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.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“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.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“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.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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2014 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

year_end-jason

After watching hundreds of films throughout the year, it can be somewhat daunting trying to compile a Top 10 list that isn’t laden with footnotes, caveats and what-ifs. (That’s the whole point of the Honorable Mentions section.) My annual year-end features tend to follow a pretty similar formula in that two things are almost always certain – they will include a mix of blockbusters, awards contenders and genre flicks, and there will be several notable omissions – and the 2014 edition isn’t any different. So what if Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” didn’t make the cut, or that “Selma” is ranked too low? These are my favorite movies of the year, and if you’ve got a problem with that, go make your own list.

Best Movies of 2014

1. “WHIPLASH

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 year; 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 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.

whiplash

2. “BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

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.

birdman

3. “NIGHTCRAWLER

Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” might just be the most frightening film of the year – not in the scares it delivers (because there are none), but rather the chilling peek that it provides behind the curtain of a completely different kind of horror: local TV news. This isn’t the first time that subject has been satirized before in cinema, but “Nightcrawler” tells its darkly comic tale of immorality in the newsroom through the eyes of a Rupert Pupkin-esque antihero more terrifying than any masked killer. The cinematic influences are boundless in Gilroy’s directorial debut, but that hasn’t stopped him from producing a first-rate thriller highlighted by a career-best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor has been taking bigger risks lately with darker, more mature material, and Louis Bloom is the pinnacle of this career rebirth – a wickedly entrancing and transformative piece of acting that’s fully deserving of an Oscar nomination. Rene Russo is also really good as the Dr. Frankenstein to Gyllenhaal’s monster, feeding into his sociopathic tendencies with an equally amoral disposition, but the movie simply wouldn’t work without Gyllenhaal’s dynamic performance, because it’s the quiet ferocity he brings to the role that makes Bloom such a fascinating character.

nightcrawler

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2014 Year End Movie Review: David Medsker

year_end-david

Let’s get this out of the way up front: there is a lot of popcorn on my list this year. That might sound bad, since critics are supposed to dislike what’s popular (that’s not true, actually: we just dislike anything we think is bad, whether or not it’s popular), but hey, I’m just happy that I liked enough movies this year to put a Top 10 list together. (This is my first full Top 10 since 2010.) There weren’t a lot of blockbusters this year, but some of the year’s biggest films were big for a reason: they were better than the others.

Of course, I say that, and yet the top four movies on my list barely made a penny. Let’s see if we can change that, shall we?

My Favorite Movies of 2014

1. “WHIPLASH

The Battle of Alpha Males: it’s a timeless plot device. Usually it concerns two guys on the same level (“Tin Men,” “Pushing Tin”) and sometimes involves having sex with your enemy’s spouse (again, “Tin Men” and “Pushing Tin), but here it is the battle of student versus teacher at a music conservatory. Miles Teller, the prodigious drummer, and J.K. Simmons, the sadistic teacher, have never been better, but the movie’s best trick is that it gets the audience to root for both sides, even though both men are horribly flawed and unlikable. It came and went quietly in its theatrical run, but this is a must-see when it hits the video circuit.

whiplash-dm

2. “NIGHTCRAWLER

It’s assumed that everyone’s soul has a price, that there is a limit to what people will do for money or success. “Nightcrawler” makes it painfully clear that when it comes to a functioning sociopath like Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s superb), all bets are off. Indeed, the uplifting corporate buzz speak that Louis uses to influence characters in the film serves a dual purpose: it gets him what he wants, and it warns the audience that if they work with or for anyone who uses that language, RUN.

3. “BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

There are so many genius moments in this movie that it is hard to count. The entire movie is shot to look like it was done in one take, even though it takes place over several days (your move, Alfonso Curaón). Edward Norton is pitch-perfect casting for the part of Mike, playing on his own reputation as a difficult actor, but having Michael Keaton play the lead, a guy who did exactly what his character does in walking away from a blockbuster franchise, is just sublime. It is one of the rare films that uses mainstream pop culture as a means to make an artful statement about life. There are many unforgettable moments, but the movie’s last shot will be permanently etched into your memory.

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Movie Review: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

Starring
Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu was part of the Mexican Invasion that took Hollywood by storm in the early naughts alongside such visionaries like Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón. But after his little-seen 2010 drama “Biutiful,” he went on an unexpected sabbatical that left many wondering if he’d ever return. Iñarritu spent the last four years licking his wounds over the mixed reception of that film (as well as globe-trotting Oscar bait “Babel”), but he’s officially back with what’s arguably his best movie to date: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a daring piece of filmmaking that’s as refreshingly original as it is wildly ambitious. The movie doesn’t always work – in fact, it’s sometimes as messy as the characters that inhabit it – but it’s also the type of magical cinematic experience that, just like fellow countryman Cuarón’s “Gravity,” you can only gaze in childlike wonder as it unfolds before you.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor best known for playing a superhero called Birdman in a series of successful Hollywood blockbusters. Desperate to revive his career and earn a little credibility in the process, Riggan mounts an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. When one of the actors is injured in a freak accident, Riggan’s indebted co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts), recommends her boyfriend and theater luminary Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a last-minute replacement. There’s no denying that Mike is a talented actor, but his unconventional methods lead to a clash of egos between him and Riggan, and with only days to go until opening night, the whole production becomes in danger of shutting down before it even begins – especially if the cynical and malicious voice in Riggan’s head (a manifestation of his Birdman alter ego) has anything to say about it.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to October

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October has never really been known for its quality, but in recent years, studios have been a lot more open about releasing potential awards contenders alongside the usual array of horror flicks. In fact, 2013 saw two of the year’s most-nominated movies – “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” – released during this time, and that trend appears to continue this year as well, with no fewer than six potential Oscar hopefuls debuting throughout the month. The October lineup is certainly tasty, which is only good news for moviegoers, because that means you can see some of these prospective gems that much sooner.

“Gone Girl”

Who: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry
What: When his wife’s disappearance becomes the focus of an intense media circus, a man sees the spotlight turned on him when he’s suspected of foul play.
When: October 3rd
Why: With the exception of “Aliens 3,” David Fincher’s body of work is almost flawless, and there’s little reason to believe that “Gone Girl” will change that. Though this marks his fifth film in a row to be adapted from preexisting source material, Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel is tailor-made for the edgy director. The decision to hire Flynn to also write the screenplay was certainly a bold move, but Fincher has a history of making offbeat choices that work surprisingly well, and that extends to the cast of “Gone Girl” as well. Ben Affleck probably wouldn’t be most people’s top pick for the lead role, and the supporting cast is even stranger, but if anyone deserves your blind trust, it’s Fincher.

“Annabelle”

Who: Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard and Eric Ladin
What: A couple begin to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists.
When: October 3rd
Why: It’s not often that a horror movie finds so much success both critically and commercially, but “The Conjuring” is without a doubt one of the best horror films of the past 20 years. And while fans wait for the inevitable sequel, they can dive deeper into the film’s mythology with this spinoff featuring the creepy Annabelle doll. Though it’s hard to imagine an immobile doll carrying an entire movie on her own, the trailer suggests that Annabelle isn’t responsible for a bulk of the scares, but rather the spirit that’s attached itself to her. The whole thing feels more like a cheap cash-in than a necessary addition to the “Conjuring” franchise, but with James Wan’s longtime DP behind the camera, we’re hoping for the best.

“The Judge”

Who: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga and Billy Bob Thorton
What: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder.
When: October 10th
Why: Now that Robert Downey Jr. is a huge movie star (thanks again, Marvel), the actor can pretty much do whatever he wants, including producing smaller, character-driven dramas like “The Judge” under his new company with wife Susan Downey. But while the film boasts an interesting premise and a superb cast of actors, the decision to hire David Dobkin, who’s best known for directing comedies like “Wedding Crashers” and “Fred Claus,” is extremely odd, particularly because he has zero experience handling serious material like this. Warner Bros. is obviously angling for awards consideration with its Oscar-bait plot, but reactions were very mixed after its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, with many praising the actors but damning Dobkin and the clichéd script.

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