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

  

Blu Tuesday: Whiplash, Horrible Bosses 2 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.

“Whiplash”

WHAT: Jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) doesn’t just want to be great; he wants to be one of the greats. When he’s given an opportunity to attend Shaffer Conservatory, the top music school in the country, under the tutelage of tyrannical instructor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew is pushed to his limits and beyond by Fletcher’s extreme teaching methods.

WHY: A gripping, electrifying and brutally unrelenting thriller, Damien Chazelle’s sophomore effort draws you in from the very first beat of the drum and never lets go, like a freight train of intensity and emotion that leaves you breathless and your heart still pounding when it’s over. “Whiplash” isn’t just one of the best movies of the 2014; it features perhaps one of the best endings to a movie ever. Chazelle doesn’t waste a single frame in this pressure cooker of a story about a young musician so determined to achieve greatness that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there, even if that means enduring the physical, verbal and psychological abuse of the one man capable of squeezing out every last drop of potential. Miles Teller is phenomenal in the lead role, capturing Andrew’s commitment and passion to his craft with an all-in performance that’s soaked in literal blood, sweat and tears, but it’s J.K. Simmons who steals the show with his turn as the borderline psychotic Fletcher, hurtling insults like a drill instructor (think R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket”) that are as funny as they are frightening. The film has earned a lot of attention for these two performances, although it would be short-sighted not to mention the superb writing and dynamic editing as well, because they’re just as essential to its success. For a movie about perfection, “Whiplash” comes pretty damn close.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director Damien Chazelle and actor J.K. Simmons, there’s a featurette about famous drummers and their craft, footage from the movie’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, a deleted scene and the original short film.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Horrible Bosses 2″

WHAT: Following the events of the last film, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) decide to become their own bosses by inventing a product called the Shower Buddy. But when their key investor (Christoph Waltz) backs out at the last minute, leaving them with thousands of dollars in inventory, the guys decide to kidnap his jerk son (Chris Pine) and hold him for ransom.

WHY: When it was announced that Warner Bros. was moving ahead with a sequel to their breakout hit, “Horrible Bosses,” it sounded like a pretty awful idea, especially due to the nature of the original premise. That’s probably why Seth Gordon decided not to return as well, so credit to co-writer/director Sean Anders for not only having the balls to take over the reins, but for coming up with an idea that actually makes sense. Sadly, while the kidnapping plot does allow for Nick, Kurt and Dale to embark on yet another criminal misadventure, the film itself is a mixed bag. Though there are some really funny bits thanks to the chemistry between the three leads (as well as a scene-stealing cameo by Kevin Spacey), the characters themselves have been downgraded from bumbling fools to complete idiots. It may have been cute the first time around, but there’s simply no way these guys could be this dumb and still expect the audience to root for them. “Horrible Bosses 2” is better than expected thanks to its ensemble cast, even if Jennifer Aniston and Christoph Waltz are mostly wasted in their roles, but unlike the first movie, it fails to give you a reason to care.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, alternate line readings/outtakes, a brief look at filming the high speed chase sequence and some silly infomercials.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Game of Thrones, Birdman 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.

“Game of Thrones: The Complete Fourth Season”

WHAT: Following the events of the Red Wedding, King’s Landing turns its attention to the royal wedding between Joffrey Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell, with guests arriving from all over Westeros, including the vengeful Oberyn Martell. Meanwhile, Arya and The Hound continue their journey to the Eyrie; Daenerys Targaryen leads her slave army towards Meereen; Bran and Co. head north to track down the three-eyed raven; and the Night’s Watch prepare for an attack by the Wildlings.

WHY: “Game of Thrones” is one of the best dramas on television, boasting rich storytelling, great writing and a massive ensemble cast with nary a weak link among them. But while the exhaustive world building is impressive in both size and scope, it often can’t be fully appreciated until you see how some of the storylines pay off later down the road, whether in future episodes or seasons. What really makes it appointment television, however, and one of the few genuine water-cooler shows left today, is the endless amount of shocking moments weaved throughout George R.R. Martin’s complex fantasy world. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Though nothing that occurs in Season Four is as monumental as the Red Wedding from the previous year, the bombshells came faster and more frequent, with several notable characters biting the dust, including heavy hitters like Joffrey Baratheon and Tywin Lannister, fan favorite Oberyn Martell, and quite possibly The Hound, depending on how you interpret his final scene. No other show on television makes you care about the death of a character as much as “Game of Thrones,” and it’s only one of many reasons why the series continues to perform at such a high level, constantly upping the stakes even when it no longer seems possible.

EXTRAS: There are 11 cast and crew audio commentaries spread across the four-disc set, along with an overview of Season Three, featurettes on filming the ninth episode (“Battle of the Wall”) and the role bastards play in the Seven Kingdoms, a roundtable discussion with the actors whose characters died in the fourth season, deleted scenes, a blooper reel and some interactive features.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

WHAT: Desperate to revive his career, washed-up actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) mounts an ambitious adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. When one of the actors is injured in a freak accident, Riggan brings in theater luminary Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a last-minute replacement, only for Mike’s unconventional methods to lead to a clash of egos between the two men that puts the whole production in danger of shutting down before it even begins.

WHY: Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be the most prolific director around, but that hardly matters when you make movies like “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a remarkable piece of filmmaking that’s as refreshingly original as it is wildly ambitious. While it’s a pretty incisive satire of Broadway and fame, the movie goes even deeper than that, digging into themes of ego, family and artistic integrity vs. commercial success. More than anything else, though, it operates as a character study of a broken man trying to reclaim his former glory, and in that regard, the film reminded me a lot of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” Some of it is played for laughs, but it’s mostly a profoundly sad look at one man’s struggle to validate his existence. The acting is top-notch across the board – especially Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone – however, the real magic comes from Iñarritu’s decision to stage the movie as one long tracking shot. The balletic precision and sheer ballsiness required to pull that off is mind-boggling, but it results in a more immersive and seamless viewing experience akin to a theater performance, and it’s one that’ll be mimicked for years to come.

EXTRAS: There’s a fairly extensive behind-the-scenes featurette, a conversation between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and star Michael Keaton about the movie, and a photo gallery.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“The Theory of Everything”

WHAT: While studying at Cambridge in the 1960s, physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) falls in love with and marries literature student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), only to be diagnosed with motor neuron disease and given two years to live. Miraculously, Hawking fought the disease with the help of Jane and went on to become one of the leading minds of his generation.

WHY: “The Theory of Everything” is the prototypical Oscar movie. It’s based on an incredible true story (bonus points if the subject is suffering from a disease) and boasts an extraordinary lead performance from Eddie Redmayne. But sadly, the film itself is quite ordinary, falling victim to the usual biopic conventions by trying to cover too much material in too little time. This happens surprisingly often when making movies about real-life people, and it’s especially disappointing here, because Redmayne is simply amazing as Hawking, investing himself completely in the physicality of the role without losing the essence of the character. It’s every actor’s dream job, but for as much credit as Redmayne deserves for the performance, it wouldn’t be as effective without Felicity Jones beside him, because she’s the soul of the film, providing an alternate view of Hawking’s struggle with every heartbreaking and inspiring turn. “The Theory of Everything” is about the power of the human spirit, and while the first half makes for more compelling viewing compared to the generic story beats that encompass Hawking’s later years, Redmayne and Jones are so good that even if their performances overshadow the movie itself, it’s still very much must-see viewing.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director James Marsh, there’s a featurette titled “Becoming the Hawkings” and eight deleted scenes with optional commentary by Marsh.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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