Blu Tuesday: Jupiter Ascending, Focus and McFarland, USA

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.

“Jupiter Ascending”

WHAT: When Russian immigrant Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) discovers that she’s the reincarnation of intergalactic royalty, she becomes the target of a power play between her former self’s three feuding siblings, who all want her for their own selfish reasons. Saved by a disgraced solider named Caine (Channing Tatum), Jupiter must take control of her destiny if she hopes to save Earth from its terrible fate.

WHY: It’s been 16 years since “The Matrix,” but you wouldn’t know it from the amount of money Warner Bros. continues to flush down the toilet with Andy and Lana Wachowski’s string of commercial and critical failures. “Cloud Atlas” should have been the final straw, but instead, the studio took yet another chance on the directing duo with “Jupiter Ascending,” and although the Wachowskis’ commitment to creating original sci-fi stories is commendable, it’s their worst movie to date. A garbled mess of half-baked ideas (some good, some bad) that never have the chance to fully develop due to an overwhelming mythology that delivers too much information, too quickly over the course of its 127-minute runtime, “Jupiter Ascending” was a disaster waiting to happen. It wouldn’t surprise me if a much longer cut of this movie existed, because the current version feels like it’s been chopped up and pieced back together to include all the essential material without any consideration for how it works as a whole. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The film is also plagued by poor attempts at humor and some truly awful performances, none more so than Eddie Redmayne as the eldest of the royal siblings. Despite some impressive visual effects, “Jupiter Ascending” is groan-inducingly bad – a massive swing-and-miss that could spell the end of the Wachowskis’ charmed partnership with Warner Bros.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release contains seven featurettes covering a variety of topics, including production and creature design, filming the action sequences, as well profiles on the Wachowskis and the movie’s lead characters.



WHAT: Veteran conman Nicky (Will Smith) agrees to help coach a promising grifter named Jess (Margot Robbie) when he brings her in on his large-scale operation. After Jess gets burned by Nicky at the end of the job, the two go their separate ways until they cross paths again three years later when Nicky is hired by a wealthy racing team owner (Rodrigo Santoro) to help ruin his competitors. But while Nicky wants to make amends after the way he left things, Jess is unable to trust him, convinced that he must be working some kind of angle. The real question is whether Jess is too.

WHY: Films about con artists are almost as difficult to pull off as an actual con. They need to be clever enough to outsmart and entertain the audience without being overly complex or resorting to narrative cheats. “Focus” is definitely entertaining at times, a flashy crime drama highlighted by a pair of movie star performances from Will Smith and Margot Robbie, but it also commits the aforementioned offenses in order to arrive at its twist ending. However, that’s not the film’s biggest problem, but rather the fact that “Focus” is basically two movie stitched together by the same connective tissue, and only one of the halves is any good. While the first half is a fun and fizzy con movie that’s capped off by a terrifically tense sequence featuring BD Wong as a high-stakes gambler, the second half isn’t nearly as engaging, partly because Smith and Robbie don’t have strong enough chemistry to sell the romance at the center of the story. The script’s playful tone remains intact throughout, but it never quite clicks the same way, bogged down by scene after scene of exposition that’s all setup for the big payoff. Although it’s refreshing to see a major studio take a gamble on a modestly budgeted film targeted towards adults, “Focus” is so passively mediocre that you can understand why other studios have been afraid to pull the trigger.

EXTRAS: In addition to a featurette about the art of misdirection, there are profiles on Will Smith and Margot Robbie, as well deleted scenes and an alternate opening.


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Blu Tuesday: Seventh Son and The Loft

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.

“Seventh Son”

WHAT: When the evil witch queen, Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), escapes from the pit she was imprisoned in decades ago by professional monster hunter Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges), killing his young apprentice in the process, Gregory must train a new recruit – the seventh son of a seventh son, Tom Ward (Ben Barnes) – to help stop her before Malkin’s power is fully restored by the forthcoming blood moon.

WHY: Much like “The Loft” (see below), “Seventh Son” was the victim of a messy behind-the-scenes divorce that resulted in the film’s release date getting bumped several times over a two-year period. While that certainly didn’t make marketing the movie any easier, Sergey Bodrov’s English-language debut is plagued by many of the same problems as most foreign filmmakers who go too big, too soon. Based on the first book in Joseph Delaney’s “The Wardstone Chronicles,” “Seventh Son” is just another lifeless YA movie with very few original ideas and a crippling overdependence on CG-heavy spectacle. Though it boasts an impressive cast that includes two Oscar winners, the film wastes their talents with dull and poorly written material. Jeff Bridges does his Rooster Cogburn shtick for the third time running in the Obi-Wan mentor role, while Julianne Moore hams it up with a dreadful performance that, while not quite as terrible as recent Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne in “Jupiter Ascending,” is hardly flattering. And considering that the movie was initially delayed to polish the visual effects, they’re wildly inconsistent, ranging from pretty good (the dragons) to alarmingly bad (almost everything else). “Seventh Son” could have been something special, but in failing to push itself beyond the typical fantasy fare, it’s more than deserving of the critical bashing it received.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a making-of featurette, an alternate ending, deleted scenes, a visual effects gallery and more.


“The Loft”

WHAT: Five married friends agree to share a penthouse loft in the city where they can cheat on their wives in private, but when they discover the dead body of a woman in their secret hideaway, friendships and loyalties are tested as the guys begin to suspect one another for the murder.

WHY: Director Erik Van Looy’s U.S. remake of his own Dutch-language erotic thriller was filmed back in 2011 before getting shelved for three years, and that’s pretty much all you need to know about whether or not the movie is any good. Though “The Loft” boasts a solid cast led by the usually reliable Karl Urban and James Marsden, that’s probably the only reason it was spared the embarrassment of being released straight to video. Wentworth Miller and Matthias Schoenaerts (reprising his role from the original) are both fine in their respective parts, but the addition of Eric Stonestreet (no doubt trying to distance himself from his “Modern Family” character with edgier, more adult material) is very much a case of “one of these things is not like the other.” The actor doesn’t fare any worse than his fellow co-stars, but he sticks out like a sore thumb. That’s the least of the film’s problems, however, because for an erotic thriller, “The Loft” isn’t particularly erotic or thrilling. Additionally, none of the characters are very likeable, and though Wesley Strick’s screenplay is jam-packed with twisty plot turns, by the time it gets even remotely interesting, you’ll likely have already tuned out.

EXTRAS: Nothing. Not even a trailer for the film.



Blu Tuesday: American Sniper and Cymbeline

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.

“American Sniper”

WHAT: After witnessing the 1998 U.S. embassy attacks in Africa, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enlists in the Navy SEALS, eventually getting deployed to Iraq where he earns the nickname, The Legend, after becoming the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. But while Chris feels at home on the battlefield, he struggles to maintain a normal life with his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids while on leave from his numerous tours of duty.

WHY: For someone as prolific and revered as Clint Eastwood, six years is a long time to go without making a really good film (2008’s “Gran Torino” was his last), and sadly, “American Sniper” only extends that streak. It’s far from a bad movie, but there’s nothing really special that makes it stand out, either. Apart from Kyle’s impressive record, this is a story that’s been told countless times before, and in some cases, much better. Though it’s based on real-life events, a lot of what happens seems incredibly exaggerated, especially the ongoing battle of wits between Kyle and an Olympic medal-winning Syrian sniper, which feels like something you’d expect to see in a Jason Bourne film. The action sequences are handled really well, but the domestic drama is so boring and repetitive that the movie loses steam every time Kyle returns home. Part of the problem is that, with the exception of Bradley Cooper’s strong performance, the rest of the cast is underserved, especially Sienna Miller as his wife. “American Sniper” wants to have it both ways – as a war-on-terror fantasy and poignant PTSD drama – but while it doesn’t shy away from the physical and psychological horrors of battle, the movie is so heavy on pro-military propaganda that it doesn’t realize its dramatic potential until it’s too late.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes a pair of featurettes about making the film.



WHAT: When Briton Motorcycle Club leader Cymbeline (Ed Harris) discovers that his daughter (Dakota Johnson) has secretly married humble orphan Posthumus (Penn Badgley) – despite already being promised to stepbrother Cloten (Anton Yelchin) – he banishes Posthumus from the outlaw biker gang, setting into a motion a series of events that threaten Cymbeline’s criminal empire amid a mounting turf war between the Britons and the crooked Roman police force.

WHY: Writer/director Michael Almereyda may have had minor success with his contemporary adaptation of “Hamlet” back in 2000, but this modernization of one of Shakespeare’s less popular works is an absolute failure. Not only has “Sons of Anarchy” already done the whole “outlaw bikers meets Shakespeare” thing, but there’s a reason why “Cymbeline” isn’t as well-known as the Bard’s other plays, and that’s because it’s not terribly engaging. Though it treads familiar Shakespearean territory with an array of secret affairs, false deaths, crossdressing women and betrayals galore, the story doesn’t make much sense in the context of its modern setting, especially with the preservation of the original dialogue. The movie boasts an excellent cast that includes Ed Harris, Ethan Hawke, Delroy Lindo, Anton Yelchin and John Leguizamo, but many of them are wasted in insignificant roles, including a messy-haired Bill Pullman, who appears in exactly one scene. No amount of talent could improve “Cymbeline,” although Almereyda certainly tries, because while it’s easy to see why the actors would be attracted to such material (they get to perform Shakespeare without the commitment of theater), the film version is an even bigger mess than the play itself.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Michael Almereyda and actor Ethan Hawke, a behind-the-scenes featurette and additional interviews with the cast and crew.



Blu Tuesday: Still Alice, Blackhat 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.

“Still Alice”

WHAT: Renowned linguistics professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a happily married mother of three grown children who has begun to experience problems with her memory. When she’s diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease, Alice’s relationships with her family are tested as she struggles to maintain a normal life despite the worsening symptoms.

WHY: “Still Alice” is an emotionally devastating, soul-crushing movie that is bound to end in tears for anyone watching it, which makes the decision to release it on home video the week of Mother’s Day especially cruel. With that said, writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (the former of whom recently died from his own battle with a terrible disease, ALS) do a good job of portraying the illness and the effect it has on the people around those afflicted without cheapening its real-world impact or pandering to the audience. The story also smartly avoids getting too deep into Alice’s illness too soon, allowing you to witness Alice in her natural habitat as a wife, mother and teacher, thus making her mental deterioration that much more traumatic. Based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestselling novel of the same name, the film is such a well-acted drama that it deserves every accolade it received during last year’s awards season. It wouldn’t be as effective without Julianne Moore in the lead role, however, and she delivers a career-best performance as the intelligent and independent matriarch forced to suffer her worst nightmare. Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart are also solid in supporting roles, but this is Moore’s movie from start to finish, and she commands the screen with such brutal honesty that it was never a question of if she’d win the Oscar, but why it took so long.

EXTRAS: In addition to a discussion among the cast, crew and Alzheimer’s experts about creating an accurate depiction of Alice’s disease, there’s a profile on directors Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland, an interview with composer Ilan Eshkeri and a few deleted scenes.



WHAT: After a cyberterrorist causes a meltdown at a nuclear reactor in China and makes millions on the stock market by driving up the price of soy, FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) makes a deal with imprisoned hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) to expunge his record in exchange for his help in stopping the malicious blackhat before the next attack.

WHY: Over the past decade, Michael Mann has come to care more about the look of his films than what they’re trying to say, and that hasn’t changed with “Blackhat.” To be fair, when the camera isn’t shaking around like it’s in the middle of an earthquake, the movie boasts some really gorgeous visuals. It’s just a shame that the story hasn’t been given the same attention. Mann tries to counteract the implausibility of Morgan Davis Foehl’s script by instilling a sense of danger with real stakes, but there’s too much working against it, including a faceless villain who isn’t very threatening and a needlessly convoluted plot that fails to validate the sluggish, 135-minute runtime. Chris Hemsworth does the best he can with such a dull, underdeveloped character (wasting his charismatic presence in the process), although Chinese actors Leehom Wang and Wei Tang fare much better in supporting roles. Perhaps the most annoying thing about “Blackhat,” however, is that it constantly brings up 9/11 as a measure of the level of terror that the hacker is capable of launching against the world, and yet the film never even considers going in that direction. This could have been a very timely thriller about cyber-terrorism, but instead, it’s just another style-over-substance misfire from Mann.

EXTRAS: There’s a trio of featurettes on the film’s production, shooting on location and the real-world threat of cyber-terrorism.


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Blu Tuesday: Selma, Black Sea 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.


WHAT: When Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Council are invited to Selma, Alabama to stage their latest fight in the civil rights movement, they organize a series of non-violent protests in the hopes that it will force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the Voting Rights Act.

WHY: Who would’ve thought that a movie that takes place nearly 50 years ago would feel so relevant today? And yet while the parallels between Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and the current racial tension across the country are indisputable, the film deserves to be judged on its own merits, because it’s a deftly made drama that takes a page from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” by focusing on a single (but very important) chapter in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. To DuVernay’s credit, she manages to make almost every moment – from the backroom politics, to King’s rousing speeches – as riveting as the last, and a big part of that success falls on the casting, even those in bit roles. David Oyelowo is fantastic as the pastor turned civil rights activist, playing him with an expected gracefulness, but also a hint of exhaustion and self-doubt that reveals the toll his crusade for equality has taken on him. It’s hard to imagine the film being nearly as effective with another actor in the role, because it’s Oyelowo’s powerful performance that transforms “Selma” from yet another stuffy biopic into a stirring political drama worthy of Dr. King’s legacy.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries – one with director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo, and another with DuVernay, cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Spencer Averick – there are behind-the-scenes featurettes on the film’s origins and production, some deleted scenes, a collection of newsreels and photos from the period, and much more.


“Black Sea”

WHAT: After he’s fired from his job at a marine salvage company, submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law) assembles a group of former employees (half British, half Russian) to search the Black Sea for a Nazi U-boat rumored to be carrying approximately 80 million dollars in gold.

WHY: Submarines are the perfect setting for a thriller – they’re dark, claustrophobic and offer no hope of escape – which is why it’s so surprising that there aren’t more films that take advantage of them. Granted, there are probably more than you think, but very few are any good, and “Black Sea” can count itself among that exclusive group. Not only is the movie a welcome return to form for director Kevin Macdonald, who sort of fell off the map after his 2009 remake of “State of Play,” but it reaffirms why Jude Law is one of the most underrated actors in the business. Law delivers yet another excellent performance as the under-pressure captain who sees the mission as his last chance at redemption, and he’s surrounded by a cast of reliable supporting players like Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn and Michael Smiley. The “us vs. them” mentality between the British and Russian crew members provides plenty of suspense as their greed and paranoia builds throughout the film, and while certain character actions don’t exactly make sense (as things go from bad to worse, the wrong people are blamed), “Black Sea” manages to stay afloat thanks to its engaging premise, solid performances and taut direction.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Kevin Macdonald and a short making-of featurette.


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