This Week in Blu-ray

Brits running for the glory of the Empire, a fourth helping of Pie, an insanely brilliant racing hero and a few absolute bummers. That’s the company we keep This Week in Blu-ray as we take a look through the likes of American Reunion, The Flowers of War, Cherry Bomb, Spawn and Senna making their Blu debuts. It all begins, of course, with our pick of the week.

Blu-ray Pick of the Week

Chariots of Fire

Warner Bros. was able to kill two birds with one remaster this year. Not only are we getting this classic story of faith and fitness in a glorious Blu-ray release, but they’re also giving it a renewed theatrical showing in the UK in honor of the 2012 London Olympics. It’s all perfectly timed, as Chariots does tell the story of two Olympians, a Jewish man who runs to battle prejudice and a devoutly Catholic Scottish man who runs despite his dedication to his faith and its missions. Together, they brought glory to Britain in the 1924 Olympics. The result is a timeless convergence of sportsmanship and cinema showmanship, a well-acted, thoroughly emotional experience at the hand of director Hugh Hudson. The score, most notably the synthesizer heavy opening theme, is the stuff of pop culture legend. It will live on long beyond the memory of those who know where it originates, from the Academy Award winning score of Vangelis. The choice to go 80s synth instead of big, sweeping orchestral work for a triumphant story of national heroism in the 1920s was a bold one, but it’s what make this film such a unique experience. On Blu-ray, the film sings. The remastered visuals are gorgeous. Crisp and colorful with only a minimal amount of digital noise, something rare in transfers from the films of the 1980s. The soundtrack is full-force, as ever. From the packaging to the special features, this release has all the fine touches of something made specially for a year of Olympians.

Extras Highlight: This special edition comes with a CD sampler of the soundtrack. Which is excellent when combined with a few hours worth of behind the scenes footage and the aforementioned great looking Blu-ray transfer.

Blu-rays Worth Buying

Senna

The Pitch: “[Senna] he thinks he is invisible in the car, he thinks because he believes on God no harm can come to him. With this belief he pushes to the limit and over it too often and for me he takes too many risks. ” Alain Prost 1990

The story of Ayrton Senna, one of the most memorable and exciting forces the world of F-1 racing has and probably ever will know, spans about a decade. From the time he came onto the scene as a nobody from Brazil in the mid-80s to his long string of hotly contested races with rival, French World Champion Alain Prost, Senna was a man who demanded the spotlight. He took risks, bucked against the politics of his sport and gave graciously to his home country. And when he died in front of 300 million viewers on the world stage, he left an indelible legacy on his sport and his countrymen. All of this is captured brilliantly in Asif Kapadia’s fierce, meticulously crafted documentary. From archival footage, he creates a vivid portrait of a man for whom there was no speed limit. It’s the kind of story those in the world of fiction have attempted, but have never quite written on their own. It took a real man, a true superstar, to come along and live it. And with so much intense racing action and beautifully restored footage, this one is perfect for the Blu-ray format. In fact, the demand was so high that even though this release was not planned (they were only going to put it out on DVD), fans earned it with emails and Tweets and feedback sent to Arc Entertainment. The reward is a blistering, emotional documentary presented in beautiful HD.

Extras Highlight: With so much of the best footage going into the movie itself, the extras on this disc are sparse. But there are a few extra Senna family home videos that provide a nice extension to the film.

Blu-rays Worth Renting

American Reunion

The Pitch: The gang is all back for their high school reunion. Even that guy from Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li!

Seann William Scott proved with his performance in Goon earlier this year that he can explore the subtleties of a well-drawn character. With his reprisal of the role of Steven Stiffler in American Reunion, he reminds us that he can also forget all about such things and go too far, too fast and without any subtlety at all. Then again, it wouldn’t be part of this franchise if it didn’t take characters to which we (of a certain generation) can relate and place them on a plane of existence that’s a little… much. All the same, Reunion finds a way to inject a little relateability and heart into another opportunity for outright raunch. Which is good, because it completely misses the boat on outright raunch. One or two naked coeds and a shot of Jason Biggs’ ass just isn’t going to cut it anymore. But they’re all back and it’s good for a laugh or two, with Alyson Hannigan and Eugene Levy stealing the show, as always. It’s nice to revisit these characters, as we’ve all gone through so much together, and to see them all come back in a form that is more American Pie than American Wedding.

Extras Highlight: There is a feature on this disc called “Ouch! My Balls!” A chronicle of Jim, if you will. And there’s a “Dancing With Oz” featurette that ties into one of the film’s more unique sequences involving Chris Klein and the truth found in dancing to hip-hop.

The Flowers of War

The Pitch: If in war you find yourself in the company of courtesans, save them. It will work out well for you, in the end.

Christian Bale stars as an American man caught in the middle of the great invasion of China by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1937. Brought in to perform mortician duties on a recently deceased priest, he soon finds himself trapped with a group of young school girls and courtesans. Reluctant to joint the fight, he struggles alongside his newfound companions and eventually helps them fight back. As our own Rob Hunter explained in his reviewThe Flowers of War is “an intense drama punctuated with memorable set pieces and real suspense.” Directed by Zhang Yimou (House of the Flying Daggers), it finds roots in the grit of the confrontation and delivers the full brunt of emotional weight that only the disparity of war can create. Bale gives a measured performance, while the film’s story and supporting cast truly bring out the tear-inducing drama. Despite being a little long for its own good, it’s a beautifully shot film that probably would have been worth seeing on the big screen. But for those of us who missed its tiny US release, Blu-ray will do just fine.

Extras Highlight: The Blu-ray disc includes a five-part, feature length documentary about the making of the film which is just as daunting as the film itself. Even though Yimou’s knack for scope and backdrop is worth exploring, it’s a tall order to watch the movie and its extras in one sitting.

Outland

The Pitch: A younger, scruffier Sean Connery brings the long arm of the law down upon an outer space mining colony.

On Io, Jupiter’s innermost moon, there sits a mining colony. There a company outpost of miners continually break productivity records as they churn out large quantities of precious titanium. But just as a new Marshall takes over the lawful element of the colony, in the form of William T. O’Niel (played by Connery), a number of the staff begin dying in odd, often self-inflicted ways. O’Niel begins sniff around where the colony’s general manager (played by Peter Boyle) thinks he doesn’t belong, and before too long there’s a drug-smuggling conspiracy to uncover and a price on his head. It all gets very dangerous very quickly. And with Peter Hyams and team creating an impressively vast backdrop for this procedural drama, it becomes something larger than itself. And Connery is a badass, as always. If you haven’t seen this gem from 1981, you’d be right to check out the Blu-ray. The transfer is above average and the production design and effects leave little to be desired.

Extras Highlight: There’s a commentary track on this Blu that is exclusive to this release. It features director Peter Hyams who, while reserved at times, is incredibly insightful.

Blu-rays to Avoid

Cherry Bomb

The Pitch: A stripper gets more of a tip than she bargained for…

There’s potential in Kyle Day’s low budget directorial debut. Fashioned from the mold of Death Wish, this story of an exotic dancer who is terribly assaulted by a group of overzealous (and surprisingly well-connected) customers could have been something that reveled in violence and lust, ferociously exploring the depths of human capacity for revenge. Sadly, it lives on the surface. Where violence acts are carried out off-camera or on the cutting room floor, dialogue is forced and logic is the first one to die. It’s the kind of unambitious low budget affair that makes you wonder how it got a distribution deal, let alone a Blu-ray release. I wouldn’t distribute this kind of half-assed fauxmage on YouTube. It’s impossible to invoke the same emotion as films such as Death Wish if you’re not willing to follow it into the darkness. It’s also impossible to get your audience behind the stripper with a heart of gold whose delivery of every self-satisfied line makes us yearn to see her plan backfired. And she is the victim! We’re supposed to be rooting for her. Instead, we’re rooting for the guy who invented the stop button.

Extras Highlight: Incensed with the experience of the film, I did not even get far enough to explore extras. If you decide to walk that path yourself, may the ghost of Charles Bronson protect you. Or kill you. You’d be better off.

Spawn: Director’s Cut

The Pitch: Todd McFarlane’s famed creation comes to life with the best effects of 1997.

How easily we forget things as we age. If you’d asked me last week if I though Spawn was a good film, I would have half-remembered seeing it and said, “Yes, I liked Spawn.” I was 14-years old when Martin Sheen was trying to take over the world with biochemical weapons farmed from unsuspecting Koreans, only to be thwarted by the new leader of Satan’s Army, played by a stiff but ass-kicking performer named Michael Jai White. At that point in my life, I had no sense of good or bad. No sense of right and wrong, either. Looking back on Spawn, a film featuring digital effects that are surprisingly seamless for a release of the late 90s, it’s not quite the emotional powerhouse I remember it to be. The bad guys are obnoxious, the hero is a selfish bore and there’s not a drop of tension to be found anywhere. But that Spawn character design (and make-up effects from Greg Nicotero) were really neato. It was nice to revisit some of those visual elements, but it brought upon the sad realization that Spawn was not a good movie. It wasn’t even a solid translation of the comic character. On Blu-ray, there’s even less special about it. The effects hold up, but the transfer is whole grain. And while the Blu-ray extras are solid (and plentiful), none of them appear to be new. It’s basically the DVD version you may or may not already own.

Extras Highlight: A gallery of original Todd McFarlane sketches remind us how much cooler this character is on paper.

Also on Blu-ray this week


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