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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Blu-rays Worth Renting

Real Steel

The Pitch: Hugh Jackman teaches a robot to fight, the robot teaches Hugh Jackman how to be a good father.

Why Rent? Of all the action films that 2011 delivered, Real Steel might be the most surprising in just how much fun it was. Sure, it’s essentially Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: The Movie, but who ever said that had to be a bad idea? Hugh Jackman plays a washed-up boxer trying to make a few quick bucks in the new world of robot boxing when he is all of the sudden saddled with the responsibility of being a father, a job he relinquished some time ago. Now he and his precocious offspring must take a salvaged sparring bot all the way to the top. Seriously, that’s the entire story. The rest is big, beautifully rendered CGI robots beating the nuts and bolts out of each other. And there’s some dancing, which oddly feel out of place. It’s completely ridiculous but jammed with action beats that make the entire experience more than worth it. To its credit, the Blu-ray release also comes with plenty of extras — Disney has always been good like that. And did I mention there are robots boxing in a way that will make you believe in the potential of animatronic fights for our future?

Happy, Happy

The Pitch: An exploration of happiness, as told with black comedy.

Why Rent? Because not everything you see must be so straightforward as boxing robots or found footage frighteners. Sometimes a film that features strong character work in the exploration of one of life’s great mysteries — what is happiness, really? — is the right kind of movie to remind us that there are still great stories being told out there. Agness Kittelsen is Kaja, a warm-hearted woman with a cold husband and a joyless relationship with her less than friendly son. And when a new couple moves into her neighborhood, she is thrown into an emotional back-and-forth that may change the course of every important relationship in her life. It’s the dynamic between the characters that is so expertly crafted, giving us a reason to stick with Kaja’s story all the way to the end. And when it’s over, the Blu-ray offers us… trailers to watch. But alas, this Magnolia release of a Norwegian import was a lightly distributed indie — it’s hard to remember if it ever quite made it to theaters in the US. All the while, it’s a movie you should see if you enjoy watching dynamic characters and their quest to be happy.

Paranormal Activity 3

The Pitch: The found footage is coming from inside the house…

Why Rent? By now, there’s no question that the found footage franchise of demonic house guest films is a big hit with audiences. Three movies in and Paranormal Activity seems to be showing no signs of letting up on being a box office killer. One reason why they continue to have success? Even though they’re essentially still telling the same story, they find ways to creep us out with new, inspired ways of haunting CCTV footage. This time it’s back in time a few decades where it all began for two sisters whose lives would eventually see dramatic changes due to their family’s haunted curse. Paranormal 3 explores the origins of said curse, even if those origins don’t exactly make a whole lot of sense. In the end, we’re here to be creeped out with subtly moving objects in the stillness of night. And with those moments, this film works great. To the Blu-ray’s credit, the 1980s video tape aesthetic is maintained, for better or worse, and the sound is the star of the show. The extras are light, with only a 3 minute “Lost Tapes” segment that adds almost nothing to the story. And of course, there’s an Ultraviolet Digital copy, if you prefer to do your screaming on the train while watching your iPad. If that’s your thing, this one’s for you.

The Whistleblower

The Pitch: Rachel Weisz takes on human trafficking all by herself.

Why Rent? This week seems like the week of unsung heroes. Between the likes of 50/50 and now The Whistleblower, there are several films being released that very well should have gotten more attention. In this one, Rachel Weisz gives a strong performance as a woman who uncovers the role of a private contractor in the world of human trafficking and prostitution in post-war Bosnia. First time director Larysa Kondracki never gives the film’s characters much room to breath, ultimately delivering the film’s message with a weighted hand. But it does show promise and Weisz holds it together pretty well. As for the Blu-ray, it doesn’t have quite as much promise. A lone featurette is the only extra and while the film’s transfer is technically impressive, there’s nothing about the film itself that shows much in the way of technical ambition. It’s a straight-forward post-war drama that focuses on character, and only gets that right about two-thirds of the time. The story it tells, however, is one worth seeing.

The Apartment (1960)

The Pitch: You would have stood up to the man for Shirley MacLaine too, had you been around back then.

Why Rent? Here’s an example of what I was talking about above while reviewing Notorious and Spellbound. Neither of those Blus claim to be any sort of “special edition,” yet they deliver on the extras, the transfer and of course, the quality of their films. This edition of The Apartment is on the other end of the spectrum. It is labeled as the “Collector’s Edition,” but nothing about it feels like a collector’s item. It’s just the movie — one that deservedly earned a Best Picture award upon delivering one of Billy Wilder’s sharpest satirical efforts — a commentary track, one featurette and a trailer. And that’s about all. It’s a film I’m more than happy to say that I own, as I did not previously have a copy on DVD, but not a release that I’d urge you to run out and spend money on.

Blu-rays to Avoid

Restless

The Pitch: It’s this week’s other cancer movie.

Why Avoid? Gus Van Sant is hit or miss. There, I said it. Many of us have known it to be true for some time — mostly due to films like Las Days and Elephant – but it’s not easy to admit. The guy did direct Good Will Hunting and Milk, both of which are great films. He’s not without his merits as a filmmaker, nor is Restless not without some merits as a film, but it does manage to be one of the most morose, convoluted pieces of work in his filmography. It tells the story of a depressing loner (Henry Hopper) who is death obsessed and active about it, crashing funerals and memorial services. That is until he meets Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a lovely young gal with terminal brain cancer. And guess what, he falls in love and realizes that he’s not such a big fan of death after all if it means he can’t have Annabel in his life anymore. That, and he’s got an invisible friend who was a Japanese fighter pilot in WWII. That last part is for those of you who didn’t believe me when I called this movie “convoluted.” For a story so filled with emotionally heavy circumstance, it never finds its emotional footing and ultimately feels flat. If you’re looking for honesty and humanity in your cancer movies, see 50/50 above.

Also on Blu-ray this week


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