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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Blu Tuesday: Big Eyes, Batman vs. Robin and Odd Man Out

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.

“Big Eyes”

WHAT: In 1958, aspiring artist Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) leaves her husband for a fresh start in San Francisco, and before long, she marries smooth-talking artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). But when Walter starts taking credit for Margaret’s kitschy paintings (after all, they both sign their art “Keane,” and Walter insists they’re a team), the lie grows so big that Margaret is unable to stop it in fear that the whole Keane empire, and her life’s work, will be tarnished in the process.

WHY: Tim Burton’s first live-action feature to not star Johnny Depp in over a decade may be a bit of a departure for the oddball director, but “Big Eyes” is his best film in years, even if that comes off like a backhanded compliment considering some of the recent garbage he’s released. Amy Adams delivers an outstanding performance as Margaret Keane, whose façade of female empowerment is stripped away by Walter’s passive-aggressive bullying, leaving behind an emotionally defeated shell of a woman that Adams plays with such honesty that you feel her heartbreak with every betrayal. And though Christoph Waltz’s bombastic fraud isn’t afforded the same level of complexity, he still takes what could have been a one-dimensional character and turns him into somewhat of a tragic figure, so desperate for recognition that it’s sad to watch as he becomes consumed by his own lie. Unfortunately, “Big Eyes” doesn’t feel like a Burton movie at all, to the point that it makes you wonder what drew such a creative and visual filmmaker to what’s pretty standard biopic material. Kudos to the director for taking a break from his usual genre leanings in order to make a more straightforward drama, but while “Big Eyes” features some strong lead performances and a fascinating story, just like Margaret Keane’s paintings, it never amounts to more than a pleasant distraction.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and some Q&A highlights.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Batman vs. Robin”

WHAT: After being trained as a killer by Ra’s al Ghul, young Damian Wayne (Stuart Allan) is having difficulty adjusting to Batman’s moral code and his new role as Robin. So when a secret society known as the Court of Owls tries to recruit Damian to their cause, he’s forced to decide what kind of hero he wants to be: one that seeks justice or vengeance.

WHY: “Batman vs. Robin” is just the latest in a line of mediocre animated films from DC Comics. The biggest problem with the movie is its horribly misleading title, because the dynamic duo only faces off against each other once, and even then, it’s a relatively brief skirmish that ranks as the weakest of the included action scenes. A direct sequel to last year’s “Son of Batman,” the movie integrates elements from Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s popular “The Court of Owls” story arc into the continuing narrative of Damian’s transformation into Robin. Unfortunately, Damian is such an incredibly annoying character (made even worse by Stuart Allan’s irritating voice work) that you don’t care what happens to the pint-sized brat, and the story suffers as a result. The rest of the characters don’t fare any better, particularly Batman, who resorts to fighting inside a lame robot suit for the climactic battle in what the filmmakers probably thought would be the film’s crowd-pleasing moment. Instead, it’s when Alfred enters the fray seconds later armed with a shotgun, and for as great as that moment may be, it’s a rare highlight in an otherwise forgettable movie.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with the filmmakers, a pair of featurettes on the Court of Owls and the Talons of the Owls, a sneak peek at “Justice League: Gods & Monsters” and four bonus cartoons from the DC Comics vault.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Odd Man Out”

WHAT: When IRA gunman Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is shot during a failed robbery in Northern Ireland, he’s forced to go on the run, seeking refuge throughout the city while being hunted by the police. As Johnny’s fellow conspirators are captured one by one, his lover (Kathleen Ryan) enlists the help of the local priest to track him down.

WHY: Carol Reed is probably best known as the director of “The Third Man,” and for good reason, because it’s one of the greatest films of the 1940s. Just two years before making that movie, however, Reed directed an adaptation of F.L. Green’s novel, “Odd Man Out,” and though it shares many of the same visual cues as “The Third Man,” it doesn’t hold up as well. That’s partly because it’s very much a product of its time, and as such, there are a lot of silly things that transpire over the course of the film that simply don’t make sense. (The fact that all of the characters refer to McQueen’s criminal group as “the organization” and not the IRA, which it very clearly is, smacks of political censorship.) Additionally, the setup is weak and the ensuing story isn’t particularly interesting, losing focus in the latter half as it devolves into a bunch of metaphysical psychobabble. James Mason delivers some good work as the speechless, almost zombified protagonist, and Kathleen Ryan is the unsung hero of the piece, but it doesn’t have the “wow” factor of “The Third Man” to make up for its lesser qualities.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of new interviews with British cinema scholar John Hill and music scholar Jeff Smith, there’s a new featurette about the film’s production, the 1972 documentary “Home, James,” the 1952 radio adaptation of the movie, and an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: A Most Violent Year, The Voices 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.

“A Most Violent Year”

WHAT: Set in New York City during 1981, Abel Morales (Oscar Morales) finds his heating oil company embroiled in a turf war at the worst time possible. He’s just gone into escrow on a waterfront fuel yard that could take his business to the next level, but when a young district attorney (David Oyelowo) launches an investigation into Abel’s company, everything that he’s worked so hard to create threatens to come tumbling down.

WHY: Over the course of three movies, J.C. Chandor has established himself as one of the most promising American filmmakers of his generation, and “A Most Violent Year” is his best one yet. A smartly directed character study of a man fighting to uphold the antiquated ideals of the American Dream, the movie is very much a product of its time period, owing a lot to the work of Sidney Lumet and other 1970s classics like “The French Connection” and “The Godfather.” You’d never imagine that a film about the heating oil industry could be so absorbing, yet that’s exactly what makes “A Most Violent Year” so unique, defying the typical gangster movie conventions every chance it gets. Oscar Isaac has never been better, commanding the screen with an ice-cold intensity that evokes Al Pacino in his prime, while Jessica Chastain delivers a deliciously fierce turn as his mob-connected wife. Much like last year’s underrated crime drama “The Drop,” “A Most Violent Year” is the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn’t make often enough, but with brave new voices like Chandor behind the camera, it’s hard to argue against the need for more just like it.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director J.C. Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb, there’s a pair of production featurettes, an interview with stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Voices”

WHAT: Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) is a socially awkward but overall nice guy who’s just trying to lead a normal life in the wake of a family tragedy. But when he gets stood up by office crush Fiona (Gemma Arterton), only to cross paths with her later that night, he inadvertently murders her in the middle of the woods. At least, he thinks it’s an accident, but Jerry hasn’t been taking his meds lately, which is why he’s starting to hear voices – namely, his loyal dog Bosco and sociopathic cat Mr. Whiskers – urging him to kill again.

WHY: Ryan Reynolds has had some really bad luck with blockbuster filmmaking (see: “Green Lantern,” “R.I.P.D.”), but he’s delivered some of his best work on the other end of the spectrum in small indies like “Buried” and “The Captive,” and that trend continues with “The Voices,” a flawed but amusing dark comedy that plays like a strange mix between “Doctor Dolittle” and “American Psycho.” The movie is unlike anything the actor has done before, channeling Norman Bates as the sweet but creepy schizophrenic in addition to voicing the pets that serve as Jerry’s very own shoulder angel and devil. It’s his interactions with them, as well as the reanimated severed heads of his victims that he keeps stored in the refrigerator, that produce some of the best moments, putting Reynolds’ deadpan comic delivery to great use while still allowing the actor to challenge himself in a more nuanced role. Though the film straddles a fine line due to its off-kilter tone, Reynolds and the supporting cast (including Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick) do just enough to make “The Voices” an enjoyably weird genre flick with an unexpected dash of humanity.

EXTRAS: There are four production featurettes that cover the making of the movie, the many voices provided by Ryan Reynolds and visual effects, as well some animatics, deleted and extended scenes, and a cast and costume sketch gallery.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Interstellar, Veep 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.

“Interstellar”

WHAT: Set in the near future, when Earth’s resources have all but been depleted, former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) joins a group of explorers – Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi) – on a secret NASA expedition through a newly discovered wormhole in the hopes of finding an inhabitable planet for mankind.

WHY: Shrouded in secrecy throughout production, Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi mindbender was originally intended to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who first sparked the idea back in 2006. But when he dropped out to focus on other projects, Nolan took over the reins, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting replacement. Unfortunately, while “Interstellar” is the filmmaker’s most ambitious movie to date, it’s also one of his least accessible, filled with complex scientific ideas (from black holes to the space-time continuum) that make for incredibly dense viewing at times; and in the case of the more theoretical concepts, results in some silly moments as well. The main story is actually quite simple, dealing with well-worn themes like love, survival and time, which is why it’s strange that Nolan wastes so much of the latter (169 minutes, to be exact) trying to make his point. The acting is all top-notch, with great performances from Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain, but the arrival of a big movie star in the final act proves distracting. There are also some really amazing visuals and genuinely heartbreaking scenes, though it’s ultimately a disappointingly messy affair, lacking the discipline and uniqueness of Nolan’s past films like “Memento,” “The Dark Knight” and “Inception.” It was never going to live up to the colossal expectations placed on it by fanboys and the media, but a movie like “Interstellar” still should have been a lot more, well, stellar.

EXTRAS: There’s a 14-part making-of documentary that runs nearly two hours long and covers just about every aspect of the production process, as well as a featurette on the science of the movie narrated by Matthew McConaughey.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Veep: The Complete Third Season”

WHAT: When Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) learns that POTUS isn’t seeking re-election, she begins putting together a campaign team in the hopes of taking over the Oval Office. The usual screw-ups and humiliation follow, only this time around, all of America is watching.

WHY: You’d think that calling your show “Veep” would box you into a corner when it came to exploring potential career changes for the title character. After all, there’s no way Selina Meyer can have any position besides Vice President, otherwise it doesn’t make sense, right? Technically, yes, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered creator Armando Iannucci, because the third season of his HBO series is entirely about Selina campaigning to become the next Commander in Chief… and perhaps more surprisingly, actually gets the job when the current president resigns. That was a bold choice (and one that audiences won’t see the full effects of until the show returns next month), but it takes the series in an intriguing new direction while still allowing for the usual political-driven antics. The addition of Sam Richardson as the incompetent aide assigned to Selina on her book tour is completely unneeded (and not very funny, either), but the rest of the cast continues to fire on all cylinders, including unsung heroes like Timothy Simons, Kevin Dunn and Sufe Bradshaw. Though Julia Louis-Dreyfus receives a majority of the attention from critics and award groups for her hilarious portrayal of Selina Meyer, and deservedly so, “Veep” has always been a team effort, and that’s never been more evident than this season.

EXTRAS: The two-disc set includes four audio commentary tracks with various cast and crew, as well as some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

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Blu Tuesday: The Hobbit, Unbroken and Into the Woods

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 Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

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 put aside their differences and fight alongside each other in order to stop them.

WHY: Splitting “The Hobbit” into three movies has been a point of contention among fans ever 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. Much like the first two installments, the movie has its share of great moments, but they’re surrounded by a lot of extraneous filler that pushes Bilbo even further into the background. These films were supposed to be about Bilbo’s journey “there and back again,” but you wouldn’t know it from the ever-changing protagonists, shifting focus between Bilbo, Thorin and Bard the Bowman with such frequency that it leaves little room for actual character development. But while “The Battle of the Five Armies” may be the weakest entry in the “Hobbit” 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 Jackson’s limitless creativity.

EXTRAS: There’s a featurette about the five armies, a retrospective on Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth saga, and the final part of “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth.”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Unbroken”

WHAT: The true story of Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), who spent a harrowing 47 days stranded in the Pacific Ocean with two fellow soldiers (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) after their plane crashed during WWII, only to eventually be rescued by the Japanese navy and sent to a POW camp run by a merciless commander known as The Bird (Miyavi).

WHY: It’s taken decades for a Louis Zamperini biopic to get made, and although that may be surprising considering his extraordinary story, it’s easy to see why some of Hollywood’s most powerful and talented filmmakers had so much trouble adapting it for the big screen. This is a movie that singles out one man for his bravery and perseverance in a war where thousands of other men were going through the exact same thing. Granted, none of those guys were Olympic athletes or survived 47 days on a raft, but you don’t really feel any more emotion for Zamperini just because he suffered more than the rest. Angelina Jolie still deserves a lot of credit for succeeding where so many failed, and the opening act – which intermixes scenes from Zamperini’s childhood and the 1936 Berlin Olympics with his pre-crash days in WWII – is really smartly handled. Jack O’Connell also turns in another star-making performance as the resolute war hero, reaffirming his status as an actor to watch, while Japanese rocker Miyavi does some good (if uneven) work as Zamperini’s sadistic tormentor. The film looks great as well thanks to some stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins, but despite its fascinating source material, “Unbroken” isn’t as powerful or inspiring as it sets out to be.

EXTRAS: In addition to a making-of featurette, there’s a profile on the real-life Louis Zamperini, a concert performance by Miyavi, some deleted scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Into the Woods”

WHAT: A vengeful witch (Meryl Streep) tasks a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) with collecting a series of magical items from popular fairy tale characters – including a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold – in exchange for reversing a family curse preventing them from having children.

WHY: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” probably seemed like a pretty clever idea when it debuted back in 1986, but the musical doesn’t feel quite as fresh or groundbreaking in a post-“Shrek” world. Though there’s a lot of great talent on display in Rob Marshall’s big screen adaptation, many of the actors are wasted, including Meryl Streep, whose performance is so mediocre that it makes her recent Oscar nomination look like a complete joke. Johnny Depp, meanwhile, is in the film for about five minutes, despite his face being splashed across every piece of promotional material in a pathetic attempt at drumming up interest. James Corden just about holds the movie together, and youngster Lilla Crawford stands out as the brash Little Red Riding Hood, but it’s not enough, especially when the music is so unmemorable, save for one hilariously bad duet between Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s princes that’s fittingly titled “Agony.” “Into the Woods” is supposed to be a witty and unabashedly adult deconstruction of famous fairy tales, but that’s rarely evident in Marshall’s film. Instead, it’s a giant bore that wears out its welcome long before the torturous final act.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Rob Marshall, a four-part making-of featurette, interviews with the cast and crew about working on the movie, and a deleted song performed by Meryl Streep.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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