Blu Tuesday: Catching Fire, 12 Years a Slave 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 Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

WHAT: Humiliated by the stunt pulled by Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) at the end of the 74th Hunger Games, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) enlists the help of Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to squash a potential uprising by forcing previous victors (including Katniss and Peeta) into participating in a special 75th edition of the Games.

WHY: As far as book sequels go, “Catching Fire” isn’t exactly the most original, which is why I was pleasantly surprised by the film adaptation. Under the assured direction of Francis Lawrence, “Catching Fire” doesn’t just improve upon Suzanne Collins’ novel, but is superior to the first movie in just about every way, including more spirited performances from its two leads and better development for the supporting characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone – actors you wouldn’t normally associate with a big budget franchise like this – are just a few of the notable additions to the already impressive cast, and there’s not a weak link among them. The script by Oscar-winning screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt is also crucial to the movie’s success, removing a lot of the unnecessary filler while raising the stakes to create a smarter and more focused adaptation that’s extremely well-paced for its 146 minute runtime. “Catching Fire” is everything you could want from a sequel without many of the usual failings, and it’s a prime example of a tentpole film that offers both style and substance.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary with director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson, the Blu-ray release includes a ridiculously in-depth making-of featurette (clocking in at nearly 150 minutes) that covers pretty much every aspect of the filmmaking process, as well as some deleted scenes and a sneak peak at “Divergent.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“12 Years a Slave”

WHAT: The real-life story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and children in New York, who was kidnapped and sold back into slavery in 1841. Transported to the South, Northup spent 12 years working on various plantations, including one owned by the malicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

WHY:12 Years a Slave” is without a doubt Steve McQueen’s most accessible film to date. Though it boasts the same gorgeous cinematography from longtime collaborator Sean Bobbitt, it’s not as experimental as his first two films, instead opting for a more straightforward narrative. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t without its faults, and John Ridley’s screenplay is chief among them, riddled with bad dialogue that’s made only marginally better by the ensemble cast. Some of the actors treat it like they’re reading Shakespeare, and the theatricality of their performances weakens what would otherwise be powerful scenes. As a result, Chiwetel Ejiofor is left to shoulder most of the weight, and his brilliant performance not only holds the movie together, but outshines it completely. Without Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave” would be just another mediocre drama about slavery in the antebellum South. McQueen’s film is way too long for such a thinly scripted story, hammering you with the same ideas over and over to the point of exhaustion. It’s almost too in-your-face at times – less concerned with the character’s own emotional journey than piling on the white guilt – and though Solomon Northupp’s tale is one that deserves to be told, it could have benefited from a little restraint.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette titled “Historical Portrait,” profiles on the various cast and crew, and a short look at composing the score.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Oldboy”

WHAT: After he’s kidnapped, framed for the murder of his ex-wife and locked away in solitary confinement for 20 years, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is mysteriously released one day by his captors. Determined to seek revenge and track down his estranged daughter, Joe teams up with a kindly nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) to find out why he was imprisoned in the first place.

WHY: Rumors of an American remake of Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” had been swirling around Hollywood for so long that surely the people involved had to realize it was a bad idea. And when it was announced that Spike Lee would be the one to helm the U.S. version, any hope for the project went from bad to worse. As a director, Lee lacks the style or subtlety to even compete with Chan-wook’s atmospheric cult classic, and it definitely shows in the final product, abandoning the gritty, twisted nature of the original for a pulpier B-movie that is almost comically gratuitous with its violence. Josh Brolin performs admirably in the lead role, and Samuel L. Jackson makes the most of his few scenes, but Sharlto Copley’s villain is so atrocious from conception to execution that it completely derails any chance the movie had of being taken seriously. Though Lee’s version follows many of the same beats (including that unforgettable twist ending), it adds absolutely nothing to the story, reaffirming its status as one of the more pointless remakes in recent history.

EXTRAS: Apart from the making-of featurette, the rest of the extras – which includes an additional interview with Josh Brolin, an EPK-style promo piece and four alternate/extended scenes – are barely worth your time.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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2013 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

year_end

If you haven’t been to the movie theater over the past few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking that 2013 wasn’t a very good year for film. In fact, my own year-end list was looking pretty suspect before October, but as is usually the case, the awards season blitz was jam-packed with enough great movies to fill more than the customary ten spots. That made compiling this year’s best-of list a little more challenging than in years past, especially with so many popular choices relegated to honorable mentions or missing entirely. With that said, after much deliberating, flip-flopping and even revisiting certain films, the following represents what I believe to be the best of 2013.

Best Movies of 2013

1. “GRAVITY

It’s been six years since Alfonso Cuarón’s last feature film – the criminally underrated “Children of Men” – but his outer space survival thriller was well worth the wait. “Gravity” is the kind of movie that will likely change the way films are made in the future. From the stunning, single-take opening sequence that lasts more than 12 minutes, to the numerous set pieces throughout, “Gravity” is such a technical marvel that it looks like Cuarón shot the whole damn thing in space. Though the story is ridiculously simple, not a single second of its 91-minute runtime is wasted, extracting so much suspense from the film’s terrifying setup that the brief injections of comedy (courtesy of George Clooney’s easygoing astronaut) are a welcome reprieve from the almost unrelenting intensity. Sandra Bullock delivers one of the best performances of her career as the rookie astronaut caught up in a seemingly impossible situation, but the real star of “Gravity” is Cuarón himself, and he deserves every bit of praise for creating what can only be described as pure movie magic.

gravity

2. “AMERICAN HUSTLE

David O. Russell has always been a quality filmmaker, but he’s quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with thanks to movies like “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and this farcical con-artist caper. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ‘70s, “American Hustle” is immensely entertaining, impeccably structured and features top-notch acting from the entire cast. Forty pounds heavier and rocking the most elaborate comb-over you’ve ever seen, Christian Bale gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the straight man of the bunch. His co-stars aren’t quite as committed physically, but they’re just as good. Amy Adams oozes sexiness as Bale’s cunning partner in crime, scene stealer Jennifer Lawrence is an absolute riot as his unpredictable wife, and Bradley Cooper is hilarious as the short-tempered FBI agent in charge of the sting. The whole film is a lot funnier than you’d expect due to Russell and Eric Singer’s darkly comic script, and though some have argued that it’s too long, the characters are so richly developed and crackling with personality that I would have gladly spent another hour in their messed-up world.

american_hustle

3. “ABOUT TIME

Richard Curtis has written and directed some of the greatest romantic comedies of the past two decades, so it should come as no surprise that his latest movie follows in the same footsteps. Curtis’ films have always been about much more than the superficial meet-cute between boy and girl, and “About Time” is no different, aiming for something a lot deeper and more emotionally rewarding than the typical rom-com. Breakout star Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams have some fantastic chemistry, but it’s the relationship between Gleeson and Bill Nighy (playing the world’s coolest dad) that best serves the story’s central themes and leaves a more lasting impression, especially for anyone who’s ever lost a member of their family. Equally charming, funny and touching, “About Time” is classic Richard Curtis, through and through. And if the rumors about it being his directorial swan song are true, Curtis can take comfort in knowing that he went out on top, because this is not only his most mature and personal work to date, but it’s just a really beautiful film.

about_time

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Movie Review: “12 Years a Slave”

Starring
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson
Director
Steve McQueen

If the critics at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival had their way, “12 Years a Slave” would win the Academy Award for Best Picture, despite the fact that there are still plenty of Oscar hopefuls yet to be released. That kind of short-sightedness and hyperbolic mentality is exactly what’s wrong with the dog and pony show we call awards season, because while Steve McQueen’s historical drama may tick several of the requisite boxes for a typical Oscar-winning movie, it’s far too early to make that call. You can praise the film’s realistic depiction of slavery all you like, but just because “12 Years a Slave” is hard to watch doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s deserving of the top prize.

Based on the 1853 memoir of the same name, the film recounts the tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York in 1841. Well-educated and a talented violinist, Solomon is invited to Washington, D.C. by a pair of circus promoters who offer him a lucrative job playing at one of their shows. Upon arriving in the capital city, Solomon is wined and dined by the two men, only to awaken the next morning to find himself shackled and charged as a fugitive slave from Georgia. Despite his claims that he’s a free man, Solomon is wrangled up with other “fugitives” and shipped to a slave trader in the South, who then sells him to a kindly plantation owner named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But when Solomon causes trouble with one of Ford’s white employees, he’s sold again, this time to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a decidedly more malicious owner with a reputation for breaking the spirits of any slave under his rule.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to October

october

October has never been a particularly strong month for movies in the past, but that could all be about to change with the exciting crop of titles scheduled for release this year. Though there’s still the usual cluster of genre films (“Machete Kills,” “Carrie”), this month also features an extraordinate amount of quality, boasting no fewer than five movies with genuine Oscar potential. It seems award season is beginning a little early this year, and compared to what October typically brings, it’s hard to complain.

“GRAVITY”

Who: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney
What: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space
When: October 4th
Why: Alfonso Cuaron hasn’t made a feature-length film since 2006’s underrated tour de force “Children of Men,” but if the early buzz surrounding “Gravity” is to be believed, then it was well worth the wait. The sci-fi drama has been in development for what seems like years, and Warner Bros. deserves a lot of credit for taking the chance on such a daring project. It definitely helps when you have actors like Sandra Bullock and George Clooney attached, but with audiences constantly lamenting the lack of originality in the Hollywood system, it’s refreshing to see that studios haven’t completely abandoned this type of filmmaking. “Gravity” probably won’t make a ton of money at the box office, but it should be at the top of everyone’s must-see lists.

“RUNNER RUNNER”

Who: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton and Anthony Mackie
What: When a poor college student who cracks an online poker game goes bust, he arranges a face-to-face with the man he thinks cheated him.
When: October 4th
Why: If “Runner Runner” sounds like the unofficial sequel to “Rounders,” that’s because it was written by the same duo, Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Obviously, gambling is just the gateway into the world of their latest film, but fans of the 1998 poker thriller should be encouraged by their involvement, because they clearly know their way around the subject. Whether or not they strike gold twice remains to be seen, but “Runner Runner” has a good enough cast to pull it off. Justin Timberlake is a natural entertainer who’s only gotten better with experience, and though Ben Affleck appears to be hamming it up a bit as the villain, he’s proven that he can deliver great work with the right material and director.

“CAPTAIN PHILLIPS”

Who: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener and Max Martini
What: The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama.
When: October 11th
Why: There’s an inordinate amount of films based on true stories being released this year (even more so than usual), and Tom Hanks stars in two of them. But while moviegoers may be excited at the prospect of seeing the veteran actor play Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks,” the Paul Greengrass-directed “Captain Phillips” is the more intriguing of the pair. Many people don’t know much about the real-life events that inspired the movie, and that’s only going to work in its favor. Add to that Greengrass’ knack for dramatizing true stories (as evidenced in “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93”) and what looks like yet another Oscar-worthy performance by Hanks, and there’s no reason why “Captain Phillips” won’t be part of the conversation come awards time.

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