Blu Tuesday: Inside Llewyn Davis, Homefront and George Washington

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.

“Inside Llewyn Davis”

WHAT: A week in the life of struggling folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who’s trying to make it as a solo artist after his former partner commits suicide. With no steady income or plans for the future, Llewyn spends his days wandering the city in search of his next gig and his nights crashing on friends’ couches.

WHY: There aren’t many directors that can boast a track record as impressive as the one that Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed throughout their 30-year careers, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just another notch on that cinematic belt. Markedly different from a lot of their films in that it’s a much more intimate, character-driven piece, “Inside Llewyn Davis” most closely resembles “A Serious Man” in both tone and execution. Structured more like a loose series of vignettes than anything resembling a plot, much of the movie rests on Oscar Isaac’s shoulders, with the actor delivering a superb performance that manages to make the titular freeloader somewhat likeable. For as good as Isaac is in the role, however, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective without T-Bone Burnett’s excellent soundtrack, especially when such a large chunk of the film is dedicated to the musical performances. It’s not often that a soundtrack plays such a pivotal role in my enjoyment of a movie, but it’s certainly fitting considering just how much the Coens rely on music to provide the backdrop of this bittersweet portrait of personal failure.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a 40-minute making-of featurette that focuses primarily on the planning, rehearsing and recording of the soundtrack.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Homefront”

WHAT: Eager to provide his 10-year-old daughter (Izabela Vidovic) with a normal life, ex-DEA agent Phil Broker retires to a small, idyllic town in Louisiana. But when local drug lord Gator Bodine (James Franco) uncovers Broker’s past as a law enforcement officer, he teams up with a vengeful biker gang to take him down.

WHY: After working together on the “Expendables” films, it’s only natural that Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone would team up again. But what makes their latest collaboration so unique is that Stallone’s involvement is a strictly behind-the-scenes affair, serving as both screenwriter and producer. Though this neo-Western may sound like every other Statham vehicle on the surface, “Homefront” plays more like a gritty thriller than one of the actor’s typical action movies. That’s not to say that there still isn’t a fair share of action, because it’s one of the film’s highlights, but director Gary Fleder seems more interested in exploring the relationships between his characters than the fight scenes that bridge those moments. The story itself isn’t much better than your average ‘90s action movie, but the cast (which includes Winona Ryder as Gator’s biker-chick girlfriend and Kate Bosworth as his meth-head sister) elevates the material, especially James Franco playing the de facto leader of the criminal swamp gang. This isn’t the first time that the actor has gone against the grain in recent years, but it’s refreshing to see someone of his quality take on a role that’s seemingly beneath him, because it’s the difference between an enjoyable film and another direct-to-video dud.

EXTRAS: There’s a small collection of deleted scenes and an EPK-styled fluff piece with interviews from the cast and crew.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“George Washington”

WHAT: Over the course of one hot summer, a group of children from a decaying, rural Southern town are forced to make some difficult choices in order to cover up a tragic accident.

WHY: It’s amazing that the same man behind such stoner comedies as “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness” was responsible for a movie like “George Washington,” because they couldn’t be any more different. David Gordon Green’s directorial debut falls more along the lines of a Terrence Malick film in both style and execution – an irritatingly slow and pretentious cinematic poem that desperately tries to find a deeper meaning in its lyrical imagery. But while the movie’s gorgeous visuals do a great job of portraying the distressed state of the town and its characters, Green fails to deliver a compelling story, instead opting for a non-linear narrative that lacks focus or coherency. The whole thing is terribly dull, and it doesn’t help that the acting (with the exception of Paul Schneider) is every bit as amateur as its cast. “George Washington” is the kind of movie where a bunch of kids (and seemingly uneducated ones at that) wax poetic about philosophy and life like they’re graduate students, and it’s in this attempt to project a false maturity onto his characters where Green fails the hardest.

EXTRAS: There’s a veritable treasure trove of material here, highlighted by an audio commentary with director David Gordon Green, cinematographer Tim Orr and actor Paul Schneider. The Blu-ray also includes two student shorts by Green (“Pleasant Grove” and “Physical Pinball”), a 2001 Charlie Rose interview, Clu Gluager’s 1969 short film “A Day with the Boys” and more.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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Blu Tuesday: Catching Fire, 12 Years a Slave 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 Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

WHAT: Humiliated by the stunt pulled by Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) at the end of the 74th Hunger Games, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) enlists the help of Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to squash a potential uprising by forcing previous victors (including Katniss and Peeta) into participating in a special 75th edition of the Games.

WHY: As far as book sequels go, “Catching Fire” isn’t exactly the most original, which is why I was pleasantly surprised by the film adaptation. Under the assured direction of Francis Lawrence, “Catching Fire” doesn’t just improve upon Suzanne Collins’ novel, but is superior to the first movie in just about every way, including more spirited performances from its two leads and better development for the supporting characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone – actors you wouldn’t normally associate with a big budget franchise like this – are just a few of the notable additions to the already impressive cast, and there’s not a weak link among them. The script by Oscar-winning screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt is also crucial to the movie’s success, removing a lot of the unnecessary filler while raising the stakes to create a smarter and more focused adaptation that’s extremely well-paced for its 146 minute runtime. “Catching Fire” is everything you could want from a sequel without many of the usual failings, and it’s a prime example of a tentpole film that offers both style and substance.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary with director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson, the Blu-ray release includes a ridiculously in-depth making-of featurette (clocking in at nearly 150 minutes) that covers pretty much every aspect of the filmmaking process, as well as some deleted scenes and a sneak peak at “Divergent.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“12 Years a Slave”

WHAT: The real-life story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and children in New York, who was kidnapped and sold back into slavery in 1841. Transported to the South, Northup spent 12 years working on various plantations, including one owned by the malicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

WHY:12 Years a Slave” is without a doubt Steve McQueen’s most accessible film to date. Though it boasts the same gorgeous cinematography from longtime collaborator Sean Bobbitt, it’s not as experimental as his first two films, instead opting for a more straightforward narrative. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t without its faults, and John Ridley’s screenplay is chief among them, riddled with bad dialogue that’s made only marginally better by the ensemble cast. Some of the actors treat it like they’re reading Shakespeare, and the theatricality of their performances weakens what would otherwise be powerful scenes. As a result, Chiwetel Ejiofor is left to shoulder most of the weight, and his brilliant performance not only holds the movie together, but outshines it completely. Without Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave” would be just another mediocre drama about slavery in the antebellum South. McQueen’s film is way too long for such a thinly scripted story, hammering you with the same ideas over and over to the point of exhaustion. It’s almost too in-your-face at times – less concerned with the character’s own emotional journey than piling on the white guilt – and though Solomon Northupp’s tale is one that deserves to be told, it could have benefited from a little restraint.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette titled “Historical Portrait,” profiles on the various cast and crew, and a short look at composing the score.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Oldboy”

WHAT: After he’s kidnapped, framed for the murder of his ex-wife and locked away in solitary confinement for 20 years, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is mysteriously released one day by his captors. Determined to seek revenge and track down his estranged daughter, Joe teams up with a kindly nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) to find out why he was imprisoned in the first place.

WHY: Rumors of an American remake of Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” had been swirling around Hollywood for so long that surely the people involved had to realize it was a bad idea. And when it was announced that Spike Lee would be the one to helm the U.S. version, any hope for the project went from bad to worse. As a director, Lee lacks the style or subtlety to even compete with Chan-wook’s atmospheric cult classic, and it definitely shows in the final product, abandoning the gritty, twisted nature of the original for a pulpier B-movie that is almost comically gratuitous with its violence. Josh Brolin performs admirably in the lead role, and Samuel L. Jackson makes the most of his few scenes, but Sharlto Copley’s villain is so atrocious from conception to execution that it completely derails any chance the movie had of being taken seriously. Though Lee’s version follows many of the same beats (including that unforgettable twist ending), it adds absolutely nothing to the story, reaffirming its status as one of the more pointless remakes in recent history.

EXTRAS: Apart from the making-of featurette, the rest of the extras – which includes an additional interview with Josh Brolin, an EPK-style promo piece and four alternate/extended scenes – are barely worth your time.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: Gravity, Thor: The Dark World 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.

“Gravity”

WHAT: When their space shuttle is destroyed by hurtling debris from a damaged Russian satellite, U.S. astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are left adrift in space with limited oxygen and a minimal chance of survival.

WHY: It’s been six years since Alfonso Cuarón’s last feature film – the criminally underrated “Children of Men” – but his outer space survival thriller was well worth the wait. “Gravity” is the kind of movie that will likely change the way films are made in the future. From the stunning, single-take opening sequence that lasts more than 12 minutes, to the numerous set pieces throughout, “Gravity” is such a technical marvel that it looks like Cuarón shot the whole damn thing in space. Though the story is ridiculously simple, not a single second of its 91-minute runtime is wasted, extracting so much suspense from the film’s terrifying setup that the brief injections of comedy (courtesy of George Clooney’s easygoing astronaut) are a welcome reprieve from the almost unrelenting intensity. Sandra Bullock delivers one of the best performances of her career as the rookie astronaut caught up in a seemingly impossible situation, but the real star of “Gravity” is Cuarón himself, and he deserves every bit of praise for creating what can only be described as pure movie magic.

EXTRAS: In addition to an excellent, 107-minute making-of featurette, the Blu-ray includes shot breakdowns for five scenes, a short film titled “Aningaaq” from co-writer Jonas Cuaron, and the documentary “Collision Point” narrated by Ed Harris.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Thor: The Dark World”

WHAT: When Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) discovers an ancient power known as the Aether, she unknowingly awakens Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston), the leader of the Dark Elves who plans to use that power to plunge the world back into darkness. Against his father’s wishes, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) comes to Jane’s rescue in order to stop Malekith before his sinister plan can be completed.

WHY: I’m a really big fan of the first “Thor,” so my expectations were pretty high going into this sequel, and unfortunately, “The Dark World” fails to live up to them. Though there are some really great moments throughout, the movie is weakened by what is easily the worse villain of the Marvel films thus far. Nothing against Christopher Eccleston, but Malekith looks like a C-list “Star Trek” villain with similarly uninspired end-of-the-world ambitions. Additionally, Sif and the Warriors Three are criminally underused – something that will hopefully be remedied should there be a third installment. Most of what does work in the sequel is carried over from its predecessor. Tom Hiddlestone continues to prove why Loki is Marvel’s greatest asset, because as soon as he enters the film, it gets a lot more interesting, thanks in part to his excellent chemistry with Chris Hemsworth. The Earth-based scenes also feature some pretty big laughs, and the final act is a lot of fun. “The Dark World” isn’t quite on the same level as we’ve come to expect from Marvel, but it doesn’t make me want another “Thor” film any less.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release is headlined by a new Marvel One-Shot titled “All Hail the King” (with Ben Kingsley reprising his “Iron Man 3” role) and an audio commentary with director Alan Taylor, producer Kevin Feige, co-star Tom Hiddleston and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau. There’s also a two-part featurette on the relationship between Thor and Loki, a short featurette on composer Brian Tyler’s score, some deleted and extended scenes, and a behind-the-scenes look at “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Game of Thrones and Afternoon Delight

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 Third Season”

WHAT: The power struggle across Westeros continues as Lord Tywin takes over as Hand of the King following his victory at Blackwater Bay, leaving Tyrion suddenly powerless and forcing Stannis back to Dragonstone to lick his wounds. Meanwhile, Robb Stark’s campaign against the Lannisters gets fiercer, Daenerys builds her army from afar, Arya earns new allies in her quest for revenge and Jon Snow goes undercover with the wildlings. And that’s just the first few episodes…

WHY: Creators David Benioff and D.B Weiss have stated numerous times that they set Season Three as the unofficial benchmark as to whether or not the show would be a success, and it’s easy to see why, because it showcases the full complexity and richness of the universe that they inherited from George R.R. Martin. The third season expands its scope even further than the previous year, with several new characters quickly making their mark, and old ones (like Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Jamie Lannister, one of the season’s MVPs) continuing to evolve within that moral gray area where “Game of Thrones” thrives. It also featured some of the most shocking story developments to date, perhaps none more so than Episode 9’s infamous Red Wedding, which made Ned Stark’s beheading look like child’s play in comparison and was without a doubt one of the biggest television events of last year. (So much so that HBO is spoiling it in their commercials for the Blu-ray/DVD release.) The audience reaction to that episode is very telling of the show’s pop cultural footprint, and when the writing and acting is this good, it’s no surprise why its popularity continues to grow.

EXTRAS: As usual, there’s plenty to dig into here, including 12 audio commentaries with the cast and crew, an in-depth look at the making of “The Rains of Castamere,” a Season Two recap, featurettes on the show’s new characters, politics of marriage and wildlings, five deleted/extended scenes and the customary interactive guides.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Afternoon Delight”

WHAT: Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is a thirty-something stay-at-home who’s become bored with her daily routine, lackluster sex life and failed career. Looking to spice things up, Rachel takes her husband (Josh Radnor) to a strip club one night and meets erotic dancer McKenna (Juno Temple), who she becomes obsessed with saving, only to cause more harm than good.

WHY: “Afternoon Delight” feels like a spiritual companion piece to Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40,” only not quite as dreadful to watch. Much like that movie, Jill Soloway’s directorial debut examines a middle-aged woman trying to break the soul-crushing routine that she’s become far too comfortable living. It’s something that most people dread happening at one point in their life, but it’s hard to feel bad for characters that already have so much going for them. And therein lies the problem with “Afternoon Delight.” Though its intentions are admirable, the film asks you to pity a woman who doesn’t really have the right to complain nearly as much as she does. Kathryn Hahn turns in a solid performance as the woman in question, and Juno Temple shines as the sex worker she takes in to her home, but while the movie gets off to a strong start as the two ladies form their friendship, the latter half is so ugly in its attempt to create conflict between them that it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with writer/director Jill Soloway and actress Kathryn Hahn, a behind-the-scenes featurette and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: About Time, Dallas Buyers Club and Escape Plan

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.

“About Time”

WHAT: When Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) learns that the men on his side of the family have the ability to travel through time, he decides to use his powers to find a girlfriend. Upon meeting the girl of his dreams in American import Mary (Rachel McAdams), Tim is able to perfect every moment in their relationship by doing it over and over again “Groundhog Day”-style, only to discover that there are consequences to altering history.

WHY: Richard Curtis has written and directed some of the most memorable romantic comedies of the past two decades, so it should come as no surprise that his latest movie follows in the same footsteps. Curtis’ films have always been about much more than the superficial meet-cute between boy and girl, aiming for something a lot deeper and more emotionally rewarding, which he delivers in spades with “About Time.” Breakout star Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams work together really well, but it’s the relationship between Gleeson and Bill Nighy (playing the world’s greatest dad) that best serves the story’s central themes and leaves a more lasting impression, especially for anyone who’s ever lost a member of their family. Equally charming, funny and touching, “About Time” is classic Richard Curtis, through and through. And if the rumors about it being his directorial swan song are true, Curtis can take comfort in knowing that he went out on top, because this is not only his most mature and personal work to date, but it’s also one of his finest.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary with writer/director Richard Curtis and most of the principal cast (save for Rachel McAdams and Lindsay Duncan), four deleted scenes with intros by Curtis, a blooper reel and four production featurettes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Dallas Buyers Club”

WHAT: When Texas electrician Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is diagnosed as HIV-positive and given only 30 days to live, he discovers that cheaper and more effective drugs are available in Mexico. Realizing a business opportunity when he sees one, Ron teams up with a transgender prostitute named Rayon (Jared Leto) to create a “buyers club” where they sell memberships and give away the drugs for free, exonerating themselves of any legal trouble.

WHY: Is there an actor who’s had a better last few years than Matthew McConaughey? Though he used to be somewhat of a punch line, known more for his shirtless roles in flaky rom-coms than his promising earlier work, recently McConaughey has been repairing his reputation with a string of outstanding performances in films like “Killer Joe,” “Magic Mike” and “Mud.” And while he earned his share of acclaim for all three roles, the actor’s latest turn as real-life AIDS victim Ron Woodruff might just be the crowning achievement of his career thus far. Though McConuaghey’s dramatic physical transformation has captured most of the headlines, it’s only part of his excellent performance. Ron’s relationship with Rayon is key to the film’s success, not only because of McConaughey, but Jared Leto as well, who reminds you what he’s capable of when given the right material. Sadly, nothing else about “Dallas Buyers Club” is particularly memorable, despite the fact that it deals with hot-button issues like AIDS, the health care industry and homosexuality. That poses a bit of a problem, because although it’s a pretty incredible story with a strong message, apart from McConaughey and Leto, the movie is unremarkably average.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and some deleted scenes, but that’s all.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Escape Plan”

WHAT: Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) is the foremost expert on prison security – paid to reveal the flaws in prison systems from inside. But when he’s kidnapped and incarcerated in a top secret maximum security prison, Ray must team up with some of his fellow cellmates (including Arnold Schwarzenegger) in order to break out.

WHY: After teasing ‘80s action fans with cameos in the “Expendables” movies, you’d think that Hollywood could do a little better than “Escape Plan” for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s official big screen team-up with Sylvester Stallone. A mostly dull thriller that plods along at a maddeningly slow pace, “Escape Plan” is almost completely devoid of action or humor, making both stars’ involvement questionable. Schwarzenegger fares the better of the two, injecting some personality into his underwritten role, while Stallone seems content with sleepwalking his way through the entire movie. And if the two leads are underserved by the hackneyed script, the supporting cast is treated even more poorly, with respected actors like Sam Neill and Amy Ryan wasted in relatively small roles. The only real appeal is seeing Sly and Arnie on screen together, because although they may be stars in their own right, they really do make a good team. Next time (and you better believe there will be a next time), someone should create a film for these guys from the ground up, because “Escape Plan” doesn’t do them justice.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary with director Mikael Håfström and co-writer Miles Chapman, there’s a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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