Stronger

I’ll admit that I avoided Stronger in theaters, because I assumed it was going to be just another flag-waving hagiography that simply wanted an excuse to dramatize real-life heroics. In other words, I was expecting this to be like one of the many films Mark Wahlberg pumps out – it even has the Boston setting that I just automatically associate with Wahlberg. But Stronger surprised me. Director David Gordon Green is not some gun for hire, and actually takes the time to craft an emotional warts-and-all story that features realistic individuals instead of one-note archetypes.

Stronger focuses on the true story of Jeff Bauman, who lost both his legs in the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013. Rather than portray Bauman as a movie hero, Stronger actually takes time to show him as a flawed individual. The same thing goes for his family, who are a group of loud, vulgar Bostonites. Green’s film isn’t mocking these people; it’s merely taking care to show them as they likely really are.

The centerpiece of Stronger is Jake Gyllenhaal’s raw, frequently devastating performance. The whole world, including his family, wants Gyllenhaal’s Jeff Bauman to be a symbol of heroism, but Bauman is clearly suffering from PTSD – PTSD that he attempts to simply ignore, until it’s almost impossible to push away, causing problems with his girlfriend, played perfectly by Tatiana Maslany in a melancholy, understated performance.

If, like me, you avoided Stronger, I suggest you pick up the Blu-ray and give it a try. It might surprise you.

Special Features To Note: There’s only one feature here  – “Faith, Hope & Love: Becoming Stronger”, a nearly 30-minute featurette that serves as a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. There’s interviews with nearly everyone involved with the film here, including the real Jeff Bauman himself.

Gyllenhaal says what drew him to the script was its surprising sense of humor, despite the tragic circumstances of the story. One of the most amusing moments in this featurette comes from the real Jeff Bauman, who says when he learned that Gyllenhaal was going to play him in the film, he immediately thought, “How’s he going to play me? He’s way better looking.”

Other elements of the featurette focus on the special effects used to digitally erase Gyllenhaal’s legs, and there’s behind-the-scenes footage of Gyllenhaal wearing green screen socks and other such trickery.

The filmmakers used as many real locations in Boston as possible, including the real hospital Jeff went to after the bombing. The only place the film did not shoot on location was the sight of the bombing itself. The filmmakers were aware that recreating the bombing on the actual spot, or really anywhere out in the open in Boston, would be in poor taste, so they shot this moment on a closed set they constructed in a secure location. As for other elements of realism, the production went so far as to use several real people involved with the story, including the real people who helped create Jeff’s prosthetic legs, Jeff’s real physical therapist playing herself, and the real doctor who amputated Jeff’s legs.

Special Features Include:

  • “Faith, Hope & Love: Becoming Stronger” Featurette

Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow is one of the best filmmakers around right now, but sadly, she hadn’t made a feature film since the tense, excellent 2012 drama Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow ended her brief feature hiatus with the harrowing Detroit, another true-life story for the director.

Detroit focuses on the 1967 12th Street Riot, and an incident at the Algiers Motel that happened as the riot unfolded. The film deals directly with racism, with Will Poulter giving an incredible-yet-sickening performance as an extremely racist cop. It’s clear that Bigelow thought this was an important story to tell, and the filmmaker gives almost every detail the sharpest attention. But Detroit is not one of Bigelow’s best films. For one thing, it’s 143 minute runtime focusing on police brutality and murder is tough to take. Obviously that was Bigelow’s intention, and she and screenwriter Mark Boal deserve kudos for not sugarcoating things.

But Detroit reaches a point where it begins to resemble The Passion of the Christ, in that it seems more obsessed with carnage than it does examining the psychology of it all. Overall, this is a hard film to classify. It’s by no means a bad film, and Bigelow remains a steller filmmaker. Yet Detroit never entirely coalesces the way it should. I’d still recommend seeing it, but it’s not an easy watch. Then again, maybe it shouldn’t be.

Special Features to Note: There are several featurettes here, but frustratingly, they are almost entirely focused on the real life events that Detroit is portraying. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that – the real-life people involved here deserve to have their voices heard. But I can’t help but wish one long featurette had been cut together focusing on the real individuals, and then for additional featurettes to be made about the making of the film. In other words, I want more feedback from Bigelow about how she created the film. Sadly, there’s not a lot of that here. Still, the featurettes focusing on the real story and real people are insightful and worth a look.

Special Features Include:

  • The Truth of Detroit
  • The Cast of Detroit
  • The Invasion of Detroit
  • The Hope of Detroit
  • Detroit – Then and Now
  • Algee Smith and Larry Reed: “Grow”

The Lego Ninjago Movie

What the hell is a Ninjago? I have no idea. But they made a movie about it! I remain slightly dubious about this whole Lego movie craze – yeah, The Lego Movie was surprisingly funny, and The Lego Batman Movie was a hoot as well, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that these films are pretty much feature-length toy commercials.

That said, I’ll admit it: The Lego Ninjago Movie is entertaining. I have no familiarity with the Ninjago brand, so I don’t know if people even care that much about this, or if there was even a real story to adapt. The film features a group of teenage ninjas  – voiced by Dave Franco, Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobson, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña and Zach Woods – who pilot giant mechs to do battle with the evil Lord Garmadon, hilariously voiced by Justin Theroux.

Here’s the twist: one of the ninjas is the son of Garmadon, and a good chunk of the film involves father and son coming to terms with each other. The Lego Ninjago Movie is surprisingly very funny, but the film is also clearly geared to young ADD-suffering audiences, and as such is loaded with big, loud, flashy moments that started to make my head hurt after a while. Kids will probably love it, though. Also, Jackie Chan shows up and is hilarious as the ninjas’ master.

Special Features to Note: The Lego Ninjago Movie Blu-ray is packed with features, including behind-the-scenes stuff, mini-movies, deleted scenes, music videos, and “bloopers,” which are really just a series of staged animated bloopers – stop doing this, it’s weird and unfunny.

The behind-the-scenes features are the best, because it’s there we learn that co-star Jackie Chan and his team, the JC Stunt Team, actually designed all the martial arts for the movie. Stunt performers would fight with wire work and more, the fights would be captured on video, rendered digitally and then used to create the various fights throughout the movie. It’s neat!

Garmadon is a character with 4 arms, so to create his fights, two members of the stunt team – one for the upper arms, one for the lower – had to work together to create his movements. It all goes to show how much detail went into creating this movie.

The filmmakers reveal that in building their Lego world, they don’t cheat anything, including brick size. Everything you see on screen can, in theory, be built using real Legos. That’s kind of nuts. One of the film’s villains is a cat that starts wrecking the city, and the cat looks incredibly real in the film, to the point where I just assumed they filmed a real cat against green screen and dropped it into the movie. Nope! That cat is CGI, folks – although they did film a real cat first to recreate its movements digitally.

Beyond the behind-the-scenes stuff, there are mini-movies, including one truly strange short about a shark trying to get back to the ocean to marry a crab. It’s…strange.

Special Features Include:

  • Team Supreme: Building NINJAGO – featurette
  • Rumble in the Bricks- featurette
  • Rebrick Contest Winners- featurette
  • Which Way to the Ocean – mini-movie
  • Zane’s Stand Up Promo – mini-movie
  • The Master: A LEGO NINJAGO Short – mini-movie
  • LEGO® NINJAGO TV Series Sneak Peek
  • Oh, Hush! & Jeff Lewis Found My Place – Music Video
  • Everybody Have a Ninja Day – Music Video
  • Rocktagon – Music Video
  • Warlord Ballad – Music Video
  • Animation Bridge Test – Deleted Scene
  • Baby Fight– Deleted Scene
  • Dock Scene– Deleted Scene
  • Gimme Some Outtakes!
  • Commentary by Director Charlie Bean and Crew
  • 13 Promotional Videos

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