Blu Tuesday: Gone Girl 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.

“Gone Girl”

WHAT: When his wife (Rosamund Pike) disappears under mysterious circumstances, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect in the investigation. But while the media and townspeople are quick to vilify him, Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) senses that something isn’t quite right with the case.

WHY: It’s hard to imagine watching a film like “Gone Girl” having already read the Gillian Flynn novel on which it’s based, because the movie is a strikingly bold and unique murder mystery that hinges on the shock-and-awe nature of its dark, twisted story. You’d be hard-pressed to find a director more suitable for the material than David Fincher, and he handles the he-said/she-said dual narratives with razor-sharp precision. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike deliver excellent performances as the two leads (Pike, in particular, is sure to see her career skyrocket as a result), while supporting actors like Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, and yes, even Tyler Perry, are all perfectly cast in their respective roles. That’s to the credit of Fincher as well, who makes even the strangest casting choices (like Perry and Neil Patrick Harris) seem like no-brainers in hindsight. Though the movie is a bit overlong and the ending feels rushed compared to the slow-burning first act, “Gone Girl” is the kind of the movie that you won’t soon forget. It’s not Fincher’s best work, but it’s an engrossing and clever thriller that will make you want to rush out and read Flynn’s novel the minute it’s over.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director David Fincher and an Amazing Amy book titled “Tattle Tale.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Men, Women & Children”

WHAT: A collection of intersecting stories about the dangers of the internet, including a middle-aged schlub (Adam Sandler) whose wife (Rosemary DeWitt) cheats on him using a dating website; a former star quarterback (Ansel Elgort) who’s coping with his mother’s desertion through an online role-playing game; a high school cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia) who posts provocative photos to her modeling site; and a mother (Jennifer Garner) so obsessed with keeping her daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) safe that she tracks her online activity.

WHY: “Men, Women & Children” might as well have come with the subtitle, “Or Why the Internet is Really Bad,” because that’s pretty much the message that Jason Reitman is preaching in his latest film, an enjoyable but flawed drama about communication in the digital age. Of course, this isn’t the first time that the topic has been broached before. The little-seen 2012 drama “Disconnect” tackled similar material in its exploration of the muddled lines between reality and identity on the internet, and that film did a better job, partly because it had fewer storylines to juggle. Reitman handles the interconnected narrative remarkably well, but while “Men, Women & Children” has some interesting things to say, it doesn’t reveal anything that most people with a basic knowledge of the internet didn’t already know. Yes, going online can be dangerous, but there are plenty of beneficial things about it as well, and Reitman seems afraid to touch upon those aspects in fear that it will dilute his message. Is it a little heavy-handed and melodramatic as a result? You bet, but there’s enough good in the film – or at least good intentions – that it’s able to hold your interest even when it’s not firing on all cylinders.

EXTRAS: There are five deleted scenes (including an additional storyline), as well as a short behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with director Jason Reitman and the cast about the effect of technology on our lives.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Revenge of the Green Dragons”

WHAT: Set in New York City during the late 1980s and early 90s, two Chinese immigrants (Justin Chon and Kevin Wu) are pressured into joining the Green Dragons gang, quickly moving up the ranks as the organization gains notoriety within the community.

WHY: With “Infernal Affairs” director Andrew Lau behind the camera, and Martin Scorsese serving as an executive producer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that “Revenge of the Green Dragons” might actually be decent. Instead, it’s a cliché-ridden gangster film posing as a sprawling crime saga that’s plagued by a lack of character development, unintentionally funny dialogue (sample line: “There’s a storm coming, and I don’t know of any umbrella that can keep the city dry.”), and cheesy guitar riffs that, while they certainly belong to the era, only add to the comedy. One of the big selling points of the movie is that it’s supposedly inspired by real-life events, but the historical bits are shoved to the background in favor of the more generic story involving Chon and Wu’s characters. Neither actor is very good, but Harry Shum, Jr. (“Glee”) takes the cake as the gang’s business-minded boss, whose performance comes across like a low-rate Bruce Lee impersonator. Though Ray Liotta’s appearance as the FBI agent investigating the Green Dragons is meant to lend some credibility to the film, it does the complete opposite, while the last-minute twist reeks so bad of desperation that it’s as if Lau is trying to recapture the success of “Infernal Affairs” for American audiences. The only problem is that Scorsese already beat him to the punch.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by directors Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo, a trio of production featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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2014 Year-End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

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After watching hundreds of films throughout the year, it can be somewhat daunting trying to compile a Top 10 list that isn’t laden with footnotes, caveats and what-ifs. (That’s the whole point of the Honorable Mentions section.) My annual year-end features tend to follow a pretty similar formula in that two things are almost always certain – they will include a mix of blockbusters, awards contenders and genre flicks, and there will be several notable omissions – and the 2014 edition isn’t any different. So what if Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” didn’t make the cut, or that “Selma” is ranked too low? These are my favorite movies of the year, and if you’ve got a problem with that, go make your own list.

Best Movies of 2014

1. “WHIPLASH

A gripping, electrifying and brutally unrelenting thriller, Damien Chazelle’s sophomore effort draws you in from the very first beat of the drum and never lets go, like a freight train of intensity and emotion that leaves you breathless and your heart still pounding when it’s over. “Whiplash” isn’t just one of the best movies of the year; it features perhaps one of the best endings to a movie ever. Chazelle doesn’t waste a single frame in this pressure cooker of a story about a young musician so determined to achieve greatness that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there, even if that means enduring the physical, verbal and psychological abuse of the one man capable of squeezing out every last drop of potential. Miles Teller is phenomenal in the lead role, capturing Andrew’s commitment and passion to his craft with an all-in performance that’s soaked in literal blood, sweat and tears, but it’s J.K. Simmons who steals the show with his turn as the borderline psychotic Fletcher, hurtling insults like a drill instructor that are as funny as they are frightening. The film has earned a lot of attention for these two performances, although it would be short-sighted not to mention the superb writing and dynamic editing as well, because they’re just as essential to its success. For a movie about perfection, “Whiplash” comes pretty damn close.

whiplash

2. “BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be the most prolific director around, but that hardly matters when you make movies like “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a remarkable piece of filmmaking that’s as refreshingly original as it is wildly ambitious. While it’s a pretty incisive satire of Broadway and fame, the movie goes even deeper than that, digging into themes of ego, family and artistic integrity vs. commercial success. More than anything else, though, it operates as a character study of a broken man trying to reclaim his former glory, and in that regard, the film reminded me a lot of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” Some of it is played for laughs, but it’s mostly a profoundly sad look at one man’s struggle to validate his existence. The acting is top-notch across the board – especially Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone – however, the real magic comes from Iñarritu’s decision to stage the movie as one long tracking shot. The balletic precision and sheer ballsiness required to pull that off is mind-boggling, but it results in a more immersive and seamless viewing experience akin to a theater performance, and it’s one that’ll be mimicked for years to come.

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3. “NIGHTCRAWLER

Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” might just be the most frightening film of the year – not in the scares it delivers (because there are none), but rather the chilling peek that it provides behind the curtain of a completely different kind of horror: local TV news. This isn’t the first time that subject has been satirized before in cinema, but “Nightcrawler” tells its darkly comic tale of immorality in the newsroom through the eyes of a Rupert Pupkin-esque antihero more terrifying than any masked killer. The cinematic influences are boundless in Gilroy’s directorial debut, but that hasn’t stopped him from producing a first-rate thriller highlighted by a career-best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor has been taking bigger risks lately with darker, more mature material, and Louis Bloom is the pinnacle of this career rebirth – a wickedly entrancing and transformative piece of acting that’s fully deserving of an Oscar nomination. Rene Russo is also really good as the Dr. Frankenstein to Gyllenhaal’s monster, feeding into his sociopathic tendencies with an equally amoral disposition, but the movie simply wouldn’t work without Gyllenhaal’s dynamic performance, because it’s the quiet ferocity he brings to the role that makes Bloom such a fascinating character.

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2014 Year-End Movie Review: David Medsker

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Let’s get this out of the way up front: there is a lot of popcorn on my list this year. That might sound bad, since critics are supposed to dislike what’s popular (that’s not true, actually: we just dislike anything we think is bad, whether or not it’s popular), but hey, I’m just happy that I liked enough movies this year to put a Top 10 list together. (This is my first full Top 10 since 2010.) There weren’t a lot of blockbusters this year, but some of the year’s biggest films were big for a reason: they were better than the others.

Of course, I say that, and yet the top four movies on my list barely made a penny. Let’s see if we can change that, shall we?

My Favorite Movies of 2014

1. “WHIPLASH

The Battle of Alpha Males: it’s a timeless plot device. Usually it concerns two guys on the same level (“Tin Men,” “Pushing Tin”) and sometimes involves having sex with your enemy’s spouse (again, “Tin Men” and “Pushing Tin), but here it is the battle of student versus teacher at a music conservatory. Miles Teller, the prodigious drummer, and J.K. Simmons, the sadistic teacher, have never been better, but the movie’s best trick is that it gets the audience to root for both sides, even though both men are horribly flawed and unlikable. It came and went quietly in its theatrical run, but this is a must-see when it hits the video circuit.

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2. “NIGHTCRAWLER

It’s assumed that everyone’s soul has a price, that there is a limit to what people will do for money or success. “Nightcrawler” makes it painfully clear that when it comes to a functioning sociopath like Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s superb), all bets are off. Indeed, the uplifting corporate buzz speak that Louis uses to influence characters in the film serves a dual purpose: it gets him what he wants, and it warns the audience that if they work with or for anyone who uses that language, RUN.

3. “BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

There are so many genius moments in this movie that it is hard to count. The entire movie is shot to look like it was done in one take, even though it takes place over several days (your move, Alfonso Curaón). Edward Norton is pitch-perfect casting for the part of Mike, playing on his own reputation as a difficult actor, but having Michael Keaton play the lead, a guy who did exactly what his character does in walking away from a blockbuster franchise, is just sublime. It is one of the rare films that uses mainstream pop culture as a means to make an artful statement about life. There are many unforgettable moments, but the movie’s last shot will be permanently etched into your memory.

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Movie Review: “Gone Girl”

Starring
Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Casey Wilson
Director
David Fincher

It’s tough to take a ‘holy shit’ book and make a ‘holy shit’ movie out of it, especially one with an unconventional narrative structure like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” (two points of view, two timelines). Challenge accepted, says David Fincher (yes, that casting in-joke was intentional), and thank God for that, because it’s hard to imagine anyone else capturing the essence of “Gone Girl” quite like he does. It doesn’t plumb the depths of the two lead characters’ minds as well as the book does, but how could it? Flynn’s novel was a master class analysis of psychopathology; to get the full effect on film, it would have had a runtime of over three hours, which would have been borderline unbearable. Peeling back fewer layers for the sake of an already lengthy runtime is the smart play here. If the movie makes any mistake, it’s with the handling of the third act, which had the potential to make for an even bigger ‘holy shit’ moment than the one that the movie already has.

Midwesterner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) moves to New York to be a writer, where he meets and marries Amy Elliott (Rosamund Pike), a NYC born and bred trust fund princess courtesy of a best-selling children’s book series that her parents have written about her (“Amazing Amy”). The recession of the late ‘00s is hard on the creative class, and both struggle to find work. When Nick’s mom becomes ill, the two move back to Nick’s Missouri hometown to take care of her. As their financial situation grows direr, Nick and Amy’s relationship is strained to the breaking point. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears, and the circumstantial evidence suggests that Nick is involved in her disappearance and/or murder. And we should probably stop there.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to October

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October has never really been known for its quality, but in recent years, studios have been a lot more open about releasing potential awards contenders alongside the usual array of horror flicks. In fact, 2013 saw two of the year’s most-nominated movies – “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” – released during this time, and that trend appears to continue this year as well, with no fewer than six potential Oscar hopefuls debuting throughout the month. The October lineup is certainly tasty, which is only good news for moviegoers, because that means you can see some of these prospective gems that much sooner.

“Gone Girl”

Who: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry
What: When his wife’s disappearance becomes the focus of an intense media circus, a man sees the spotlight turned on him when he’s suspected of foul play.
When: October 3rd
Why: With the exception of “Aliens 3,” David Fincher’s body of work is almost flawless, and there’s little reason to believe that “Gone Girl” will change that. Though this marks his fifth film in a row to be adapted from preexisting source material, Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel is tailor-made for the edgy director. The decision to hire Flynn to also write the screenplay was certainly a bold move, but Fincher has a history of making offbeat choices that work surprisingly well, and that extends to the cast of “Gone Girl” as well. Ben Affleck probably wouldn’t be most people’s top pick for the lead role, and the supporting cast is even stranger, but if anyone deserves your blind trust, it’s Fincher.

“Annabelle”

Who: Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard and Eric Ladin
What: A couple begin to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists.
When: October 3rd
Why: It’s not often that a horror movie finds so much success both critically and commercially, but “The Conjuring” is without a doubt one of the best horror films of the past 20 years. And while fans wait for the inevitable sequel, they can dive deeper into the film’s mythology with this spinoff featuring the creepy Annabelle doll. Though it’s hard to imagine an immobile doll carrying an entire movie on her own, the trailer suggests that Annabelle isn’t responsible for a bulk of the scares, but rather the spirit that’s attached itself to her. The whole thing feels more like a cheap cash-in than a necessary addition to the “Conjuring” franchise, but with James Wan’s longtime DP behind the camera, we’re hoping for the best.

“The Judge”

Who: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga and Billy Bob Thorton
What: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder.
When: October 10th
Why: Now that Robert Downey Jr. is a huge movie star (thanks again, Marvel), the actor can pretty much do whatever he wants, including producing smaller, character-driven dramas like “The Judge” under his new company with wife Susan Downey. But while the film boasts an interesting premise and a superb cast of actors, the decision to hire David Dobkin, who’s best known for directing comedies like “Wedding Crashers” and “Fred Claus,” is extremely odd, particularly because he has zero experience handling serious material like this. Warner Bros. is obviously angling for awards consideration with its Oscar-bait plot, but reactions were very mixed after its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, with many praising the actors but damning Dobkin and the clichéd script.

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