Blu Tuesday: Fear the Walking Dead, Mississippi Grind 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.

“Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: When a mysterious outbreak causes Los Angeles to go into complete meltdown, a dysfunctional blended family led by high school guidance counselor Madison (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis) is forced to band together in order to survive the chaos.

WHY: Why: It’s easy to understand why AMC would be attracted to the idea of producing a companion series to “The Walking Dead” (after all, it’s the most-watched show in cable TV history), but there was always the risk that it would have an adverse effect on their flagship drama. Thankfully, the poorly titled “Fear the Walking Dead” distances itself enough from the original series that it doesn’t tarnish the brand, even if the new show pales in comparison. Not only is the writing heavy-handed, but the characters and their various relationships just aren’t as interesting. Though it makes sense that Madison and Co. wouldn’t be as savvy as anyone on “The Walking Dead” due to the story taking place during the early stages of the zombie outbreak, the characters come across as being especially whiny and foolish. Additionally, although the first season only contains six episodes, it’s a very slow burn that doesn’t hit its stride until the penultimate hour. If there’s any reason to stick around, it’s for Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis, both of whom are such good actors that they manage to hold your interest even when you’ve given up hope that the show will improve. But while Season Two promises bigger and better things, whether anyone will still be watching is another matter entirely.

EXTRAS: There are two brief featurettes about the series and the characters.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Mississippi Grind”

WHAT: Down-on-his-luck gambling addict Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) owes everybody in town, and instead of paying off his debts, he continues to dig himself further into a hole. But his fortune begins to change when he meets a charismatic drifter named Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), who agrees to accompany Gerry on a road trip down the Mississippi River to play in a high stakes poker game in New Orleans.

WHY: After making a splash with the emotional one-two punch of “Half Nelson” and “Sugar,” writers/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden were unable to replicate that success with their first studio project, the lackluster “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” It’s been five years since Fleck or Boden did anything of significance, but the duo has bounced back nicely with their latest movie, a character-driven drama that plays like a gritty mash-up of “Rounders” and “Sideways” and is bolstered by a pair of fantastic performances. This is arguably the best that Ryan Reynolds has ever been, showcasing a subtler, more mature side that’s been missing in his previous work, while Ben Mendelsohn proves that he’s not just an amazing character actor, but a viable leading man as well. Both of their characters are deeply flawed, and it’s to their credit (as well as the script, which crackles with wit and heart) that you care about them even when they seem beyond all help. “Mississippi Grind” starts to drag in the final act, exposing its barebones plot in the process, but Reynolds and Mendelsohn have such great chemistry that it’s rarely boring.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, but that’s all.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: The Walking Dead, Aloha 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.

“The Walking Dead: The Complete Fifth Season”

WHAT: After escaping from Terminus, Rick Grimes and Co. find refuge in a rundown church as they’re hunted by their cannibalistic captives. But when Beth (Emily Kinney) is kidnapped amidst all the chaos, and Daryl (Norman Reedus) discovers that she’s being held hostage by another group of survivors in downtown Atlanta, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) assembles a team to rescue her, while the others investigate Eugene’s promise of a cure in Washington, D.C.

WHY: AMC’s habit of splitting each season of “The Walking Dead” into two halves has never been very popular among fans, but it actually worked pretty well with Season Five, because the first eight episodes are jam-packed with so much story that you need a break in between just to process everything. Though the hospital subplot is a completely new creation for the series, the rest of the season covers a lot of familiar ground from its pre-existing source material. Of course, with each new storyline comes plenty of new characters, and the show does a remarkably good job of juggling its large cast to keep everyone happy. The show’s most popular characters – Andrew Lincoln’s Rick, Norman Reedus’ Daryl and Melissa McBride’s Carol – are front and center as expected, and each actor delivers excellent work, but Emily Kinney (who gets perhaps the best sendoff arc yet) and newcomers Tovah Feldshuh and Ross Marquand also shine in supporting roles. Veteran cast members like Lauren Cohen are shoved to the sidelines as a result, but that’s all part of being on a show like “The Walking Dead,” which is just as much an ensemble piece as “Game of Thrones.” Though Season Five isn’t without its flaws (the handling of fan favorite Tyrese is especially poor), thanks to some great writing and interesting new dynamics among the core group, it’s easily one of the best, if not the best, seasons to date.

EXTRAS: In addition to cast and crew audio commentaries on six episodes, there are “Inside ‘The Walking Dead’” and “The Making of ‘The Walking Dead’” mini-featurettes for every episode, a behind-the-scenes look at constructing the Alexandria set, a pair of video diaries with actors Michael Cudlitz and Josh McDermitt, deleted scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Aloha”

WHAT: Military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs – Honolulu, Hawaii – to help billionaire communications mogul Carson Welch (Bill Murray) launch his latest satellite into space. Along the way, Brian reconnects with a former love (Rachel McAdams) who may not completely be over him, while falling hard for the spirited Air Force watchdog (Emma Stone) assigned to babysit him during his stay.

WHY: Cameron Crowe’s latest film came under a lot of fire following its release in theaters – some deserved and some not so much. Although it’s understandable why people would be upset over the supposed whitewashing casting of Emma Stone as mixed-race jet fighter Alison Ng, the whole point of her overeager character is that she desperately wants to be accepted by the islanders as one of their own (constantly informing people that she’s one-quarter Hawaiian) despite not really looking the part. The fact that so much attention was placed on this controversy is remarkable, because “Aloha” is such a complete disaster that there was plenty of other ammunition to choose from. For starters, the movie is all over the place, polluted with weird subplots that aren’t fully explained, an awkward love triangle that goes nowhere, and characters who are so poorly developed that you still don’t know what their purpose is to the story when it’s over. The cast looks just as confused most of the time, with Stone the only actor who comes away with any sort of dignity intact. “Aloha” isn’t the first time that Crowe has made a bad film, but this is easily his worst and most embarrassing failure yet.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with writer/director Cameron Crowe, a feature-length making-of documentary titled “The Untitled Hawaii Project,” an alternate opening and ending, four featurettes, a gag reel and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Bullz-Eye’s 2014 TV Power Rankings

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With “Breaking Bad” wrapping up after five brilliant seasons, the top spot in our annual TV power rankings has finally opened up for the rest of the field. But AMC gets the nod for the best television show again this year as “The Walking Dead” edges out HBO’s “True Detective” on our list.

The list is dominated again by cable TV dramas, which seem to have surpassed movies in popularity. Streaming and binge watching have contributed to this trend, but it all starts with the quality of the programming. You’ll find some of the best writing, directing and acting talent on television these days, and often the quality of the storytelling surpasses the best that a film industry obsessed with blockbusters, superheroes and sequels can muster.

We’ve kept the spoilers to a minimum, but you might want to skip over some of the write-ups if you’re behind on a particular series, as we naturally refer to recent events.

1. “The Walking Dead”

Some fans have complained about the deliberate pace of this show when the gang sought temporary refuge at the farm and prison, but the tension built during these lulls always led to a bigger payoff when all hell inevitably broke loose. In the current fifth season, that payoff came quickly with jarring episodes that kicked off with the battle at Terminus and the confrontation with the hunters. The end of the world offers countless opportunities to explore how survivors might deal with a zombie apocalypse, and the writers have done a great job telling this story over the first five seasons. It’s currently the best and most consistent show on television.

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2. “True Detective”

This was by far the most intriguing and talked about show of 2014, featuring epic performances by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It also didn’t hurt to have sexy and provocative turns by beautiful actresses such as Alexandra Daddario, Lili Simmons and Michelle Monaghan. The dark tone was set in part through the use of flashbacks to a 1995 serial killer investigation framed in the context of interviews with the two primary detectives, with McConaughey’s intense Rust Cohle looking and acting like a burned out alcoholic as he told his part of the story. Yet after so much tension and anticipation was built up through the season, the ending was surprisingly predictable in some ways and incomprehensible in others. Still, the letdown at the end didn’t diminish the creepy and fascinating ride along the way.

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3. “Game of Thrones”

This show pretty much has everything, including great action, intrigue, sex and dragons. Our only quibble is the sheer number of characters and storylines, leaving less screen time for favorite characters like Tyrion and Arya. Bran’s character, for example, went from fascinating to boring pretty quickly. All the supernatural stuff surrounding his character will no doubt be important in the long run, but the road to wherever he’s going has been a snoozer of late. Fortunately, there are reports we won’t be seeing him in the upcoming Season Five, though we’ll get a heavy dose of Cersei instead.

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Bullz-Eye’s 2013 TV Power Rankings

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When we published our first TV Power Rankings in 2005 listing the best shows on television, the revolution in TV viewing habits was well underway with cable shows like “The Sopranos” raising the bar for TV dramas. Meanwhile, DVDs and on-demand viewing started to change the way we watched our favorite programs and discovered new ones. Since then, the changes have only accelerated, and now many teenagers and people of all ages are addicted to streaming TV, watching everything by their own schedules. Many have even “cut the cord” and eliminated their cable TV subscriptions altogether. Water-cooler discussions about “must-see TV” have given way to shows aimed at niche audiences.

With these developments, the quality of the shows has improved dramatically. That may not be true for sitcoms and most of the stuff on network TV, but many have called this the new “golden era of television,” as the cable networks in particular have given talented writers and directors the freedom to create masterpieces like “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad.” Now with Netflix triumphantly entering the fray with the excellent “House of Cards,” the bar keeps getting raised even higher. I watch fewer movies these days as the quality rarely matches that of the best TV shows, which also have the advantage of developing characters over a much longer time period.

“Breaking Bad” has been one of our favorites for years, and it tops our list again as it completes its final season. When it’s all said and done, it will be part of every conversation of the best TV shows ever. Our list is dominated by cable TV dramas and we’ve left off reality shows. Some are entertaining, but none match the quality of the programs on our list.

We’ve kept spoilers to a minimum, but you might want to avoid some of the write-ups if you want to avoid learning about plot developments.

1. Breaking Bad

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Expectations for the fifth season of Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” would’ve been running high anyway, given that Season 4 concluded with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) bringing an explosive end to Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) while also revealing just how far he was willing to sink to get things his way. It doesn’t get much lower than poisoning a child to trick your former partner into working for you again, but the knowledge that it truly was the beginning of the end (i.e. the final season) really amped up the adrenaline. With posters for Season 5 showing Walt surrounded by stacks of cash and emblazoned with the tagline “Hail to the King,” the question at hand was whether or not Mr. White would be able to keep his ego in check successfully enough to take over Gus’s meth empire. The answer: not entirely. Although Mike (Jonathan Banks) agreed to join the operation more out of an attempt to help keep Jesse (Aaron Paul) safe, he quickly grew frustrated and tried to bail out, only to end up in a terminal tussle with Walt. Meanwhile, the domestic situation in the White house has reached all new levels of tension, thanks to a power struggle of sorts between Walt and Skyler (Anna Gunn). As the first half of Season 5 wrapped up, however, the biggest reveal of all took place, with Walt’s DEA-agent brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), finally discovering that he’s the infamous Heisenberg. This show has yet to disappoint, and there’s no reason to think it’s going to start now. – Will Harris. Check out our “Breaking Bad” blog here and our Fan Hub page here.

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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Lennie James (“Low Winter Sun”)

Lennie James is a familiar face to fans of cult and comic-book-inspired TV series, having been a regular in “Jericho” and guesting on “Human Target” and “The Walking Dead,” but now he’s trying his hand at an American cop drama, starring in AMC’s “Low Winter Sun.” James’s career has also featured several notable film roles as well, and he was kind enough to chat about a few of those, too, most notably reflecting on the passing of his “Snatch” co-star Dennis Farina. First, though, we dove into discussion about how he came by his current gig, the difference between how his character’s written and how he plays the part, and his fondness for AMC’s way with surprises.

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Bullz-Eye: So were you actively looking for a series gig, or did “Low Winter Sun” just kind of fall into your lap?

Lennie James: Um…I’m trying to remember how it went around! I think it was… I’d gone home to Britain to do a television series over there, and then when I got back, “Low Winter Sun” was… [Hesitates.] Oh, that’s actually what happened. I was just about to lie to you. I’ll tell you the truth now.

BE: The truth is always preferable when I can get it.

LJ: Yeah! Well, I shot a pilot that didn’t go, and the script for “Low Winter Sun” kind of came in, and…it was very conventional: I read it, I liked it, and then went and met on it, and it happened.

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