Blu Tuesday: Wish I Was Here, Begin Again and Deliver Us from Evil

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.

“Wish I Was Here”

WHAT: Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is a struggling actor whose wife (Kate Hudson) is the sole breadwinner of the family, so when his father (Mandy Pantinkin) becomes sick and is no longer able to pay the children’s private school tuition, Aidan agrees to homeschool the kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon). The problem is that Aidan has no idea what he’s doing, so instead, he takes them on a series of “field trips” meant to impart life lessons that help him rediscover his own identity in the process.

WHY: Hating Zach Braff was in fashion long before the actor/director launched a Kickstarter campaign for his long-awaited sophomore effort, but the way he went about funding his follow-up to “Garden State” really got under some people’s skin. While Braff may have been unfairly judged for the way he raised the money to make the film, it’s a wonder why he had to resort to crowdsourcing at all, because “Wish I Was Here” is a confident, funny and heartfelt tragicomedy that proves Braff is more than just a one-hit wonder. The “Scrubs” star does a solid job in the lead role, and Mandy Pantinkin and Joey King both deliver great supporting work, but it’s Kate Hudson who is the movie’s most pleasant surprise, turning in her finest performance since “Almost Famous.” The script is nothing special, even bordering on schmaltzy at times, but there’s an honesty to the material (especially the father-son relationship) that certain people will connect to more than others. “Wish I Was Here” is a much more grown-up film than “Garden State,” exploring a range of themes like morality, sacrifice, family and fatherhood, and although some might be handled in a slightly pandering manner, there’s an innate sweetness to the movie that compensates for its lack of subtlety.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes two audio commentaries (one with co-writer/director/star Zach Braff and co-writer Adam Braff, and another with Zach Braff, director of photography Lawrence Sher and editor Myron Kerstein), as well as some deleted scenes, outtakes and a short behind-the-scenes featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Begin Again”

WHAT: After being fired from the record label he helped found, music producer Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), stumbles into an open mic and discovers what he believes to be a hidden gem in British singer-songwriter named Greta (Keira Knightley). Determined to share her indisputable talent with the rest of the world, Dan convinces Greta to record an album with a live band in different locations across New York City in the hope that he can persuade his former business partner (Mos Def) to sign Greta to their label and rescue his job.

WHY: It’s incredible what can be achieved when you combine music with film, and John Carney exploited that perfect pairing with his musical drama “Once.” Eight years have passed since the small indie’s Cinderella story at the Academy Awards, and in that time, the Irish-born director made a couple movies in his native country that flopped. So while it may seem a tad desperate of Carney to mark his Hollywood debut with another music-driven relationship drama, he’s just playing to his strengths. The overall theme of “Begin Again” is certainly very familiar – like “Once,” it’s less about two people falling in love with each other than the music they make together – but the film is a decidedly more lighthearted affair. With that said, the soundtrack is just as good, featuring an infectious array of bluesy folk-pop songs performed by a surprisingly capable Keira Knightley. For as much as the movie depends on the music, however, it’s just as reliant on its two stars, who form such a delightful chemistry that it’s hard not to get caught up in their fairy tale. “Begin Again” doesn’t have the same magic of “Once,” but it’s a sweet crowd-pleaser highlighted by a pair of great performances and some catchy tunes.

EXTRAS: There’s a pretty decent making-of featurette and four music videos featuring songs from the film.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Deliver Us from Evil”

WHAT: New York police officer Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) investigates a series of connected incidents involving a trio of Iraq War veterans. Though Sarchie initially believes that the men have gone crazy as a result of PTSD, he discovers that they may actually be demonically possessed when he teams up with an unconventional priest (Edgar Ramirez) who specializes in exorcisms.

WHY: Here’s hoping that no one at Marvel Studios saw Scott Derrickson’s “Deliver Us from Evil,” because it hardly inspires confidence in his ability to tackle a project as challenging as “Doctor Strange.” Though this isn’t the first time that Derrickson has directed a movie about demonic possessions (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”), he doesn’t really bring anything new to the table apart from the decision to blend supernatural horror with a police procedural. Unfortunately, it’s not very scary or suspenseful, but actually quite boring due to a sluggish two-hour runtime that’s about 30 minutes too long. There’s no need for all the setup, especially when the two leads don’t even join forces until the hour mark. Even more grating, however, is the suggestion that any of this actually happened. The movie is reportedly based on the accounts of the real-life Sarchie, but like most exorcism stories, all of the supernatural events occurred either in his head or while he was alone. In other words, he’s just like every other nut job who believes in this stuff, only he wrote a book about it. Of course, even the most successful exorcism films (like “The Exorcist” and “The Conjuring”) are steeped in bullshit, but unlike “Deliver Us from Evil,” they found a way to be effective pieces of horror regardless of your beliefs.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director Scott Derrickson, there are featurettes on the real-life Ralph Sarchie, the makeup effects designed for Sean Harris’ character and a behind-the-scenes look at making the film.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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Blu Tuesday: Snowpiercer, Sex Tape 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.

“Snowpiercer”

WHAT: The year is 2031 AD, and after a failed global-warming experiment has frozen the planet, killing off nearly all life in the process, the lucky few survivors live aboard the Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually travels around the globe. With a class system in place that divides the population by train car, lower-class passenger Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a rebellion against the oppressors in an attempt to take control of the engine and the fates of his fellow people.

WHY: Fans of Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host”) have been awaiting his English-language debut for quite some time, and that wait was extended even longer when The Weinstein Company delayed its U.S. release over a dispute about the film’s original cut. In the end, Bong was successful in protecting his vision, which is a major victory for both the filmmaker and his would-be audience, especially for a movie as refreshingly unique as “Snowpiercer.” Though it’s not the sci-fi masterpiece that many have lauded it as, the film is one of the better post-apocalyptic thrillers in recent memory. A lot of that credit actually goes to the creators of the French graphic novel on which its based, but Bong brings plenty to the table as well, including some gorgeous visuals and the casting of frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho in a vital role. Chris Evans also turns in a solid performance as the de facto leader of the lower class rebels, while Tilda Swinton steals the show with an amusingly quirky turn as the right-hand woman of the train’s mysterious engineer. The blending of art house sensibilities with mainstream appeal makes for a really intriguing finished product, but the ending is so disappointing that it undermines the ambition and imagination of everything that precedes it.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary by film critics like Scott Weinberg, James Rocchi and Jen Yamato, a documentary about the making of the movie, additional featurettes on the production process, an interview with Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, a behind-the-scenes look at the promotional tour, concept art galleries and an animated prologue.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Sex Tape”

WHAT: Desperate to add a little spice back into their life, married couple Jay (Jason Segel) and Annie (Cameron Diaz) decide to make a sex tape trying out every position from “The Joy of Sex.” But when they wake up the next day to discover that the video was accidentally uploaded to the iPads that Jay gifted to various family and friends, they go on a frantic search to track them all down before anyone has a chance to see it.

WHY:Sex Tape” is an infuriating movie to watch, especially if you don’t like characters that have no common sense. Despite being one giant commercial for the iPad (at one point, Segel’s character even declares how well constructed it is), it doesn’t understand the technology behind the device. Anyone with a basic knowledge of smartphones, tablets and the Cloud knows that Jay’s videos wouldn’t automatically sync to the other iPads unless they were still connected to his Apple account, but there’s absolutely no reason the recipients would do this, because it would essentially render their devices useless. Worse yet, the identity of the mysterious “villain” blackmailing Jay and Annie is an absolute joke, threatening them with putting the video on a popular internet porn site unless they pay a hefty bounty. Jay could just call the website and have them take it down, but they chose a much more excessive method because it seems funnier, even though it’s really not. Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel fail to display a fraction of the chemistry that they had in “Bad Teacher,” and although there are some amusing comments on parenthood in the opening act, once the hunt for the sex tape kicks into gear, the film nosedives quicker than a kamikaze fighter pilot.

EXTRAS: In addition to a selection of deleted scenes, alternate takes and bloopers, there’s a featurette on the chemistry between director Jake Kasdan and his two leads, as well as a discussion with psychotherapist Dr. Jenn Berman about the film.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: Edge of Tomorrow, A Million Ways to Die in the West 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.

“Edge of Tomorrow”

WHAT: When he’s ordered onto the front lines as part of a synchronized attack against alien invaders, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is killed in action… only to discover that he’s been infected with the aliens’ ability to control time. Stuck in an infinite loop where he must repeat the same day over and over again (with his death serving as the reset button), Cage teams up with a celebrated war hero (Emily Blunt) to track down the alien hive and end the war.

WHY: Though it shares a similar plot device as “Groundhog Day” and “Source Code,” Doug Liman’s “Edge of Tomorrow” is a truly original piece of science fiction that Hollywood should make more often. Clever, fun and surprisingly bold, it also happens to be ultimate Tom Cruise movie. Those who like the actor will enjoy watching him thrive in one of his best roles in years, while those who hate Cruise get to watch him die about 50 times over the course of the film. Emily Blunt is also in top form as the face of the war effort – a total badass who wields a helicopter blade as a sword and is nicknamed Full Metal Bitch – and Bill Paxton delivers a hilarious supporting turn as a scene-chewing Master Sergeant in charge of Cage’s military unit. In fact, the movie as a whole is much funnier than you might expect, using comedy to break up the monotonous nature of the story, and it works remarkably well thanks to a combination of smart writing, great actors and pitch-perfect editing by James Herbert. “Edge of Tomorrow” isn’t without its faults – the script has some logistical problems and the final act is pretty generic – but those are minor annoyances for a film that proves to be such a satisfying breath of fresh air.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a making-of documentary, dedicated featurettes on the exo-suits, alien creatures and filming the Operation Downfall sequence, as well as some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“A Million Ways to Die in the West”

WHAT: When cowardly sheep farmer Albert (Seth MacFarlane) challenges his ex-girlfriend’s new beau (Neil Patrick Harris) to a duel in the hopes of winning her back, a beautiful stranger (Charlize Theron) agrees to help him become a better gunfighter, falling for the lovable loser in the process. But what Albert doesn’t realize is that the woman is married to a dangerous outlaw named Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who rides into town upon hearing of his wife’s infidelity to kill the man that stole his woman.

WHY: There’s a reason why there aren’t many comedy Westerns, and even fewer that are any good, and that’s because the subgenre as a whole is very difficult to pull off. So you have to credit Seth MacFarlane for not only having the cojones to follow up “Ted” with such an offbeat film, but actually succeeding where so many others have failed. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is probably his most ambitious project to date, and although that may sound strange for a man who made a movie about a talking teddy bear, it’s nice to see a filmmaker with that kind of confidence. By setting the film in the 1800s, MacFarlane has effectively forced himself to eschew from his usual pop culture references in favor of more observational humor about the general horribleness and idiosyncrasies of the American frontier. Not every joke works, and the toilet humor is totally unnecessary, but there’s a lot of great material. The movie starts to drag in the latter half as it meanders towards its conclusion (there’s no reason this needed to be almost two hours long), and it would have benefited from some stronger supporting characters, but “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is a really solid comedy with more than enough laughs to offset its minor shortcomings.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director/co-writer/star Seth MacFarlane, co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild and actress Charlize Theron, there’s a short making-of featurette, an alternate opening and ending, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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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

  

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

  

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