This Week in Blu-ray we take a look at some new educational material from the BBC in the form of Human Planet, but it’s not without some high drama. We also take a walk with Terry Gilliam through the mind of Hunter S. Thompson. Again, not without some high drama. And there’s a quick sidestep into the world of South Park. High drama ensues. And finally there’s no high drama in the crime thriller Blood Out, not to be confused with the far better Brian De Palma film Blow Out, which also streets this week. It’s a lot of drama and a few laughs this week as we comb through the best and worst of this week’s Blu-ray releases.
There will be a much more in-depth review of this title coming soon, as I have so much to say about what the BBC has done with Human Planet. For now lets work with the short version. Narrated by John Hurt, Human Planet takes the idea of filming our big blue planet in all the glory of high definition and combines it with the study of man. How do we, the only animal to inhabit every terrain on terra firma, interact with the abundance of nature that surrounds us at every turn? From the wild rivers to the deep oceans to the sky-reaching concrete and steel cities we’ve erected from her upper crust, humanity has a unique relationship with our home planet. And this documentary series captures it brilliantly. It’s also loaded up with extras and tuned perfectly for your HD television set. It’s like taking a college course in anthropology, if it were narrated by John Hurt and given a cinematic storytelling spit-shine.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Criterion)
One has to wonder whether or not Hunter S. Thompson ever really had a bender quite like the one dreamed up by Terry Gilliam. It’s possible, but almost unreachable by any stretch of the imagination. What’s also possible is for this Criterion release’s special features to be even more engrossing than Gilliam’s splendid trip of a film. Between the trifecta of commentary tracks — one with Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, one with Gilliam and a third with Hunter S. Thompson — a documentary about Thompson and Hollywood, collections of Ralph Steadman art, Thompson correspondences being read by Johnny Depp and a BBC documentary about Thompson and Ralph Steadman, it’s easy to get lost in everything that exists beyond the film. The combination of these things makes for a profoundly fascinating mind-capsule, that when opened reveals the inner workings of the mind of Hunter S. Thompson, as seen through the lens of Hollywood and the equally mad Terry Gilliam. It’s a damn sight to behold, I tell you. Sort of like a bender in Las Vegas, but without the incredible hangover.
South Park: The Complete 14th Season Uncensored
It’s not all that difficult to believe that South Park is still worth buying 14-seasons into its run. It is, in fact, still the last bastion of great satire work left in our increasingly dull media landscape. It’s as if Matt and Trey channel the spirit of Monty Python as they cut together the remnants of foul-mouthed little paper children and drive them into countless situations that wreak not just of ridiculous, but of brilliant observationalism as well. There are also plenty of low-ball jokes. The dick and fart variety that keep the kids interested in between commercial breaks. All is still clear and present and just as dangerous in the fourteenth frame of South Park. It’s a bit elastic, my recommendation that you buy this set, but I’m not above saying that you should buy this Blu-ray because of the content and not an assortment of extras. Some films and shows need the extras to make the price tag worth it. They need more than what this set has to offer — some mini commentary tracks and deleted scenes — but as any long-time reader of this column can tell you, sometimes a set is simply worth it. South Park is one of those rare shows, begetting one of those rare Blu-ray sets. Then again, maybe you’re not into dick and fart jokes.
Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back
If D.A. Pennebaker’s famed documentary about one of rock music’s legends is known for one thing, it’s intimacy. Here we see a Bob Dylan, both public and private, captured like never before and never again. There’s no fiction, just relentless realism as we follow Dylan through a three-week concert tour of England in 1965. There’s a reason it’s been called one of the great rock documentaries of all-time, as it captures a rare peek into the world of one of pop cultures most influential, if reclusive figures. The Blu-ray release from Docurama Films and New Video is no slouch, either. It features a crisp black and white transfer of the film and a carefully mastered DTS-HD 2.0 audio track that bring the world of the 60s back to life in a rather brilliant fashion. It also sports a healthy selection of extras, including one never-before-seen interview with D.A. Pennebaker by rock critic Greil Marcus. For any Dylan fan, music fan or fan of the times in general, this one could be in the “buy” range. For anyone else, it’s a solid rent and a history lesson, at that. You certainly won’t regret having seen it.
Blow Out (Criterion)
Not every Criterion Blu-ray release is an automatic buy. Then again, if you’re a die hard Brian De Palma fan, I won’t argue with you when you tell me that I’m bonkers for not giving this a buy recommend. Blow Out, of all films, speaks right to the man’s fan base. It’s a wicked paranoia thriller that centers on one of John Travolta’s more dynamic performances as Jack, a movie sound effects man who believes he’s accidentally recorded a political assassination. It’s soaked in the grit of the early 80s, both aesthetically and thematically. And it looks good in HD. But beyond that, Criterion didn’t appear to have the usual wealth of extras to include in this release. It’s got a new hour-long interview with De Palma, as conducted by Noah Baumbach and a new interview with star Nancy Allen. And it comes with Brian De Palma’s 1968 film Murder à la Mod. But beyond that it feels a little light. Not by the general standard, but by the Criterion gold standard. I may be giving it a hard time, but there’s something about this release that doesn’t move me. Perhaps I’m not in that De Palma sweet spot. Blow Out is an interesting film, and I love that cover art, but it doesn’t have the same kick that makes most Criterion releases special. It’s an aggressive technical achievement worth a viewing on Blu-ray, but a story so listless that it drives me nuts. So it gets a rent, and that’s that.
What do you get when you combine 50 Cent with an overweight Val Kilmer, both of whom may be under the influence of heavy narcotics? You get a crime drama like Blood Out, which sadly fails to achieve even humorous levels of incompetence. One of those unfortunately not so rare direct to DVD actioners that requires sound effects for its camera movements and was perhaps written on the back of a receipt for bottle service somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. But at least this one includes a bit of Matrix-style bullet time. It’s this kind of film that makes me feel for Vinnie Jones a bit, as I don’t have any clue why he’d participate in such a painful experience. Even the cast interviews on the Blu-ray special features come with a hint of despair. Lets just hope that all the once-reputable people involved in this movie got paid up front in gold.