This Week in Blu-rayIt’s been a long time since the world has held gaze upon This Week in Blu-ray, that much is true. But it’s back for a Saturday run in a big way — tons of Blu-rays, many of which are worth a rent or better, and a guest appearance by Rob Hunter. Since we’ve been away for the last two weeks, I’m including a few of the notable releases from both weeks. So prepare yourself (and your wallet) for an onslaught of awesome. Get through it this week, as next week appears to be just as good. And that’s where we’ll meet again, but on Tuesday this time.

I Saw the Devil

A South Korean government agent (Lee Byung-hun) is devastated when his fiance is murdered and dismembered by a madman (Choi Min-sik), but after a brief mourning period he sets out for a twisted and very unorthodox revenge. As in he catches the killer, hurts him severely, then lets him go… only to repeat the cycle over and over again. It’s a brutal game that sees the supposed hero bypass catharsis in favor of the dangerously unthinkable. Director Kim Jee-woon’s latest is easily the darkest, saddest, and most violent of his career but still every bit as fantastic as The Good the Bad the Weird and A Tale Of Two Sisters. Scenes of heart-pumping thrills exist side by side with stretches of excruciating dread. Magnet’s Blu-ray offers a crisp and beautiful transfer as well as an audio track that does wonders with an already amazing musical score. The disc isn’t exactly packed with extras, but the two that are here are interesting and fairly lengthy. There’s a making-of feature that runs shy of a half hour and covers the action, actors, and more, but even better are the twenty-five minutes worth of deleted scenes that include some character work, an extended sex scene in the house of horrors, and an incredible (Hulk-like) postscript to the existing ending. – Rob Hunter

Black Death

The plague sweeps across Europe, and the only thing the people can do is pray to the God they’ve so clearly angered. At least that’s what those at the head of the Christian church keep telling them and enforcing through fear-mongering, torture, and execution. Word comes of a remote village that has turned its back on God in exchange for a life free of the plague and death in general. Sean Bean and his men are sent by the bishop to find the town and bring the non-believers back to Christ by any means necessary. Director Christopher Smith crafts his most mature and effective thriller that moves beyond simple chills to highlight the dangers of faith both blind and enforced. The film is a powerful mix mystery, action, and terror, and Magnet has delivered a Blu-ray worthy of Smith’s accomplishment. The image is sharp enough to see the dirt and grit caked into the characters’ skin, and the audio offers up a fantastic mix of clanging metal, pierced flesh, and the sound of God laughing as he walks away from his most flawed creation. - Rob Hunter

The Green Hornet

At a second glance, The Green Hornet isn’t quite as dumb a film as it tried to be. Somewhere buried in Cheetos and spent butts of green “inspiration,” Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg emerged with a script — a stoned soaked take on a classic crime fighting adventure. What saves the whole deal is performance — that of Jay Chou and Christoph Waltz, above all — and a cool as ice cameo from James Franco. It’s a fun movie, complete with the inventive visual stylings of Michel Gondry. It’s almost worth seeing in 3D. That said, your best value of the week is to pick up the 3D Blu-ray/Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. The cover art is cool enough to justify the price, as are the mountains of special features heaped upon this Sony release. It’s odd, at least to me, that they’d give such quality treatment to a film they dumped in a January release. The entire package feels just right, from the extras to the quality of the home-based 3D. Thanks to its director, The Green Hornet achieves a level of cool that supersedes Seth Rogen’s best attempts to muck it with yuck. So buy it, sit down with it and have yourself some fun.

Fiddler on the Roof

It’s nice to see classics get the appropriate treatment, especially when it comes from studio distribution. Seeing a Criterion title get a glistening release is one thing, but seeing it come from Fox and MGM is something special. Such is the case with Fiddler on the Roof, an enduring classic that sweeps across czarist Russia, holding it together with music and hopes. The 1971 film has never looked quite so grand and has never sounded so crisp. And then comes the kick: the fact that there are several hours with of extras that dig deeper into the legacy of Fiddler, explore the thoughts and intentions of director Norman Jewison and plenty of time spent saluting John Williams, whose idyllic score really jumps out at its audience. Unlike some other recent MGM releases (here’s looking at you, Teen Wolf), Fiddler on the Roof has been carefully crafted for its Blu-ray debut, delivering layers of entertainment and insight that go beyond an already wonderful film.

The Illusionist

Thoughout the end of last year, the words on the tip of the tongues of animation enthusiasts wasn’t about another Pixar film, but of a magical little story from the creators of The Triplets of Belleville. Just like The Secret of Kells did the year before, The Illusionist came from abroad and made threat to Pixar’s reign over the world of cinematic toons. But it did not win, and from what I can tell, there’s good reason. While the visual element of the film is beautiful, like a Georges-Pierre Seurat film that has come to life in front of your eyes, there’s a drabness to its story. It simply lacks energy and liveliness, making it a rather sad, distressing film. Its tone is in contention with its visuals, leaving the viewer exhausted. Beyond that, the Blu-ray release is without many extras. It may look incredible, but there isn’t much to do when the movie is through. About 10 minutes of behind the scenes footage will provide a brief supplement, but the entire thing wreaks of a studio holding back. No one creates animation this beautiful without having a story to tell. Hopefully that story ends up on a future release. For now, see the movie and move on.

Blue Valentine

Through the performances of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, director Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is one of the most gut-wrenching dramas of all 2010. It carefully juxtaposes the beginning of a relationship, with all of its happy prancing into the unknown, with the end of a marriage, complete with full on self-destructive tenancies and emotional scarring. In it we find a great deal of truth about human relationships, and all the moments that make up the good, the bad, and the in-between. As for the Blu-ray, the disc comes with an audio commentary track with Derek Cianfrance and co-editor Jim Helton, both of whom provide some valuable insight about the process that went into making Gosling and Williams a painfully authentic couple (there are fascinating stories there). It also has a lone “making of” featurette and one “home movie,” which includes Williams and young actress Faith Wladyka (who plays their child) playing around as a mother and daughter would. The Blu-ray also shines in showing off the dueling visual aesthetics at work in Blue Valentine, capturing the raw detail of the digitally shot “end” of the relationship with the grained 16mm, considerably weary-eyed and dreamy look at the beginning of the couple’s relationship. It’s a staggering difference, but that’s how it’s meant to be.

Smiles of a Summer Night (Criterion)

It’s rare to see a Criterion release fall this far down the list, but it’s also rare to see such a light Criterion release, especially for a film by Ingmar Bergman. But what Smiles of a Summer Night lacks in extras, it makes up for with a fun and layered feature experience that demands to be seen. I’m no Bergman expert, but this a film that is far more flirtatious and playful a film than I’d expect to see from the legendary director. It’s erotic and charming, light yet heartfelt. The only problem, which I cannot avoid here, is a lack of depth beyond the film itself. My best guess is that there just wasn’t enough still lurking around for the 1955 film. That said, there is a video conversation between Bergman scholar Peter Cowie and writer Jorn Donner is deeply fascinating. It makes for an experience that a collector still might enjoy over and over, but a passerby might want to stay in the ‘rent’ pool for. The bottom line is that Smiles of a Summer Night is a fun film, from one of cinema’s greats, and you should see it.

Something Wild (Criterion)

It’s as if Criterion chose these past few weeks to be their own perfume scented dumping ground. Because when Criterion dumps movies that don’t live up to their usual standard, they are still dumping great movies. Like Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, a relentlessly offbeat, musically charged comic love story with dynamic performances from both Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith. Daniels is great as the straight-laced guy whose life comes unwound when he meets a girl who presses all the right buttons. As with Smiles of a Summer Night, the party slows down when the movie is over. Beyond a new interview with Demme and writer E. Max Frye, there isn’t much beyond a booklet and some excellent Criterion cover art. It’s incredibly light Criterion release, but a quality film that deserves a rent. If you’re a collector though, there’s something really great about the cover art. If you’re into that sort of thing (which I am).

No Strings Attached

One of the most striking things about the Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher led romantic comedy No Strings Attached is just how raunchy it allows itself to be. It’s not a party of skin and sin, but — mostly thanks to Lake Bell’s foul-mouthed side character — it is solidly Ivan Reitman’s most explicit work to date. And that makes it charming, as does the performance of Natalie Portman. It’s a movie that, put simply, makes Ashton Kutcher tolerable for 107 minutes. A feat previously thought impossible in the world of cinema. That said, the Blu-ray isn’t going to bowl you over, so if you’re not already a fan of the film, there’s no sense in buying it. Add to that the fact that the extras are rather unimpressive, even to the extent that Ivan Reitman may have put himself to sleep doing the commentary track, and this one falls squarely in the rent category. There’s even a featurette that talks about filming the dance numbers in a way that sends up High School Musical or Glee. It’s almost to a level of pandering. Almost so uninteresting that it takes away from the fact that the film isn’t bad at all.

Ip Man 2

In reviewing a film like Ip Man 2, it’s important that I set aside my own personal rule that states that I must purchase and release that involved Donnie Yen. As a responsible reviewer, I can’t inflict such a regulation on all of you. Even though Ip Man 2 is a massive work that includes more than a few jaw-dropping feats of martial arts brilliance, it doesn’t quite have the same zip that came with the original Ip Man. It does have Sammo Hung, though. And even though he’s old and chubby, the dude still kicks ass. Their tabletop fight is worth renting this Blu-ray by itself. Delivered in the crisp, colorful way that only HD can do, it will leave you out of breath and wondering how in the hell they do that without the use of CGI. As for the rest of the disc, it’s all pretty standard. A few making of featurettes, one of which is interesting and focuses on set design, a shooting diary and a few interviews. And by a few, I mean brief interviews with just about anyone involved in the project. I’m pretty sure one of those guys is a gaffer. It’s a solid pick-up for anyone who enjoys digging through the work of Donnie Yen, but a definite rent for everyone else. It doesn’t feel like a “collector’s edition,” but it delivers a solid Blu-ray experience, one that you won’t regret if you stick to my Donnie Yen rule and buy it.

Being Human: Series Three

At this point you should know whether or not you’re into Being Human. And no, we’re not talking about the far inferior American remake, we’re talking about the original BBC series. Resting comfortable on its ability to bring a great deal of gore and fright to the small screen, Being Human took a walk off the deep end in series three. More werewolves, crazy supernatural anomalies, trips to the afterlife, trips back to reality and a wild finish have me wondering two things: (1) why aren’t more of you already watching this show, and (2) where they hell do they go from here? The latter will have to be answered in season four, as I couldn’t find it in any of the extras, even the copious amounts of cast interviews included in this set. The former is a question that goes back to when I reviewed the first series: Being Human is a solid show, complete with vampires that don’t sparkle, werewolves the existential crises and ghosts that make a mean cup of tea. Why again, are you not already checking this out as I told you to do before? Hurry up and get caught up so that we can all discuss how maddening that third season turned out to be.

The Hit List

There’s something I love about the premise behind this direct-to-DVD action film starring Cuba Gooding Jr. But first, a question: since when did Cuba Gooding Jr. become an amalgamation of Jean Claude Van-Damme, Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren? Also, who the hell thinks this guy is destined to be a cult action star? Because they are right and it’s bothering me that I like it. But back to this premise. Gooding plays a professional hit man who happens upon a down-on-his-luck businessman played by Cole Hauser. When he offers to do the man a solid and whack 5 people for free, the sad dude lists a bunch of people he doesn’t like. This sets off a hurricane of murders that put everyone he knows and loves at risk. Gooding is solid as the cold-blooded killer, Hauser isn’t bad either as his unwitting accomplice. Then again, when it comes to the somewhat poorly executed action, it’s not hard to see why they didn’t throw many extras on this disc. See it because it’s silly and sort of fun, and because you too will believe that Cuba Gooding could be the next big thing in the small disc business.

Cougars, Inc.

Sam (Kyle Gallner) is a bad kid. He’s been kicked out of private schools around the country and now he’s looking for the next step in his privileged life. But the economy is bad, and his former playmate mom can’t pay his private school tuition any more. So what does he do? Get a paper route? Start dealing prescription meds? Nope, he gets a bunch of neighborhood women to start paying to hook up with him and his college friends. Unlike television’s Cougar Town, this film plants its feet firmly in Contrived Land and vacations at its summer home in Stupidville. The perverse 12-year old inside me wants to tell you that this film includes plenty of nudity, and earns its R-rating well, but the adult in me doesn’t see it as being worth it. I must be becoming a mature human. Not mature enough, though, for me to know better than to watch movies starring Denise Richards and Jim Belushi. Also, side note: there’s no way Lost ginger Rebecca Mader is old enough to be a “cougar.” Also, any Blu-ray that leads with a trailer for a movie in which Dane Cook stars as a character named “Tank.” I think that speaks for itself.


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