Looks like we’ve got another week of This Week in Blu-ray being right on time. After a few bumpy weeks, we’re back on scheduled and its right on time, as we’ve got a lot of great titles to talk about this week. We visit with Charlie Chaplin and one of his finest efforts, we take a walk through the blood-soaked battlefields of the American Civil War, we get closer to two American film icons and when we’re done with America, we follow a South African Kevin Bacon to Thailand to save some drugged-up hookers. Also making an appearance: Natalie Portman, Charlie Sheen, Gnomeo, Juliet and some alien kids with super-powers that will bore you, then excite you. It’s all part of this week’s fully loaded Blu-ray selection.
I spent a greater deal of my childhood than I’d like to admit thinking that Charlie Chaplin simply couldn’t talk. I was good at math, but I was a dumb little kid. Luckily he could talk and he did so in one of his most controversial, subversive and hilarious films. There are some wonderful, classic Chaplin moments of physical comedy and some silly, ambitious moments of what we now consider traditional comedic elements. Some call The Great Dictator his masterpiece, his send-up of the his generation’s most reviled figure. Having been given the Criterion treatment, it is all that and more. Not to hyperbolize, but this is the Charlie Chaplin Criterion you’ve been waiting for. The black and white presentation of the film is incredibly detailed, the uncompressed audio sounds like it was recorded in the modern era and supplemental material is fantastic. One moment you’re watching Chaplin kick the world balloon into the air, in another you’re watching Ray Bradbury talk about the parallels between Chaplin and Hitler. Then in yet another, you’re seeing color production footage shot by Chaplin’s half-brother. It is quite a show, wrapped in an Olly Moss-designed cover and Criterion’s always-solid packaging. Pick of the Week was an easy one this week, even though (as you’ll see) there was plenty of great stuff coming out.
It seems like a stretch nowadays, but there was a time when both Charlie Sheen and Oliver Stone made great films. Platoon is evidence of that long-forgotten time, before presidents were being satirized and porn stars were being bedded. Before anyone could claim to be “winning.” Back when Oliver Stone was a bleeding-hear liberal disguised as a decent action director. That’s what we get with Platoon, in fairly glorious high definition quality. Impressive is the transfer, which brings Vietnam back in waves of accurately reproduced green and more green. More impressive, as you’d expect from a film that won an Oscar for Sound, is the DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix. The jungle surrounds the viewer, engulfing them in the agony of war. It’s enough, on its own, to give any audiophile a major case of arousal. The rest of the set is plentiful, as well. Fox and MGM have included several documentaries about the production, a few flashback featurettes and two commentary tracks: one with Oliver Stone that is dated and sort of a bore, and a far more interesting track with Military Advisor Dale Dye that explores the authenticity of the soldier experience. It gives a unique perspective on Stone’s often-criticized, slanted political tone. There was a lot that he, according to Dye, got right. The distributors themselves get the presentation of Platoon right, delivering a 25th anniversary edition worth owning.
Did you enjoy Stephen Lang’s performance in Avatar? How about anything else he’s ever done. Well my friends, you ain’t seen nothing if you haven’t seen Lang as ‘Stonewall’ Jackson in Ronald F. Maxwell’s Gods and Generals, the epic prequel to his Civil War epic Gettysburg. As I will undoubtedly mention again when we get to that movie, the presentation of Gods and Generals is gorgeous. From the film’s crisp 1080p transfer and its booming, remastered soundtrack, to the embossed, book-like packaging, everything about this release makes it feel like less of a Blu-ray release and more like a time-capsule. It’s an anthology release, complete with 280 minutes of blistering American history. And that’s just the film. That doesn’t include a brand new introduction from Ted Turner and Ronald F. Maxwell, a brand new commentary track, several featurettes, a Bob Dylan music video and the gorgeous full-color booklet. 280 minutes of expansive storytelling is just the beginning. And every ounce of it looks really pretty. It’s hours of blood soaked, slavery abolishing, beauty. The only thing that bothers me — and it comes with a bittersweet twinge — is that all the featurettes aren’t in HD. That smarts.
As I mentioned above with its prequel Gods and Generals, Ron F. Maxwell’s Gettysburg is presented brilliantly, vividly and with great care — to an extent. I love that the film looks great in HD, sounds big in DTS-HD surround sound and feels every bit the 271 minute epic the most famous battle America ever had with itself deserves. I love the 48-page full color booklet it comes with, filled with profiles of characters and actor, stories and quotes that provide additional value to the film-watching experience. The film is a great piece of history, with some solid performances and Maxwell’s touching authenticity, and it’s worth having in your collection. I hate the fact that beyond the commentary track, all of the other special features exist on a second, DVD disc. I hate that in a way that makes me want to bury the business end of a bayonet in it, but the rest is just too good to skip. Judged as a package, a collector’s item, this release of Gettysburg is head, shoulders and musket above the rest.
20th Century Fox and MGM have been going a little crazy with these “Blu-ray Book” editions lately. We looked at The Terminator and The Usual Suspects last week and found them to be hit-or-miss. Presented in lovely packaging, but somewhat hollow when it comes to what’s inside. One could expect the same from the cool-as-ice pool-hall drama The Hustler, one of Paul Newman’s greatest works. But there’s something very different at work here. Major work was done collecting supplemental features for this release, leaving us, the buyers, with a pleasing, well-rounded experience that delivers a milestone film and all the dressings that should go with it. A commentary track with Newman and others is illuminating. The featurettes are plenty insightful and a featurette about Jackie Gleason and Walter Tevis, the real hustler, might be one of the most fascinating add-ons to a classic release I’ve seen in a long time. The Hustler is a straight-forward, no-bull quality release. And did I mention that it looks great in HD and it packaged with a cool Blu-ray book? That all feels like a bonus when you consider all the extras.
Again with the Blu-ray books. This is a trend that, as a collector who enjoys fancy packaging, I like a lot. But as a minimalist and lover of the aesthetics of my own Blu-ray collection, I hate that these packages are so much bigger than regular Blu-rays. They don’t mix well on a shelf. But I’m over it, as once again Fox and MGM have put great effort into bringing a classic to the HD format. John Wayne weary stare permeates the crisp transfer and the story of two classic rivals forging an uneasy alliance in the old west carries the 107 minute classic to its place in your collection. The extras are the icing. Like The Hustler, there is extra attention given to Wayne’s career at Fox with a doc called “The Duke at Fox.” There are some insightful interviews that tell the stories behind The Comancheros, all of which further illuminate the lore of one of cinema’s great presences. The aforementioned packaging and included 24-page book are the cherry on top, as is the surprise mini-posters included in the package. I’m not sure what one would do with movie posters the size of a Blu-ray cover, but they are neat.
“Gnomeo & Juliet is the greatest film ever made about living, breathing garden gnomes. Throw in the whole Shakespeare element, including references to a Rosencratz and Guildenstern moving company and an animated statue of the Bard himself, and you can be sure that there will never again be another picture quite like it.” Unique and adorable, that’s the gist of what Robert Levin said when he reviewed this film for us during its theatrical release. That’s enough for me. We often yearn for something a little different, as much of what we do see is remakes and reboots. So even though Romeo and Juliet is a tale older than the movie media, it’s nice to see it done in a way that plays around with conventions and is, above all things, cute. Easy fun for the family audience and a colorful display in HD, Gnomeo isn’t the worst choice you could make this week. As for buying the Blu-ray, that’s a tougher equation to solve. Disney is usually strong with their extras, but this one feels lighter than usual. The bulk of extras are on the included DVD copy. The Blu-ray has one featurette — which, to its credit, is a funny bit about Ozzy Osbourne’s inability to speak English — a few alternate endings and some extra scenes. Nothing too special, but it will do the job.
On a conceptual level, there’s nothing ambitious about I Am Number Four. It’s about a group of young alien kids who got stranded on Earth after their planet was engulfed in a war with other, more devious aliens. And now said deviants have come looking for the last of the kids. Only the special powers passed on to them by their parents can save them, if they can live long enough to learn how to use ‘em. It’s tired and lacks any punch — until the film’s final act. While much of the film wallows in needless exposition and a noticeable lack of action, act three explodes and is ultimately quite fun. It’s almost worth renting and fast-forwarding to. As for the Blu release, I Am Number Four delivers a few deleted scenes, a featurette that’s only included on the DVD copy (included with the Blu-ray). It’s not enough to make the release anything special. So even if you’ve seen and enjoyed the film (or in my case, 1/3 of the film), it’s still not worth buying.
Somewhere rattling around my recently excited brain, there’s a list of at least ten reasons why you should see this film. One, it includes Kevin Bacon putting on one of the most ridiculous performances (and accents) in his long career. Two, there’s a lot of gun-related violence. Three, it’s about a badass killer (played by Djimon Hounsou) who lets things get personal with a delightful little Thai hooker. Four, gun violence. Five, Kevin Bacon kicking Djimon Hounsou in the shins in one of the film’s laughable first fight sequence. Six, the director of Ong Bak making a movie with Elephant in the title that isn’t about elephants. He also steps outside his comfort zone and delivers a movie that, plot aside, is a rather fun watch. Should you buy this Blu? Heavens no. It has no special features and if you haven’t noticed already, it’s the twisted part of my psyche driving this recommendation. But if you love yourself some delicious violence, it’s more than worth a rent.
Thinly drawn characters and otherwise predictable conceits can be overpowered by a strong performance. And Natalie Portman is more than capable of giving such a performance, as we’ve seen a few times in the past. That’s the exact equation that goes into The Other Woman. Portman delivers a strong performance as the second wife of her boss and the trials and tribulations found in losing a child and connecting with a step-child. It’s got a bit of heart, some humor and a safe style to it, which makes it worth seeing at least once. As for the Blu-ray, it’s just the movie. Well, okay, I take it back. There is a trailer included for the movie that is also included in the package, but that’s all. And in my mind, even the most independently financed little movie (which this is not, by any means) deserves a little back story.
Such a delightful week of Blu-ray releases. I found nothing that I would urge you to actively avoid. Although there are plenty of wild cards listed below.
- Anton Chekhov’s The Duel (Music Box Films)
- The Big Bang (Starz/Anchor Bay)
- Burning Palms (Image)
- The End of Poverty? (Cinema Libre)
- Grand Prix (Warner Brothers)
- Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (Warner Brothers)
- Le Mans (Paramount)
- Papillon (Warner Brothers)
- Samurai Champloo: The Complete Series (FUNimation)
- Solaris (1972) (Criterion)
- Soul Eater: The Meister Collection (FUNimation)
- Tigerland (MGM/UA)