Blu Tuesday: House of Cards, The LEGO Movie 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.

“House of Cards: Season Two”

WHAT: After being sworn in as the new Vice President, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) continues his quest for absolute power alongside his equally manipulative wife, Claire (Robin Wright). Meanwhile, a team of D.C. journalists investigate Frank’s involvement in Peter Russo’s death, witnessing first-hand the level of corruption at work in their government.

WHY: Season Two of “House of Cards” will likely be labeled a disappointment by some, but while it’s noticeably weaker than the Netflix drama’s debut season, it’s still better than a vast majority of the shows on television. After all, there aren’t many series that would kill off one of its main characters in the first episode, especially in such ruthless and shocking fashion, but it’s a necessary move that signals a change in the direction of the show. The ancillary subplots aren’t nearly as interesting this time around (particularly the stuff between Michael Kelly’s Chief of Staff and Rachel Brosnahan’s reformed call girl), and even the main story feels a bit stretched at times with the constant back and forth between Underwood and Raymond Tusk, but there’s rarely a dull moment thanks to the excellent writing and performances. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are in top form once again as the conniving husband-and-wife duo, while Molly Parker (of “Deadwood” fame) is a welcome addition to the cast as the new House Whip. And when you have characters as brilliantly realized as the ones that populate “House of Cards,” you’re allowed a few missteps every once in a while.

EXTRAS: The four-disc set boasts a quartet of production featurettes (including an examination of the differences between the British and American versions of the show) and a behind-the-scenes look at a table read for two episodes from Season One.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“The LEGO Movie”

WHAT: When an ordinary LEGO construction worker named Emmet (Chris Pratt) stumbles upon an ancient artifact, he’s declared “The Special” by an underground group of rebels led by the blind prophet Vitruvis (Morgan Freeman), who believes that Emmet is the only one capable of stopping the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) from destroying their world.

WHY: When “The LEGO Movie” was first announced, there were obvious concerns about whether it would just play like one long commercial for the popular toy brand. But while the folks at LEGO have undoubtedly seen a nice bump in business since its release, the film is so much more than that – smart, funny and surprisingly heartfelt. A lot of that credit goes to directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who bring the LEGO universe to life with the sort of boundless imagination that the movie preaches to its audience. Though the script borrows heavily from “The Matrix” (from its main story, to the three leads, to its anti-conformatist message), that’s merely the setup for a much more sophisticated payoff that is equally daring and brilliant. For as great as the film’s ending may be, however, it wouldn’t feel earned if the first two-thirds weren’t so enjoyable. And thanks to some incredible visuals, great voice work (particularly by Chris Pratt) and hilarious gags, “The LEGO Movie” isn’t just one of the best animated films in years, but it’s also one of the best movies of 2014 thus far.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary with directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (along with actors Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Alison Brie and Charlie Day) and a host of bonus material like a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, outtakes and a series of fun mini-featurettes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

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Movie Review: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Starring
Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum
Director
Wes Anderson

At this point in Wes Anderson’s career, you either like his movies or you don’t, which is good news for fans of the eccentric director, because “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is very much a case of more of the same. You know what to expect when watching one of Anderson’s films, and his latest doesn’t disappoint, overflowing with colorful characters, zany plot twists and sublime production design. It’s also considerably darker than some of his past work, though Anderson’s trademark whimsy still bleeds through, resulting in a movie that, while hardly among his greatest achievements, proves yet again why he’s one of the best and most original directors around.

The movie is a bit like a Russian nesting doll in that it’s designed as a story within a story within a story, opening on a young girl reading a book about the titular hotel that was written by an unnamed author, portrayed at various ages by Tom Wilkinson in a brief 1985 flashback and Jude Law in 1968. It’s during the latter period that the author resided at the once-majestic Grand Budapest Hotel and learned of how its enigmatic owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), came into its possession. And this is where the story truly begins, as Moustafa then recounts his early days working as a lobby boy (played by Tony Revolori) at the hotel under the guidance of charismatic concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a man whose expert hospitality extends to sexual favors for the old and wealthy female clientele. When one such guest (an aged-up Tilda Swinton) dies and leaves Gustave a priceless painting in exchange for years of companionship, the woman’s eldest son (Adrien Brody) frames him for her murder, forcing Gustave and Zero to go on the run until they can prove his innocence.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to March

march

After what can only be described as a fairly lackluster start to 2014, moviegoers will be happy to discover that there are several promising titles scheduled for release throughout March. In addition to new films from Wes Anderson and Darren Aronofsky, this month marks the return of Veronica Mars, the debut of Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series and the arrival of a new challenger to the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”

Who: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Edward Norton, Adrian Brody and Saoirse Ronan
What: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.
When: March 7th
Why: At this point in Wes Anderson’s career, you either like his movies or you don’t, which is good news for fans of the eccentric director, because “The Grand Budapest Hotel” looks very much like more of the same. While not every one of his films is an instant classic (“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” remains his worst effort), audiences usually have a pretty good idea of what to expect from a typical Anderson project, and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is no different. Quirky dialogue? Check. Even quirkier characters? Check. Whimsical production design painted in vibrant colors? Check and check. And if that’s not enough to get you on board, the director’s ever-expanding pool of talent adds a few new faces to the mix with Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law and Saoirse Ronan, making this perhaps his most impressive ensemble to date.

“300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE”

Who: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro and Lena Headey
What: Greek general Themistokles leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes and his vengeful commander Artemisia.
When: March 7th
Why: It’s been so long since the original “300” hit theaters that it’s hard to imagine many people still care about this prequel/sequel, even if the very idea of a spinoff was ridiculous from the start. With that said, credit to Frank Miller for coming up with an idea that complements the first film instead of feeling like a silly cash grab. Though Sullivan Stapleton will have a tough time living up to Gerard Butler’s Leonidas (especially if you’ve seen his work on “Strike Back”), he fulfills the beefcake quotient, while Eva Green is already earning positive reviews for her turn as the female baddie. Seeing Noam Murro behind the camera of a big action movie like “Rise of an Empire” may be a little perplexing considering his only other credit is the indie dramedy “Smart People,” but judging from the trailers, he’s nailed the look and feel of Zack Snyder’s universe.

“NEED FOR SPEED”

Who: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Scott Mescudi and Michael Keaton
What: Fresh from prison, a street racer who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross-country race with revenge in mind.
When: March 14th
Why: It’s amazing that it took this long for another studio to exploit the success of the “Fast and Furious” franchise with a racing movie of its own, but considering that Electronic Arts’ “Need for Speed” video game series (from which the film gets its name) predates the original “The Fast and the Furious” by several years, you can hardly blame DreamWorks for wanting a piece of the pie. Casting Aaron Paul, hot off his Emmy-winning role on “Breaking Bad,” as the leading man is a surefire way to win support, though the involvement of director Scott Waugh (“Act of Valor”) is certainly cause for concern. One of the things that make the “Fast and Furious” movies so entertaining is that they don’t take themselves seriously, and if “Need for Speed” is unable to tap into that childish sense of fun, then it’s already lost before the race has begun.

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