Blu Tuesday: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 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.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”

WHAT: New York City is being terrorized by a criminal organization called the Foot Clan under the command of a shadowy figure known as The Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). But there’s a group of vigilantes silently serving as the city’s protectors, and ambitious news reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is determined to uncover their identities… only to find that the mystery men aren’t men at all, but rather oversized mutant turtles skilled in the art of ninjitsu.

WHY: Jonathan Liebesman’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot isn’t nearly the disaster that many people feared. In fact, it’s actually quite entertaining at times provided you check your brain at the door and don’t mind that the film is basically feeding off the fumes of your childhood. The movie has its share of problems – from its assembly-by-committee script, to the generic action sequences – but the four actors who play the Turtles make up for some of those shortcomings by really capturing their spirit and brotherly camaraderie. The visual effects wizardry that’s been applied to their mo-cap performances is top-notch as well, proving once again why this technology is incredibly useful in not only creating more realistic CG characters, but giving them a human element that could never be achieved by men in rubber suits. There are some fun in-jokes for adult fans who grew up watching the Turtles as kids, but “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is essentially a live-action cartoon and should be judged accordingly. It’s far from a great film, but it also doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is, and if that means going easier on the film, then so be it, because that’s a perfectly acceptable cost of a little nostalgia.

EXTRAS: There are five featurettes covering a range of topics, including the digital evolution of the Turtles, the technical aspects of 3D, scoring the film and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“This Is Where I Leave You”

WHAT: When their father passes away, four siblings (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver) return to their childhood home to fulfill his dying wish by sitting shiva. Forced to live under the same roof for a week with their loquacious mother (Jane Fonda), each child must deal with their respective personal problems and the ghosts of their past.

WHY: Adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his book of the same name, “This Is Where I Leave You” represents an interesting change of pace for Shawn Levy, who’s best known for big blockbusters like the “Night at the Museum” films. But while it’s always great to see a director explore new territory, Levy seems to be a little out of his comfort zone with this family dramedy, never quite sure how to handle the more serious moments when there’s always another joke right around the corner. It was smart to cast actors that could handle both comedy and drama, but sadly, the material wastes a lot of their talents. Though Jason Bateman is solid as the middle brother, Tina Fey is miscast as his protective sister, Corey Stoll’s eldest brother barely registers as a three-dimensional character, and Jane Fonda’s mother is given giant breast implants… and not much else. Adam Driver and Rose Byrne are the only two bright spots, but even their characters are majorly underserved. To be fair, movies like this are a difficult balancing act, and even more so with such a large cast of characters, but despite Levy’s best efforts, “This Is Where I Leave You” falls disappointingly flat.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of production featurettes, there are outtakes of Ben Schwartz as Rabbi Boner and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Magic in the Moonlight”

WHAT: World-renowned magician Wei Ling Soo has a bag of tricks, but his biggest trick of all is that it’s just a ruse – the terribly racist stage persona of grumpy Englishman Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), who despises charlatans that give his profession a bad name. So when longtime friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks for his assistance in debunking a young spiritualist named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), whom he believes is scamming the heir of the wealthy Catledge family, Stanley heads to their mansion to catch Sophie red-handed.

WHY: Woody Allen has made some real stinkers over the course of his 50-year career, and though “Magic in the Moonlight” isn’t quite bad enough to be included among the director’s absolute worst films, it’s not very good either. While Allen has proven that he’s still capable of delivering a good movie on occasion, he seems more concerned with maintaining his yearly output no matter what the cost, and that quantity-over-quality way of thinking only underlines the many problems with his latest comedy. At the top of that list is the complete lack of romantic chemistry between Colin Firth and Emma Stone, which proves to be detrimental, since so much of the film depends on their playful interactions. Both actors are usually very charming, but they look hopelessly lost in their roles due to a half-baked script that goes around in circles. Everything about this movie seems like it was rushed, from the stupid title, to the horrible poster, to the uninspired direction by Allen, who fails to provide an engaging story beyond the initial premise. “Magic in the Moonlight” doesn’t make you believe in magic, or love, or anything, really, although maybe that’s just the cynic in me, eager to expose the film as the fraud that it is, because the whole thing feels less like a genuine Woody Allen comedy than a pale imitation.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette and footage from the premiere.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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Blu Tuesday: Guardians of the Galaxy, Frank 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.

“Guardians of the Galaxy”

WHAT: After stealing a mysterious orb with untold power, intergalactic thief Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) becomes the target of a bloodthirsty alien named Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). Captured by the authorities and thrown into prison, Quill teams up with a quartet of fellow misfits – deadly assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), revenge-driven bruiser Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), gun-toting raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and tree-like humanoid Groot (Vin Diesel) – to mount an escape. But when the group discovers the true power of the orb, they agree to stick together in order to prevent it from falling into Ronan’s hands.

WHY: Marvel Studios has a history of taking some big risks, from the men behind the camera to those in front of it, and “Guardians of the Galaxy” is perhaps their biggest one yet. Not only is the comic book on which it’s based an unknown quantity to most filmgoers, but James Gunn isn’t exactly the first person you’d think of to direct a big-budget comic book movie. Despite his lack of experience, Gunn repaid the faith that Kevin Feige placed in him by producing one of the most purely fun Marvel films to date, absolutely nailing the offbeat tone of the source material like some kind of punk rock “Star Wars.” Chris Pratt oozes charisma as the Han Solo-like ruffian, and Michael Rooker gets some of the best moments as mohawked space pirate Yondu, but it’s the boisterous Rocket (as voiced by Bradley Cooper) who steals the show in hilarious fashion. Finding that balance where all five characters are represented equally isn’t an easy feat, but Gunn does a good job of giving each one the attention they deserve, both in the action and the more low-key dialogue scenes. The movie isn’t perfect by any means, but if the objective was to make a funny, action-packed and slightly off-kilter space opera that introduced audiences to the Guardians and left them wanting more when it ended, well… mission accomplished.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary by director/co-writer James Gunn, a pair of production featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and an exclusive look at “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Frank”

WHAT: A wannabe songwriter named Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to join an eccentric pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears a giant fiberglass head wherever he goes. But when Jon becomes obsessed with making the band famous, he threatens to ruin everything that makes the band (and the offbeat Frank, in particular) so special.

WHY: Loosely based on Chris Sievey’s papier-mache-headed alter ego, Frank Sidebottom, “Frank” transcends the kitschy nature of the cult comedy character to tell a story that’s much deeper and funnier than anything the real-life personality ever did. Anyone who’s seen clips of Frank Sidebottom knows that isn’t very difficult, but the film wouldn’t work nearly as well if it wasn’t for Michael Fassbender’s outstanding performance, which takes acting to a whole other level by hiding the one thing that actors rely on the most: their facial expressions. It’s more than just a simple vocal performance, however, as Fassbender works overtime to not only create a three-dimensional character, but one that’s relatable as well… and all while wearing a giant head. Unfortunately, while Fassbender’s Frank is a lot of fun, the rest of the characters are so miserable (especially Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sourpuss bandmate) that it’s hard to enjoy. Director Lenny Abrahamson can’t even decide if Domhnall Gleeson’s protagonist is a calculated jerk or a misguided fool, and though the movie has some important things to say in the end about fame, mental illness and fitting in, they come much too late to have the desired effect. See it for Fassbender and the brief moments of black comedy brilliance, but keep your expectations low.

EXTRAS: There’s a short behind-the-scenes look at the film from AXS TV.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Hundred-Foot Journey and Kite

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.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

WHAT: A decade after the events of the last film, the Simian Flu (a virus spread by Will Rodman’s Alzheimer’s drug) has wiped out most of humanity, while the apes continue to thrive in their forest community outside the city. But when a small group of humans (led by Jason Clarke’s Malcolm) accidentally wanders onto the apes’ home turf while searching for a hydroelectric dam capable of bringing power back online, their arrival re-ignites the feud between leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and right-hand ape Koba (Toby Kebbell), who have vastly different opinions on how to handle the trespassers.

WHY: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2011, but while Matt Reeves’ much darker sequel aims to hit the same emotional notes of its predecessor, it falls a bit short. Like that movie, “Dawn” touches on some interesting themes of power, trust and gun control, though the script isn’t exactly subtle about it, hammering the audience over the head to the point of exhaustion. The story is also fairly predictable, populated with characters we’ve all seen a hundred times before, and as a result, it’s just not as engaging on a dramatic level. What it lacks in originality, however, it makes up for in sheer visual spectacle. The action sequences look amazing, but it’s the relationships between man and ape, as well as ape and ape, that are the driving force behind the film, and they wouldn’t be as effective without the groundbreaking technology on display. Andy Serkis is excellent once again as Caesar, but with so many ape characters fighting for face time this time around, the gimmick loses some of its “wow” factor. Even with those flaws, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is still a damn good sequel that, while not as smart and poignant as the 2011 sequel, is still a step up from most summer blockbusters.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Matt Reeves, there are some deleted scenes (with optional commentary) and seven production featurettes covering a range of topics including the cast, special effects, motion capture and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Hundred-Foot Journey”

WHAT: Following a family tragedy, the Kadam clan leaves India for Europe, eventually settling in a small town in southern France where they open a restaurant directly across from a Michelin-starred eatery operated by the snooty Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). But when the two establishments become embroiled in a childish war, the Kadams’ star-in-the-making chef (Manish Dayal) seeks to unite them through the power of food.

WHY: Movies like “The Hundred-Foot Journey” have been Disney’s bread and butter for years, although they’re usually packaged in the form of an underdog sports drama. But while the story (based on Richard C. Morais’ novel) has nothing to do with sports, the film follows the same basic formula of the subgenre, and the results are uninspired to say the least. Swap out the restaurant world for professional baseball and you could make the exact same movie about a talented but unorthodox minor league pitcher who rises through the ranks against all odds. You need only to watch the trailer to know how the film is going to play out, populated with stock characters that are as one-dimensional as the story itself. The performances aren’t anything special either, including Helen Mirren, who seems to be on auto-pilot for most of the movie, even if she’s easily the best thing about it. But while there’s definitely an audience for these kinds of cheesy, feel-good films (if there wasn’t, director Lasse Hallstrom would be out of a job), “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is so afraid to step out of its comfort zone that it isn’t just predictable – it’s pedestrian.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette, a discussion with producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, a tour of the set with Oprah and a recipe for Coconut Chicken.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Kite”

WHAT: After her parents are murdered, a young woman named Sawa (India Eisley) teams up with her cop father’s ex-partner (Samuel L. Jackson) to take down a human trafficking cartel run by the same man responsible for making her an orphan.

WHY: Based on the ultraviolent 1998 anime of the same name, “Kite” is about as good as you’d expect for a movie that was dumped into theaters (likely due to a contractual obligation) with little fanfare. In other words, not very. Despite being somewhat of a cult hit within the anime community, the original film wouldn’t be nearly as memorable if not for its controversial graphic content. But in a post-Hit-Girl world, that stuff just isn’t as shocking as it once was, especially when the violence and sex is as watered down as it is in the live-action version. Though the filmmakers were smart to attach a big name (and self-professed anime fan) like Samuel L. Jackson to the project, the actor is unable to rescue the movie from a poor script, amateur direction and some terrible performances by his co-stars. More than anything else, though, it’s just incredibly boring. The uncut version of Yasuomi Umetsu’s anime was only 60 minutes long, so the fact that anyone thought that taking an already paper-thin plot and expanding it into a 90-minute movie was a good idea probably shouldn’t be making films in the first place.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, but that’s all.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: The Expendables 3, The Giver and What If

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 Expendables 3″

WHAT: When a former Expendable turned war criminal (Mel Gibson) resurfaces years after his supposed death, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) puts together a new, younger team to take him down. But after their mission is compromised and his teammates are captured, Barney must rely on the former members to help him finish the job.

WHY: The “Expendables” films have never exactly been subtle, but that’s part of their charm. The other part is seeing the world’s greatest action stars share the screen like a kid playing with all of his favorite action figures at the same time. The best thing about this model is that it allows for fresh additions with each new installment, and the third movie takes full advantage with another round of dream casting. Though the “new blood” (including Kellan Lutz, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey and boxer Victor Ortiz) fare just fine alongside their larger-than-life counterparts, the real treat is seeing old-timers like Wesley Snipes and Antonio Banderas back on the big screen. Not only do they belong on this team (even more so than Randy Couture and Terry Crews), but they don’t waste any time proving it, with Banderas stealing every scene he’s in as the motor-mouthed new recruit. Harrison Ford also seems to be having fun as Bruce Willis’ replacement, while Mel Gibson’s funny but ruthless villain is easily the best in the series. (Take that, Jean-Claude Van Damme.) Unfortunately, you have to suffer through a bunch of terrible one-liners and puns, generic PG-13 action and an overlong 126-minute runtime just to get to the good bits, and despite the talent involved, there aren’t enough to make it worth your time.

EXTRAS: There’s a pretty substantial making-of featurette, profiles on the new recruits, a behind-the-scenes look at filming some of the action scenes, and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“The Giver”

WHAT: Set in a dystopian future without emotion, color or choice, a young man named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is selected to become the new Receiver of Memory – the person in charge of storing all past memories before the period of Sameness – and begins his training under the previous receiver (Jeff Bridges). But when he realizes that their community is a shadow of what existed before, Jonas sets out to unlock those repressed memories and restore order.

WHY: Stuck in Development Hell for nearly two decades despite being a passion project for co-star Jeff Bridges, “The Giver” probably would have languished there forever were it not for the recent success of “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” Though the 1993 novel by Lois Lowry has become a mainstay on many middle school reading lists over the years, “The Giver” is a tricky book to adapt for the big screen, not only in the way that its protagonist begins to experience more of the old world, but the heavy themes that it broaches along the away. For what it’s worth, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job, but the problem with director Philip Noyce’s adaptation is that for a movie about the dangers of uniformity, it’s strikingly vanilla, with barely an original idea to be found. Bridges delivers a solid performance as the title character (you can tell that the source material means a lot to him), but the rest of the cast – from its wooden leading man to Meryl Streep’s chief elder – is as underwhelming as the story itself. This is one book that would have been better left untouched.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray releases includes an interactive study guide, a featurette on adapting the book for the screen, highlights from the original script reading, footage from the press conference, an interview with author Lois Lowry and a deleted scene.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“What If”

WHAT: More than year after a messy break-up, med school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) hits it off with a cute animator named Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at the house party of a mutual friend (Adam Driver). Although Chantry already has a serious boyfriend (Rafe Spall), Wallace decides that he’s okay with just being friends… until he realizes that his feelings are a little more complicated.

WHY: Though its premise is somewhat unique in that one of the characters is already in a relationship when the movie begins, “What If” is a pretty formulaic romantic comedy that follows all the beats you expect and rarely strays off course. Luckily, director Michael Dowse has assembled a fantastic ensemble cast that elevates the material beyond its genre conventions. Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis and Rafe Spall are all good in supporting roles, but it’s the two leads – and their chemistry with one another – that makes “What If” better than the typical rom-com. Zoe Kazan has carved out a nice little niche as the indie love interest (the girl next door who’s cute and attainable, but with just enough edge to ensure she’s never boring), while Daniel Radcliffe radiates charm in one of the best roles of his post-Potter career. Some of the humor is a bit over-the-top, but for the most part, it boasts a playfully sarcastic tone that provides Kazan and Radcliffe with plenty of fun banter. “What If” doesn’t revolutionize the genre in any way, but if you enjoyed “(500) Days of Summer,” there’s a good chance you’ll like this as well.

EXTRAS: In addition to a behind-the-scenes look at making the film, there are three brief (but very similar) featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: 22 Jump Street, Sin City and Into the Storm

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.

“22 Jump Street”

WHAT: When they humiliate the police department during their latest assignment, Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are sent back undercover, this time at a local city college to find the source of a new synthetic drug called WhyPhy. But when Jenko makes friends with the main suspect (Wyatt Russell), his relationship with Schmidt becomes strained as they split up to investigate different leads, which threatens to derail the entire mission.

WHY: For a while, it seemed like everything that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller touched turned to gold, adapting challenging source material into successful comedies with a flair for visual gags. But they haven’t had quite the same luck with sequels, as evidenced by recent films like “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” and “22 Jump Street.” Striking the same self-mocking tone as the original, “22 Jump Street” skewers Hollywood’s formulaic sequels by openly acknowledging the rinse-and-repeat plotline and noticeably larger budget. Although it’s a clever approach that earns some laughs, it doesn’t change the fact that the film is still a complete retread from top to bottom. Lord and Miller inject the movie with the kind of silly, manic energy that’s become a touchstone in all their projects, but there aren’t enough truly laugh-out-loud moments, with many of the recurring jokes failing to hit their mark. Even when it starts to drag in the middle, however, there’s rarely a dull moment thanks to its two leads, especially Channing Tatum, who’s so funny as the dim-witted jock that he makes every scene more enjoyable. As a result, “22 Jump Street” isn’t entirely good or bad, but rather a perfectly mediocre comedy with just enough laughs to remind audiences what they loved about the first movie while failing to validate the need for a sequel.

EXTRAS: There’s a ridiculous amount of bonus material here, highlighted by 22 deleted scenes and an audio commentary by directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and stars Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. Also included are four production featurettes, a collection of cast improvisations, Line-O-Ramas for five different scenes, a “Dramatic Interpretation” of the film and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”

WHAT: An anthology of intersecting stories set in Sin City. Private detective Dwight (Josh Brolin) is tricked into helping out his dangerous former lover (Eva Green); a young drifter (Joseph Gordon Levitt) faces the consequences of beating Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) at the poker table; and stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) plots her revenge against the man responsible for the death of John Hartigan (Bruce Willis).

WHY: Robert Rodriguez has been talking about a “Sin City” sequel since the first film hit theaters, so what took so long for the prolific director to finally deliver on his promise? Your guess is as good as mine, especially when he wasted that time making garbage like “Shorts,” “Spy Kids 4” and two “Machete” movies. A lot has changed in those nine years, and whereas the original was pretty groundbreaking both visually and technically, the long-awaited follow-up feels stale in comparison. Though only two of the four stories featured are from Frank Miller’s graphic novels – the titular centerpiece “A Dame to Kill For” and the Marv-centric prelude “Just Another Saturday Night” – the best of the bunch (featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s perpetually lucky gambler) is an original story written by Miller for the movie. Unfortunately, the other new segment is hands-down the weakest entry from either film, not only because Jessica Alba’s stripper is a complete bore, but because it makes a huge mess of the overarching continuity. In fact, the sequel as a whole isn’t nearly as captivating as its predecessor, and although it’s great to see Mickey Rourke reprise his role as the unstoppable brute Marv, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” lacks the wonder and excitement of experiencing something for the first time.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a high-speed green screen version of the movie that lasts about 15 minutes, featurettes on the stunts and make-up effects, and some character profiles.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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