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

  

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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

  

Blu Tuesday: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ride Along and The Nut Job

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 Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

WHAT: Daydreaming photo editor Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has just learned that the magazine where he works is transitioning into a digital-only publication, and to make matters worse, the photo negative that was intended for the final cover has gone missing. With his condescending boss (Adam Scott) breathing down his neck, Walter embarks on an adventure around the world to track down the missing photo before it’s too late.

WHY: Hollywood has been actively trying to remake “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” for nearly two decades, so it’s curious that the way the movie finally ended up getting made was to not remake it all. Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” doesn’t resemble James Thurber’s 1939 short story (or the 1947 film version with Danny Kaye) that much apart from its daydreaming title character, although that’s probably for the best. While Stiller has retained the core spirit of the original story, he’s produced a more modernized, feel-good road movie that’s got a bit of a “Forrest Gump” vibe to it without quite the same heavy-handedness. The film’s Big Message isn’t as profound as you might expect, but there’s something to really admire about its contagious optimism about the joys of life. It’s sweet without feeling overly saccharine, and that’s due not only to Steve Conrad’s screenplay, but Stiller’s contributions behind and in front of the camera as well. Though the movie is incredibly predictable from start to finish, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” succeeds thanks to the lighthearted story, visually-stunning fantasy sequences and great performances by its cast.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes five production featurettes (covering things like music, casting and shooting on location in Iceland), as well as a host of deleted and extended scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Ride Along”

WHAT: High school security guard Ben Barber (Kevin Hart) has spent the past few years trying to prove to detective James Payton (Ice Cube) that he’s worthy of dating his sister. So when Ben gets accepted into the police academy, James decides to take him on a ride-along designed to scare him. But James’ little prank suddenly gets very real when they find themselves hot on the trail of the city’s most notorious criminal.

WHY: I’m a firm believer that the best way to get a laugh is by grounding the situation in reality, which is probably why “Ride Along” failed to make me chuckle even once. This is the kind of movie where a supposedly intelligent character (Ice Cube’s undercover cop) is constantly surprised that an unarmed citizen with zero authority (Kevin Hart’s cadet-to-be) is unable to successfully police someone breaking the law. It’s also the kind of movie where firing a shotgun or lighting a gas grill miraculously catapults the person backwards like a cartoon. And it doesn’t help that Hart, one of the most annoyingly over-the-top comedians working today, is the cartoon in question, especially when his incessant screeching makes Chris Tucker seem tolerable by comparison. “Ride Along” is an incredibly by-the-books buddy cop film that’s every bit as predictable as it is short on laughs. This is a movie, after all, that was co-written by the guy behind such bargain bin gems as “Sorority Boys” and “Employee of the Month,” and the only thing more insulting than its childish script is the fact that it managed to make over a $100 million at the domestic box office.

EXTRAS: Universal has gone all out with the Blu-ray release, including an audio commentary by director Tim Story, a host of production featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and an alternate ending.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“The Nut Job”

WHAT: After a self-centered squirrel named Surly (Will Arnett) is exiled from the neighborhood park, he must team up with his fellow animals (including a pair of squirrels voiced by Katherine Heigl and Brendan Fraser) to raid a nut store with enough food to last the entire winter. But they run into trouble with a gang of bank robbers who are using the store as a front for their latest job.

WHY: “The Nut Job” might just be one of the worst animated films ever made, eloquently described by one Letterboxd user as “‘Over the Hedge,’ but shittier.” There’s nothing about this movie that is even remotely entertaining, from its clichéd story, to the out-of-date animation, to its totally miscast voice actors. The latter issue is particularly annoying, because with the exception of Liam Neeson (who could make the phone book sound good), director Peter Lepeniotis seems to have cast the movie solely based on name recognition instead of whether or not they were right for the part. Consequently, the characters sound like soulless versions of their human counterparts (especially Will Arnett and Katherine Heigl), as if they were crammed into a recording booth and held at gunpoint to record their dialogue. And believe it or not, South Korean production company Redrover somehow manages to make things worse by not only forcing Psy’s “Gangnam Style” into the movie, but also an animated version of the chart-topping singer during the end credits that will leave viewers scratching their heads. It doesn’t just smack of desperation, but accentuates the sheer laziness surrounding this film.

EXTRAS: In addition to some deleted scenes, there’s a short featurette, storyboards and the animated shorts “Surly Squirrel” and “Nuts & Robbers.”

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Grudge Match 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 Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

WHAT: Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and the band of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) continue their quest to reclaim Erebor. Along the way, they must contend with orcs, giant spiders, humans and the Elvenking himself in order to reach the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) dwells.

WHY: For as much fun as “The Desolation of Smaug” is at times, the film suffers from many of the same problems as its predecessor. Not only are there too many subplots, but the story is bursting at the seams with so many characters (including new faces like Beorn, Bard the Bowman and Tauriel) that not even Bilbo is given very much to do this time around. The dwarves, meanwhile, are treated like background characters, with only a few truly standing out, like Thorin, Ken Stott’s Balin and Aiden Turner’s Kili, who’s part of a Peter Jackson-invented love triangle with Evangeline Lilly’s elven warrior Tauriel and Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. In fact, though it may not have been a popular decision with fans, the Legolas/Tauriel scenes (which are mostly action-oriented) are some of the best in the movie. The barrel escape from the Elvenking’s dungeon, in particular, is even better than the Goblin Town sequence from “An Unexpected Journey.” But if you thought that the first installment was too long, Part Two only further proves that expanding the book into three movies wasn’t the wisest decision. Jackson spends so much time on trivial material that when it comes time for Bilbo and the dwarves’ big showdown with Smaug, you just want him to get on with it.

EXTRAS: The two-disc release includes a documentary hosted by Peter Jackson detailing the daily routine on set, four additional featurettes on shooting pick-ups, post-production and the musical score, the 2013 live event “In the Cutting Room” and Part Two of the location featurette “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth.”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Grudge Match”

WHAT: 30 years after their last fight, boxing rivals Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro) agree to come out of retirement for one final match when boxing promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart) makes them an offer they can’t refuse: the chance to prove who’s the best once and for all.

WHY: The idea of pairing Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro in a boxing movie may sound great on paper, but only if it had been made during their “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” days. Watching the two aging actors step back into the ring decades later is not only embarrassing for them, but the audience as well, particularly when the movie is built around a bunch of unfunny old geezer jokes and lame callbacks to their respective boxing characters. The script is also weighed so heavily in Stallone’s favor that you already know who will win before the fight takes place. It certainly doesn’t help that De Niro seems physically incapable of going 12 rounds with Stallone, though to be fair, it’s Kim Basinger who looks the worst of the three, almost as if she’s been in a few fights of her own. The only thing that “Grudge Match” has going for it is Alan Arkin’s wiseass trainer, but it’s not nearly enough to forgive Stallone and De Niro for agreeing to make this humorless piece of fluff.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release boasts a behind-the-scenes look at filming the final fight, interviews with former boxing champs like Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Larry Holmes, an alternate opening, two alternate endings, deleted scenes and a pair of featurettes with Kevin Hart.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: Anchorman 2, 47 Ronin and Knights of Badassdom

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.

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”

WHAT: After he’s fired from his gig co-anchoring the national news with his wife Veronica (Christina Applegate), Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is given a chance to become part of the first-ever 24-hour news channel. But when Ron butts heads with star anchorman Jack Lime (James Marsden) upon his arrival, he makes a bet with him that he’ll get bigger ratings, despite the fact that his news team has been saddled with the graveyard shift.

WHY: For years, Will Ferrell has resisted the urge to make a sequel to any of his films, but if there’s one character from his repertoire deserving of a second helping, it’s Ron Burgundy. Unfortunately, while “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” aims to match the original’s absurdist tone, it just doesn’t compare. The movie is at times funnier than its predecessor, but it’s also wildly inconsistent, bouncing aimlessly between gut-busting hilarity and entire sequences that miss their mark. Part of the reason is the movie’s nearly two-hour runtime, which is plagued by several long stretches where nothing funny happens, including a bizarre third act twist that comes across as being ridiculous purely for the sake of it. Even more troubling is how poorly the supporting cast is utilized this time around. While Ferrell is excellent once again as the mustachioed anchorman, Paul Rudd and David Koechner are pushed to the sidelines for much of the film, while Steve Carell’s simple-minded weatherman is given a romantic subplot with Kristen Wiig’s similarly awkward secretary that isn’t as funny as intended. Still, while it’s not as quotable as the first movie, “Anchorman 2” has more than enough laughs that it’s an enjoyable, albeit uneven and incredibly gonzo, comedy.

EXTRAS: Paramount really went above and beyond with this Blu-ray release, which includes three different versions of the film: the original theatrical cut, an unrated cut and a super-sized R-rated cut that runs a whopping 143 minutes and contains 763 new jokes, among other new material. Additionally, there’s an audio commentary with director Adam McKay and the cast, a making-of featurette, four more production featurettes, a lengthy gag reel, deleted, extended and alternate scenes, clips from the table read, and if you can believe it, much more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“47 Ronin”

WHAT: Following the death of their master, 47 leaderless samurai vow to seek revenge on the treacherous warlord (Tadanobu Asano) and evil witch (Rinko Kikuchi) responsible with the help of an enslaved half-breed (Keanu Reeves) who was raised by demons.

WHY: For a director packing as much style as Carl Rinsch, it seemed only natural that “47 Ronin” would at least be pretty to look at, even if it lacked the necessary substance to be any good. But unfortunately, Rinsch’s feature film debut fails in both departments, resulting in a disappointingly dull samurai flick that ranks among one of the most forgettable big-budget movies of last year. You’d think that co-writers Chris Morgan (the “Fast & Furious” franchise) and Hossein Amini (“Drive”) could squeeze a little fun out of the premise, but it’s an incredibly somber affair that takes things far too seriously considering the fantasy elements involved in the story. Though Rinsch deserves some credit for convincing a major studio to green light a Keanu Reeves vehicle with Japanese screen veteran Hiroyuki Sanada, and not Reeves, playing the main lead, the actor’s presence ultimately proves to be more of a distraction than an advantage. History buffs will appreciate the story of the 47 ronin getting the Hollywood treatment, but instead of wasting time on this movie, do yourself a favor and check out Rinsch’s commercial and short film work instead.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes a brief making-of featurette, a pair of additional featurettes on the fight choreography and visual FX, and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Knights of Badassdom”

WHAT: After getting dumped by his longtime girlfriend, aspiring musician Joe (Ryan Kwanten) is persuaded by his two best friends (Steve Zahn and Peter Dinklage) to join them at their weekend live-action role-playing event. But when they accidentally conjure up a demon from Hell, the players must band together to stop it.

WHY: When “Knights of Badassdom” was first announced a few years ago, it sounded like it could be a fun little movie, especially with the talent involved. Ryan Kwanten was starring on one of the hottest shows on television (“True Blood”), Peter Dinklage had just won an Emmy for his outstanding work on “Game of Thrones,” and Summer Glau already had plenty of geek cred to her name between “Firefly” and “The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” But as the years passed, so did any hope that the film would ever see the light of day, mainly due to some messy behind-the-scenes drama between director Joe Lynch and the original financiers. And it’s easy to see why, because “Knights of Badassdom” is downright terrible – a clunky, half-baked horror-comedy that doesn’t even come close to fulfilling its potential. There are very few laughs throughout the movie’s brisk 86-minute runtime, and the visual effects look unfinished in most cases, particularly the main creature, which is just a man in a really shoddy rubber suit. It’s hard to imagine how stoned someone would need to be to enjoy “Knights of Badassdom,” because with the exception of some amusing performances by Dinklage and Jimmi Simpson, it’s a pretty joyless experience.

EXTRAS: There’s a behind-the-scenes featurette, interviews with Steve Zahn, Peter Dinklage and Summer Glau, and footage from the San Diego Comic-Con panel.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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