Blu Tuesday: House of Cards, The LEGO Movie 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.

“House of Cards: Season Two”

WHAT: After being sworn in as the new Vice President, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) continues his quest for absolute power alongside his equally manipulative wife, Claire (Robin Wright). Meanwhile, a team of D.C. journalists investigate Frank’s involvement in Peter Russo’s death, witnessing first-hand the level of corruption at work in their government.

WHY: Season Two of “House of Cards” will likely be labeled a disappointment by some, but while it’s noticeably weaker than the Netflix drama’s debut season, it’s still better than a vast majority of the shows on television. After all, there aren’t many series that would kill off one of its main characters in the first episode, especially in such ruthless and shocking fashion, but it’s a necessary move that signals a change in the direction of the show. The ancillary subplots aren’t nearly as interesting this time around (particularly the stuff between Michael Kelly’s Chief of Staff and Rachel Brosnahan’s reformed call girl), and even the main story feels a bit stretched at times with the constant back and forth between Underwood and Raymond Tusk, but there’s rarely a dull moment thanks to the excellent writing and performances. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are in top form once again as the conniving husband-and-wife duo, while Molly Parker (of “Deadwood” fame) is a welcome addition to the cast as the new House Whip. And when you have characters as brilliantly realized as the ones that populate “House of Cards,” you’re allowed a few missteps every once in a while.

EXTRAS: The four-disc set boasts a quartet of production featurettes (including an examination of the differences between the British and American versions of the show) and a behind-the-scenes look at a table read for two episodes from Season One.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“The LEGO Movie”

WHAT: When an ordinary LEGO construction worker named Emmet (Chris Pratt) stumbles upon an ancient artifact, he’s declared “The Special” by an underground group of rebels led by the blind prophet Vitruvis (Morgan Freeman), who believes that Emmet is the only one capable of stopping the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) from destroying their world.

WHY: When “The LEGO Movie” was first announced, there were obvious concerns about whether it would just play like one long commercial for the popular toy brand. But while the folks at LEGO have undoubtedly seen a nice bump in business since its release, the film is so much more than that – smart, funny and surprisingly heartfelt. A lot of that credit goes to directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who bring the LEGO universe to life with the sort of boundless imagination that the movie preaches to its audience. Though the script borrows heavily from “The Matrix” (from its main story, to the three leads, to its anti-conformatist message), that’s merely the setup for a much more sophisticated payoff that is equally daring and brilliant. For as great as the film’s ending may be, however, it wouldn’t feel earned if the first two-thirds weren’t so enjoyable. And thanks to some incredible visuals, great voice work (particularly by Chris Pratt) and hilarious gags, “The LEGO Movie” isn’t just one of the best animated films in years, but it’s also one of the best movies of 2014 thus far.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary with directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (along with actors Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Alison Brie and Charlie Day) and a host of bonus material like a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, outtakes and a series of fun mini-featurettes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

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Blu Tuesday: True Detective, Non-Stop and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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.

“True Detective: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: In 1995, Louisiana detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) track down the disturbed murderer of a young woman while dealing with personal issues that threaten to interfere with the case. 17 years later, a similar murder brings the two cops back together when their original case is reopened for investigation.

WHY: Few shows have had such a spellbinding effect on its audience like HBO’s “True Detective,” the gritty crime drama that feels more like an eight-hour movie than a limited TV series. That’s because everything about the show is incredibly cinematic, from the smart writing by creator Nic Pizzolatto, to the brilliant direction by Cary Fukunaga, to Adam Arkapaw’s gorgeous cinematography. This is the kind of show that requires absolute patience and trust in the storytellers, opting for a slow-burning pace that allows the characters to evolve naturally over the course of its time-jumping narrative. Unlike most crime dramas, the mystery surrounding the killer’s identity is never as important as Rust and Marty’s respective arcs, and that’s what makes it such rich and gripping television. Well, that and two knockout performances by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who deliver some of the best work of their careers as the strikingly different partners. They elevate “True Detective” from a damn good drama to one that will be remembered as one of the greatest shows of its time, and while that kind of praise only heaps even more pressure on Pizzolatto for Season Two, if the first season is anything to go by, he’s definitely up for the challenge.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries with creator Nic Pizzolatto, composer T Bone Burnett and executive producer Scott Stephens, there’s a making-of featurette, interviews with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, deleted scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Non-Stop”

WHAT: While on a transatlantic flight from New York to London, air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) receives a series of text messages threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into an off-shore account. But when it’s made to look like Marks is the one hijacking the plane, he must find the real culprit before it’s too late.

WHY: Liam Neeson has certainly made a go of this whole action star phase over the last few years, but even he must be growing tired of playing what’s essentially the same character over and over again. Granted, “Non-Stop” doesn’t have nearly as much action as its trailers would lead you to believe, but just like “Unknown,” Jaume Collet-Serra’s previous collaboration with Neeson, it’s a disappointing attempt to cash in on the success of the “Taken” franchise. For as ridiculous as the premise may be (and it becomes even more so as the story progresses), “Non-Stop” does a good job of building suspension by throwing an almost endless barrage of red herrings at the audience. The bad guy could pretty much be anyone on the plane – from Julianne Moore’s chatty passenger, to Michelle Dockery’s meek stewardess, to Corey Stoll’s no-nonsense NYPD cop – and Collet-Serra makes the most of that paranoia. Where “Non-Stop” fails, however, is in its last-ditch effort to suddenly become an action movie in the final act, letting out all the mounting tension like air from a balloon.

EXTRAS: There’s a pair of short featurettes covering various aspects of production, but sadly, that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”

WHAT: When CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack, he’s sent into the field for his very first mission. But after his fiancée (Kiera Knightley) arrives in Moscow unannounced, Jack must keep her out of harm’s way as he attempts to defuse the threat against the country he swore to protect.

WHY: Unlike James Bond or Batman, it’s hard to imagine that a Jack Ryan reboot (especially one packaged as an origin story) was in very high demand, but that didn’t stop Paramount from making it anyway. After all, franchises are a hot commodity these days, and the studio apparently has so much faith in Chris Pine that they’ve entrusted him with yet another iconic character despite already playing Captain Kirk in the new “Star Trek” films. It’s not that the actor is necessarily bad for the role – he can be extremely charming at times and has proven himself adept at action – but the casting is uninspired to say the least. However, Kevin Costner (as Ryan’s mentor) and Kenneth Branagh (pulling double duty as the film’s villain) are both enjoyable in supporting roles, while Keira Knightley does the best she can with an underwritten character. The only reason the actress likely even bothered with such a rote action thriller was the chance to work with Branagh, and although the director isn’t exactly in top form here, he makes “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” a lot more entertaining than it deserved to be.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary with director Kenneth Branagh and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, six deleted scenes, a retrospective on the Jack Ryan franchise, a profile on Branagh and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: Lone Survivor, RoboCop and True Blood

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.

“Lone Survivor”

WHAT: In June 2005, a quartet of Navy SEALs (Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch) set out on a mission to kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. But when they encounter some goat farmers in the mountains and agree to let them go, knowing full well that they’ll alert the Taliban to their presence, the SEALS are forced engage in a fight for their lives.

WHY: Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” might be the worst military recruitment video ever made, which is a marked departure from the current crop of war movies. Though the story of Marcus Luttrell’s incredible survival is tailor-made for the big screen, and Berg does a good job of highlighting the soldiers’ brotherhood and courage under fire, it’s hard to find any pleasure or entertainment value from watching the characters (real-life men whose family and friends are still living with that loss) get brutally slaughtered. It’s incredibly harrowing stuff, and perhaps the reason why Berg went with such a spoilerific title, because it would have been that much harder to watch if you didn’t already know how it ended. But like many of Berg’s recent films, “Lone Survivor” is unwaveringly pro-American, almost to a fault. It never digs very deep into the problems surrounding the ill-fated operation (from a lack of air support to faulty communications equipment), and the final act feels a bit too Hollywoodized for what comes before. There’s a lot to admire about the movie thanks to some strong performances from the four actors, but your mileage will vary depending on how you feel about watching these fathers, husbands and sons die before your very eyes.

EXTRAS: In addition to a fairly lengthy profile on Marcus Luttrell (which also doubles as a making-of featurette), the Blu-ray includes three additional production featurettes, an intimate look at the men who died in Operation Red Wings and an interview with Mohamad Gulab, the man who helped save Luttrell’s life.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“RoboCop”

WHAT: When Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is critically injured in a car bombing, he’s offered the chance to take part in an experimental procedure that rebuilds his body with robotic prosthetics, turning him into the ultimate law enforcement agent. But after his overseers program his brain to act more like a machine, Alex’s human side begins to fight back as he investigates his own murder.

WHY: Believe it or not, the new “RoboCop” isn’t nearly as bad as people feared. In fact, it boasts a better cast, better effects and a better story, even if the 1987 original – which is admittedly pretty cheesy by today’s standards – is still the better movie. Jose Padhila’s update actually starts surprisingly well, but it begins to drag in the middle and never quite recovers. The problem is twofold. With the exception of Kinnaman, Gary Oldman and Jackie Earle Haley in a fun supporting role, most of the other talent is wasted, and the lack of a standout villain doesn’t help matters either. Additionally, while the action scenes aren’t terrible, they’re not as exciting as you’d expect from a modern day “RoboCop” movie. This was Padilha’s big opportunity to compensate for the much-derided PG-13 rating, but between the annoying shaky cam and his tendency to cut away from the action too early, many of the set pieces are scattershot at best. The fact that it’s not a complete failure will feel like a win to some fans, but while this slick and overproduced update could have been much worse, its inability to capitalize on the promise that it shows early on is perhaps the biggest disappointment.

EXTRAS: There’s a trio of featurettes (on the differences between the original and the reboot, the weapons used in the film and designing the suit), as well as some deleted scenes and faux product announcements from OmniCorp.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“True Blood: The Complete Sixth Season”

WHAT: As Bill (Stephen Moyer) comes to terms with his newfound powers, Louisiana Governor Truman Burrell (Arliss Howard) declares war on vampires, capturing and detaining them in a concentration camp. Meanwhile, Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Jason (Ryan Kwanten) face off against the ancient and powerful vampire responsible for murdering their parents.

WHY: “True Blood” has been in steady decline for several years now, but Season Six is so goddamn awful – the final nail in the proverbial coffin, if you will – that it wasn’t much of a surprise when HBO announced that it would be ending the series after its upcoming seventh season. The supernatural drama was never particularly great, but it had its moments as a pulpy and fun guilty pleasure that helped introduce audiences to the likes of Alexander Skarsgard, Ryan Kwanten, Joe Manganiello, Deborah Ann Woll and many more. Unfortunately, that sense of fun is completely missing from the sixth season, which somehow manages to be even more ridiculous than usual. The departure of creator/showrunner Alan Ball was the perfect opportunity to reinvigorate the series, but instead, it only made things worse, to the point that I finally stopped watching midway through the season after threatening to do so for two years. After all, there’s only so much stupid one can take, and when a show has more short-lived love triangles in a single season than interesting characters, that’s a pretty good indicator that it’s lost its bite.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray set includes cast and crew audio commentaries on five of the 10 episodes, “Inside the Episode” mini-featurettes and a pair of interactive features called “Vamp Camp Files” and “True Blood Lines.”

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: The Monuments Men, Pompeii and More

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

“The Monuments Men”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Pompeii”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“3 Days to Kill”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: Her, That Awkward Moment and More

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

“Her”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“That Awkward Moment”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“I, Frankenstein”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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