Blu Tuesday: Rush, Last Vegas 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.

“Rush”

WHAT: The true story of the 1976 Formula One racing season and the heated rivalry between British playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and reigning World Champion Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), the latter of whom was involved in a near-fatal accident, only to miraculously return to competition six weeks later despite suffering severe burns to his face and body.

WHY: It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Ron Howard and Peter Morgan love history. The latter, in particular, is responsible for writing some of the best historical dramas of the past decade, but sadly, “Rush” is not one of them. Though there’s a lot to like about the duo’s latest movie – particularly the chemistry and performances of its two leading men – it’s not nearly as captivating as their last collaboration (“Frost/Nixon”). One thing that the film does do a good job of is giving Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth equal screen time, but the best moments are the scenes they share together. The actors play off each other wonderfully, although Brühl has the juicier role due to his character’s more dramatic story arc. What’s perhaps most impressive about “Rush,” though, is the way that Howard and Morgan have crafted the story so that both men “win” in the end. It’s a tricky proposition, but they pull it off, and that goes a long way in making up for the lack of exciting race sequences. F1 racing fans will no doubt be disappointed, but “Rush” is still a well-acted drama that’s biggest problem is perhaps being a tad too conventional.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a making-of featurette, a behind-the-scenes look at the real-life story that inspired the film, a profile on director Ron Howard and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Last Vegas”

WHAT: Billy (Michael Douglas), Paddy (Robert De Niro), Archie (Morgan Freeman) and Sam (Kevin Kline) have been friends for nearly 60 years, so when Billy announces that he’s finally getting married, the guys decide to take a break from their stagnant day-to-day lives and throw a bachelor party in Las Vegas.

WHY:Last Vegas” may sound like the geriatric version of “The Hangover,” but apart from being about a quartet of friends attending a bachelor party in Vegas, the two films don’t have very much in common. For starters, “Last Vegas” isn’t nearly as crazy and over-the-top as the Todd Phillips comedy, instead resigned to more conventional humor that’s better suited to its veteran actors. It also has a tendency to get a little overly sentimental at times due to its subject matter, but that’s not to say it isn’t funny. Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro may not get as many opportunities to earn laughs due to their more dramatic subplots, but Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline pick up the slack, especially Freeman, who plays a great drunk. Though the old man jokes get a bit tiresome and the cookie cutter storyline is pretty lame, “Last Vegas” thrives thanks to its impressive cast. You’d be hard-pressed to assemble a better group of screen legends than these four, and just seeing them on screen together makes it well worth your time.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Jon Turteltaub and writer Dan Fogelman and six short production featurettes, three of which are Blu-ray exclusives.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa”

WHAT: After his wife dies and his daughter is sent back to prison, 86-year-old Irving Zisman (Johnny Knoxville) is tasked with driving his 8-year-old grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) from Nebraska to North Carolina to deliver him to his father.

WHY: The “Jackass” movies have always made me laugh, but I’ve never been a fan of the Irving Zisman character, so when Paramount announced that Johnny Knoxville would be making an entire movie as the dirty old man, it seemed like a pretty dumb idea. And for the most part, “Bad Grandpa” is dumb, but it also made me laugh louder than a majority of the comedies released last year. Clearly inspired by Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” in its attempt to structure various pranks around a scripted story, “Bad Grandpa” is better off when Knoxville is just allowed to do his thing. Whether getting squished by a faulty adjustable bed at an estate sale, causing a ruckus at a local bingo center, stealing food from a corner store or hitting on ladies (and then performing) at an all-black male strip club, the Knoxville-led pranks hit their mark more often than not. The stuff with Jackson Nicoll isn’t nearly as entertaining – except for the final sequence where Irving and Billy crash a child beauty pageant – but “Bad Grandpa” earns enough big laughs along the way to make up for its shortcomings.

EXTRAS: In addition to an unrated cut of the film, there’s over an hour of bonus material, including deleted scenes, alternate real-life reactions and some behind-the-scenes antics.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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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

  

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