Last week, I picked perhaps the worst week of the year to take a break from This Week in Blu-ray. As you will see in this week’s entry, two or three of the most impressive releases of the year hit store shelves. And it’s likely that they – the likes of Alien, Back to the Future and Hausu – have already made their way into your collection. I will be talking about them anyway, dear reader. For those of you who need a little extra nudge, here it comes. I also have plenty to say about this week’s releases, including a few deliciously crafted releases for some legitimate cinematic classics. Julie Andrews sings, Dick Van Dyke flies through the air and Bing Crosby tap-dances with Danny “F**kin’” Kaye as our weekly Blu-ray buying budget empties faster than our tear ducts during the final act of Pixar’s Toy Story 3. Give it up, Blu-ray lovers, it is perhaps the most magical time of year. Also, This Week in DVD host Rob Hunter stops buy to review a few releases that were well off my radar screen. And he does so with gusto!
Wowza! Just when I thought this week would be dominated by last week’s titles (and talk of my inherent laziness), along comes Julie Andrews through the hillsides of Austria belting out the titular ballad in vibrant HD. And it looks beautiful. It took all of about three hillside twirls from Ms. Andrews for me to decide that it would get top billing in this week’s column. Sure, there’s a Pixar movie involved. And sure, I’ve got perhaps the two biggest Blu-ray collector’s sets of the year to talk about below. But Fox has done something very special with this classic tale – they’ve revived it and reinvigorated it. There’s nothing about the story of Maria and the Von Trapp children that feels flat anymore, as it has on other mediums (I’m looking at you, VHS). Those sweeping shots of the mountains of Austria? Even more impressive. The colorful palette used by Robert Wise to bring the world of the Von Trapps to life? Even more vibrant and beautiful. Not to mention the fact that the 3-disc set is loaded with extras, from the construction the musical stages to rare footage and screen tests – the stories behind the story are here in force. It’s one of those releases that remind us of the potential of Blu-ray. Not just for the inventive filmmaking is to come, but that which is 45 years old.
When given a second glance, Toy Story 3 feels very much apart of its trilogy. It displays, at minimum, the evolution of Pixar – both as a storytelling entity and an animation house. A wonderful road trip movie that is familiar and fresh at the same time. And while it’s impossible to say – as a member of the generation that discovered Toy Story at a very young age – if it has the same magic for today’s kids that the original had for us, but it is a more than worthwhile addition to any Pixar fan’s collection. And by “Pixar fan,” I’m of course referring to any of you who have ever seen a movie from the northern California-based house. Toy Story 3 feels every bit the perfect bookend to a great era of Pixar animation. One that makes us hopeful for the next era, but deeply connected to the past. That, and those evil bastards at Pixar once again open the flood gates of tears with some textbook emotional manipulation. The movie, a must-see. The Blu-ray doesn’t fall short of that either, as you might expect. Plenty of extras – many of which are exclusive to the Blu-ray – a copy of the DVD, a digital copy, and all of the wonderful stories that followed director Lee Unkrich around as he brought Woody, Buzz and the gang back to life for one more round. It’s all there, and all worth the price of admission.
Categorizing the Alien Anthology as an essential buy for sci-fi fanatics seems a bit easy, wouldn’t you say? It’s a series of films that, even at their lowest points, thrilled us with some of the most intense and horrific monster imagery of the modern era. If you like horror, you’re buying Alien on Blu-ray. If you like sci-fi, you’re buying Alien on Blu-ray. I’m going to take it a bit further after having some time to poke around this incredible set: if you like movies, you are going to buy Alien on Blu-ray. From the ability to watch Ridley Scott’s original theatrical cut with the original 4.1 Dolby audio track to the metric ton of extras (even on Alien 3) that adorn each of the films – it’s all top quality, all beautifully realized in a set that is as all-encompassing as we may ever see. At least until a better format comes along. Then again, probably not. So do yourself a favor and pick up what could very well be the Blu-ray buy of 2010. For those who may balk at the set’s asking price (around $90, on the low end), just know that it’d be worth not eating for a few weeks in order to own this one.
As if a matter of kismet, the Back to the Future trilogy Blu-ray set is also out with Alien. I know this all happened last week, but it would be criminal of me not to sing the praises of this set, week off or not. For Marty McFly and company – akin to the treatment given to Ripley and that big ugly in the review above – this is the coming out party that the BTTF series has always deserved. The visuals are stunning even when you can see the green screen compositing (it’s there, deal with it), the audio is blazing and the extras are plentiful enough to make the anthology feel like a complete package. Universal spent time on this release, quelling together every ounce of extras that have been created since the first film hit theaters in 1985. My favorite feature? The clincher for the entire set? The trivia track available on each film. Sure, seeing the DeLorean explode through time in glorious HD is one thing. But little tidbits of trivia never fail to tickle me. Vote for Goldie Wilson! Buy Back to the Future en Blu! If you haven’t already, that is…
The culture of the weird is no casual topic around these parts. Between our obsession with Junkfood Cinema and Foreign Objects, we cover some territory that other movie blogs wouldn’t touch with a 35 ft. octopus tentacle. So a movie like Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (Hausu) feels right at home in the archives of the Rejects. It is one of the wildest psychedelic rides you can take without the assistance of illegal substances. However, don’t let me stop you from taking illegal substances prior to the ride. There’s no telling how much more vibrant and hallucinatory the animation might be if you were actually hallucinating. No telling how much creepier that damned cat would be if you were seeing seven of him. The back of this Criterion Blu-ray release – one packaged with some very cool special features – aptly describes House as a film that could have been beamed to Earth from another planet. Even better is the description from Chuck Stephens, whose essay “The Housemaidens” appears in the full color booklet included in the Criterion packaging: “a predigital maelstrom of cinekinetic visual ingenuity… a modern masterpiece of le cinema du WTF?!” If that doesn’t arouse the curiosity of the uninitiated, I’m not sure what will.
It’s the color that does it. I mentioned it above in my review of The Sound of Music. There’s something so wonderful about seeing movies – particularly from the 1960s – come back to life with the vibrant color delivered by the Blu-ray format. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is one such film, with all of the wondrous environment that surrounds star Dick Van Dyke delivered beyond what it was probably intended by its creators. I can only imagine what director Ken Hughes (who passed away in ’01) would say about the way his fun film has been transferred into a home video medium. It would be a stunning experience, I’m sure. An experience that can now be passed on to new generations of film fans. Even better is the fact that the Blu-ray offers a great deal of supplemental material for those who are already fond of the film. There’s a sing-a-long version of the film, an interactive Chitty Chitty Bang Bang game, a gallery of vintage advertising materials (which are rare and immersive) and a full featurette called “Remembering Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with Dick Van Dyke.” I’ll let you decide for yourself whether or not that would be interesting (spoiler: it is.)
Perhaps one of the toughest releases to categorize this week, White Christmas is a welcomed addition to my own collection. Who doesn’t love a little Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye? And with the feminine wiles of Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, to boot. White Christmas is a wonderful film, fantastically full of life. It looks great on Blu-ray (inasmuch as a film from 1954 can look great in HD), comes complete with a series of extras that focus on the film’s incredible cast (including a commentary track from Clooney) and plenty of archival footage. It’s a month early for the intense relevance of Christmas to make it a more worthwhile watch, but all-in-all White Christmas is another in a great line of classics that have been given a proper Blu-ray treatment. As I mentioned above with The Sound of Music, it’s a smile-inducing reminder of the potential of the format. These movies can get new life, while maintaining all of the elements that made them great in the first place.
Say what you may about remakes, rehashings and reinvisionings – there are always the originals to be watched. The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second in Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo trilogy, brings Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) back for another intense round as she goes on the run from authorities after becoming the prime suspect in the murder of two journalists who are about to expose the details of Sweden’s sex trade. Even though the series has been passed from director Niels Arden Oplev to Daniel Alfredson, the second film strikes a similar pace and tone with the first. The tension around Salander is still there. The suspense builds effortlessly and act three delivers an equally chilling climax. In short, it’s another fine installment in a series drawing on captivating source material. The only hold-back on the Blu-ray release is the lack of special features. A trailer to go along with an English dub track just won’t push this to a buy. It’s not hard to sniff out a trilogy collector’s set on the horizon, as soon as Music Box Films releases the final installment, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, into theaters and eventually sneaks it onto DVD. See this now, wait for the trilogy to make your big purchase.
Here again, we find ourselves in the great Blu-ray buying conundrum. The release of a great movie – perhaps one of this year’s best. It’s been called by reviewers on this site (Robert Levin and Landon Palmer, to be exact) an immersive film, driven by a powerful performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Landon went as far as to put it into the category of a “cleverly executed, slow-burn rural twist on the urban detective noir.” They are both right, it’s a damn fine film. As intensely stomach-turning at times as Precious was last year, with an immersive and affecting environment built around Lawrences character by director Deborah Granik. With a moderate amount of extras – commentary, a making of featurette, some deleted scenes and an alternate opening – and some well crafted cinematography from DP Michael McDonough, it’s not hard to see why this is an easy rent. If all goes well, this is one film you’ll want to see prior to Oscar season, because it has a chance at some hardware.
Agatha Christie is the world’s bestselling author, and she may just be the most often adapted as well. (I could probably check Wikipedia for that stat. But I’m not going to.) This particular version of Murder On the Orient Express is the most recent episode of the UK’s long running Poirot television series that began way back in 1989. David Suchet plays the venerable detective who this time finds himself trapped on a train car with a murderer afoot. To make matters worse the train has come to an unscheduled stop in a snowy mountain pass due to giant drifts across the tracks. This tale is more than just a brilliantly complex mystery though with morality, ethics, and massive amounts of soul searching coming into play as Poirot inches ever closer to the murderer. Suchet is fantastic and fills his Poirot with more visible emotion and unspoken thought than many actors have managed before him, and the series’ production values are strong with impressive cinematography and a stellar cast of suspects. - Rob Hunter
Who knew Canada made television shows? And absolutely brilliant shows at that… this set collects all three seasons of the funniest show you’ve ever seen about a Shakespearean theater troupe. I kid… it’s damn funny for any topic and reminds me of Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop with it’s sharply written dialogue delivered at a blistering pace. The show mixes black comedy with sincere heart, and while that alone is reason enough to watch there’s one more aspect that raises this series above many others. Each season sees the troupe producing one main play alongside several smaller ones (Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear), and that central production infiltrates the show with its themes and narrative in some creative and smart ways. Seriously, I took an entire semester on Shakespeare and I feel as if I’ve learned more from this show that that class ever taught me. Granted, my mind was elsewhere that semester. On country matters to be more precise… - Rob Hunter
When does success turn into excess? This seems to be the quintessential question that comes to mind when we look at a movie like Sex and the City 2. A beloved series about four friends living sexily in The Big Apple turned into a long-gestating film that reengaged a fanbase and saw wild success, despite the film being a fairly mediocre (when compared to the quality storytelling executed through much of the series). That film has spawned an extravagant, commercially-minded sequel that will likely do gangbusters business on DVD and Blu-ray. With its built-in fanbase, that is. For the rest of us – those of us who’ve seen both movies and remain unmoved toward the cult of Carrie – this Blu-ray doesn’t present any new information that makes us any more likely to buy it than for us to go buy a fashionable pair of Prada pumps. They do make shoes, right?
If we would have placed this on a speculative list of TV on Blu-ray that you should buy prior to it airing on ABC, I’m sure that it would have been very high on the list. Perhaps even up on the list near Fringe. For all intents and purposes, V appeared to be an impressive show – despite its rehashing of the original mini-series from the 1980s. It is quite a bit flashier, plenty more Scott Wolfier and updated to include some half-hearted socio-political relevance. It’s a wonder why our own Brian Salisbury – a man dedicated to all things sci-fi and not of quality – gave up on it quickly during season one. He got further than I did when exploring the Blu-ray. I will give him that.
Also hitting Blu-ray shelves this week, but unavailable for review in today’s column (including The Pacific, which will likely be excellent):
- The Bridge on the River Kwai (Sony)
- Cars Toon: Mater’s Tall Tales (Disney/Buena Vista)
- Centurion (Magnolia)
- Dinosaurs Alive! – 3D (Image)
- Disney’s WOW World of Wonder (Disney/Buena Vista)
- ExTerminators (Image)
- The Goonies: 25th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner)
- Highlander (Lionsgate)
- Highlander 2 (Lionsgate)
- IMAX: Grand Canyon Adventure – River at Risk – 3D (Image)
- IMAX: Van Gogh – Brush with Genius (Image)
- Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax: The Big 4 – Live from Sofia, Bulgaria (Warner Music)
- Ocean Odyssey (PBS)
- The Pacific (HBO)
- Phil Collins: Going Back – Live at the Roseland Ballroom NYC (Eagle Rock)
- Thomas Kincade’s Christmas Cottage (Lionsgate)
- Wild Ocean – 3D (Image)