Blu Tuesday: Selma, Black Sea 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.


WHAT: When Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Council are invited to Selma, Alabama to stage their latest fight in the civil rights movement, they organize a series of non-violent protests in the hopes that it will force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the Voting Rights Act.

WHY: Who would’ve thought that a movie that takes place nearly 50 years ago would feel so relevant today? And yet while the parallels between Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and the current racial tension across the country are indisputable, the film deserves to be judged on its own merits, because it’s a deftly made drama that takes a page from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” by focusing on a single (but very important) chapter in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. To DuVernay’s credit, she manages to make almost every moment – from the backroom politics, to King’s rousing speeches – as riveting as the last, and a big part of that success falls on the casting, even those in bit roles. David Oyelowo is fantastic as the pastor turned civil rights activist, playing him with an expected gracefulness, but also a hint of exhaustion and self-doubt that reveals the toll his crusade for equality has taken on him. It’s hard to imagine the film being nearly as effective with another actor in the role, because it’s Oyelowo’s powerful performance that transforms “Selma” from yet another stuffy biopic into a stirring political drama worthy of Dr. King’s legacy.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries – one with director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo, and another with DuVernay, cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Spencer Averick – there are behind-the-scenes featurettes on the film’s origins and production, some deleted scenes, a collection of newsreels and photos from the period, and much more.


“Black Sea”

WHAT: After he’s fired from his job at a marine salvage company, submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law) assembles a group of former employees (half British, half Russian) to search the Black Sea for a Nazi U-boat rumored to be carrying approximately 80 million dollars in gold.

WHY: Submarines are the perfect setting for a thriller – they’re dark, claustrophobic and offer no hope of escape – which is why it’s so surprising that there aren’t more films that take advantage of them. Granted, there are probably more than you think, but very few are any good, and “Black Sea” can count itself among that exclusive group. Not only is the movie a welcome return to form for director Kevin Macdonald, who sort of fell off the map after his 2009 remake of “State of Play,” but it reaffirms why Jude Law is one of the most underrated actors in the business. Law delivers yet another excellent performance as the under-pressure captain who sees the mission as his last chance at redemption, and he’s surrounded by a cast of reliable supporting players like Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn and Michael Smiley. The “us vs. them” mentality between the British and Russian crew members provides plenty of suspense as their greed and paranoia builds throughout the film, and while certain character actions don’t exactly make sense (as things go from bad to worse, the wrong people are blamed), “Black Sea” manages to stay afloat thanks to its engaging premise, solid performances and taut direction.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Kevin Macdonald and a short making-of featurette.


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Blu Tuesday: Interstellar, Veep 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.


WHAT: Set in the near future, when Earth’s resources have all but been depleted, former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) joins a group of explorers – Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi) – on a secret NASA expedition through a newly discovered wormhole in the hopes of finding an inhabitable planet for mankind.

WHY: Shrouded in secrecy throughout production, Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi mindbender was originally intended to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who first sparked the idea back in 2006. But when he dropped out to focus on other projects, Nolan took over the reins, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting replacement. Unfortunately, while “Interstellar” is the filmmaker’s most ambitious movie to date, it’s also one of his least accessible, filled with complex scientific ideas (from black holes to the space-time continuum) that make for incredibly dense viewing at times; and in the case of the more theoretical concepts, results in some silly moments as well. The main story is actually quite simple, dealing with well-worn themes like love, survival and time, which is why it’s strange that Nolan wastes so much of the latter (169 minutes, to be exact) trying to make his point. The acting is all top-notch, with great performances from Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain, but the arrival of a big movie star in the final act proves distracting. There are also some really amazing visuals and genuinely heartbreaking scenes, though it’s ultimately a disappointingly messy affair, lacking the discipline and uniqueness of Nolan’s past films like “Memento,” “The Dark Knight” and “Inception.” It was never going to live up to the colossal expectations placed on it by fanboys and the media, but a movie like “Interstellar” still should have been a lot more, well, stellar.

EXTRAS: There’s a 14-part making-of documentary that runs nearly two hours long and covers just about every aspect of the production process, as well as a featurette on the science of the movie narrated by Matthew McConaughey.


“Veep: The Complete Third Season”

WHAT: When Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) learns that POTUS isn’t seeking re-election, she begins putting together a campaign team in the hopes of taking over the Oval Office. The usual screw-ups and humiliation follow, only this time around, all of America is watching.

WHY: You’d think that calling your show “Veep” would box you into a corner when it came to exploring potential career changes for the title character. After all, there’s no way Selina Meyer can have any position besides Vice President, otherwise it doesn’t make sense, right? Technically, yes, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered creator Armando Iannucci, because the third season of his HBO series is entirely about Selina campaigning to become the next Commander in Chief… and perhaps more surprisingly, actually gets the job when the current president resigns. That was a bold choice (and one that audiences won’t see the full effects of until the show returns next month), but it takes the series in an intriguing new direction while still allowing for the usual political-driven antics. The addition of Sam Richardson as the incompetent aide assigned to Selina on her book tour is completely unneeded (and not very funny, either), but the rest of the cast continues to fire on all cylinders, including unsung heroes like Timothy Simons, Kevin Dunn and Sufe Bradshaw. Though Julia Louis-Dreyfus receives a majority of the attention from critics and award groups for her hilarious portrayal of Selina Meyer, and deservedly so, “Veep” has always been a team effort, and that’s never been more evident than this season.

EXTRAS: The two-disc set includes four audio commentary tracks with various cast and crew, as well as some deleted scenes.


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Christina Aguilera imitates Britney Spears

Christina Aguilera found herself playing the Wheel of Musical Impressions on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Both of them were pretty impressive with their impressions but Christina stole the show with an epic imitation of Britney Spears singing “This Little Piggy.”


Blu Tuesday: Whiplash, Horrible Bosses 2 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.


WHAT: Jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) doesn’t just want to be great; he wants to be one of the greats. When he’s given an opportunity to attend Shaffer Conservatory, the top music school in the country, under the tutelage of tyrannical instructor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew is pushed to his limits and beyond by Fletcher’s extreme teaching methods.

WHY: A gripping, electrifying and brutally unrelenting thriller, Damien Chazelle’s sophomore effort draws you in from the very first beat of the drum and never lets go, like a freight train of intensity and emotion that leaves you breathless and your heart still pounding when it’s over. “Whiplash” isn’t just one of the best movies of the 2014; it features perhaps one of the best endings to a movie ever. Chazelle doesn’t waste a single frame in this pressure cooker of a story about a young musician so determined to achieve greatness that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there, even if that means enduring the physical, verbal and psychological abuse of the one man capable of squeezing out every last drop of potential. Miles Teller is phenomenal in the lead role, capturing Andrew’s commitment and passion to his craft with an all-in performance that’s soaked in literal blood, sweat and tears, but it’s J.K. Simmons who steals the show with his turn as the borderline psychotic Fletcher, hurtling insults like a drill instructor (think R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket”) that are as funny as they are frightening. The film has earned a lot of attention for these two performances, although it would be short-sighted not to mention the superb writing and dynamic editing as well, because they’re just as essential to its success. For a movie about perfection, “Whiplash” comes pretty damn close.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director Damien Chazelle and actor J.K. Simmons, there’s a featurette about famous drummers and their craft, footage from the movie’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, a deleted scene and the original short film.


“Horrible Bosses 2″

WHAT: Following the events of the last film, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) decide to become their own bosses by inventing a product called the Shower Buddy. But when their key investor (Christoph Waltz) backs out at the last minute, leaving them with thousands of dollars in inventory, the guys decide to kidnap his jerk son (Chris Pine) and hold him for ransom.

WHY: When it was announced that Warner Bros. was moving ahead with a sequel to their breakout hit, “Horrible Bosses,” it sounded like a pretty awful idea, especially due to the nature of the original premise. That’s probably why Seth Gordon decided not to return as well, so credit to co-writer/director Sean Anders for not only having the balls to take over the reins, but for coming up with an idea that actually makes sense. Sadly, while the kidnapping plot does allow for Nick, Kurt and Dale to embark on yet another criminal misadventure, the film itself is a mixed bag. Though there are some really funny bits thanks to the chemistry between the three leads (as well as a scene-stealing cameo by Kevin Spacey), the characters themselves have been downgraded from bumbling fools to complete idiots. It may have been cute the first time around, but there’s simply no way these guys could be this dumb and still expect the audience to root for them. “Horrible Bosses 2” is better than expected thanks to its ensemble cast, even if Jennifer Aniston and Christoph Waltz are mostly wasted in their roles, but unlike the first movie, it fails to give you a reason to care.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, alternate line readings/outtakes, a brief look at filming the high speed chase sequence and some silly infomercials.


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Blu Tuesday: Game of Thrones, Birdman 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.

“Game of Thrones: The Complete Fourth Season”

WHAT: Following the events of the Red Wedding, King’s Landing turns its attention to the royal wedding between Joffrey Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell, with guests arriving from all over Westeros, including the vengeful Oberyn Martell. Meanwhile, Arya and The Hound continue their journey to the Eyrie; Daenerys Targaryen leads her slave army towards Meereen; Bran and Co. head north to track down the three-eyed raven; and the Night’s Watch prepare for an attack by the Wildlings.

WHY: “Game of Thrones” is one of the best dramas on television, boasting rich storytelling, great writing and a massive ensemble cast with nary a weak link among them. But while the exhaustive world building is impressive in both size and scope, it often can’t be fully appreciated until you see how some of the storylines pay off later down the road, whether in future episodes or seasons. What really makes it appointment television, however, and one of the few genuine water-cooler shows left today, is the endless amount of shocking moments weaved throughout George R.R. Martin’s complex fantasy world. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Though nothing that occurs in Season Four is as monumental as the Red Wedding from the previous year, the bombshells came faster and more frequent, with several notable characters biting the dust, including heavy hitters like Joffrey Baratheon and Tywin Lannister, fan favorite Oberyn Martell, and quite possibly The Hound, depending on how you interpret his final scene. No other show on television makes you care about the death of a character as much as “Game of Thrones,” and it’s only one of many reasons why the series continues to perform at such a high level, constantly upping the stakes even when it no longer seems possible.

EXTRAS: There are 11 cast and crew audio commentaries spread across the four-disc set, along with an overview of Season Three, featurettes on filming the ninth episode (“Battle of the Wall”) and the role bastards play in the Seven Kingdoms, a roundtable discussion with the actors whose characters died in the fourth season, deleted scenes, a blooper reel and some interactive features.


“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

WHAT: Desperate to revive his career, washed-up actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) mounts an ambitious adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. When one of the actors is injured in a freak accident, Riggan brings in theater luminary Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a last-minute replacement, only for Mike’s unconventional methods to lead to a clash of egos between the two men that puts the whole production in danger of shutting down before it even begins.

WHY: Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be the most prolific director around, but that hardly matters when you make movies like “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a remarkable piece of filmmaking that’s as refreshingly original as it is wildly ambitious. While it’s a pretty incisive satire of Broadway and fame, the movie goes even deeper than that, digging into themes of ego, family and artistic integrity vs. commercial success. More than anything else, though, it operates as a character study of a broken man trying to reclaim his former glory, and in that regard, the film reminded me a lot of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” Some of it is played for laughs, but it’s mostly a profoundly sad look at one man’s struggle to validate his existence. The acting is top-notch across the board – especially Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone – however, the real magic comes from Iñarritu’s decision to stage the movie as one long tracking shot. The balletic precision and sheer ballsiness required to pull that off is mind-boggling, but it results in a more immersive and seamless viewing experience akin to a theater performance, and it’s one that’ll be mimicked for years to come.

EXTRAS: There’s a fairly extensive behind-the-scenes featurette, a conversation between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and star Michael Keaton about the movie, and a photo gallery.


“The Theory of Everything”

WHAT: While studying at Cambridge in the 1960s, physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) falls in love with and marries literature student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), only to be diagnosed with motor neuron disease and given two years to live. Miraculously, Hawking fought the disease with the help of Jane and went on to become one of the leading minds of his generation.

WHY: “The Theory of Everything” is the prototypical Oscar movie. It’s based on an incredible true story (bonus points if the subject is suffering from a disease) and boasts an extraordinary lead performance from Eddie Redmayne. But sadly, the film itself is quite ordinary, falling victim to the usual biopic conventions by trying to cover too much material in too little time. This happens surprisingly often when making movies about real-life people, and it’s especially disappointing here, because Redmayne is simply amazing as Hawking, investing himself completely in the physicality of the role without losing the essence of the character. It’s every actor’s dream job, but for as much credit as Redmayne deserves for the performance, it wouldn’t be as effective without Felicity Jones beside him, because she’s the soul of the film, providing an alternate view of Hawking’s struggle with every heartbreaking and inspiring turn. “The Theory of Everything” is about the power of the human spirit, and while the first half makes for more compelling viewing compared to the generic story beats that encompass Hawking’s later years, Redmayne and Jones are so good that even if their performances overshadow the movie itself, it’s still very much must-see viewing.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director James Marsh, there’s a featurette titled “Becoming the Hawkings” and eight deleted scenes with optional commentary by Marsh.


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