Blu Tuesday: Ex Machina, It Follows 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.

“Ex Machina”

WHAT: Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer at an Internet search engine, thinks that he’s just won an office-wide lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive but brilliant CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote home/research facility in Alaska. But Nathan has other plans for him – namely, to enlist Caleb’s assistance in conducting a Turing test on his newest creation, an incredibly lifelike robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), in order to determine whether the artificial intelligence can pass as human.

WHY: Screenwriter Alex Garland has worked almost exclusively in the science fiction genre, so it comes as no surprise that his directorial debut occupies a similar space, this time focusing on the decades-old debate of artificial intelligence. Making a movie about A.I. isn’t exactly a novel premise, but Garland excels at putting a fresh spin on familiar material, and he doesn’t disappoint with “Ex Machina,” which draws inspiration from other genre classics like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Frankenstein.” Garland’s film is intelligent science fiction operating at a very high level. The movie hits on some pretty big concepts without ever alienating the audience, and the sci-fi elements feel authentic despite being years away from creating such technology. The visual effects are also quite impressive, but they never overshadow the story by drawing too much attention to Ava’s beautiful but simplistic design. Though the film moves at a fairly slow pace, meandering towards its crackerjack ending via Caleb’s sessions with Ava and his post-meeting debriefings with Nathan, it’s never boring, and that’s to the immense credit of Garland’s clever script and some excellent performances. Anyone who’s seen Garland’s previous movies knows he can write, but with “Ex Machina,” he announces himself as a talented director who can not only spin a good yarn on the page, but on the screen as well.

EXTRAS: There’s a five-part making-of featurette, as well as eight additional behind-the-scenes vignettes and a Q&A with the cast and crew from SXSW.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“It Follows”

WHAT: Teenage suburbanite Jay (Maika Monroe) has just learned she’s been infected with a curse where the victim is ruthlessly stalked by a slow-walking entity that can assume the form of anyone. Nobody else can see it, but if it catches you, it’ll kill you, and the only way to get rid of it is by having sex with someone else and passing it on – at least until it kills that person and works its way back down the chain. Trapped in a constant state of fear, Jay must rely on the help of her friends to stop the monster from claiming any more lives.

WHY: Considering the role that sex has played in the horror genre throughout the years, it’s surprising that the supernatural STD angle hasn’t been done before, because it’s a really clever idea. Though the “sex equals death” rule isn’t as prominent in modern horror movies that defy those decades-old tropes, “It Follows” is very much a retro homage to ‘70s and ‘80s genre classics, from the “Halloween”-esque synth score, to the striking similarities to “Nightmare on Elm Street,” both in Jay’s perpetual helplessness and the film’s dreamlike atmosphere. But while “It Follows” has its merits as an innovative piece of filmmaking, the movie isn’t without its problems, beginning with writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s complete disinterest in digging any further into the mythology and logistics of the curse. Additionally, the acting is amateurish and the pacing could be a lot tighter. The characters spend too much time just sitting around waiting for something to happen, and although it’s initially effective in creating an ominous mood, it gets to the point where you wish they’d be a bit more proactive. The same goes for the movie itself, because despite its terrifying premise, “It Follows” is much scarier in concept than execution.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with film critics Eric D. Snider, Britt Hayes, Samuel D. Zimmerman, Alison Nastasi and Eric Vespe that’s hosted by Scott Weinberg, as well as an interview with film composer Richard Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: House of Cards and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“House of Cards: The Complete Third Season”

WHAT: After being sworn in as President of the United States following his predecessor’s resignation, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) fights battles domestically (both in his marriage at home and with his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill) and internationally as he tries to form a peace coalition with bullheaded Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen). Meanwhile, Claire (Robin Wright) is no longer content with her role as First Lady and seeks some power of her own as the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

WHY: The first two seasons of “House of Cards” delivered such top-notch storytelling that it was never going to be easy replicating it a third time, but while Season Three isn’t without its problems, it’s still an incredibly well-acted and sharply written drama that ranks as one of the best shows on TV. Though it certainly makes sense why creator Beau Willimon would want to take the series in a slightly different direction – with Frank no longer several steps ahead in his scheming, but rather struggling just to keep his head above water – the story feels a little stretched creatively. For starters, the rock-solid relationship between Frank and Claire is fractured far too easily for a couple that supposedly makes each other stronger (and Claire, in particular, is even pettier than usual), while the whole Doug subplot isn’t engaging enough to warrant spending an entire season on. Some stories work better than others, but the cast continues to fire on all cylinders, including newcomers like Kim Dickens and Paul Sparks, as well as Mahershala Ali and Molly Parker, who are given more to do this season. Still, “House of Cards” is Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright’s show, and they never let you forget it, because even when they’re saddled with mediocre material, the two actors command the screen like no other couple on television.

EXTRAS: In addition to a making-of featurette, the Blu-ray edition includes an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at filming a key scene from the season finale.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Slow West”

WHAT: Set in 1870, a young Scottish man named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels across the American frontier in search of the woman he loves, escorted by a quiet drifter (Michael Fassbender) he’s hired for the journey. But what Jay doesn’t realize is that he’s being used by his traveling companion to lead him straight to Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father (Rory McCann) in order to collect the sizable bounty placed on their heads.

WHY: Though he’s not the first musician to make the transition over to filmmaking, former Beta Band keyboardist John Maclean’s “Slow West” is an incredibly confident directorial debut that breathes new life into the Western without abandoning its roots. Gorgeously shot and remarkably vibrant for the genre, the movie is a well-paced, character-driven piece that boasts a pair of great performances from Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee, as well as a wry sense of humor that will have you laughing at some pretty morbid stuff. (The literal “salt on the wound” gag is probably the best of the bunch, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as Maclean’s darkly comical script is concerned.) While it’s disappointing to see a fantastic character actor like Ben Mendelsohn wasted in such a small role, he makes the most of his limited screen time, especially considering his rascally outlaw doesn’t even enter the story until the final act. “Slow West” is an odd but amusing little movie, and though it’s not above having fun with certain genre tropes, it’s still very much a Western in style and spirit, which is to say that the American frontier is a pretty nasty place to go chasing your dreams.

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Get Hard, While We’re Young 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.

“Get Hard”

WHAT: When millionaire stockbroker James King (Will Ferrell) is arrested for illegal trading and sentenced to ten years in a maximum security prison, he hires Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart) – the owner of a car wash business whom James wrongly assumes is an ex-con – to prepare him for life behind bars, which proves more difficult than either one imagined.

WHY: Will Ferrell’s movie career isn’t what it used to be, so it was a really smart move to team up with Kevin Hart, the current king of the comedy box office, for his latest film. Though it’s not the most obvious pairing, they actually have some pretty good chemistry, even if the film doesn’t always know what to do with their partnership. Ferrell delivers one of his better comedic performances in quite some time, while Hart keeps his annoying outbursts to a minimum. The problem is that the jokes simply aren’t there. While the film is occasionally funny when Ferrell and Hart are allowed to let loose, the racial and homophobic humor doesn’t land quite as intended. The blatant stereotyping might be part of the message that “Get Hard” is trying to make, but director Etan Cohen doesn’t execute it particularly well. Additionally, the villains are absent for a majority of the movie, and the final act is nothing more than a hackneyed throwback to every buddy comedy from the ‘80s. “Get Hard” isn’t as bad as expected, but it’s still an incredibly uneven film that only fans of Ferrell and Hart will truly enjoy.

EXTRAS: In addition to some deleted scenes, alternate line readings and a gag reel, there are a number of short, mostly pointless featurettes on things like Will Ferrell’s wardrobe, John Mayer’s cameo and the white supremacist biker gang.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“While We’re Young”

WHAT: Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are happily married, but while all of their middle-aged friends are busy raising children, they’ve fallen into a comfortable rut both personally and professionally. So when they start hanging out with a much younger couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), Josh and Cornelia can’t help but be charmed by their carefree lifestyle, only to discover that the couple may have ulterior motives.

WHY: After being disappointed by 2010’s “Greenberg” and downright incensed by 2012’s “Frances Ha,” my expectations were pretty low going into director Noah Baumbach’s latest film, so it’s with great pleasure to be proven wrong. Not only is “While We’re Young” the director’s best work since “The Squid and the Whale,” but it doesn’t contain nearly the same level of nastiness as his previous movies, despite treading very similar ground thematically. While some of the commentary and digital/analog comparisons between the two couples feels a little too on the nose, there are plenty of great comedic moments that arise from them, at least until the final act, when Baumbach’s story gets overly serious and starts to go off the rails. Ben Stiller’s character isn’t the most likable guy, but he’s not the annoying neurotic he played in “Greenberg” either, and that goes a long way in keeping him on the audience’s side when everything goes to shit in the final 20 minutes. It’s some of the actor’s finest work in years, and he receives excellent support from Adam Driver and Naomi Watts as well. “While We’re Young” is far from perfect, but it’s a refreshingly lighthearted (although no less honest and thoughtful) side to Baumbach that he should really showcase more often.

EXTRAS: There are six behind-the-scenes featurettes on the cast, director Noah Baumbach, working with Charles Grodin, the Ayahuasca ceremony sequence and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: The Fisher King and My Dinner with Andre

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 Fisher King”

WHAT: Three years after giving some misguided advice on the radio led to a tragic event, former shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) gets a chance at redemption when he meets – and subsequently helps – a homeless man (Robin Williams) who was an unwitting victim of Jack’s mistake.

WHY: With the one-year anniversary of Robin Williams’ untimely death just around the corner, Criterion has given fans another excuse to celebrate the actor’s remarkable career by revisiting this 1991 dramedy that easily ranks as one of the finest live-action performances of Williams’ career. Though it’s about 20 minutes too long and a bit of a mess narratively, “The Fisher King” also happens to be one of director Terry Gilliam’s best films, not to mention his most accessible. The movie isn’t without Gilliam’s typical offbeat visual flair and penchant for the fantastical (as evidenced by the hallucinatory Red Knight sequences), but at its core is a sweet and occasionally funny story about humanity that’s difficult not to enjoy. Of course, none of it would work without Williams and Jeff Bridges, who form such a great chemistry that every scene they share together is fascinating to watch. Mercedes Ruehl also turns in some solid work as Bridges’ undyingly loyal girlfriend, though it’s hardly deserving of the Academy Award that the actress earned for the role. “The Fisher King” may be remembered more for those three performances than the film as a whole, but that doesn’t make it any less of a charming adult fairy tale.

EXTRAS: This Criterion release is packed with bonus material, including an audio commentary with director Terry Gilliam, new interviews with the cast and crew, a 2006 interview with actor Robin Williams, a new video essay featuring Jeff Bridges’ on-set photographs, deleted scenes with optional commentary and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“My Dinner with Andre”

WHAT: Actor and playwright Wallace Shawn sits down with his friend, theater director Andre Gregory, at a French restaurant in New York’s Upper West Side for a philosophical discussion about life, death and everything in between.

WHY: Louis Malle’s 1981 art-house classic has its share of admirers, but sadly, no amount of complimentary pieces written about the movie can change the fact that I’m not one of them. Though the idea of filming an entire dinner conversation between two friends is loaded with potential (and Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” films probably come the closest to realizing that potential), the discussion at the center of “My Dinner with Andre” is perhaps the worst pseudo-intelligent dinner conversation ever recorded… unless you’re a pretentious, bohemian twat like Andre Gregory. Watching the film is like being cornered at a party by the most annoying person there, because Gregory’s New Age bullshit is so dry and uninteresting that it’ll have you thinking about ways to kill yourself. The usually charismatic Wallace Shawn hardly gets a word in edgewise, and when he finally does offer his response in the final 30 minutes, challenging all the philosophical crap that’s been spewed up until that point, it makes you wish that the rest of the movie wasn’t so horribly one-sided – or at the very least, that the elderly waiter serving Gregory’s blowhard would just drown him in a bowl of potato soup.

EXTRAS: In addition to a 2009 interview with actors/co-writers Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach, there’s a 1982 episode of the BBC show “Arena” in which Shawn interviews director Louis Malle, as well as a booklet with an essay by film critic Amy Taubin and the prefaces written by Gregory and Shawn for the published version of the screenplay.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: Chappie, Run All Night 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.

“Chappie”

WHAT: In a near-future Johannesburg overrun by crime, a mechanized police force has been introduced to clean up the streets. When the droids’ creator (Dev Patel) steals a decommissioned unit and reprograms the A.I. so it can think for itself, the newly named Chappie (Sharlto Copley) falls into the hands of a trio of criminals who want to exploit him for their own profit.

WHY: Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” was a disappointment on a number of levels, and there was a lot of pressure on the director to bounce back with “Chappie.” Unfortunately, while his third sci-fi outing has plenty to admire, much like “Elysium,” it’s a fantastic concept that’s hindered by a messy execution. It’s as if Blomkamp wanted to cram so many ideas into the film that he was unable to edit the material into a more cohesive story. Casting South African rap duo Die Antwoord as the gangsters who “raise” Chappie was certainly an interesting choice, but while the sweet-voiced Yo-Landi Visser fares well in her first acting role, her male counterpart, Ninja, is pretty awful. The movie also spends too much time with their characters, leaving Dev Patel and Hugh Jackman (playing against type as the villain and sporting a glorious mullet) little to do. Thankfully, Sharlto Copley’s mo-cap performance as the titular robot is too good to ignore. Not only is it a remarkable piece of acting that perfectly captures the innocence and impressionability of a child, but the visual effects are flawless, seamlessly inserting Chappie into the world as if there’s an actual robot interacting with the actors. It’s truly next-level stuff, and it’s ultimately what saves “Chappie” in spite of the film’s many flaws.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes nine featurettes – covering a range of topics like the cast, stunts, visual effects, production design, location shooting in Johannesburg and A.I – as well as an alternate ending, an extended scene and a concept art gallery.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Run All Night”

WHAT: After law-abiding limo driver Michael Conlon (Joel Kinnaman) witnesses the murder of some clients by the sleazebag son of local crime boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), Shawn sends childhood friend/mob enforcer Jimmy “The Gravedigger” Conlon (Liam Neeson) to prevent Michael from going to the police. But when Jimmy shoots Shawn’s son in order to protect his own, Shawn swears to kill them both as retribution, forcing the estranged father/son duo to go on the run until they can clear Michael’s name.

WHY: It’s a shame that director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson already made a movie called “Non-Stop,” because while “Run All Night” is a fitting title, the former more appropriately describes the overall tone of the duo’s third collaboration. There’s quite a bit of setup in the opening act, but once Jimmy and Michael are marked for death, it barely takes a minute to stop and catch its breath, jam-packed with wall-to-wall action featuring a cornucopia of fist fights, gunfights and car chases. Collet-Serra does a great job of keeping the story moving along, and though it’s entertaining at first, the non-stop action becomes such a sensory overload that it all starts to blend together. Because of this action-first mentality, there isn’t much room for anything else, although Collet-Serra does try to shoehorn in some clichéd father-son drama. The only reason the relationship works at all is because it has two strong actors in the roles. Neeson does his thing as the tough-as-nails hitman, bringing gravitas to an otherwise stock character, while Kinnaman delivers some of his best work to date as the angry son who wants nothing to do with the family business. “Run All Night” will surely entertain those who walk into a Liam Neeson movie these days knowing exactly what to expect, but it’s so incredibly predictable and formulaic that it sucks out all trace of suspense.

EXTRAS: There’s a pair of featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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