Blu Tuesday: Catching Fire, 12 Years a Slave 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 Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

WHAT: Humiliated by the stunt pulled by Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) at the end of the 74th Hunger Games, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) enlists the help of Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to squash a potential uprising by forcing previous victors (including Katniss and Peeta) into participating in a special 75th edition of the Games.

WHY: As far as book sequels go, “Catching Fire” isn’t exactly the most original, which is why I was pleasantly surprised by the film adaptation. Under the assured direction of Francis Lawrence, “Catching Fire” doesn’t just improve upon Suzanne Collins’ novel, but is superior to the first movie in just about every way, including more spirited performances from its two leads and better development for the supporting characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone – actors you wouldn’t normally associate with a big budget franchise like this – are just a few of the notable additions to the already impressive cast, and there’s not a weak link among them. The script by Oscar-winning screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt is also crucial to the movie’s success, removing a lot of the unnecessary filler while raising the stakes to create a smarter and more focused adaptation that’s extremely well-paced for its 146 minute runtime. “Catching Fire” is everything you could want from a sequel without many of the usual failings, and it’s a prime example of a tentpole film that offers both style and substance.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary with director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson, the Blu-ray release includes a ridiculously in-depth making-of featurette (clocking in at nearly 150 minutes) that covers pretty much every aspect of the filmmaking process, as well as some deleted scenes and a sneak peak at “Divergent.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“12 Years a Slave”

WHAT: The real-life story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and children in New York, who was kidnapped and sold back into slavery in 1841. Transported to the South, Northup spent 12 years working on various plantations, including one owned by the malicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

WHY:12 Years a Slave” is without a doubt Steve McQueen’s most accessible film to date. Though it boasts the same gorgeous cinematography from longtime collaborator Sean Bobbitt, it’s not as experimental as his first two films, instead opting for a more straightforward narrative. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t without its faults, and John Ridley’s screenplay is chief among them, riddled with bad dialogue that’s made only marginally better by the ensemble cast. Some of the actors treat it like they’re reading Shakespeare, and the theatricality of their performances weakens what would otherwise be powerful scenes. As a result, Chiwetel Ejiofor is left to shoulder most of the weight, and his brilliant performance not only holds the movie together, but outshines it completely. Without Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave” would be just another mediocre drama about slavery in the antebellum South. McQueen’s film is way too long for such a thinly scripted story, hammering you with the same ideas over and over to the point of exhaustion. It’s almost too in-your-face at times – less concerned with the character’s own emotional journey than piling on the white guilt – and though Solomon Northupp’s tale is one that deserves to be told, it could have benefited from a little restraint.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette titled “Historical Portrait,” profiles on the various cast and crew, and a short look at composing the score.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Oldboy”

WHAT: After he’s kidnapped, framed for the murder of his ex-wife and locked away in solitary confinement for 20 years, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is mysteriously released one day by his captors. Determined to seek revenge and track down his estranged daughter, Joe teams up with a kindly nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) to find out why he was imprisoned in the first place.

WHY: Rumors of an American remake of Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” had been swirling around Hollywood for so long that surely the people involved had to realize it was a bad idea. And when it was announced that Spike Lee would be the one to helm the U.S. version, any hope for the project went from bad to worse. As a director, Lee lacks the style or subtlety to even compete with Chan-wook’s atmospheric cult classic, and it definitely shows in the final product, abandoning the gritty, twisted nature of the original for a pulpier B-movie that is almost comically gratuitous with its violence. Josh Brolin performs admirably in the lead role, and Samuel L. Jackson makes the most of his few scenes, but Sharlto Copley’s villain is so atrocious from conception to execution that it completely derails any chance the movie had of being taken seriously. Though Lee’s version follows many of the same beats (including that unforgettable twist ending), it adds absolutely nothing to the story, reaffirming its status as one of the more pointless remakes in recent history.

EXTRAS: Apart from the making-of featurette, the rest of the extras – which includes an additional interview with Josh Brolin, an EPK-style promo piece and four alternate/extended scenes – are barely worth your time.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to November

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Last month may have been pretty uncharacteristic with the quality of films on display, featuring several Best Picture contenders, but if you thought that it would somehow affect the November release slate, think again. Though audiences will sadly have to wait a little longer to see Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” after the director failed to meet the original date, there are still plenty of great movies on tap, including a few award hopefuls, a pair of blockbuster sequels and more.

“ENDER’S GAME”

Who: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld and Ben Kingsley
What: The International Military recruits and trains a brilliant young boy named Ender Wiggin to lead his fellow soldiers against an alien attack.
When: November 1st
Why: Though “Ender’s Game” has been mired in controversy due to author Orson Scott Card’s recent anti-gay marriage rant, the fact of the matter is that his opinions have nothing to do with the actual movie. Of course, that’s not to say that the film still isn’t fighting an uphill battle. Director Gavin Hood has some making up to do after the disappointment of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” but despite some concerns from fans, this big screen adaptation of the beloved sci-fi novel (previously thought to be unfilmable) looks like it could be his ticket to redemption. While it’s surprising that he’d follow up “Wolverine” with another effects-heavy film, it shows that Hood is adamant about proving his critics wrong. And with actors like Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis in supporting roles, he certainly has the right tools to do just that.

“LAST VEGAS”

Who: Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline
What: Three sixty-something friends take a break from their day-to-day lives to throw a bachelor party in Las Vegas for their last remaining single pal.
When: November 1st
Why: A lot of people are already referring to “Last Vegas” as the geriatric version of “The Hangover,” but apparently, Dan Fogelman’s script was floating around Hollywood years before the Todd Phillips comedy became a box office hit. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that the success of the “Hangover” films didn’t play some part in getting the movie greenlit, and as goofy as the concept sounds (expect plenty of cheap jokes at the expense of its elderly characters), it actually looks pretty fun. The fact that director Jon Turteltaub was able to recruit such accomplished actors like De Niro, Douglas, Freeman and Kline (the latter of whom we haven’t seen much of recently) only helps sell the comedy even more, because if we’re going to watch four old guys make fools of themselves, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better quartet.

“ABOUT TIME”

Who: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy and Lydia Wilson
What: At the age of 21, Tim discovers he can time travel. His decision to make his world a better place by getting a girlfriend turns out not to be as easy as you might think.
When: November 1st
Why: Richard Curtis is responsible for making my favorite romantic comedy of all-time (“Love, Actually”), so to say that I’m excited about his latest (and hopefully not last, if reports are to be believed) directorial effort is a bit of an understatement. For starters, it’s a brilliant approach to the time travel gimmick, eschewing all the usual sci-fi mumbo jumbo in place of a simpler explanation, which allows Curtis to focus on the characters instead of getting wrapped up in the how of Tim’s magical ability. The father/son storyline also appears to be more important than the trailers suggest, and between rising star Domhnall Gleeson and the always dependable Bill Nighy, it’s that relationship (and not the one between Gleeson and Rachel McAdams) that will likely provide the careful balance of laughter and tears that Curtis has perfected so well.

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Hidden Netflix Gems: ‘Oldboy’

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a new weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Oldboy” (2003)

Here in the States, it’s entirely likely you haven’t seen or even heard about the 2003  film “Oldboy.” If that’s the case, you’ve been missing out on what’s generally considered one of the greatest films of all time. Directed by Park Chan-wook, one of South Korea’s most popular and critically acclaimed filmmakers, “Oldboy” won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, it’s been certified fresh with an 81 percent rating on the Tomatometer, and with its 8.4 rating on IMDb, the film sits at 87th on the site’s Top 250 movies of all-time. As a result, Spike Lee is set to direct an American remake and subsequently ruin an awesome film which deserves all the acclaim that’s been heaped upon it.

When “Oldboy” begins, its main character, Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik), is more than a bit too drunk on his daughter’s birthday. Dae-su is kidnapped and locked in a hotel room for 15 years, never knowing the identity nor the motives of his captors. Fed nothing but fried dumplings, a television is his only contact with the outside world. It is through his TV screen that Dae-su learns that his wife has been murdered and he has been made to look like the culprit. As he slowly loses grip on his sanity, Dae-su spends his days honing his fighting skills, waiting to be released and obsessing over the vengeance he plans to take on those who imprisoned him. Then, one day, completely without explanation, Dae-su is released. A beggar hands him a cell phone and a wallet filled with money, the phone rings, and the voice on the other end challenges him to uncover the reasons behind his imprisonment. Dae-su embarks on a quest for vengeance, finding himself caught in a web of conspiracy and violence, and perhaps more surprisingly, he finds himself in love.

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