Blu Tuesday: Ant-Man and Minions

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.

“Ant-Man”

WHAT: Ex-convict Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is given a chance at redemption when genius inventor Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) enlists his help to break into his company’s research facility and stop former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from weaponizing Pym’s groundbreaking particle technology. In order to do so, Scott must assume the mantle of the Ant-Man using a suit that grants its wearer increased strength while microscopic and the ability to telepathically control ants.

WHY: “Ant-Man” may have been a decade in the making, but despite its troubled production, director Peyton Reed has produced a funny and fast-paced standalone adventure that weaves in small references to the MCU without feeling slavish to the material. In keeping with Marvel’s tradition of exploring different genres with each new movie, “Ant-Man” is primarily a heist film that strikes a nice balance between comedy, action and drama. It’s also a movie that has serious daddy issues, featuring parallel father/daughter stories that drive the overall narrative, add some emotional weight and strengthen the connective tissue of Marvel’s expansive cinematic universe. Though it’s difficult to know exactly how much of Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish’s original script was retained in the final version, the former’s fingerprints are all over the film, especially the climactic third-act battle that takes place entirely inside of a little girl’s bedroom. Still, while “Ant-Man” isn’t quite as out there as Wright’s version likely would have been (even for a movie about a guy who talks to ants), it’s an undeniably unique comic book film that’s loaded with charm.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Peyton Reed and star Paul Rudd, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at making the movie, a visual effects featurette and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Minions”

WHAT: Set in the late 1960s, before their introduction to the despicable Gru, the Minions send Stuart, Kevin and Bob on a journey to find their tribe an evil boss to serve. They’re eventually recruited by supervillain Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), who plans to steal the Queen of England’s royal crown and take over the world.

WHY: After emerging as the unexpected stars of “Despicable Me,” it was only a matter of time before the Minions were given a movie of their own. Unfortunately, what anyone at Universal failed to realize is that the yellow, gibberish-speaking henchmen only work in small doses. Or maybe they did but simply didn’t care, because “Minions” is an uninspired cash grab that feels more like an attempt to sell branded merchandise than create a film that actually contributes something to the franchise. Nobody cares what the Minions were up to before meeting Gru, including the movie’s writer, who can’t even produce a mildly interesting story about the creatures’ origins. And when your protagonists don’t have any distinct personalities or character-defining arcs, no amount of silly, pantomimed humor changes the fact that without someone to truly invest in, it’s a pretty one-dimensional experience.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes three new shorts starring the Minions, a series of featurettes about making the movie, and an interactive map with fun facts about each location visited by the Minions in the film.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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Blu Tuesday: Fear the Walking Dead, Mississippi Grind 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.

“Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: When a mysterious outbreak causes Los Angeles to go into complete meltdown, a dysfunctional blended family led by high school guidance counselor Madison (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis) is forced to band together in order to survive the chaos.

WHY: Why: It’s easy to understand why AMC would be attracted to the idea of producing a companion series to “The Walking Dead” (after all, it’s the most-watched show in cable TV history), but there was always the risk that it would have an adverse effect on their flagship drama. Thankfully, the poorly titled “Fear the Walking Dead” distances itself enough from the original series that it doesn’t tarnish the brand, even if the new show pales in comparison. Not only is the writing heavy-handed, but the characters and their various relationships just aren’t as interesting. Though it makes sense that Madison and Co. wouldn’t be as savvy as anyone on “The Walking Dead” due to the story taking place during the early stages of the zombie outbreak, the characters come across as being especially whiny and foolish. Additionally, although the first season only contains six episodes, it’s a very slow burn that doesn’t hit its stride until the penultimate hour. If there’s any reason to stick around, it’s for Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis, both of whom are such good actors that they manage to hold your interest even when you’ve given up hope that the show will improve. But while Season Two promises bigger and better things, whether anyone will still be watching is another matter entirely.

EXTRAS: There are two brief featurettes about the series and the characters.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Mississippi Grind”

WHAT: Down-on-his-luck gambling addict Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) owes everybody in town, and instead of paying off his debts, he continues to dig himself further into a hole. But his fortune begins to change when he meets a charismatic drifter named Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), who agrees to accompany Gerry on a road trip down the Mississippi River to play in a high stakes poker game in New Orleans.

WHY: After making a splash with the emotional one-two punch of “Half Nelson” and “Sugar,” writers/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden were unable to replicate that success with their first studio project, the lackluster “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” It’s been five years since Fleck or Boden did anything of significance, but the duo has bounced back nicely with their latest movie, a character-driven drama that plays like a gritty mash-up of “Rounders” and “Sideways” and is bolstered by a pair of fantastic performances. This is arguably the best that Ryan Reynolds has ever been, showcasing a subtler, more mature side that’s been missing in his previous work, while Ben Mendelsohn proves that he’s not just an amazing character actor, but a viable leading man as well. Both of their characters are deeply flawed, and it’s to their credit (as well as the script, which crackles with wit and heart) that you care about them even when they seem beyond all help. “Mississippi Grind” starts to drag in the final act, exposing its barebones plot in the process, but Reynolds and Mendelsohn have such great chemistry that it’s rarely boring.

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: American Ultra, Shaun the Sheep and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“American Ultra”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Shaun the Sheep”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: Trainwreck, Terminator Genisys and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Trainwreck”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Terminator Genisys”

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

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

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

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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