and otherwise. Running for four seasons on CBS, from 1978 to ‘82 – a time of major transition in America – “WKRP” was a wacky workplace comedy that helped pave the way for shows like “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” today. To discuss what makes the series tick, one must first understand its lunatic cast of characters, who are at the root of every episode, every laugh and every plot development. There are eight principles that can be broken down into three categories.

Management: Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) is WKRP’s sometimes bumbling but always good-hearted station manager, also known affectionately as “The Big Guy.” Though from time to time he appears to possess a modicum of business acumen, for the most part, he’d rather not be bothered with the day-to-day operations of the station, instead focusing on his hobbies, which include fishing and model trains. The series kicks off with Carlson’s hiring of Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) as the station’s new program director. The level-headed center of the bunch, Travis has been living town to town, up and down the dial, and doesn’t see WKRP as anything more than another stop in his career of rebranding stations and making them profitable. Soon enough, he’ll discover there’s something special about this station that keeps him from moving on to the next one. Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), Carlson’s bombshell-with-brains secretary, shouldn’t technically fit under management, and yet as the series progresses, it becomes all too clear that without the glue that is Jennifer, the entire enterprise would fall to pieces.

The Disc Jockeys: Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) is the station’s morning drive man. Like Travis, Johnny’s worked at more stations than he can remember, though that may have more to do with years of drug and alcohol use, which is more hinted at than ever explored. Fever is the show’s wild card, and “WKRP” never shies away from throwing bizarre, unpredictable plotlines in his path. Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) is Andy’s first move upon changing the station’s format to rock and roll, hiring the jock “away from a station in New Orleans.” Shrouded in a mysterious past, Venus takes care of the evening shift, playing soothing, laid-back tunes for the greater Cincinnati area. “WKRP” peels away the Venus onion, giving him a little more backstory every season, and one of the show’s very last episodes (“The Creation of Venus”) brilliantly redefines his introduction way back in the two-part pilot.

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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 . . .

  

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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