This Week in Blu-ray we take trips around the world, from the car-loving world of the UK to the war-torn lands of 1950s Algeria to the sci-fi wasteland of the American southwest with a stop in the middle ages and perhaps even a little jaunt over to Mars, which apparently needs a little bit more than moms. In a balanced week of releases, we’ve got plenty to buy, a few to rent and yes, even a few real stinkbots to avoid. So lets get to it.
Being not a car guy, I have only recently discovered the consistently brilliant world of Top Gear, courtesy of the folks at the BBC. It’s hard to imagine myself enjoying such a show, as I’m not into the nitty gritty, nuts and bolts of what makes a car I will never be able to afford tick. That said, I do love watching crazy people. And more than being a show about cars, this is a show about crazy people who are allowed to drive very expensive cars in very dangerous ways. Enter Jeremy, Richard and James, the three amigos of motor enthusiasm. In series 16, they begin with a trip up the coast of the United States, where they find themselves in situations that allow them to be every bit the snobby, ridiculous Brit stereotypes that would drive Aston Martins. Their subtle prejudices are hilarious, making fun of every Joe Bob and Jim Bob Nascar country has to offer. Better yet is the banterous beatings they give to each other, much of which leads to absurd challenges — like a Porche 911 racing to beat a classic Volkswagen Beetle that’s been dropped from a mile up by a helicopter. Reality TV doesn’t get much more real, or ridiculous, than that. The Blu-ray also includes a number of nice special features, including behind the scenes of “Celebs in a Reasonably Priced Car” (Danny Boyle is in there), a Studio Tour and some outtakes. All of it is worth watching, as every moment sirs Jeremy, Richard and James are on screen, they are riveting in their displays of bravado and absurdism.
Gillo Pontecorvo couldn’t have know it in the mid-1960s, but with The Battle of Algiers, he would make an incredibly moving, undeniably gut-wrenching film that remains as relevant today as it was back then. The story of the struggles between the Arab population of Algeria and the French colonials who had occupied their country for 130 years, Battle of Algiers gives great insight into some of the reasons why the Western world and the Muslim world still clash today. Beyond that transitive element, it’s a deeply profound movie about a people fighting back for their land, finding a way to overthrow a seemingly insurmountable force. The Blu-ray transfer from Criterion is very solid, with a good number of shots cleaned up, but a few left in their original, grainier states. The thing that makes this set worth a buy, however, is the way it’s presented. Rather than the standard single disc film and features release, Criterion chose to give Battle of Algiers a two-disc, collector’s edition feel. The first disc is the film, a behind the scenes documentary, interviews with modern day filmmakers who have been influenced by Pontecorvo’s tale, and plenty of commentary. On the second disc is a slew of additional features focused on the history behind the film, including a documentary called Remembering History, about the Algerian experience in the battle for independence. Everything about the set feels like a complete, very special edition.
Few things are more American than the notion of “two for one.” No matter the quality of each piece, getting two of anything for the price of one will always draw our eye. The bonus here is that you were probably going to buy The Fox and the Hound, another brilliantly transfered Disney classic, so The Fox and the Hound II is a really nice bonus. The first film, aged exactly 30 years, doesn’t look a day over 10 with its vivid colors and charming animal characters. Even though neither film comes with a ton of HD special features (both films are on the first Blu-ray disc, with the extras on DVD discs two and three), the digital restoration of the first film is spectacular. Now you get a timeless tale of friendship, fun musical performances, bright colors and beautiful hand-drawn animation. And did I mention they’ve included the second film for free? Despite being a lesser sequel, The Fox and the Hound II does maintain a bit of the charm from the original film. Personally, I don’t think you can go wrong owning both. It will come in handy if and when you’ve got little ones running around the house.
Perhaps the most astute critique of Greg Mattola’s Paul came from my girlfriends parents. Fans of the 50s sci-fi explosion and the southwestern United States, they were eager to pick this out as one to watch. Upon viewing, they pointed out that Paul would have been a much better movie without the cursing. It raises a bigger point: Paul, more than most movies, is trying to hard to be things it simply is not. It’s trying to hard to be an adult comedy, while still being a cute nerd friend adventure. It’s trying to be edgy, but it loses all edge in stupidity. It’s also trying to be a movie that sends up some classic sci-fi films, only to come of more like a bad parody, cramming in reference after reference, rarely doing so in service of a plot. Sure, it’s silly and at times gets its laughs, but it’s far lazier than we’d expect from the director of Superbad and the two guys from Shaun of the Dead. On Blu-ray, Paul comes with the “exclusive, limited time” offer of streaming another movie to your iPad, TV or smartphone courtesy of Universal. It’s almost like they know you won’t want to watch Paul a second time, so they’ve included a palette cleanser. Beyond that, it’s blooper reels, a mostly interesting “evolution of Paul” effects featurette and some additional Jeffrey Tambor. In a nutshell, the extras were better than the movie.
Like Paul, Your Highness has its moments of silly fun. But it gets in its own way by trying to be that R-rated comedy set in medieval times. James Franco spends most of his time with a stoned smirk on his face, moving him from actor to “guy just trying not to laugh.” Danny McBride brings his usual character type back in time, but forgets to properly adapt to the language or the accent of the times. Did they say “fuck” back then? If so, I doubt they said it this often. The saving grace of this film is Natalie Portman, eternal badass, and a surprisingly goofy performance from writer-turned-villain Justin Theroux. Even though it would cause King Arthur roll in his proverbial grave, Your Highness does accomplish enough absurdity to be entertaining, but only through one viewing. The Blu-ray, while “unrated” and complete with a few extended scenes, doesn’t offer much substance with its quantity of special features. There are several Blu-ray exclusive, so if you dug the movie in theaters, you can safely buy Blu over DVD, but I doubt many of the rest of us are going to get at these extras and say “I must watch these again!”
The film criticism machine is not a perfect system. But sometimes critics, on the whole, get one right. They were absolutely right to reward Robert Zemeckis’ Mars Needs Moms with a 34% Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s bad. When the best you can come up with for a DVD cover quote is Pete Hammond calling it “The Perfect Family Film In Every Way,” you’re in trouble. Quick, someone go stab that Pete Hammond guy, because putting the word “perfect” anywhere near this confused, poorly rendered and even more poorly conceived film is grounds for termination — from the world. Zemeckis, producing this time, brings back the ImageMovers Digital team and their knack for creating creepy uncanny valley people, only to tell the story of a little boy who chases his mom to Mars and in rescuing her, sexually liberates a society of Puritanical Martian women. I shit you not. If they had known they were making such a film, they could have taken it less seriously and we’d all be in on the joke, enjoying the show. But they didn’t. And it’s not. As for your “family,” I wouldn’t subject them to this film if you can avoid doing so. Instead, there’s another Disney film located at the top of this column that, despite being 30 years old, is delightful.
Not much to say about James Gunn’s Super. I had high hopes for this one, which takes on the world of a real-life superhero played by Rainn Wilson. But in the end, it suffers from a complete lack of energy. Even a finale complete with 20-minutes of extreme mayhem can’t save a film that, for its first two acts, proceeds to bore us with the full force of a plumber’s wrench. Take a chance and rent, if you must, but don’t be surprised if this one disappoints.