Blu Tuesday: Transformers, Chef and Third Person

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.

“Transformers: Age of Extinction”

WHAT: Following the Battle of Chicago, a CIA black ops team led by the ruthless Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) has begun hunting down the surviving Autobots and Deceptions in order to destroy them. When wannabe inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) discovers Optimus Prime hiding as a beat-up semi-truck, the Autobot leader must protect the Yeager family from Attinger and a mercenary Transformer called Lockdown.

WHY: The most important thing you need to know about “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is that it clocks in at a ridiculously bloated 164 minutes. That’s not a typo, and worse yet, the first half is all just setup to the overly complex plot. Why Michael Bay thought that audiences wanted another “Transformers” film, let alone one that’s nearly three hours long, is anyone’s guess, because “Age of Extinction” is every bit as terrible as the last two installments. The bad dialogue and shameless product placement are to be expected, and the dynamic between the three lead human characters is pretty annoying, but Bay can’t even get the action right in this one, settling for unintelligible set pieces that evade logic almost as much as the story. At this point in the franchise, you’d think that Bay would have a better understanding of what works versus what doesn’t, but he makes many of the same mistakes, including a few new ones. Even the visual effects look less polished than past installments, and if you’re going to surround your action with dull human drama, the least Bay could have done is make it look good.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a ton of bonus material for “Transformers” fans to dive into, beginning with the two-hour documentary “Evolution Within Extinction. There’s also a featurette where director Michael Bay discusses some key shots from the film, a behind-the-scenes look at production and a trip to Hasbro headquarters.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Chef”

WHAT: After quitting his comfy restaurant job due to creative differences with the owner, Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) does the unthinkable by starting up a food truck to revive his passion for the craft. While driving the truck cross-country from Miami to Los Angeles, Carl attempt to mend his relationship with his estranged son (Emjay Anthony), who accompanies him on the trip.

WHY: After the critical and commercial failure of “Cowboys & Aliens,” it’s nice to see Jon Favreau getting back to his roots with a small character-driven piece like “Chef.” Of course, that hasn’t stopped him from filling the movie with lots of great actors, including Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr. and Dustin Hoffman in cameo roles. The crux of the film, however, falls on Favreau and Emjay Anthony, who work really well together as the father-son duo, while John Leguizamo rounds out the food truck team (as Carl’s dutiful line cook) with his best part in a long time. The feel-good nature of the story means that it’s a fairly predictable journey for Carl, but Favreau takes a timely approach to the material with the whole food truck angle and the incorporation of social media. Though far from the big-budget extravaganza of the first two “Iron Man” films, what the indie comedy lacks in spectacle it makes up for with a great cast, a warm and funny script, and some mouth-watering food porn. Seriously, don’t watch this movie on an empty stomach. You’ve been warned.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with writer/director Jon Favreau and co-producer Roy Choi, as well as some deleted scenes and outtakes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Third Person”

WHAT: Three connecting stories that take place in three different cities. In Paris, an esteemed author (Liam Neeson) begins an affair with a fellow writer (Olivia Wilde); in New York, a mother (Mila Kunis) struggles to regain visitation rights of her child; and in Italy, a businessman (Adrian Brody) helps an immigrant woman (Moran Atias) rescue her daughter from a human trafficker.

WHY: It’s incredible how much can change over the course of just a few years, and no one knows that better than Paul Haggis, who went from being one of the most sought-after writer/directors in Hollywood to a filmmaker who hasn’t done anything noteworthy in almost a decade. In fact, it appears that Haggis is still living off the 10-year-old fumes of “Crash,” because his latest multi-story drama also hinges on a narrative device, although to lesser effect. Discussing the silly gimmick in any detail would risk major spoilers, but let’s just say that watching different variations of the same bad story is even worse than sitting through it once. “Third Person” is without a doubt one of the most joyless moviegoing experiences of the year – a convoluted mess filled with insufferable characters and dull stories where nothing really happens. Don’t let the star-studded cast fool you, either, because while Liam Neeson delivers solid work as usual, the rest of the actors are either really poor or look bored out of their minds. Maybe they were promised the chance to be a part of the next “Crash,” but sadly, “Third Person” doesn’t even come close to replicating the excellence of the Oscar winner.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director Paul Haggis (along with several of his cast and crew), there’s a short making-of featurette and a 32-minute Q&A with Haggis moderated by film critic Pete Hammond.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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Blu Tuesday: Neighbors, The Rover and Firestorm

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.

“Neighbors”

WHAT: When a college fraternity moves into the house next door, new parents Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) become entangled in a juvenile war with the frat’s tenacious president (Zac Efron) after butting heads over their hard-partying lifestyle.

WHY: I’m a firm believer that the best comedy is grounded in reality, which is why “Neighbors” didn’t really work for me, because nothing that happens in this movie is even remotely realistic. For starters, a fraternity would never move into an ordinary neighborhood without some serious pushback from the rest of the community, and the idea that the other neighbors could be bought off so easily is perhaps the funniest joke in the entire film. (Free car washes are nice, but not at the expense of persistent noise and debauchery.) Furthermore, many of the pranks implemented by the two parties are not only incredibly dangerous, but highly improbable, while the characters (especially Lisa Kudrow’s college dean) are so stupid that it only makes buying into the premise that much more difficult. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any of the jokes working at all without such a good cast, because while Seth Rogen is resigned to his usual shtick (though he does it well), Rose Byrne and Zac Efron deliver some really funny performances. Unfortunately, despite boasting some great individual moments, “Neighbors” never quite gels into the laugh-out-loud comedy that it had the potential to be.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes an alternate opening, deleted scenes, a gag reel, the always popular Line-O-Rama, and some brief featurettes on the characters, the party scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Rover”

WHAT: Set 10 years after a global economic collapse, a hardened loner named Eric (Guy Pearce) attempts to track down the men who stole his car. When he discovers one of the thieves’ brothers left for dead on the side of the road, he forms an uneasy alliance with the redneck half-wit (Robert Pattinson) to help him on his journey.

WHY: David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” was one of the best-reviewed films of 2010, but if you gave me the choice between that movie and his latest thriller, “The Rover” would get my vote every time. Though it’s plagued by many of the same problems as the Aussie crime drama, including glacial pacing and an alarming lack of character development, the film is a mesmerizing study of two severely damaged men living in a damaged world. Michod may not offer much in the way of plot, but he makes up for it with some gorgeous shots of the Australian outback and a quiet intensity rarely seen in Hollywood movies. That latter part comes through mostly in the performances from its two leads, and while Guy Pearce is excellent as the soft-spoken nomad, it’s Robert Pattinson who really surprises as the twitchy captive. Pattinson has earned a bad reputation due to his involvement in the “Twilight” films, but the actor proves that he’s capable of much better in what is easily his strongest performance to date. “The Rover” is a very specific kind of movie (“Mad Max” by way of Cormac McCarthy) for a very specific kind of audience, and although it’s not for everyone, it’s yet another strong feather in the cap of A24, which is having an excellent year between this, “Enemy” and “Locke.”

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette, but sadly, that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Firestorm”

WHAT: When a group of robbers pulls off an armored car heist in broad daylight, hard-nosed Inspector Lui (Andy Lau) leads the investigation to bring them down. But after the usual police tactics prove to be no match for the unscrupulous criminals, Nam must play by their own rules in order to deliver justice.

WHY: “Firestorm” was originally released in Chinese theaters as a 3D spectacle, and it definitely shows, because there’s no shortage of action. In fact, it’s an almost endless barrage of gunfights, car crashes and explosions, to the point that you’re left to wonder how these criminals are getting their hands on so much firepower. Though it starts out as a bit of an homage to Michael Mann’s “Heat,” the movie quickly devolves into a brainless action movie where the lead protagonist is practically invincible (Lui survives multiple car crashes, explosions and multi-story falls with only a few scratches to show for it), while the rest of the Hong Kong cops get shredded to pieces. Furthermore, the good guys are totally inept, failing to hit a single target for most of the movie despite the fact that the criminals just stand out in the open for everyone to see. Writer/director Alan Yuen tries to balance these silly action sequences with subplots designed to add some emotional depth to the story, but they’re so half-baked that they only prove to be a distraction. “Firestorm” is mildly entertaining as a big, dumb and loud shoot-‘em-up, but it could have been so much better, especially with the usually dependable Andy Lau involved.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, but that’s all.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: Godzilla and Arrow

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.

“Godzilla”

WHAT: 15 years after the mysterious demolition of a nuclear power plant in Japan, American scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) remains adamant that it was more than just an earthquake, and he’s determined to prove it. But before he can convince the government that it’s about to happen again, a pair of insect-like monsters burst from their cocoons to wreak havoc on the planet, awakening the long-dormant Godzilla, whom Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) believes has been created by nature to restore balance.

WHY: How can a movie about giant monsters be so boring? That’s the biggest question surrounding Hollywood’s latest attempt to bring the King of the Monsters stateside. Though not as bad as Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version, “Godzilla” is a bewildering piece of blockbuster filmmaking, stuck somewhere between an old-school monster extravaganza and a po-faced thriller that’s afraid to have too much fun. Director Gareth Edwards delivers some great money shots by the end, but it’s a long, mostly dull slog to get there, relying more on the one-dimensional human drama and generic MUTOs to drive the action. In fact, just about everyone gets more screen time than Godzilla, who takes nearly an hour to make his first, full-fledged appearance before going MIA again until the final climactic battle. There’s nothing wrong with teasing the audience using a slow burn approach (“Jaws” does it masterfully), but you need actual suspense and interesting characters for it to be successful, and “Godzilla” has neither, instead packed with a bunch of unnecessary filler that does nothing to further the story. The one thing that Edwards gets right is Godzilla himself. He looks and sounds incredible, and you’re left wanting more when it’s all over. Sadly, that’s not because the movie is any good, but rather because you see so little of Godzilla that it feels more like an appetizer than the main course.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes featurettes on creature design, the HALO jump sequence and the Godzilla legacy, as well as some fictional videos about Project Monarch that provide additional backstory.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Arrow: The Complete Second Season”

WHAT: Following the destruction of the Glades, Oliver (Stephen Arnell) ditches his vigilante ways to become the protector that Starling City so desperately needs. But when his old friend Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett), whom he thought had perished on the island, resurfaces under the guise of Deathstroke, Oliver becomes the target of his vengeful plot.

WHY: It’s hard to imagine anything good coming out of The CW, but other networks should take note, because “Arrow” is exactly how you adapt a comic book character for the small screen. Though the first season was pretty hit-and-miss, the series really starts to find its groove in Season Two, focusing more on the superhero elements than the silly love triangles and soapy subplots. Granted, they’re not done away with completely (otherwise there’d be nothing for characters like Moira, Thea and Laurel to do on the show), but this season feels much more like the comic book series that fans were promised than just another a CW drama that happens to be about a superhero, which is an important distinction to make. Stephen Arnell continues to shine as the green-hooded protagonist, and David Ramsey and Emily Bett Rickards provide excellent support, but the show’s real MVP isn’t an individual at all, but rather the rotating cast of characters plucked from Green Arrow’s rich, 60-year history. The stunt work is also some of the best on TV, and the production team does a really good job of grounding everything in reality. “Arrow” still manages to be a little cheesy at times, but it’s almost always good fun, and that’s all you can ask for from a series like this.

EXTRAS: In addition to a featurette on Oliver’s character arc for the season, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at the show’s visual effects and stunts, the 2013 Comic-Con panel, a recap of Season One, some deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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

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

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

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

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“God’s Pocket”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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

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

“Draft Day”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“They Came Together”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Night Moves”

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

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

EXTRAS: Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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