Blu Tuesday: Captain Phillips, Blue Jasmine 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.

“Captain Phillips”

WHAT: While on a routine trip around the Horn of Africa, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) orders his crew to practice prevention tactics against possible hijackers, only for the drill to become a real-world situation when a group of Somali pirates (led by Barkhad Abdi) boards the commercial freighter and takes Phillips hostage.

WHY: Based on the incredible true story of the 2009 hijacking of an American-flagged cargo ship, “Captain Phillips” is a gripping hostage thriller that boasts some of the year’s finest performances. Director Paul Greengrass has a knack for dramatizing real-life events (as evidenced in “Bloody Sunday” and the excellent “United 93”), and that success continues here, throwing the audience right into the middle of the action docudrama-style in order to best capture the intensity of the situation. But while Greengrass excels at creating a sense of claustrophobic tension (especially once the story moves into the lifeboat, where he really ratchets up the suspense), it’s the acting that makes “Captain Phillips” work as well as it does. Barkhad Abdi is particularly impressive as the leader of the pirates, while Tom Hanks delivers his strongest performance in over a decade in the title role. The final five minutes alone pack such an emotional wallop that it should have guaranteed him another Oscar nomination, and his work throughout is a stark reminder why he’s one of the best actors in the business.

EXTRAS: In addition to an excellent audio commentary by director Paul Greengrass, there’s a three-part featurette running just under an hour long that tells you pretty much everything you’d want to know about the making of the movie.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Blue Jasmine”

WHAT: When her husband (Alec Baldwin) is arrested for investment fraud, New York socialite Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett) is forced to give up her glamorous lifestyle and go stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Mentally unstable and on a steady diet of booze and prescription drugs, Jasmine attempts to put her life back together, with disastrous results.

WHY: Woody Allen is one of the most prolific filmmakers in history, but it’s hard to maintain any level of quality with that sort of productivity, and moviegoers have witnessed the hit-and-miss nature of the director’s work first-hand over the past two decades. “Blue Jasmine” falls somewhere in between, mainly because it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be: a biting dark comedy or a drama. A modern-day retooling of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the movie has its share of laughs in the opening act, but it gets darker by the minute, especially since Blanchett’s character is more of a schizophrenic than the typical Allenesque neurotic. The problem with that, of course, is that Jasmine is a lot less likable as a result, and though the actress turns in a mostly good performance, it borders on parody at times. In fact, there aren’t many characters in the movie that are very likable, and that’s the biggest obstacle standing in the way of “Blue Jasmine” being as great as it could have been.

EXTRAS: Woody Allen movies are always light on bonus material, and this one is no different. Apart from a press conference featuring actors Cate Blanchett, Peter Sarsgaard and Andrew Dice Clay, there’s a brief collection of red carpet interviews.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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2013 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

year_end

If you haven’t been to the movie theater over the past few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking that 2013 wasn’t a very good year for film. In fact, my own year-end list was looking pretty suspect before October, but as is usually the case, the awards season blitz was jam-packed with enough great movies to fill more than the customary ten spots. That made compiling this year’s best-of list a little more challenging than in years past, especially with so many popular choices relegated to honorable mentions or missing entirely. With that said, after much deliberating, flip-flopping and even revisiting certain films, the following represents what I believe to be the best of 2013.

Best Movies of 2013

1. “GRAVITY

It’s been six years since Alfonso Cuarón’s last feature film – the criminally underrated “Children of Men” – but his outer space survival thriller was well worth the wait. “Gravity” is the kind of movie that will likely change the way films are made in the future. From the stunning, single-take opening sequence that lasts more than 12 minutes, to the numerous set pieces throughout, “Gravity” is such a technical marvel that it looks like Cuarón shot the whole damn thing in space. Though the story is ridiculously simple, not a single second of its 91-minute runtime is wasted, extracting so much suspense from the film’s terrifying setup that the brief injections of comedy (courtesy of George Clooney’s easygoing astronaut) are a welcome reprieve from the almost unrelenting intensity. Sandra Bullock delivers one of the best performances of her career as the rookie astronaut caught up in a seemingly impossible situation, but the real star of “Gravity” is Cuarón himself, and he deserves every bit of praise for creating what can only be described as pure movie magic.

gravity

2. “AMERICAN HUSTLE

David O. Russell has always been a quality filmmaker, but he’s quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with thanks to movies like “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and this farcical con-artist caper. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ‘70s, “American Hustle” is immensely entertaining, impeccably structured and features top-notch acting from the entire cast. Forty pounds heavier and rocking the most elaborate comb-over you’ve ever seen, Christian Bale gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the straight man of the bunch. His co-stars aren’t quite as committed physically, but they’re just as good. Amy Adams oozes sexiness as Bale’s cunning partner in crime, scene stealer Jennifer Lawrence is an absolute riot as his unpredictable wife, and Bradley Cooper is hilarious as the short-tempered FBI agent in charge of the sting. The whole film is a lot funnier than you’d expect due to Russell and Eric Singer’s darkly comic script, and though some have argued that it’s too long, the characters are so richly developed and crackling with personality that I would have gladly spent another hour in their messed-up world.

american_hustle

3. “ABOUT TIME

Richard Curtis has written and directed some of the greatest romantic comedies of the past two decades, so it should come as no surprise that his latest movie follows in the same footsteps. Curtis’ films have always been about much more than the superficial meet-cute between boy and girl, and “About Time” is no different, aiming for something a lot deeper and more emotionally rewarding than the typical rom-com. Breakout star Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams have some fantastic chemistry, but it’s the relationship between Gleeson and Bill Nighy (playing the world’s coolest dad) that best serves the story’s central themes and leaves a more lasting impression, especially for anyone who’s ever lost a member of their family. Equally charming, funny and touching, “About Time” is classic Richard Curtis, through and through. And if the rumors about it being his directorial swan song are true, Curtis can take comfort in knowing that he went out on top, because this is not only his most mature and personal work to date, but it’s just a really beautiful film.

about_time

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Movie Review: “Captain Phillips”

Starring
Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus
Director
Paul Greengrass

There’s an inordinate amount of movies based on true stories being released this season (even more so than usual), and Tom Hanks stars in two of them. But while his appearance as Walt Disney in the upcoming drama “Saving Mr. Banks” is likely considered the higher profile role, it’s hard to imagine how the actor will be able to top his brilliant, all-in performance as the title character in “Captain Phillips.” Though the film suffers from a bloated runtime and is a tad one-sided in its depiction of the antagonists, “Captain Phillips” is nonetheless a gripping hostage thriller that boasts some of the year’s finest performances, not only by Hanks, but his amateur co-stars as well.

Based on the true story of the 2009 hijacking of an American-flagged cargo ship by Somali pirates and the remarkable bravery of Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) in deterring their efforts, the movie begins with the MV Maersk Alabama setting sail on a routine trip around the Horn of Africa. Recognizing the dangers that exist in those waters, Phillips orders his crew to practice prevention tactics against possible hijackers, only for the drill to become a real-world situation when he notices two skiffs approaching in the distance, each carrying four Somali pirates with automatic weapons. When one of the boats succeeds in attaching a ladder to the Alabama, the pirates – led by charismatic captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi) – board the cargo ship and take control, forcing Phillips to help locate the rest of his hidden crew members. But when things don’t go as planned for the desperate hijackers, Muse takes Phillips hostage and escapes on the ship’s lifeboat, leading to a tense standoff between the Somali pirates and the U.S. Navy.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to October

october

October has never been a particularly strong month for movies in the past, but that could all be about to change with the exciting crop of titles scheduled for release this year. Though there’s still the usual cluster of genre films (“Machete Kills,” “Carrie”), this month also features an extraordinate amount of quality, boasting no fewer than five movies with genuine Oscar potential. It seems award season is beginning a little early this year, and compared to what October typically brings, it’s hard to complain.

“GRAVITY”

Who: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney
What: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space
When: October 4th
Why: Alfonso Cuaron hasn’t made a feature-length film since 2006’s underrated tour de force “Children of Men,” but if the early buzz surrounding “Gravity” is to be believed, then it was well worth the wait. The sci-fi drama has been in development for what seems like years, and Warner Bros. deserves a lot of credit for taking the chance on such a daring project. It definitely helps when you have actors like Sandra Bullock and George Clooney attached, but with audiences constantly lamenting the lack of originality in the Hollywood system, it’s refreshing to see that studios haven’t completely abandoned this type of filmmaking. “Gravity” probably won’t make a ton of money at the box office, but it should be at the top of everyone’s must-see lists.

“RUNNER RUNNER”

Who: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton and Anthony Mackie
What: When a poor college student who cracks an online poker game goes bust, he arranges a face-to-face with the man he thinks cheated him.
When: October 4th
Why: If “Runner Runner” sounds like the unofficial sequel to “Rounders,” that’s because it was written by the same duo, Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Obviously, gambling is just the gateway into the world of their latest film, but fans of the 1998 poker thriller should be encouraged by their involvement, because they clearly know their way around the subject. Whether or not they strike gold twice remains to be seen, but “Runner Runner” has a good enough cast to pull it off. Justin Timberlake is a natural entertainer who’s only gotten better with experience, and though Ben Affleck appears to be hamming it up a bit as the villain, he’s proven that he can deliver great work with the right material and director.

“CAPTAIN PHILLIPS”

Who: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener and Max Martini
What: The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama.
When: October 11th
Why: There’s an inordinate amount of films based on true stories being released this year (even more so than usual), and Tom Hanks stars in two of them. But while moviegoers may be excited at the prospect of seeing the veteran actor play Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks,” the Paul Greengrass-directed “Captain Phillips” is the more intriguing of the pair. Many people don’t know much about the real-life events that inspired the movie, and that’s only going to work in its favor. Add to that Greengrass’ knack for dramatizing true stories (as evidenced in “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93”) and what looks like yet another Oscar-worthy performance by Hanks, and there’s no reason why “Captain Phillips” won’t be part of the conversation come awards time.

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