Blu Tuesday: The Knick, Unfriended and More

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

“The Knick: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: In New York City during the turn of the 20th century, the extremely talented Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) takes over as chief surgeon at the Knickerbocker Hospital (dubbed The Knick) after his mentor/boss commits suicide. While Thackery and his staff attempt to overcome the medical limitations of the era by making new discoveries of their own, they’re forced to deal with major issues like race relations, class warfare, sexism, drug addiction and more.

WHY: When Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking, it seemed a bit premature for someone so young. But while the director has remained true to his word as far as the big screen is concerned, he’s taken his talents to the small screen in the interim, most notably with this excellent period drama from Cinemax. Loosely based on real-life events and people, “The Knick” is different from traditional (and more contemporary) medical dramas in that the surgical procedures actually serve the characters and story, not to mention offer a fascinating look at just how far the medical field has come since then. The supporting cast is great, particularly Andre Holland and Michael Angarano as two of the surgeons on Thackery’s team, but the series succeeds largely thanks to Clive Owen’s commanding lead performance. And because Soderbergh directed and shot every episode, it’s also one of the best-looking shows on television. Though the first season starts to drag in the last few episodes due to lackluster subplots involving Typhoid Mary and a jealous surgeon dealing with problems at home, “The Knick” is a well-acted prestige drama that deserves to be on a much bigger stage like HBO.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes cast and crew audio commentaries on three episodes (although sadly, both Clive Owen and Steven Soderbergh are absent), as well as “Post-Op” recap featurettes for every episode but the first.



WHAT: On the one-year anniversary of the death of classmate Laura Barns, who committed suicide after being cyberbullied due to an embarrassing video posted on the web, a group of friends are stalked by a mysterious intruder on their Skype call claiming to be the vengeful spirit of Laura.

WHY: Technology has become so integral to our daily lives that it was only a matter of time before someone made a film that unfolds entirely on a computer screen, and though “Unfriended” isn’t the first to employ this gimmick, you can be certain it won’t be the last. But while there’s a lot to admire about the concept and technical skill required to pull off such a seamless visual trick, the movie is constantly getting in its own way. For a film made for tech-savvy teenagers who can juggle multiple apps with their eyes closed, there’s a maddening amount of hand-holding that takes place, from the way its main character hovers over text with her cursor to ensure the audience is following along, to the time it takes her to perform a simple task. The movie builds some nice tension with delayed chat messages, slow-moving download status bars and the worst Skype connection in history, but it doesn’t have any genuine scares. Though “Unfriended” should be applauded for addressing such a serious issue in today’s culture of anonymity-driven public shaming, it’s surrounded by so much stupidity – including the same poor writing, tired clichés and shallow characters that constantly plague the horror genre – that it only weakens its message.

EXTRAS: No bonus material is included.


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Blu Tuesday: Insurgent, Strike Back 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.


WHAT: When Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) recovers a mysterious box containing a message from the colony’s founding fathers that requires a Divergent to unlock it, she orders her cronies to round up potential candidates to put through the box’s rigorous testing process. Meanwhile, Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) unite their Dauntless friends with the factionless rebels – led by Four’s presumed-dead mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts) – to take down Jeanine and the whole faction system.

WHY: Unlike some of the more successful YA book-to-film adaptations, the “Divergent” series has continually failed to prove why Veronica Roth’s trilogy is such a big deal. The first installment was plagued by a troubling lack of excitement, suspense and emotion, and those problems continue with “Insurgent.” Though it boasts some great talent in the form of Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet and Miles Teller (the latter two of whom are smartly given more to do this time around), it’s not enough to disguise the movie’s numerous issues, especially when it wastes so much time doing nothing. The end of “Divergent” seemed to point towards a move outside the walls surrounding the dystopian city where the story takes place, and yet all of “Insurgent” is set within those very walls, suspending its characters in narrative limbo in order to slog through an entire novel of mostly filler. “Insurgent” could have been the “Catching Fire” of the “Divergent” film series, building on the original premise in bold and fresh new ways, but instead, it’s a sluggish, twiddle-your-thumbs chapter that’s more about the setup than the payoff.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by producers Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher, a feature-length documentary about making the film, and a quartet of featurettes on adapting the source material, the cast, shooting the train fight sequence and Miles Teller’s character, Peter Hayes.


“Strike Back: The Complete Third Season”

WHAT: After one of their own is killed while working undercover in Beirut, Section 20 agents Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) and Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) are forced to cut their vacation short in order to stop a criminal group that is funding terrorists in the Middle East.

WHY: You’d be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable guilty pleasure on television than “Strike Back,” a show that cares so little about logic that you can practically see the writers bending over backwards behind the scenes to come up with new, ridiculous ways to defy it. The Cinemax action series doesn’t pretend to be smart (on the contrary, it almost revels in its shoot-first-think-later absurdity), but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. Though Season Three is probably the weakest installment to date, particularly due to some rocky storytelling that jumps from one loosely connected subplot to the next as if they’re making it all up as they go along, Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winchester boast such great chemistry that it’s easy to look past its obvious flaws. Their characters may have more lives than a cat, so you know they’ll make it out of whatever crazy situation they’ve gotten themselves into unscathed, but that’s part of its allure. Well, that and the fantastic action sequences, because what “Strike Back” lacks in great writing and acting, it more than makes up for with some of the best action on TV.

EXTRAS: There are audio commentaries for three episodes with various cast and crew (including stars Sullivan Stapleton and Phillip Winchester), as well as a collection of playful behind-the-scenes featurettes like “How to Act in Shit,” “How to Drive Through a Minefield,” “How to Interrogate While Driving” and “How to Dangle From a Helicopter.”


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Blu Tuesday: What We Do in the Shadows and The Water Diviner

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.

“What We Do in the Shadows”

WHAT: Filmed in the months leading up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball, a documentary crew follows a group of vampires – including Victorian dandy Viago (Taika Waititi), medieval torturer Vladimir (Jemaine Clement) and resident bad boy Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) – living together in Wellington, New Zealand as they deal with the dull minutiae of everyday life as an ancient bloodsucker. But when newly turned vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) moves in, he helps usher his fellow housemates into the 21st century.

WHY: “What We Do in the Shadows” sounds like a bad comedy sketch – a “Real World”-esque reality show with vampires in place of horny millennials – but it’s actually a very funny satire of the vampire subgenre that’s done in the deadpan style of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Because of the loose, improvisational nature of the film, not every joke lands, but the ones that do are laugh-out-loud hilarious, skewering centuries of vampire lore with goofy sight gags, clever observations about vamp culture and run-ins with a pack of werewolves led by Jemaine Clement’s “Flight of the Conchords” co-star Rhys Darby. But for everything that the movie gets right, “What We Do in the Shadows” suffers from the same problem as Taika Waititi and Clement’s last collaboration, the geek-chic rom-com “Eagle vs. Shark” – namely, that the concept feels like it’s been stretched well beyond its limits, despite the brisk 85-minute runtime. This is an idea that was better suited as a short film, although there’s so much funny material here that it’s understandable why they felt the need to expand it to feature length. As a result, “What We Do in the Shadows” never quite attains the instant cult status that it seems to be heading towards in the first act, but any movie that makes you laugh this hard (even if only sporadically) deserves the shower of praise that’s been heaped upon it.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writers/directors/stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, interviews and more.


“The Water Diviner”

WHAT: Several years after his three sons presumably died while fighting in the Battle of Gallipoli, Australian farmer Joseph Connor (Russell Crowe) travels to Turkey in search of the truth about what really happened on the battlefield.

WHY: For those wondering how an actor of Russell Crowe’s talent could possibly be convinced to star in a movie as atrocious as “Winter’s Tale,” look no further than his directorial debut, an equally overdramatic piece of pseudo-magical realism that thankfully isn’t quite as bad. Crowe certainly has a good eye for the kind of epic storytelling that he’s trying to achieve with his first stint behind the camera, but despite some decent visuals and a solid performance from the actor himself, “The Water Diviner” is too easily distracted by its numerous subplots. The story of Joshua’s search for his missing sons isn’t substantial enough to warrant an entire movie, so writers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios have tacked on a romantic subplot between Crowe and Olga Kurylenko’s Turkish widow (which doesn’t seem right considering Joshua is still mourning the death of his wife), as well as flashbacks of his sons in battle that are incredibly difficult to watch. The latter wouldn’t be that much of a problem if the film stuck by its message that war is cruel and unforgiving, but “The Water Diviner” ends on such an uplifting note that it cuts right through that grim realism in favor of hokey Hollywood optimism. (Note: This title will be released next Tuesday, July 28th.)

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and a retrospective on the Battle of Gallipoli.



Blu Tuesday: Ex Machina, It Follows 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.

“Ex Machina”

WHAT: Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer at an Internet search engine, thinks that he’s just won an office-wide lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive but brilliant CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote home/research facility in Alaska. But Nathan has other plans for him – namely, to enlist Caleb’s assistance in conducting a Turing test on his newest creation, an incredibly lifelike robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), in order to determine whether the artificial intelligence can pass as human.

WHY: Screenwriter Alex Garland has worked almost exclusively in the science fiction genre, so it comes as no surprise that his directorial debut occupies a similar space, this time focusing on the decades-old debate of artificial intelligence. Making a movie about A.I. isn’t exactly a novel premise, but Garland excels at putting a fresh spin on familiar material, and he doesn’t disappoint with “Ex Machina,” which draws inspiration from other genre classics like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Frankenstein.” Garland’s film is intelligent science fiction operating at a very high level. The movie hits on some pretty big concepts without ever alienating the audience, and the sci-fi elements feel authentic despite being years away from creating such technology. The visual effects are also quite impressive, but they never overshadow the story by drawing too much attention to Ava’s beautiful but simplistic design. Though the film moves at a fairly slow pace, meandering towards its crackerjack ending via Caleb’s sessions with Ava and his post-meeting debriefings with Nathan, it’s never boring, and that’s to the immense credit of Garland’s clever script and some excellent performances. Anyone who’s seen Garland’s previous movies knows he can write, but with “Ex Machina,” he announces himself as a talented director who can not only spin a good yarn on the page, but on the screen as well.

EXTRAS: There’s a five-part making-of featurette, as well as eight additional behind-the-scenes vignettes and a Q&A with the cast and crew from SXSW.


“It Follows”

WHAT: Teenage suburbanite Jay (Maika Monroe) has just learned she’s been infected with a curse where the victim is ruthlessly stalked by a slow-walking entity that can assume the form of anyone. Nobody else can see it, but if it catches you, it’ll kill you, and the only way to get rid of it is by having sex with someone else and passing it on – at least until it kills that person and works its way back down the chain. Trapped in a constant state of fear, Jay must rely on the help of her friends to stop the monster from claiming any more lives.

WHY: Considering the role that sex has played in the horror genre throughout the years, it’s surprising that the supernatural STD angle hasn’t been done before, because it’s a really clever idea. Though the “sex equals death” rule isn’t as prominent in modern horror movies that defy those decades-old tropes, “It Follows” is very much a retro homage to ‘70s and ‘80s genre classics, from the “Halloween”-esque synth score, to the striking similarities to “Nightmare on Elm Street,” both in Jay’s perpetual helplessness and the film’s dreamlike atmosphere. But while “It Follows” has its merits as an innovative piece of filmmaking, the movie isn’t without its problems, beginning with writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s complete disinterest in digging any further into the mythology and logistics of the curse. Additionally, the acting is amateurish and the pacing could be a lot tighter. The characters spend too much time just sitting around waiting for something to happen, and although it’s initially effective in creating an ominous mood, it gets to the point where you wish they’d be a bit more proactive. The same goes for the movie itself, because despite its terrifying premise, “It Follows” is much scarier in concept than execution.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with film critics Eric D. Snider, Britt Hayes, Samuel D. Zimmerman, Alison Nastasi and Eric Vespe that’s hosted by Scott Weinberg, as well as an interview with film composer Richard Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace.


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Blu Tuesday: House of Cards 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.

“House of Cards: The Complete Third Season”

WHAT: After being sworn in as President of the United States following his predecessor’s resignation, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) fights battles domestically (both in his marriage at home and with his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill) and internationally as he tries to form a peace coalition with bullheaded Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen). Meanwhile, Claire (Robin Wright) is no longer content with her role as First Lady and seeks some power of her own as the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

WHY: The first two seasons of “House of Cards” delivered such top-notch storytelling that it was never going to be easy replicating it a third time, but while Season Three isn’t without its problems, it’s still an incredibly well-acted and sharply written drama that ranks as one of the best shows on TV. Though it certainly makes sense why creator Beau Willimon would want to take the series in a slightly different direction – with Frank no longer several steps ahead in his scheming, but rather struggling just to keep his head above water – the story feels a little stretched creatively. For starters, the rock-solid relationship between Frank and Claire is fractured far too easily for a couple that supposedly makes each other stronger (and Claire, in particular, is even pettier than usual), while the whole Doug subplot isn’t engaging enough to warrant spending an entire season on. Some stories work better than others, but the cast continues to fire on all cylinders, including newcomers like Kim Dickens and Paul Sparks, as well as Mahershala Ali and Molly Parker, who are given more to do this season. Still, “House of Cards” is Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright’s show, and they never let you forget it, because even when they’re saddled with mediocre material, the two actors command the screen like no other couple on television.

EXTRAS: In addition to a making-of featurette, the Blu-ray edition includes an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at filming a key scene from the season finale.


“Slow West”

WHAT: Set in 1870, a young Scottish man named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels across the American frontier in search of the woman he loves, escorted by a quiet drifter (Michael Fassbender) he’s hired for the journey. But what Jay doesn’t realize is that he’s being used by his traveling companion to lead him straight to Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father (Rory McCann) in order to collect the sizable bounty placed on their heads.

WHY: Though he’s not the first musician to make the transition over to filmmaking, former Beta Band keyboardist John Maclean’s “Slow West” is an incredibly confident directorial debut that breathes new life into the Western without abandoning its roots. Gorgeously shot and remarkably vibrant for the genre, the movie is a well-paced, character-driven piece that boasts a pair of great performances from Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee, as well as a wry sense of humor that will have you laughing at some pretty morbid stuff. (The literal “salt on the wound” gag is probably the best of the bunch, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as Maclean’s darkly comical script is concerned.) While it’s disappointing to see a fantastic character actor like Ben Mendelsohn wasted in such a small role, he makes the most of his limited screen time, especially considering his rascally outlaw doesn’t even enter the story until the final act. “Slow West” is an odd but amusing little movie, and though it’s not above having fun with certain genre tropes, it’s still very much a Western in style and spirit, which is to say that the American frontier is a pretty nasty place to go chasing your dreams.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and some deleted scenes.


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