Blu Tuesday: Whiplash, Horrible Bosses 2 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.

“Whiplash”

WHAT: Jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) doesn’t just want to be great; he wants to be one of the greats. When he’s given an opportunity to attend Shaffer Conservatory, the top music school in the country, under the tutelage of tyrannical instructor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew is pushed to his limits and beyond by Fletcher’s extreme teaching methods.

WHY: 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 2014; 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 (think R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket”) 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.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director Damien Chazelle and actor J.K. Simmons, there’s a featurette about famous drummers and their craft, footage from the movie’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, a deleted scene and the original short film.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Horrible Bosses 2″

WHAT: Following the events of the last film, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) decide to become their own bosses by inventing a product called the Shower Buddy. But when their key investor (Christoph Waltz) backs out at the last minute, leaving them with thousands of dollars in inventory, the guys decide to kidnap his jerk son (Chris Pine) and hold him for ransom.

WHY: When it was announced that Warner Bros. was moving ahead with a sequel to their breakout hit, “Horrible Bosses,” it sounded like a pretty awful idea, especially due to the nature of the original premise. That’s probably why Seth Gordon decided not to return as well, so credit to co-writer/director Sean Anders for not only having the balls to take over the reins, but for coming up with an idea that actually makes sense. Sadly, while the kidnapping plot does allow for Nick, Kurt and Dale to embark on yet another criminal misadventure, the film itself is a mixed bag. Though there are some really funny bits thanks to the chemistry between the three leads (as well as a scene-stealing cameo by Kevin Spacey), the characters themselves have been downgraded from bumbling fools to complete idiots. It may have been cute the first time around, but there’s simply no way these guys could be this dumb and still expect the audience to root for them. “Horrible Bosses 2” is better than expected thanks to its ensemble cast, even if Jennifer Aniston and Christoph Waltz are mostly wasted in their roles, but unlike the first movie, it fails to give you a reason to care.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, alternate line readings/outtakes, a brief look at filming the high speed chase sequence and some silly infomercials.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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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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Blu Tuesday: Nightcrawler, Laggies 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.

“Nightcrawler”

WHAT: When he witnesses a freelance cameraman filming a car accident one night, go-getter Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) believes that he’s found his calling. After trading some stolen loot to a pawn shop in exchange for a camcorder and police scanner, Louis hits the ground running, eventually selling his first footage to sleazy news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo). But once Louis gets a taste of success, he’ll do whatever it takes to get the best shot, even if that means crossing lines that aren’t meant to be crossed.

WHY: Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” might just be the most frightening film of the 2014 – 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 commanding performance, because it’s the quiet intensity he brings to the role that makes Bloom such a fascinating character.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writer/director Dan Gilroy, producer Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy, as well as the making-of featurette “If It Bleeds, It Leads.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Laggies”

WHAT: After her high school sweetheart (Mark Webber) suddenly proposes after ten years of dating, slacker woman-child Megan (Keira Knightley) panics, running away for the week to collect her thoughts under the guise of a self-improvement seminar. Instead, Megan hides out in the home of her new 16-year-old friend, Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), whose single father, Craig (Sam Rockwell), is more than a little bewildered by the whole situation.

WHY: Lynn Shelton loves a good awkward situation, and though the central plot of her latest movie isn’t as uncomfortable to watch as the ones in past films like “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister,” the idea of a grown woman hanging out with a bunch of teenagers is nothing if not strange. Thankfully, “Laggies” finds the heart and humor in Megan’s newfound friendship instead of making it seem pathetic or creepy, and a large part of that is down to Keira Knightley’s charming performance. After spending nearly a decade starring almost exclusively in stuffy period dramas, it’s nice to see the actress mixing it up with more modern roles, because it gives her the chance to showcase another side of her personality. Knightley brings a childlike energy to Megan that makes her immensely likable, and she’s supported by a pair of solid performances from Chloe Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell in good but unremarkable roles. “Laggies” is without a doubt Shelton’s most mainstream movie to date, albeit with a decidedly indie flair, and while it’s almost too sweet and innocent to leave much of a lasting impression, it’s also not a bad way to spend two hours.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Lynn Shelton, a pair of production featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Kill the Messenger”

WHAT: While working as a Senior Investigative Reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) uncovers a story about the CIA permitting the sale of cocaine in the U.S. to fund a rebellion in Nicaragua, unwittingly putting his career and family in danger when he becomes the target of a smear campaign.

WHY: Some actors may be hesitant about “selling out” by doing a big Hollywood blockbuster, but if successful, it can go a long way towards getting smaller, more personal films off the ground. Case in point: “Kill the Messenger,” a passion project for star/producer Jeremy Renner that probably wouldn’t have been made were it not for the actor’s involvement in a certain billion-dollar franchise. But while Gary Webb’s true-life story about the cost of seeking out the truth is certainly interesting enough to warrant the big screen treatment, the film is a pretty conventional political thriller that skates by on Renner’s strong performance. The supporting cast is also stacked with talent, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt and Michael Sheen, but with the exception of Rosemarie DeWitt as Gary’s wife, many of them are glorified cameos. The biggest problem with “Kill the Messenger” is that it’s a tale of two halves – the investigation and the backlash that Gary received as a result of his report – and while the former makes for some engaging viewing, the latter portion seems to poke more holes in the story than support it, despite a convenient piece of text at the end that confirms Gary’s findings were correct. Still, it’s a pretty humdrum ending for a story that so many people were passionate about telling.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary by director Michael Cuesta, 10 minutes of deleted scenes, and a trio of short featurettes on the cast, filming in Georgia and real-life drug trafficker “Freeway Ricky” Ross, played by Michael K. Williams in the movie.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: John Wick, Dracula Untold 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.

“John Wick”

WHAT: When his prized Mustang is stolen and his pet beagle (a final gift from his dying wife) is murdered, ex-hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) comes out of retirement to exact revenge on the one responsible – Iosef (Alfie Allen), the spoiled son of a Russian gangster (Michael Nyqvist) – and anyone else who gets in his way.

WHY: Keanu Reeves has made some great action movies (“Speed,” “The Matrix”), as well as some not-so-great ones, over the course of his career, and though “John Wick” isn’t quite good enough to be counted among the former, it’s a fun little genre flick destined for cult status. Reeves is certainly in his element as the soft-spoken hitman, piling up bodies by the minute and almost always finishing them off with a bullet to the head. (Seriously, there are more headshots in this film than you can count.) The movie does get a bit repetitive after a while due to the rinse-and-repeat nature of the fight sequences, but those scenes are also what makes it so giddily entertaining, featuring an old-school sensibility that focuses more on the kinetic energy of the action than fancy choreography or camera movement. It also boasts an impressive ensemble cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo and Lance Reddick, not to mention Adrianne Palicki – who’s pretty much cornered the market on sexy, badass women – in an amusing supporting turn as a rival assassin. “John Wick” could have been really terrible, but it never takes itself too seriously, instead embracing the outlandish premise with such cool self-awareness that it practically dares you not to have a good time.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary with directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at the fight choreography and five additional production featurettes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Dracula Untold”

WHAT: Decades after being taken hostage as a teenager and forced to fight for the Ottoman Empire, Transylvanian prince Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) has put down his sword in order to rule his people. But when Turkish sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper) demands 1,000 youths for his army – including Vlad’s only son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson) – Vlad refuses to submit, instead making a deal with an ancient vampire (Charles Dance) to give him the power required to protect his land from Turkish retaliation.

WHY: It seems like everyone is getting an origin story these days, so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood treated its original bad boy to one of his own. Unfortunately, the last thing that anyone needed was another film that tries to humanize a classic villain with a backstory explaining why they broke bad, especially one as iconic as Dracula, because it completely undermines everything that makes him so fascinating. Refashioning Dracula as a misunderstood antihero is a difficult proposition on its own, and director Gary Shore doesn’t do himself any favors by having the Transylvanians speak with British accents. Whether it’s because Luke Evans was incapable of delivering a suitable accent, or Shore just wanted to move away from the stereotypical Dracula performance, it’s an odd and distracting decision, particularly when the rival Turks sound exactly as they should. Evans isn’t the worst choice to play Vlad, but while he has the right look and brooding presence, he delivers every line like he’s performing a Shakespearian adaptation of “300.” For all of its faults, however, “Dracula Untold” fails primarily for the same reason as Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” – the man before the legend isn’t as interesting as the legend himself. There’s a good reason this part of the Dracula lore remained untold, and it should’ve stayed that way.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Gary Shore and production designer Francois Audouy, scene-specific commentary by star Luke Evans, a video diary from the set, deleted scenes, an alternate opening and more.

FINAL VERDICT:

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Blu Tuesday: Fury, The Book of Life 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.

“Fury”

WHAT: It’s April 1945, and while World War II has all but ended, the U.S. military makes its final push through the Germany to wipe out the remaining Nazi resistance. On the front line is Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), a seasoned tank veteran who’s been fighting with the same crew since North Africa. But when their assistant driver is killed in action, clerk typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is ordered to replace him, despite having no experience on the battlefield.

WHY: Dayid Ayer has always made macho movies, and it’s a trademark that he wears like a badge of honor in his WWII drama, “Fury.” Though it’s nice to see the writer/director taking a much-needed break from the crime thrillers that have dominated his career, “Fury” also represents” a more mature piece of work for him, showcasing his growth as a storyteller without abandoning the gritty style that sets the movie apart from the countless others in the genre. Revolving an entire film around a tank may not seem very compelling, but it’s actually what makes “Fury” such a refreshing take on the WWII conflict. Ayer captures the claustrophobia and helplessness of the whole tank experience, while the actors form a great camaraderie that feels every bit as genuine as the bond that real-life tank crews undoubtedly developed from spending so much time together. Though it doesn’t stray from the psychological horrors of warfare, “Fury” is most enjoyable when the titular vehicle is unleashed on the battlefield, including an edge-of-your-seat showdown between three American tanks and the bigger, stronger German Tiger tank, as well as a climactic standoff between Wardaddy’s crew and a battalion of SS soldiers. It’s fantastically intense stuff, delivering a raw and unflinching look at the brutality of WWII that stands as one of the best war movies of the past decade.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes over 50 minutes of deleted scenes and four featurettes covering production, the film’s authenticity and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Book of Life”

WHAT: The spirits La Muerte (Kate de Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, make a wager about which childhood friend – bullfighter/musician Manolo (Diego Luna) or heroic soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum) – will marry the beautiful Maria (Zoe Saldana). But when Xibalba interferes by tricking Manolo into the underworld, he enlists the help of his deceased family members to escape.

WHY: If you happened to catch any of the TV spots for “The Book of Life” – which were largely comprised of footage of the voice actors in the recording booth – you’d think that the studio was trying to hide a bad film behind famous faces like Channing Tatum and Zoe Saldana. Thankfully, that’s not the case, because although “The Book of Life” is a pretty formulaic kid’s film, what it lacks in originality from a narrative standpoint, it makes up for with some gorgeous visuals, unique art design and a strong message. It also boasts some cool mariachi-style versions of popular songs by Radiohead, Mumford & Sons and more, though the film isn’t without its flaws. The story’s love triangle is so lopsided in favor of Manolo that it’s embarrassing, while the casting of Tatum (even if he’s just providing a voice) seems really insensitive considering there are plenty of Hispanic actors that would have been a better fit. Granted, they don’t have the same box office draw, but for a movie that’s so engrained in Mexican culture, “The Book of Life” should have taken the high road, even if it doesn’t have a drastic effect on the overall experience.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Jorge R. Gutierrez, a trio of featurettes on production, art direction and the soundtrack, a new short film and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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