Back by popular demand, This Week in Blu-ray is here and ready to take on a big week of reviews in high definition. Sine we’ve been away for more than a few good releases, many of them have been included in this week’s entry. The highlights are many as we traverse through a world of major TV box set releases, great animated adventures, raunch comedy from the 70s and 80s, raunch comedy in the modern era, big action, big muscles, charming documentaries and at least one movie you should absolutely avoid at all costs.
Torchwood: The Complete Original UK Series
Seeing as this column has been away for a few weeks and I’m going to be catching up with some of the best and brightest releases we missed, I’m calling for a temporary rule change and allowing myself two — count ‘em — two picks of the week. First, because it would be near impossible for me to choose between the two. And (b), because they fit so well together. The first of these two must-have television sets is Torchwood, the Doctor Who spin-off about a secret British agency led by a mysterious American named Jack Harkness who has one advantage over the hordes of aliens he comes into contact with: he can’t die. Led by this immortal man, a team of gifted, otherwise ordinary humans work to protect humanity from any threat, be it alien, supernatural or otherwise strange and interesting. Now, you may be thinking to yourself “I probably need to be a major Doctor Who fan to get into this,” and you’d be wrong. Torchwood may have some cross-over here and there, but it stands perfectly well on its own as a solid character drama surrounded by some creative sci-fi and supernatural elements. It’s a tad sexy, a bit dark at times and full of creative subplots that maintain a curiously strong sense of momentum through the entirety of its two seasons (plus a six-part mini-series). As Blu-ray collector’s items go, this one is awesome. It’s packaged in a sturdy, book-like box that slides out of an outer casing to reveal the 12-disc set. It’s got weight to it, giving it an anthology-like feel, a fact that should delight any fan of the show. This one is recommended for fans and non-fans alike. Torchwood is the real deal.
Stargate Atlantis: The Complete Series
If you’re one of those people who has been putting off getting into Stargate: Atlantis, as I am, then you’re probably ready for a big 20-disc vacation-busting set like this. If you’re a fan of Stargate: Atlantis, the popular offshoot of the Stargate franchise that, to my knowledge, does not include Kurt Russell but is still pretty solid, then you’re going to like this one, as well. It is a complete package; 50-odd hours of extras, including several extended episodes; a bunch of behind the scenes featurettes and commentaries. Better yet is the fact that it packs 5 seasons neatly into a very neatly designed, compact set. Unlike other box sets, it won’t force you to completely rearrange an entire shelf. And as someone who collects, I can appreciate good packaging. Even more importantly, I can appreciate good sci-fi. And this is good sci-fi, complete with some memorable characters, a little adventure here and there and yes, some silliness. With the exception of Battlestar Galactica or original series Star Trek sets, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more complete sci-fi package than this one.
At first glance, Rio may not be the most appealing release of the week. First, it’s not a Pixar or Dreamworks release, but rather a 20th Century Fox animated tale. Also, the Blu-ray’s only exclusive feature is “Live Lookup Powered by IMDB,” not exactly a crown jewel of extras. Yet there’s something indelibly charming about this film, an energy that seems to spring from its South American setting and its vibrant colors. For the kids, it’s a lot of fun. For adults who simply like beautifully animated, capably constructed films, it’s also worth a look. If you’re looking to test out a 3D setup or simply looking to give your Blu-ray player and HDTV a good workout, this may prove to be an excellent reference DVD. The HD version of the film is filled with color, fluid motion and a soundtrack with some serious flair. It is perhaps the most easily recommendable film of the year starring George Lopez, and we all know how wide the choices are in that particular category.
High and Low (Criterion)
By now we all know that Criterion is good at what they do. They take classic, influential films from a non-HD or DVD era and bring them up to date through painstaking hard work and some of the best technology in the business. But for some reason, I’m convinced that Akira Kurosawa movies get a little something extra. And that something is love. There’s no other way to explain why the transfer on High and Low is so gorgeous. The intensity and elegance that Kurosawa built into his modern day crime thriller comes spilling out in as crisp a display as we could imagine from a film shot in the early 1960s. With this release, Criterion once again delivers the definitive home video version of the film they’re releasing. There’s no reason for you not to own High and Low, so I see no reason why you shouldn’t own this version of it.
Thanks to my impromptu Blu-ray reviewing vacation, I’ve got the honor of talking about not one, but two of this year’s most charming animated films. The first was Rio, and now Rango. In a year that Pixar seems to have taken a pass, there has been some great work from the other studios. This one comes from Paramount Animation, before it was named Paramount Animation. Pirates of the Caribbean frontman Gore Verbinski teams with star Johnny Depp to tell the story of a house pet chameleon who, by chance, ends up in the wild west critter town of Dirt. There he is thrown into the task of discovering what happened to the town’s water supply. The animation is incredibly sharp and lifelike — I was not surprised to see that Paramount Animation (or Nickelodeon, in this case) was just a front for Industrial Light & Magic, who are actually behind the look of this film — and the story is charming. It’s got enough of Johnny Depp’s Hunter S. Thompson love in it to transcend its kiddy plot and become something interesting. The Blu-ray release isn’t littered with supplements, but many the ones it does have are exclusive. If the look of this meticulously animated film isn’t enough to make you pony up HD money, the extras should finish the job.
The Blues Brothers
It is time to once again go on a mission from God. Easily one of my favorite films of all-time, The Blues Brothers is the eternal story of Jake and Ellwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd), two Chicago orphans who grew up with music in their hearts and trouble in their path. And in order to save the orphanage that saved them, they’ve got to get the band back together. They simply don’t make movies like this anymore, or at least not with this kind of genuine spirit. Between the ridiculous car chases — two of the most ridiculous, if I may — the celebrity cameos (Frank Oz is my favorite) and the Saturday Night Live roots of the characters, you’d think that it would be one big, stupid mess. But John Landis holds it all together perfectly. But what of the Blu, you ask? The transfer looks solid, very little grain, and the extras are holdovers from the DVD days. There’s an “extended edition,” but I can’t tell the difference between that and the theatrical cut. I had hoped for more Carrie Fisher. It’s well worth picking up, as it looks and sounds great. Like The Blues Brothers should.
While I was over the moon about Blues Brothers, I was simply impressed with the Animal House release. Like Blues Brothers, the sound mix kills. It makes me want to shout, and whatnot. The transfer looks great and the special features are a solid assortment. I can’t say that I’ve seen the “Where are they Now?” Delta alumni mockumentary on any previous DVD releases, but they don’t tout it as new or exclusive to Blu-ray, so perhaps I missed it. It’s funny, though, I can tell you that. The Blu exclusives include Universal’s U-Control, which doesn’t get enough credit for how easily it allows you to watch behind the scenes content while staying in the movie. You can even compile a playlist of songs from the soundtrack and/or purchase tracks directly from iTunes. All while your movie is playing. Or you could just watch the film in glorious HD, with a bitchin’ soundtrack. Whatever floats your boat.
Eastbound and Down – The Complete First Season
Resisting Kenny “F**kin” Powers is futile. Anyone who has seen moment one of Eastbound and Down can tell you that much. The brainchild of a conglomerate of talented people, including Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, Ben Best and Observe and Report director Jody Hill, follows the life and times of baseball prodigy and overblown personality Kenny Powers, whose time in the majors was cut short by his ability to inspire seething rage in everyone around him. After several cities (and even more numerous racially charged outbursts), he ends up back in his hometown, living with his brother, trying to win back the woman he loves and find a way back to the big leagues. There’s no doubt that Eastbound and Down is a rude show, increasingly inappropriate at almost every turn, but it does work nicely for anyone who has enjoyed the work of any of the names listed above. It’s pure, unfiltered Danny McBride. And I think that’s awesome. As for the Blu-ray, it’s not heavy on extras, but each one provides a little added value, from featurettes to commentary. If you’re a fan of the show, you won’t find a single moment of disappointment.
Eastbound and Down – The Complete Second Season
In his second go-round, El Kenny Powers has escaped the clutches of responsibility and run off down to Mexico. There he finds a gig running cock fights, avoiding his friendly neighbor (played by Efran Ramirez) and leading a little gang of thugs, one of whom is Deep Roy. Season two gets a little weirder, with great supporting performances from the likes of Michael Peña, Ramirez, Ana de la Reguera and Steve Little alongside a cameo from an 80s TV icon that makes the entire thing worth the effort. If season one was the unhinged version of Kenny Powers, this is the prison-broken, completely free and ridiculous Kenny Powers. As for the Blu, it’s the same story as it was above. The commentary tracks are a lot of fun, the featurettes are silly and the outtakes have their own unique charm. As I mentioned before, resisting Kenny Powers, if you’ve got the right sense of humor, is futile. And season two is no exception.
Conan the Barbarian
Just in time for the release of Lionsgate’s Conan reboot — don’t you love how they do that? — comes the original, muscly version starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan, a man forced into a world of torture and slavery following the murder of his parents. The perpetrator of such heinous acts, played by James Earl Jones, becomes his mortal enemy, and when freed, Conan sets out to exact some revenge. Be it a bit cheesy, Conan won hearts and minds with its passionately delivered, simple story and some big production value. It’s all perfectly rendered on Blu-ray, in a transfer that is clean and without much of the digital noise we often see in mid-80s revivals. Also impressive are the new Blu-ray extras, including 10 minutes of previously unreleased archival interviews with Schwarzenegger, director John Milius and other cast members, as well as a 15 minute featurette about sword-making and fighting that seems less about the film and more about swords in general. But hey, if you’re a fan of swords, it won’t seem odd to you.
Life During Wartime (Criterion)
The mind of director Todd Solondz is a strange place. But a mind so strange would be a terrible thing to waste, as anyone who has experienced his films might tell you. With Life During Wartime, he delivers his companion piece to his 1998 dark comedy Happiness, telling the story of three emotionally stunted, dissimilar sisters in a post-9/11 setting. Even though he casts three different actresses to play characters that originated in Happiness, he still finds that delicate balance of wit and naturalness that permeate much of his work. As they do, Criterion has put a great deal of work into delivering the full vision of Solondz’s film into the Blu-ray with the inclusion of an audio Q&A with the director, a new “making of” documentary and one featurette focused on cinematographer Ed Lachman, perfect for the cinematography junkies among us. The only type of person who may want to avoid this release are those turned off by the work of Todd Solondz. Otherwise, it’s another quality Criterion release in the bag.
Duncan Jones wowed us with his ingenuity and craftsmanship with Moon, his debut feature. His follow up, the sci-fi time-bending crime thriller Source Code, is exactly the kind of film you’d imagine a guy like Jones would make if given a little more money by a studio known for leaving its filmmakers to do their work (Summit Entertainment). It’s a tight, thrilling little film that benefits from some smart writing and solid performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, Michelle Monaghan and a pipe-smoking, curiously voiced sideshow from Jeffrey Wright. Even with a few dangling questions left by the film’s logic-stretching ending, it’s all part of a very satisfying whole. The only problem I foresee with this Blu-ray release is that for all the complexities in the film, the home video package is rather simple. There’s a movie, an interactive commentary track and an audio commentary track. I’d call it an efficiency Blu-ray release, much like the film is an efficient thriller.
It’s rare to see a documentary so exceedingly charming and effortlessly funny as Exporting Raymond, the story of Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal’s journey to Russia, where he attempts to translate Raymond into a Russian sitcom. It’s a quintessential example of what happens when a man, who is considered to be a big deal in his own world, tries to apply his talents in a place that is completely foreign, and mostly uninterested in what he has to say. Beyond the delightful, adventurous documentary, the Blu-ray release also has a few of the Everybody Loves Kostya episodes, showing us the final results of Rosenthal’s wild journey. Also, there’s a featurette called “Old Jews Telling Jokes” that might be the best extra found on any of this week’s releases. It’s exactly as funny and awkward as you imagine it to be.
Conan the Destroyer
I hate to break up a pair, but Conan the Destroyer‘s BD release just doesn’t have the same pop we see in Conan the Barbarian. The HD transfer is just as good, the sound mix is great, and the movie isn’t half bad. It has Wilt Chamberlain in it, after all. So it has to have something to do with the lack of discovery in the extras. As opposed to its predecessor, Conan the Destroyer comes complete with a theatrical trailer and some D-Box motion code for anyone who has a D-Box chair in their home. Since the amount of people who (a) have a D-Box chair in their home and (b) have never seen the Conan the Destroyer trailer can be counted on one hand, this one gets a rent. It’s a lot of fun to watch Ahnold go even bigger and cheesier than he did the first time around, but there isn’t much of a reason to add this one to your collection.
Spy Kids / Spy Kids 2 / Spy Kids 3
As is usually the case when three films in a franchise are released on Blu-ray leading up to the release of a fourth film, I smell a box set release down the line. With Spy Kids 4 hitting theaters in two weeks, Miramax and Lionsgate are simply trying to cash in on the popularity of the original films. That said, they didn’t do a terrible job with these releases. I shouldn’t be, but I was impressed with the sheer volume of extras included with each disc. It proves the long-held theory that Robert Rodriguez shoots everything, and shoots everything that is happening while he’s shooting everything. He’s the Thierry Guetta of actual filmmakers, constantly rolling film on something. The result is a vast selection of extras that range from Alexa Vega concerts to Ten-Minute Film School lessons to “A Day in the Life of Spy Kids.” It’s exhausting. Unless you have kids in your household who love these movies — then you’ve got something special: an entire afternoon of peace and quiet (and Spy Kids).
Dylan Dog: Dead of Night
This movie is awful. There really isn’t any other way about it. Wooden performances, an almost completely incoherent narrative and all the visual stylings of a hallway painted the color taupe. The premise is great, telling the story of a supernatural private eye (Brandon Routh) and his recently zombified partner (Sam Huntington) as they seek out monsters on the Louisiana bayou, but the execution is startlingly poor. It’s made all the more frustrating coming from director Kevin Munroe, who did such excellent work with the animated TMNT. Some slick creature effects aren’t enough to save this one from being excessively flat and lifeless. And no measure of special features is going to save that sort of unenviable death.