Blu Tuesday: The Newsroom, Hercules 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 Newsroom: The Complete Second Season”

WHAT: Following an exclusive report on a top-secret U.S. drone strike that turns out to be untrue, the “News Night” staff becomes embroiled in a legal battle when the producer responsible for the story sues the network for wrongful termination. Meanwhile, Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) goes on the campaign trail with the Romney press bus and Maggie (Alison Pill) deals with the aftermath of a traumatic trip to Uganda.

WHY: Some people really love to hate “The Newsroom,” and for the life of me, I don’t understand why. Though the show can be a tad exaggerated at times (both dramatically and comically), it has great characters and the kind of clever, rapid-fire dialogue that’s become synonymous with every Aaron Sorkin production. Season Two isn’t as strong as its debut season – due to the more focused, season-long drone storyline and certain subplots that remove key characters from the very environment they thrive best – but with the exception of the new title sequence, it’s the same old “The Newsroom,” particularly when taking on real-life topics like the 2012 Elections, Occupy Wall Street and Trayvon Martin. Sorkin’s writing dazzles as always, but it’s the performances by the ensemble cast (from stars Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer, to supporting players like Sam Waterson, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel and Thomas Sadoski) that makes it such a joy to watch. It’s a shame that more people didn’t feel the same way, because although the series is returning for a shortened third season, it still feels like a loss, especially with so few great shows left on HBO outside of “Game of Thrones.”

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray set includes four audio commentaries with various cast and crew, the usual collection of “Inside the Episode” featurettes and deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Hercules”

WHAT: After enduring his legendary 12 labors, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) and his band of mercenaries are hired by the King of Thrace (John Hurt) to protect his people from a tyrannical warlord, only to discover that he may be fighting on the wrong side.

WHY: It’s actually quite surprising that someone hasn’t tried making a Hercules movie with Dwayne Johnson sooner, because it’s a role that he was born to play. But while the film is marginally better than Renny Harlin’s “The Legend of Hercules,” it’s rooted even less in the original myth, instead using Steve Moore’s comic book series as its inspiration, which suggests that Hercules wasn’t a demigod at all, but rather a mortal man whose legend far exceeds his abilities. Johnson does a good job in the title role, though he doesn’t have a lot to work with, and Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell (as fellow swords-for-hire) add some color to the otherwise drab story, but there’s nothing really special that sets it apart from the many other sword-and-sandal movies. The action sequences are incredibly generic, the twists aren’t surprising at all, and although the story offers a unique interpretation of the Hercules tale, it’s hard not to feel disappointed by the bait-and-switch approach to the material. After all, would you rather see a movie about the Hercules from Greek mythology, or one about an ordinary guy named Hercules who just happens to be stronger than most? Exactly.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Brett Ratner and producer Beau Flynn, there’s an introduction to the film from Ratner and Dwayne Johnson, featurettes on the characters, weapons and specials effects, a behind-the-scenes look at filming one of the major actions sequences and 15 deleted/extended scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Maleficent”

WHAT: When she’s tricked by her human friend, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) – who steals her wings in exchange for a place on the throne – vengeful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) curses the king’s newborn daughter with a spell that will take effect on her 16th birthday. Sent away to a remote cabin for her protection, Maleficent comes to care for Princess Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning) after realizing that she may be the land’s only hope for peace.

WHY: Hollywood loves a good fad, and two of the more popular trends these days are fairy tales and villains, so it’s not surprising that Disney would want in on the act, especially after the mild success of Universal’s “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Just like that movie, “Maleficent” attempts to humanize its iconic baddie by turning her into a misunderstood antihero whose fall from grace wasn’t entirely of her own making. But just like every other cinematic villain to get the revisionist treatment (from Dracula to the Evil Queen), Maleficent is stripped of everything that made her such a great character in the process, and perhaps even more troubling, as the victim of a creepy drug rape that’s never addressed. Angelina Jolie has the physicality and talent required for the role, but while she does a good job with the material provided, it would’ve been more fun to see her play a full-fledged villain compared to the morally gray character here. Though “Maleficent” is an admirable attempt at breathing new life into a classic tale, there are so many problems with the story and supporting characters that it would have made more sense to go the direct route and make a live-action “Sleeping Beauty” movie instead.

EXTRAS: There are five short featurettes – including a look at Elle Fanning’s involvement in the film, Maleficent’s costume design and the various stages of the writing process – as well as a handful of deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to July

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After a mostly disappointing June that saw the release of very few summer tentpole films (and even fewer that were any good), this month seems poised to follow suit with an equally lackluster lineup. There are a couple blockbuster-sized movies on tap in July (like the follow-up to the “Planet of the Apes” prequel and Dwayne Johnson’s long-gestating Hercules film), but everything else feels very un-summery, including a Fourth of July weekend devoid of a big action movie. Instead, America gets to celebrate its freedom with Melissa McCarthy, and that’s pretty telling of just how poor this summer season has been.

“DELIVER US FROM EVIL”

Who: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn and Chris Coy
What: NY police officer Ralph Sarchie joins forces with a priest schooled in the rituals of exorcism to combat the possessions that are terrorizing their city.
When: July 2nd
Why: I know what you’re thinking: yet another horror movie that’s supposedly inspired by real-life events? But while the setup may seem more than a little contrived, Hollywood has proven on numerous occasions that you can still make an excellent horror film no matter how preposterous its claims may be. (Remember a little movie called “The Exorcist”?) Scott Derrickson is also one of the better directors currently working in the genre, and with a cast that includes Eric Bana and the underrated Edgar Ramirez, “Deliver Us from Evil” certainly has the potential to follow in the footsteps of last year’s “The Conjuring” as one of the surprise hits of this summer.

“TAMMY”

Who: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Dan Aykroyd and Mark Duplass
What: After losing her job and learning that her husband has been unfaithful, a woman hits the road with her profane, hard-drinking grandmother.
When: July 2nd
Why: Melissa McCarthy clearly didn’t get the memo that her 15 minutes of fame are up, because the actress (who’s essentially a less talented female version of Chris Farley) keeps plugging away with dumb movie after dumb movie. And to make matters worse, studios continue to green light these so-called comedies because they make obscene amounts of money. Then again, so do those god-awful spoof films and just about anything produced by Tyler Perry. If “Identity Thief” and “The Heat” weren’t evidence enough that McCarthy is one of the most annoying, undeserving movie stars in Hollywood, then surely “Tammy” (which she co-wrote with husband/director Ben Falcone) will finally put an end to America’s baffling love affair with her.

“DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES”

Who: Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke and Kodi-Smit McPhee
What: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier.
When: July 11th
Why: My expectations were pretty low going into “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which is why it was such a pleasant surprise that the movie was actually good. But while another installment in Fox’s franchise reboot was inevitable, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” seems to have lost a lot of what made the prequel so unique from the rest of the series. It still takes place well before the 1968 original, but now the apes are walking, talking and even riding on horses while firing machine guns. That’s a far cry from Rupert Wyatt’s more down-to-earth prequel, so here’s hoping that director Matt Reeves is able to retain some of the humanity from that film.

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The Light from the TV Shows: The Prequelization Principle

You know you’re a real fan of “Psycho,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film adaptation of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, if your first reaction to hearing about A&E’s new series, “Bates Motel,” which premieres on March 18, was to grumble, “They’ve already done a TV show called ‘Bates Motel.’”

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True enough: in 1987, NBC aired a TV movie called “Bates Motel,” which starred Bud Cort as Alex West, a fellow with a few mental troubles who shared some quality time with Norman Bates in the state insane asylum and, as a result, finds himself the beneficiary of the Bates Motel in Norman’s will. The intent was to use the movie as a backdoor pilot for a weekly anthology series of sorts, following the lives of individuals passing through as guests of the motel, but when ratings for the movie proved disappointing, the plan for the series was abandoned.

But A&E’s “Bates Motel” isn’t a retread of that premise. Instead, it’s a prequel, revealing how Norman Bates became the kind of guy who’d grow obsessed with his mother that he’d take on her identity on occasion and kill anyone who looked at him sideways.

Oh, wait, you say that’s already been done, too?

Yep, it sure has: in 1990, Showtime produced “Psycho IV: The Beginning,” which pointedly ignored the aforementioned TV movie and showed a very-much-still-alive Norman (Anthony Perkins) calling into a radio talk show about – what are the odds? – matricide, using the conversation as a framing device to flash back to his youth and reveal the bond between Norma Bates (Olivia Hussey) and her son (played by Henry Thomas). It doesn’t exactly hew 100% to the continuity established by the preceding three films, but as a standalone film for casual fins, it holds up relatively well, thanks in no small part to Perkins’ performance.

Actually, A&E’s “Bates Motel” isn’t a retread of that premise, either. Not really, anyway. I mean, yes, it starts at approximately the same point in Norman’s life, and the general idea is the same, in that it’s looking into all the Oedipal-ness of the Norma/Norman relationship. This time, though, it isn’t a period piece. For better or worse, it takes place in present day, which means that it’s arguably not a prequel at all but, instead, more of a complete reboot of the franchise.

Don’t worry, though: the Bates Motel itself still looks just as decrepit and foreboding as ever.

But, of course, “Bates Motel” is far from the first occasion of an existing property has been turned into a prequel for TV. Heck, it’s not even the first time it’s happened in 2013!

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