Blu Tuesday: Jupiter Ascending, Focus and McFarland, USA

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.

“Jupiter Ascending”

WHAT: When Russian immigrant Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) discovers that she’s the reincarnation of intergalactic royalty, she becomes the target of a power play between her former self’s three feuding siblings, who all want her for their own selfish reasons. Saved by a disgraced solider named Caine (Channing Tatum), Jupiter must take control of her destiny if she hopes to save Earth from its terrible fate.

WHY: It’s been 16 years since “The Matrix,” but you wouldn’t know it from the amount of money Warner Bros. continues to flush down the toilet with Andy and Lana Wachowski’s string of commercial and critical failures. “Cloud Atlas” should have been the final straw, but instead, the studio took yet another chance on the directing duo with “Jupiter Ascending,” and although the Wachowskis’ commitment to creating original sci-fi stories is commendable, it’s their worst movie to date. A garbled mess of half-baked ideas (some good, some bad) that never have the chance to fully develop due to an overwhelming mythology that delivers too much information, too quickly over the course of its 127-minute runtime, “Jupiter Ascending” was a disaster waiting to happen. It wouldn’t surprise me if a much longer cut of this movie existed, because the current version feels like it’s been chopped up and pieced back together to include all the essential material without any consideration for how it works as a whole. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The film is also plagued by poor attempts at humor and some truly awful performances, none more so than Eddie Redmayne as the eldest of the royal siblings. Despite some impressive visual effects, “Jupiter Ascending” is groan-inducingly bad – a massive swing-and-miss that could spell the end of the Wachowskis’ charmed partnership with Warner Bros.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release contains seven featurettes covering a variety of topics, including production and creature design, filming the action sequences, as well profiles on the Wachowskis and the movie’s lead characters.



WHAT: Veteran conman Nicky (Will Smith) agrees to help coach a promising grifter named Jess (Margot Robbie) when he brings her in on his large-scale operation. After Jess gets burned by Nicky at the end of the job, the two go their separate ways until they cross paths again three years later when Nicky is hired by a wealthy racing team owner (Rodrigo Santoro) to help ruin his competitors. But while Nicky wants to make amends after the way he left things, Jess is unable to trust him, convinced that he must be working some kind of angle. The real question is whether Jess is too.

WHY: Films about con artists are almost as difficult to pull off as an actual con. They need to be clever enough to outsmart and entertain the audience without being overly complex or resorting to narrative cheats. “Focus” is definitely entertaining at times, a flashy crime drama highlighted by a pair of movie star performances from Will Smith and Margot Robbie, but it also commits the aforementioned offenses in order to arrive at its twist ending. However, that’s not the film’s biggest problem, but rather the fact that “Focus” is basically two movie stitched together by the same connective tissue, and only one of the halves is any good. While the first half is a fun and fizzy con movie that’s capped off by a terrifically tense sequence featuring BD Wong as a high-stakes gambler, the second half isn’t nearly as engaging, partly because Smith and Robbie don’t have strong enough chemistry to sell the romance at the center of the story. The script’s playful tone remains intact throughout, but it never quite clicks the same way, bogged down by scene after scene of exposition that’s all setup for the big payoff. Although it’s refreshing to see a major studio take a gamble on a modestly budgeted film targeted towards adults, “Focus” is so passively mediocre that you can understand why other studios have been afraid to pull the trigger.

EXTRAS: In addition to a featurette about the art of misdirection, there are profiles on Will Smith and Margot Robbie, as well deleted scenes and an alternate opening.


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The Playful Drug Marijuana Remains A Liability

yoga on the beach

There are many people in recovery from hard-core addictions who do not care if there is a scientifically provable link between marijuana and stronger drugs.

These are simply addicts who know that marijuana was part of their addiction-oriented lifestyle. They also remember that marijuana frequently includes symptoms of anxiety and paranoia. This lends itself to taking a sedative and an alcoholic beverage is often the sedative that is easiest to reach. So, marijuana and alcohol are not linked from a specific biological cause and effect, but the link is still viable enough for someone facing a life in recovery knows enough to avoid marijuana use if they want to stay clean and sober.

Just as coffee is not biologically linked to smoking a cigarette, those who smoke frequently say they combine the two and that sitting down with a cup of coffee – if they manage to quit smoking – frequently gives them the urge to smoke.

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Blu Tuesday: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 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.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”

WHAT: New York City is being terrorized by a criminal organization called the Foot Clan under the command of a shadowy figure known as The Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). But there’s a group of vigilantes silently serving as the city’s protectors, and ambitious news reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is determined to uncover their identities… only to find that the mystery men aren’t men at all, but rather oversized mutant turtles skilled in the art of ninjitsu.

WHY: Jonathan Liebesman’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot isn’t nearly the disaster that many people feared. In fact, it’s actually quite entertaining at times provided you check your brain at the door and don’t mind that the film is basically feeding off the fumes of your childhood. The movie has its share of problems – from its assembly-by-committee script, to the generic action sequences – but the four actors who play the Turtles make up for some of those shortcomings by really capturing their spirit and brotherly camaraderie. The visual effects wizardry that’s been applied to their mo-cap performances is top-notch as well, proving once again why this technology is incredibly useful in not only creating more realistic CG characters, but giving them a human element that could never be achieved by men in rubber suits. There are some fun in-jokes for adult fans who grew up watching the Turtles as kids, but “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is essentially a live-action cartoon and should be judged accordingly. It’s far from a great film, but it also doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is, and if that means going easier on the film, then so be it, because that’s a perfectly acceptable cost of a little nostalgia.

EXTRAS: There are five featurettes covering a range of topics, including the digital evolution of the Turtles, the technical aspects of 3D, scoring the film and more.


“This Is Where I Leave You”

WHAT: When their father passes away, four siblings (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver) return to their childhood home to fulfill his dying wish by sitting shiva. Forced to live under the same roof for a week with their loquacious mother (Jane Fonda), each child must deal with their respective personal problems and the ghosts of their past.

WHY: Adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his book of the same name, “This Is Where I Leave You” represents an interesting change of pace for Shawn Levy, who’s best known for big blockbusters like the “Night at the Museum” films. But while it’s always great to see a director explore new territory, Levy seems to be a little out of his comfort zone with this family dramedy, never quite sure how to handle the more serious moments when there’s always another joke right around the corner. It was smart to cast actors that could handle both comedy and drama, but sadly, the material wastes a lot of their talents. Though Jason Bateman is solid as the middle brother, Tina Fey is miscast as his protective sister, Corey Stoll’s eldest brother barely registers as a three-dimensional character, and Jane Fonda’s mother is given giant breast implants… and not much else. Adam Driver and Rose Byrne are the only two bright spots, but even their characters are majorly underserved. To be fair, movies like this are a difficult balancing act, and even more so with such a large cast of characters, but despite Levy’s best efforts, “This Is Where I Leave You” falls disappointingly flat.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of production featurettes, there are outtakes of Ben Schwartz as Rabbi Boner and some deleted scenes.


“Magic in the Moonlight”

WHAT: World-renowned magician Wei Ling Soo has a bag of tricks, but his biggest trick of all is that it’s just a ruse – the terribly racist stage persona of grumpy Englishman Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), who despises charlatans that give his profession a bad name. So when longtime friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks for his assistance in debunking a young spiritualist named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), whom he believes is scamming the heir of the wealthy Catledge family, Stanley heads to their mansion to catch Sophie red-handed.

WHY: Woody Allen has made some real stinkers over the course of his 50-year career, and though “Magic in the Moonlight” isn’t quite bad enough to be included among the director’s absolute worst films, it’s not very good either. While Allen has proven that he’s still capable of delivering a good movie on occasion, he seems more concerned with maintaining his yearly output no matter what the cost, and that quantity-over-quality way of thinking only underlines the many problems with his latest comedy. At the top of that list is the complete lack of romantic chemistry between Colin Firth and Emma Stone, which proves to be detrimental, since so much of the film depends on their playful interactions. Both actors are usually very charming, but they look hopelessly lost in their roles due to a half-baked script that goes around in circles. Everything about this movie seems like it was rushed, from the stupid title, to the horrible poster, to the uninspired direction by Allen, who fails to provide an engaging story beyond the initial premise. “Magic in the Moonlight” doesn’t make you believe in magic, or love, or anything, really, although maybe that’s just the cynic in me, eager to expose the film as the fraud that it is, because the whole thing feels less like a genuine Woody Allen comedy than a pale imitation.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette and footage from the premiere.



Blu Tuesday: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Hundred-Foot Journey and Kite

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.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

WHAT: A decade after the events of the last film, the Simian Flu (a virus spread by Will Rodman’s Alzheimer’s drug) has wiped out most of humanity, while the apes continue to thrive in their forest community outside the city. But when a small group of humans (led by Jason Clarke’s Malcolm) accidentally wanders onto the apes’ home turf while searching for a hydroelectric dam capable of bringing power back online, their arrival re-ignites the feud between leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and right-hand ape Koba (Toby Kebbell), who have vastly different opinions on how to handle the trespassers.

WHY: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2011, but while Matt Reeves’ much darker sequel aims to hit the same emotional notes of its predecessor, it falls a bit short. Like that movie, “Dawn” touches on some interesting themes of power, trust and gun control, though the script isn’t exactly subtle about it, hammering the audience over the head to the point of exhaustion. The story is also fairly predictable, populated with characters we’ve all seen a hundred times before, and as a result, it’s just not as engaging on a dramatic level. What it lacks in originality, however, it makes up for in sheer visual spectacle. The action sequences look amazing, but it’s the relationships between man and ape, as well as ape and ape, that are the driving force behind the film, and they wouldn’t be as effective without the groundbreaking technology on display. Andy Serkis is excellent once again as Caesar, but with so many ape characters fighting for face time this time around, the gimmick loses some of its “wow” factor. Even with those flaws, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is still a damn good sequel that, while not as smart and poignant as the 2011 sequel, is still a step up from most summer blockbusters.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Matt Reeves, there are some deleted scenes (with optional commentary) and seven production featurettes covering a range of topics including the cast, special effects, motion capture and more.


“The Hundred-Foot Journey”

WHAT: Following a family tragedy, the Kadam clan leaves India for Europe, eventually settling in a small town in southern France where they open a restaurant directly across from a Michelin-starred eatery operated by the snooty Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). But when the two establishments become embroiled in a childish war, the Kadams’ star-in-the-making chef (Manish Dayal) seeks to unite them through the power of food.

WHY: Movies like “The Hundred-Foot Journey” have been Disney’s bread and butter for years, although they’re usually packaged in the form of an underdog sports drama. But while the story (based on Richard C. Morais’ novel) has nothing to do with sports, the film follows the same basic formula of the subgenre, and the results are uninspired to say the least. Swap out the restaurant world for professional baseball and you could make the exact same movie about a talented but unorthodox minor league pitcher who rises through the ranks against all odds. You need only to watch the trailer to know how the film is going to play out, populated with stock characters that are as one-dimensional as the story itself. The performances aren’t anything special either, including Helen Mirren, who seems to be on auto-pilot for most of the movie, even if she’s easily the best thing about it. But while there’s definitely an audience for these kinds of cheesy, feel-good films (if there wasn’t, director Lasse Hallstrom would be out of a job), “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is so afraid to step out of its comfort zone that it isn’t just predictable – it’s pedestrian.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette, a discussion with producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, a tour of the set with Oprah and a recipe for Coconut Chicken.



WHAT: After her parents are murdered, a young woman named Sawa (India Eisley) teams up with her cop father’s ex-partner (Samuel L. Jackson) to take down a human trafficking cartel run by the same man responsible for making her an orphan.

WHY: Based on the ultraviolent 1998 anime of the same name, “Kite” is about as good as you’d expect for a movie that was dumped into theaters (likely due to a contractual obligation) with little fanfare. In other words, not very. Despite being somewhat of a cult hit within the anime community, the original film wouldn’t be nearly as memorable if not for its controversial graphic content. But in a post-Hit-Girl world, that stuff just isn’t as shocking as it once was, especially when the violence and sex is as watered down as it is in the live-action version. Though the filmmakers were smart to attach a big name (and self-professed anime fan) like Samuel L. Jackson to the project, the actor is unable to rescue the movie from a poor script, amateur direction and some terrible performances by his co-stars. More than anything else, though, it’s just incredibly boring. The uncut version of Yasuomi Umetsu’s anime was only 60 minutes long, so the fact that anyone thought that taking an already paper-thin plot and expanding it into a 90-minute movie was a good idea probably shouldn’t be making films in the first place.

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



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.



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.



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.


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