This week’s Blu-ray Report is brought to you by procrastination. But I hope that those of you who are in love with Blu-ray are ready, because over the course of the next two days you are about to get a major double dose of Blu-ray awesomeness. Today’s special edition of my weekly column will focus on the best of last week’s releases, including one of the more interesting Blu-ray releases of the year so far: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
And then later — as in later in the week — I will drop another big update on you with reviews of the Underworld trilogy, the Liam Neeson actioner Taken and assuming I can get my hands on a copy, the two major Star Trek movie releases. But for now, lets just stick to last week’s releases.
Creme of the Crop: Tuesday May 5
We begin this week with the biggest release of the week, biggest on a few different levels. For one, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the highest profile release of the week. One of the best films of 2008, hands down. And if you are like me you have been waiting for the DVD for at least one very important reason: we all want to see how director David Fincher and company pulled off what can only be called movie magic, the extreme aging of actor Brad Pitt so that he could play Benjamin Button as a young old guy. It was a breathtaking effect that set this film apart from others visually, and the DVD was meant to deliver that.
And it does — in 2-disc Criterion Blu-ray — but there’s a catch. The catch is that all of the special features, about 3 hours worth, come in one big documentary style featurette. Housed on its own disc, this featurette is probably the most interesting and beautiful time suck I’ve ever seen. There are moments when it is really dry, specifically the first of the three segments in which producers spend time talking inside baseball about the long gestation period for this film (which is interesting to someone in my line of work, but not necessarily interesting for everyone). But in the second and third segments, where David Fincher and others begin to talk about the process of bringing Ben Button to life, we get some of the most awe-inspiring DVD extras I’ve seen so far this year. In a simple answer, this is one of those Blu-rays that you should have in your collection. Visually stunning, loaded with attention to detail and filled with a lot of interesting little tidbits about what goes into making a great film, David Fincher style.
Aside from the fact that it proves my theory about the nice girl v. the nice girl gone bad — as in, you know that Olivia Newton John looked hotter in her Sanda D. days than she did at the end — Grease is a fantastic film. Watching it again reminded me of how groovy it was back in the day, when I saw it as a kid. And on Blu-ray, it looks better than it ever has. It is crisp and sharp and as bright and vibrant as ever, and it’s not just the soundtrack we’re talking about here.
The sad part is that there aren’t any additional Blu-ray specific features with this release — it is identical to the ‘Rockin’ Rydell Edition’ DVD that was released last year. If you picked that up, then you know which edition I’m talking about — it was the one that came wrapped in its own leather jacket. If you have that previous edition, you may want to steer clear of a re-buy on Blu-ray. Unless of course, you are trying to pad your Blu-ray collection or, like me, you love having classic films with great HD transfers in your collection.
Once again we have a simple formula: great flick, mediocre Blu-ray release. As with Grease above, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a slick, well-transfered slice of nostalgia that has me remembering fondly the days when Matthew Broderick was really funny. And upon watching it again on Blu-ray, I realized that this is yet another film that deals with some darker issues — especially in the story of Cameron (played by Alan Ruck). It is the ultimate teen escape flick, a definitively icon romp through slackerdom. And who can argue with the drawing power of that situation.
As for the Blu-ray and its special features, we’ve got all sorts of features — none of which we haven’t seen before. Alas, there are a few solid featurettes, including a casting featurette and “The World According to Ben Stein,” in which the iconic monotone talks at great length about his 5 minutes of Bueller fame. Beyond that, the special feature lover among you will be calling “Bueller… Bueller…” as you meander around this release searching for something that wasn’t on a previous DVD release. My recommendation: buyers be warned, this is a rental at best.
It must be John Travolta week on the Blu-ray market, because not only do we get a brilliant re-up of Grease, we also get an HD version of Saturday Night Fever, another classic Travolta dance-a-thon. A little darker, a lot edgier and super-sexier, Saturday Night Fever tells the story of lovable greaseball Tony Manero, paint salesman by day, disco dancing sensation by night. And all Tony needs is a little direction — which he finds in Stephanie, a sharp tongued gal who knows where her life is headed, and it isn’t exactly headed anywhere with him… yet.
This Blu-ray release knows where it is headed, and that is most likely into your collection. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a solid release of this film and while the transfer isn’t perfect — the picture quality of this film pales in comparison to Grease — the special features are solid. Director John Badham has a commentary track, there are several solid featurettes and there is even a 70s Discopedia — that’s right, terms to use in your every day life. If you need that, you need this Blu-ray. I would also recommend if you’re already a fan of the Fever.
For those who follow my writings on all things film and television (all three of you — hi mom) you will note that my favorite television drama is Dexter, hands down. No other series delivers such exsquisite attention to character and story from week to week, and no other series delivers it with a smirk the way that showrunner Clyde Phillips does with this show. And in its second season, Dexter really came into its own moving from the Ice Truck Killer to the Bay Harbor Butcher, and diving much deeper into the mangled psyche of the show’s central character.
On Blu-ray, we’ve got a similar situation to the one we had when Dexter Season 1 hit Blu-ray back in January. It is a brilliant season of a brilliant show, played out brilliantly in high definition. Then we get to the sad-sack special features line-up and find that the most interesting thing going on is that it includes the first two episodes of the Showtime series The United States of Tara. It brings out a sigh in me, a die hard Dexter fan to the end. Though I will say this: if you don’t own Dexter season two on DVD (which came out in August ’08), do yourself a favor and get it on Blu-ray. Otherwise just keep on rockin’ that DVD.
This is the one release that I wasn’t able to review — why, because my local retailer didn’t have it in stock when I went to make my purchase. And its likely that you would see similar problems should you take my word blindly and head out to pick up this film. It stars Michelle Williams as a woman who is having an affair with a younger man (Ewan McGregor) on the day that her husband and young son are killed in a terrorist attack on a London football game. The event unravels her world in ways that no one could have predicted. Its a really well-made drama, visually arresting and anchored by two stellar performances from Williams and McGregor. I would suggest giving it a rent at the very least.
Until later this week, stay classy Blu-ray buyers.