Blu Tuesday: Superpowers, Hungry Wolves and More

It’s been a while since I’ve had this many new releases to choose from, but it looks like things are beginning to really pick up as we head into summer, which is great news. Though I didn’t have time to check out all of the week’s Blu-rays, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t limit yourself to the ones featured below. Criterion’s release of “Being John Malkovich” would be an excellent addition to any cinephile’s collection, while Western fans will probably enjoy the first season of the AMC drama “Hell on Wheels.”

“Chronicle”

With the exception of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield,” the whole found-footage craze has generally failed to impress me as a viable storytelling device, usually because most of the movies in the subgenre are plagued by terrible scripts and bad acting. But director Josh Trank’s debut feature doesn’t run into any of those problems, and it’s exactly because the script and acting are so good that he’s able to utilize the low-budget gimmick to his benefit, delivering a fresh take on found-footage and superhero movies in the process. Additionally, the idea to tell the superhero origin story from the villain’s point of view is pretty ingenious, particularly because his fall from grace is a lot more complex than the typical hero’s tale. Though the format does yield a few nagging questions – like, for instance, why anyone would still bother recording any of this after all hell has broken loose – the cameras are integrated so cleverly into the story that it helps the movie a lot more than it hurts it.

Blu-ray Highlight: I didn’t receive a copy in time for review, but I’m curious to check out the proposed director’s cut to see if any cool stuff was left on the cutting room floor.

“The Grey”

The trailers for Joe Carnahan’s survival thriller may have promised one thing (namely, a showdown between Liam Neeson and a big bad wolf) and delivered something else entirely, but it’s still a solid adventure film with plenty of action. Though you pretty much know how it’s going to end as soon as the first few guys succumb to the deadly triumvirate of the punishing weather, dangerous terrain and hungry predators, Carnahan manages to hold your interest by taking the time to develop his characters, humanizing them beyond simple wolf fodder. Neeson and character actor Frank Grillo, in particular, deliver some really strong performances, with the latter even managing to outshine his co-star. “The Grey” can get a bit too philosophical at times when you’d rather just watch Neeson punch a wolf in the face, but while that would have certainly delivered the kind of instant adrenaline rush we all expected, it’s the bleak realism of the movie that stays with you long after it’s finished.

Blu-ray Highlight: Though Joe Carnahan has a tendency to be a bit of a tool when it comes to talking about his movies, the director’s commentary with editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellmann is nonetheless an engaging discussion about making the film that covers a range of topics like the cast, special effects and shooting in the Arctic.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to January

I’ve joked in the past about January being a dumping ground for all the misfit movies that the studios deemed unworthy of a more attractive release date, but the truth of the matter is that there are 12 months in a year, and you can’t expect every month to be overflowing with quality programming. With that said, however, this year’s pickings don’t look as bad as usual, with a surprising amount of action films led by big-name stars, some of which have real sleeper hit potential. The general lack of confidence by the studios suggests otherwise, but when expectations are this low, anything is possible.

“CONTRABAND”

Who: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi, Lukas Haas and Ben Foster
What: To protect his brother-in-law from a drug lord, a former smuggler heads to Panama to score millions of dollars in counterfeit bills.
When: January 13th
Why: It’s pretty funny that a movie about counterfeiting should turn out to be an imitation itself (the Icelandic film on which its based featured the U.S. version’s director, Baltasar Kormákur, in the lead role), but despite the fact that its clichéd plot seems to have been ripped off from a number of generic action thrillers just like it, “Contraband” has one thing that a lot of those films didn’t – a killer ensemble cast. Mark Wahlberg has had his share of duds over the years, but he’s always entertaining to watch, and guys like Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster and J.K. Simmons are some of the best character actors in the game. It’s probably not something you should rush out to see on opening weekend, but “Contraband” at least looks like it’ll be a fun way to kick off the 2012 movie season.

“UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING”

Who: Kate Beckinsale, Michael Ealy, Stephen Rea and Kris Holden-Ried
What: When human forces discover the existence of the Vampire and Lycan clans, Selene leads the battle to protect both of their species.
When: January 20th
Why: For as entertaining as the first “Underworld” movie was, I’ve never understood how the series has managed to stick around for as long as it has. The second film was really bad and the third one was even worse, but for some reason, Screen Gems is intent on milking the vampire/werewolf franchise for as long as they can. And until people stop blindly handing the studio their money, they’ll keep making them. The only reason anyone should even consider seeing this fourth installment is for the leather-clad return of Kate Beckinsale as vampire heroine Selene, because the rest of the film reeks of desperation. Why else would they be releasing it in (undoubtedly subpar) 3D?

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