The Blu-ray Report

This week’s Blu-ray Report takes us all over the world, from the deepest parts of the universe to the jungles of Vietnam. We also see a set of release that feature some of the most memorable characters of 2008, from a lovable trash compacting robot to a hotshot Australian actor who undergoes a controversial transformation to play an African American army sergeant. It is fantasy and fun, silliness and absurdity — it is Pixar’s WALL-E and the ridiculous ride that is Tropic Thunder. Also, DVD guru Brian Gibson checks in with a review of MirrorMask on Blu-ray.

Up first, a cute little robot…

Wall-E (November 18)

WALL-E Blu-rayLast week I got a chance to rap a little bit about one of my favorite animated films of the year, Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda. And this week I get to shed some light on the Blu-ray release for my other favorite animated film of 2008, Pixar’s WALL-E. For many, WALL-E will go down as another in a long line of successful projects from the amazing creative team at Pixar. Though to some it will go down as one of Pixar’s great achievements. Who would have thought that an entire movie could be based on a character who, like R2-D2 in Star Wars, can only communicate with bleeps and boops? But they did it – they pulled it off with style and grace as only Pixar can. The result was a beautifully animated, well-crafted story that could be one of the best films of the year.

Sensory Experience: To date there has not been a Pixar movie that has not looked spectacular in High Definition, and it does not appear as if WALL-E is going to break that trend. Everything about this film, visually and audibly, is incredibly beautiful. From the BD menus with their vibrant colors and intuitive design to the unique color palette designed by Ralph Eggleston it is a breathtaking visual experience – one that shines in glorious 1080p. But where you should really pay attention is the brilliant sound design. Both the score and the effects, most of which were designed by legendary sound man Ben Burtt are perfectly reproduced in the 5.1 Dolby HD track. This is the sort of film that is the reason why you purchased that big, badass surround sound system – trust me.

Supporting Materials: WALL-E’s BD and 3-disc DVD releases both include an amazing commentary from director Andrew Stanton. He spends a lot of time in the first part of the film talking about the “environmental message,” or intended lack thereof. What I find interesting is that he explains how the entire story was reverse engineered from the character of WALL-E. And once they started to think about it, a story of the last robot on earth, a very janitorial clean up robot, this is the sort of story that just makes sense. He adds that they never intended it to be so timely, but that it just sort of worked out that way. He also talked quite a bit about Luxo – the famous Pixar lamp – and the fact that the idea behind WALL-E was similar to the idea behind Luxo, with the challenge being that they wanted to bring a non-human object to life and allow us to connect with it as if it were human. Also, did you know that the Pixar creative team spent about a month debating whether or not WALL-E should have elbows? Fascinating.

In addition to the illuminating commentary from one of the business’ most talented individuals, this release also includes a ridiculous amount of behind the scenes and interactive features. It is rare these days to see a movie, let alone a DVD release, that is put together with so much care and thoughtfulness. Everything about the WALL-E special features have that creative, intuitive Pixar stamp of quality. By far the most impressive of the features is the feature-length documentary “The Pixar Story,” made in 2007 by director Leslie Iwerks. To my knowledge, this is the first time that this doc has ever appeared on DVD. It has played a bunch of film festivals over the course of the past year, but was not yet released on its own. In the doc, Leslie Iwerks shows us an in-depth look at how Pixar came to be and shows some never-before-seen footage from the Pixar archives. It is incredibly interesting, and it is included in both the BD and 2 and 3-disc DVD releases.

Aside from the second movie included in the set, we also get the two shorts – Presto, the short film that preceded WALL-E in theaters and BURN-E, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque side story about a little repair robot whose world is also impacted by WALL-E and EVE. The latter is directed by directing animator Angus MacLane, who I predict could be the next big director from Pixar – cut from the same fabric as Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton. Of course, I haven’t really even mentioned some of the featurettes included in this release – I could write a 5,000 word report just on the releases second disc, so in the interest of time I will just say that you might want to take an entire Saturday or Sunday afternoon if you intend to get through all of them.

Added Value: There are a few very unique Blu-ray only features that really show off the geek-cred that the folks at Pixar have – they know that there are some die hard fans out there, and these features are meant for that particular group. First up is the fact that Andrew Stanton’s commentary includes Cine-Explore, which puts storyboards, animatics, behind the scenes pictures on screen as the movie goes along. You might not think so, but it is actually very interesting to see a pictures of the crew come up on screen as Andrew Stanton is mentioning them in his commentary. As you may be able to tell by now, this is one of the most impressive commentary tracks every seen on DVD or Blu-ray.

Along with Stanton’s commentary track there is also a track called “Geek Track,” which is a features some of the geeks at Pixar riffing about obscure references, little known trivia and other sci-fi related discussions. It is a perfect way to give viewers a peek into the geeky inner-workings of one of Hollywood’s most geek centric companies.

There is also a set of interactive features that are Blu-ray exclusive – “The Axiom Arcade,” which features a retro suite of video games, all of which are fun in a cheesy, DVD-game sort of way. There are also “3D Set Fly-Throughs,” which provide 3D, high definition looks at ten of the film’s most detailed locations. As someone who is constantly awestruck by the amount of detail in Pixar’s films, I was literally glued to my seat while exploring these set pieces. Like I mentioned above, it is literally a day’s worth of special features. The word “impressive” doesn’t even do it justice.

The Final Verdict: Normally this column is all about whether or not you should spend the extra dough to pick up the Blu-ray release instead of the standard DVD. WALL-E, however, is quite possibly the first Blu-ray release in a long time that could be your reason for buying a Blu-ray player. It is that good. A beautiful film and enough special features to keep you busy for an entire weekend – what more could you want?

Tropic Thunder (November 18)

Tropic Thunder on Blu-rayAfter the gushing that I just gave to the WALL-E BD release above, how could I possibly find another movie worth recommending, right? Well hold on my friends, because while Tropic Thunder’s Blu-ray release might not be so good that you need to run out and buy an HDTV and a PS3, it is certainly a lot of fun. You may have been able to predict that though, as Tropic Thunder’s theatrical run showed us that it was destined to go down as one of the most absurd, ruckus moviegoing experiences of the year. From director Ben Stiller, who has shown us some chops with The Cable Guy and Zoolander, Tropic Thunder put on an all-fronts offensive – from Robert Downey Jr.’s transformation into an Australian Oscar-winner who in turn transforms into the film’s African-American lead character to Stiller’s Sly Stallone-esque action hero caught in his own oblivious nature, Tropic Thunder delivers. To say the least, it was the most effortlessly funny film of the year, needing only to let its character run wild in order to have us wetting our pants.

Sensory Experience: While it isn’t one of those movies with an incredible level of detail, as we saw with WALL-E, Tropic Thunder is a pretty kick-ass action movie. And nothing gets to that action-loving part of me better than some HD explosions. As well, during the theatrical run of Tropic Thunder I raved about its awesome soundtrack, which comes through quite well in 5.1 surround. Of course, it really isn’t a huge jump from the DVD to the BD, at least as far as the visual and audible quality are concerned. It’s a fun action movie, but not one of those “must-have” HD experiences by any means.

Supporting Material: Tropic Thunder is another all around impressive DVD release, loaded with special features. There are two full commentary tracks, one with Ben Stiller and the creative team (including writer Justin Theroux) and another with Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. Both are fun but not quite as fun as watching the movie itself. There are a few full-length behind the scenes featurettes that walk us through the production; one in particular showing off the incredible attention to detail that was paid to the production design and another dedicated simply to “Blowing Shit Up.” Fun times. As well, the film itself on DVD is the extended edition. And for once we find an extended edition to be more than just 3 min. of footage. The run time gets bumped from 107 min. to 120 min. thanks to an extended party scene in which Brandon T. Jackson, who plays Alpa Chino, steals the scene. We can easily see why it was cut, but it does deliver a few laughs nonetheless.

The release also includes the documentary Rain of Madness, which was released online just after the theatrical release. It is funny, but not quite as funny as it was upon viewing it back in August. The real meat of the special features is in the behind the scenes featurettes, which are all very well put together.

Added Value: This is where my theory about buying Blu-ray could come under some scrutiny. There aren’t a lot of BD-exclusive extras, but I would contend that this one still might be worth buying. The overall presentation of the BD release and the fact that all of the featurettes are in HD are reason enough to make this one worth picking up. But as for features that only exist on the Blu-ray release, Paramount has actually delivered a few cool BD-Live extras. There are additional “Full Mags,” which are basically longer deleted scenes; there are some additional “Dispatches from the Edge of Madness” which are extensions of the Rain of Madness documentary; and there are some relatively funny video rehearsals. Overall while it isn’t quite as good as the BD-Live content they included with Iron Man, it is a solid suite of additives.

The Final Verdict: In the end this one is really tough, as there is very little difference between the BD and 2-disc DVD release. If you can find it on sale or you are one of those folks trying to get the full value of their investment in Blu-ray then I would recommend picking it up. If you are one of those folks who is strapped for cash and looking to save a few bucks, you can’t go wrong either way. The point is that you should be buying Tropic Thunder, no matter which format you go with.

Mirrormask (November 18)

Review by Brian Gibson

MirrorMask on Blu-rayIf you are a child of the 1980′s you can probably remember the sometimes strange but magical world of Jim Henson’s creations. From Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal to The Muppets and Fraggle Rock, Henson’s creations were always original and mesmerizing. The world’s that he created were also as interesting, and could even be considered characters themselves. With Henson’s passing almost twenty years ago, it has been a long time since we have had a film like his roll around. Leave it to Neil Gaiman to create another Henson-esque world, inspired by Labyrinth, for us to get lost in. So just like with the 15 year old Sarah in Labyrinth, we are now asked to take a journey with a 15 year old Helena in MirrorMask.

Sensory Experience: As you could expect from a film that was shot nearly entirely with green screens and cg material, the film is a light visual overload. If you have seen the film, you know that the film’s entire foundation is in visual artistry. The story pushes along like a painting in motion, quite literally. The animation is very unique, as is the art of director Dave McKean. McKean’s art has splashed the pages of Neil Gaiman’s books, giving them a certain look. This is the same look that translates over to the film. There are some portions of the film which are a bit dark and muddy, but this could be for effect. Overall though, the picture quality is stellar. The audio hovers anywhere between standard to somewhat impressive. One of my original complaints with the movie had always been the music. Given that the film was produced by the BBC, I don’t think anyone would expect the score of the film to be impressive unless it was a period piece. There are a few spots in the film where the audio is slightly impressive, but overall nothing to write home about.

Supporting Materials: If you are the curious type, or type who wonders what goes into producing a green screen film…this release is stacked with a fair amount of supplements. You have a chance to jump into the minds of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, and follow the two to Q&A sessions at San Diego Comic Con and Sundance. The cast interviews are particularly interesting, even if to see what they think of the surreal experience of MirrorMask. One of the cooler features that I enjoyed was a time lapse video of an entire day of production, that is laced with fun facts about the time and effort put into the film.

Added Value: With this release, the exclusives are slim pickings. If you already own the DVD, there is not much of an incentive to purchase this release except for high definition. The disc is BD Live enabled, but there is not any specific content related to the film. Keep in mind, this is a re-release and not a brand new edition.

The Final Verdict: If you already own the movie, this Blu-Ray release is probably not for you…unless you are a superfan. I would call this one a rental, and a good one. Don’t get me wrong, MirrorMask is a good movie and worth checking out. However, the release is pretty bare-bones, and wouldn’t warrant a double dip purchase in my book.

The Blu-ray Patrol is the weekly column in which FSR’s HD-addicted Executive Editor Neil Miller rants and raves about the upcoming week’s Blu-ray releases. To buy or not to buy, that is always the question. Check back ever Monday to find the answers.


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