Blu Tuesday: The Monuments Men, Pompeii 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 Monuments Men”

WHAT: American art conservationist Frank Stokes (George Clooney) leads a small platoon of specialists into Europe during the final year of World War II to protect various monuments and buildings from being needlessly destroyed by Allied forces, as well as locate and retrieve the Nazi-stolen paintings and sculptures hand-picked for Hitler’s planned Führer Museum.

WHY: Based on the 2009 book by Robert M. Edsel, the real-life story of the Monuments Men is practically tailor-made for the big screen; a unique slant on the typical WWII movie that, at least on paper, appeared to be equal parts “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Inglourious Basterds.” Unfortunately, it’s nothing like that at all. The movie is stuck in first gear for most of its sluggish two-hour runtime, and by the time it finally begins to take shape into the film that many were expecting from the start, it’s over. It’s also a giant mess tonally, shuffling back and forth between lighthearted comedy and serious drama with such reckless abandon that it’s as if co-writer/director Clooney was caught in two minds as to which kind of movie he wanted to make. That carries over to the screenplay as well, which is packed with so many different subplots that there’s no room for character development. We never get to know any of the men beyond their names and job titles, and they spend so much time apart on side missions that they barely have the chance to interact as an ensemble. “The Monuments Men” is a lot better than most of the dreck that’s forced down our gullets during the winter season, but for a film overflowing with promise, it’s hard not to feel the sting of disappointment.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes, two deleted scenes, interviews with the surviving members of the Monuments Men mission, and a profile on the real-life woman that served as the inspiration for Cate Blanchett’s character.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Pompeii”

WHAT: 17 years after his tribe was slaughtered and he was sold into slavery, gladiator Milo (Kit Harrington) catches the eye of a Roman lanista and is shipped off to Pompeii. But when he’s forced to fight in the upcoming games by the smarmy Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) – the man responsible for his family’s death – Milo is given a chance to exact revenge when Mount Vesuvius suddenly erupts, causing mass panic throughout the city as it crumbles.

WHY: Paul W.S. Anderson must have had “Titanic” playing on a loop for his cast and crew during the making of “Pompeii,” because the director’s sword-and-sandals/disaster movie borrows heavily from the James Cameron drama. That’s not to say that “Titanic” was a wholly original story, but you’d think that Anderson could have done a better job of not making its influence so blatantly obvious. Of course, everything about “Pompeii” feels half-assed – from its bland romance, to its terrible dialogue, to the worthless addition of 3D, to some incredibly dull and uninspired action. The final act in particular should have been more fun, but instead, it’s a chore to sit through as a never-ending chain of CG explosions is vomited across the screen. You can barely tell what’s going on amid all the death and destruction, not to mention the absurdity of watching two men fight over a girl as giant fireballs rain down on them. Roland Emmerich may be criticized for his schlocky disaster movies, but at least he makes a spectacle out of it. That’s something that “Pompeii” is desperately missing, because for a film about gladiators and an active volcano, it’s about as exciting as a grade school science fair project.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary with director Paul W.S. Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at making the movie, five additional featurettes (on the cast, special effects, stunts, production design and costume design) and a whopping 20 deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“3 Days to Kill”

WHAT: When CIA operative Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) decides to quit the international spy game after he’s given only a few months to live, he’s persuaded into doing one last job in exchange for an experimental drug that could save his life. Furthering complicating matters is Ethan’s estranged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), who he’s foolishly agreed to look after while hunting down a dangerous terrorist.

WHY: On the surface, “3 Days to Kill” had the potential to do for Kevin Costner’s career what “Taken” did for Liam Neeson. After all, both movies were co-written by Luc Besson and contain similar father-daughter relationships imbedded within an action-thriller plot. But unfortunately, “3 Days to Kill” is nowhere near as good as “Taken,” let alone its inferior sequel. Though Costner turns in a solid performance as usual, the film is lacking any sort of consistent tone, with the forced attempts at quirky humor missing their mark entirely. The scenes with Amber Heard’s CIA handler are especially painful to watch, not only because she’s a terrible actress, but because her character comes across more like a high-end prostitute than someone who could be considered a “top shelf” government agent. The whole thing is utterly ridiculous (from Ethan’s conveniently timed hallucinations, to the clichéd teaching moments between him and his daughter), and although you could say the same thing about any of Besson’s scripts, “3 Days to Kill” takes the cake as one of the Frenchman’s dumbest movies in recent memory.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, a short profile on director McG and an interview with a former CIA agent. Viewers can also watch an extended cut of the movie, which includes about six minutes of additional footage.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: Her, That Awkward Moment 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.

“Her”

WHAT: Lonely and depressed after splitting with his wife, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) purchases a new operating system for his computer designed to meet his every need. But as he spends more time chatting with the state-of-the-art OS – which goes by the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) – Theodore begins to fall in love, becoming romantically involved with someone he can neither see nor touch.

WHY: Leave it to Spike Jonze to create one of the more unique love stories in cinematic history. Set in a near future that feels remarkably authentic (well, except for the high-waisted pants that dominate the fashion), “Her” is a subtle but effective commentary on the role that technology plays in our increasingly anti-social lives; one where we’re more connected to our gadgets than the people around us. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as a man so desperate to connect with someone that he doesn’t care that they’re not real, but none of it would work without Scarlett Johansson. While the actress didn’t receive the awards recognition that she deserved, Johansson is the heart of the movie, delivering a sweet, soulful and fully rounded vocal performance that makes it seem like she’s actually there. That’s harder said than done, resulting in a relationship that not only feels more real than most of the films last year, but plays a big part in its success as a romantic dramedy and an enchanting piece of science fiction.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a trio of featurettes covering the making of the film, Karen O’s soundtrack, and interviews with various celebrities on the subject of love and relationships in the modern age.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“That Awkward Moment”

WHAT: When Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) discovers that his cheating wife wants a divorce, his best friends Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller) make a pact to remain single as a show of support. But that’s easier said than done for the two bachelors when they each get involved with someone that changes their relationship status from “single” to “it’s complicated.”

WHY: Perhaps best described as a male version of “Sex and the City,” “That Awkward Moment” should have been a lot better than it turned out, especially with a cast comprised of some of the best young talent in Hollywood. Instead, it’s an entirely forgettable rom-com that falls prey to the very formula that the movie is trying to subvert. It’s not very funny either, with many of the good laughs already spoiled in the trailer, resulting in an end product that’s more awkward than anything that happens in the film. There’s a general feeling of “why bother?” that runs throughout the story, and that’s mainly due to first-time writer/director Tom Gormican’s clichéd script, which fails to make any of the relationships particularly interesting. “That Awkward Moment” isn’t a complete waste of time thanks to the chemistry between its three leads (who are all capable of much better work than they deliver here), but that charm only takes the film so far before sputtering out.

EXTRAS: There’s a behind-the-scenes featurette, character profiles, an interview with Zac Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan, and an extended gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“I, Frankenstein”

WHAT: Frankenstein’s monster (Aaron Eckhart) gets caught in the middle of a centuries-old war between demons from Hell – whose leader (Bill Nighy) wants to capture the creature to uncover the secret of his reanimation – and the clandestine order of gargoyles created by the Archangel Michael to protect humanity from evil forces.

WHY: “I, Frankenstein” will likely go down as one of the worst movies of 2014, and that’s not an exaggeration by any means. Though it boasts a competent leading man in Aaron Eckhart, the story – based on the graphic novel by co-writer Kevin Grevioux – is so dumb that you have to question why anyone thought it was a good idea to adapt it for the big screen. The intent was obviously to mimic the “Underworld” films, and it shares a lot of the same DNA as the horror/fantasy series, from its gothic visual cues, to the creature effects, to Bill Nighy as the big bad. But what the producers seem to have forgotten is that the last three “Underworld” movies weren’t very good either. It’s nice to see someone utilizing creatures other than vampires, werewolves and zombies for once, and the concept behind the gargoyles is admittedly clever, but the film has absolutely no soul… or a decent story or performances, for that matter. It’s a total bore from start to finish, and no amount of CGI-heavy action scenes can change that.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries – one with co-writer/director Stuart Beattie and another with producers Gary Lucchesi, Richard Wright, James McQuaide and Kevin Grevioux – the Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette and a behind-the-scenes look at designing the creature effects.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: Veronica Mars, Son of Batman and The Art of the Steal

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.

“Veronica Mars”

WHAT: It’s been years since Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) walked away from her life as a teenage private eye, now living in New York City with the hopes of landing a job at a major law firm. But when her former flame, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), becomes the lead witness in a murder case, Veronica flies back to her hometown to help clear his name.

WHY: If you didn’t know what Kickstarter was prior to March 13, 2013, then there’s a pretty good chance that you were awakened to its existence after a campaign to fund a “Veronica Mars” movie reached its $2 million goal in only 10 hours. That’s how badly fans of Rob Thomas’ cult TV drama (which ran from 2004-2007 on The CW) wanted to see their favorite show revived on the big screen, even if that meant footing the bill themselves. This is the kind of thing that every fanboy dreams about, and also the reason why “Veronica Mars” is almost exclusively a fans-only affair. The chances that you’ll become a fan of the show after seeing the film is certainly possible, but it’s not likely, especially when the movie clearly panders to the existing audience. It’s the ultimate fan service, complete with the return of some familiar faces and in-jokes that only a Marshmallow would understand. As an outsider, that makes it a lot easier to identify the film’s faults (like the TV-grade production value, Scooby-Doo plot and wooden leading man), but Kristen Bell is so enjoyable in the title role that it’s easy to see why so many people fell in love with the character in the first place.

EXTRAS: In addition to a 56-minute making-of featurette, the Blu-ray release includes some interviews with the cast and crew, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Son of Batman”

WHAT: After the League of Shadows’ fearless leader, Ra’s al Ghul, is killed by a former student, his daughter Talia (Morena Baccarin) flees to Gotham City with her son Damian (Stuart Allen) to seek protection from Batman (Jason O’Mara), who is actually the young boy’s father. But when Damian proves to be more trouble than expected, Batman agrees to help track down Ra’s al Ghul’s killer – the power-hungry Deathstroke – as long as they play by his rules.

WHY: The DC Universe animated movies won’t replace their live-action counterparts any time soon, but they’re perfectly adequate distractions that generally clock in at a brisk 80 minutes or less. They also give the company the chance to tell stories that wouldn’t necessarily be considered for the big screen, even if their short runtimes don’t allow for very much character development or emotion – and in the case of those adapted from popular comic book arcs (like with “Son of Batman”), the same level of complexity. The voice acting could be better, and the amount of blood on display is astounding for a PG-13 animated movie, but it’s still pretty entertaining at times (especially the action sequences), despite the fact that it comes at the expense of any real substance. “Son of Batman” certainly isn’t the Dark Knight’s finest DC Universe adventure, but it explores one of the character’s more unique storylines of the past decade, ushering in an exciting new era for Batman and his pint-sized sidekick that has a certain Big Daddy/Hit-Girl feel to the whole partnership.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a trio of featurettes, a sneak peek at the upcoming movie “Batman: Assault on Arkham” and some bonus DC cartoons.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Art of the Steal”

WHAT: Following a five-and-a-half-year stint in prison after his sleazy half-brother Nicky (Matt Dillon) rats him out to save his own ass, art thief-turned-motorcycle daredevil Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) is persuaded into reuniting with Nicky and the rest of their crew – including newcomer Francie (Jay Baruchel) – to steal a valuable Gutenberg book.

WHY: A north-of-the-border crime caper that plays like a poor man’s “Ocean’s Eleven” (right down to the jazzy musical score and fast-cut montages), “The Art of the Steal” is not only incredibly forgettable, but it offers nothing new to the genre. Writer/director Jonathan Sobol’s biggest mistake is thinking that his movie is much hipper and cleverer than it really is, bogged down by so many needless twists and double-crosses that it becomes increasingly less plausible by the minute. Despite its overly complex plot, Sobol manages to keep the runtime short and snappy, and he’s assembled an immensely likeable cast, headlined by Kurt Russell, who for my money is still one of the most charismatic leading men working today. Lately, Russell’s relationship with Hollywood has been flirtatious at best, and that’s a real shame, because even though his roles have been limited over the past decade, he’s an actor whose presence lights up the screen. Seeing him front and center again is reason enough to watch “The Art of the Steal,” even if the movie is every bit as mediocre as its initial VOD rollout suggests.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writer/director Jonathan Sobol and producer Nicholas Tabarrock, a fairly extensive making-of featurette and a behind-the-scenes look at the Mona Lisa sequence.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: The Legend of Hercules, Labor Day and Gimme Shelter

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 Legend of Hercules”

WHAT: When King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins) uncovers the truth about his son, Hercules (Kellan Lutz) – sired by the god Zeus and not himself as originally believed – he sends him off to war in the hopes that he’ll be killed. Instead, Hercules is captured and sold into slavery, where he uses his skills in the arena to win back his freedom and return to Greece to exact revenge.

WHY: The first of two Hercules movies to be released this year, Renny Harlin’s brawn-over-brains rendition of the classic tale makes for pretty miserable viewing. Though there’s plenty to criticize about “The Legend of Hercules,” its fate was sealed long before production, when the film’s writers (four to be exact) decided to ignore everything about their hero’s mythological adventures in favor of making a generic sword-and-sandals movie. It’s essentially a mish-mash of every likeminded film that’s preceded it, with a story that hews dangerously close to “Gladiator” and a visual style ripped straight from Zack Snyder’s “300.” The 3D is also pretty annoying, especially when every other scene is blanketed in confetti and pollen. Who knew that Party City was so popular in Ancient Greece? Unfortunately, that’s just the beginning of its problems. From the dreadful acting, to the laughably bad dialogue, to some cheesy special effects (including an animatronic lion that looks like a stuffed toy), “The Legend of Hercules” is reminiscent of those Asylum-produced B-movies designed to cash in on upcoming Hollywood blockbusters, except those films actually know they’re terrible.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary with director Renny Harlin and star Kellan Lutz, as well as a making-of featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Labor Day”

WHAT: Set in a quaint New England town during Labor Day weekend in 1987, reclusive single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and her young son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) are taken hostage by a fugitive named Frank (Josh Brolin), who plans to hide out in their rundown house until he can make a run for it. But as Adele and Henry get to know their new houseguest, it becomes clear that Frank isn’t the dangerous murderer that he’s been made out to be.

WHY: For a moment, it seemed like Jason Reitman could do no wrong, but even the best filmmakers are capable of making bad movies, and though “Labor Day” isn’t a complete failure, it’s the director’s weakest film by a country mile. Based on the 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard, the movie represents a major departure for Reitman, who’s made a name for himself telling stories with a dark comedic bite. That trademark humor isn’t present in “Labor Day,” instead replaced by gooey sentimentalism that you’d be more likely to find in a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. It’s essentially a trashy romance novel disguised as an Oscar prestige movie – the kind of story that sets back feminism several decades by suggesting that a woman could be this helpless without a strong man around the house to take care of her. Though the first act is fairly good, staged more like a kidnapping thriller than a sappy romance, it eventually devolves into a bunch of melodramatic nonsense. It’s hard to imagine how much worse “Labor Day” might have been without Winslet and Brolin in the lead roles, because their performances are the only thing separating this from your average Lifetime movie of the week.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writer/director Jason Reitman, a making-of featurette and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Gimme Shelter”

WHAT: Pregnant teenager Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens) leaves her abusive, drug-addicted mother (Rosario Dawson) in order to track down her estranged father (Brendan Fraser). But when she refuses to get rid of the baby at his advice, Apple is taken in by a woman’s shelter dedicated to helping young mothers-to-be.

WHY: Based on a composite of several real-life women to come through the doors of the Several Sources Shelters run by Kathy DiFiore (played in the film by Ann Dowd), “Gimme Shelter” had the potential to be much better than this heavy-handed afterschool special. Though it’s great to see Vanessa Hudgens continuing to push herself with challenging roles, her one-note performance (all anger and no nuance) doesn’t change the uncertainty regarding her abilities as an actress. The rest of the cast is wasted in underwritten parts, especially Brendan Fraser as the father looking to make amends, and the aforementioned Dowd, who’s so good in her limited screen time that you wonder why she wasn’t given more to do. In fact, DiFiore’s story is fascinating enough to deserve its own movie, although as my colleague Billy Tatum Jr. suggested in his review, director Ron Kraus would have been better off just shooting the whole thing as a documentary. Hollywood has a tendency to neuter these kinds of stories during the production process, and “Gimme Shelter” is one that would have benefited from the authenticity of its real-life subjects.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary by writer/director Ron Krauss, a making-of featurette and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: Big Bad Wolves and Sorcerer

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.

“Big Bad Wolves”

WHAT: When a lawless police detective (Lior Ashkenazi) botches his investigation into a series of brutal child murders that he believes was committed by religious studies teacher Dror (Rotem Keinan), he teams up with the vengeful father (Tzahi Grad) of the latest victim to kidnap and torture the suspected killer into revealing the location of the girl’s severed head.

WHY: “Big Bad Wolves” is one of those movies where all the hype may have hurt the film more than it helps it, because while writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado have produced a well-made Israeli thriller, it’s not nearly as amazing as many people (including Quentin Tarantino, who named it his best film of 2013) would lead you to believe. Between the many plot holes that defy logic and twists so predictable that it makes the police characters seem incompetent by comparison, “Big Bad Wolves” is unable to stick the landing, resulting in a movie that’s good, but not as great as it could have been. What makes the whole thing work at all are the performances from the three leads. Even when you’re 99% certain that you know the truth, a character will say or do something that forces you to rethink your position. And that’s where the film’s true genius is revealed, because it never allows you to feel comfortable about what these brutish men are doing to their captive, even if he may be guilty. It’s a smarter, more socially conscious form of torture porn – one that places morality over shock and awe.

EXTRAS: There’s a pretty decent making-of featurette and a fluff piece produced for AXS TV, but that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Sorcerer”

WHAT: A group of outcasts from different backgrounds find themselves working for a drilling company in South America. When an oil well explodes several hundred miles away, four of the men (including Roy Scheider) are given a lucrative opportunity to transport six crates of unstable dynamite across the jungle so that the nitroglycerin can be used to extinguish the flames.

WHY: William Friedkin’s 1977 thriller has experienced a bit of a revival lately, but it’s hard to understand why. The movie was critically panned when it was first released, and rightfully so, because it’s an often boring and uneven mess, beginning with its horribly misleading title. Named after one of the trucks that the characters drive in the film, it tells you absolutely nothing about the story, nor does anything of much interest happen in the first hour. It takes 30 minutes just to introduce the four main characters, and another 30 minutes to send them on their journey. Once they embark on the suicide mission, however, the movie finally shifts out of first gear and delivers a handful of truly suspenseful moments as the quartet is forced to battle the elements, dangerous rebels and shoddy terrain. Many people have singled out the bridge crossing as the standout sequence in the film, but there’s a pair of set pieces that come just before and after that are equally as good, even if they’re dragged out a little longer than necessary. With better pacing and more likable characters, “Sorcerer” could have been an American classic, but instead, it’s a disappointing exercise in wasted potential.

EXTRAS: Nothing, zilch, nada.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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