Blu Tuesday: Supersized Holiday Edition

With the holidays just around the corner, many studios are making one final push to earn your Christmas dollars with the release of several new Blu-rays over the course of the next four days. Though I’m not really sure what the strategy is behind releasing some titles today and others on the 21st (especially since most people have already finished a lot of their holiday shopping), there are so many great movies to choose from that I’ve decided to expand this week’s column into a special supersized edition.

“Sleepwalk with Me”

Most stand-up comics probably only dream about being involved in a movie as funny and refreshingly honest as Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me,” let alone one that marks their directorial debut. Based on his one-man show of the same name (which was in turn inspired by actual events from his life), the film is a witty human comedy about the fear of commitment and finding one’s place in the world, and it’s hands-down one of my favorite movies of the year. Much like Birbiglia’s stand-up in the film, the story is entertaining because it’s so incredibly personal (something that’s missing from most Hollywood productions), and he makes it even more so by narrating the movie via segments where he speaks directly to the audience a la Ferris Bueller. “Sleepwalk with Me” actually fared pretty well in theaters during its platform release this past fall, but if you didn’t get a chance to catch it then, be sure to add it to your must-see list for the new year, because the film is so good that if you weren’t a fan of Birbiglia beforehand, you almost certainly will be afterwards.

Blu-ray Highlight: There are some good extras on the disc, but the audio commentary with star/co-writer/co-director Mike Birbiglia and producer/co-writer Ira Glass is the best of the bunch, with the duo discussing the making of the movie in detail, including some behind-the-scenes anecdotes and things they learned on set as first-time filmmakers.

“Killer Joe”

William Friedkin hasn’t made a great film in a very long time, and while “Killer Joe” doesn’t exactly remedy that, it’s the best movie that he’s made in a while. Adapted by Tracy Letts from his stage play of the same name, the self-described “totally twisted, deep-fried, Texas redneck trailer park murder story” is one of the most intense and polarizing moviegoing experiences in recent memory. Although the strange series of events that transpire during the course of the movie has already divided audiences (particularly a tension-packed final act that gets pretty weird and perverse), it’s as oddly fascinating to watch unravel as it is repulsive. Every single performance is great – from Gina Gerson’s devious stepmom, to Emile Hirsch’s pathetic bottom-feeder, to Thomas Hayden Church’s clueless father, to Juno Temple’s trailer park princess – but it’s star Matthew McConaughey who truly commands the screen with his best role in ages. It’s about time the actor finally showed off his full potential, and this white trash “Blood Simple” does that and more.

Blu-ray Highlight: The making-of featurette “Southern Fried Hospitality: From Stage to Screen” is definitely worth checking out for the interviews with the various cast and crew, but it’s director William Friedkin’s audio commentary that is the real highlight. Friedkin is one of those filmmakers that’s just a lot of fun to listen to speak, and his commentary track for “Killer Joe” is an excellent discussion about making the movie and, in talking about the infamous NC-17 rating, the politics of the business as well.

“Pitch Perfect”

It was only inevitable that “Pitch Perfect” would draw some comparisons to “Glee,” but while the show’s success certainly helped pave the way for making organized singing groups cool again, that would be like comparing Adele to Katy Perry. The film actually feels more like the a cappella cousin of the “Step Up” movies, and although that may not inspire a whole lot of confidence, it’s a really charming comedy filled with great performances (both acting and musical) that’s only slightly hindered by its conventional formula. In fact, one of movie’s biggest draws is the musical performances, and while there’s no denying that they’re fun to watch, “Pitch Perfect” would be just as shallow as the “Step Up” series without such a great cast, including the always reliable Anna Kendrick and Australian up-and-comer Rebel Wilson in a breakout role. Written by Kay Cannon, whose experience as a writer for “30 Rock” tells you all you need to know about the movie’s offbeat sense of humor, “Pitch Perfect” is the kind of film that many people would normally overlook based on its premise, but that would be a mistake.

Blu-ray Highlight: Though Universal hasn’t exactly skimped on bonus material – which includes a pair of audio commentaries, alternate takes and deleted scenes – there’s nothing here that really stands out. At least there’s always the movie to watch again.

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Blu Tuesday: Arnie Goes to Mars and More

It’s probably a good thing that the Summer Olympics are going on right now, because this week’s new releases don’t offer a whole lot to get excited about. While horror fans will find a few titles worth digging into, the only real Blu-ray of note is the reissue of the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi classic, “Total Recall” – unless you love Marilyn Monroe, in which case Fox’s seven-movie “Forever Marilyn” box set is an absolute must-have.

“Total Recall”

With a new version of “Total Recall” arriving in theaters this weekend, it was inevitable that Lionsgate would reissue Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 original on Blu-ray in conjunction with its release. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the movie, and the first thing that crossed my mind upon revisiting the film was that I couldn’t believe my parents actually let me watch this at such a young age. Though not nearly as violent as Verhoeven’s other sci-fi cult classics “RoboCop” and “Starship Troopers,” “Total Recall” has its share of graphic gore, not to mention the grotesque (but brilliant) special effects by Rob Bottin. For as beloved as the movie is in certain circles, however, it hasn’t held up particularly well, with many of the futuristic props and production design coming off even cheesier and more dated than before. Of course, that’s the danger of the sci-fi genre, but it doesn’t change the fact that “Total Recall” is still a fun slice of escapist entertainment that, depending on which side of the “Was it real or a dream?” argument you fall on, is also a lot smarter than it looks.

Blu-ray Highlight: The audio commentary by director Paul Verhoeven and star Arnold Schwarzenegger is a great listen if you never got around to checking it out on previous releases, but the disc’s all-new interview with Verhoeven is a much more interesting retrospective on the film’s production process, with the director offering details on the script and its troublesome third act, working with Arnold, the visual effects and more.

“Detention”

Joseph Kahn’s bizarre genre mash-up is one those movies that will likely earn a small cult following who swear that it’s a misunderstood masterpiece, but they’d be wrong. Those same people might even say that it deserves to be admired for its originality, and while that’s true to a certain extent, the entire plot is dependent on paying homage to a medley of films including “Scream,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Back to the Future,” “Heathers, “Donnie Darko,” and every Gregg Araki movie ever made. Though it shows some real promise early on (the opening sequence, in particular, is a hilarious meta-satire of teen slasher films), “Detention” gradually gets worse as the story begins to lose focus amid its scattershot collection of ideas – some good, some bad, and some just poorly executed. The movie is all over the place, and despite Kahn’s attempts to make sense of everything by introducing time travel to the equation, he only ends up creating an even bigger mess. There are some brief moments of comic brilliance scattered throughout, but why waste your time when you could just watch the far superior “Cabin in the Woods” instead?

Blu-ray Highlight: Regardless of how you feel about the movie, the picture-in-picture commentary track “Cheat Mode: The Unbelievably Mind Melting Making of ‘Detention’” is the kind of extra that I’d like to see on more Blu-ray releases. Unlike Universal’s similar U-Control feature, “Cheat Mode” runs the entire length of the film and includes interviews with the cast and crew, behind-the-scenes footage, photos and much more.

“4321″

I don’t know what it is about the British and their obsession with crime films, but credit to “4.3.2.1” for at least trying to do something different with the genre. Unfortunately, Noel Clarke’s follow-up to his directorial debut, “Adulthood,” is a simple case of a good idea ruined by terrible execution. Presenting the film as a series of interconnecting stories is a difficult undertaking on its own, but organizing it in such a confusing manner (with each part of the tale told in its entirety, one after the other) causes a disconnect with the audience early on, as it’s difficult not to feel completely lost. Granted, by the time all four stories have unraveled, everything starts to make sense, but apart from the “ah-ha” moment that it provides, it’s wholly unnecessary. Most of the acting is solid, and the movie features some fun cameos from the likes of Kevin Smith and Mandy Patinkin (the former of which is the highlight of the whole film), but “4.3.2.1” gambles so much on its gimmicky plot device that Clarke has no one other than himself to blame when it doesn’t work out.

Blu-ray Highlight: The only included extra is a pretty standard making-of featurette comprised of interviews with writer/co-director Noel Clarke and the cast. It’s hardly must-see material, but fans of the movie won’t be completely disappointed either.

  

Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to August

August has never been the most exciting part of the summer movie season, but the studios have treated it like a warm-down of sorts in recent years, taking the opportunity to discard their misfit films with seemingly no interest in how they perform. That may change this year, however, as there are a number of high-profile movies (including several targeted at action fans) that could end up doing some pretty big business. In fact, with the somewhat disappointing summer that we’ve had so far, it’s not entirely unreasonable to suggest that August might end up being the highlight of the season.

“TOTAL RECALL”

Who: Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston and Bill Nighy
What: Factory worker Douglas Quaid begins to suspect that he’s a spy after visiting Rekall, a company that provides its clients with implanted fake memories.
When: August 3rd
Why: While not exactly a remake in the conventional sense, director Len Wiseman’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” has nonetheless caused diehard fans of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 original to scream blasphemy. But just like that movie was forced to get creative and expand upon Dick’s story, so too has Wiseman’s version, seemingly sticking closer to its source material by keeping the action on Earth. Colin Farrell is definitely an inspired choice to play Quaid (and just like Adrian Brody in “Predators,” it should help to limit the comparisons to Arnold Schwarzenegger), while Bryan Cranston is on such a hot streak right now that it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Cohaagen. Whether Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale or the special effects provide the film’s best eye candy, however, is still up for debate.

“CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER”

Who: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts and Ari Graynor
What: A divorcing couple tries to maintain their friendship while pursuing other people.
When: August 3rd
Why: In addition to being a smart piece of counterprogramming to “Total Recall,” the indie dramedy has been riding a wave of strong buzz since its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, where most critics praised the excellent chemistry between its two stars. Though I’m not entirely sold on the idea of Andy Samberg as a romantic lead (or a serious actor, for that matter), I’ll see just about anything that Rashida Jones does these days, especially if it leads to more high-profile roles for the “Parks and Rec” actress. Jones also co-wrote the screenplay, which boasts an interesting premise that practically guarantees it won’t be anything like the typical Hollywood rom-com, with a more dramatic streak reminiscent of movies like “Annie Hall” and “(500) Days of Summer.” And if it’s even half as good as those films, we’re in for a pleasant surprise.

“HOPE SPRINGS”

Who: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell and Jean Smart
What: After 30 years of marriage, a middle-aged couple attends an intense, week-long counseling session to work on their relationship.
When: August 8th
Why: There are usually a few movies every summer targeted explicitly towards adult audiences, and more often than not, one of them stars Meryl Streep. That’s the case once again with this geriatric twist on the traditional rom-com, which reunites Streep with her “The Devil Wears Prada” director David Frankel. Unfortunately, “Hope Springs” doesn’t look nearly as good, instead hewing closer to the vibe of “It’s Complicated,” at least where Streep’s overly giggly character is concerned. The actress appears to be trying too hard to get a laugh, while Steve Carell doesn’t seem to have that much to do. The wild card is Tommy Lee Jones, who isn’t the first person you’d think of for this kind of role, but that’s exactly why it’s such a brilliant piece of casting. And if the three actors work as well together as you’d expect, “Hope Springs” might not be that bad after all.

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