This Week in Blu-ray we take a late look at some of the best releases from four days ago, and eleven days ago. Okay, so it’s been a boring fortnight in Blu-ray, so were combining two weeks worth of coverage into one shot of high definition adrenaline. In this long list, however, you will find plenty of stuff worth your time and money. This includes a definitive release for The Dude, an adventure with Trolls, some time spent with everyone’s favorite serial killer and a few under-the-radar, direct-to-DVD films that are worth watching at least once.
The Big Lebowski
For The Dude shall get the release he so deserves. That’s how I would assume it is written in the Book of Lebowski. And that’s what we have here: the Blu-ray release — for the most part — The Dude has deserved all along. Not only is the Coen Brothers’ most popular cult hit presented in crisp, dynamically transferred and near-perfect HD, it is also presented with a few new special features. The packaging isn’t as impressive as the DVD edition I have on my display shelf that comes inside a bowling ball, but I’m willing to look past that for this particular release. It’s a great movie and this is a very good Blu-ray release. There is some HD-exclusive content, including a picture-in-picture commentary track and an interactive pop-up trivia track. It also comes with Digital Copy, because you never know when you might want to bust out Lebowski and play it on your iPad. I’ve long been one who shrugs at Digital Copy, but lets just say this is one film I’m glad to have on all my devices. On top of that, there are also featurettes carried over from previous DVD releases. In it’s collector’s book casing, it feels like a definitive release. Not the end-all, but well on its way to being the only copy of Lebowski you may ever need.
Are you ready to experience one of my favorite off-radar films of 2011? You should be, as Troll Hunter is finally ready to make your acquaintance. It’s a creatively conceived faux documentary from Norway that chronicles the lives of three students who follow a grizzled, bearded man into the woods as he tracks and attempts to control a population of massive trolls. It has its less momentous times, but when Troll Hunter sets its sights on impressing us visually, it delivers in spades. It looks sharp on Blu-ray and delivers a new kind of horror lurking beyond the treeline. Above all, the film is a lot of fun. With a smattering of Blu-ray extras, Magnolia delivers this hidden gem properly to Blu-ray in a package worth owning, especially if you were lucky enough to catch and enjoy this one theatrically. If you haven’t seen it, definitely give it a chance with a rental.
Dexter: The Complete Fifth Season
Darkly dreaming Dexter has seen better days. And I’ll admit, with the way that season four ended, I wasn’t sure I would be able to watch on without the presence of Rita in Dexter’s life. I’m a purist like that. Then things got wicked again, Julia Stiles showed up and Dexter was back on the warpath, lurking in the shadows, where he belongs. In this surprisingly strong fifth frame — perhaps aided by a collective of low expectations — Michael C. Hall remains in command of one of televisions most twisted heroes. Call me a completist (I am), but I can’t help but recommend rounding out your Dexter Blu-ray collection with this one. We’ve come this far, and even though the Blu-ray’s main supplemental draw is a series of BD-Live (yawn) interviews and featurettes, it’s hard to ignore the draw of watching Dexter stalk and slay in HD. One wishes that Showtime would give us more from behind the scenes, but we’re just glad that Dexter continues to roll on without losing any momentum.
It’s surprising to see Jason Statham going direct to DVD, especially alongside the equally talented Patty Considine, in a movie with an inordinate amount of ass-kicking. But it happened, and it’s surprisingly unlike many direct-to-DVD actioners. The plot is wire-thin and the dialog that comes from anyone but Statham and Considine is fairly wooden, but the action works. And Statham, as always, is a downright magnetic action star. We can see clearly how this R-rated, violent killer cop flick might not have dominated the box office, but that doesn’t take anything away from how much it kicks us in the chin. The reason it has ended up in the rent category, though, is that it’s all movie and that’s it. It’s a manly slab of action movie that doesn’t linger unnecessarily, but there really isn’t much else to it. Like so many great relationships, this one’s for a single night of fun and then you can move on with your life.
Here’s something that’s disappointing: few people saw Mel Gibson’s best performance in years when it hit theaters earlier this year. Jodie Foster directed Hollywood’s drunken villain to a level he hasn’t seen in a good many years in The Beaver, the story of a broken man trying to communicate with a family he’s emotionally abandoned and a world with which he feels no connection. And that’s just the start — there’s a terrific performance in here from Anton Yelchin, as well. Forget all the stuff that Gibson has done off-screen for a moment and remember that he’s one of the best actors in the modern era. Or don’t. Take my word for it and see this movie, it has more than enough ability to remind you. It’s refreshingly original, strongly acted and poignant — probably more so than a lot of films you’ll see this year. As for the Blu-ray stats, the numbers are light. Jodie Foster’s audio commentary is fine — she’s a damn smart cookie — and there’s one commercial disguised as a featurette. Rent is the grade of this release, but the movie within it is a definite buy.
Little Big Soldier
For American audiences, modern day Jackie Chan can easily be remembered as that silly Asian dude who made The Tuxedo. Some of us choose to overlook that period of Chan’s American fame and remember that he’s been a kick-ass martial arts star for a long, long time. He’s also not a half-bad action director, something he displays with Little Big Soldier. Even though he’s getting up there in years, Chan delivers enough kicking, punching, near-drunken mastery to make this 92 minute breezy flick entertaining in a small way. Director Ding Sheng then comes along and sets it on a grand scale, making it interesting in a big way. The combination of the two make for an impressive ride through a warring ancient China, complete with a little bit of political intrigue but most importantly, plenty of fighting. If you can resist the English language dub — which sadly, is touted as one of the film’s few special features — you’re in for a Chantastic treat. That’s right, I said it.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Jackie Chan romping through ancient China is the Criterion release of Lee Chang-Dong’s Secret Sunshine, a very quite, introspective look at human mourning. Anchored by an incredibly, Cannes best actress winning performance by Jeon Do-yeon, it’s an example of vast storytelling that needs only the space provided by human emotions. As for the Blu-ray release, it’s got the class and qualitative markings of a Criterion release, but one of their softer efforts. Perhaps trying to match the softness of the film, Criterion doesn’t overwhelm us with bonus features. Rather, they remain focused on quality interview content with Lee Chang-Dong, on-set behind the scenes footage and, as I understand it, a greatly improved English subtitle translation. It’s not an over the moon great Criterion release, but it’s a movie you should spend time with.
The Bang Bang Club
This might be the week of unrecognized quality. First, Blitz goes direct to DVD despite being an above average film. Then we get The Bang Bang Club, another decidedly above average film that stars Neels Van Jaarsveld, Ryan Phillippe, Malin Akerman and Taylor Kitsch as a group of fearless war photographers in South Africa in a time when apartheid was coming to its end. It’s a solid character piece about four friends set against a chaotic backdrop. Well acted and well-paced, it won’t disappoint for a rental. As a Blu-ray buy, The Bang Bang Club doesn’t offer a ton beyond a few interesting behind the scenes featurettes. It’s not the kind of grit drama that you’d want to watch over and over again, but it’s easily something you’ll want to have seen once.
Outcasts: Season One
Despite the tired concept behind Outcasts — in which humanity is given a chance to survive on a new planet after Earth meets a catastrophic fate — there is some interesting character work in this BBC science fiction show. Unlike much of what the BBC has produced, with the glaring exception of Doctor Who, it feels a lot more expansive than it is, set across a big landscape with some bigger action surprise, at least for television. The problem is that, as I mentioned, it’s a tired story and it very quickly runs out of good ideas. My recommendation: pick it up as a rental for a long weekend if you’re say, staying in for a hurricane or something, and give the first season a watch. It’s not going to reconfigure everything you believe about what good sci-fi is, but it’s got a better than average BBC charm that works, for the most part. The Blu-ray includes some cast-driven featurette work and a tour of Forthaven, the otherworldly set. Nothing to write home about.
Swingers, Rounders and Hostage
It’s been said before, and mostly by me, that sometimes a particular studio simply dumps part of its catalog on Blu-ray with very little thought put to the matter. Universal is notorious for this, as is Warner Bros. lately. It’s a practice that is generally accepted as harmless, allowing folks to simply update collections with “new” versions of old favorites. But it’s increasingly criminal when it happens with good movies, as seen here. Miramax is simply dumping off the likes of Swingers, Rounders and Hostage, three very good movies, with the hope that you won’t notice that lack of improvements over their previous DVD releases. Sure, the last Swingers DVD release wasn’t bad, plenty of special features, but you’d think that Miramax could do something interesting for Blu-ray — maybe a new commentary track with Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. No, that’s too much to ask. These three releases would do fine — the transfers are good, not great — in your collection, but it won’t mean anything more than you owning these films at a slightly higher resolution than your previous DVD purchases.
No matter how much you enjoy the work of Paul Bettany, which I do a great deal, or Karl Urban, there’s no escaping the fact that Priest is a categorically bad film. It’s a mess of a script taken from good source material, further translated by a director with no discernible visual style and special effects that would have looked great in the early 1990s. It’s also a dreadfully boring action tale that follows a warrior Priest across a post-apocalyptic landscape to rescue his niece from the grasp of a rabid pack of vampires. It works on concept, but fails mightily in execution. For those precious few who enjoyed this one and would want to, gulp, buy it on Blu-ray, the Blu release features a fair amount of deleted and extended scenes, a rather interesting featurette about the weapons and vehicles, and one rather uninteresting featurette about the special effects, which I’ve already covered. There’s a picture-in-picture commentary track that’s Blu-exclusive. I’ll be honest, it didn’t make the film any less of a disaster.
I know what you’re thinking — this has Jim from The Office in it, it can’t be all that bad. It’s that sort of logic that gets people watching formulaic, cliché-ridden films like this. Don’t be a victim.
Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil
It’s a sequel to an animated film that I’m not convinced anyone saw. Voice work from Patrick Warburton be damned, because there’s nothing worth exploring inside this sadly bland experience.