This Week in Blu-rayWelcome back to This Week in Blu-ray, a column that usually runs on Tuesday. Due to a fantastic and relentlessly voluminous assortment of Blu-ray releases this week, it’s a little late. So we’ll dispense with all of the apologies and long-winded lead-ins, as we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Beginning with the best storytelling the small-screen has to offer…

Breaking Bad: The Complete Third Season

Lets just lay it out there: the final two episodes of Breaking Bad‘s third season could be two of the greatest, most intensely dramatic and incredibly well-written episodes in the era of color. But it’s the build to those two episodes, one that you don’t even notice as it’s happening, that is brilliant. What Vince Gilligan and team have created in the story of Walter White (Emmy winner Bryan Cranston) is one of the fascinating good guy gone bad, but for (sometimes) good reasons stories of all-time. Season three brings in the Mexican cartel, sends Walter’s partner (Emmy winner Aaron Paul) off the deep end and delivers its big guy punch in the end. For those who are experiencing it fresh now on Blu-ray (something you should do, if it’s not clear just yet), count yourselves among the lucky ones. Those who watched it live have been waiting for more than a year to see what happens next. As for the Blu presentation, it’s loaded with more than 10 hours of add-ons, a reward for those who have patiently awaited the release. Three uncensored episodes, commentary on 9 episodes, 7 behind the scenes featurettes, several Better Call Saul commercials featuring the sleazy lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk, a Blu-ray exclusive photo album, a gag reel, a host of unused footage and deleted scenes. It all feels like an apt reward for the patience required of fans of this series. And a gentle, worthwhile reminder that season four is about a month away.

Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology

There’s no denying that any fan of the character will want to own Superman and his many cinematic incarnations on the Blu-ray format. Just owning the set will be enough. But what of those who have an attention to detail? A collector’s eye? Will they noticed the marked improvement in the Superman Returns Blu that was apparent to me? Will they Supes fans go gaga over the Look, Up in the Sky! documentary included in the set? The one that spares no details in revealing the long, rich history of the character. Will collectors notice the milkiness (read, fuzzy whiteness) of the transfer in the Richard Donner originals? And will the detract from their experience? It didn’t impact my experience, as the movies looked good overall. They were filmed and produced in the late-80s, a period of film that continues to be Kryptonite for Blu-ray transfers. No, Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology is no revelation, but it plays out like a effortless celebration of a character. Even though the transfers are less than perfect, the set feels like the most definitive Superman Blu-ray experience we’re going to get. Attention was given, effort was made to clean them up, and lets face it: these movies may never look better than this. Revisiting yields a range of emotions. Jubilation in some of the extras, deeply engrossed in the mythology. Sadness comes with the reminder that Superman III and Superman IV were awful movies. How in the world did people hate Bryan Singer’s version, again? With this set, I’m convinced that his was one of the better efforts.

61*

Many of the readers of this site, not to mention the members of our staff, are fans of Thomas Jane. The guy is a lord on the council of modern internet-based movie geekdom. In addition to his many nerdier ventures, Jane also took a moment in 2001 to star for Billy Crystal in 61*, delivering a flat-out great portrayal of a drunken, arrogant Mickey Mantle. The story revolves around Barry Pepper’s Roger Maris, the man who lived in Mantle’s shadow and beat the Babe’s big homerun record, but Jane delivers the most memorable stuff. Oozing with period authenticity and Crystal’s own affection for America’s pastime, 61* is a vivid American time capsule. And it looks wonderful on Blu-ray. The only drawback to HBO’s high-def release of the film is that, like a good number of made-for-TV flicks, there isn’t a ton of extras. Billy Crystal’s audio commentary continues the theme of affection, as do the two included featurettes. And that is enough to make it worth a purchase. Lovers of baseball and nostalgia will eat this up in equal measure, making it a worthwhile addition to any collection.

True Grit

In response to a recent Blu-ray column I had written, a friend posed to me this question: “Don’t you think you expect too much from some Blu-ray releases? There’s only so much extra stuff you can watch before it becomes a tired exercise.” And they’re right, to a certain extent. While the question of video and audio fidelity is one that can be applied to any release, extras are tricky. Take, for example, the Coen Brothers (and the distributors they work with). I’ve reviewed plenty of their films on the advanced formats and for the most part, they don’t load ‘em up with hours and hours of extras. It never fails, however, to feel like enough. Such is the case with True Grit. Five quick featurettes doesn’t feel like $25 worth of home entertainment, but the entire package of True Grit feels like enough. The film, the focus of its supplements — one specific extra about re-creating Fort Smith was deeply fascinating — and the packaging presentation feel substantial enough to make adding this quality film to your collection an easy choice. As the Peter Travers quote on the cover exclaims, True Grit has enough “Great Filmmaking” and “Great Acting” to satisfy any Blu-ray buyer’s litmus test.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Few personalities have left their impression on the American comedy landscape like Bill Hicks. He was funny, sure. But he also challenged notions, presented radical ideas and sought self-destruction with an unfathomable amount of determination. He was an inspiration to many, a cautionary tale to some and a legend to almost anyone who knows the world of comedy. And this set, above all things, is a celebration of Bill Hicks. Just as Hicks was more than a comedian with a microphone, this Blu-ray set is more than just a movie. It includes a movie. A very good movie. One that I called an “unexpectedly affecting” and “imaginative” way to bring Hicks’ world back to life (when I reviewed it at SXSW 2010). Beyond the film — which as I’ve mentioned is great, even a must-see — there are hours of extended interviews, featurettes and even some rare clips and previously unreleased performance footage of Hicks in this two-disc set. This is the all-encompassing word on Bill Hicks. Any fan, casual or extremely dedicated, should own it if they have the chance. The makers of the movie, the BBC producers behind the release of the Blu, everyone took painstaking efforts to make sure that this release lives up to the grand persona of its subject. And it does.

The Stunt Man

With The Stunt Man, director Richard Rush takes an introspective view of the world of action filmmaking and twists it ever-so-slightly to make for a rousing, darkly comedic and often distressing film about a guy on the run and the massively egotistical film director who just won’t let him go. It’s hard to imagine such a daring piece of work coming anywhere near three Oscar nominations in this day and age, but 1979 was a different time. Peter O’Toole is the eye of the storm, delivering a dynamic performances that carefully balances the sinister and earnest artistic sides of his character. Barbara Hershey is dough-eyed and brilliant as well. The Stunt Man is simply a treasure to be discovered by the modern movie-lover. And the best part of the affair is the way it’s presented on Blu-ray; it’s transfer, as supervised by Rush, is crisp and natural. The extras are plentiful, including new featurettes that focus on the career of Richard Rush, as well as new retrospective interviews with Peter O’Toole, Barbara Hershey, Steve Railsback and Alex Rocco. It’s almost as if this cult hit’s fans were involved in the curating of the supplements. Combine that with some pretty wicked cover art and we’ve got one of Severin Films’ gold standard releases of 2010. An easy ‘buy’ recommendation for any reviewer to make.

When It Was a Game: The Complete Collection

The year was 1997. It was October and the Cleveland Indians were on the verge of capturing the team’s first World Series in decades. It was something I, as a native Clevelander, had never seen in my first 14-years on this Earth: one of our teams was about to win something substantial. Then, in the early morning hours, an extra-innings rally from the Florida Marlins and a grounder up the middle from Edgar Renteria sealed the fate of The Tribe. Cleveland had lost again. In that moment, my boyhood bond with the game of Baseball was lost. It’s a fire that has never been rekindled. Going through the Ross Greenberg-produced HBO series When It Was a Game almost got me there, as it’s a wonderful look back at America’s game. The three-part series is presented vividly in HD, guiding us through the highs, lows and otherwise interesting moments in baseball history. For kids who grew up as I did, it’s an energetic and more digestible history lesson. For anyone looking to give a great Father’s Day gift, it’s a great venue for allowing elder loved ones to “remember when.” The only problem with this set, for the non-enthusiast, is that it’s a one-and-done presentation. No extras to speak of. It will work great for the lovers of the game, but it’s a rent for anyone sitting on the sidelines.

Madagascar: The Land Where Evolution Ran Wild

Like any great BBC Earth presentation, Madagascar is not short on scenery. As much as I’d love to pretend that I was deeply fascinated by the countless species of animals who, previously unbeknown to me, exist on this little African island, and the factoids presented by narrator and explorer David Attenborough, I was mainly zapped by the lush and colorful landscapes captured by brave BBC cinematographers. How do they get so close to so many shy animals? And if 174 minutes of exploration isn’t enough for you, there are a few bonus features that feel less like appendix bites and more like tangential supplements. As if they could have been part of the feature if BBC editors were a little less kind to their audience. David Attenborough, his voice calm and nurturing, guides us through the bizarre African jungle, introducing us to more than a few wide-eyed, unique species in a very intimate manner. It’s another great example of the ambitious work being done by the BBC Earth team — another great piece of educational material presented with the dramatic flair of entertainment’s fictional work.

Happy Gilmore

Even though his shtick feels increasingly tired these days, there was a time when Adam Sandler created characters we found watchable. Despite the fact that they were usually complete moronic packages, silly caricatures of actual idiots, we loved to behold their silliness and watch them bumble their way toward getting to touch some “heiney.” In revisiting two mid-90s Sandler classics this week on Blu, it’s easy for us to see that one has held up stronger than the other. Happy Gilmore, with his adorable grandmother, his mystical black mentor Carl Weathers and his iconic adversary Shooter McGavin, is easily the most rewatchable of Sandler’s dolts. Few can deny the drawing power of a greenside fight with Bob Barker, Allen Covert’s homeless caddy or Christopher McDonald’s pompous baddie. Be it the golfer in me or the teenager, something inside still loves Happy Gilmore for the meandering, idiotic mess that it is. Adam Sandler and director Dennis Dugan have certainly been worse. And I can’t for the life of my think of a time when they were better. So why the “rent” designation? Lack of extras, that’s why. Hooray, a gag reel!

Another Year

To its credit, Another Year feels like the further culmination of Mike Leigh’s long and illustrious filmmaking career. It’s almost an anthology-level work that slices together all the pieces he’s done well in the past together to the most complete “Mike Leigh film” possible. It’s conceit is simple, its cast is brilliant and its layers are thought-provoking anecdotes about how we, as humans, relate to one another. It’s art doing what art so often does: presenting a bare look at the human condition. Like many of Leigh’s works, it’s a steady-handed film that allows a great group of actors — including Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen — to do what they do best: act naturally. The relationships between their characters are meaningful, the authenticity is effortless and we enjoy the range of emotions brought on by spending some time in their world. It’s A Mike Leigh Movie, after all. On Blu, Another Year is presented with beautiful cover art and a limited amount of supplements. It’s the only thing holding it back from being a solid rent. Leigh and Manville provide a more lively commentary track than expected, while “The Mike Leigh Method” featurette further solidifies this film’s prime directive: to be A Mike Leigh Movie.

Cirque du Soleil: Journey of a Man in 3D

In my mind, there’s only one way to properly experience Cirque du Soleil, and that’s live. Even though I’ve only ever attended one live Cirque show — I saw the naughty one, Zumanity, in Las Vegas this year — that’s not a hard conclusion to make. The experience of Cirque du Soleil is vibrant, colorful and in a real life setting, seemingly a hundred feet tall. There’s no reproducing such an experience in a movie theater, let alone your living room. But you have to applaud Journey of a Man for making the effort. The 3D Blu-ray does effortlessly capture the breathtaking majesty of the story, reproducing every bright color accurately and every dramatic stunt fluidly. The presentation is stylish, elegant and as we’d expect from any Cirque production, full of physics-defying acrobatic work. But there’s something missing, especially in 3D. It’s not the towering spectacle expected by anyone who’s seen Cirque live. At best, it presents a window into a brightly colored world far from our own. Its energetic and playful performances overshadow the lack of stature, completing a 39-minute experience that is as entertaining as Cirque du Soleil can be on a small screen.

Shadows and Lies

James Franco plays a conman who gets entangled with a gangster played by Josh Lucas, and must find a way to give him the slip so that he can make it out of town with a lady he likes, played by Julianne Nicholson. There’s a lot to like about this film. It’s got a talented cast, is artfully shot and is deeply rooted in a love for film noir. But there’s a problem: it’s impressively slow and lacking in energy. It’s also presented on a Blu-ray release that is not-so-mysteriously void of extras. It’s no stretch to say that Shadows and Lies is worth a single viewing, but lets not go beyond that, otherwise disappointment, poetic as it may be, awaits.

Sharks 3D

It’s no Shark Week, but Jean-Michel Cousteau’s IMAX presentation of Sharks brings you right into the cage with brave divers wielding heavy camera equipment. What this 42-minute nature doc lacks in personality (it needs a little Werner Herzog tension, if you ask me), it makes up for in some stunning access to the sea’s most feared predators.

Ocean Wonderland 3D

A intentional companion piece to the Sharks 3D release below and an unintentional companion to my sad attempt at humor in my Blue Crush 2 review below, Ocean Wonderland 3D feels more like a cute nature screensaver for your living room than an engrossing doc about live under the sea. It’s colorful, beautifully shot and ambitious in where it goes, but it fails to ever say enough to really grasp its audience. As much as I like fishes, I’d prefer to learn something beyond “ooh, that one is pretty.”

The Company Men

In my review from Sundance 2010, I asked a simple question of John Wells’ corporate executive drama The Company Men: as our economy suffers at the hands of such men, will we ever really be able to relate to the plight of a bunch of upper middle class white dudes who lose their jobs and struggle to maintain their country club memberships? The answer was no in January of 2010, and it’s still no all these many months later. Where Jason Reitman used our most recent economic collapse as the backdrop for his Oscar-worthy drama Up in the Air, Wells and his star-studded cast use it as a one hundred pound foreground hammer that bashes our heads in with melodrama. Forgive me for not investing in any of your characters as their 401k runs out and their unemployment checks don’t support their taste in fine menswear. The curators of the Blu-ray for The Company Men seemed to have just as little interest in the film as the rest of us, barely eeking out a commentary track, an alternate ending (which sadly does not include Earth being obliterated by an asteroid or Craig T. Nelson doing a song and dance number), some deleted scenes and an equally drab single featurette. Looking to waste 105 minutes feeling depressed about how much money you don’t have? This is not the way. You’d be better served staring at your online bank account balance, assuming it doesn’t log you out automatically after 30 seconds of inactivity.

Sanctum

The “CGI interrupts the beauty and impressiveness of the natural wonders.” It’s as if Rob Hunter, in his February theatrical review of Sanctum, was making a higher-level observation of the pitfalls of CGI. Billed as James Cameron’s “mind-blowing, jaw-dropping” 3D follow-up to Avatar, but with a man vs. nature real-world slant, Sanctum offers us little more than a beautifully shot Nature Channel documentary with a painfully contrived narrative. Anyone who has ever criticized Cameron (who served as Exec. producer) of forgetting the to be storyteller first will eat this one up. It’s all flash in the visual pan, and while it looks beautiful, there’s something lost on the small screen. Without a massive home theater setup and the 3D version of the Blu, you’re not going to feel the film’s intended punch. It’s only punch, for that matter. We can count this as the first time a big screen 3D experience wasn’t improved by stripping away the 3D and sticking with the 2D Blu-ray presentation. Even Avatar was more interesting on 2D Blu. The lack of visual pizazz at home only illuminates the fact that matters most: that Sanctum isn’t a very good movie, gimmick or not.

Blue Crush 2

Please try to control your excitement as I preview the star-less follow-up to Blue Crush. In Blue Crush 2, a Beverly Hills-raised brat named Dana (Sasha Jackson) lashes out against her rich daddy by avoiding going to a very expensive college and hitching her way to South Africa (using what we can only assume is dad’s credit card, a fact that in no way helps him track her down later in the film) where she is searching for the life that her once “Free Spirited” mother sought in the 70s. With a new friend she met on the bus and a host of Abercrombie and Fitch models with accents, she surfs, camps out and gets hilariously involved in the poaching of elephant tusks on her way to discovering her own “Free Spirited” nature. She also wins some sort of surfing competition, I believe. It was all very difficult to follow, despite itself. Whatever special quality Blue Crush had (read: Kate Bosworth in a bikini) is completely lost on this direct-to-DVD sequel. Limited charm and fancy surfing sequences set to a hip soundtrack can only take you so far. The copious bonus features on the Blu-ray don’t progress the entertainment value much further. If you’re a dire fan of the Blue Crush franchise, you may want to spend time on a rental. Anyone who values their time might seek entertainment elsewhere. I’ve heard that those “Under the Sea” Blu-ray screensaver things are pretty cool.

Billy Madison

As I mentioned above with Happy Gilmore, some of the Adam Sandler characters hold up better than others. Where Happy Gilmore is a somewhat adorable bumbling idiot who wants to help his grandmother, Billy Madison is a giant horse’s ass whose motives include clearing up Daddy issues, continuing a life of slackertude and above all, nailing Veronica Vaughn. He’s got some one-liners that I remember being funnier and some of the film’s gags still illicit a giggle or two. But on the whole, Madison is a movie that remains far funnier to 14-year old me than to any later version. With maturity comes clarity. And while Billy Madison was never forced to grow up, the rest of us did. The Blu-ray, like the comedy, presents nothing fresh. A few bonus featurettes and a reused commentary track from director Tamra Davis are hardly worth recommending.


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