Blu Tuesday: Death, Death and More Death

With the fall TV season just around the corner, the end of August is typically inundated with TV-on-DVD releases, but there aren’t many shows being released on Blu-ray this week. Luckily, there are several quality films hitting stores, including the usual barrage of catalog titles from Disney, the latest from director Richard Linklater, and the third highest-grossing movie of the year after “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“The Hunger Games”

Though the movie was technically released last Friday (mimicking the business model used by Summit with the “Twilight” franchise), I’ve decided to include it in my column this week because it warrants discussion. For starters, it’s that rare case of a film being better than the book it’s based on, because for all the things that Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular novel does well, “The Hunger Games” improves upon it in almost every way – from the pacing, to the character development, to the execution of the Games itself. Part of that comes down to the smart and economic script by Collins, Billy Ray and director Gary Ross, which doesn’t waste any time in getting to the titular event, but it’s the cast that really elevates the story beyond its mediocre source material. Jennifer Lawrence displays remarkable poise in the lead role, Josh Hutcherson shows signs that he’s maturing as a performer, and the adult actors (particularly Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz) nail the essence of their larger than life characters in ways that fans of the book probably never imagined possible. Granted, I’d still choose “Battle Royale” over “The Hunger Games” any day of the week, but it’s really no surprise why the film performed as well as it did.

Blu-ray Highlight: As you’d expect from a high-profile film like “The Hunger Games,” Lionsgate has loaded the two-disc set with a ton of great bonus material. Although some might lament the lack of an audio commentary by director Gary Ross and the cast, the ridiculously in-depth making-of featurette “The World is Watching” (which runs just over two hours long) more than makes up for it, covering an array of topics like adapting the script, production and costume design, stunts, special effects and more.

“The Dictator”

Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest comedy is a bit of a departure from his previous starring vehicles in that it’s scripted as opposed to the more free-from style that was employed in “Borat” and “Brüno,” but just because it takes a more conventional route doesn’t mean that it’s lacking the comedian’s trademark brand of outrageous and grossly offensive humor. After all, when a film opens with a dedication to the late Kim Jong-il, that’s a pretty good indicator of just how silly it’s going to be, and credit to Cohen for completely embracing that silliness. The script strikes a great balance between the obscene and shocking bits and the more clever gags, and although it adopts a kitchen sink mentality that results in almost as many bad jokes as good ones, when the movie is funny, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. “The Dictator” doesn’t have quite as much of a sociopolitical agenda as Cohen’s other collaborations with director Larry Charles, but it does land a few jabs that resonate, particularly in a closing monologue that exposes America as a closet dictatorship. The film still pales in comparison to “Borat,” but after the massive disappointment of “Brüno,” it’s nice to know that Sacha Baron Cohen hasn’t totally lost his flair for making audiences laugh.

Blu-ray Highlight: There’s not much to get excited about beyond a handful of deleted and extended scenes, many of which are less effective variations of the same joke.

“Bernie”

Based on the true story of a wealthy oil widow who was murdered by her only friend – an assistant funeral director in the small East Texas town of Carthage and the nicest guy around – “Bernie” is a pretty unconventional crime comedy by most accounts. In fact, how much you enjoy the film will depend largely on how you feel about its mockumentary format, which uses real East Texas citizens in fictional roles doing on-camera interviews about the events leading up to the murder. Though it provides a handful of comedic moments, it’s a stylistic choice that never really pays off, since you’d rather just watch the narrative unfold in real time. Jack Black delivers some of his best work to date as the title character, and Shirley MacLaine is great as the tight-fisted old lady, but the long-awaited reunion between director Richard Linklater and Matthew McConaughey is a pretty big letdown, because the actor’s talents are wasted in a throwaway role. “Bernie” isn’t a bad film by any means, but it is an incredibly average and forgettable one, and sometimes that’s even worse.

Blu-ray Highlight: There are three short featurettes included on the disc, and “True Story to Film” is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. Richard Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth talk about following the case back in the late 90s, while Jack Black discusses how he got involved in the film and his preparation for playing Bernie Tiede.

  

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to May

I remember a simpler time when May was still considered part of spring, but these days, the studios are so eager to beat the competition to the punch with the first big blockbuster of the season that it’s now widely accepted as the start of summer. That’s all fine and well, but by extending the season by an additional month, it also increases the chance of disappointment, which is looking pretty likely based on the May release schedule, despite the fact that a certain superhero film will be kicking off the festivities.

“THE AVENGERS”

Who: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Cobie Smulders and Samuel L. Jackson
What: Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. brings together a team of super humans to form The Avengers in order to save the Earth from Loki and his invading army.
When: May 4th
Why: The idea of an Avengers movie may not sound like much of a gamble today as it did four years ago when Marvel first announced its ambitious master plan, but it’s a risk that certainly seems to have paid off. Anyone that considers themselves a fan of comics or the recent Marvel solo films has undoubtedly placed this movie at the top of their must-see list. After all, the prospect of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the rest of the Avengers sharing the screen is simply too awesome to ignore, and the decision to bring back Loki as the main villain (hands down the most interesting of the Marvel film baddies) only makes things that much more exciting. Sure, Joss Whedon has never taken on a project of this scale before, but as a self-professed geek with a great track record of managing ensemble casts, there’s no one more qualified for the job than him.

“THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL”

Who: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and Dev Patel
What: British retirees travel to India to take up residence in what they believe is a newly restored hotel, only to find that it’s less luxurious than its advertisements.
When: May 4th
Why: It’s hard to imagine a better piece of counterprogramming to “The Avengers” than this John Madden dramedy, because although studios have typically put a chick flick up against a surefire blockbuster to lure female moviegoers in the past, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a film that both sexes can enjoy. And the best part is that it actually looks pretty good, although that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering the cast includes four of the most respected British actors working today. While the movie could have easily come across as being too schmaltzy in the hands of another director, Madden appears to have struck the right balance between comedy and sentimentality.

“DARK SHADOWS”

Who: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter
What: An imprisoned vampire is set free and returns to his ancestral home, where his dysfunctional descendants are in need of his protection.
When: May 11th
Why: I’ve never seen the late ‘60s TV show that serves as the inspiration for this big screen adaptation, but based solely on the early reaction to the trailer, it’s not exactly what anyone was expecting. Though it may seem strange that director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp, both of whom claim they were massive fans of the gothic drama as kids, would re-imagine it as a comedy, their version seems to be less about damaging the show’s memory and more about embracing its campiness. While they admittedly might have taken it a little too far (cue Alice Cooper cameo), the cast is simply too good for “Dark Shadows” to be a complete disaster. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

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