Blu Tuesday: American Hustle, Frozen 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.

“American Hustle”

WHAT: When con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are caught selling fake loans by an ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), they’re wrangled into working with him on an undercover sting targeting dirty politicians. But despite their deep mistrust in each another, the one thing that threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down is Irving’s wildly unpredictable wife (Jennifer Lawrence).

WHY: David O. Russell has always been a quality filmmaker, but he’s quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with thanks to movies like “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and this farcical con-artist caper. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ‘70s, “American Hustle” is immensely entertaining and features some of the best acting of the year. Forty pounds heavier and rocking the most elaborate comb-over you’ve ever seen, Christian Bale delivers a wonderfully nuanced performance as the straight man of the bunch. The other cast members aren’t quite as committed physically, but they’re just as good, including Amy Adams’ sexy and cunning partner in crime, Bradley Cooper’s short-tempered federal agent, and scene stealer Jennifer Lawrence, who’s an absolute riot as Bale’s unpredictable wife. The whole movie is also a lot funnier than you’d expect due to Russell and Eric Singer’s darkly comic script, and though some have argued that it’s too long, the characters are so richly developed and crackling with personality that I would have gladly spent another hour in their messed-up world.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a making-of featurette and some deleted and extended scenes, but sadly, that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Frozen”

WHAT: When her sister Elsa’s icy powers inadvertently ensnare the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter, Anna (Kristen Bell) teams up with a rugged mountain man (Jonathan Groff) and a talking snowman (Josh Gad) to retrieve Elsa (Idina Menzel) from her self-imposed isolation and prove that she’s not the evil witch the townspeople believe her to be.

WHY: In a year of underwhelming animated films, it’s hardly fair to place Disney’s “Frozen” so high on a pedestal, even if it is one of the best things that the Mouse House has produced in almost 20 years. But while “Frozen” is undoubtedly a good movie, it’s not quite as great as the recent love-fest would suggest. It’s also not nearly as progressive, with the lead heroine falling in love with one male character mere minutes after meeting him, and relying on the help of another shortly after. Then there’s the issue of those silly troll rock thingies that threaten to derail the film in the third act, not to mention the fact that it features of the lamest and least threatening villains in memory. With that said, “Frozen” isn’t without its charms. It has a few catchy tunes (particularly the Oscar-winning “Let It Go”), some excellent laughs and a solid voice cast led by Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel and the scene-stealing Josh Gad. It’s the kind of movie that has likely empowered young girls around the world, all while selling billions of dollars in merchandise. That’s what you call a win-win.

EXTRAS: There’s a short featurette about the 75-year journey to bring Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” to the big screen, a music video parodying the lack of an actual making-of featurette, some deleted scenes and the short “Get a Horse!”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “Saving Mr. Banks”

Starring
Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak
Director
John Lee Hancock

The trailer for “Saving Mr. Banks” resembles the film only slightly more than “The Shining” resembles that fake trailer for the film that made the rounds 10 or so years ago. In the trailer, “Mr. Banks” looks light and fun, with a little playful back-and-forth between the frigid, overprotective writer and the movie executive who’s looking to turn her pet project into box office gold. Nora Ephron made this movie with Meg Ryan four or five times (twice with “Banks” star Tom Hanks, strangely enough), and we all know that it ends with the two finding some middle ground while learning to be more understanding of others.

Except that this movie isn’t even remotely like that. Instead, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a dark, painfully sad journey of a grown woman still looking to redeem her long-lost father, occasionally broken up by moments of levity. This makes for a more emotionally complex story, which is a nice surprise, but it doesn’t always make for a better story. The flashback timeline is informative, but the present day timeline is more interesting.

It is the year 1961, and P.L. Travers (a spot-on Emma Thompson) has been fielding calls from movie mogul Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for 20 years about adapting her book “Mary Poppins” for the silver screen. Her answer has always been a steadfast ‘no,’ but when a financial adviser friend of hers reminds her that she’s almost out of money, Mrs. Travers agrees to fly to Los Angeles, meet with Walt, and consider the possibility of allowing Disney and his team to work their “magic” on her beloved Mary. From the beginning, though, Mrs. Travers has objections to their treatment of the material, and in flashback, we see why: as a young girl in rural Australia in the early 1900s, Mrs. Travers had a wonderful relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), an otherwise unreliable and occasionally foul-tempered drunk who nonetheless adored his eldest daughter “Ginty” and encouraged her to think creatively. She lost him at an early age, and she’s clearly still stinging from the loss, and the fact that Disney and his staff doesn’t understand what “Mary Poppins” means to her, in both a literal and figurative sense, infuriates her.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to December

december

Winter has officially arrived, and with it comes the final wave of award contenders hoping to leave an impression on critics and Oscar voters. Though 2013 hasn’t exactly been the best year for movies, there’s plenty of quality on display in December, including the second installment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy, new films from David O. Russell and the Coen brothers, and the latest collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. And for those looking for lighter fare, there’s also the long-awaited sequel to “Anchorman.”

“OUT OF THE FURNACE”

Who: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck and Zoe Saldana
What: When Rodney Baze mysteriously disappears and law enforcement fails to follow through, his older brother, Russell, takes matters into his own hands to find justice.
When: December 4th
Why: Writer/director Scott Cooper burst onto the scene in 2009 with “Crazy Heart,” netting Jeff Bridges the Oscar for Best Actor in the process, so it’s not surprising to see that he’s managed to land some equally impressive talent for his sophomore effort. Though early word for this one has been pretty mixed, the trailers have me intrigued, particularly with such an amazing ensemble cast, which also includes screen veterans like Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard. Plus, I’ll watch just about anything starring Christian Bale, because he’s one of this generation’s finest actors with his chameleon-like ability to completely inhabit any role. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made a dud every now and again, but his résumé speaks for itself, and “Out of the Furnace” looks like another solid addition to an already remarkable career.

“INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS”

Who: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman
What: A week in the life of a young musician as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
When: December 6th
Why: There aren’t many directors that can boast a track record as impressive as the one that Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed throughout their 30-year careers, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just another notch on that cinematic belt. Markedly different from a lot of their films in that it’s a much more intimate, character-driven piece, “Inside Llewyn Davis” most closely resembles “A Serious Man” in both tone and execution. But although the movie is a fairly bittersweet portrait of personal failure (a running theme in the Coens’ repertoire), it’s not without their trademark wit and humor. The comedy may not be as pronounced as in their other films, but it’s yet another fine period drama that boasts a superb lead performance from Oscar Isaac and one of the best (and most addictive) soundtracks since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

“THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”

Who: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage and Orlando Bloom
What: The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug.
When: December 13th
Why: It’s a little ironic that the villain of this story is an avaricious reptile, because Warner Bros. could be accused of similar behavior following the decision to split “The Hobbit” into three movies. Of course, fans are hardly complaining about spending more time in Middle-earth, and now that the stage has been set with “An Unexpected Journey,” the second installment promises to be even better. Along with introducing important characters like Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), The Necromancer and Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch pulling double duty), the movie also marks the return of fan favorite Legolas and newly created female elf Tauriel, neither of whom actually appear in Tolkien’s novel. It wouldn’t be the first time that Peter Jackson has tinkered with the source material, but he hasn’t let us down yet, and that’s more than enough reason to get excited about Part Two.

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