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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Movie Review: “Maleficent”

Starring
Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Director
Robert Stromberg

“Maleficent” seems scared of itself. There is a dark beauty that occasionally escapes, only to be squashed by clumsy and completely unnecessary attempts at humor. This is not to say that the movie had no business trying to be funny, but rather that the tone of the jokes is all wrong. They went for slapstick, even though the material is screaming for a dry wit. There is a movie to be had here, but the film plays out like a teen Elsa locked up in her castle: it’s eager to please, but lacks the confidence to stand on its own. This is not the only thing “Maleficent” has in common with “Frozen,” but we’re not about the spoil the other one.

The story is “Sleeping Beauty” in a parallel universe. Maleficent is a fairy that lives in the enchanted moors with a wealth of fantastical creatures. One day she meets a boy named Stefan from the nearby kingdom. Though the humans and woodland creatures stay away from each other, they become friends, and ultimately more than that as they grow older, but Stefan (played as an adult by Sharlto Copley) thirsts for the throne and, knowing the king’s desire to conquer the moors and exploit its untold riches in gems, leverages his boyhood romance with Maleficent (played as an adult by Angelina Jolie) in order to betray her – he cuts off her wings – and succeeds the king upon his death. When Stefan and his wife have a baby girl, an embittered Maleficent exacts her revenge: she places a curse on the baby that will cause her to fall into an endless sleep on her 16th birthday. Stefan entrusts three pixies (long story) to take care of daughter Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning) and to hide her away until after she turns 16, thus outlasting Maleficent’s curse, but Maleficent finds her rather quickly, and watches her from the shadows. Before long, Maleficent finds herself serving as Aurora’s unofficial guardian (the pixies are idiots, basically), even saving her life on more than one occasion. Maleficent eventually grows fond of Aurora, and this, naturally, complicates things.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to May

may

The summer movie season has officially begun, and this May promises to be one of the biggest yet, with two massive superhero sequels, the return of Godzilla, and the latest comedies from Seth Rogen, Seth MacFarlane and Adam Sandler. And just to make things interesting, there are also a couple of smaller indie films that you’ll want to squeeze into your schedule to help prevent blockbuster overload. After all, there are still three more months of this to go.

“THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2″

Who: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan and Sally Field
What: Spider-Man’s biggest battle has always been the struggle between power and responsibility, but Peter Parker is about to discover that a greater conflict lies ahead.
When: May 2nd
Why: The first “Amazing Spider-Man” improved upon Sam Raimi’s original in just about every way, but the one thing it lacked was a memorable villain. Director Marc Webb may have taken the criticisms a little too harshly, however, because the sequel already has fans groaning for making the same mistake that some believe ruined “Spider-Man 3”: too many villains. But instead of playing down these rumors, the studio has embraced them by not only revealing the several villains that appear in this movie, but teasing future one as well. It was actually a pretty smart move, because in the post-“Avengers” landscape, fanboys appreciate this kind of forward thinking. The fact that Webb has managed to cast some great actors in the villain roles is just the icing on top, provided he can strike the necessary balance that Raimi was unable to achieve with his last entry in the franchise.

“NEIGHBORS”

Who: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco and Lisa Kudrow
What: A couple with a newborn baby face unexpected difficulties after they are forced to live next to a fraternity house.
When: May 9th
Why: Nicholas Stoller’s last two films were a bit disappointing compared to his 2008 directorial debut, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but he may have finally stopped the rot with this new frat comedy, which played like gangbusters at SXSW earlier this year. Though Seth Rogen runs really hot and cold with me, the actor appears to be in top form here, while Zac Efron has been begging for a role like this to show people that he’s more than just that dude from “High School Musical.” It’s also nice to see Rose Byrne returning to comedy after scene-stealing turns in “Bridesmaids” and “Get Him to the Greek,” because she’s done some of her best work in the genre. Of course, none of that matters if all the funny material has already been spoiled in the trailers, but judging by the early buzz on this one, it’s safe to say that won’t be an issue.

“CHEF”

Who: Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo and Scarlett Johansson
What: A chef who loses his restaurant job starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise, while piecing back together his estranged family.
When: May 9th
Why: After helping launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2008’s “Iron Man,” it was only natural that Jon Favreau would continue making big Hollywood blockbusters. But following the box office blunder of “Cowboys & Aliens,” nothing pleases me more than to see the “Swingers” scribe returning to his roots with a smaller, more personal film like “Chef.” Though he’s drafted in a couple Avengers friends (Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr.) for some cameos, his newest movie is a refreshingly CGI-free affair. The only special effects you’ll see here are the copious amounts of food porn teased in the trailer, and that’s all done in service of the story, which Favreau has smartly centered around the red-hot food truck trend, making “Chef” incredibly timely as well. If it’s any bit as good as “Swingers” and “Made,” Favreau could have another cult classic on his hands.

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