This Week in Blu-ray

This Week in Blu-ray may be coming to you a few days later than usual, but fear not, as it was worth the wait. Fox and MGM decided to drop a number of great films on me at the last minute, meaning long hours of pouring over special features, drinking heavily and ultimately turning myself into a late-1970s Woody Allen character by the end. It was all worth it, as you’re about to experience 2500 words or so of the most full edition of this column we’ve seen in a long time. Plenty of unsung heroes of 2011, classics of yesteryear and boxing robots to go around. Also, Rob Hunter stops by for some cross-column reviewing with Rebecca.

Blu-ray Pick of the Week

50/50

In a week that will see the release of a bevy of classics coming to Blu-ray for the very first time, it would be a crime to overlook one of 2011′s most heartfelt works, complete with some ranged performances from the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Bryce Dallas Howard. Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), working from a script by Will Reiser based on a true story, tells the tale of Adam, a 27-year old guy who gets diagnosed with spinal cancer. Dealing with his overbearing friends, his smothering mother and a relationship that hangs on the edge, Adam must find a way to not only beat cancer, but all the situational drama it’s caused between him and those he cares about most. It’s funny, touching and full of memorable performances. Just the kind of thing that could beat Annie Hall to Pick of the Week, especially with a decent amount of special features on the Blu. Don’t let the tagline on the cover — “from the guys who brought you Superbad” — that’s just salesmanship on Summit’s part. This one has far more heart than you’d ever expect.

Blu-rays Worth Buying

Wings (1927)

The Pitch: It’s a tale as old as time, just like this movie.

Why Buy? Paramount is making a big deal of the fact that Wings is the first Oscar Best Picture winner, and rightfully so. The 1927 film was, in fact, the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s also a story that has been told and retold several times since: two young men, one rich and one middle class, fall in love with the same woman, then get sent off to become World War I fighter pilots. Hilarity ensues. The kicker here is that for a film created in the mid-1920s, it sure looks swell in 1080p. Some Blu-ray buyers are all about the crisp, clean presentation of today’s modern movies. But if you’re that special breed that also loves seeing the cracks and imperfections in a film preserved from a time long gone, presented as perfectly as possible in HD, then this one will feel right at home in your collection. I’m also absolutely in love with the cover art, which adds a bit of celebratory flair to Paramount’s excitement over this particular release. We should all be so excited about this well-aged beauty.

Rebecca

The Pitch: Joan Fontaine is my black & white crush. I would travel through time for this woman…

Why Buy? A young woman (the lovely Joan Fontaine) is drawn into a relationship with a mysterious and wealthy widow (Laurence Olivier), and when the two get married she discovers the secret behind his enigmatic behavior and the possible murder of his dead wife. Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s bestseller was the director’s first Hollywood film, and it remains somewhat of an odd duck on his resume. His vision was compromised at every turn by uber-producer David O. Selznick, and the result is a film that never quite feels Hitchcockian. Still, the movie is a compelling gothic mystery (that went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars) and features three strong and charismatic lead performances. Especially from Fontaine. MGM’s new Blu has a solid, albeit predictably unremarkable transfer, and includes a handful of special features that offer fascinating insight into the film’s production. - Rob Hunter

Annie Hall

The Pitch: Boy meets girl, girl discovers that boy is Woody Allen, somehow girl sticks around for a while.

Why Buy? Believe it or not, I had never before seen Annie Hall. We all have our detestable cinematic blind spots, and one of mine happens to be much of Woody Allen’s pre-2000 filmography. That said, I’m here to report to you 35 years after the release of the film in question that it is quite good. Woody Allen shines as the neurotic Alvy Singer, a comedian who is convinced that life is meant to be miserable. Even when he meets and dates the love of his life, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), he still seems intent on being miserable. So she leaves. And he wises up for a moment and follows her, and learns a lesson or two along the way. It’s a charming film that proves Woody Allen to be one charismatic fella, and on Blu-ray it looks darn good for its age. A little digital noise here and there will only appear to those with the keenest of eyes. For everyone else, it will look like you’re seeing Annie Hall for the first time all over again. Unless, like me, you’re seeing it for the first time, period. The only wish, of course, would be something in the way of extras. For something labeled as part of ‘The Woody Allen Collection’, you’d think we’d at least get a few extras. Sadly, there are none. That shouldn’t stop you, however, from adding this to your Woody Allen collection.

Notorious (1946) and Spellbound

The Pitch: Two Alfred Hitchcock movies in glorious HD.

Why Buy? First, to answer your initial question: why put these two together? For one, they are kindred spirits, both in the way they were cast and executed by the master himself and in the way they are being released on Blu-ray. Both star Ingrid Bergman. In Spellbound, she’s a psychiatrist who falls for one of colleagues, only to find out later that he may not be a psychiatrist after all, but an amnesiac who was once a murderer. In Notorious, she is a troubled beauty who is recruited by Cary Grant to help him infiltrate a German spy ring in post-war Rio. And of course, like any of us, she falls in love with Cary Grant. To their equal credit, both Blu-rays are presented with shiny 1080p transfers. Presented in their original full frame aspect, they have a clarity that is unexpected from what otherwise feels like a catalog release. No special box art, no big “Special Limited Collectors Edition” taglines, just a good transfer and a buffet of special features. That’s exactly what one might hope to get from such a release. And exactly why you’d be wise to invest your money in this version before MGM wises up and releases the same thing with new cover art for $10 more.

Manhattan

The Pitch: Woody Allen falls for Diane Keaton… again.

Why Buy? Yet another brilliant Woody Allen movie that I had unintentionally ignored up to this point. Allen takes his beloved town into the frame of black and white for this 1979 folly of sex, romance and neurosis. He plays Isaac, a guy who hates his job, has a 17-year old girlfriend, a lesbian ex-wife who’s writing a tell-all book about him and a new love interest in Mary (Keaton), a sexy, intelligent and challenging new conquest. It’s another of those situations in which Woody Allen chases love down the rabbit hole, kicking and screaming about it all the way. But it’s so effortlessly breathtaking visually that it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in the majesty of Manhattan. Like Annie Hall, Manhattan on Blu-ray is a bittersweet pill. It’s a gorgeous movie transferred with considerable effort to the high definition medium. But there are no supplements to speak of. That said, it’s the kind of delightful film that any film fan should own.

Due to its wild length, this week’s edition is broken up into two pages. On page two, you’ll see all the titles I’d buy or avoid, plus all the titles that weren’t reviewed, but still released.


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