Blu Tuesday: American Sniper and Cymbeline

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 Sniper”

WHAT: After witnessing the 1998 U.S. embassy attacks in Africa, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enlists in the Navy SEALS, eventually getting deployed to Iraq where he earns the nickname, The Legend, after becoming the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. But while Chris feels at home on the battlefield, he struggles to maintain a normal life with his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids while on leave from his numerous tours of duty.

WHY: For someone as prolific and revered as Clint Eastwood, six years is a long time to go without making a really good film (2008’s “Gran Torino” was his last), and sadly, “American Sniper” only extends that streak. It’s far from a bad movie, but there’s nothing really special that makes it stand out, either. Apart from Kyle’s impressive record, this is a story that’s been told countless times before, and in some cases, much better. Though it’s based on real-life events, a lot of what happens seems incredibly exaggerated, especially the ongoing battle of wits between Kyle and an Olympic medal-winning Syrian sniper, which feels like something you’d expect to see in a Jason Bourne film. The action sequences are handled really well, but the domestic drama is so boring and repetitive that the movie loses steam every time Kyle returns home. Part of the problem is that, with the exception of Bradley Cooper’s strong performance, the rest of the cast is underserved, especially Sienna Miller as his wife. “American Sniper” wants to have it both ways – as a war-on-terror fantasy and poignant PTSD drama – but while it doesn’t shy away from the physical and psychological horrors of battle, the movie is so heavy on pro-military propaganda that it doesn’t realize its dramatic potential until it’s too late.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes a pair of featurettes about making the film.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Cymbeline”

WHAT: When Briton Motorcycle Club leader Cymbeline (Ed Harris) discovers that his daughter (Dakota Johnson) has secretly married humble orphan Posthumus (Penn Badgley) – despite already being promised to stepbrother Cloten (Anton Yelchin) – he banishes Posthumus from the outlaw biker gang, setting into a motion a series of events that threaten Cymbeline’s criminal empire amid a mounting turf war between the Britons and the crooked Roman police force.

WHY: Writer/director Michael Almereyda may have had minor success with his contemporary adaptation of “Hamlet” back in 2000, but this modernization of one of Shakespeare’s less popular works is an absolute failure. Not only has “Sons of Anarchy” already done the whole “outlaw bikers meets Shakespeare” thing, but there’s a reason why “Cymbeline” isn’t as well-known as the Bard’s other plays, and that’s because it’s not terribly engaging. Though it treads familiar Shakespearean territory with an array of secret affairs, false deaths, crossdressing women and betrayals galore, the story doesn’t make much sense in the context of its modern setting, especially with the preservation of the original dialogue. The movie boasts an excellent cast that includes Ed Harris, Ethan Hawke, Delroy Lindo, Anton Yelchin and John Leguizamo, but many of them are wasted in insignificant roles, including a messy-haired Bill Pullman, who appears in exactly one scene. No amount of talent could improve “Cymbeline,” although Almereyda certainly tries, because while it’s easy to see why the actors would be attracted to such material (they get to perform Shakespeare without the commitment of theater), the film version is an even bigger mess than the play itself.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Michael Almereyda and actor Ethan Hawke, a behind-the-scenes featurette and additional interviews with the cast and crew.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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Blu Tuesday: Still Alice, Blackhat 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.

“Still Alice”

WHAT: Renowned linguistics professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a happily married mother of three grown children who has begun to experience problems with her memory. When she’s diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease, Alice’s relationships with her family are tested as she struggles to maintain a normal life despite the worsening symptoms.

WHY: “Still Alice” is an emotionally devastating, soul-crushing movie that is bound to end in tears for anyone watching it, which makes the decision to release it on home video the week of Mother’s Day especially cruel. With that said, writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (the former of whom recently died from his own battle with a terrible disease, ALS) do a good job of portraying the illness and the effect it has on the people around those afflicted without cheapening its real-world impact or pandering to the audience. The story also smartly avoids getting too deep into Alice’s illness too soon, allowing you to witness Alice in her natural habitat as a wife, mother and teacher, thus making her mental deterioration that much more traumatic. Based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestselling novel of the same name, the film is such a well-acted drama that it deserves every accolade it received during last year’s awards season. It wouldn’t be as effective without Julianne Moore in the lead role, however, and she delivers a career-best performance as the intelligent and independent matriarch forced to suffer her worst nightmare. Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart are also solid in supporting roles, but this is Moore’s movie from start to finish, and she commands the screen with such brutal honesty that it was never a question of if she’d win the Oscar, but why it took so long.

EXTRAS: In addition to a discussion among the cast, crew and Alzheimer’s experts about creating an accurate depiction of Alice’s disease, there’s a profile on directors Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland, an interview with composer Ilan Eshkeri and a few deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Blackhat”

WHAT: After a cyberterrorist causes a meltdown at a nuclear reactor in China and makes millions on the stock market by driving up the price of soy, FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) makes a deal with imprisoned hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) to expunge his record in exchange for his help in stopping the malicious blackhat before the next attack.

WHY: Over the past decade, Michael Mann has come to care more about the look of his films than what they’re trying to say, and that hasn’t changed with “Blackhat.” To be fair, when the camera isn’t shaking around like it’s in the middle of an earthquake, the movie boasts some really gorgeous visuals. It’s just a shame that the story hasn’t been given the same attention. Mann tries to counteract the implausibility of Morgan Davis Foehl’s script by instilling a sense of danger with real stakes, but there’s too much working against it, including a faceless villain who isn’t very threatening and a needlessly convoluted plot that fails to validate the sluggish, 135-minute runtime. Chris Hemsworth does the best he can with such a dull, underdeveloped character (wasting his charismatic presence in the process), although Chinese actors Leehom Wang and Wei Tang fare much better in supporting roles. Perhaps the most annoying thing about “Blackhat,” however, is that it constantly brings up 9/11 as a measure of the level of terror that the hacker is capable of launching against the world, and yet the film never even considers going in that direction. This could have been a very timely thriller about cyber-terrorism, but instead, it’s just another style-over-substance misfire from Mann.

EXTRAS: There’s a trio of featurettes on the film’s production, shooting on location and the real-world threat of cyber-terrorism.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: Selma, Black Sea 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.

“Selma”

WHAT: When Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Council are invited to Selma, Alabama to stage their latest fight in the civil rights movement, they organize a series of non-violent protests in the hopes that it will force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the Voting Rights Act.

WHY: Who would’ve thought that a movie that takes place nearly 50 years ago would feel so relevant today? And yet while the parallels between Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and the current racial tension across the country are indisputable, the film deserves to be judged on its own merits, because it’s a deftly made drama that takes a page from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” by focusing on a single (but very important) chapter in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. To DuVernay’s credit, she manages to make almost every moment – from the backroom politics, to King’s rousing speeches – as riveting as the last, and a big part of that success falls on the casting, even those in bit roles. David Oyelowo is fantastic as the pastor turned civil rights activist, playing him with an expected gracefulness, but also a hint of exhaustion and self-doubt that reveals the toll his crusade for equality has taken on him. It’s hard to imagine the film being nearly as effective with another actor in the role, because it’s Oyelowo’s powerful performance that transforms “Selma” from yet another stuffy biopic into a stirring political drama worthy of Dr. King’s legacy.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries – one with director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo, and another with DuVernay, cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Spencer Averick – there are behind-the-scenes featurettes on the film’s origins and production, some deleted scenes, a collection of newsreels and photos from the period, and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Black Sea”

WHAT: After he’s fired from his job at a marine salvage company, submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law) assembles a group of former employees (half British, half Russian) to search the Black Sea for a Nazi U-boat rumored to be carrying approximately 80 million dollars in gold.

WHY: Submarines are the perfect setting for a thriller – they’re dark, claustrophobic and offer no hope of escape – which is why it’s so surprising that there aren’t more films that take advantage of them. Granted, there are probably more than you think, but very few are any good, and “Black Sea” can count itself among that exclusive group. Not only is the movie a welcome return to form for director Kevin Macdonald, who sort of fell off the map after his 2009 remake of “State of Play,” but it reaffirms why Jude Law is one of the most underrated actors in the business. Law delivers yet another excellent performance as the under-pressure captain who sees the mission as his last chance at redemption, and he’s surrounded by a cast of reliable supporting players like Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn and Michael Smiley. The “us vs. them” mentality between the British and Russian crew members provides plenty of suspense as their greed and paranoia builds throughout the film, and while certain character actions don’t exactly make sense (as things go from bad to worse, the wrong people are blamed), “Black Sea” manages to stay afloat thanks to its engaging premise, solid performances and taut direction.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Kevin Macdonald and a short making-of featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: The Gambler, Inherent Vice 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 Gambler”

WHAT: After falling into debt with a pair of dangerous men, college English professor and degenerate gambler Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is given seven days to pay or else. When his mother (Jessica Lange) gives him the money to clear his debt, only to blow it at the casino instead, Jim is put in a precarious position when one of the loan sharks (Michael K. Williams) threatens the lives of his two students.

WHY: Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler” is a curious beast. It’s based on a film that’s just obscure enough that a remake wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers, yet is well-regarded by those who have seen it. In other words, the 1974 original starring James Caan isn’t exactly holy ground, but there’s not much to improve on either, which makes this Mark Wahlberg vanity project feel every bit as irrelevant as the story it’s trying to tell. Wahlberg’s character is such a miserable asshole that it’s very difficult to identify with him, despite some punchy dialogue from writer William Monahan, and to make matters worse, the actor is terribly miscast in the role. At least the gambling scenes are handled with style and verve, dripping in tension and absolutely painful to watch. But while the movie does a great job of illustrating Jim’s self-destructive nature, it never digs any deeper into the root of the problem, which makes it seem fairly hollow as a result. “The Gambler” had all the right ingredients – a great cast, a talented director and source material that’s already proven to work – but it’s a disappointing misfire that fails to capitalize on its intriguing premise.

EXTRAS: There’s a collection of featurettes covering the production process (including the differences between the 1974 original and Rupert Wyatt’s remake, location shooting and costumes), as well as six deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Inherent Vice”

WHAT: Pothead private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) investigates the disappearance of his free-spirited ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterson) and her real estate mogul boyfriend, Mickey (Eric Roberts), which may be connected to a series of other cases involving a presumed-dead musician (Owen Wilson), the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards and a mysterious Indo-Chinese drug syndicate called the Golden Fang.

WHY: After years of toying with my patience, Paul Thomas Anderson has finally made a movie that’s almost impossible to defend. Fans of the director will make excuses for the film’s myriad problems anyway, but the fact that they find it necessary at all only confirms what a giant mess “Inherent Vice” really is. Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, the so-called inherent vice of Anderson’s slacker noir is the narrative itself. It’s as if the movie, like many of its characters, is in a constant state of a drug-addled high, unable to remain focused or make sense of anything that’s going on. And while that may be the film’s big joke, it’s not a very funny one. It feels complicated for the sake of being complicated, eventually becoming so mired in all the twists and pointless subplots that it doesn’t even know what it’s about anymore. Even worse than the gaps in logic is the punishingly long runtime, which is filled with dense, drawn-out conversations that go nowhere except lead to another similarly long-winded exchange. Joaquin Phoenix nearly holds the whole thing together with his amusingly daffy performance, but he’s the only bright spot in a movie that really should have been a lot more enjoyable.

EXTRAS: There’s a deleted scene and some fluffy promotional material, but that’s all.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: Taken 3, Everly and Escape from New York

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.

“Taken 3″

WHAT: After his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) is murdered and he becomes the prime suspect, former special ops agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) sets out to find the real killer and clear his name while being hunted by a tenacious police inspector (Forest Whitaker).

WHY: If “Taken 2” proved anything, it’s that money should never be the driving force behind a sequel, although try telling that to the makers of “Taken 3,” because that seems to be the only reason why the movie was made. Though Luc Besson was smart to go the “Fugitive” route for the third installment (there’s no way he could have gotten away with doing another story about the Albanian baddies), it results in a movie that feels very different from its predecessors. For starters, no one is kidnapped this time around, and the villains are so far removed from the story that the main antagonist only appears in the opening scene and shortly again at the end. There’s also very little action compared to the first two films, which only makes the dull moments stick out even more. Liam Neeson and Forest Whitaker (doing his usual eccentric cop thing) manage to prevent the movie from turning into a complete bore, but they’re never given the chance to form any sort of relationship, which was a hugely missed opportunity. Just like director Oliver Megaton’s other Besson productions, “Taken 3” is competently made, but it’s an incredibly stale action thriller that seems to have forgotten what made the original so entertaining.

EXTRAS: There’s a short retrospective on the “Taken” series, a pair of production featurettes and a deleted scene.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Everly”

WHAT: After serving as a sex slave for ruthless crime boss Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe) for the past five years, Everly (Salma Hayek) strikes a deal with one of the few honest cops in town to testify against Taiko. But when Taiko learns of her betrayal, he places a bounty on her head, forcing Everly to fight back against countless waves of ferocious intruders intent on collecting the reward.

WHY: There’s something oddly appealing about a movie that encourages you to turn off your brain for 90 minutes while a gun-toting badass takes down a bunch of bad guys in extremely violent fashion. Some of cinema’s guiltiest pleasures have followed this formula to great success, and though director Joe Lynch’s “Everly” desperately wants to join those ranks as the next cult classic shoot-‘em-up, it falls disappointingly short. Though it starts out as a fairly decent, low-budget action film, “Everly” gets progressively worse with each passing minute, dragged down by the terrible dialogue, poor acting and paper-thin villains. Hayek does the best she can with what little she’s given, but nothing about her character makes sense, like how she’s able to dispatch an army of killers when she barely even knows how to shoot a gun. It’s not quite as awful as Lynch’s last effort, the horror-comedy “Knights of Badassdom,” but while the idea of watching a scantily-clad Hayek fight her way through yakuza henchman and prostitutes-turned-assassins may sound like a ton of fun, “Everly” is never able to match its B-movie aspirations, instead forced to flounder in the gutter like the filthy, exploitative grindhouse film that it is.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray boasts a pair of audio commentaries – the first with director Joe Lynch, producer Brett Hedblom and Editor Evan Schiff, and another with Lynch and cinematographer Steve Gainer – but that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Escape from New York”

WHAT: In the future, the country has become so ravaged by crime that the entire island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. But when the U.S. President (Donald Pleasence) crash-lands inside the walls, notorious outlaw Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is implanted with an explosive device an given 24 hours to rescue the President, or die trying.

WHY: John Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic may not have come close to predicting the future as it would be in 1997, but it marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the filmmaker and star Kurt Russell, who would go on to work together again in “The Thing” and “Big Trouble in Little China.” While “Escape from New York” isn’t the duo’s best collaboration (although it probably depends on who you ask), the movie is responsible for creating what is perhaps the most iconic character in Russell’s career. Snake Plissken is the ultimate antihero – a macho, cool-as-a-cucumber badass who’d just as quickly kill you if it meant saving himself – and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. “Escape from New York” is a really fun B-movie with some solid set pieces, Carpenter’s trademark synth score, and a colorful supporting cast featuring Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanto and Adrienne Barbeau. Granted, some people forget that it’s still only a B-movie, which means that it’s served with a large side of cheese, but Carpenter and Russell form such a great team that even when they swing and miss (like the mid-90s sequel set in L.A.), it’s worth going along for the ride.

EXTRAS: In addition to a new 2K high definition scan that looks great, the Collector’s Edition is overflowing with goodies, including three audio commentaries featuring director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell; producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves; and a new track with actress Adrienne Barbeau and cinematographer Dean Cundey. Additionally, there’s a new featurette on the film’s visual effects, new interviews with composer Alan Howarth, actor Joe Unger, still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker and filmmaker David DeCoteau, as well as a previously released featurette and the original opening bank robbery sequence.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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