Blu Tuesday: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and God’s Pocket

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.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

WHAT: When S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised by members within the organization, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is forced to go on the run with fellow operative Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), in order to smoke out the traitors. But standing in their way is a super-powered, metal-armed assassin called the Winter Soldier who looks suspiciously like someone from Steve’s past.

WHY: Hands-down the best Marvel sequel to date, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a major improvement upon the character’s first solo adventure, thanks in large part to a more interesting arc for its titular hero. The whole conspiracy plot not only creates a sense of foreboding and suspense, but in addressing real-world issues like national security, it lends itself to the moral battle that’s been waging inside Rogers since joining S.H.I.E.L.D. in “The Avengers.” That distrust allows Evans to play the character with a lot more complexity than the typical goody two-shoes Boy Scout, though he receives great support from Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon, who all play an important part in the story. The action in the movie is also top-notch, which is somewhat surprising considering Anthony and Joe Russo have virtually no experience in the genre. The sibling duo is just the latest in Marvel’s line of left-field director choices, and they acquit themselves remarkably well, so much so that they’ve already been invited back for another installment. That’s certainly a just reward for the Russos, because “The Winter Soldier” is a superb continuation of its hero’s cinematic evolution that also serves as a natural bridge to next year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Blu-ray includes a short making-of featurette, a look at the different region-specific versions of Steve Rogers’ notebook, some deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: After miraculously surviving the Battle of New York, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) assembles a small team – including civilian hacker Skye (Chloe Benet) – to tackle strange new cases involving superpowers, alien artifacts and other phenomenon deemed too top secret for normal authorities, but not important enough for the Avengers.

WHY: As with most Joss Whedon-created shows, the first season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a bit rocky at times, struggling to find its voice as the small-screen companion to Marvel’s bigger and better movies. But while the first 13 episodes are incredibly hit-and-miss, the series eventually finds its groove in the latter half of the season, delivering the kind of supplemental stories that further enrichens the Marvel cinematic universe. The show feels a little cheesy at times due to the budgetary restraints, and some of the cast members (namely Chloe Benet and Brett Dalton) have a daytime soap opera feel to their performances, but when it’s firing on all cylinders, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a lot of fun. That’s never truer than in the final batch of episodes featuring Bill Paxton as a traitorous S.H.I.E.L.D. agent working for Hydra – a subplot that was introduced concurrently with the theatrical release of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” This kind of integrated storytelling is what “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” promised from the very beginning, and although it may seem gimmicky, it allows Marvel Studios to connect the two mediums in a way that expands their cinematic universe without making the show feel essential to understanding the movies.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray set includes cast and crew audio commentaries, five behind-the-scenes featurettes, the “Marvel Studios: Assembling a Universe” TV special, a VFX breakdown montage, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“God’s Pocket”

WHAT: When his good-for-nothing stepson (Caleb Landry Jones) is killed while working at a construction site – an act of self-defense covered up to look like an accident – Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) scrambles to raise the money for his funeral.

WHY: John Slattery couldn’t have asked for a better ensemble cast for his directorial debut – including screen veterans like Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins and Eddie Marsan – but sadly, “God’s Pocket” is a prime example of how to make a bad movie with good actors. Though it’s competently shot, the story isn’t particularly interesting and the characters aren’t given a whole to do. The film also fails to establish a consistent tone, sampling a variety of genres (from dark comedy, to crime thriller, to blue-collar drama) like a kid at an ice cream shop who can’t make up his mind. That should come as no surprise to those that saw Lee Butler’s “The Paperboy,” because both movies were based on novels by author Pete Dexter, and much like that film, “God’s Pocket” feels incredibly aimless at times, due in large part to its thinly-scripted story and pointless subplots. Hoffman delivers a typically solid performance as the sad-sack protagonist – though it’s hardly the most fitting end to an otherwise excellent career – while the rest of the actors pretty much phone it in, especially Slattery’s “Mad Men” co-star Christina Hendricks as the grieving mother.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with co-writer/director John Slattery and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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Blu Tuesday: Draft Day, They Came Together and Night Moves

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.

“Draft Day”

WHAT: After taking over for his father as general manager of the Cleveland Browns, Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) finally has the chance to craft the team in his image when he trades for the number one pick in the NFL Draft. But while the Browns’ owner (Frank Langella) expects him to make the obvious choice, Sonny must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice in order to do what he thinks is best for the team.

WHY: In a strange case of life imitating art, Cleveland Browns fans experienced déjà vu when their team’s actual 2014 NFL Draft ended up being just as eventful as the film version, including the shocking fate of poster boy Johnny Manziel, who was drafted (by the Browns, no less) much later than anyone projected. For all the excitement of that night, however, Ivan Reitman’s “Draft Day” manages to make the stakes seem even higher by ramping up the tension with slickly edited sequences of Sonny striking deals with fellow GMs while he plans the next move with his inner circle. It takes split-screens to a whole other level, and though you’ll likely be sick of them when it’s over, the material would be much duller without the flashy tricks that Reitman employs. While not quite on the same level as “Moneyball,” “Draft Day” offers a similar look at the behind-the-scenes minutiae involved in running a professional sports team, and frankly, that’s far more interesting than watching the same old sports clichés play out for the millionth time. That’s not to say that the movie is any better than the typical underdog sports drama, but it’s a refreshing change of pace for Kevin Costner and the genre itself.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary by writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, a pair of featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“They Came Together”

WHAT: While out to dinner with their two friends, Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) recount the story of how they met and fell in love – an extraordinarily cheesy romance that sounds like the plot of a romantic comedy film.

WHY: David Wain’s latest movie may seem clever in theory, but while he’s clearly watched enough romantic comedies to recognize the various genre tropes begging to be satirized (and not just satirized, but completely skewered in some cases), he doesn’t do very much with the material. It’s almost too wacky for its own good, and though there are some good gags and a great cameo along the way, the joke wears thin after 15 minutes, especially when you realize that Wain is basically just pointing out rom-com clichés without delivering much of a punchline. “They Came Together” would work just fine as a sketch or trailer parody, but as a full-length feature, it starts to resort to the very conventions that it’s trying to send up. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler appear totally game for whatever goofiness is thrown their way, but they’re so much better than this, as is a majority of the talent involved. Fans of Wain’s previous work (like “The State” and “Wet Hot American Summer”) will find more to enjoy than the typical moviegoer, but even those people will probably agree that “They Came Together” isn’t nearly as funny as it should have been.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director/co-writer David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter, a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and a table read from 2012’s San Francisco Sketchfest.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Night Moves”

WHAT: Three radical environmentalists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam in order to raise awareness. But when the mission doesn’t go according to plan, the eco-terrorists deal with the repercussions in their own ways, causing paranoia within the group.

WHY: Director Kelly Reichardt is best known for pensive, slow-moving dramas like “Wendy & Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” which is a big reason why I’ve stayed away from her films until now. But while “Night Moves” takes a very similar approach, the three leads deliver such great work that it doesn’t feel nearly as laborious to sit through as its minimalistic plot would suggest. In fact, that lack of complexity (at least from a narrative standpoint) actually works in its favor, because it allows Reichardt to really ratchet up the tension by stretching out seemingly simple tasks into nail-biting affairs as the trio plans and executes their mission. Unfortunately, while the first hour succeeds in building suspense, the payoff in the subsequent half – turning its focus to the fallout and the characters’ guilty consciences when they learn that an innocent camper may have died in the explosion – isn’t nearly as engaging. It’s a much stronger examination of the whole ecoterrorism movement than the likeminded “The East,” but it starts to come unraveled in the final 20 minutes when it shifts from thriller to horror, concluding with a quasi-ending that’s more irritating than thought-provoking.

EXTRAS: Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy 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 Walking Dead: The Complete Fourth Season”

WHAT: Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Co. continue to struggle for survival as they face a whole new set of challenges, including a deadly virus and the vengeful return of the Governor. But when the group is forced to flee the safety of the prison, the survivors get separated from one another and head for a sanctuary called Terminus.

WHY: The fourth season of “The Walking Dead” may be plagued by many of the same problems as previous years, but while its tendency to let plotlines drag on for too long causes the show to grind to a halt at times, the renewed focus on keeping the story moving even when its characters aren’t plays a huge part in its success. Though the first half of the season is bogged down by the silly virus storyline, the Governor’s return (from the pair of episodes detailing his whereabouts, to his eventual assault on the prison) serves as the impetus to the much stronger second half. It was a pretty gutsy move on the part of the writers to split up the group dynamic that makes the series so compelling, but it’s probably the best thing they could have done, because it’s refreshing to spend certain episodes focused on a handful of characters. Not only does it allow for more character development, but it gives some of the more peripheral characters their chance to shine. That may result in less thrills, but Season Four seems to have finally struck the perfect balance between zombie action and human drama, and although audiences love the former, there aren’t many shows that do drama better than “The Walking Dead.”

EXTRAS: In addition to cast and crew audio commentaries on four episodes, the Blu-ray set includes “Inside ‘The Walking Dead’” and “The Making of ‘The Walking Dead’” featurettes for each episode, some deleted scenes and additional featurettes on the parallels between the comic book and TV series, visual effects and more.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Sons of Anarchy: Season Six”

WHAT: Just as Jax (Charlie Hunnam) is beginning to legitimatize the motorcycle club’s business ventures, SAMCRO is targeted by a tough-as-nails district attorney (CCH Pounder) when the weapon used in a school shooting is traced back to them. Meanwhile, Clay (Ron Perlman) attempts to save his skin by striking a deal with the Irish, and Gemma (Katey Sagal) and Tara (Maggie Siff) butt heads once again.

WHY: Why: Ask any “Sons of Anarchy” fan what their least favorite season is and many will probably list the oft-criticized third season (AKA the Ireland one). But while the series has had enough crazy plotlines over the years to justify why some might view the show as nothing more than a male soap opera, it’s always backed them up with great characters and writing. That is, until Season Six, when it finally became too ridiculous for its own good. Though the biker drama’s penultimate season has plenty of things worth celebrating (including a larger role for Mark Boone Junior and excellent guest stars like CCH Pounder, Donal Logue and Walton Goggins), a lot of the conflict this time around seems to be less about driving the narrative than shocking the audience, none more so than the death of Maggie Siff’s Tara. While fans have been waiting to see Clay’s demise for years (and rightfully so), Tara’s murder-by-carving-fork comes across more like a desperate attempt at a cool cliffhanger than a fitting end to her season-long arc. Tara was destined to die, but not like this, and the treatment of that character is just one of the reasons why this season is the most disappointing to date.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes cast and crew commentaries on the season premiere and finale, deleted scenes, a gag reel, character goodbyes and all three episodes of the post-show specials “Anarchy Afterword.”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Only Lovers Left Alive and Rosemary’s Baby

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 Amazing Spider-Man 2″

WHAT: Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) faces his biggest challenge yet as Spider-Man when an Oscorp employee named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is transformed into the supervillain Electro and wreaks havoc on New York City. Meanwhile, Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is tested just as his childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns home seeking Peter’s help in curing a deadly disease.

WHY:The Amazing Spider-Man 2” isn’t nearly the disappointment that some have painted it as, but it doesn’t capitalize on the promise of its predecessor either. The problem with the film is that it’s bursting at the seams with material, and although there’s some cool world building along the way, just like “Iron Man 2,” it spends more time looking ahead to the future than focusing on telling the best story possible. But for as messy as the movie may be from a narrative standpoint, the performances are strong enough to keep you entertained, especially stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. The former really seems to understand what makes Peter Parker and Spider-Man tick, and his chemistry with real-life girlfriend Stone continues to sparkle with charisma, even if the film wastes a lot of time reestablishing the Peter/Gwen romance. And while Jamie Foxx makes for a pretty dull villain (through no fault of his own), Dane DeHaan is fantastic as Norman Osborn, swinging between vulnerable and menacing, often in the same scene. It’s just too bad that Webb isn’t as adept at handling the superhero elements as he is with the human drama, because that’s one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of the franchise’s continued success: making the costumed hero as interesting as the man under the mask.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a six-part making-of featurette that runs just over 100 minutes, an audio commentary with writers Alex Kurtzman and Jeff Pinkner and producers Matt Tolmach and Avi Arad, seven deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes look at scoring the film.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Only Lovers Left Alive”

WHAT: Reclusive, depressed vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston) has grown tired of living in a world populated by “zombies,” and sensing that he may be worse for wear, his centuries-old lover Eve (Tilda Swinton) leaves her home in Tangier to visit him in Detroit. But when Eve’s rambunctious sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up uninvited, she threatens to ruin the pair’s idyllic lifestyle.

WHY: I’ve never been a big fan of Jim Jarmusch’s work, but “Only Lovers Left Alive” is definitely one of the director’s better films. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but while the movie doesn’t work for me as a whole, there are bits and pieces that are actually quite good. In fact, the film gets off to a pretty solid start as Jarmusch explores the unconventional but fascinating relationship between Adam and Eve, going so far as to dress one in black and the other in white to symbolize their yin and yang bond. Unfortunately, the paper-thin plot becomes more noticeable in the second half, especially when Mia Wasikowska’s juvenile troublemaker enters the story. Wasikowska’s character doesn’t serve much purpose other than to create a problem that Adam and Eve must solve, which causes Jarmusch’s script to feel like it’s being stretched beyond its limits. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are both great in their respective roles, and the pitch black humor delivers some unexpected laughs, but while “Only Lovers Left Alive” presents a unique and interesting take on the vampire genre, much like its immortal protagonists, the movie outlives its welcome.

EXTRAS: In addition to a 50-minute video production diary focusing on director Jim Jarmusch, there’s some deleted and extended scenes and a music video.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Rosemary’s Baby”

WHAT: When Rosemary (Zoe Saldana) and her husband Guy (Patrick J. Adams) move to Paris for an incredible job opportunity, they’re befriended by a wealthy couple who present them with an offer they can’t refuse: an apartment at the most prestigious address in the city. But as Rosemary learns more about its haunted past, she begins to suspect her new friends are Satan worshippers hell bent on taking the baby she’s carrying.

WHY: Setting aside the popularity of Roman Polanski’s 1968 cult classic, this TV version of “Rosemary’s Baby” isn’t just a bad adaptation or remake, but a bad film period. Though presented as a two-part miniseries in an attempt to make it feel like more of an “event,” the bloated 170-minute runtime is completely unwarranted, as none of the new material adds anything to the story. The acting is also pretty dreadful for the talent involved, particularly Zoe Saldana, whose wooden performance only adds to the fact that her character is incredibly annoying. Rosemary’s constant mood swings (from hysterical in one scene, to abnormally calm in the next) occur without any explanation, and her decision-making skills are so terrible that she’s extremely difficult to root for. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better, save for Carole Bouquet, who delivers an enjoyably creepy turn as the maternal coven leader. Unfortunately, Bouquet is about the only good thing that this version of “Rosemary’s Baby” has going for it, which makes me wonder why anyone thought it would be a good idea to remake such a famous movie in the first place, especially one entirely lacking any sort of suspense.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and a look at the film’s production design.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: Muppets Most Wanted, Locke 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.

“Muppets Most Wanted”

WHAT: After embarking on an international tour arranged by slick talent agent Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), Kermit the Frog is framed by his evil lookalike, Constantine, and shipped off to a Siberian prison. Meanwhile, Dominic and Constantine plot to steal a series of artifacts that will enable them to pull off the ultimate heist, using the Muppets’ tour to cover their tracks.

WHY: Like many people, I walked into “Muppets Most Wanted” convinced that it would be a colossal disappointment. But while this follow-up to the 2011 Muppets reboot starring Jason Segel doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, the movie comes surprisingly close. In addition to the screenplay by returning director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller, which retains the Muppets’ trademark humor, charm and heart, Bret McKenzie provides half a dozen original songs that are incredibly witty and catchy, and among the film’s many highlights. The human co-stars aren’t as developed as Segel’s character, but Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey (as a Siberian prison guard) and Ty Burell (as a Jacques Clouseau-like Interpol agent) all fare remarkably well alongside their respective Muppet partners. If there’s one complaint, it’s that many of the supporting Muppets are relegated to the background in order to make room for all the new faces, though it certainly helps that Constantine is such a fun villain. It’s that sense of playfulness that makes “Muppets Most Wanted” such a success, and considering how bad things could have turned out, that’s a massive win for fans of Jim Henson’s felt-covered friends.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an “unnecessarily extended” cut of the film, a blooper reel, music videos and some other goofy bits, but nothing really substantial.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Locke”

WHAT: Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a dedicated family man and successful construction foreman, but on the eve of the biggest job of his career, he receives a phone call triggering a series of events that threaten to shatter his seemingly perfect life.

WHY: By far one of the most unique moviegoing experiences of the year, Steven Knight’s “Locke” takes a relatively simple premise and squeezes every last drop from its pulpy body, to the point that it’s actually quite incredible just how much the director was able to do with so little. The single-location setting is a bit gimmicky, but it serves a purpose as you watch the life of an otherwise decent man – literally trapped in a horrible situation but determined to make it right the only way he knows how – implode before your very eyes. It’s nothing short of heartbreaking at times, and although the supporting cast (including Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott, who appear as voices over the phone) is essential to making the film work, Tom Hardy is the heart and soul of the movie, delivering an absolutely brilliant performance that will leave you spellbound for the entirety of its taut 84-minute runtime. Though some of the plot turns feel contrived and it starts to drag in the final act, “Locke” is so immersive in its minimalistic approach that even the film’s flaws are more of a nuisance than a distraction.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writer/director Steven Knight and a behind-the-scenes featurette on making the film.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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