Blu Tuesday: A Hard Day’s Night, 300: Rise of an Empire 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.

“A Hard Day’s Night”

WHAT: The Beatles travel from Liverpool to London for a live television performance, with Paul’s mischievous grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) tagging along on the trip.

WHY: The first of many feature-length films starring the iconic rock group, “A Hard Day’s Night” is a bit of a mixed bag, but it’s one that fans of the Beatles will undoubtedly enjoy. Though the movie drags a little in the second half as the band prepares for their concert (the Ringo subplot is especially sluggish), there’s so much great material in the scenes leading up to it that it’s easy to forgive. The opening 30 minutes in particular are chockfull of laughs, fully embracing the zany humor of the band members with such manic energy that it’s almost impossible to keep up at times. (The infamous Lennon/Coke bit is practically treated like a throwaway gag.) And as you’d expect from a film starring the Beatles, “A Hard Day’s Night” also features some excellent musical performances, with director Richard Lester wisely shooting each one in a different style so that they don’t become stale by the time the big finale rolls around. But while it’s always a joy to see the Beatles perform, the movie works first and foremost as a comedy with musical bits in between. And running. Lots and lots of running.

EXTRAS: Criterion has packed this release with a treasure trove of bonus material, including a cast and crew commentary, a brand new behind-the-scenes featurette, Walter Shenson’s 1994 making-of documentary, the 2002 documentary “Things They Said Today” and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“300: Rise of an Empire”

WHAT: As King Leonidas and the brave 300 hold their ground at the Battle of Thermopylae, Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads his own army into combat against the invading Persian forces, which are commanded by Xerxes’ right-hand woman, the vengeful Greek warrior Artemisia (Eva Green).

WHY: It’s been so many years since the original “300” hit theaters that it’s hard to imagine many people still care about this long-gestating prequel/sequel, even if the very idea of a spinoff was ridiculous from the start. With that said, credit to writer Frank Miller for coming up with an idea that actually complements the first film, because “Rise of an Empire” would feel even more like a silly cash grab without a decent story in place. The CGI blood looks really fake, the dialogue is dreadful, and the attempts at providing a backstory for Xerxes are pointless. Plus, every time the movie flashes back to events from “300” or introduces some new connective tissue (like the returning Lena Headey), it only makes you wish you were watching that film instead. “Rise of an Empire” isn’t a complete waste of time, but that’s mostly thanks to Eva Green’s magnetic performance as the female villain, who uses her skills on the battlefield as well as in the bedroom (in one of the most awkward sex/fight scenes in cinematic history) to destroy the Greeks. The movie is almost worth watching for that scene alone. Almost.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a four-part featurette on the making of the film, a look at the real-life leaders and legends involved in the Greek/Persian wars, and additional featurettes on the female characters and the cast’s intense training regime.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Movie Review: “300: Rise of an Empire”

Starring
Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro, Lena Headey, Jack O’Connell
Director
Noam Murro

There is only one woman who doesn’t end up raped or murdered. The ones who are spared rape – presumably, anyway; for all we know, they were raped before we witness their deaths – are nearly all slaughtered while topless. Far be it from me to sound like a feminist, but there are parts of “300: Rise of an Empire” that are disturbing on a number of levels. Zack Snyder, who opted not to direct the follow-up to his 2006 smash “300” but co-wrote the screenplay, will likely argue that these were dark days, and heinous crimes were committed, and we will not debate either point. However, when all of the naked victims are ‘D’ cups, it sends a mixed message, to say the least.

The story takes place at the same time as “300” (give or take a few days) and takes a boatload of exposition to explain, as Athenian warrior Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads a small but tough group of men to battle against the invading Persian army. Much like his brother in arms King Leonidas, Themistocles and his battalion stun the Persians, and Themistocles even manages to kill Persian King Darius, who arrogantly attended the attack thinking he was untouchable. Unfortunately for Greece, Darius’ death opens the door for Darius’ ruthless naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) to persuade heir to the throne Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) to resist his father’s death-bed plea for peace and to instead bury Greece. Why is Artemisia so bent on Greece’s destruction? She is Greek herself, and is seeking revenge for the injustices done to her and her family by Greek forces when she was a girl.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to March

march

After what can only be described as a fairly lackluster start to 2014, moviegoers will be happy to discover that there are several promising titles scheduled for release throughout March. In addition to new films from Wes Anderson and Darren Aronofsky, this month marks the return of Veronica Mars, the debut of Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series and the arrival of a new challenger to the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”

Who: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Edward Norton, Adrian Brody and Saoirse Ronan
What: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.
When: March 7th
Why: At this point in Wes Anderson’s career, you either like his movies or you don’t, which is good news for fans of the eccentric director, because “The Grand Budapest Hotel” looks very much like more of the same. While not every one of his films is an instant classic (“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” remains his worst effort), audiences usually have a pretty good idea of what to expect from a typical Anderson project, and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is no different. Quirky dialogue? Check. Even quirkier characters? Check. Whimsical production design painted in vibrant colors? Check and check. And if that’s not enough to get you on board, the director’s ever-expanding pool of talent adds a few new faces to the mix with Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law and Saoirse Ronan, making this perhaps his most impressive ensemble to date.

“300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE”

Who: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro and Lena Headey
What: Greek general Themistokles leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes and his vengeful commander Artemisia.
When: March 7th
Why: It’s been so long since the original “300” hit theaters that it’s hard to imagine many people still care about this prequel/sequel, even if the very idea of a spinoff was ridiculous from the start. With that said, credit to Frank Miller for coming up with an idea that complements the first film instead of feeling like a silly cash grab. Though Sullivan Stapleton will have a tough time living up to Gerard Butler’s Leonidas (especially if you’ve seen his work on “Strike Back”), he fulfills the beefcake quotient, while Eva Green is already earning positive reviews for her turn as the female baddie. Seeing Noam Murro behind the camera of a big action movie like “Rise of an Empire” may be a little perplexing considering his only other credit is the indie dramedy “Smart People,” but judging from the trailers, he’s nailed the look and feel of Zack Snyder’s universe.

“NEED FOR SPEED”

Who: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Scott Mescudi and Michael Keaton
What: Fresh from prison, a street racer who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross-country race with revenge in mind.
When: March 14th
Why: It’s amazing that it took this long for another studio to exploit the success of the “Fast and Furious” franchise with a racing movie of its own, but considering that Electronic Arts’ “Need for Speed” video game series (from which the film gets its name) predates the original “The Fast and the Furious” by several years, you can hardly blame DreamWorks for wanting a piece of the pie. Casting Aaron Paul, hot off his Emmy-winning role on “Breaking Bad,” as the leading man is a surefire way to win support, though the involvement of director Scott Waugh (“Act of Valor”) is certainly cause for concern. One of the things that make the “Fast and Furious” movies so entertaining is that they don’t take themselves seriously, and if “Need for Speed” is unable to tap into that childish sense of fun, then it’s already lost before the race has begun.

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