It’s a big week in Blu-ray releases. Perhaps that has something to do with why this week’s column is a day late. For once, it’s an intense amount of writing and not my inherent laziness that has us talking Blu-ray on Wednesday morning rather than Tuesday. Almost 3,000 words died horrific deaths to make this week’s column come to life, and only a handful of them weren’t written by yours truly. The others were written by Rob Hunter, who stops by to give us a look inside a 14-film set of Sherlock Holmes films, none of which include Robert Downey Jr. For my part, I review my favorite film of 2010, a great and fitting pair of Criterion releases, an epic from DeMille, a season of Don Draper, the latest greatest thing from The Wire‘s David Simon, a fun Disney animated adventure and the story of a high school boy who finds out he’s a werewolf. And that’s not even the half of it. This and more in This Week in Blu-ray.
This week saw some major competition for Pick of the Week. Between the value of Mad Men and Tremé, it could have very easily been a TV season that took it. And Disney unleashed Tangled, which might just have been the best animated film of last year. And Teen Wolf hit Blu — need I say more. But I can’t help but stick with the film I named as number one on my list of the ten best films of 2010, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. This turbulent, sexual, visceral piece of filmmaking changed my view on ballet forever. It also delivered some of the most captivating energy seen on-screen all year. The best news of all is that the Blu-ray release is loaded with extras, much of which is exclusive and in HD. You can go deep into the ten year long story of this movie’s journey from script to screen, see the transformation of Natalie Portman’s Nina from behind the curtain and get an inside look at some of the physically-demanding aspects of the shoot. It feels like a complete experience for those who enjoyed the film, just as it should.
As a kid, Disney made perfect movies. Every last one of them was a spectacle unlike anything I’d seen before. As an adult, Disney continues to make movies that I enjoy. Long lost is my childlike wonder and awe, but what remains is a critical eye and a tired, weary sensibility beaten down by years of having everything that was once great regurgitated several times over. So when Disney comes back with another take on an old fairy tale, it’s almost cause for concern. Then again, Disney is still making enjoyable movies. Tangled is just that, a deeply enjoyable, heart-felt and fun take on the story of Rapunzel. Even though it’s a story that is ages old, it feels fresh thanks to some contemporary wit and smooth computer generated animation. It feels like the natural evolution of what little me used to think was perfect, and is perhaps the most adorable non-Pixar film the Mouse House has put out in years. Call me a sucker for some old time princess stories, but Tangled really warmed me. And as always, Disney delivers the goods on Blu-ray. It’s a BD/DVD combo pack with a solid array of extras, including one about “storybook openings” that will give you a bit of a nostalgia kick. An easy buy for yourself, a must-have for the next generation.
The Ten Commandments
I don’t mean for this column to get all fire and brimstone all of the sudden, especially after I just went gooey over Tangled, but it’s time to take a moment and talk about Cecil B. DeMille’s enormous epic, The Ten Commandments. A film so epic that it requires not one, but two Blu-ray discs to contain its 231 minute runtime. They just don’t make movies like this anymore. What I find to be most stunning about the release is how much attention has been given to the detail in the transfer. From the booming DTS-HD sound that kicks you in the gut the moment the overture starts to the unbelievable lack of grain in the 1080p film transfer, there’s something so obviously meticulous about the way this movie has been brought to Blu-ray. Bursting with color, drowning you in its vibrant set pieces, this experience (and I call it that with purpose) is as if we’ve been given a window into another era. Not quite as far back as the time of Moses, but easily back to the early 1950s, as if DeMille’s epic is being put on as a stage play for us live. It’s really quite impressive. Spiritual even, at least in a cinephilic way. Those who worship at the alter of celluloid will be very pleased.
Mad Men: Season Four
Any good Mad Men fan is waiting on pins and needles to see if the show will even make it to a fifth season. For a while, showrunner Mathew Weiner has been in negotiations with Lionsgate and AMC, and the latest word is that the show may not come back until 2012, if at all. So buying season four on Blu-ray may be your last link to the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Price, and to the ever-sleazy world of advertising in the 1960s. The extras are slim, but substantial. Like a featurette that teaches us ‘How to Do Business, Don Draper Style.’ That’s always a quality learning experience. But that, along with all of the other features, is something the Blu-ray shares with the DVD release. So what sets this apart? There’s something smooth and beautiful about this show, the sets and costumes so vibrant and meticulously created. It’s the television drama that you watch in HD, and that shouldn’t be any different when it comes to bringing it into your home. It’s a quality DVD set, but a show that you should be watching on Blu-ray.
For the longest time, our reviews on Reject Radio were rated on a unique scale: is the movie in question better or worse than Teen Wolf? The show has grown in the months since, thankfully. But the sentiment stands nonetheless, that Teen Wolf is perhaps the single most mediocre film of all-time. Who wouldn’t want to own such a stellar cinematic accomplishment in the most glowing resolution possible? I certainly would. The Blu-ray release is one of those standard “catalog” releases; nothing special in the way of extras and the transfer isn’t too much better than the DVD. So if you’ve already got this film on DVD, you may want to stay away. But as someone who (somehow) does not have this ode to mediocrity already in his home video collection, I will happily add it to my Blu-ray shelves. Because sometimes you just need something right down the middle, like when Marty McFly discovers that he’s a high school werewolf.
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection
Ask most people to picture Sherlock Holmes and the image of Michael Caine will probably pop into their head. Ask them again and they’ll think of Christopher Plummer. Keep asking though and eventually someone might suggest Robert Downey Jr… I kid of course, as Basil Rathbone will probably be first and foremost in people’s minds thanks to his long run as the esteemed detective. Rathbone brought Holmes to life in fourteen different films from 1939 through 1946, and this new Blu-ray from MPI collects them all for your viewing pleasure. Most of them have been restored to their best possible condition, and along with the films across five discs are extras including multiple commentaries, interviews, photo galleries, and more. From The Hound Of the Baskervilles to Dressed To Kill, this is a beautiful collection for the Holmes fan in your life. But it’s not cheap, so start saving now… - Rob Hunter
If there’s one thing I appreciate about Mike Leigh’s more recent work, it’s that he’s at least begun making shorter films. That’s not to say that anything he does feels like a brisk walk through the park — did you see Another Year? It was like watching an entire year in real-time. That said, one of his sweeping talkie epics that I’ve long enjoyed is Topsy-Turvy, mostly for its verve and an abundance of Jim Broadbent. It’s lovely to me to see Criterion put it out on Blu-ray, where all the color and personality of Gilbert and Sullivan can spill out into my living room. From the first shot of Allan Corduner sitting up in bed, ready to be taken to the theatre, to the vivacious set pieces of The Mikado, the world of Topsy-Turvy has never felt so alive. And like any good Criterion release, this film gets bathed in lovely extras. A brand new conversation between Mike Leigh and his musical director Gary Yershon, a short film from Leigh’s archives (with more Jim Broadbent, mind you) and a fascinating essay from Amy Taubin in the accompanying booklet. What it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up with quality.
This release goes hand-in-hand with Topsy-Turvy, as it is the actual Gilbert and Sullivan production, but with less Jim Broadbent. Directed by Victor Schertzinger, it’s a grand retelling of the stage play on a cinematic scale that includes a host of real D’Oyly Carte performers. Almost documentary-esque in its authenticity, the 1939 film is one of the early Technicolor releases, and it’s survived with all of the vibrancy that it had more than 70 years ago thanks to the meticulous folks at Criterion. Visually it looks stunning, especially for a film produced in 1939. It’s also yet another release that proves uncompressed monaural soundtracks to be incredibly sharp, necessary ways to bring the audio up to contemporary standards. The extras play out like a history lesson, with everything from a silent short film promoting the 1926 stage performance of The Mikado to excerpts from late-30s radio broadcasts of The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado. Also, we get new video interviews with Topsy-Turvy director Mike Leigh and a pair of Mikado scholars, looking back at the world of Gilbert and Sullivan. If you invest you money and a few hours of your time into this Blu-ray set, you will walk away feeling like you learned more than just a little. You can’t often say that about a Blu-ray set. Unless, of course, you primarily review Criterion titles.
Treme: The Complete First Season
It comes as a great surprise to me to meet people who were great fans of The Wire, but that don’t follow the work of David Simon beyond the five seasons he spent in West Baltimore. “Have you seen Treme?” I ask. And when they say no, I’m deeply disappointed. The man who brought us the grit of the drug game in Baltimore has also delivered a rousing, rich portrayal of post-Katrina New Orleans and a community with a vibrant culture that’s picking itself up off the ground. Performances from the likes of Steve Zahn, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Khandi Alexander, Wendell Pierce and others create a diverse mix of infinitely likable and fascinating characters. Like The Wire, Treme spins several yarns at once, almost effortlessly keeping them all intertwined but individually engaging. It’s a great show, filled with music and culture and heartbreak. The Blu-ray release is no slouch either, complete with two essential featurettes that can only be found on the HD release. One of my favorite features are the music commentary tracks with WBGO’s Josh Jackson and NPR Music critic Patrick Jarenwattananon, exploring the beating pulse of the show, the music of New Orleans. If you’re in for a risk this week, buy this set. But at the very least I implore you to rent it.
The Secret of NIMH
These catalog releases are driving me nuts this week. I recommended Teen Wolf, despite the obvious lack of care given to the release. And I’m recommended a rent on The Secret of NIMH in an equally unfortunate way. This is a wonderful film that should be shared with kind and kin, but it’s not the Blu-ray release this film deserves. I’d love to see featurettes about the story’s development, tales of the animators and the loving work they did to give the brightly colored world of Mrs. Brisby so much detail and life. How about a new interview with director Don Bluth as he looks back at how much the world of animation has changed since making NIMH in 1982? Or something about the craft of hand-drawn animation that kids these days don’t see enough of? Anything? For our trouble, we get nothing more than the movie we loved as kids. And that’s enough to convince me that you should rent this film, especially if you don’t already own it and you’ve got little ones to entertain. It exhibits a kind of craftsmanship that doesn’t exist much anymore in the world of animation, and it’s sad to see it get such a poor Blu-ray release.
Director Doug Liman is no slouch, but he’s also no sure bet. The Bourne Identity was a taut actioner, while his sci-fi experiment Jumper was plagued by a lack of personality. Neither of these films are indicators for whether or not Fair Game is a quality film, but it does show an effort on Liman’s part to take something controversial (namely the story of outed American spy Valerie Plame) and play it right down the middle. Rock solid performances from Sean Penn and Naomi Watts are enough to make this one watchable and at times fascinating, but it all feels safe and unambitious. Hopefully that’s not the stamp Doug Liman intends to leave on the remaining films of his career: interesting stories with a lack of personality. But alas, we’re here not to dwell as much on the movie as we are to dwell upon the Blu-ray. This is the easy part. Fair Game has a clean look to it, as does any recently produced drama. It does get points for having a killer sound mix, one that kicks in brilliantly in a few scenes that include explosions on Iraq war news reels. But once you get past the film itself, there is one lone special feature. It’s a great one — a commentary track that includes the real Valerie Plame and her husband Joe Wilson — but it’s only one. And that’s not enough to recommend a buy, even if it is one of those must-hear commentary tracks.
Scream / Scream 2 / Scream 3
This warning should come as no surprise to anyone who has been a reader of this column for any period of time. A new Scream movie is about to hit theaters, and with three films already in the catalog, it stands to reason that they would get a long overdue Blu-ray release. But in the interest of saving a few bucks and getting the biggest return on investment, Lionsgate opts for the quick way: take the special features that were on the DVD and upconvert to HD, upconvert the movie, remix (sort of) the audio track for DTS-HD, verify that the movie is still in color and throw it into a blue case. The final step (charge $25 for almost no good reason) is the most important, and the one in which you play a part. You can stop this back-catalog atrocity, but it will take some restraint. Unless you don’t already own Scream 1-3 and you’re dying to get it into your home video collection, there’s no reason why this set should interest you. Besides, why not wait for the end of the year when you’ll likely be able to pick up all four movies in a handy collector’s set?
Plenty of movies work with stories that are contrived and/or cultivated from previously existing material. Sometimes that works just fine, especially when it comes to direct-to-DVD fair. Sometimes it can work just fine if the film is given a solid cast. In this case, all of the pieces are lined up correctly. The Resident is the second release of the newly reborn Hammer Films. And while it isn’t telling us a new story (girl moves into an apartment, finds out that her landlord is a bit of a creep), it does have a great cast that includes Hilary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Lee Pace and Christopher Plummer. But the film is a terrible, drab and incessantly boring piece of work. On paper you’d wonder why something like this went direct-to-DVD, but in practice you’d be shocked to find out that it was ever allowed to be released for public consumption in any manner. We love Hammer Films and we’re glad they’re back, but they are going to have to do much better than this.
Need more Blu-ray recommendations? Check out last week’s edition of This Week in Blu-ray.