This week provides another interesting round of Blu-ray releases. Just before George Lucas delivers Red Tails, HBO is ready to release the original — and great, if you ask me — Tuskegee Airmen film they produced years ago. But that’s not getting a review this week, as a review copy was not available. Notable as it may be, that original Tuskegee film doesn’t hold a candle to Ryan Gosling’s political career, or Criterion’s take on Steven Soderbergh’s drug trade epic, or even Ed O’Neill duking out with a pretentious kid on the way home for the holidays. It’s an exciting week, despite the fact that we’re clearly caught in the doldrums of the winter movie season.
In its own sneaky way, George Clooney’s high tension political drama stayed under the radar and snuck in late as one of 2011’s best dramas. The Golden Globes took notice, awarding the film four nominations — though it did not take home any awards. The key to the whole thing is Ryan Gosling, in his best performance of a year filled with best performances, as an idealistic campaign staffer who gets caught in some seriously dirty politics. In a world that is most often all talk, it’s his ability to weave a web of words that ultimately leads him through a forest of deception. Clooney delivers as director, assembling one hell of a cast — Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman and himself, to name a few — and keeps the pace with a script he wrote alongside Grant Heslov. It’s a ferocious political comedy that isn’t so much about political ideas as much as it’s about the game itself. And what a game it is. On Blu-ray, Ides has a few exclusive featurettes that will keep the party going long after your vote has been cast. It’s a razor-sharp movie that more than earns its spot as Pick of the Week.
The Pitch: Steven Soderbergh does drugs, Criterion does the special features.
Why Buy? At this point, there probably isn’t much explaining I should have to do as to why you should own Soderbergh’s pulse-raising drug drama. It’s one of the first in the wave of early-2000s ensemble dramas that gained critical acclaim by layering together massive stories that still felt intimate. And the performances — those of Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Salma Hayek, and so on — are some “career best” kinds of outings. There’s a reason why movies like this end up in Criterion’s collection. And there’s a reason why Criterion fills them with layers of supplements, the likes of commentary tracks times three, 25+ minutes of deleted scenes, and almost an hour of additional footage. Like so many Criterion releases, Traffic feels very much like a comprehensive release. The only draw-back would be if you’ve already invested money into the Criterion DVD release. The Blu-ray’s picture and sound quality is far above and beyond that of the DVD, but the extras are identical. That said, a gorgeous Blu-ray transfer might just be worth it for a film like this one.
The Pitch: Ed O’Neill is dating your mom. Get over it and get in the damn car.
Why Buy? I know what you’re thinking: “Damn, I totally forgot about Dutch.” Or something along those lines. Until I was inspecting this week’s release list, I had forgotten, as well, dear friends. But fear not, that’s what I’m here for. Ed O’Neill stars as the title character, a blue collar worker who agrees to drive his girlfriend’s son home from prep school for the holidays. The little shit turns out to grow up and be Ethan Embry. On a sad note, this is a simple catalog release from Anchor Bay, so don’t expect much beyond the film itself. But you should be able to find it pretty cheap on Amazon and slide it into your collection. The only thing missing, of course, from a Blu-ray release would be a deck of racy playing cards. But that may be too much to ask from the 126th highest grossing film of 1991.
The Pitch: Now you can watch everything that happens after the iconic line…
Why Rent? Does anyone even remember what this film is about? Beyond the radio antics of Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer, a radio DJ who gets shipped to Vietnam to spice up the lives of troops on the Armed Forces Radio. Of course, he’s not quite GI enough to please superiors, even though he easily wins over troops and the ladies of Vietnam. What’s striking about Barry Levinson’s film, however, isn’t just the comedic presence of Williams, but his character’s brushes with the real Vietnam war. Something that is presented in a surprisingly honest way. From the Delta to the DMZ, there’s far more to this movie than the soundtrack I owned on cassette tape until I wore it out years later. As for the Blu-ray, the amount of archival footage and behind the scenes features on this disc feel like a great deal, even if they are in standard definition and reused from earlier releases. It sure is nice to have this one delivered with a decent HD transfer, though.
The Pitch: Because Disney couldn’t just release one classic Robin Williams movie…
Why Rent? Before he ever won an Oscar, Robin Williams was delivering spectacular performances that would be overshadowed by his comedic works. As professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society, Williams brings life to the droll world of the Welton Academy. It’s a spirited work and one of director Peter Weir’s best. Worth owning, sure. But how about that Blu-ray? That’s where we get into a bit of trouble, as they say. While Dead Poets looks great on Blu-ray — better than it has in previous DVD releases — the extras are a bit of a letdown. Disney, like any studio out to make a buck, is just as guilty as laying down a catalog release with minimal effort. Does that mean this film shouldn’t be part of your collection? Absolutely not. Even the DVD carryover extras are interesting. But it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s worth buying again if you already own the DVD.
The Pitch: Taylor Lautner is an action star, whether you like it or not.
Why Avoid? It’s increasingly difficult to believe that John Singleton, a man who has delivered films like Poetic Justice, Four Brothers and Higher Learning, is responsible for such an all-out blitz of bad, but it’s true. That tangential Twilight money must be hard to pass up, even for a man who has made films of substance. Then again, he did deliver 2 Fast 2 Furious. In this film, he places Twilight‘s shirtless wolf boy in as a young man who seeks out the truth about his life after discovering his own photo on a missing persons website. The chase turns out to be far less interesting than we’re led to believe by such a synopsis. In fact, if there’s anything this film oozes, it’s a significant lack of personality that matches the empty expressions of its young star. There have been times in his career that Taylor Lautner has shown some spark, leading some to believe that he may break free of Twilight and do great things. This is not one of those moments.
The Pitch: Swords and sandals and Billy Zane.
Why Avoid? Despite the fact that Scorpion King 3 sports two of the world’s foremost almost stars — Billy Zane and Ron Perlman — and two of the world’s most frighteningly tough dudes — Kimbo Slice and Dave Bautista, watching it may lead one to be convinced that the screenplay (penned by Brendan Cowles and Shane Kuhn) was written in crayon. The dialogue is wooden, the story makes moves between strict formula and nonsensical nothingness, and the action lacks any sort of scale that we’ve come to expect, even from franchises like The Mummy. There’s no Brendan Fraser charm, no Jet Li high-flying fists and no poorly CGI’d Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Basically anything that made The Mummy franchise is interesting. In its place is Billy Zane in a movie that appears to have been shot in one of the producers’ back yards. Blu-ray exclusive features like Pocket Blu be damned, there’s absolutely no reason why you should waste time, money or brain cells on this one.
The Pitch: Everything you hate about Nick Swardson brought to its full cinematic form.
Why Avoid? In an act of cinematic terrorism, Happy Madison continues to dish out development deals to its friends. The fact that Adam Sandler co-wrote a film like this leads one to believe that anything he’s done in the past that turned out to be comedic gold must have been someone else’s idea. Spoiler: those previously good ideas did not come from either Allen Covert or Nick Swardson, two men who must have decided that the only way to follow-up the masturbatory stupid-a-thon Grandma’s Boy needed a bigger, glitzier, far dumber younger sibling. Thus, Bucky Larson was born and for all we know, the production killed several children and a football field full of puppies. Oh, you really wanted to know about all the Blu-ray extras — what’s on the BD-Live assortment? You know what. Go f**k yourself.
- America in Primetime (PBS)
- Bad Girls (Starz/Anchor Bay)
- Belle de Jour (Criterion)
- Courageous (Sony)
- Division III: Football’s Finest (Image)
- First Squad: The Moment of Truth (Starz/Anchor Bay)
- The First Beautiful Thing (Palisades Tartan)
- Gantz II: Perfect Answer (Warner Brothers)
- The Josephine Baker Story (HBO)
- Journey to the Center of the Earth – 3D (New Line Cinema)
- License to Drive (Starz/Anchor Bay)
- Project X (Starz/Anchor Bay)
- Redline (Starz/Anchor Bay)
- Star Driver: Part 2 (Bandai)
- Sunrise Earth: Alaska (Discovery Channel)
- Thurgood (HBO)
- The Tuskegee Airmen (HBO)