Blu Tuesday: Her, That Awkward Moment 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.

“Her”

WHAT: Lonely and depressed after splitting with his wife, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) purchases a new operating system for his computer designed to meet his every need. But as he spends more time chatting with the state-of-the-art OS – which goes by the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) – Theodore begins to fall in love, becoming romantically involved with someone he can neither see nor touch.

WHY: Leave it to Spike Jonze to create one of the more unique love stories in cinematic history. Set in a near future that feels remarkably authentic (well, except for the high-waisted pants that dominate the fashion), “Her” is a subtle but effective commentary on the role that technology plays in our increasingly anti-social lives; one where we’re more connected to our gadgets than the people around us. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as a man so desperate to connect with someone that he doesn’t care that they’re not real, but none of it would work without Scarlett Johansson. While the actress didn’t receive the awards recognition that she deserved, Johansson is the heart of the movie, delivering a sweet, soulful and fully rounded vocal performance that makes it seem like she’s actually there. That’s harder said than done, resulting in a relationship that not only feels more real than most of the films last year, but plays a big part in its success as a romantic dramedy and an enchanting piece of science fiction.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a trio of featurettes covering the making of the film, Karen O’s soundtrack, and interviews with various celebrities on the subject of love and relationships in the modern age.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“That Awkward Moment”

WHAT: When Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) discovers that his cheating wife wants a divorce, his best friends Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller) make a pact to remain single as a show of support. But that’s easier said than done for the two bachelors when they each get involved with someone that changes their relationship status from “single” to “it’s complicated.”

WHY: Perhaps best described as a male version of “Sex and the City,” “That Awkward Moment” should have been a lot better than it turned out, especially with a cast comprised of some of the best young talent in Hollywood. Instead, it’s an entirely forgettable rom-com that falls prey to the very formula that the movie is trying to subvert. It’s not very funny either, with many of the good laughs already spoiled in the trailer, resulting in an end product that’s more awkward than anything that happens in the film. There’s a general feeling of “why bother?” that runs throughout the story, and that’s mainly due to first-time writer/director Tom Gormican’s clichéd script, which fails to make any of the relationships particularly interesting. “That Awkward Moment” isn’t a complete waste of time thanks to the chemistry between its three leads (who are all capable of much better work than they deliver here), but that charm only takes the film so far before sputtering out.

EXTRAS: There’s a behind-the-scenes featurette, character profiles, an interview with Zac Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan, and an extended gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“I, Frankenstein”

WHAT: Frankenstein’s monster (Aaron Eckhart) gets caught in the middle of a centuries-old war between demons from Hell – whose leader (Bill Nighy) wants to capture the creature to uncover the secret of his reanimation – and the clandestine order of gargoyles created by the Archangel Michael to protect humanity from evil forces.

WHY: “I, Frankenstein” will likely go down as one of the worst movies of 2014, and that’s not an exaggeration by any means. Though it boasts a competent leading man in Aaron Eckhart, the story – based on the graphic novel by co-writer Kevin Grevioux – is so dumb that you have to question why anyone thought it was a good idea to adapt it for the big screen. The intent was obviously to mimic the “Underworld” films, and it shares a lot of the same DNA as the horror/fantasy series, from its gothic visual cues, to the creature effects, to Bill Nighy as the big bad. But what the producers seem to have forgotten is that the last three “Underworld” movies weren’t very good either. It’s nice to see someone utilizing creatures other than vampires, werewolves and zombies for once, and the concept behind the gargoyles is admittedly clever, but the film has absolutely no soul… or a decent story or performances, for that matter. It’s a total bore from start to finish, and no amount of CGI-heavy action scenes can change that.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries – one with co-writer/director Stuart Beattie and another with producers Gary Lucchesi, Richard Wright, James McQuaide and Kevin Grevioux – the Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette and a behind-the-scenes look at designing the creature effects.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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2013 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2013 Year End Movie Review: David Medsker

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It is not gross hyperbole to suggest that, box office be damned, the last couple of years have not been Hollywood’s finest. With all due respect to “The Artist” and “Argo,” the previous two Best Picture winners and fine movies, neither of them would have won had they been released in 2010. In fact, “The Artist” wouldn’t have even made my Top 10 list that year, while “Argo” would have slotted slightly ahead of “The King’s Speech” (that year’s Best Picture winner, by the way), which means it would have ranked as the sixth best movie that year. Yes, 2010 was that good, and everything since has been, as far as I’m concerned, a great disappointment.

Enter 2013, and the first time since 2010 that a movie truly excited me, to the point where I wanted to stay and watch it again the second it ended. Then I felt sad because Roger Ebert hadn’t lived long enough to see it. I’m really going to miss him. He was a damned fine writer.

Sadly, I still don’t have enough movies to make a top ten list. This is a combination of two things: missing some daytime screenings (stupid day job), and being rather underwhelmed by some movies with big time buzz, including the one that will likely win Best Picture. That won’t be a travesty along the lines of “Crash” taking the trophy in 2005, but unworthy of the honor just the same.

My Favorite Movies of 2013

1. “GRAVITY

Only one movie comes even close to this one. I was thrilled when Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film “Children of Men” won my local film critics group’s award for Movie of the Year, and what he does here dwarves that in terms of technical achievement, while Sandra Bullock delivers as raw a performance as she’s ever given in her life. Even better, the movie is a mere 91 minutes long. Showing people something they’ve never seen before, while showing respect for the audience’s time: now that is my idea of a modern-day filmmaker.

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2. “AMERICAN HUSTLE

This is one of those ‘little moments’ movies, where the story is thoroughly engaging, but it’s the little bits that will stick in your head, and each of the leads has one. Bradley Cooper impersonating Louis C.K. towards the end. Christian Bale letting it all hang out at the party while listening to Duke Ellington. Jennifer Lawrence and the “science oven.” (Lawrence actually has two, if you include her lip sync of “Live and Let Die.”) Jeremy Renner explaining all of the different things you can heat in a science oven (all Italian foods). Amy Adams introducing Lady Greensly. “American Hustle” has a gonzo spirit, but it’s a smoke screen to distract you from the fact that at least one of the characters at any point in time is already thinking two moves ahead. Brilliant stuff.

3. “HER

If “American Hustle” is a ‘little moments’ movie, “Her” is the one that will lead people to have book club-type conversations after seeing it. If the idea of someone developing feelings for an operating system seems odd on the surface, it won’t once you see Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) give up people for Samantha (Scarlett Johannson), who satisfies him in ways that real women can’t. Johannson will probably be overlooked by the Academy for the same reasons that motion capture master Andy Serkis has been shunned (only her voice appears in the movie), but she delivers a heartbreaking and utterly believable performance as the zeroes-and-ones Samantha.

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Movie Review: “Her”

Starring
Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara
Director
Spike Jonze

It’s a pity that “Her” is rated R, because tweens and teens could learn a lot from it. (Note to parents: while your kids should see this movie, they shouldn’t see it with you, because it’s occasionally naughty, and you’ll both feel embarrassed watching it together.) Writer/director Spike Jonze uses a fantastical premise – a computer operating system that people can interact with like they would another human being – to deliver sharp commentary about the importance of the human touch in the Catfish era, where online relationships carry the same weight as a physical relationship. As an added bonus, he points out just how messed up we are as a species, and how lucky any of us are to make a meaningful connection with another person.

After a year-long separation, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is still stinging from his impending divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara). Eager to make some kind of emotional connection but still gun shy about getting involved with someone, he buys a new operating system for his computer that comes with an interactive, self-aware voice program. He chooses a female voice named Samantha (Scarlett Johannson). Samantha helps Theodore organize his life in ways he would never have been capable of doing himself, and she’s eager to learn more about Theodore as a person and what it’s like to be human in general. Theodore is seduced by Samantha’s thoughtfulness and reassuring voice, and finds himself turning down potential couplings with real women in favor of spending more time with Samantha. Eventually, Theodore considers Samantha his girlfriend. This makes Samantha happy and, eager to be more than just a voice in his earpiece, she decides to take things to the next level. Considering the fact that she doesn’t have a body, her efforts to consummate the relationship are curious, to say the least.

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