After taking a week off due to the big fiesta film party that is South by Southwest, I’m back in action with my fingers all over the pulse of the world of Blu-ray. In this entry of This Week in Blu-ray, I’m not only bringing you the releases of this week, but I will be mixing in some choice picks from last week — including South Park: Season 13 and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Not to mention the release of The Princess and the Frog, which was lovely. Speaking of Disney, I’ve got something else on this week’s agenda: Toy Story, and my ever-growing addiction to the works of Pixar Animation Studios. Also — as a side note — kudos to those of you who avoided Ninja Assassin last week even without my column. You are winning at life.

You will find all of my reviews below, with links to Amazon for those of you who think my advice is worthwhile (or are too lazy to use the search function).

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Toy Story Blu-rayToy Story

Re-releasing movies on Blu-ray is often tricky. As many a studio has found out, reviewers such as myself do not take kindly to repackaged special features that are carried over from previous DVD releases. That is, unless there’s something new offered on the Blu-ray. In the case of Toy Story — and as you’ll see, Toy Story 2 — not only do we get the most vibrant version of the film ever to be released on a home video format, we also get a series of wonderful new extras. There’s a special sneak peak at Toy Story 3‘s story, a look at Buzz Lightyear’s real journey into space and a series of animated studio stories. The latter is really great, as they tell various stories from inside the world of Pixar in the ’90s, set to hand drawn animation. One of the stories included with Toy Story involves director John Lasseter’s car — it’s very funny, trust me. Overall, there’s no reason for you not to get Toy Story. The animation has never looked better, the entire package is well assembled and there’s a lot of new stuff to be discovered.

Toy Story 2 Blu-rayToy Story 2

Just like Toy Story, the second film in this series has also received a set of delightful upgrades. Of course, the most interesting thing about Toy Story 2 is the advancement in animation. If you watch these two films back to back, you will see how far Pixar’s animation team got in the four years between films. It is incredible. Then, just for fun, watch the trailer for Toy Story 3 and have your mind blown with the incredibly smooth, detailed animation that they’re putting out today. It’s an incredible testament to the innovative spirit of Pixar, and their ability to move animation — as a whole — forward at all times. In addition to the great look of the film, which is only enhanced by the beautiful Blu-ray transfer, Toy Story 2 also scores with special features. It has a different Toy Story 3 sneak peek, and several additional “Studio Stories.” It’s all part of the fantastic one-two punch of these releases. You almost have to buy them together in order to get the entire experience.

Fantastic Mr. Fox Blu-rayFantastic Mr. Fox

It’s always sad when I don’t get a chance to review something in advance — especially when I then go and recommend it anyway. See what you’re doing to me, Fox Home Entertainment? You make me look like a fool. But a fool I am not, and intuitive I am. I can intuit the fact that Fantastic Mr. Fox is worth buying on Blu-ray for several reasons — for one, it is a splendid and energetic film with all the quirk of Wes Anderson without the annoying parts. It’s also a Blu-ray that lists a fair amount of Blu-ray exclusive content, including several featurettes and one special behind the scenes feature solely dedicated to the world of Roald Dahl. Can you blame me for recommending this? I didn’t think so…

Note: I received a copy of Fantastic Mr. Fox on Blu-ray just before time of publication on this article. My emphatic recommendation stands.

Mad Men Season 3 Blu-rayMad Men: Season Three

Three seasons in, there is no question as to whether or not you should own Mad Men. Anyone who owns seasons one or two knows exactly what I mean here. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is one of the most interesting and dynamic characters on television, and the characters around him are equally worthy of screen time. The design and detail of this show are top-notch, and everything about it — from its incredibly smart writing to its bold narrative choices — is heads above the rest. On Blu-ray, it features full-length audio commentary (something we don’t see all the time with television shows), a featurette about Medgar Evers, and several interesting featurettes about 1963. It’s essential supplemental material that doesn’t just take you behind the scenes on the show, it also helps provide additional context for the Mad Men universe. Well done, I say.

South Park Season 13 Blu-raySouth Park: The Complete Thirteenth Season (3/16)

The concept of a show running well into its thirteenth season and still being as funny, if not funnier than it was in its first five seasons absolutely boggles my mind. But Southpark has certainly done just that. With episodes like Butters’ Bottom Bitch and Whale Whores, and more popular episodes like Dead Celebrities and Dances with Smurfs, season thirteen is a tour de force for Matt Stone and Trey Parker. This Blu-ray release — the second such season that has been offered in HD — isn’t exactly loaded with extras, but it does have seven hilarious deleted scenes. Yes, deleted scenes from Southpark. That’s worth the buy for any fan alone.

The Princess and the Frog Blu-rayThe Princess and the Frog (Three-Disc Combo Pack)

Disney has solidified itself over the years as the greatest in animation. There’s no arguing that. With the Blu-ray format, they’ve also solidified themselves as a leader by taking great care with what goes into their Blu-ray releases. One thing they do that others don’t is to include the DVD in addition to the Blu-ray. This means that collectors — a Disney tradition since VHS — can buy the Blu-ray without having to buy a Blu-ray player just yet. They also display once again with The Princess and the Frog that an intuitive menu and a great selection of special features are must-haves for any worthy Blu-ray. And finally, they don’t forget the most important part: include a great movie.

Red Cliff Blu-rayRed Cliff

Magnolia has released two version of John Woo’s epic film Red Cliff, and while the film lover inside me (his name is Joel) leans towards the longer International Edition (288 minutes) over the US cut (148 minutes) I really don’t think you can go wrong with either. Red Cliff is easily one of the most impressive war films of the past decade. Woo has created an epic that centers on a few of the most important days in China’s long history as the country’s ruler runs roughshod over the land and three local leaders stand together against him. The battle scenes are immense and crafted with such beautiful precision as to almost be works of art. Strategies are developed and played out before our eyes in detail usually not afforded to that aspect of warfare. The US cut still clocks in at over two hours and cuts to the chase quicker and immerses the viewer into the action more frequently. It may be less of a drama and character piece but it’s still a solid action flick, and sometimes that’s all you really want. Neither version includes much in the way of extras aside from a lengthy making-of, but the sheer beauty and spectacle of the film itself demands to be viewed on the best possible format. History has rarely been this entertaining, and mark my words, Woo may just be the next big name from Asia… expect Hollywood to come calling any day now. - Reviewed by Rob Hunter

Twilight: New Moon Blu-rayThe Twilight Saga: New Moon

I’m certain that there are some of you who will lay down some sort of boycott of this column due to my recommending Twilight: New Moon this week, and that’s okay. This recommendation isn’t for you — it’s for anyone who enjoyed the Twilight movies. You have to credit Summit Entertainment with giving the fans what they desire — a six-part documentary about the making of New Moon and a pretty extensive featurette about the soundtrack. As well, there’s an Ultimate Fan Edition of the film that is a Wal-Mart exclusive (though it appears to be on Amazon already) that includes a bonus disc featuring a 7-minute clip from Twilight: Eclipse. It is as if the studio is saying to young girls everywhere — “if it’s more Edward you want, it’s more Edward you shall get.” It makes for a decent Blu-ray release, even if it doesn’t make for a good movie.

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The Blind Side Blu-rayThe Blind Side

If you have not seen The Blind Side, then you have no reason to complain about the fact that Sandra Bullock won an Oscar this year. That’s what I’ve been telling people for weeks. All I’ve heard regarding her win is “she didn’t deserve it” from people who haven’t actually seen the film. She did deserve the award. I can say that from first-hand experience. The movie is good, as heartwarming rags-to-riches tales go. The Blu-ray is well put together as well, with numerous BD-exclusive features, including a very interesting interview with the real life Michael Oher, the football player upon which the film is based. There are also a good number of interviews with cast, crew and the real Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock’s character) as well as a featurette about the football coaches of the SEC who participated in the film. It’s a quality assortment. If you didn’t see this movie, rent it. If you saw it and enjoyed it, you may want to think about buying it.

The African Queen Blu-rayThe African Queen

Bogart, Hepburn and a deliciously vibrant transfer. It’s as if I don’t need to say any more than that. There is a seal on the front of the Blu-ray box that states simply that it is “Meticulously Restored,” and it shows. Sure, there are behind the scenes gaps — nothing more than a single, lonely behind the scenes featurette, but the movie sure looks good. An unlikely team of a river rat (Bogart) and a erudite missionary (Hepburn) join forces to blow up a boat in war-torn East Africa. See kids, explosions! And a great story that comes to life with Humphrey Bogart’s Academy Award-winning performance. I can’t imagine this movie looking better than it does on Blu-ray, considering it was made in 1951…

Brothers Blu-rayBrothers

During its theatrical run, our own Robert Levin called Jim Sheridan’s Brothers “a fine, old-fashioned drama” that “captures the domestic discord with an eye towards the internal tensions brewing in his three protagonists, unfurling their layered relations with patience and a keen perception of the weight of what’s left unsaid. As those submerged emotions pour out during the film’s volatile climax, it’s hard to be anything less than completely riveted.” I can’t say it better than that. The Blu-ray has a basic set of extras, including audio commentary and two featurettes. If it had better special features, it would certainly be worth of a buy. Instead, I say rent.

Armored Blu-rayArmored (3/16)

Consider this summer reading material, for adult movie fans. Director Nimrod Antal is about to put his stamp on one of the most beloved fanboy action franchises of all-time with Predators. And while all of the focus seems to be on producer Robert Rodriguez, the film’s quality will ultimately rest on the shoulders of Antal. So in order to get an idea of how that might turn out, you should at least see Armored. It’s not the most intelligent heist film you’ll see this year, but it does have its moments. The Blu-ray isn’t driving away with any great special features, so I’d caution even the most ardent fan against buying it, but the movie does look good enough to earn a spot somewhere in your Netflix queue’s top ten.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men Blu-rayBrief Interviews with Hideous Men (3/16)

In my review at Sundance ’09, I applauded John Krasinski in his directorial debut. He took a very difficult piece of source material — David Foster Wallace’s sharply written book — and made a very faithful adaptation of it. Julianne Nicholson gives a cold, but charming performance and Krasinski fills in the rest with a talented supporting cast. He also captures the spirit of the book expertly, something that will certainly leave fans of Wallace’s text happy. The problem is that it’s not a very accessible film, as it wasn’t an overwhelmingly mainstream text. If you fancy a bit of adventure, I would certainly urge you to give this movie a shot. If you’re a fan of David Foster Wallace, you may want to go as far as to buy it — you wouldn’t be sorry.

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The Fourth Kind Blu-rayThe Fourth Kind (3/16)

I mentioned above the concept of having to include an intuitive menu and good special features, and how some studios like Disney (see The Princess and the Frog) get it right every time. The folks at Universal are hit and miss with this. Take The Fourth Kind — the Blu-ray extras are middling, with nothing more than deleted scenes and their iPhone app Pocket-Blu functionality (which is fun, but doesn’t add value to the moviegoing experience). And sure, they’ve got BD-Live. But that’s not much. And it stings even more when you consider the equally middling nature of this film. It’s a thriller that uses a gimmick to create tension — and it doesn’t even have a good gimmick, at that. I say pass and go rent Paranormal Activity again.

Free Willy Blu-rayFree Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove

I get it. It’s for kids. That’s the excuse that I hear all the time for subpar Disney-channel flicks like Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove. But there should at least be something clever or creative about these movies — they can be made for kids, but they can also be smart. This film fails to achieve the rank of smart, thus this Blu-ray fails to achieve the rank of anything beyond dust collector. That said, it does come with a Free Willy pop-up trivia track on the Blu-ray, making this format the format of choice — if you absolutely must buy it.

Also out on Blu-ray this week (review material not available):

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