Blu Tuesday: Don Jon, Ninja II and Hell Baby

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.

“Don Jon”

WHAT: There are only a few things that New Jersey bachelor Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) really cares about in life: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls and his porn. When he starts dating the gorgeous but bossy Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), however, he’s forced to rethink his porn addiction and the unrealistic expectations that it brings.

WHY: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the most talented actors of his generation, and the fact that he was able to write and direct such a smartly funny movie on his first attempt is enough to make anyone feel unaccomplished by comparison. But it’s hard to be jealous of someone as charming, modest and hard-working as Gordon-Levitt, whose immensely likeable screen presence even bleeds into his title role as the womanizing, porn-addicted guido. The actor was wise to keep things simple for his directorial debut, and though “Don Jon” starts to feel a bit repetitive by the third act, that’s mostly due to the story’s structure, which uses repetition for comedic purposes, from the familiar boot-up sound of his Macbook, to the weekly church visits for confession. It’s much harder to pull off than it looks, but between his razor-sharp script and the strong performances from his cast (including Tony Danza as Jon’s stereotypical Italian father), Gordon-Levitt makes it seem almost effortless.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a making-of featurette, four additional featurettes and a trio of HitRECord short films.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear”

WHAT: When his pregnant wife is killed by a mysterious assassin, ninjitsu master Casey Bowman (Scott Adkins) tracks down the man responsible in order to exact his revenge, uncovering a Japanese drug ring along the way.

WHY: Scott Adkins is probably one of the most talented martial artists working in Hollywood today, and if you’re wondering why he’s not a bigger star by now, it’s because he’s a terrible actor. “Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear” is exactly the type of B-movie that Adkins will spend the rest of his career making, and that’s a shame, because it features some of the best fight sequences of the year. There’s no wire work or CG involved, and director Isaac Florentine doesn’t resort to close-ups or quick cuts either, instead giving each fight plenty of room to breathe so that you can fully appreciate the incredible skill on display. Adkins impresses in every action sequence, but unfortunately, the movie comes to a screeching halt any time he opens his mouth. The rest of the acting isn’t much better, and the dumb-as-rocks storyline doesn’t help matters, but for fans of old school action films (one of the producers also bankrolled the “American Ninja” movies), “Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear” might as well have been discovered in a time capsule from the ‘80s.

EXTRAS: There’s a short making-of featurette, cast and crew interviews and some behind the scenes footage from production.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Hell Baby”

WHAT: After a couple moves into a haunted house in New Orleans, expectant mother Vanessa (Leslie Bibb) becomes possessed by a demon spirit, prompting her husband Jack (Rob Corddry) to call on the services of the Vatican’s elite exorcism team.

WHY: I’m absolutely flabbergasted that “Hell Baby” not only managed to get into this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but that some people actually liked it, because it’s easily one of the worst movies of 2013. Written and directed by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (“Reno 911,” “The State”), who also co-star as a pair of Vatican exorcists with some of the worst Italian accents in cinema history, “Hell Baby” doesn’t really work as a comedy or a horror movie. Though Rob Corddry earns a few laughs as the straight man of the ensemble, and Keegan-Michael Key is amusing as the couple’s interloping neighbor, most of the jokes fall horribly flat. The film feels like it was thrown together over the course of a few days, with no mention that the titular hell baby even exists until it emerges from Vanessa’s womb in the final act. The whole thing is incredibly stupid, relying on gags that are drawn out so long that even the mildly entertaining ones (like the po’ boy scenes) become annoying after a while. Avoid this movie like the plague.

EXTRAS: There’s a large collection of deleted scenes and two gag reels, but that’s all.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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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: “Don Jon”

Starring
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenn Headley, Rob Brown
Director
Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Talk about having your cake and eating it too. For his debut as a writer and director, Joseph Gordon-Levitt pens a script that gives him the opportunity to grope and “bed” a bevy of gorgeous women (capping it off with Scarlett Johansson), and gets the last laugh by putting a fair amount of depth into his study of a very shallow man. “Don Jon” feels a bit like a comedic version of “Shame,” the infamous wow-look-at-Michael-Fassbender’s-penis movie, but in reality the two leads are alike only in that they’re broken men who like to score. Where “Shame” was more of a character study, “Don Jon” is focused on a societal problem.

Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a buff, handsome, free-living Jerseyite. Each week, he and his two best buds hit the club, and Jon manages to score a “10” every time, earning him the nickname Don Jon. And yet, even after sex with these beautiful women, Jon heads to his laptop to surf for porn. (We don’t know this for a fact, but www.pornhub.com may be the first adult web site to strike a product placement deal in a mainstream motion picture.) One night, he sees Barbara (Johannson), and is positively smitten, but still likes his porn. The two soon date, and when she discovers his vice, she’s horrified, even though her fascination with Hollywood romance films (the film within the film has two killer cameos) has given her equally warped notions of love. Enter Esther (Julianne Moore), a fellow night school student in Jon’s class who’s able to give Jon the one thing he truly needs: perspective.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to September

september_movies

Now that summer is officially over, moviegoers are bound to see a greater variety of films arriving in theaters beyond the usual barrage of action flicks and comedies. Though the September release slate isn’t as promising as it’s been in past years, there are a few potential Oscar nominees among the pack, as well as new movies from A-list stars like Robert De Niro, Hugh Jackman and Gwyneth Paltrow.

“RIDDICK”

Who: Vin Diesel, Katee Sackhoff, Dave Bautista, Bokeem Woodbine and Karl Urban
What: Left for dead on a sun-scorched planet, Riddick teams up with a new breed of mercenary against an alien race of predators.
When: September 6th
Why: Though “Pitch Black” was a cool sci-fi thriller that introduced the world to Vin Diesel, director David Twothy’s 2004 follow-up, “The Chronicles of Riddick,” failed to convince audiences that the character warranted additional adventures. That hasn’t stopped Diesel from moving forward with a third installment anyway, and after the blockbuster success of the last two “Fast and Furious” movies, Universal was hardly in a position to say no. But whereas the sequel bit off more than it could chew with its grand space battles and expansive mythology, especially after the more character-based first film, “Riddick” seems to fall somewhere in the middle, and it’s that balance that could help transform the series into the franchise Diesel always envisioned.

“INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2″

Who: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Leigh Whannell and Lin Shaye
What: The haunted Lambert family seeks to uncover the mysterious childhood secret that has left them dangerously connected to the spirit world.
When: September 13th
Why: James Wan may be the reigning king of horror, but I’m not exactly sure what to think about the sequel to his 2010 sleeper hit. That movie ended with Patrick Wilson’s character supposedly becoming possessed by the demon that haunted him as a child, and yet “Chapter Two” gives the impression that Wilson is now leading a happy life with his family. So what happened between the two films? And will it even be addressed in the sequel? That seems to be one of the biggest questions leading into the movie, and unless Wan and writing partner Leigh Whannell have come up with a doozy of an explanation, prepare to be disappointed.

“THE FAMILY”

Who: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones and Diane Agron
What: A notorious mafia family is relocated to France under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging as their old habits die hard.
When: September 13th
Why: It’s been awhile since Luc Besson last directed an action film (though he’s kept busy over the years as a writer/producer on the “Transporter” and “Taken” franchises), and he couldn’t have picked a better movie for his return to the genre than “The Family.” Besson has never had trouble attracting big names to his films, but that doesn’t make the involvement of Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer (both returning to their mob roots here) any less exciting. Though the veteran actors have been in films together before (2007’s “Stardust” and 2011’s “New Year’s Eve”), this marks the first time that they’ll actually share the screen, and that alone gives me hope that “The Family” will be just as much fun as it sounds.

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