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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Blu Tuesday: The Drop, Lucy 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 Drop”

WHAT: When the Chechen-owned drop bar that he works at is robbed by a pair of amateur thieves, well-meaning bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) and his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) are tasked with finding those responsible. Meanwhile, Bob finds a wounded pit bull in a trash can and decides to adopt it, but when the previous owner (Matthias Schoenaerts) resurfaces looking for trouble, he must decide how far he’s willing to go to protect the mutt and the woman (Noomi Rapace) helping him care for it.

WHY: Adapted by esteemed crime writer Dennis Lehane from his own short story, “The Drop” doesn’t have the same cynicism as past adaptions of the author’s work, but it’s a grimy little crime drama that harkens back to the great Sidney Lumet films of the 1970s. This is a movie that places mood and character above all else, and though it comes with the undesirable label of being James Gandolfini’s final screen appearance, “The Drop” is a well-paced and expertly acted film that serves as a fitting end to one actor’s career and the exciting emergence of another. Gandolfini shines as the wannabe tough guy who thinks he deserves more respect than he gets, but this is Hardy’s movie through and through, delivering an unusually subdued turn that becomes more impressive by the minute as he carefully peels back each layer of his character. Director Michaël R. Roskam and Lehane also deserve a lot of credit for their respective parts in crafting the movie, because although it hits all the familiar beats of a slow-burning crime thriller, there are just enough small nuances that allow it to stand on its own. Hollywood doesn’t make too many movies like this anymore, but “The Drop” is a perfect example of why it should.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Michaël R. Roskam and author Dennis Lehane, there’s a collection of deleted scenes with option commentary and five production featurettes, including a profile on the late James Gandolfini.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Lucy”

WHAT: An American student (Scarlett Johansson) living in Taiwan is forced to become a drug mule for the mob. But when the experimental substance implanted in her stomach accidentally leaks into her system, it grants her the capacity to tap into her brain’s full potential and unlock new abilities.

WHY: On the surface, “Lucy” sounds like a typical Luc Besson film, complete with a kickass heroine and goofy premise. But while the movie starts off that way, it eventually devolves into a metaphysical mess that’s equal parts “Tree of Life,” “Limitless” and “Transcendence,” with a not-so-subtle nod to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Though Besson is clearly intent on exploring deeper, philosophical themes with “Lucy,” he doesn’t seem to know what they are, or at the very least, able to convey them in a manner that doesn’t come across as just a bunch of gobbledygook tacked on at the end of a lifeless action thriller. The material prevents Johansson from doing anything other than look like a deer in headlights for 90 minutes, while Choi Min-sik is wasted as the one-dimensional villain and Morgan Freeman’s only purpose is to explain all the bullshit sciencey stuff. The film is also surprisingly short on action, which makes you question why Besson felt the need to package it like one of his usual genre movies at all, because although it’s nice to see the director stepping out of his comfort zone and taking bigger risks narratively, the problem with “Lucy” is that it none of it really works.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and a look at the science behind the film, namely the debate about the idea that humans only use 10 percent of their brains.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: Gone Girl 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.

“Gone Girl”

WHAT: When his wife (Rosamund Pike) disappears under mysterious circumstances, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect in the investigation. But while the media and townspeople are quick to vilify him, Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) senses that something isn’t quite right with the case.

WHY: It’s hard to imagine watching a film like “Gone Girl” having already read the Gillian Flynn novel on which it’s based, because the movie is a strikingly bold and unique murder mystery that hinges on the shock-and-awe nature of its dark, twisted story. You’d be hard-pressed to find a director more suitable for the material than David Fincher, and he handles the he-said/she-said dual narratives with razor-sharp precision. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike deliver excellent performances as the two leads (Pike, in particular, is sure to see her career skyrocket as a result), while supporting actors like Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, and yes, even Tyler Perry, are all perfectly cast in their respective roles. That’s to the credit of Fincher as well, who makes even the strangest casting choices (like Perry and Neil Patrick Harris) seem like no-brainers in hindsight. Though the movie is a bit overlong and the ending feels rushed compared to the slow-burning first act, “Gone Girl” is the kind of the movie that you won’t soon forget. It’s not Fincher’s best work, but it’s an engrossing and clever thriller that will make you want to rush out and read Flynn’s novel the minute it’s over.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director David Fincher and an Amazing Amy book titled “Tattle Tale.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Men, Women & Children”

WHAT: A collection of intersecting stories about the dangers of the internet, including a middle-aged schlub (Adam Sandler) whose wife (Rosemary DeWitt) cheats on him using a dating website; a former star quarterback (Ansel Elgort) who’s coping with his mother’s desertion through an online role-playing game; a high school cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia) who posts provocative photos to her modeling site; and a mother (Jennifer Garner) so obsessed with keeping her daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) safe that she tracks her online activity.

WHY: “Men, Women & Children” might as well have come with the subtitle, “Or Why the Internet is Really Bad,” because that’s pretty much the message that Jason Reitman is preaching in his latest film, an enjoyable but flawed drama about communication in the digital age. Of course, this isn’t the first time that the topic has been broached before. The little-seen 2012 drama “Disconnect” tackled similar material in its exploration of the muddled lines between reality and identity on the internet, and that film did a better job, partly because it had fewer storylines to juggle. Reitman handles the interconnected narrative remarkably well, but while “Men, Women & Children” has some interesting things to say, it doesn’t reveal anything that most people with a basic knowledge of the internet didn’t already know. Yes, going online can be dangerous, but there are plenty of beneficial things about it as well, and Reitman seems afraid to touch upon those aspects in fear that it will dilute his message. Is it a little heavy-handed and melodramatic as a result? You bet, but there’s enough good in the film – or at least good intentions – that it’s able to hold your interest even when it’s not firing on all cylinders.

EXTRAS: There are five deleted scenes (including an additional storyline), as well as a short behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with director Jason Reitman and the cast about the effect of technology on our lives.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Revenge of the Green Dragons”

WHAT: Set in New York City during the late 1980s and early 90s, two Chinese immigrants (Justin Chon and Kevin Wu) are pressured into joining the Green Dragons gang, quickly moving up the ranks as the organization gains notoriety within the community.

WHY: With “Infernal Affairs” director Andrew Lau behind the camera, and Martin Scorsese serving as an executive producer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that “Revenge of the Green Dragons” might actually be decent. Instead, it’s a cliché-ridden gangster film posing as a sprawling crime saga that’s plagued by a lack of character development, unintentionally funny dialogue (sample line: “There’s a storm coming, and I don’t know of any umbrella that can keep the city dry.”), and cheesy guitar riffs that, while they certainly belong to the era, only add to the comedy. One of the big selling points of the movie is that it’s supposedly inspired by real-life events, but the historical bits are shoved to the background in favor of the more generic story involving Chon and Wu’s characters. Neither actor is very good, but Harry Shum, Jr. (“Glee”) takes the cake as the gang’s business-minded boss, whose performance comes across like a low-rate Bruce Lee impersonator. Though Ray Liotta’s appearance as the FBI agent investigating the Green Dragons is meant to lend some credibility to the film, it does the complete opposite, while the last-minute twist reeks so bad of desperation that it’s as if Lau is trying to recapture the success of “Infernal Affairs” for American audiences. The only problem is that Scorsese already beat him to the punch.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by directors Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo, a trio of production featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: Boyhood, Get On Up 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.

“Boyhood”

WHAT: A coming-of-age tale that follows a boy named Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrone) from grade school to his first day of college and examines his relationship with his divorced parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) as he matures into a young man.

WHY: In an industry driven by innovation, it’s incredible that no one thought to make a movie like “Boyhood” before Richard Linklater embarked on his 12-year journey, because it’s a really great idea with even better execution. A cinematic time capsule of sorts in that you’re essentially watching a kid (both the character and the actor playing him) grow up before your very eyes, the film has some very poignant things to say about adolescence, parenting and life in general. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke deliver a pair of solid performances as Mason’s divorced parents, but sadly, Ethan Coltrone is terrible as the main character, emitting almost no emotion throughout the course of the film. It’s always a gamble when you cast young actors for a lengthy project like this (the “Harry Potter” franchise was extremely lucky with all three leads), but you’d think that Coltrone would have at least gotten a little better over the years. He doesn’t, and that’s one of my biggest problems with the movie, which makes it a lot easier to admire than love as a result. There’s no question that “Boyhood” is a technical achievement and one-of-a-kind piece of filmmaking that demands to be seen, but whether it deserves the many accolades that have followed is debatable.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette called “The 12 Year Project” and a Q&A with writer/director Richard Linklater and the cast, but sadly, no audio commentary.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Get On Up”

WHAT: The rise of James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) from an impoverished child who was abandoned by his parents, to a young man in trouble with the law, to one of the most influential musicians in history.

WHY: As my colleague David Medsker said in his review of the film, “no one misses the biopic,” and he couldn’t have been more right. But if Hollywood was going to make a movie about any musical icon from the past 50 years, James Brown certainly made the most sense, not only because of his contributions to the industry, but because he’s a flashy, larger-than-life character with a catalog of catchy tunes. In fact, the musical sequences are the highlight of the film, but the whole thing wouldn’t work without Chadwick Boseman’s incredible performance as the Godfather of Soul, holding the audience’s attention even as the movie continuously jumps back and forth in time with a funked-up chronological order that would make Quentin Tarantino’s head spin. Though it’s nice to see someone stray from the usual biopic formula, it’s far too messy and difficult to follow, as if director Tate Taylor had so much great material to mine that he didn’t know how else to present it. And that’s the problem with “Get on Up”: it feels more like a greatest hits of classic James Brown moments than an examination of the artist himself, barely scratching the surface of what was clearly a very complex man.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Tate Taylor, there are some deleted/alternate scenes, full and extended song performances, and a series of short behind-the-scenes featurettes about the making of the movie.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Guest”

WHAT: A recently discharged soldier named David Collins (Dan Stevens) shows up at the doorstep of the Peterson household claiming to be a friend of their son who died in action. But after he’s welcomed into their home, the family’s daughter (Maika Monroe) becomes suspicious of David following a sudden chain of murders in town.

WHY: After taking the festival circuit by storm with their home invasion thriller, “You’re Next,” the writer-director duo of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett seemed poised to deliver another cult classic with this low-budget genre flick. Many people would even argue that they’ve done just that, but while “The Guest” certainly had the potential to be great, it falls disappointingly short. The acting is pretty poor with the exception of Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”), who does an excellent job straddling the line between well-mannered nice guy and stone-cold killer. He’s the only thing that keeps the movie afloat, because although the first half builds some nice tension as David infiltrates the Peterson’s family dynamic, all of that hard work is wasted in the final act when it devolves into a silly B-movie that favors violence over subtlety, falling victim to the typical slasher film conventions with some incredibly strange and odd-placed moments of humor. I really wanted “The Guest” to be as good as everyone said it was, but it’s a fairly mediocre thriller that takes its leading man’s star-making performance for granted.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, some deleted scenes and an interview with star Dan Stevens.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: The Equalizer and The Good Lie

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 Equalizer”

WHAT: When former CIA agent Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) saves a young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) from her abusive, mob-connected pimp, the Russian mafia sends in a specialist (Marton Csokas) to track down the men responsible. But after it’s revealed that the seemingly ordinary McCall acted alone, the Russians plan to make an example out of him, unaware of who they’re dealing with.

WHY: Very loosely based on the 1980s TV series of the same name, “The Equalizer” is probably the closest that Denzel Washington will ever get to playing a superhero – a one-man army who takes down his opponents with such Bourne-like precision that he knows exactly how long it will take before he even throws the first punch. While director Antoine Fuqua obsesses a little too much over McCall’s methodical habits, when he just lets Denzel be Denzel, kicking ass and taking names with the poise and gravitas that he brings to each role, the film is all the better for it. Washington could read the dictionary and it would probably be riveting, so it goes without saying that he elevates the material here as well, even if he doesn’t get much help from the supporting cast. With that said, you don’t go to a movie like “The Equalizer” for the story or the acting, and Fuqua is well aware of this, populating the film with some excellent action sequences and unexpected moments of brutal violence on both sides. It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff compared to Fuqua and Washington’s last collaboration (“Training Day”), but it’s a slick crowd-pleaser that provides the escapist entertainment of any good action flick.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary/behind-the-scenes featurette with director Antoine Fuqua and star Denzel Washington, as well as additional featurettes on bringing the TV series to the big screen, the fight choreography and stunts, and profiles on Fuqua, Washington and Chloe Grace Moretz.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Good Lie”

WHAT: A group of Sudanese refugees – orphans of the civil war that ravaged their country in the 1980s – are given the chance at a better life when they’re relocated to the United States, aided by an employment counselor (Reese Witherspoon) that takes a personal interest in them.

WHY: “The Good Lie” isn’t the first movie to be made about African immigrants escaping the horrors of their homeland, and it won’t be the last, which is exactly why you shouldn’t waste your time on such a mediocre film when there are much better options available. Though it boasts an A-list actress in Reese Witherspoon, she’s far from the headlining star that Warner Bros. would lead you to believe, instead focusing on the Sudanese refugees (specifically Arnold Oceng’s Mamere) as they struggle to adapt to life in Missouri. It’s a refreshing departure from the typical “white savior” movie, but that doesn’t prevent it from devolving into a generic fish-out-of-water story that appears to have been made using the Disney Guide to Inspirational Family Dramas. “The Good Lie” isn’t a bad film, but it’s not a particularly memorable one either, so safe and vanilla with its dramatization of real-life events that it lacks any genuine surprise. And in the end, the movie gets so caught up trying to hit all the usual beats of a feel-good drama that it forgets to give you anything to actually feel good about.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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