Blu Tuesday: Still Alice, Blackhat 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.

“Still Alice”

WHAT: Renowned linguistics professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a happily married mother of three grown children who has begun to experience problems with her memory. When she’s diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease, Alice’s relationships with her family are tested as she struggles to maintain a normal life despite the worsening symptoms.

WHY: “Still Alice” is an emotionally devastating, soul-crushing movie that is bound to end in tears for anyone watching it, which makes the decision to release it on home video the week of Mother’s Day especially cruel. With that said, writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (the former of whom recently died from his own battle with a terrible disease, ALS) do a good job of portraying the illness and the effect it has on the people around those afflicted without cheapening its real-world impact or pandering to the audience. The story also smartly avoids getting too deep into Alice’s illness too soon, allowing you to witness Alice in her natural habitat as a wife, mother and teacher, thus making her mental deterioration that much more traumatic. Based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestselling novel of the same name, the film is such a well-acted drama that it deserves every accolade it received during last year’s awards season. It wouldn’t be as effective without Julianne Moore in the lead role, however, and she delivers a career-best performance as the intelligent and independent matriarch forced to suffer her worst nightmare. Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart are also solid in supporting roles, but this is Moore’s movie from start to finish, and she commands the screen with such brutal honesty that it was never a question of if she’d win the Oscar, but why it took so long.

EXTRAS: In addition to a discussion among the cast, crew and Alzheimer’s experts about creating an accurate depiction of Alice’s disease, there’s a profile on directors Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland, an interview with composer Ilan Eshkeri and a few deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Blackhat”

WHAT: After a cyberterrorist causes a meltdown at a nuclear reactor in China and makes millions on the stock market by driving up the price of soy, FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) makes a deal with imprisoned hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) to expunge his record in exchange for his help in stopping the malicious blackhat before the next attack.

WHY: Over the past decade, Michael Mann has come to care more about the look of his films than what they’re trying to say, and that hasn’t changed with “Blackhat.” To be fair, when the camera isn’t shaking around like it’s in the middle of an earthquake, the movie boasts some really gorgeous visuals. It’s just a shame that the story hasn’t been given the same attention. Mann tries to counteract the implausibility of Morgan Davis Foehl’s script by instilling a sense of danger with real stakes, but there’s too much working against it, including a faceless villain who isn’t very threatening and a needlessly convoluted plot that fails to validate the sluggish, 135-minute runtime. Chris Hemsworth does the best he can with such a dull, underdeveloped character (wasting his charismatic presence in the process), although Chinese actors Leehom Wang and Wei Tang fare much better in supporting roles. Perhaps the most annoying thing about “Blackhat,” however, is that it constantly brings up 9/11 as a measure of the level of terror that the hacker is capable of launching against the world, and yet the film never even considers going in that direction. This could have been a very timely thriller about cyber-terrorism, but instead, it’s just another style-over-substance misfire from Mann.

EXTRAS: There’s a trio of featurettes on the film’s production, shooting on location and the real-world threat of cyber-terrorism.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: Selma, Black Sea 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.

“Selma”

WHAT: When Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Council are invited to Selma, Alabama to stage their latest fight in the civil rights movement, they organize a series of non-violent protests in the hopes that it will force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the Voting Rights Act.

WHY: Who would’ve thought that a movie that takes place nearly 50 years ago would feel so relevant today? And yet while the parallels between Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and the current racial tension across the country are indisputable, the film deserves to be judged on its own merits, because it’s a deftly made drama that takes a page from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” by focusing on a single (but very important) chapter in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. To DuVernay’s credit, she manages to make almost every moment – from the backroom politics, to King’s rousing speeches – as riveting as the last, and a big part of that success falls on the casting, even those in bit roles. David Oyelowo is fantastic as the pastor turned civil rights activist, playing him with an expected gracefulness, but also a hint of exhaustion and self-doubt that reveals the toll his crusade for equality has taken on him. It’s hard to imagine the film being nearly as effective with another actor in the role, because it’s Oyelowo’s powerful performance that transforms “Selma” from yet another stuffy biopic into a stirring political drama worthy of Dr. King’s legacy.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries – one with director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo, and another with DuVernay, cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Spencer Averick – there are behind-the-scenes featurettes on the film’s origins and production, some deleted scenes, a collection of newsreels and photos from the period, and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Black Sea”

WHAT: After he’s fired from his job at a marine salvage company, submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law) assembles a group of former employees (half British, half Russian) to search the Black Sea for a Nazi U-boat rumored to be carrying approximately 80 million dollars in gold.

WHY: Submarines are the perfect setting for a thriller – they’re dark, claustrophobic and offer no hope of escape – which is why it’s so surprising that there aren’t more films that take advantage of them. Granted, there are probably more than you think, but very few are any good, and “Black Sea” can count itself among that exclusive group. Not only is the movie a welcome return to form for director Kevin Macdonald, who sort of fell off the map after his 2009 remake of “State of Play,” but it reaffirms why Jude Law is one of the most underrated actors in the business. Law delivers yet another excellent performance as the under-pressure captain who sees the mission as his last chance at redemption, and he’s surrounded by a cast of reliable supporting players like Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn and Michael Smiley. The “us vs. them” mentality between the British and Russian crew members provides plenty of suspense as their greed and paranoia builds throughout the film, and while certain character actions don’t exactly make sense (as things go from bad to worse, the wrong people are blamed), “Black Sea” manages to stay afloat thanks to its engaging premise, solid performances and taut direction.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Kevin Macdonald and a short making-of featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: The Gambler, Inherent Vice 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 Gambler”

WHAT: After falling into debt with a pair of dangerous men, college English professor and degenerate gambler Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is given seven days to pay or else. When his mother (Jessica Lange) gives him the money to clear his debt, only to blow it at the casino instead, Jim is put in a precarious position when one of the loan sharks (Michael K. Williams) threatens the lives of his two students.

WHY: Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler” is a curious beast. It’s based on a film that’s just obscure enough that a remake wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers, yet is well-regarded by those who have seen it. In other words, the 1974 original starring James Caan isn’t exactly holy ground, but there’s not much to improve on either, which makes this Mark Wahlberg vanity project feel every bit as irrelevant as the story it’s trying to tell. Wahlberg’s character is such a miserable asshole that it’s very difficult to identify with him, despite some punchy dialogue from writer William Monahan, and to make matters worse, the actor is terribly miscast in the role. At least the gambling scenes are handled with style and verve, dripping in tension and absolutely painful to watch. But while the movie does a great job of illustrating Jim’s self-destructive nature, it never digs any deeper into the root of the problem, which makes it seem fairly hollow as a result. “The Gambler” had all the right ingredients – a great cast, a talented director and source material that’s already proven to work – but it’s a disappointing misfire that fails to capitalize on its intriguing premise.

EXTRAS: There’s a collection of featurettes covering the production process (including the differences between the 1974 original and Rupert Wyatt’s remake, location shooting and costumes), as well as six deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Inherent Vice”

WHAT: Pothead private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) investigates the disappearance of his free-spirited ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterson) and her real estate mogul boyfriend, Mickey (Eric Roberts), which may be connected to a series of other cases involving a presumed-dead musician (Owen Wilson), the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards and a mysterious Indo-Chinese drug syndicate called the Golden Fang.

WHY: After years of toying with my patience, Paul Thomas Anderson has finally made a movie that’s almost impossible to defend. Fans of the director will make excuses for the film’s myriad problems anyway, but the fact that they find it necessary at all only confirms what a giant mess “Inherent Vice” really is. Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, the so-called inherent vice of Anderson’s slacker noir is the narrative itself. It’s as if the movie, like many of its characters, is in a constant state of a drug-addled high, unable to remain focused or make sense of anything that’s going on. And while that may be the film’s big joke, it’s not a very funny one. It feels complicated for the sake of being complicated, eventually becoming so mired in all the twists and pointless subplots that it doesn’t even know what it’s about anymore. Even worse than the gaps in logic is the punishingly long runtime, which is filled with dense, drawn-out conversations that go nowhere except lead to another similarly long-winded exchange. Joaquin Phoenix nearly holds the whole thing together with his amusingly daffy performance, but he’s the only bright spot in a movie that really should have been a lot more enjoyable.

EXTRAS: There’s a deleted scene and some fluffy promotional material, but that’s all.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: Taken 3, Everly and Escape from New York

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.

“Taken 3″

WHAT: After his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) is murdered and he becomes the prime suspect, former special ops agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) sets out to find the real killer and clear his name while being hunted by a tenacious police inspector (Forest Whitaker).

WHY: If “Taken 2” proved anything, it’s that money should never be the driving force behind a sequel, although try telling that to the makers of “Taken 3,” because that seems to be the only reason why the movie was made. Though Luc Besson was smart to go the “Fugitive” route for the third installment (there’s no way he could have gotten away with doing another story about the Albanian baddies), it results in a movie that feels very different from its predecessors. For starters, no one is kidnapped this time around, and the villains are so far removed from the story that the main antagonist only appears in the opening scene and shortly again at the end. There’s also very little action compared to the first two films, which only makes the dull moments stick out even more. Liam Neeson and Forest Whitaker (doing his usual eccentric cop thing) manage to prevent the movie from turning into a complete bore, but they’re never given the chance to form any sort of relationship, which was a hugely missed opportunity. Just like director Oliver Megaton’s other Besson productions, “Taken 3” is competently made, but it’s an incredibly stale action thriller that seems to have forgotten what made the original so entertaining.

EXTRAS: There’s a short retrospective on the “Taken” series, a pair of production featurettes and a deleted scene.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Everly”

WHAT: After serving as a sex slave for ruthless crime boss Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe) for the past five years, Everly (Salma Hayek) strikes a deal with one of the few honest cops in town to testify against Taiko. But when Taiko learns of her betrayal, he places a bounty on her head, forcing Everly to fight back against countless waves of ferocious intruders intent on collecting the reward.

WHY: There’s something oddly appealing about a movie that encourages you to turn off your brain for 90 minutes while a gun-toting badass takes down a bunch of bad guys in extremely violent fashion. Some of cinema’s guiltiest pleasures have followed this formula to great success, and though director Joe Lynch’s “Everly” desperately wants to join those ranks as the next cult classic shoot-‘em-up, it falls disappointingly short. Though it starts out as a fairly decent, low-budget action film, “Everly” gets progressively worse with each passing minute, dragged down by the terrible dialogue, poor acting and paper-thin villains. Hayek does the best she can with what little she’s given, but nothing about her character makes sense, like how she’s able to dispatch an army of killers when she barely even knows how to shoot a gun. It’s not quite as awful as Lynch’s last effort, the horror-comedy “Knights of Badassdom,” but while the idea of watching a scantily-clad Hayek fight her way through yakuza henchman and prostitutes-turned-assassins may sound like a ton of fun, “Everly” is never able to match its B-movie aspirations, instead forced to flounder in the gutter like the filthy, exploitative grindhouse film that it is.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray boasts a pair of audio commentaries – the first with director Joe Lynch, producer Brett Hedblom and Editor Evan Schiff, and another with Lynch and cinematographer Steve Gainer – but that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Escape from New York”

WHAT: In the future, the country has become so ravaged by crime that the entire island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. But when the U.S. President (Donald Pleasence) crash-lands inside the walls, notorious outlaw Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is implanted with an explosive device an given 24 hours to rescue the President, or die trying.

WHY: John Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic may not have come close to predicting the future as it would be in 1997, but it marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the filmmaker and star Kurt Russell, who would go on to work together again in “The Thing” and “Big Trouble in Little China.” While “Escape from New York” isn’t the duo’s best collaboration (although it probably depends on who you ask), the movie is responsible for creating what is perhaps the most iconic character in Russell’s career. Snake Plissken is the ultimate antihero – a macho, cool-as-a-cucumber badass who’d just as quickly kill you if it meant saving himself – and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. “Escape from New York” is a really fun B-movie with some solid set pieces, Carpenter’s trademark synth score, and a colorful supporting cast featuring Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanto and Adrienne Barbeau. Granted, some people forget that it’s still only a B-movie, which means that it’s served with a large side of cheese, but Carpenter and Russell form such a great team that even when they swing and miss (like the mid-90s sequel set in L.A.), it’s worth going along for the ride.

EXTRAS: In addition to a new 2K high definition scan that looks great, the Collector’s Edition is overflowing with goodies, including three audio commentaries featuring director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell; producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves; and a new track with actress Adrienne Barbeau and cinematographer Dean Cundey. Additionally, there’s a new featurette on the film’s visual effects, new interviews with composer Alan Howarth, actor Joe Unger, still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker and filmmaker David DeCoteau, as well as a previously released featurette and the original opening bank robbery sequence.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: Big Eyes, Batman vs. Robin and Odd Man Out

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 Eyes”

WHAT: In 1958, aspiring artist Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) leaves her husband for a fresh start in San Francisco, and before long, she marries smooth-talking artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). But when Walter starts taking credit for Margaret’s kitschy paintings (after all, they both sign their art “Keane,” and Walter insists they’re a team), the lie grows so big that Margaret is unable to stop it in fear that the whole Keane empire, and her life’s work, will be tarnished in the process.

WHY: Tim Burton’s first live-action feature to not star Johnny Depp in over a decade may be a bit of a departure for the oddball director, but “Big Eyes” is his best film in years, even if that comes off like a backhanded compliment considering some of the recent garbage he’s released. Amy Adams delivers an outstanding performance as Margaret Keane, whose façade of female empowerment is stripped away by Walter’s passive-aggressive bullying, leaving behind an emotionally defeated shell of a woman that Adams plays with such honesty that you feel her heartbreak with every betrayal. And though Christoph Waltz’s bombastic fraud isn’t afforded the same level of complexity, he still takes what could have been a one-dimensional character and turns him into somewhat of a tragic figure, so desperate for recognition that it’s sad to watch as he becomes consumed by his own lie. Unfortunately, “Big Eyes” doesn’t feel like a Burton movie at all, to the point that it makes you wonder what drew such a creative and visual filmmaker to what’s pretty standard biopic material. Kudos to the director for taking a break from his usual genre leanings in order to make a more straightforward drama, but while “Big Eyes” features some strong lead performances and a fascinating story, just like Margaret Keane’s paintings, it never amounts to more than a pleasant distraction.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and some Q&A highlights.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Batman vs. Robin”

WHAT: After being trained as a killer by Ra’s al Ghul, young Damian Wayne (Stuart Allan) is having difficulty adjusting to Batman’s moral code and his new role as Robin. So when a secret society known as the Court of Owls tries to recruit Damian to their cause, he’s forced to decide what kind of hero he wants to be: one that seeks justice or vengeance.

WHY: “Batman vs. Robin” is just the latest in a line of mediocre animated films from DC Comics. The biggest problem with the movie is its horribly misleading title, because the dynamic duo only faces off against each other once, and even then, it’s a relatively brief skirmish that ranks as the weakest of the included action scenes. A direct sequel to last year’s “Son of Batman,” the movie integrates elements from Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s popular “The Court of Owls” story arc into the continuing narrative of Damian’s transformation into Robin. Unfortunately, Damian is such an incredibly annoying character (made even worse by Stuart Allan’s irritating voice work) that you don’t care what happens to the pint-sized brat, and the story suffers as a result. The rest of the characters don’t fare any better, particularly Batman, who resorts to fighting inside a lame robot suit for the climactic battle in what the filmmakers probably thought would be the film’s crowd-pleasing moment. Instead, it’s when Alfred enters the fray seconds later armed with a shotgun, and for as great as that moment may be, it’s a rare highlight in an otherwise forgettable movie.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with the filmmakers, a pair of featurettes on the Court of Owls and the Talons of the Owls, a sneak peek at “Justice League: Gods & Monsters” and four bonus cartoons from the DC Comics vault.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Odd Man Out”

WHAT: When IRA gunman Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is shot during a failed robbery in Northern Ireland, he’s forced to go on the run, seeking refuge throughout the city while being hunted by the police. As Johnny’s fellow conspirators are captured one by one, his lover (Kathleen Ryan) enlists the help of the local priest to track him down.

WHY: Carol Reed is probably best known as the director of “The Third Man,” and for good reason, because it’s one of the greatest films of the 1940s. Just two years before making that movie, however, Reed directed an adaptation of F.L. Green’s novel, “Odd Man Out,” and though it shares many of the same visual cues as “The Third Man,” it doesn’t hold up as well. That’s partly because it’s very much a product of its time, and as such, there are a lot of silly things that transpire over the course of the film that simply don’t make sense. (The fact that all of the characters refer to McQueen’s criminal group as “the organization” and not the IRA, which it very clearly is, smacks of political censorship.) Additionally, the setup is weak and the ensuing story isn’t particularly interesting, losing focus in the latter half as it devolves into a bunch of metaphysical psychobabble. James Mason delivers some good work as the speechless, almost zombified protagonist, and Kathleen Ryan is the unsung hero of the piece, but it doesn’t have the “wow” factor of “The Third Man” to make up for its lesser qualities.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of new interviews with British cinema scholar John Hill and music scholar Jeff Smith, there’s a new featurette about the film’s production, the 1972 documentary “Home, James,” the 1952 radio adaptation of the movie, and an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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