Blu Tuesday: Fargo, Spotlight 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.

“Fargo: Year Two”

WHAT: After small-town beautician Peggy Blumquist (Kristen Dunst) accidentally runs over the youngest son of the Gerhardt crime family, she unwittingly escalates a turf war between the Gerhardts and the Kansas City mob, dragging her loyal husband Ed (Jesse Plemons) and local sheriffs Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) and Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) into the conflict.

WHY: Unlike “True Detective,” which fell victim to the all-too-familiar sophomore slump, “Fargo” positively thrived in Season Two, perfectly towing the line between black comedy and crime thriller. A big part of the show’s success is just how well it’s cast from the top down. Though Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst and Jeffrey Donovan (as the eldest and nastiest of the Gerhardt brood) are among the standouts, there’s not a single weak link in the entire ensemble. The writing also continues to be top-notch – from the sparkling dialogue, to the excellent character development, to the smartly plotted narrative that keeps you coming back for more – while the show’s absurdist tone works even better in a period setting like the late 1970s. Creator Noah Hawley is in high demand these days, and for good reason, because he’s once again crafted a funny, engaging and richly developed crime saga that works both as a prequel to the previous season as well as its own standalone story.

EXTRAS: The three-disc set includes a 44-minute featurette on making the season, interviews with Patrick Wilson and Keith Carradine about the Lou Solverson character, and a look at the fictional book, “The History of True Crime in the Midwest,” that appears in the penultimate episode.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Spotlight”

WHAT: In 2001, Boston Globe editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) assigned the newspaper’s Spotlight team – a four-man group of investigative journalists led by Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) – to follow up on a story about a local priest accused of child molestation, only to uncover a massive scandal within the Boston archdiocese.

WHY: Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” may be one of the most low-key awards contenders in quite some time, relying on top-notch acting and writing to recount the fascinating true story that changed the way we looked at the Catholic Church forever. It’s just a really well-made movie, and the best one about investigative journalism since “All the President’s Men,” which creates suspense from the seemingly boring daily grind of searching through documents and chasing down leads. Every single actor plays their part and plays it extremely well, working together as an ensemble to serve the story instead of a particular character. The same goes for McCarthy and Josh Singer’s disciplined script, which avoids the allure of sensationalizing events or being exploitative. “Spotlight” lets the story speak for itself, and though it’s one of great importance, the film is first and foremost a celebration of the journalistic process that made it possible for the courage of a few to be heard by the entire world.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a six-minute roundtable discussion with the real-life Spotlight team, as well as a pair of featurettes on the film and the state of journalism.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

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Blu Tuesday: Steve Jobs, Black Mass 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.

“Steve Jobs”

WHAT: An unconventional biopic that follows Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) backstage during three product launches – the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT “black box” in 1988, and the Apple iMac in 1998 – that helped shape his legacy.

WHY: For a movie about one of the most innovative people of the past century, it’s fitting that “Steve Jobs” is as risky and unique as the man himself. Aaron Sorkin was the perfect screenwriter to tackle this material, creating a sharp, funny and often unflattering look at Jobs that moves like a bullet train, despite the dense nature of its three-act structure. Director Danny Boyle stays out of the way for the most part, allowing Sorkin’s script to sing with few distractions, but he brings an electric immediacy to the story that’s reminiscent of live theater. Michael Fassbender is excellent as the title character, blurring the line between fiction and reality with his nuanced portrayal, while the rest of the cast shines in supporting roles. Though “Steve Jobs” will rub some people the wrong way with its prickly depiction of the Apple visionary, it’s an endlessly fascinating film that’s more respectful of its subject than it initially appears.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Danny Boyle, writer Aaron Sorkin and editor Elliot Graham, as well as a making-of featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Black Mass”

WHAT: When small-time criminal Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) begins to make a name for himself in South Boston, he strikes a deal with childhood friend/FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to help get rid of the local mob. But as John struggles to cover up Whitey’s growing criminal empire, he unknowingly places himself in the FBI’s crosshairs.

WHY: Much like director Scott Cooper’s first two films, “Black Mass” is a pretty slow burn, and although that comes with the territory of the crime genre, the movie doesn’t have anything new to say (or a new way to say it) that hasn’t been done in countless other gangster flicks. The true-life story is certainly compelling, but it never attains the greatness to match its ambition, despite Johnny Depp’s effectively chilling turn as the notorious Whitey Bulger. It’s not an overly showy piece of acting, servicing the story instead of his own self-indulgence for once. Unfortunately, the rest of Cooper’s top-notch cast (save for Joel Edgerton) is wasted in throwaway roles, which is not unlike the film itself, because for every outstanding setpiece, there are several scenes of tedious filler that grind the movie to a halt. Still, while it doesn’t do enough to earn a spot among the classics, “Black Mass” is a satisfying crime thriller that’s worth watching if only for Depp’s impressive return to form.

EXTRAS: In addition to a documentary about Whitey Bulger’s eventual capture, there’s a making-of featurette and a behind-the-scenes look at Johnny Depp’s transformation.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Show Me a Hero 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.

“Show Me a Hero”

WHAT: As the newly elected mayor of Yonkers, New York, rising politician Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) is thrown in at the deep end when he’s forced to deal with a controversial, court-ordered plan to build public housing within the mostly white, middle-class side of town.

WHY: After spending five years exploring the socioeconomic landscape of Baltimore with the HBO series “The Wire,” it’s fitting that David Simon would want to tackle this true story about racial and political tensions in Yonkers during the late 80s and early 90s. The six-part miniseries boasts a fantastic lead performance from Oscar Isaacs and great supporting turns by Catherine Keener, Winona Ryder and Alfred Molina, but unfortunately, it just isn’t as compelling as Simon’s previous work. For starters, there are no real heroes in this story, despite what the title (a play on the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote) might suggest. Though Wasicsko may have been responsible for pushing through the housing legislation, he only did so out of compliance and fear of bankrupting the city, not because he felt like it was the right thing to do. Additionally, while the attempts to show both sides of the conflict are commendable, the minority characters aren’t afforded the same depth as their political counterparts. “Show Me a Hero” is either too long or not long enough, because in trying to juggle so many different storylines, it lacks the focus that would have made it truly excellent.

EXTRAS: The two-disc set includes a making-of featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Our Brand Is Crisis”

WHAT: Disgraced campaign strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is hired by an elite management team representing Bolivian presidential candidate Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) as a last-ditch attempt to save his campaign. Despite the seemingly impossible odds, Jane agrees to take the job after discovering that the competition has hired its own American strategist, longtime rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who she’s never defeated.

WHY: For a movie about selling lies through a carefully crafted message, “Our Brand Is Crisis” feels hopelessly thrown together. There’s a complacency to the storytelling that prevents the film from ever moving outside its comfort zone, even though that’s exactly what it should be doing, while the talented ensemble cast is squandered in marginal roles. Even Sandra Bullock’s character is pretty one-dimensional, although at least she has the benefit of sharing the screen with Billy Bob Thornton’s reptilian sleazeball, who is hands-down the highlight of the movie. Thornton excels at playing the self-righteous asshole, and the ensuing tête-à-têtes between him and Bullock result in some entertaining moments of political puppetry. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to mask the film’s many flaws. “Our Brand Is Crisis” could have been a biting satire about U.S. politics and our insistence on forcing American culture on other countries, but it takes the easy Hollywood route instead – one more concerned about its protagonist’s contrived journey to redemption than the millions of people being affected by her actions.

EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on Sandra Bullock’s development of the lead character, but sadly, that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Burnt and Goosebumps

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.

“Burnt”

WHAT: Former bad boy chef Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) seeks to put his life back together and earn a coveted third Michelin star when he convinces his old business partner, Tony (Daniel Brühl), to take over his languishing London restaurant and turn it into one of the world’s best.

WHY: John Wells’ culinary drama was ripped apart by critics upon its theatrical release, and although the criticisms weren’t completely unfair, “Burnt” is far from disastrous. In fact, if you enjoy foodie shows like “Top Chef,” the kitchen-based sequences offer a pretty fascinating look behind the curtain of the restaurant world, even if it seems a bit more glamorous than in real life. Where the movie starts to fall apart is outside the kitchen with the clichéd personal drama and strained romantic subplot between Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller. It’s all too safe for a film about a guy who used to live on the edge, especially when his redemption arc lacks the required emotional punch. There’s enough quality among the ensemble cast (including all-too-brief cameos by Alicia Vikander and Uma Thurman) to hold your interest, but much like Cooper’s last chef-inspired project, the short-lived TV series “Kitchen Confidential,” it’s a little undercooked.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director John Wells and chef consultant Marcus Wareing, deleted scenes, highlights from a cast Q&A and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Goosebumps”

WHAT: After he breaks into his neighbor’s house to investigate a distress call, teenager Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) discovers a bookshelf filled with “Goosebumps” manuscripts that have been mysteriously sealed with a lock. When Zach unwittingly opens one and unleashes the monster trapped inside – setting off a chain reaction in the process – he must team up with R.L. Stine (Jack Black) and his daughter (Odeya Rush) to stop the author’s creations from wreaking havoc on their small town.

WHY: “Goosebumps” is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it does have a lot of fun with its premise, which takes a very meta approach to the source material. If anyone was going to make a “Goosebumps” movie, this was the way to do it. Unfortunately, while the film is much better than the cheesy, mid-‘90s TV series, nothing about it really stands out apart from Jack Black’s amusing performance as the macabre author. The visual effects are solid, if a little cartoony, and although Darren Lemke’s screenplay nails the spooky/funny tone of the typical “Goosebumps” tale, it’s riddled with plot holes. In spite of its obvious flaws, however, the spirit of “Goosebumps” is very much alive in director Rob Letterman’s movie. Fans of the YA book series will find more to love than most, but it’s a harmless slice of family entertainment that evokes the goofy humor and PG-rated scares of other Halloween classics like “Hocus Pocus.”

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of featurettes on the film’s creatures, there’s an alternate ending and opening, deleted scenes, a blooper reel and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: Straight Outta Compton, Everest 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.

“Straight Outta Compton”

WHAT: The story of influential rap group N.W.A. – comprised of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) – as they rose from the streets of Compton to popularize the gangsta rap movement.

WHY: There’s been a lot of discussion about “Straight Outta Compton” being snubbed for Best Picture in this year’s Oscar nominations, but it’s simply not special enough to warrant inclusion. (To be fair, neither is “Bridge of Spies,” though that’s an argument for another day.) While the film hits all the key beats in N.W.A.’s rise to stardom, it’s no different than a typical music biopic with all the highs and lows, even if it has a tendency to gloss over some of its members’ less flattering moments. Thankfully, the movie is so well-cast that it covers up many of the cracks in Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff’s screenplay. Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins and O’Shea Jackson Jr. deliver excellent performances as the key members of the group, while Paul Giamatti brings his particular brand of passive-aggressive villainy to the role of their manager. “Straight Outta Compton” is a solid biopic that music fans in particular will enjoy, but despite the timely subject matter, it’s too preoccupied with its clichéd story to make a lasting impression.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary by director F. Gary Gray, a collection of featurettes on the history of N.W.A., casting the group members and filming key sequences in the movie, some deleted scenes and a deleted musical performance.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Everest”

WHAT: Based on the incredible true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, a climbing expedition to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain is devastated by a ferocious snow storm.

WHY: I’ve never been very fond of movies about people doing stupid things, and climbing Mt. Everest is right up there, especially when the odds are so stacked in Mother Nature’s favor. Still, you have to admire anyone crazy enough to try it once, let alone make a career out of it, and that adventurer mentality shines through in Baltasar Kormákur’s film. But while the movie features an outstanding ensemble cast and impressive visual effects that make it look like the whole thing was shot on the mountain, “Everest” is all spectacle and very little substance. Though it’s not exactly a disaster film in the traditional sense, Kormákur focuses more on delivering thrills than developing the characters; there are so many different personalities vying for screen time that Jason Clarke’s Rob Hall is the only one who has anything resembling a proper arc. Had “Everest” focused more on his story, it likely would have fared better, but as it stands, the two-hour runtime isn’t nearly long enough to give every character the attention they deserve.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Baltasar Kormákur, as well as featurettes on making the film, recreating Mount Everest, climbing/altitude training with the actors and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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