Blu Tuesday: American Ultra, Shaun the Sheep 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.

“American Ultra”

WHAT: After bureaucratic brownnoser Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) orders the termination of an experimental super soldier program, the CIA agent behind the project (Connie Britton) activates one of its subjects – unambitious stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) – to give him a fair shot at survival. Marked for death and forced to go into hiding, Mike must utilize his newly discovered abilities to rescue his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) when she’s kidnapped by Yates and his team of programmed killers.

WHY: A high-concept movie that’s equal parts “Pineapple Express” and “The Bourne Identity,” “American Ultra” attempts to strike a balance between the pot-driven humor of the former and the super-spy action of the latter, but ends up as a bit of a tonal mess in the process. Though the film works in fits and starts, it never really finds its groove; for every great moment or idea, there are two more that fall flat. The opportunity was certainly there for some biting commentary on the irony of the U.S. government turning a stoner into a stone-cold killer amidst its War on Drugs, but sadly, “American Ultra” doesn’t seem interested in that kind of satire. Thankfully, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have such great chemistry that it saves the movie from being a complete disappointment. Not only do they handle the comedy and action beats with aplomb, but the pair adds an unexpected sweetness to their characters’ romance that you don’t normally find in this type of film. Though “American Ultra” will likely find an audience among the college crowd during late-night showings on cable TV, it’s a half-baked pot brownie of an action-comedy that gives you just enough of a buzz to make you wonder what it could have been in the hands of a more assured filmmaker.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Nima Nourizadeh, there are a pair of production featurettes and a gag reel.


“Shaun the Sheep”

WHAT: Shaun the Sheep decides to take the day off and have some fun, but when his actions inadvertently lead to the Farmer getting injured and deserted in the Big City with no memory, Shaun and the rest of the flock must risk their own safety in order to bring him back.

WHY: Aardman Animation has never been afraid of pushing the envelope when it comes to their stop-motion animated films, but “Shaun the Sheep” is an especially ambitious movie that it doesn’t include any dialogue over the course of its 85-minute runtime. Not even the human characters speak, instead resorting to a type of gibberish that will be very familiar to fans of “The Sims.” Though that might make the animation process a little easier, it’s much more difficult to pull off from a storytelling standpoint, and one that writers/directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak do an impressive job of executing. The whole thing plays out like a Buster Keaton silent film, with lots of clever sight gags befitting of Aardman’s trademark humor. Though it could have benefited from a better antagonist than the clichéd animal control officer that chases Shaun and his friends around the city, the movie’s frenetic pacing ensures that there’s never a dull moment. It’s not as great as Aardman’s “Wallace and Gromit” stuff, but it’s a smart and funny animated film that will entertain the whole family.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes footage of the animation process, character profiles and interviews with the crew.


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Blu Tuesday: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Hobbit

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 Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

WHAT: In 1963, during the height of the Cold War, the United States and Russia agree to temporarily put aside their differences and combine forces when they learn that a secret criminal organization has kidnapped former Nazi scientist Udo Teller to build an atom bomb. The CIA and KGB assign their top agents – Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), respectively – to infiltrate the cabal and prevent a global disaster.

WHY: Hollywood hasn’t been shy about its love for sequels, reboots and remakes this year, but as far as big screen adaptations of mildly popular television shows go, you could do a lot worse than “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” In fact, though director Guy Ritchie has admitted that he wasn’t overly familiar with the 1960s TV series before signing on to the project, it’s the ideal property for a filmmaker like Ritchie to tackle, because it allows him to cherry-pick the show’s best bits and put his own spin on the material without worrying about stepping on too many toes. It worked well for “Sherlock Holmes,” and it has a similar effect here. While Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer may not sound like the most exciting duo on paper, they form a surprisingly charming team with lots of great banter between them. It’s the kind of polite but playful English wit that’s present in most of Ritchie’s films, and it allows the movie to be self-aware without resorting to winking satire “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” runs a little long despite its relatively straightforward plot, and the half-baked romance between Hammer and Alicia Vikander’s characters never really takes off, but it’s an entertaining homage to retro spy films that makes up for what it lacks in substance with plenty of laughs and undeniable style.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes six featurettes highlighted by a behind-the-scenes look at production and recreating the music, costumes and props of the 1960s.


“The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies – Extended Edition”

WHAT: After successfully defeating Smaug, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the surviving citizens of Lake-town head to the Lonely Mountain seeking refuge. Thorin (Richard Armitage), who’s since been consumed by the dragon sickness, refuses to help, leading the humans and elves to declare war on the dwarves. But when Azog the Defiler and his battalion of orcs attack the dwarven stronghold, the three armies must fight together in order to stop them.

WHY: Splitting “The Hobbit” into three movies has been a point of contention among fans since it was first announced, and the futility of that decision has never been more evident than with “The Battle of the Five Armies,” a 144-minute marathon of masturbatory excess in which the titular set piece – one that’s contained within a single chapter in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel – makes up almost half of its bloated runtime. (The new extended edition tacks on an additional 20 minutes of footage, including more from the actual battle, that only adds to the film’s pacing issues.) Though the movie has its share of great moments just like the first two installments, they’re surrounded by a lot of extraneous filler that pushes its main hero even further into the background. But while “The Battle of Five Armies” is arguably the weakest entry in the series, it’s a nonetheless fitting end to a trilogy that’s biggest problem was taking so long to get there. Could it have been better? Absolutely, especially when measured against the far superior “Lord of the Rings” films, but fans will love it regardless, and that’s to the credit of the fantastic ensemble cast, incredible visuals and Peter Jackson’s limitless creativity.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Peter Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyens, there are two discs filled with over nine hours of supplemental material that covers virtually every aspect of production.



Blu Tuesday: Trainwreck, Terminator Genisys 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.


WHAT: Convinced by her father (Colin Quinn) at a young age that monogamy isn’t realistic, commitment-phobic magazine writer Amy Townsend (Amy Schumer) has gone through life without having a single, meaningful romantic relationship. But when she’s assigned to do a profile on sports doctor Aaron Connors (Bill Hader), only to end up sleeping with him and realize that she wants more than the usual one-night stand, Amy doesn’t know how to respond.

WHY: Amy Schumer has been making people laugh for years, both on stage and on her Comedy Central TV sketch show, so it was only a matter of time before she made the jump to the big screen, and as the star and writer of “Trainwreck,” Schumer officially announces herself as a legitimate Hollywood double-threat. While her raunchy humor has a tendency to take some jokes a little too far, Schumer has an incredibly likable presence, even when playing a borderline asshole like she does here. What’s most surprising about her work in the film, however, is that she showcases some real dramatic chops in addition to the comedy. Bill Hader also turns in a solid performance as Schumer’s love interest despite being given the short end of the stick as far as character development goes, while supporting players like Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton and LeBron James (yes, that LeBron James) are very funny in their respective roles. But while the jokes come fast and furious in the first act, the movie eventually gets sucked into the same tropes that plague the rom-com genre, and that causes the middle section to really drag. In typical Judd Apatow fashion, it’s also about 20 minutes too long. Still, it says something that “Trainwreck” is the first movie Apatow has directed that he didn’t also write, because it’s his best film in years.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/actor Amy Schumer and producer Judd Apatow, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at making the film, a featurette on the athlete cameos, deleted scenes, alternate line readings, a gag reel and more.


“Terminator Genisys”

WHAT: In the year 2029, resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent back in time to 1984 to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), the future mother of rebel leader John Conner (Jason Clarke), from a time-traveling Terminator designed to kill her. But when he arrives, Kyle discovers that the timeline has been radically altered, forcing him to team up with Sarah and an antique Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in order to save the world by resetting the future.

WHY: It may surprise you to learn that “Terminator Genisys” was only written by two people, because the film is such a narrative mess that it feels like the result of a design by committee. Unlike J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” (which is fast becoming the gold standard for franchise reboots), “Genisys” isn’t nearly as precious with the series’ history as it would like you to believe, relying on muddled time travel logic to hold together its incomprehensible plot. No amount of twists or character deviations changes the fact that “Genisys” is basically a less interesting rehash of the first two movies, especially when John Connor’s villainous turn makes about as much sense as anything else that happens in the film. Though Arnold Schwarzenegger is enjoyable as the aging Terminator, and the main trio fares well in their respective roles, there’s very little that sets “Genisys” apart from the other installments. Say what you will about “Terminator Salvation,” but at least that movie tried to expand the mythology by telling a different part of the story. “Terminator Genisys,” on the other hand, may look different on the surface, but it’s the same end-of-the-world yarn that James Cameron already told twice before.

EXTRAS: There’s a trio of featurettes on casting, location shooting and visual effects.


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Blu Tuesday: Inside Out 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.

“Inside Out”

WHAT: When young Riley (Kaitlyn Davis) is uprooted from Minnesota and moved to San Francisco for her father’s new job, her emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) – struggle to adjust to her new life, creating havoc inside her mind where her memories and personalities are stored.

WHY: For a movie studio founded on innovation, it’s been awhile since Pixar has created something truly original, which is why it’s so great to see the animation outfit return to those roots with “Inside Out.” Featuring all the touchstones of a typical Pixar film – it’s funny, charming, clever and touching, often at the same time – “Inside Out” is one of the studio’s most unique features to date, and arguably its most mature as well. Though it borrows generously from the Woody/Buzz road-trip plot of the original “Toy Story,” the movie is incredibly sophisticated, dealing with big-picture ideas that kids may not completely understand on a conceptual level, but can still identify with thanks to the way co-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have deconstructed it. Amy Poehler is also smartly cast as the voice of Joy, although surprisingly, it’s Phyllis Smith (best known for her role on “The Office”) who is the real standout as Sadness. The other voice actors aren’t given as much to do, and the film has a habit of oversimplifying its treatment of Riley’s emotions (which were clearly inspired by the work of Robert Plutchik), including some manufactured conflict that’s a bit flimsy, but it makes up for those minor blemishes with boundless levels of creativity that win out every time.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by co-directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen and producer Jonas Rivera, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at the movie’s evolution, featurettes on sound design, film editing and creating the emotions and the inside of Riley’s mind, as well some deleted scenes, the short film “Lava” and an all-new short titled “Riley’s First Date?”



WHAT: When Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) realizes that his family’s annual vacation is in desperate need of a little shakeup, he finds inspiration from his own childhood and plans a cross-country road trip to Walley World. But just like his vacation to America’s favorite family fun park as a kid, things don’t go exactly as planned, as the Griswolds must contend with thieving rednecks, psychotic truck drivers and their own extended family.

WHY: Though the original “Vacation” featured its share of lowbrow comedy, the 2015 sequel/reboot is so embarrassingly dumb that it makes the Harold Ramis/John Hughes classic seem decidedly highbrow by comparison. Nothing that happens in this film makes a shred of sense, while the Griswolds themselves are so naïve that it’s a miracle they’re able to function in their daily lives. In fact, they’re such miserable company that it’s hard to recall a single laugh in the movie earned by any of the family members. Fortunately, the supporting cast steps up to save the film from being a complete waste of time. Chris Hemsworth and Charlie Day are both funny in their respective roles, while a scene involving a standoff between the different state police officers in charge of patrolling the Four Corners Monument is the funniest bit in the entire movie. It hardly makes up for the stupidity on display in the rest of the film, however, because “Vacation” goes for the cheap and easy joke every time, and although some work well, most of them are so lame that it’ll make you wish the franchise stayed dead after “Vegas Vacation.”

EXTRAS: In addition to a making-of featurette and interviews with the cast about honoring the legacy of the franchise, there are some deleted scenes and a gag reel.


“The Final Girls”

WHAT: On the anniversary of her mother’s death, Max (Taissa Farmiga) and her friends attend a special screening of “Camp Bloodbath,” the ‘80s slasher film that starred Max’s mom (Malin Akerman). But when the theater suddenly catches fire and Max cuts through the projector screen in order to escape, the group is mysteriously sucked into the cult horror classic where they must team up with the movie’s fictional characters in order to battle its machete-wielding killer.

WHY: There’s been a surge of meta horror films released over the last few years, but while Todd Strauss-Schulson’s “The Final Girls” boasts a really clever premise and a solid cast, it doesn’t succeed on the same level as other recent entries like “The Cabin in the Woods” and “You’re Next.” Though it has a lot of fun playing with slasher tropes and cinema in general (showing the way Max and her friends are affected by elements like musical cues, monochromatic flashback sequences and slow motion within the fictional movie), the film isn’t funny or scary enough, ultimately becoming a victim of its own satire due to its insistence on preserving the genre’s traditionally bad acting and writing. Additionally, the movie only follows its established rules when it’s convenient for the story, creating several plot holes in the process, while the funniest cast members are killed off too early. Diehard horror fans will still find plenty to love about “The Final Girls” in spite of these flaws, but it’s definitely not as good as it could have been.

EXTRAS: There are three different audio commentaries – one with director Todd Strauss-Schulson, another with the cast and crew, and a third with writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller – as well as featurettes on visual effects and previsualization, and some deleted scenes and alternate endings with optional director commentary.



Blu Tuesday: Southpaw, Pixels and Army of Darkness

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.


WHAT: After his wife (Rachel McAdams) is tragically killed and he spirals out of control, undefeated light heavyweight champion Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) lands himself in trouble with the boxing league, losing his house, his possessions, and most importantly, custody of his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Desperate to keep her out of the foster care system where he spent his childhood, Billy seeks help from a gruff, veteran trainer (Forest Whitaker) to get back what he lost.

WHY: Throughout the years, boxing movies have been synonymous with tales of redemption, and Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw” is no different. But for as clichéd and heavy-handed as the film can be at times, the movie avoids dragging itself too far into melodrama thanks to some excellent performances and a solid screenplay by Kurt Sutter that is as brutal and emotionally charged as you’d expect from the “Sons of Anarchy” creator. Though Sutter originally wrote the lead role for Eminem, Jake Gyllenhaal brings a physicality and intensity to the character that’s beyond the rapper’s abilities. It’s a much more complex role than it appears on the surface, and Gyllenhaal knocks it out of the park. In fact, while “Nightcrawler” features the better performance, “Southpaw” is perhaps his most impressive piece of acting to date, if only because he’s managed to take a fairly standard underdog drama and elevate it on the strength of his shoulders alone. The film isn’t on the same level as the boxing greats, but with Gyllenhaal’s knockout performance front and center, it’s a lot more enjoyable than it probably had any right to be.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, a Q&A with the cast, footage of Jake Gyllenhaal’s training regimen for the film and some deleted scenes.



WHAT: In 1982, NASA sent a time capsule into space in the hopes of contacting other life forms, but after an alien race misinterprets the message as a declaration of war, they attack Earth in the form of retro video game characters. When the military proves useless, U.S. President William Cooper (Kevin James) enlists the help of best friend Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), along with fellow video game prodigies Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) and Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), to save the planet from certain extinction.

WHY: Though it may seem like critics are being overly hard on “Pixels” simply because Adam Sandler is in the movie, it really is a bad film. The premise itself is cool, and director Chris Columbus taps into some of that potential with fun set pieces that look great and play with the mechanics of classic games like Pac-Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong, but unfortunately, the screenplay is a mess. It’s no better than the typical Sandler comedy (in fact, frequent collaborator Tim Herlihy is one of the co-writers), fueled by lazy and juvenile humor that falls flat more often than not. The casting of Kevin James as the president isn’t just ridiculous, but downright insulting, while the Q*Bert character shows that Hollywood never learned its lesson from Jar-Jar Binks. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better – Sandler does his usual man-child shtick and Josh Gad is wasted as his conspiracy theorist friend – but Peter Dinklage’s over-the-top performance as the Billy Mitchell-esque gamer is just silly enough to ensure that “Pixels” isn’t a complete disappointment. Still, an idea this good deserved something better.

EXTRAS: There are four featurettes on filming the movie’s video game-inspired set pieces, a look at Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani’s cameo and more.


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