‘Whiplash,’ ‘Big Hero 6’ Arrive on Home Video

Forrest Hartman

 

This week’s major home video releases include an outstanding, music-themed drama and a major animated release by Disney.   

 

 

Whiplash

4 stars (out of four)
Rated R for strong language including some sexual references
Sony
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

 

Anyone who has spent time in a classroom has met one: the imposing, ill-tempered teacher whose very presence inspires fear. This is such a common character type, particularly in young adult stories, that cinematic representations have become almost interchangeable. That ends with “Whiplash.”

 

In the movie, J.K. Simmons plays Terrence Fletcher, a college music professor so brutal and intense that he is literally capable of making students ill. It’s a role Simmons inhabits completely, and it has, quite correctly, become one of the most celebrated performances of the movie awards season.

 

Fletcher is, in the simplest sense, a monster. But he is also capable of inspiring his students to greatness, a quality that forces viewers to ask tough questions, like how far should a teacher should push his or her pupils. It also raises questions about the nature of art and humanity, and it is rare to find this sort of depth in a film that plays to mainstream audiences.

 

Simmons finds his counterpart in Miles Teller, who plays Andrew Neiman, a first-year student at Shaffer Conservatory, a music school known for producing top talent. Like Fletcher, Neiman lives and breathes music. His dream is to become a great jazz drummer, and he pushes himself to the point that everything else in his life suffers.

 

Fletcher notices Andrew’s drive and promotes him to Shaffer’s much-lauded studio band. This is not, however, a straight path to the big time. Although the band is a resume builder, it is also an invitation for constant and merciless criticism from Fletcher.

 

Because “Whiplash” is essentially a movie about an abusive relationship, it is often difficult to watch, but that is one of the things that makes it great. Simmons and Teller are so invested in their roles that one believes they are the characters, and the passion they display is addictive, even when it’s obviously unhealthy.

 

Writer-director Damien Chazelle moves the film at a brisk pace, adding intensity to a script that is already electrifying. The result is one of the finest music films to hit theaters in many years.

 

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a bit that was recorded during the film’s run at the Toronto Film Festival and an audio commentary by Chazelle. 

 

 

Big Hero 6

4 stars
Rated PG for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements
Disney
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

 

Some fine animated films made it to theaters in 2014, but none was better than “Big Hero 6.” This Disney animated adventure mixes beautifully crafted computer animation with a story simple enough to entertain young children, yet bold enough to surprise even jaded adults.

 

The movie was inspired by the Marvel Comics series, but it takes considerable liberties with the storytelling, a fact that shouldn’t bother anyone but hardcore comic book junkies. The action centers on Hiro, a 14-year-old robotics whiz who lives in San Fransokyo, a wonderfully rendered mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo.

 

Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams spend considerable time introducing Hiro and establishing the close relationship he has with his older brother. They then produce a shocking twist that turns Hiro and a group of friends – including a puffy white robot named Baymax – into superheroes.

 

“Big Hero Six” boasts unusually strong writing, even for a genre that draws top talent, and the film is perfectly executed from a visual standpoint. Hall and Williams use their East-West merger to craft engaging cityscapes in every frame, and the characters are unique and appealing, both in personality and appearance.

 

Often, animated movies enlist an army of A-list stars to voice the characters, but “Big Hero 6” opts for subtlety. There are recognizable names in the voice cast, including Damon Wayans Jr., James Cromwell and Maya Rudolph. But the film isn’t concerned with thrusting recognizable voices at moviegoers. Hall and Williams are satisfied to simply tell the story as well as they can, and their payoff is a feature that will be delighting audiences for years.

 

Blu-ray and DVD extras include the short film “Feast” and a behind-the-scenes feature about the animation in “Big Hero 6.”

 

 

Horrible Bosses 2

2 stars
Rated R for strong crude sexual content and language throughout
Warner Brothers
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

 

The first “Horrible Bosses” was a cute movie bolstered by a solid cast and the fact that nearly everyone knows what it’s like to work for a terrible supervisor. The sequel is a reminder that Hollywood is in the business of franchising and that fresh ideas are routinely passed over for known commodities.

 

Like so many sequels, “Horrible Bosses 2” is dull and redundant, but at least the premise has changed slightly. This time, the downtrodden employees from the first movie – Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman), Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) and Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) – are on the other side of the desk. Having soured on life as worker bees, they’ve launched their own company selling an awkwardly titled bathroom product.

 

Just when it looks like they’ve hit the big time, the guys discover that they were swindled by a businessman named Burt Hanson (Christoph Waltz) and his smooth-talking son, Rex (Chris Pine). On the verge of losing their business, they decide the only option is to kidnap Rex and recoup their losses with ransom money. As in the first film, a thug with an unprintable name (Jamie Foxx) aids in the planning of their crime. And, as in the first film, things go terribly wrong. 

 

The majority of the original cast – including Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey – is back, and that’s a plus because everyone has terrific comic timing. Bateman, Sudeikis and Day work wonderfully together and Waltz and Pine are significant additions. Unfortunately, a good movie requires more than decent acting.

 

The best sequels bring popular characters back to the screen and put them in fresh and inventive situations. They also vary the plot enough to make the movie truly new. “Horrible Bosses 2” does neither of these things, so co-writer and director Sean Anders (“That’s My Boy”) is essentially pitching a minor variation of the first picture. For huge fans of the original, that may be enough, but there is no reason to recommend this sequel to anyone who prefers creativity over a recognizable brand.

 

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a making-of featurette.

 

 

Beyond the Lights

3 stars
Rated PG-13 for sexual content including suggestive gestures, partial nudity, language and thematic elements
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD digital download and on demand

 

Britney Spears. Rihanna. Miley Cyrus. New celebrity meltdowns fuel headlines on an all-too-regular basis. In part, the phenomenon is encouraged by the mainstream media’s increasing focus on gossip and celebrity news, but it’s also a result of the intense pressure that celebrities face.

 

Pop stars are critiqued on everything from their romantic lives to their weight, and they’re lucky if the actual “work” receives more than a nominal mention in the media. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Secret Life of Bees,” “Love & Basketball”) offers a solid meditation on this subject in “Beyond the Lights,” an underappreciated drama released into theaters in mid-November.

 

The focus is on Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a rising pop singer who is better known for her risqué outfits and relationship with an established rap star (Machine Gun Kelly) than for her beautiful voice. One night, after winning a Billboard Music Award, she drinks heavily and decides to fling herself off a hotel balcony. Fortunately, Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), a young police officer, comes to the rescue.

 

In an attempt to eliminate the potentially bad publicity surrounding the event, Noni’s handlers spin it as an accident, and Kaz is offered a significant check to play along. The young officer has no desire to drag Noni through the mud, so he agrees. But he also realizes that Noni needs help, and can’t get her out of his mind. Eventually, the two begin a relationship.

 

Although Noni and Kaz have an obvious connection, her celebrity and his desire to someday run for political office places a strain on their romance. As the plot chugs forward, Prince-Blythewood forces the characters to decide if their worlds are too different for a long-term relationship or if love really can conquer all. There is also an important subplot built around Noni’s relationship with her mother (Minnie Driver), a stage mom of the worst possible nature. 

 

Driver turns in a terrific performance that is only bested by Mbatha-Raw’s own work. The latter is a rapidly rising British star who gained critical claim for her portrayal of the title character in the 2013 period drama “Belle,” and she does a fine job reminding viewers that the celebrity image is often quite different from reality. Parker is also solid as the male lead, but his role isn’t nearly as demanding as those of the women around him.

 

“Beyond the Lights” scores points for its excellent dissection of celebrity culture. The fact that it’s also a reasonably good romance is an added plus.  

 

Blu-ray and DVD extras include deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

 

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

 

“Sons of Anarchy”: Fans of this FX drama about an outlaw motorcycle gang operating in central California should be in nirvana this week. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment is releasing a collector’s set containing every episode of the show. For those who are only interested in season seven, it is available as a stand-alone.  

 

Fellini Satyricon: Fresh, 4K digital restoration of writer-director Federico Fellini’s 1969 film based on Petronius’ “Satyricon” novel. The movie is built around a disjointed storyline that is set in first century Rome. Presented in Italian with English subtitles.

 

“Watership Down”: Criterion Collection release of director Martin Rosen’s 1978 animated feature about rabbits that are forced to flee their home and set up a new colony. Based on the novel by Richard Adams.

 

“Mountain Men” – Season 3: The fifteen most-recent episodes of the reality series about men living rugged lives in remote areas of the country.

 

“Dragonheart 3 – The Sorcerer’s Curse”: Direct-to-video prequel to the 1996 film “Dragonheart.” The focus is on Gareth (Julian Morris), a squire who works with a dragon to defeat an evil sorcerer. Ben Kingsley provides the voice of the dragon. Directed by Colin Teague. 

 

Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit www.ForrestHartman.com.

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