Blu Tuesday: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Grudge Match and More

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

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Grudge Match”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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

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

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“47 Ronin”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Knights of Badassdom”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: The Wolf of Wall Street, Veep and The Great Beauty

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 Wolf of Wall Street”

WHAT: After losing his job on Wall Street following the events of Black Monday, go-getter Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) opens up his own firm selling penny stocks to the wealthy, turning Jordan and his closest pals (including Jonah Hill) into millionaires overnight. Living the high life with his gorgeous new wife (Margot Robbie), Jordan thinks he’s invincible – that is, until he catches wind that the FBI has launched an investigation into the firm for stock market manipulation and other related crimes.

WHY: It’s been a while since Martin Scorsese’s last truly great film, but the director has rebounded in style with “The Wolf of Wall Street,” highlighted by Terrence Winter’s hilarious script and Leonard DiCaprio’s brilliant turn as Jordan Belfort. You’ve never seen the actor quite like this before, and he’s in top form as the notorious stockbroker, delivering what is arguably his best performance with Scorsese yet. The rest of the cast is great as well, especially Jonah Hill in another award-worthy turn, up-and-comer Margot Robbie and Matthew McConaughey in a short but memorable cameo. Loud, flashy and totally obscene, the movie is like a private tour through Belfort’s excessive, hard-partying lifestyle, including easily one of the greatest sequences of the year. (Hint: it involves a highly potent strain of Quaaludes.) Though it’s a little too long for its own good, the characters are so magnetic and the dialogue so fast and funny that “The Wolf of Wall Street” is hard not to enjoy. It’s Scorsese’s best film in years, and one that will only get better with time.

EXTRAS: Regrettably, there’s only one special feature in the form of “The Wolf Pack,” a behind-the-scenes look at bringing Jordan Belfort’s life to the big screen with interviews from Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and others

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Veep: The Complete Second Season”

WHAT: U.S. Vice President Selina Myers (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her staff navigate the murky waters of Washington, D.C. as she deals with a presidential scandal, crooked congressmen, a government shutdown and more

WHY: The first season of “Veep” showed immense promise, but it was clear that it still had some growing to do behind the scenes, and that growth is evident in the show’s second year. Granted, the situations that Selina and her staff find themselves in are still incredibly ridiculous (and if even remotely close to what actually happens at the White House, a little frightening), but it feels like there’s much more at stake this time around. The ensemble cast has also had more time to gel, and they’re even funnier than before as a result. Every actor plays their part perfectly – from Anna Chlumsky’s loyal chief of staff, to Matt Walsh’s blockhead publicist, to Timothy Simmons’ oddball White House liaison – and you needn’t look any further than Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Emmy speech for evidence of that. The addition of Gary Cole and Kevin Dunn to the cast was also a shrewd move on the part of Armando Iannucci, but the show lives and dies by Louis-Dreyfus’s hilarious performance as the so-called Veep. She’s one of the funniest women in show business, and with the exception of Elaine Benes, this will likely go down as the best role of her career.

EXTRAS: In addition to four audio commentary tracks featuring members of the cast and crew (including creator Armando Iannucci and star Julia Louis-Dreyfus), there are deleted and alternate scenes for each episode.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Great Beauty”

WHAT: For decades, journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has served as Rome’s self-described king of high society, gallivanting through an endless series of lavish nightclubs and parties with his equally pretentious friends. But on his 65th birthday, Jep begins to look back on his superficial life against the beautiful backdrop of the Eternal City.

WHY: “The Great Beauty” may have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but there were far better movies released last year. Felliniesque in its self-indulgence and general lack of focus, the film is unable to maintain the high-energy pace of the opening dance party, ultimately succumbing to its sluggish, 142-minute runtime. The root of the problem is director Paolo Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello’s script, which never seems sure what it wants to say. Characters and subplots come and go with little explanation, including a storyline involving Jep’s childhood love that’s brought up early on and never mentioned again until the very end. Toni Servillo delivers a solid performance in the lead role, but his character is too misanthropic for the audience to care what happens to him, contradicting his supposed reformation every chance he gets. If there’s any reason to invest the two-plus hours watching “The Great Beauty,” it’s for cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s gorgeous visuals, which capture the spirit and splendor of Rome in such a manner that it comes as a close to experiencing the real thing that some people will ever get.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a conversation between director Paolo Sorrentino and Italian cultural critic Antonio Monda, interviews with actor Toni Servillo and co-writer Umberto Contarello, deleted scenes and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Lopate.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: Inside Llewyn Davis, Homefront and George Washington

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.

“Inside Llewyn Davis”

WHAT: A week in the life of struggling folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who’s trying to make it as a solo artist after his former partner commits suicide. With no steady income or plans for the future, Llewyn spends his days wandering the city in search of his next gig and his nights crashing on friends’ couches.

WHY: There aren’t many directors that can boast a track record as impressive as the one that Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed throughout their 30-year careers, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just another notch on that cinematic belt. Markedly different from a lot of their films in that it’s a much more intimate, character-driven piece, “Inside Llewyn Davis” most closely resembles “A Serious Man” in both tone and execution. Structured more like a loose series of vignettes than anything resembling a plot, much of the movie rests on Oscar Isaac’s shoulders, with the actor delivering a superb performance that manages to make the titular freeloader somewhat likeable. For as good as Isaac is in the role, however, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective without T-Bone Burnett’s excellent soundtrack, especially when such a large chunk of the film is dedicated to the musical performances. It’s not often that a soundtrack plays such a pivotal role in my enjoyment of a movie, but it’s certainly fitting considering just how much the Coens rely on music to provide the backdrop of this bittersweet portrait of personal failure.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a 40-minute making-of featurette that focuses primarily on the planning, rehearsing and recording of the soundtrack.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Homefront”

WHAT: Eager to provide his 10-year-old daughter (Izabela Vidovic) with a normal life, ex-DEA agent Phil Broker retires to a small, idyllic town in Louisiana. But when local drug lord Gator Bodine (James Franco) uncovers Broker’s past as a law enforcement officer, he teams up with a vengeful biker gang to take him down.

WHY: After working together on the “Expendables” films, it’s only natural that Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone would team up again. But what makes their latest collaboration so unique is that Stallone’s involvement is a strictly behind-the-scenes affair, serving as both screenwriter and producer. Though this neo-Western may sound like every other Statham vehicle on the surface, “Homefront” plays more like a gritty thriller than one of the actor’s typical action movies. That’s not to say that there still isn’t a fair share of action, because it’s one of the film’s highlights, but director Gary Fleder seems more interested in exploring the relationships between his characters than the fight scenes that bridge those moments. The story itself isn’t much better than your average ‘90s action movie, but the cast (which includes Winona Ryder as Gator’s biker-chick girlfriend and Kate Bosworth as his meth-head sister) elevates the material, especially James Franco playing the de facto leader of the criminal swamp gang. This isn’t the first time that the actor has gone against the grain in recent years, but it’s refreshing to see someone of his quality take on a role that’s seemingly beneath him, because it’s the difference between an enjoyable film and another direct-to-video dud.

EXTRAS: There’s a small collection of deleted scenes and an EPK-styled fluff piece with interviews from the cast and crew.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“George Washington”

WHAT: Over the course of one hot summer, a group of children from a decaying, rural Southern town are forced to make some difficult choices in order to cover up a tragic accident.

WHY: It’s amazing that the same man behind such stoner comedies as “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness” was responsible for a movie like “George Washington,” because they couldn’t be any more different. David Gordon Green’s directorial debut falls more along the lines of a Terrence Malick film in both style and execution – an irritatingly slow and pretentious cinematic poem that desperately tries to find a deeper meaning in its lyrical imagery. But while the movie’s gorgeous visuals do a great job of portraying the distressed state of the town and its characters, Green fails to deliver a compelling story, instead opting for a non-linear narrative that lacks focus or coherency. The whole thing is terribly dull, and it doesn’t help that the acting (with the exception of Paul Schneider) is every bit as amateur as its cast. “George Washington” is the kind of movie where a bunch of kids (and seemingly uneducated ones at that) wax poetic about philosophy and life like they’re graduate students, and it’s in this attempt to project a false maturity onto his characters where Green fails the hardest.

EXTRAS: There’s a veritable treasure trove of material here, highlighted by an audio commentary with director David Gordon Green, cinematographer Tim Orr and actor Paul Schneider. The Blu-ray also includes two student shorts by Green (“Pleasant Grove” and “Physical Pinball”), a 2001 Charlie Rose interview, Clu Gluager’s 1969 short film “A Day with the Boys” and more.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: Catching Fire, 12 Years a Slave 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 Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

WHAT: Humiliated by the stunt pulled by Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) at the end of the 74th Hunger Games, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) enlists the help of Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to squash a potential uprising by forcing previous victors (including Katniss and Peeta) into participating in a special 75th edition of the Games.

WHY: As far as book sequels go, “Catching Fire” isn’t exactly the most original, which is why I was pleasantly surprised by the film adaptation. Under the assured direction of Francis Lawrence, “Catching Fire” doesn’t just improve upon Suzanne Collins’ novel, but is superior to the first movie in just about every way, including more spirited performances from its two leads and better development for the supporting characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone – actors you wouldn’t normally associate with a big budget franchise like this – are just a few of the notable additions to the already impressive cast, and there’s not a weak link among them. The script by Oscar-winning screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt is also crucial to the movie’s success, removing a lot of the unnecessary filler while raising the stakes to create a smarter and more focused adaptation that’s extremely well-paced for its 146 minute runtime. “Catching Fire” is everything you could want from a sequel without many of the usual failings, and it’s a prime example of a tentpole film that offers both style and substance.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary with director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson, the Blu-ray release includes a ridiculously in-depth making-of featurette (clocking in at nearly 150 minutes) that covers pretty much every aspect of the filmmaking process, as well as some deleted scenes and a sneak peak at “Divergent.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“12 Years a Slave”

WHAT: The real-life story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and children in New York, who was kidnapped and sold back into slavery in 1841. Transported to the South, Northup spent 12 years working on various plantations, including one owned by the malicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

WHY:12 Years a Slave” is without a doubt Steve McQueen’s most accessible film to date. Though it boasts the same gorgeous cinematography from longtime collaborator Sean Bobbitt, it’s not as experimental as his first two films, instead opting for a more straightforward narrative. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t without its faults, and John Ridley’s screenplay is chief among them, riddled with bad dialogue that’s made only marginally better by the ensemble cast. Some of the actors treat it like they’re reading Shakespeare, and the theatricality of their performances weakens what would otherwise be powerful scenes. As a result, Chiwetel Ejiofor is left to shoulder most of the weight, and his brilliant performance not only holds the movie together, but outshines it completely. Without Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave” would be just another mediocre drama about slavery in the antebellum South. McQueen’s film is way too long for such a thinly scripted story, hammering you with the same ideas over and over to the point of exhaustion. It’s almost too in-your-face at times – less concerned with the character’s own emotional journey than piling on the white guilt – and though Solomon Northupp’s tale is one that deserves to be told, it could have benefited from a little restraint.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette titled “Historical Portrait,” profiles on the various cast and crew, and a short look at composing the score.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Oldboy”

WHAT: After he’s kidnapped, framed for the murder of his ex-wife and locked away in solitary confinement for 20 years, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is mysteriously released one day by his captors. Determined to seek revenge and track down his estranged daughter, Joe teams up with a kindly nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) to find out why he was imprisoned in the first place.

WHY: Rumors of an American remake of Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” had been swirling around Hollywood for so long that surely the people involved had to realize it was a bad idea. And when it was announced that Spike Lee would be the one to helm the U.S. version, any hope for the project went from bad to worse. As a director, Lee lacks the style or subtlety to even compete with Chan-wook’s atmospheric cult classic, and it definitely shows in the final product, abandoning the gritty, twisted nature of the original for a pulpier B-movie that is almost comically gratuitous with its violence. Josh Brolin performs admirably in the lead role, and Samuel L. Jackson makes the most of his few scenes, but Sharlto Copley’s villain is so atrocious from conception to execution that it completely derails any chance the movie had of being taken seriously. Though Lee’s version follows many of the same beats (including that unforgettable twist ending), it adds absolutely nothing to the story, reaffirming its status as one of the more pointless remakes in recent history.

EXTRAS: Apart from the making-of featurette, the rest of the extras – which includes an additional interview with Josh Brolin, an EPK-style promo piece and four alternate/extended scenes – are barely worth your time.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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