Blu Tuesday: A Hard Day’s Night, 300: Rise of an Empire 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.

“A Hard Day’s Night”

WHAT: The Beatles travel from Liverpool to London for a live television performance, with Paul’s mischievous grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) tagging along on the trip.

WHY: The first of many feature-length films starring the iconic rock group, “A Hard Day’s Night” is a bit of a mixed bag, but it’s one that fans of the Beatles will undoubtedly enjoy. Though the movie drags a little in the second half as the band prepares for their concert (the Ringo subplot is especially sluggish), there’s so much great material in the scenes leading up to it that it’s easy to forgive. The opening 30 minutes in particular are chockfull of laughs, fully embracing the zany humor of the band members with such manic energy that it’s almost impossible to keep up at times. (The infamous Lennon/Coke bit is practically treated like a throwaway gag.) And as you’d expect from a film starring the Beatles, “A Hard Day’s Night” also features some excellent musical performances, with director Richard Lester wisely shooting each one in a different style so that they don’t become stale by the time the big finale rolls around. But while it’s always a joy to see the Beatles perform, the movie works first and foremost as a comedy with musical bits in between. And running. Lots and lots of running.

EXTRAS: Criterion has packed this release with a treasure trove of bonus material, including a cast and crew commentary, a brand new behind-the-scenes featurette, Walter Shenson’s 1994 making-of documentary, the 2002 documentary “Things They Said Today” and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“300: Rise of an Empire”

WHAT: As King Leonidas and the brave 300 hold their ground at the Battle of Thermopylae, Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads his own army into combat against the invading Persian forces, which are commanded by Xerxes’ right-hand woman, the vengeful Greek warrior Artemisia (Eva Green).

WHY: It’s been so many years since the original “300” hit theaters that it’s hard to imagine many people still care about this long-gestating prequel/sequel, even if the very idea of a spinoff was ridiculous from the start. With that said, credit to writer Frank Miller for coming up with an idea that actually complements the first film, because “Rise of an Empire” would feel even more like a silly cash grab without a decent story in place. The CGI blood looks really fake, the dialogue is dreadful, and the attempts at providing a backstory for Xerxes are pointless. Plus, every time the movie flashes back to events from “300” or introduces some new connective tissue (like the returning Lena Headey), it only makes you wish you were watching that film instead. “Rise of an Empire” isn’t a complete waste of time, but that’s mostly thanks to Eva Green’s magnetic performance as the female villain, who uses her skills on the battlefield as well as in the bedroom (in one of the most awkward sex/fight scenes in cinematic history) to destroy the Greeks. The movie is almost worth watching for that scene alone. Almost.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a four-part featurette on the making of the film, a look at the real-life leaders and legends involved in the Greek/Persian wars, and additional featurettes on the female characters and the cast’s intense training regime.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to February

february

If February is known for anything, it’s the barrage of romantic films released in conjunction with Valentine’s Day. And in keeping with tradition, there are several to choose from this year. But while past Februarys haven’t been very promising from a guy’s point of view, there’s plenty to look forward to in the 2014 edition, with no less than four action movies (including a remake of an ‘80s cult classic) and the latest from George Clooney and an animated film that’s just as much for adults as it is for kids.

“THE LEGO MOVIE”

Who: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett and Morgan Freeman
What: An ordinary LEGO minifigure, mistakenly thought to be the MasterBuilder, is recruited to join a quest to stop an evil LEGO tyrant from gluing the universe together.
When: February 7th
Why: It’s not very often that I get excited about an animated film, but as a closeted LEGO fanatic, “The LEGO Movie” is one of my most anticipated releases of the year. The fact that it’s taken this long to make a film based on the hugely popular toy brand is shocking, not only because it’s a dream project from a marketing standpoint, but because the very nature of LEGOs provides an almost endless supply of creative possibilities. This could have easily been ruined in the hands of someone else, but based on the materials released so far, it appears that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “21 Jump Street”) have struck the perfect chord in making a kid-friendly movie that adults can enjoy as well.

“THE MONUMENTS MEN”

Who: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Bill Murray
What: An unlikely World War II platoon is tasked with rescuing art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and returning them to their owners.
When: February 7th
Why: On paper, “The Monuments Men” has Oscar bait written all over it. In addition to being based on a true story (set during World War II, no less), the film features some of the best acting talent in the business and was also co-written and directed by star George Clooney. So why the decision to push the movie back from its original holiday release to this February? No one knows for sure, but considering the competition that it would have been up against, it was probably the right move. After all, while “The Monuments Men” certainly has the makings of a crowd-pleaser (the two-second sales pitch is “‘Ocean’s Eleven’ meets ‘Inglourious Basterds’”), it doesn’t really seem like awards material. Still, with that cast, you never know. It could be great or it could be another “The Good German.”

“VAMPIRE ACADEMY”

Who: Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Danila Kozlovsky, Sarah Hyland and Olga Kurylenko
What: 17-year-old half-human/vampire Rose Hathaway is dragged back to her boarding school to protect a race of peaceful vampires from the bloodthirsty Strigoi.
When: February 7th
Why: If “Vampire Academy” comes across as just another young adult book series turned into a film, it’s because it is – a sort of supernatural mashup of “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” But while the Richelle Mead novel on which it’s based sounds about as fun as a trip to the dentist’s office, the movie version looks a lot more enjoyable thanks to the involvement of sibling duo Mark and Daniel Waters. The former directed the hilarious 2004 comedy “Mean Girls,” while the latter wrote the screenplay for the precursor to that film, “Heathers.” And if the trailer is anything to go by, “Vampire Academy” strikes a very similar tone, albeit with the added benefit of some action. For every successful YA book adaptation, however, there are five failures, so history certainly isn’t on its side.

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