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

  

Blu Tuesday: Exodus, Top Five 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.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings”

WHAT: Raised as an Egyptian alongside future pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton), natural leader Moses (Christian Bale) is exiled by his brother-in-arms after it’s revealed that he’s actually a Hebrew. But when Moses receives a message from God, he returns to Egypt to lead 600,000 slaves to freedom by escaping Ramses’ rule and a cycle of plagues.

WHY: Though it’s nice to see a director ballsy enough to make a Golden Age-style epic like “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Ridley Scott’s latest film is a beautiful disaster – astonishing in its scope and unwavering dedication to the classic Hollywood spectacle, but overly long and dull. It’s also terribly miscast, from the whitewashing of Joel Edgerton as Ramses, to supporting actors like Aaron Paul (as Moses’ eventual successor, Joshua) and Sigourney Weaver (as Ramses’ mother, Tuya), who have less than a dozen lines of dialogue between them. Weaver only appears in two or three scenes, but Paul is basically the movie’s third lead, and yet he spends most of the time in the background simply reacting to Christian Bale, who brings his trademark intensity to the role of Moses, but sadly, isn’t provided the material to do much beyond that. As with last year’s other Biblical epic, “Noah,” Scott takes some liberties with the source material, and while they work for the most part (especially the way he stages the various plagues), it doesn’t make the proceedings any more exciting. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” was likely envisioned as a return to the big, glossy cinema of yesteryear, but it only serves as a reminder why those kinds of films have gone extinct.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary by director Ridley Scott and co-writer Jeffrey Caine, a feature-length trivia track, a pair of historical featurettes, some promotional featurettes and nine deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Top Five”

WHAT: Stand-up comedian turned movie star Andre Allen (Chris Rock) wants nothing more than to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor, so on the eve of his marriage to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), Andre agrees to let New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) follow him for the day to write a profile piece.

WHY: It’s been eight years since Chris Rock’s last stint behind the camera (2007’s “I Think I Love My Wife”), and considering how poorly received that movie was – not to mention his directorial debut, “Head of State” – it’s easy to see how the comedian might have become disillusioned with the whole Hollywood system. “Top Five” is a marked improvement upon those films, but while the partly biographical, Woody Allen-esque dramedy plays to Rock’s strengths as a writer and performer, it’s also a tad self-indulgent in the way that it mirrors his own aspirations for a more serious career. Ironically, while most people would probably rather Rock just stick to comedy, it’s the serious bits that work best, particularly the subplot involving Andre and Chelsea’s sobriety. I’m still not sure what the title – a reference to an ongoing discussion that Rock’s character has with his friends and fellow celebrities about their top five rappers – has anything to do with the rest of the movie, but the fact that both Jay-Z and Kanye West are barely mentioned, despite being credited as executive producers, might just be the funniest thing about the film.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writer/director/star Chris Rock and co-star JB Smoove, some outtakes from Andre’s stand-up act and deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Night at the Museum and R100

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.

“NIght at the Musem: Secret of the Tomb”

WHAT: When the tablet of Ahkmenrah begins to erode, causing the exhibits at the Museum of Natural History to act strangely when they come to life, Larry (Ben Stiller) and his son, Nick (Skyler Gisondo), travel to London to consult Ahkmenrah’s parents at the British Museum about how to fix the tablet before it loses its power forever.

WHY: If there’s one good thing to come out of “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” it’s that it marks the end of the adventure-comedy franchise. While the first movie was based on a fairly clever idea that sadly never rose above its broad humor and ridiculous plotting, the first sequel lacked any originality whatsoever, recycling the same jokes and moving the action to a different location to justify the introduction of new characters. “Secret of the Tomb” is basically the exact same movie, but whereas “Battle of the Smithsonian” at least benefitted from the addition of Amy Adams to the cast, the third installment is stuck with the usually charming Dan Stevens playing the utterly annoying Sir Lancelot. (And if you’re wondering what a fictional character is even doing in a museum, it just goes to show how little thought goes into the making of these films.) The “Night at the Museum” movies are kiddie fare, plain and simple, but just because they’re targeted towards children doesn’t mean that they can’t be intelligent, funny or exciting. “Secret of the Tomb” is none of these things, which makes you wonder how it managed to attract the talent that it did.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Shawn Levy, there are seven featurettes covering things like visuals effects, stunt choreography and comedic shenanigans on the set, as well as seven deleted/extended scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“R100″

WHAT: Lonely furniture salesman Takafumi Katayama (Nao Ohmori) enlists the services of a secret BDSM club that specializes in guerilla acts of public punishment and humiliation. But when one of the dominatrices is killed during a surprise house call, Takafumi must face off against an army of leather-clad women in order to protect his family.

WHY: Proving that there’s no such thing as “too weird” in Japanese cinema, director Hitoshi Matsumoto’s “R100” is a symphony of oddity that doesn’t push the envelope so much as test the viewer’s patience about what exactly they’re watching. A meta-comedy satirizing Japan’s film rating system (in which an R18 is equivalent to the MPAA’s NC-17), the movie proposes that it’s so far out there only people over the age of 100 can fully appreciate its contents. The truth is that “R100” isn’t nearly as risqué as it would like you to believe. Despite the unique premise, Matsumoto doesn’t do enough interesting things with it to warrant a full-length feature, and with the exception of a few elements – including the comical irony of casting “Ichi the Killer” star Nao Ohmori in the lead role (bringing the sadist-masochist relationship full circle) – it’s never as funny as it promises, either. Fans of Matsumoto’s past films (“Big Man Japan,” “Symbol”) and this type of gonzo filmmaking in general will no doubt enjoy his latest effort, but don’t go digging for a deeper artistic meaning, because “R100” is merely weird for the sake of being weird. Nothing more, nothing less.

EXTRAS: There’s an included booklet featuring a short interview with actress Lindsay Kay Hayward, but sadly, that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Foxcatcher and The Captive

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 Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1″

WHAT: After being rescued at the Quarter Quell by a secret resistance group, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is transported to District 13, where President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) intends to use her as the figurehead for the revolution. Katniss agrees on a few conditions – namely, that they rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who’s being tortured and used by the Capitol as the voice against the resistance, as soon as possible – and begins filming a series of propaganda videos intended to recruit soldiers for the war effort.

WHY: One of the biggest problems you typically run into with two-part finales like “Mockingjay” is that the filmmakers are no longer forced to think economically in terms of what material is essential to telling the story. Though it made sense to split up the final installment of the Harry Potter series due to the sheer size of J.K. Rowling’s book, “Mockingjay” doesn’t have that issue, especially when “Catching Fire” (which is the exact same length in book form) was adapted just fine into one movie. Add to that the fact that “Mockingjay” is hands-down the weakest entry in the trilogy, and it was always going to be an uphill battle for director Francis Lawrence and writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig. There are some really powerful emotional beats littered throughout, and the rich cast of characters (both new and returning) help keep things from getting too boring, but it often feels like Lawrence is just twiddling his thumbs in fear of getting too far ahead, with most of the film spent setting up the next installment. It’s a necessary slog in order to get to the good stuff (and one that fans of the Harry Potter and “Twilight” series will be all too familiar with), but it’s a slog all the same.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson, there’s a making-of documentary titled “The Mockingjay Lives,” a behind-the-scenes look at Lorde’s curation of the soundtrack, a tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Foxcatcher”

WHAT: Olympic wrestling champions Mark (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) are courted by multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carrell) to train at his private facility as members of Team Foxcatcher in preparation for the 1988 Olympic Games, only for the partnership to end in tragedy.

WHY: It’s easy to see why some people didn’t like Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” – it’s a haunting, emotionally cold movie that keeps the audience at arm’s length the entire time. But that’s by design, not only because it reflects the temperament of its two lead characters, but because in doing so, Miller hopes to distance the film from the true-crime story on which it’s based. “Foxcatcher” feels like the kind of movie Stanley Kubrick might have made in another lifetime, meticulously and shrewdly assembled in such a way that every detail – from shot composition, to the dialogue, to the eccentricities of each performance – serves a purpose. All three main actors are fantastic in their respective roles, and in the case of Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum, it’s arguably the best work of their careers. Tatum plays Mark like a modern-day Lennie Small, a naïve and impressionable oaf who gets seduced into du Pont’s codependent web, while Carrell strikes a perfect balance between the wannabe coach’s ferocious ambition and childlike desire for approval. Without Mark Ruffalo as David, however, the movie wouldn’t work. He’s the soul of the film, the one person with something to lose that you actually care about, and it’s through him that “Foxcatcher” avoids becoming so detached that it shuts out the viewer completely.

EXTRAS: There’s a decent making-of featurette, as well as a pair of deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Captive”

WHAT: When his daughter, Cassandra, is kidnapped from his truck during a routine stop at the local diner, Matthew (Ryan Reynolds) sees his marriage destroyed and the cops in charge of the investigation (Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman) questioning his potential involvement. But after recent images of Cassandra are discovered online following eight years of dead ends, Matthew sets out to get his daughter back by any means necessary.

WHY: There’s a lot of potential bubbling beneath Atom Egoyan’s “The Captive,” but it’s too often spoiled by gaping plot holes and a slightly disinterested approach to the material. Egoyan’s decision to structure the film using a jumbled chronology doesn’t enhance the narrative or ratchet up the suspense, but rather makes things unnecessarily complex for the viewer, who is forced to piece things together on his own. Cassandra’s fate and the villain’s identity is revealed so early on, however, that there’s no benefit to presenting the story in this manner. Ryan Reynolds delivers a solid performance as the troubled father more interested in finding his daughter than proving his innocence (not that he’s much of a suspect, anyway), but the rest of the cast isn’t as lucky, saddled with one-dimensional roles with little room to develop. (I’m still not sure what purpose Bruce Greenwood’s character serves, unless there was a bunch of footage left on the cutting room floor.) That’s not to say that “The Captive” is a total failure, but when compared to Denis Villeneuve’s similarly themed “Prisoners,” it lacks the cutting edge that made that film such a gripping and emotionally powerful child abduction thriller.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writer/director Atom Egoyan, a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and an alternate ending.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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