Blu Tuesday: Inside Llewyn Davis, Homefront and George Washington

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.

“Inside Llewyn Davis”

WHAT: A week in the life of struggling folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who’s trying to make it as a solo artist after his former partner commits suicide. With no steady income or plans for the future, Llewyn spends his days wandering the city in search of his next gig and his nights crashing on friends’ couches.

WHY: There aren’t many directors that can boast a track record as impressive as the one that Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed throughout their 30-year careers, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just another notch on that cinematic belt. Markedly different from a lot of their films in that it’s a much more intimate, character-driven piece, “Inside Llewyn Davis” most closely resembles “A Serious Man” in both tone and execution. Structured more like a loose series of vignettes than anything resembling a plot, much of the movie rests on Oscar Isaac’s shoulders, with the actor delivering a superb performance that manages to make the titular freeloader somewhat likeable. For as good as Isaac is in the role, however, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective without T-Bone Burnett’s excellent soundtrack, especially when such a large chunk of the film is dedicated to the musical performances. It’s not often that a soundtrack plays such a pivotal role in my enjoyment of a movie, but it’s certainly fitting considering just how much the Coens rely on music to provide the backdrop of this bittersweet portrait of personal failure.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a 40-minute making-of featurette that focuses primarily on the planning, rehearsing and recording of the soundtrack.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Homefront”

WHAT: Eager to provide his 10-year-old daughter (Izabela Vidovic) with a normal life, ex-DEA agent Phil Broker retires to a small, idyllic town in Louisiana. But when local drug lord Gator Bodine (James Franco) uncovers Broker’s past as a law enforcement officer, he teams up with a vengeful biker gang to take him down.

WHY: After working together on the “Expendables” films, it’s only natural that Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone would team up again. But what makes their latest collaboration so unique is that Stallone’s involvement is a strictly behind-the-scenes affair, serving as both screenwriter and producer. Though this neo-Western may sound like every other Statham vehicle on the surface, “Homefront” plays more like a gritty thriller than one of the actor’s typical action movies. That’s not to say that there still isn’t a fair share of action, because it’s one of the film’s highlights, but director Gary Fleder seems more interested in exploring the relationships between his characters than the fight scenes that bridge those moments. The story itself isn’t much better than your average ‘90s action movie, but the cast (which includes Winona Ryder as Gator’s biker-chick girlfriend and Kate Bosworth as his meth-head sister) elevates the material, especially James Franco playing the de facto leader of the criminal swamp gang. This isn’t the first time that the actor has gone against the grain in recent years, but it’s refreshing to see someone of his quality take on a role that’s seemingly beneath him, because it’s the difference between an enjoyable film and another direct-to-video dud.

EXTRAS: There’s a small collection of deleted scenes and an EPK-styled fluff piece with interviews from the cast and crew.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“George Washington”

WHAT: Over the course of one hot summer, a group of children from a decaying, rural Southern town are forced to make some difficult choices in order to cover up a tragic accident.

WHY: It’s amazing that the same man behind such stoner comedies as “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness” was responsible for a movie like “George Washington,” because they couldn’t be any more different. David Gordon Green’s directorial debut falls more along the lines of a Terrence Malick film in both style and execution – an irritatingly slow and pretentious cinematic poem that desperately tries to find a deeper meaning in its lyrical imagery. But while the movie’s gorgeous visuals do a great job of portraying the distressed state of the town and its characters, Green fails to deliver a compelling story, instead opting for a non-linear narrative that lacks focus or coherency. The whole thing is terribly dull, and it doesn’t help that the acting (with the exception of Paul Schneider) is every bit as amateur as its cast. “George Washington” is the kind of movie where a bunch of kids (and seemingly uneducated ones at that) wax poetic about philosophy and life like they’re graduate students, and it’s in this attempt to project a false maturity onto his characters where Green fails the hardest.

EXTRAS: There’s a veritable treasure trove of material here, highlighted by an audio commentary with director David Gordon Green, cinematographer Tim Orr and actor Paul Schneider. The Blu-ray also includes two student shorts by Green (“Pleasant Grove” and “Physical Pinball”), a 2001 Charlie Rose interview, Clu Gluager’s 1969 short film “A Day with the Boys” and more.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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Car Review: 2014 Mazda3 S Grand Touring

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The new 2014 Mazda3 S is a big deal, because the redesigned compact vehicle is the Mazda’s best-selling and most recognizable nameplate worldwide with more than 3.5 million vehicles sold. We had the chance to drive the 2014 Mazda3 S in bitter cold temperatures with plenty of snow on the road to really put this car to the test.

EXTERIOR

This is one fine looking ride, and in titanium flash mica, the skin has a sleek and aggressive look. Lower and leaner than its predecessor, this third generation Mazda3 shares almost nothing with its older siblings other than a name. All new from the ground up, the 2014 Mazda3 sits on a wheelbase of 106.3 inches, which is 2.4 inches longer than the previous generation, yet the five-door is 1.8 inches shorter in length at 175.6 inches. Whether equipped with the standard 16-inch full-cover steel wheels or higher trim-equipped 16-inch and 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels, each set expresses dynamic motion from hub to rim. The Mazda3’s cab rearward posture and raked profile further emphasizes agility and speed.

From the dynamic signature wing of the five-point grille, to the expansive sheet metal cresting over sleekly slanted headlamps, to the wide-stance muscular fenders, to the taut character lines flowing from panel to panel, sculpting into a chiseled rear featuring provoking taillights, KODO begets the Mazda3 a presence unlike any other. Yet such style is not without purpose as the five-door and sedan models achieve best-in-class coefficient of drag (Cd) at 0.275 and 0.255, respectively, when equipped with i-ELOOP and an active grille shutter. A new-to-Mazda feature, the active grille shutter is mounted in front of the radiator and automatically opens and closes in accordance with driving conditions to improve aerodynamic performance while contributing to real-world gains in fuel economy.

INTERIOR

Mazda took things to a whole new level with the cabin space of the 2014 Mazda3 S Grand Touring. The interior will impress, starting with the driver-oriented cockpit. The pedals have been laid out symmetrically to the left and right of the driver’s center-line with a hinged organ-type accelerator pedal as standard for added safety and comfort. Designed not only to appeal to the senses, each control and function also is specifically placed with intuitive utility in mind. The less time spent focusing on adjusting knobs and tapping touch-screen commands, the more time a driver is engaged with the actual act of driving, being alert to what is on the road ahead and, therefore, being able to react quickly, accurately and safely.

For added precision, the base of the A-pillars have been repositioned 3.9 inches rearward to afford greater range of vision for both the driver and front passenger. The outside mirrors also are mounted onto the doors instead of the base of the A-pillar to expand the scope of visibility when looking over mirrors from the driver’s seat.

All-new for Mazda vehicles and being launched with the 2014 Mazda3 is a next-generation human-machine interface (HMI) system. Based on the heads-up cockpit concept, the new HMI system aims to help drivers maintain proper posture, concentrate on the road and drive more safely, even while handling larger amounts of information. The information used is divided into groups, and an innovative screen layout is employed to let the driver safely balance the primary job of driving with other peripheral information.

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Da Luca Winery delivers Italian values under $15!

The word “value” is thrown around in wine circles constantly, but it can have different meanings. In some cases, people are referring to a category. For me, value is relative. A $100 wine could be a good value if it offers more complexity, depth or other qualities than similar wines in its price range. An $8 bottle could be a terrible value because it’s not a good wine and other examples outshine it. In this case, I’m talking about some Italian wines that are good values for the money and also fall into what is generally considered the value category. In this price range, I’m looking for wines that are good representatives of the grapes in question, providing sufficient varietal character. Often they are also wines that will have mass appeal. That is, you could bring them to a party and most people will be happy. The casual drinkers will find them easy-going, and the wine lovers will find enough interest in them to drink them up. Here are three examples, which for me fit all of those criteria. Three of Italy’s workhorse grapes are represented, the prices are right and the wines are tasty and food-friendly.

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The Da Luca 2012 IGT Delle Venezie Pinot Grigio was produced entirely from fruit sourced in the namesake region. This offering is 100 percent Pinot Grigio. It has typically modest alcohol of 12 percent and a suggested retail price of $13. A mélange of apple aromas lights up the nose of this Pinot Grigio, and hazelnut characteristics play a supporting role. The palate has Lychee fruit, apricot and apple flavors, as well as gentle bits of spice. Hints of honey and lemon ice emerge on the finish, which has sufficient length. This wine is refreshing, light and dry. It drinks nicely on its own but shines brightest when paired with foods such as salads, white meats and soft cheeses. There are way too many Pinot Grigio’s on the market that are — at best — innocuous. Many of them sell for more than this one. This offering from Da Luca is well priced and offers genuine Pinot Grigio character.

The Da Luca DOC Prosecco (NV) was produced from fruit sourced in the Treviso region of Italy. This offering is 100 percent Prosecco. It has a suggested retail price of $14. Lemon zest and crème fraiche aromas leap from the nose of this Prosecco. Take the first sip and hints of scone and stone fruits, such as nectarine, make their presence known. The finish is above average in length and shows off white pepper and biscuit characteristics. This is a dry sparkling wine which is light bodied with depth of flavor and a refreshing nature. It would be an excellent choice to pair with brunch foods.

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Finally, we have the Da Luca 2011 DOC Romagna 2011 Sangiovese Superiore. This wine was made from fruit sourced in the namesake region. It is composed entirely of Sangiovese and it has a suggested retail price of $13. Violet and cherry aromas waft gently from the nose of this Sangiovese, along with bits of cigar box. Strawberry and red cherry characteristics are prominent through the palate. They’re joined by earth and a copious amount of spice. Leather, warming red fruits and continued spice influences are in evidence on the finish. This wine has medium tannins which yield with some air and firm acidity. It will pair well with just about anything with red sauce on it, as well as rustic Italian foods in general. I drank it alongside a hearty lentil stew and it worked fabulously.

As I mentioned above, these wines offer good value. The Pinot Grigio in particular is a well-priced example of the grape that offers good character. If you’re looking for a house white to stock up on, a case of it would be a good choice. The Prosecco and Sangiovese are similar in that manner as well. The bottom line here is that these are wines, which are priced for everyday drinking, are also a couple of notches better and more distinguished in character and quality than many other offerings in a similar price range. Check them out, I believe you’ll agree!

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Movie Review: “RoboCop”

Starring
Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Samuel L. Jackson
Director
Jose Padliha

At the rate that Hollywood is plowing its way through Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi catalog, you’d expect Vegas bookies to start slashing the odds on an eventual “Starship Troopers” remake. Though it’s only been two years since fanboys got their panties in a bunch over Len Wiseman’s “Total Recall” reboot, many of those same fans have been dreading the release of the new “RoboCop.” It will probably come as a surprise, then, that the film isn’t nearly as bad as people feared it would be. In fact, it boasts a better cast, better effects and a better story, even if the 1987 original – which is admittedly pretty cheesy by today’s standards – is still the better movie. So why bother with this remake? For starters, because it’s not really a remake at all, instead taking the basic premise and carving its own path that falls more in line with current politics.

The year is 2028, and with the exception of the United States, the rest of the world is now policed by a robot military force operated by technology giant OmniCorp. The government has blocked the use of robots in the U.S. due to the belief that they can’t be held accountable for killing, so OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) decides to give the American public someone they can identify with by putting a man in a machine. And it’s not long before they find the perfect subject when Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is critically injured in a car bombing after he’s targeted by a local drug kingpin. With the help of Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), a pioneer in robotic prosthetics, Sellars convinces Alex’s wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), that the procedure is the only way to keep him alive. But the very thing that makes Alex unique (his emotions) also affects his performance in the field, and when Norton tries to counteract that by programming his brain to act more like a machine, Alex’s human side begins to fight back as he investigates his own murder.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to February

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If February is known for anything, it’s the barrage of romantic films released in conjunction with Valentine’s Day. And in keeping with tradition, there are several to choose from this year. But while past Februarys haven’t been very promising from a guy’s point of view, there’s plenty to look forward to in the 2014 edition, with no less than four action movies (including a remake of an ‘80s cult classic) and the latest from George Clooney and an animated film that’s just as much for adults as it is for kids.

“THE LEGO MOVIE”

Who: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett and Morgan Freeman
What: An ordinary LEGO minifigure, mistakenly thought to be the MasterBuilder, is recruited to join a quest to stop an evil LEGO tyrant from gluing the universe together.
When: February 7th
Why: It’s not very often that I get excited about an animated film, but as a closeted LEGO fanatic, “The LEGO Movie” is one of my most anticipated releases of the year. The fact that it’s taken this long to make a film based on the hugely popular toy brand is shocking, not only because it’s a dream project from a marketing standpoint, but because the very nature of LEGOs provides an almost endless supply of creative possibilities. This could have easily been ruined in the hands of someone else, but based on the materials released so far, it appears that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “21 Jump Street”) have struck the perfect chord in making a kid-friendly movie that adults can enjoy as well.

“THE MONUMENTS MEN”

Who: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Bill Murray
What: An unlikely World War II platoon is tasked with rescuing art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and returning them to their owners.
When: February 7th
Why: On paper, “The Monuments Men” has Oscar bait written all over it. In addition to being based on a true story (set during World War II, no less), the film features some of the best acting talent in the business and was also co-written and directed by star George Clooney. So why the decision to push the movie back from its original holiday release to this February? No one knows for sure, but considering the competition that it would have been up against, it was probably the right move. After all, while “The Monuments Men” certainly has the makings of a crowd-pleaser (the two-second sales pitch is “‘Ocean’s Eleven’ meets ‘Inglourious Basterds’”), it doesn’t really seem like awards material. Still, with that cast, you never know. It could be great or it could be another “The Good German.”

“VAMPIRE ACADEMY”

Who: Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Danila Kozlovsky, Sarah Hyland and Olga Kurylenko
What: 17-year-old half-human/vampire Rose Hathaway is dragged back to her boarding school to protect a race of peaceful vampires from the bloodthirsty Strigoi.
When: February 7th
Why: If “Vampire Academy” comes across as just another young adult book series turned into a film, it’s because it is – a sort of supernatural mashup of “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” But while the Richelle Mead novel on which it’s based sounds about as fun as a trip to the dentist’s office, the movie version looks a lot more enjoyable thanks to the involvement of sibling duo Mark and Daniel Waters. The former directed the hilarious 2004 comedy “Mean Girls,” while the latter wrote the screenplay for the precursor to that film, “Heathers.” And if the trailer is anything to go by, “Vampire Academy” strikes a very similar tone, albeit with the added benefit of some action. For every successful YA book adaptation, however, there are five failures, so history certainly isn’t on its side.

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