Blu Tuesday: Still Alice, Blackhat 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.

“Still Alice”

WHAT: Renowned linguistics professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a happily married mother of three grown children who has begun to experience problems with her memory. When she’s diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease, Alice’s relationships with her family are tested as she struggles to maintain a normal life despite the worsening symptoms.

WHY: “Still Alice” is an emotionally devastating, soul-crushing movie that is bound to end in tears for anyone watching it, which makes the decision to release it on home video the week of Mother’s Day especially cruel. With that said, writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (the former of whom recently died from his own battle with a terrible disease, ALS) do a good job of portraying the illness and the effect it has on the people around those afflicted without cheapening its real-world impact or pandering to the audience. The story also smartly avoids getting too deep into Alice’s illness too soon, allowing you to witness Alice in her natural habitat as a wife, mother and teacher, thus making her mental deterioration that much more traumatic. Based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestselling novel of the same name, the film is such a well-acted drama that it deserves every accolade it received during last year’s awards season. It wouldn’t be as effective without Julianne Moore in the lead role, however, and she delivers a career-best performance as the intelligent and independent matriarch forced to suffer her worst nightmare. Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart are also solid in supporting roles, but this is Moore’s movie from start to finish, and she commands the screen with such brutal honesty that it was never a question of if she’d win the Oscar, but why it took so long.

EXTRAS: In addition to a discussion among the cast, crew and Alzheimer’s experts about creating an accurate depiction of Alice’s disease, there’s a profile on directors Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland, an interview with composer Ilan Eshkeri and a few deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Blackhat”

WHAT: After a cyberterrorist causes a meltdown at a nuclear reactor in China and makes millions on the stock market by driving up the price of soy, FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) makes a deal with imprisoned hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) to expunge his record in exchange for his help in stopping the malicious blackhat before the next attack.

WHY: Over the past decade, Michael Mann has come to care more about the look of his films than what they’re trying to say, and that hasn’t changed with “Blackhat.” To be fair, when the camera isn’t shaking around like it’s in the middle of an earthquake, the movie boasts some really gorgeous visuals. It’s just a shame that the story hasn’t been given the same attention. Mann tries to counteract the implausibility of Morgan Davis Foehl’s script by instilling a sense of danger with real stakes, but there’s too much working against it, including a faceless villain who isn’t very threatening and a needlessly convoluted plot that fails to validate the sluggish, 135-minute runtime. Chris Hemsworth does the best he can with such a dull, underdeveloped character (wasting his charismatic presence in the process), although Chinese actors Leehom Wang and Wei Tang fare much better in supporting roles. Perhaps the most annoying thing about “Blackhat,” however, is that it constantly brings up 9/11 as a measure of the level of terror that the hacker is capable of launching against the world, and yet the film never even considers going in that direction. This could have been a very timely thriller about cyber-terrorism, but instead, it’s just another style-over-substance misfire from Mann.

EXTRAS: There’s a trio of featurettes on the film’s production, shooting on location and the real-world threat of cyber-terrorism.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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2014 Year-End Movie Review: David Medsker

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Let’s get this out of the way up front: there is a lot of popcorn on my list this year. That might sound bad, since critics are supposed to dislike what’s popular (that’s not true, actually: we just dislike anything we think is bad, whether or not it’s popular), but hey, I’m just happy that I liked enough movies this year to put a Top 10 list together. (This is my first full Top 10 since 2010.) There weren’t a lot of blockbusters this year, but some of the year’s biggest films were big for a reason: they were better than the others.

Of course, I say that, and yet the top four movies on my list barely made a penny. Let’s see if we can change that, shall we?

My Favorite Movies of 2014

1. “WHIPLASH

The Battle of Alpha Males: it’s a timeless plot device. Usually it concerns two guys on the same level (“Tin Men,” “Pushing Tin”) and sometimes involves having sex with your enemy’s spouse (again, “Tin Men” and “Pushing Tin), but here it is the battle of student versus teacher at a music conservatory. Miles Teller, the prodigious drummer, and J.K. Simmons, the sadistic teacher, have never been better, but the movie’s best trick is that it gets the audience to root for both sides, even though both men are horribly flawed and unlikable. It came and went quietly in its theatrical run, but this is a must-see when it hits the video circuit.

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2. “NIGHTCRAWLER

It’s assumed that everyone’s soul has a price, that there is a limit to what people will do for money or success. “Nightcrawler” makes it painfully clear that when it comes to a functioning sociopath like Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s superb), all bets are off. Indeed, the uplifting corporate buzz speak that Louis uses to influence characters in the film serves a dual purpose: it gets him what he wants, and it warns the audience that if they work with or for anyone who uses that language, RUN.

3. “BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

There are so many genius moments in this movie that it is hard to count. The entire movie is shot to look like it was done in one take, even though it takes place over several days (your move, Alfonso Curaón). Edward Norton is pitch-perfect casting for the part of Mike, playing on his own reputation as a difficult actor, but having Michael Keaton play the lead, a guy who did exactly what his character does in walking away from a blockbuster franchise, is just sublime. It is one of the rare films that uses mainstream pop culture as a means to make an artful statement about life. There are many unforgettable moments, but the movie’s last shot will be permanently etched into your memory.

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