Blu Tuesday: Captain Phillips, Blue Jasmine 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.

“Captain Phillips”

WHAT: While on a routine trip around the Horn of Africa, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) orders his crew to practice prevention tactics against possible hijackers, only for the drill to become a real-world situation when a group of Somali pirates (led by Barkhad Abdi) boards the commercial freighter and takes Phillips hostage.

WHY: Based on the incredible true story of the 2009 hijacking of an American-flagged cargo ship, “Captain Phillips” is a gripping hostage thriller that boasts some of the year’s finest performances. Director Paul Greengrass has a knack for dramatizing real-life events (as evidenced in “Bloody Sunday” and the excellent “United 93”), and that success continues here, throwing the audience right into the middle of the action docudrama-style in order to best capture the intensity of the situation. But while Greengrass excels at creating a sense of claustrophobic tension (especially once the story moves into the lifeboat, where he really ratchets up the suspense), it’s the acting that makes “Captain Phillips” work as well as it does. Barkhad Abdi is particularly impressive as the leader of the pirates, while Tom Hanks delivers his strongest performance in over a decade in the title role. The final five minutes alone pack such an emotional wallop that it should have guaranteed him another Oscar nomination, and his work throughout is a stark reminder why he’s one of the best actors in the business.

EXTRAS: In addition to an excellent audio commentary by director Paul Greengrass, there’s a three-part featurette running just under an hour long that tells you pretty much everything you’d want to know about the making of the movie.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Blue Jasmine”

WHAT: When her husband (Alec Baldwin) is arrested for investment fraud, New York socialite Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett) is forced to give up her glamorous lifestyle and go stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Mentally unstable and on a steady diet of booze and prescription drugs, Jasmine attempts to put her life back together, with disastrous results.

WHY: Woody Allen is one of the most prolific filmmakers in history, but it’s hard to maintain any level of quality with that sort of productivity, and moviegoers have witnessed the hit-and-miss nature of the director’s work first-hand over the past two decades. “Blue Jasmine” falls somewhere in between, mainly because it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be: a biting dark comedy or a drama. A modern-day retooling of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the movie has its share of laughs in the opening act, but it gets darker by the minute, especially since Blanchett’s character is more of a schizophrenic than the typical Allenesque neurotic. The problem with that, of course, is that Jasmine is a lot less likable as a result, and though the actress turns in a mostly good performance, it borders on parody at times. In fact, there aren’t many characters in the movie that are very likable, and that’s the biggest obstacle standing in the way of “Blue Jasmine” being as great as it could have been.

EXTRAS: Woody Allen movies are always light on bonus material, and this one is no different. Apart from a press conference featuring actors Cate Blanchett, Peter Sarsgaard and Andrew Dice Clay, there’s a brief collection of red carpet interviews.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Riddick, You’re Next 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.

“Riddick”

WHAT: Marooned on a sun-scorched planet, notorious fugitive Riddick (Vin Diesel) activates an emergency beacon at a mercenary outpost in the hopes of hijacking a ship from whoever comes to collect the price on his head. But when two mercenary crews are alerted to his location, they discover that the real threat isn’t Riddick himself, but rather the race of alien predators that inhabit the planet.

WHY: Is there anyone other than writer/director David Twohy and star Vin Diesel that actually wanted another Riddick movie? Because after the disastrous 2004 sequel to the sci-fi/horror cult classic “Pitch Black,” it seemed like Diesel’s grand plans to build a franchise around the character had more or less sputtered out. Granted, the latest Riddick adventure is a mild improvement on his last outing, but just barely, ultimately serving as yet another reminder why the character isn’t franchise material. A pale imitation of the first film that boasts some terrible acting and even worse writing – and that doesn’t even include the laughably misogynistic undertones that crop up once Katee Sackhoff’s lone female character is introduced – “Riddick” doesn’t really progress the overall story any further, leading one to question why another movie was necessary at all. There are a few cool action beats, and one particularly amazing death scene, but at times, it doesn’t even feel like a Riddick movie, with the title character gone missing for most of the second act. And if you’re going to call your film “Riddick,” you damn well better make sure he’s in it the entire time.

EXTRAS: There’s an unrated cut of the film that runs an additional six minutes, as well as a collection of short production featurettes and a motion comic prequel that bridges the gap between “The Chronicles of Riddick” and this movie.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“You’re Next”

WHAT: While celebrating their parents’ anniversary at an isolated vacation home in the country, the Davison family is attacked by a gang of deadly intruders. As the houseguests are murdered one by one, unlikely hero Erin (Shari Vinson) surprises everyone – including the killers themselves – when she begins to fight back, proving that she’s the most dangerous of them all.

WHY: Though it hardly boasts the most original story, “You’re Next” is a much-needed shot in the arm for the horror genre that succeeds thanks to a clever mix of black humor and brutal violence. Despite some well-placed laughs, however, the film is not a horror comedy by any means. And though it’s not jump-out-of-your-seat scary either, it does squeeze a good deal of suspense from the legitimately frightening home invasion setup. Like most horror movies, it starts out slow, but once director Adam Wingard gets rid of all the dead weight and Vinson’s heroine clicks into survival mode, the film never looks back. There are some really inventive kills on display, and the “Home Alone”-esque traps that Erin sets for the masked assailants makes you wish that more horror victims were as smart and resourceful as she is. The acting isn’t that great, the characters have their share of blonde moments, and the twists are a little predictable for anyone paying attention, but genre fans could only wish that more horror movies were as much fun to watch as this.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries (one with director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, and another with Wingard, Barrett and actors Sharni Vinson and Barbara Crampton), there’s a fairly decent making-of featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Spectacular Now”

WHAT: When his longtime girlfriend dumps him, hard-partying high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) hooks up with resident nice girl Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley). Though she’s nothing like the girls he usually dates, Aimee’s unwavering positive attitude might be just what Sutter needs to get his life back on track.

WHY: It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that “The Spectacular Now” was written by the same duo behind the excellent “(500) Days of Summer,” because both films are really well-crafted relationship dramas that don’t pull their punches. Though I’m getting a little tired of seeing Teller play the same Vince Vaughn-type wild child, he’s perfectly cast in the role, making Sutter just likable enough to root for him, despite the fact that he’s a bit of an asshole and pretty clueless about his alcohol problem. It certainly helps that Woodley was cast as his romantic counterpart, because the actress is almost angelic-like in the way that she radiates life. Granted, it’s a little ridiculous to have someone as gorgeous as Woodley play the unpopular girl, but if nothing else, she proves here that her award-nominated role in “The Descendants” wasn’t a fluke. The movie also features some great supporting performances – especially Kyle Chandler in a short but effective cameo – but without Teller and Woodley in the lead roles, it wouldn’t be quite so, well, spectacular.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary with director James Ponsoldt, some deleted scenes and a four-part making-of featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Thanks for Sharing and Badges of Fury

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.

“Thanks for Sharing”

WHAT: The film follows the intersecting lives of three men in various stages of sex addiction recovery, including eco-friendly businessman Adam (Mark Ruffalo), his dedicated sponsor Mike (Tim Robbins) and unmotivated newcomer Neil (Josh Gad).

WHY: Sex addiction is a tricky topic, which is probably why so few movies have been made on the subject. But whereas 2011’s “Shame” took a darker look at the effects of sex addiction, writer/director Stuart Blumberg’s “Thanks for Sharing” is more interested in the recovery phase. As you might expect from a film with that title, and written by the same guy behind the dialogue-heavy “The Kids Are All Right,” this is a very talky movie that relies more than usual on its actors to drive the story. Luckily, Blumberg’s directorial debut is buoyed by solid performances from top to bottom (including good work from Mark Ruffalo and Patrick Fugit), even if it’s more concerned with drilling the recovery program’s philosophies into your head like some self-help video than developing its character. It deserves credit for its stark honesty, however, refusing to pull any punches or let its characters off the hook too easily, and that goes a long way in not only creating a realistic story, but one that’s more enjoyable than its subject matter might suggest.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director Stuart Blumberg and co-writer Matt Winston, the Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette, some deleted/extended scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Badges of Fury”

WHAT: Following a series of related murders, Hong Kong detectives Wang Bu Er (Zhang Wen) and Huang Fei Hong (Jet Li) are assigned to the case. When they learn that all of the victims previously dated budding actress Liu Jin Shui (Shishi Liu), Bu Er agrees to go undercover as her new boyfriend to reveal the identity of the killer.

WHY: With the exception of the “Expendables” films, Jet Li hasn’t appeared in a Hollywood production since 2008, instead choosing to focus on making movies in his homeland of China. But while fans were excited at the prospect of what Li’s return would mean for the Hong Kong film industry, no one could have imagined that it would result in a movie as shockingly bad as “Badges of Fury.” Perfectly described as a “cruel trick” by fellow critic Rob Hunter, the film isn’t the gritty crime thriller that its promotional materials would lead you to believe, but rather an incredibly goofy (think “Naked Gun”) action comedy filled to the brim with childish slapstick humor. To make matters worse, the veteran action star is a supporting character at best, missing for large stretches of the movie, despite the fact that he’s proudly displayed as its star. That wouldn’t be so bad if the film was any good, but it’s unbearable to watch, dragged down by spotty acting, terrible CGI and cartoony sound effects. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves, but no one more than Li.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and additional behind the scenes footage.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: Don Jon, Ninja II and Hell Baby

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.

“Don Jon”

WHAT: There are only a few things that New Jersey bachelor Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) really cares about in life: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls and his porn. When he starts dating the gorgeous but bossy Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), however, he’s forced to rethink his porn addiction and the unrealistic expectations that it brings.

WHY: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the most talented actors of his generation, and the fact that he was able to write and direct such a smartly funny movie on his first attempt is enough to make anyone feel unaccomplished by comparison. But it’s hard to be jealous of someone as charming, modest and hard-working as Gordon-Levitt, whose immensely likeable screen presence even bleeds into his title role as the womanizing, porn-addicted guido. The actor was wise to keep things simple for his directorial debut, and though “Don Jon” starts to feel a bit repetitive by the third act, that’s mostly due to the story’s structure, which uses repetition for comedic purposes, from the familiar boot-up sound of his Macbook, to the weekly church visits for confession. It’s much harder to pull off than it looks, but between his razor-sharp script and the strong performances from his cast (including Tony Danza as Jon’s stereotypical Italian father), Gordon-Levitt makes it seem almost effortless.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a making-of featurette, four additional featurettes and a trio of HitRECord short films.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear”

WHAT: When his pregnant wife is killed by a mysterious assassin, ninjitsu master Casey Bowman (Scott Adkins) tracks down the man responsible in order to exact his revenge, uncovering a Japanese drug ring along the way.

WHY: Scott Adkins is probably one of the most talented martial artists working in Hollywood today, and if you’re wondering why he’s not a bigger star by now, it’s because he’s a terrible actor. “Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear” is exactly the type of B-movie that Adkins will spend the rest of his career making, and that’s a shame, because it features some of the best fight sequences of the year. There’s no wire work or CG involved, and director Isaac Florentine doesn’t resort to close-ups or quick cuts either, instead giving each fight plenty of room to breathe so that you can fully appreciate the incredible skill on display. Adkins impresses in every action sequence, but unfortunately, the movie comes to a screeching halt any time he opens his mouth. The rest of the acting isn’t much better, and the dumb-as-rocks storyline doesn’t help matters, but for fans of old school action films (one of the producers also bankrolled the “American Ninja” movies), “Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear” might as well have been discovered in a time capsule from the ‘80s.

EXTRAS: There’s a short making-of featurette, cast and crew interviews and some behind the scenes footage from production.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Hell Baby”

WHAT: After a couple moves into a haunted house in New Orleans, expectant mother Vanessa (Leslie Bibb) becomes possessed by a demon spirit, prompting her husband Jack (Rob Corddry) to call on the services of the Vatican’s elite exorcism team.

WHY: I’m absolutely flabbergasted that “Hell Baby” not only managed to get into this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but that some people actually liked it, because it’s easily one of the worst movies of 2013. Written and directed by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (“Reno 911,” “The State”), who also co-star as a pair of Vatican exorcists with some of the worst Italian accents in cinema history, “Hell Baby” doesn’t really work as a comedy or a horror movie. Though Rob Corddry earns a few laughs as the straight man of the ensemble, and Keegan-Michael Key is amusing as the couple’s interloping neighbor, most of the jokes fall horribly flat. The film feels like it was thrown together over the course of a few days, with no mention that the titular hell baby even exists until it emerges from Vanessa’s womb in the final act. The whole thing is incredibly stupid, relying on gags that are drawn out so long that even the mildly entertaining ones (like the po’ boy scenes) become annoying after a while. Avoid this movie like the plague.

EXTRAS: There’s a large collection of deleted scenes and two gag reels, but that’s all.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Blu Tuesday: Elysium, Kick-Ass 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.

“Elysium”

WHAT: The year is 2154 and ex-con Max De Costa (Matt Damon) lives on a ruined Earth with most of the population while the wealthy reside on a space station where any disease can be cured in seconds. But when Max gets radiation poisoning during an accident at work and is given only five days to live, he accepts a suicide mission to hijack some important data that could topple Elysium’s government and save his life.

WHY: Following Neill Blomkamp’s 2008 surprise hit “District 9,” people couldn’t wait to see what the South African-born director would do next. But while “Elysium” showcases the same great visuals and action as its predecessor, it’s just not as good. Part of the problem is the story itself, which practically begs comparisons to “District 9” between the likeminded aesthetics and socio-political undertones. Blomkamp also doesn’t get much help from his big Hollywood stars; Matt Damon is fine in the lead role, but a lesser known actor probably would have been more effective, while Jodie Foster delivers a laughably bad performance as Elysium’s Secretary of Defense. It’s some of the worst acting of the year, and a perfect example of why you shouldn’t give an actor too much control, no matter how many Oscars they’ve won. Thankfully, “District 9” star Sharlto Copley is immensely entertaining as the sadistic, katana-wielding mercenary assigned to stop Max, and he alone makes the film worth watching in spite of its more annoying flaws.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a making-of featurette devoted to the three stages of production, additional featurettes on the cast, visual effects and technology of “Elysium,” and an interactive exploration of the film’s art and production design.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Kick-Ass 2″

WHAT: Two years have passed since Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl took down mob boss Frank D’Amico, and in that time, hundreds of superheroes have begun to pop up across the country. But when Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz) is forced to retire her masked alter-ego, Dave (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) joins a superhero team called Justice Forever. Meanwhile, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) plots his revenge as the world’s first-ever supervillian, assembling an army of criminals and crazy devotees to wreak havoc on the city.

WHY: Though it seemed unlikely that Universal would even greenlight a sequel to Matthew Vaughn’s punk-rock satire of the superhero genre due to the more sadistic nature of the story, director Jeff Wadlow has done an admirable job adapting it for the big screen. Not only has he toned down some of the darker moments by mining them for laughs instead of shock value, but he’s managed to combine two volumes’ worth of source material into a more streamlined narrative. And it works for the most part, creating a sequel that, although it lacks the provocative originality of its predecessor, maintains the same sense of fun and over-the-top absurdity that made the first film such a blast. Unfortunately, it’s not without its faults. “Kick-Ass 2” has so much story that all three leads are off doing their own thing for most of the movie, while the tone is stuck somewhere between subversive satire and falling into the very conventions that it’s sending up. But while it may fall short of living up to the original, the characters are so entertaining and uniquely charming – with solid performances from its three lead actors – that they make Mark Millar’s madcap universe worth revisiting a second time.

EXTRAS: There’s no shortage of bonus material here, highlighted by an audio commentary by writer/director Jeff Wadlow and actors Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as well as some extended scenes, an alternate opening and seven featurettes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Prisoners”

WHAT: Neighborhood friends Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) are facing every parent’s worst nightmare: their young daughters have suddenly gone missing. When the detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) in charge of the investigation is unable to find any evidence to arrest their key suspect (Paul Dano), Keller takes matters into his own hands by taking the young man hostage and torturing him until he talks.

WHY: “Prisoners” is one of those crime thrillers where the lead detective is made to look like a complete idiot for missing clues so obvious that the audience is always a few steps ahead. Jake Gyllenhaal’s cop is supposed to be really good at his job, and yet the script constantly finds ways to slow down the investigation in order to keep the mystery alive. But while the film is a little too dependent on conveniently poor police work and plot holes, it’s still a fairly suspenseful morality tale about how far you would go to protect the people you love. The religious undertones feel incredibly forced, and it’s about 30 minutes too long, but the performances make up for its shortcomings. Hugh Jackman and Gyllenhaal, in particular, both deliver solid work here, with the former turning in one of the most emotionally affecting roles of his career. And though Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Maria Bello are mostly wasted in supporting roles, just having actors of their quality involved makes “Prisoners” better than the material deserves.

EXTRAS: There’s a pair of featurettes – one about the relationship between Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal’s characters, and another on the cast – but that’s it.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT
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