Blu Tuesday: Southpaw, Pixels and Army of Darkness

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.

“Southpaw”

WHAT: After his wife (Rachel McAdams) is tragically killed and he spirals out of control, undefeated light heavyweight champion Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) lands himself in trouble with the boxing league, losing his house, his possessions, and most importantly, custody of his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Desperate to keep her out of the foster care system where he spent his childhood, Billy seeks help from a gruff, veteran trainer (Forest Whitaker) to get back what he lost.

WHY: Throughout the years, boxing movies have been synonymous with tales of redemption, and Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw” is no different. But for as clichéd and heavy-handed as the film can be at times, the movie avoids dragging itself too far into melodrama thanks to some excellent performances and a solid screenplay by Kurt Sutter that is as brutal and emotionally charged as you’d expect from the “Sons of Anarchy” creator. Though Sutter originally wrote the lead role for Eminem, Jake Gyllenhaal brings a physicality and intensity to the character that’s beyond the rapper’s abilities. It’s a much more complex role than it appears on the surface, and Gyllenhaal knocks it out of the park. In fact, while “Nightcrawler” features the better performance, “Southpaw” is perhaps his most impressive piece of acting to date, if only because he’s managed to take a fairly standard underdog drama and elevate it on the strength of his shoulders alone. The film isn’t on the same level as the boxing greats, but with Gyllenhaal’s knockout performance front and center, it’s a lot more enjoyable than it probably had any right to be.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, a Q&A with the cast, footage of Jake Gyllenhaal’s training regimen for the film and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Pixels”

WHAT: In 1982, NASA sent a time capsule into space in the hopes of contacting other life forms, but after an alien race misinterprets the message as a declaration of war, they attack Earth in the form of retro video game characters. When the military proves useless, U.S. President William Cooper (Kevin James) enlists the help of best friend Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), along with fellow video game prodigies Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) and Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), to save the planet from certain extinction.

WHY: Though it may seem like critics are being overly hard on “Pixels” simply because Adam Sandler is in the movie, it really is a bad film. The premise itself is cool, and director Chris Columbus taps into some of that potential with fun set pieces that look great and play with the mechanics of classic games like Pac-Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong, but unfortunately, the screenplay is a mess. It’s no better than the typical Sandler comedy (in fact, frequent collaborator Tim Herlihy is one of the co-writers), fueled by lazy and juvenile humor that falls flat more often than not. The casting of Kevin James as the president isn’t just ridiculous, but downright insulting, while the Q*Bert character shows that Hollywood never learned its lesson from Jar-Jar Binks. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better – Sandler does his usual man-child shtick and Josh Gad is wasted as his conspiracy theorist friend – but Peter Dinklage’s over-the-top performance as the Billy Mitchell-esque gamer is just silly enough to ensure that “Pixels” isn’t a complete disappointment. Still, an idea this good deserved something better.

EXTRAS: There are four featurettes on filming the movie’s video game-inspired set pieces, a look at Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani’s cameo and more.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: Jurassic World 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.

“Jurassic World”

WHAT: Twenty-two years after the disastrous events of the original Jurassic Park, Isla Nubar is now home to a fully functioning dinosaur theme park called Jurassic World. In an attempt to raise public interest, the park has genetically engineered a brand new dinosaur called Indominus Rex, but when it gets loose and goes on a killing spree, operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) enlists the help of raptor wrangler Owen (Chris Pratt) to hunt it down before it wreaks havoc on the park’s attendees.

WHY: Though it doesn’t hold a candle to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 original, “Jurassic World” is the sequel that fans have wanted (and deserved) for decades – a big, summer spectacle that understands the DNA of the franchise and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The first act is admittedly a bit messy as director Colin Trevorrow gets all of his pieces on the board, but the story really picks up once the Indominus Rex breaks free from confinement, turning into a full-fledged adventure film with no shortage of dinosaur-caused destruction. Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are both solid in their respective roles, while Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan and Jake Johnson round out the excellent cast. Even the two kid actors (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) are pretty likable, and that’s saying something. Granted, the movie isn’t without its flaws (particularly when it comes to basic common sense and logic, like in the climactic dino battle at the end), but it’s an entertaining piece of fan service that makes up for having to suffer through the last two sequels. And if the film’s box office domination is any indication, “Jurassic World” is just the beginning, although it’s difficult to imagine how John Hammond’s dream could possibly live on after yet another public catastrophe.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a pair of featurettes on making the film, a behind-the-scenes look at the visual effects, a tour of the park’s Innovation Center, a discussion between director Colin Trevorrow and star Chris Pratt, deleted scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Z for Zachariah”

WHAT: After a nuclear war wipes out most of humanity, a young woman named Ann (Margot Robbie) endures on her own, miraculously isolated from the fallout. But when two men – scientist Dr. John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejifor) and mysterious stranger Caleb (Chris Pine) – arrive on her family’s farm, the three survivors form a precarious bond that threatens to unravel when jealousy sets in.

WHY: Director Craig Zobel’s latest drama may be a marked improvement upon the vile and moronic “Compliance,” but it actually shares many of the same themes, including morality, trust and the weight of one’s actions. All three actors deliver solid performances – especially Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who are given more time to develop their characters – but unfortunately, not a lot happens over the course of the film’s 98-minute runtime that’s particularly compelling. There are some really good moments littered throughout, like Ann’s introduction to Dr. Loomis, or the tense face-off between Loomis and Caleb in the movie’s closing minutes, but they’re surrounded by long periods of nothingness that test your patience. The arrival of Chris Pine’s character adds some much-needed conflict to the proceedings, although it takes the story into more predictable territory, while the religious undertones (from the Eden-like valley, to Caleb’s snake-like instigator) are laid on a bit thick. Though “Z for Zachariah” isn’t quite as boring as it could have been thanks to its outstanding cast, the film never rises above mediocrity, ultimately squandering its promising, post-apocalyptic premise.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, and interviews with director Craig Zobel, writer Nissar Modi and actors Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F'”

WHAT: Two surviving members of the Frieza Force travel to Earth in search of the Dragon Balls so that they can resurrect their leader. When their wish is granted and the galactic tyrant returns more powerful than before, Frieza sets out to exact his revenge on Goku, who is training off-world with Whis after his fight with Beerus the Destroyer.

WHY: 2013’s “Battle of the Gods” may have been the first “Dragon Ball Z” movie produced in almost 20 years, but while that film served as a sufficient appetizer for fans of the series, “Resurrection F” is the main course, higlighted by the long-awaited rematch between Goku and Frieza. Though Goku has faced off against much tougher adversaries, there’s a reason why Frieza is still the most iconic villain in the franchise, and his fight with Goku doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it more than makes up for the anti-climactic battle in the last movie. “Resurrection F” also improves upon its predecessor by giving the supporting characters more to do. Piccolo, Gohan, Krillin, Tien and even Master Roshi get in on the action, fighting off the first wave of Frieza’s attack as they await Goku’s return, and although Vegeta is once again relegated to the sidelines, at least he gets to land a punch this time around. “Resurrection F” follows the typical “Dragon Ball Z” formula to a tee, so there aren’t any major surprises, but it boasts great animation, some killer action beats and plenty of fan service for longtime viewers of the anime.

EXTRAS: There’s a behind-the-scenes look at recording the voices for the U.S. release and some interviews with the cast.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: Furious 7, The Jinx 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.

“Furious 7″

WHAT: When Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) seeks revenge on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and company for putting his younger brother in a coma, they must team up with a shadowy government agent named Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to recover a tracking device capable of locating anyone in the world and gain the upper hand.

WHY: The “Fast and Furious” movies have always been about fast cars, beautiful women and ridiculous stunts, but the seventh installment in the long-running series has a weight on its shoulders unlike any sequel/prequel before it. The untimely death of Paul Walker not only affected the film’s production, but the manner in which he died cast a morbid shadow over the project. Thankfully, director James Wan was able to turn a horrible tragedy into a respectful and fitting farewell for Walker that adds a layer of emotion to “Furious 7” that resonates throughout the movie, and now, the entire franchise. Though the plot doesn’t always make sense, partially due to some last-minute rewrites to work around Walker’s absence, it’s easily one of the most entertaining “Fast and Furious” installments yet. There are four great fight scenes (Dwayne Johnson vs. Statham, Walker vs. Tony Jaa, Michelle Rodriguez vs. Rhonda Rousey, and Diesel vs. Statham), as well as more gravity-defying stunts that feature cars dropping out of cargo planes and hopping skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi. The whole thing is every bit as ridiculous as you’d expect, but thanks to some incredibly entertaining action and the ever-charming ensemble cast (which adds original badass Kurt Russell to the mix), “Furious 7” is an absolute blast.

EXTRAS: In addition to eight featurettes that explore the cars, stunts, fight choreography and evolution of the franchise, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at making the new Fast & Furious ride at Universal Studios and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”

WHAT: Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki examines the life of Robert Durst, the brilliant but eccentric heir to a New York real estate empire who was accused of three murders over 30 years.

WHY: A chilling and immensely fascinating piece of true crime that was nearly a decade in the making, HBO’s six-part docuseries takes the phrase “stranger than fiction” to dizzying new heights. Utilizing interviews with law enforcement officers, lawyers, the friends and family of Durst’s alleged victims, and in his first public interview, Durst himself, Jarecki’s investigation shines a light on one of the strangest stories in modern history. It’s no secret that Durst has since been arrested (though not yet found guilty) for one of the murders, partially due to new evidence uncovered by Jarecki and his team, but that doesn’t make “The Jinx” any less captivating, because it pulls you in from the opening minutes and never loosens its grasp. Durst is either the unluckiest guy on the planet or a total sociopath, and judging from the case presented against him, including some very telling moments during his interview sessions with Jarecki, the evidence certainly points toward the latter. Of course, this only makes “The Jinx” all the more entertaining, as Durst plays the role of the elitist villain to perfection, practically daring the authorities to outsmart him. Though Jarecki does mess with the chronology of certain events for dramatic effect, and probably could have trimmed some fat off each episode, “The Jinx” is so good that it’ll make you fall in love with detective stories all over again.

EXTRAS: Sadly, there’s no bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Gotham: The Complete First Season

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.

“Gotham: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: In the wake of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murders, idealistic Gotham City police detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) makes a vow to young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) to capture his parents’ killer, all while dealing with corruption within the police department and Gotham’s burgeoning criminal underworld.

WHY: Bruno Heller’s “Rome” is one of the most underrated TV series of the past decade, so when it was announced that he was producing a crime drama centered around a young James Gordon in pre-Batman Gotham City, that’s pretty much all it took to get me onboard. Unfortunately, despite Heller’s insistence that “Gotham” isn’t about Batman, the numerous villains that pop up throughout the first season suggests otherwise, turning the series into something quite different than even Heller himself probably intended. The allure of exploring the various origin stories of Batman’s rogues’ gallery (arguably the best in all of comics) was undoubtedly too enticing to pass up, so it should come as no surprise that the villains are the stars of the show. Robin Lord Taylor and Jada Pinkett Smith are the obvious standouts as Penguin and new creation Fish Mooney, respectively, while Carmen Bicondova delivers a star-making turn as young Selina Kyle. Ben McKenzie also fares well as Gordon, as does Donal Logue as his morally corrupt partner, but their characters often suffer due to some really shoddy writing. And that’s the biggest problem with “Gotham” – it’s an incredibly mixed bag that succeeds as often as it fails. For every great episode, there are two more that fall flat, and although the show starts to find its groove in the latter half, that inconsistency prevents Season One from being anything more than a mildly enjoyable experiment that still needs to iron out a few wrinkles if it ever hopes to make the most of its potential.

EXTRAS: In addition to a behind-the-scenes look at the development of the series, there are three additional featurettes on the show’s production design, Penguin’s story arc and making the pilot episode, as well as footage from DC Comics Night at Comic-Con 2014, character profiles, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: Mad Max, Star Wars Rebels 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.

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

WHAT: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is just barely surviving in the post-apocalyptic wasteland when he’s captured by tyrannical leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and forced to serve as a human blood bank for his diseased minions. But when a chance meeting between Max and war-rig driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) – who’s trying to rescue a group of female sex slaves that Joe plans to use for repopulation – results in his miraculous escape, he reluctantly agrees to help get the girls to safety.

WHY: George Miller may be 70 years old, but that hasn’t stopped him from outclassing filmmakers half his age by making one of the craziest and most badass action movies in ages. Though “Fury Road” looks absolutely gorgeous, with John Seale’s stunning cinematography providing a painterly quality to the visuals, the real reason to see it is for the action. Conceived as one long car chase, the film is packed with some of the most amazing action sequences you’ll ever see. It’s a minor miracle that no one died during the making of this movie, because Miller’s high-adrenaline set pieces are so visceral and unbridled that you genuinely fear for the lives of the actors and stuntmen with each explosion, car flip and crash. The overcranked, sped-up look works better in some places than others, but for the most part, the gonzo vehicular mayhem is a jaw-dropping assault on the senses that gets weirder as it goes along. Every minute of action is pure cinematic magic, though the dead space in between proves troublesome. Tom Hardy does what’s required of him as the mysterious, soft-spoken Max, but Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is the only character who’s given any actual development, bringing a humanity to her performance that stands head and shoulders above the rest. While the movie would have benefited from a tighter runtime and falls short of the worship-like praise that many people have heaped upon it, this is easily Miller’s best “Mad Max” film yet.

EXTRAS: In addition to a fairly extensive making-of featurette, there’s an interview with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron about their experiences on the movie, a look at designing the cars and other props, some behind-the-scenes footage from filming the action sequences and three deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Star Wars Rebels: Complete Season One”

WHAT: In the wake of the Clone Wars, the Galactic Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist. But a group of rebels – including Jedi-in-hiding Kanan, Twi’lek pilot Hera, Mandalorian weapons expert Sabine, Lasat honor guard Zeb and astromech droid Chopper – take a stand against their oppressors with the help of newest member Ezra Bridger, a teenage pickpocket with the ability to control the Force.

WHY: Following Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm and subsequent announcement that more “Star Wars” films were on the way, it only seemed natural to launch a new animated series as part of the hype machine. Though “Star Wars Rebels” doesn’t have anything to do with the upcoming movies (at least, not that we know of yet), it is part of the franchise’s official canon, set between the events of the “Clone Wars” animated series and the original trilogy. Unfortunately, the show is a little confused tonally as a result of trying to cater to both younger audiences and older fans. So while there are some things to really enjoy about “Rebels” (like the action and Ralph McQuarie-inspired designs), I’m not crazy about the jokier, PG-rated bits with Ezra, Zeb and Chopper. Additionally, the endless barrage of cameos featured in the first season (from C3P0 and R2D2, to Lando Calrissian and Darth Vader) is an unnecessary attempt to connect the “Rebels” crew to more familiar characters when it should be trying to exist as its own entity. The allure of that type of fan service is understandable, but it gets to the point where it makes the show feel beholden to the past when it should be looking ahead to the future.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes 14 behind-the-scenes featurettes, a collection of short films, a sneak peek at the upcoming second season and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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