Blu Tuesday: Transcendence, Sabotage 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.

“Transcendence”

WHAT: When anti-technology extremists assassinate Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) – a renowned scientist in the field of artificial intelligence – as part of a series of synchronized attacks, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) uploads his consciousness to a supercomputer. But once Will achieves transcendence, he proves to be far more dangerous than those trying to stop him.

WHY: It’s difficult to pinpoint where “Transcendence” went so horribly wrong, because it’s a colossal mess of a movie that is neither entertaining nor inspires the kind of thought-provoking discussion that it likely intended. Though Jack Paglen’s screenplay topped the 2012 edition of the Black List (an annual survey of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood), whatever made people so excited about it must have been lost in translation. That blames mostly falls on Wally Pfister, who doesn’t seem to have a very good grasp on what to do with Paglen’s sophisticated premise. Pfister may be one of the best cinematographers in the game, but he probably should have chosen something a little less ambitious for his directorial debut, because he bit off more than he could chew with this high-concept techno-thriller, which moves like molasses and isn’t terribly engaging. Maybe he thought that assembling an impressive ensemble cast would be enough to hide the film’s narrative flaws, but the performances are just as poor, especially Johnny Depp, who phones in his performance as the ghost in the machine. “Transcendence” certainly had the makings of an excellent cerebral thriller, but instead, it will only give you a headache thinking about all the wasted potential.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a quartet of mini-featurettes on things like Wally Pfister’s creative process and the potential of artificial intelligence, as well as some viral videos from the film’s marketing campaign.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Sabotage”

WHAT: An elite DEA task force steals $10 million during a drug raid on a cartel safe house, but when they go back to retrieve the hidden money, they discover that it’s missing. As members of the team start to get picked off in brutal fashion, their leader John “Breacher” Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) joins up with a homicide detective to track down the people responsible, with the surviving agents suspecting it could be someone from within their own ranks.

WHY: Arnold Schwarzenegger has been hard at work since his return from retirement, but he’s still yet to make a film that measures up to his more iconic roles. “Sabotage” certainly had the potential to be that movie, but this modern-day twist on Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” is just another disappointing genre flick. More of a slow-burning crime thriller than the action-packed film the trailers suggested, “Sabotage” represents an interesting change of pace for Schwarzenegger. This is the most subdued that the actor has ever been, but he’s just not as entertaining without his larger-than-life charisma to fall back on, with his co-stars constantly upstaging him. In fact, the movie’s best moments come from the frat-like camaraderie between the task force members, so when they start dropping like flies, so does the enthusiasm earned from the high-octane set piece that opens the film, eventually devolving into a dull whodunit. The route that David Ayer and Skip Woods’ script takes wouldn’t feel so anticlimactic if it weren’t lacking so badly in any sort of tension, because there’s nothing about “Sabotage” that’s even remotely surprising, except perhaps for the fact that a movie with such a cool premise and awesome cast could be this boring.

EXTRAS: There’s a short making-of featurette, a pair of alternate endings and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: The Raid 2, Bad Words and Nymphomaniac

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 Raid 2″

WHAT: In order to protect himself and his family from being targeted for retaliation, honest cop Rama (Iko Uwais) agrees to go undercover to find the source of corruption in the city’s police force. After making friends with the son of a respected crime boss, Rama is hired as an enforcer for the syndicate, only to find himself smack dab in the middle of a turf war between his boss and the Japanese yakuza.

WHY: It would have been all too easy for Gareth Evans to deliver a rinse-and-repeat sequel to his 2012 cult classic, so it’s refreshing to see the filmmaker take a risk with such a strikingly ambitious follow-up like “The Raid 2,” a slower, operatic crime saga with a lot more moving parts than its predecessor. The first movie was a non-stop action-fest with very little room for anything else, but while the added depth and drama is greatly appreciated this time around, Evans never forgets that he’s making an action film, sprinkling some bone-crunching, blood-spurting set pieces into each act. Many of the action scenes aren’t as memorable as the ones from the original, but they’re all ridiculously entertaining, including a fight inside a moving car that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Though the movie is a bit long at 150 minutes, the runtime is mostly justified considering the vast scope of the story. Some fans will undoubtedly be disappointed at how different it is from the original, but that’s exactly what makes it so great, because although “The Raid 2” may not provide the same adrenaline rush of its faster-paced, more contained predecessor, but it’s a richer and more sophisticated action-thriller that ranks among the best crime films ever made.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Gareth Evans, the Blu-ray release includes a short making-of featurette, a pair of more in-depth featurettes on location shooting and action choreography, a lengthy Q&A session with Evans, star Iko Uwais and composer Joe Trapanese and an ultra-violent deleted scene.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Bad Words”

WHAT: After middle-aged loser Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) uncovers a loophole in the spelling bee bylaws that allows him to participate in – and win – his regional tournament, he’s begrudgingly invited to the prestigious Golden Quill national spelling bee. But while Guy has ulterior motives for taking part in the competition, his endgame is threatened when he befriends a precocious 10-year-old contestant (Rohan Chand) willing to do whatever it takes to win.

WHY: If “Bad Words” sounds like the 2003 comedy “Bad Santa,” you’re not alone. But while the comparisons are inevitable, “Bad Words” isn’t nearly as crude or edgy as the holiday cult classic. That’s not to say that Jason Bateman’s directorial debut doesn’t have a mean streak, because it relishes every opportunity to be naughty, but the film also feels like it’s playing it safe at times so as to not completely alienate its protagonist. Guy is hardly a saint (his motives are not only selfish, but pretty juvenile), but he also isn’t as bad as he appears on the surface, as evidenced in the big brother-little brother bond that he forms with Chand’s pint-sized sidekick. The child actor is excellent opposite his director/co-star, but this is Bateman’s show, with Andrew Dodge’s script playing to the actor’s strengths so well that you’d think it was written specifically for him. It’s not easy making a jerk like Guy seem likable, but Bateman does a solid job of pushing boundaries without going too far over the line. That’s a credit to his work behind the camera as well, because although the story is a little undercooked and the big “twist” is entirely predictable, “Bad Words” delivers enough hilarious, foul-mouthed mischief to deserve its title.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by Jason Bateman, a making-of featurette and some deleted and extended scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Nymphomaniac: Volume I and Volume II”

WHAT: When she’s found beaten in an alley by a scholarly gentleman (Stellan Skarsgard) and taken into his home to tend to her wounds, self-diagnosed nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounts her sexually depraved life story, from adolescence to adulthood.

WHY: Split into two parts for its U.S. release, probably because it would have been unbearable to watch in one sitting, “Nymphomaniac” is almost maddeningly pretentious, even for a director like Lars von Trier. This is a film with its head so far up its own ass – stretching to draw parallels between Joe’s sexual misadventures and subjects ranging from fly fishing to music theory) that it’s hard to discern whether von Trier is just fucking with the audience. “Nymphomaniac” is neither as intelligent nor as darkly comical as it pretends to be, and it’s also surprisingly anti-erotic for a movie largely about sex, although in the case of the latter, that might actually be the point. Unfortunately, that message is lost amid the dense screenplay, the lack of a compelling protagonist and some terrible acting by Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater and others. Newcomer Stacy Martin delivers a fearless and assured debut as the young Joe, but she’s one of the few highlights in an otherwise ugly and uninteresting film. So when her character weepingly declares, “I don’t feel anything,” at the end of Volume One, it’s easy to relate, especially with another (and worse) volume still left to slog through.

EXTRAS: There’s a behind-the-scenes fluff piece produced for AXS TV and a trio of featurettes about the film’s characters, director and sex scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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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Blu Tuesday: House of Cards, The LEGO Movie 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.

“House of Cards: Season Two”

WHAT: After being sworn in as the new Vice President, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) continues his quest for absolute power alongside his equally manipulative wife, Claire (Robin Wright). Meanwhile, a team of D.C. journalists investigate Frank’s involvement in Peter Russo’s death, witnessing first-hand the level of corruption at work in their government.

WHY: Season Two of “House of Cards” will likely be labeled a disappointment by some, but while it’s noticeably weaker than the Netflix drama’s debut season, it’s still better than a vast majority of the shows on television. After all, there aren’t many series that would kill off one of its main characters in the first episode, especially in such ruthless and shocking fashion, but it’s a necessary move that signals a change in the direction of the show. The ancillary subplots aren’t nearly as interesting this time around (particularly the stuff between Michael Kelly’s Chief of Staff and Rachel Brosnahan’s reformed call girl), and even the main story feels a bit stretched at times with the constant back and forth between Underwood and Raymond Tusk, but there’s rarely a dull moment thanks to the excellent writing and performances. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are in top form once again as the conniving husband-and-wife duo, while Molly Parker (of “Deadwood” fame) is a welcome addition to the cast as the new House Whip. And when you have characters as brilliantly realized as the ones that populate “House of Cards,” you’re allowed a few missteps every once in a while.

EXTRAS: The four-disc set boasts a quartet of production featurettes (including an examination of the differences between the British and American versions of the show) and a behind-the-scenes look at a table read for two episodes from Season One.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“The LEGO Movie”

WHAT: When an ordinary LEGO construction worker named Emmet (Chris Pratt) stumbles upon an ancient artifact, he’s declared “The Special” by an underground group of rebels led by the blind prophet Vitruvis (Morgan Freeman), who believes that Emmet is the only one capable of stopping the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) from destroying their world.

WHY: When “The LEGO Movie” was first announced, there were obvious concerns about whether it would just play like one long commercial for the popular toy brand. But while the folks at LEGO have undoubtedly seen a nice bump in business since its release, the film is so much more than that – smart, funny and surprisingly heartfelt. A lot of that credit goes to directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who bring the LEGO universe to life with the sort of boundless imagination that the movie preaches to its audience. Though the script borrows heavily from “The Matrix” (from its main story, to the three leads, to its anti-conformatist message), that’s merely the setup for a much more sophisticated payoff that is equally daring and brilliant. For as great as the film’s ending may be, however, it wouldn’t feel earned if the first two-thirds weren’t so enjoyable. And thanks to some incredible visuals, great voice work (particularly by Chris Pratt) and hilarious gags, “The LEGO Movie” isn’t just one of the best animated films in years, but it’s also one of the best movies of 2014 thus far.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary with directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (along with actors Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Alison Brie and Charlie Day) and a host of bonus material like a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, outtakes and a series of fun mini-featurettes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

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Blu Tuesday: True Detective, Non-Stop and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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.

“True Detective: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: In 1995, Louisiana detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) track down the disturbed murderer of a young woman while dealing with personal issues that threaten to interfere with the case. 17 years later, a similar murder brings the two cops back together when their original case is reopened for investigation.

WHY: Few shows have had such a spellbinding effect on its audience like HBO’s “True Detective,” the gritty crime drama that feels more like an eight-hour movie than a limited TV series. That’s because everything about the show is incredibly cinematic, from the smart writing by creator Nic Pizzolatto, to the brilliant direction by Cary Fukunaga, to Adam Arkapaw’s gorgeous cinematography. This is the kind of show that requires absolute patience and trust in the storytellers, opting for a slow-burning pace that allows the characters to evolve naturally over the course of its time-jumping narrative. Unlike most crime dramas, the mystery surrounding the killer’s identity is never as important as Rust and Marty’s respective arcs, and that’s what makes it such rich and gripping television. Well, that and two knockout performances by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who deliver some of the best work of their careers as the strikingly different partners. They elevate “True Detective” from a damn good drama to one that will be remembered as one of the greatest shows of its time, and while that kind of praise only heaps even more pressure on Pizzolatto for Season Two, if the first season is anything to go by, he’s definitely up for the challenge.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries with creator Nic Pizzolatto, composer T Bone Burnett and executive producer Scott Stephens, there’s a making-of featurette, interviews with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, deleted scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Non-Stop”

WHAT: While on a transatlantic flight from New York to London, air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) receives a series of text messages threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into an off-shore account. But when it’s made to look like Marks is the one hijacking the plane, he must find the real culprit before it’s too late.

WHY: Liam Neeson has certainly made a go of this whole action star phase over the last few years, but even he must be growing tired of playing what’s essentially the same character over and over again. Granted, “Non-Stop” doesn’t have nearly as much action as its trailers would lead you to believe, but just like “Unknown,” Jaume Collet-Serra’s previous collaboration with Neeson, it’s a disappointing attempt to cash in on the success of the “Taken” franchise. For as ridiculous as the premise may be (and it becomes even more so as the story progresses), “Non-Stop” does a good job of building suspension by throwing an almost endless barrage of red herrings at the audience. The bad guy could pretty much be anyone on the plane – from Julianne Moore’s chatty passenger, to Michelle Dockery’s meek stewardess, to Corey Stoll’s no-nonsense NYPD cop – and Collet-Serra makes the most of that paranoia. Where “Non-Stop” fails, however, is in its last-ditch effort to suddenly become an action movie in the final act, letting out all the mounting tension like air from a balloon.

EXTRAS: There’s a pair of short featurettes covering various aspects of production, but sadly, that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”

WHAT: When CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack, he’s sent into the field for his very first mission. But after his fiancée (Kiera Knightley) arrives in Moscow unannounced, Jack must keep her out of harm’s way as he attempts to defuse the threat against the country he swore to protect.

WHY: Unlike James Bond or Batman, it’s hard to imagine that a Jack Ryan reboot (especially one packaged as an origin story) was in very high demand, but that didn’t stop Paramount from making it anyway. After all, franchises are a hot commodity these days, and the studio apparently has so much faith in Chris Pine that they’ve entrusted him with yet another iconic character despite already playing Captain Kirk in the new “Star Trek” films. It’s not that the actor is necessarily bad for the role – he can be extremely charming at times and has proven himself adept at action – but the casting is uninspired to say the least. However, Kevin Costner (as Ryan’s mentor) and Kenneth Branagh (pulling double duty as the film’s villain) are both enjoyable in supporting roles, while Keira Knightley does the best she can with an underwritten character. The only reason the actress likely even bothered with such a rote action thriller was the chance to work with Branagh, and although the director isn’t exactly in top form here, he makes “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” a lot more entertaining than it deserved to be.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary with director Kenneth Branagh and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, six deleted scenes, a retrospective on the Jack Ryan franchise, a profile on Branagh and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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