Blu-ray Picks Of The Week for April 26th

Tuesday the 27th brings us plenty of new Blu-ray releases that might be worth a rental, but hardly any that demand a purchase.  Some of these BD’s were already released some time ago on the HD DVD format before it was thrown under the proverbial bus and many are short-changed by lack of features.  Let’s face it, 1080p transfers that look decent if not spectacular are becoming the norm… it’s the features that should make these releases distinctive and worth adding to a Blu-ray library.  Let’s take a look:

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Michael Bay cemented his slam-bang-boom reputation with his third feature produced by action maven Jerry Bruckheimer.  Armageddon (Disney/Buena Vista, 1998) has absolutely nothing to do with Biblical destruction, but rather destruction on a biblical scale.  I’ve always thought of it as an empty-headed goof akin to those old Irwin Allen movies, but with slicker production values and rapid-fire editing that make it seem like a very long trailer for a movie that might be pretty awesome once it’s released.  The acting ensemble supports the onscreen chaos just fine, with Bruce Willis doing his best tough-as-nails/weary of the world hero bit, Billy Bob Thornton as the straight-up head of NASA, a bevy of character actors (William Fichtner, Keith David, Peter Stormare and the dependably weird Steve Buscemi) hitting the right notes, easy on the eyes Liv Tyler pouting and the silliness that is Ben Affleck.  They’re a bunch of aw shucks, deep core drillers who score a NASA contract (with great side-benefits) to help destroy an asteroid the size of Texas before it smacks into Earth.  All they’ve got  are witty, one-line clichés and their deep-drilling engineering skills… along with a little help from a noook-u-lar device.  Oh, and they have only around 12-days to become astronauts for a trip on the space shuttle to said asteroid.  Sounds like fun, huh?  It is… but make absolutely sure to toggle your brain to its “off” position prior to viewing or you may find Bay’s MTV-style disaster flick to be complete dreck as it goes to11 on the implausibility meter.  Interestingly, this flick, along with Bay’s The Rock, were once picks of the Criterion Collection DVD series (numbers 40 and 108 if you’re still collecting them).  So, there’s a certain bit of cachet to this film, and now we have Armageddon in 1080p AVC MPEG-4 widescreen (2:35:1) glory.  The chatter on the street says the disc offers an image struck from a new HD master with fine grain, gorgeous colors and solid blacks with little or no video scrubbing that would muddy the image or wash out details.  Audio is in DTS-HD MA 5.1 and apparently sounds pretty impressive and concussive.  The single-disc BD is lacking any features considered special, unfortunately. Where the Criterion Collection DVD had loads of extras covering 2-discs and featured a “Director’s Cut” with some slightly longer dramatic scenes, the Disney release is a virtual HD copy of their bare-bones DVD release from the turn of the century.  You get a standard-def teaser and theatrical trailer for the film, a creaky-assed Aerosmith music video (“I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing”…  yeah, you do) and– drumroll –some Disney “sneak peaks” of other upcoming releases.  If you totally dig Bay’s films and/or are into heavy-metal guitar-fueled action mayhem, the BD version of Armageddon should make for a fun, Friday night rental, but it may not be worth purchasing for lack of features.

David Lynch’s Dune (Universal, 1984) is an odd duck… and while some consider it a fine, but very flawed adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Byzantine classic, others consider it only for Lynch’s unique and disturbing design sensibility and other tell-tale Lynchian tropes.  Lynch does his damndest to make sense of Herbert’s first tome in the Dune series, but the deck was stacked against him from the start.  There’s just too much material to work with for a two or even three-hour film.  Only a miniseries (as is now evident) can really do any type of justice to Herbert’s multi-faceted portrayal of a far-flung human culture amidst other planetary systems, but that doesn’t make Lynch’s effort any less interesting.  To cover Herbert’s groundbreaking speculative work in all its glory requires delving into an array of cultural details that, in a theatrical film, can only come across as ham-handed exposition capable of boring an audience to tears.  Lynch certainly did his best through several screenplay drafts but really never nailed it down into a coherent story that anyone other than devote Herbert fans could make sense out of, even with a set of didactic PR material handed out during its initial theatrical run.  Fault Universal if you must fault anyone, and perhaps the De Laurentiis clan, too, but Lynch really did approach the work with enthusiasm and passion rather than as a hack-for-hire.  The eclectic cast, costumes, and sets along with hallucinatory dream-sequences, mutant human Guild Navigators, Bene Gesserit witch women and gargantuan sandworms, are all rendered with a Lynchian design sensibility that fits Herbert’s literary source while remaining stubbornly independent of previous design conceits for the film (to really get a kick, read this fantastic site’s background on the Dune variations… it gives detail on what might have been if Alejandro Jodorowsky or Ridley Scott had directed the film and supports a theory of mine that films like Alien, Blade Runner, Total Recall and other terrific 80’s science-fiction/horror films might never have been developed if not for the repeated failure to get a Dune movie off the ground).  Dune is definitely worth a look for Lynch fans and Herbert fans alike that have heard negative criticism of the film, and whose only recent exposure to all-things Dune might have been the recent cable mini-series of Herbert’s work (themselves, very well done, but in no way as oddball as what Lynch presented back in 1984, and I’m not talking about those cheesy 80’s music cues).  If for any other reason, see this film for the Harkonnen sets and the disgusting Harkonnens themselves… Leaving out Sting’s arch performance as Feyd-Rathua, the rest of the slovenly Harkonnen bunch perfectly illustrates Lynch’s continued fascination with all things moldy, rotten and bizarrely textured.  The Blu-ray is offered in the same manner as the now-defunct HD-DVD version that appeared when the format war was a-brewin’.  It’s a 2.35:1 widescreen image in what many are saying is a nicely executed HD AVC-1 transfer that, nevertheless, cannot hide the age of the film.  With quite a bit of the film set about the contrasty sands of Arrakis, the desert planet, there’s a some dirt/grime apparent by most accounts, along with inconsistent skin tones, and many say the BD is only a step above the HD DVD, but much better than the DVD presentation with good detail, though some of that detail shows the limitations of the special effects.  Audio is in DTS-HD MA 5.1, and tech heads are saying it’s impressively deep with lots of terrific LFE ambiance.  Lynch’s eerie sound design has always been a hallmark of his films, and it gets new life on the BD release.  Note, finally, that this is Lynch’s intended cut of the film… the theatrical cut and not the extended televised cut (nearly three hours) that Lynch has disowned publicly and professionally.  Though rumors have persisted for years of a super-long cut of the film that covers more of Herbert’s nuance, those rumors have been mostly quashed by ‘net copies of Lynch’s various screen plays (several drafts) for the film… He always wanted a three-hour cut, but not the way it was slapped together for television by the De Laurentiis’s and Universal.  DVD extras are found on the BD release in SD (deleted scenes, featurettes on the design, special effects, model-work and costumes of Dune).  Rafaella De Larentiis gets her two-cents in during the deleted scenes apparently… further putting the kibosh on those extended-cut rumors.  All in all, it’s worth owning on Blu-ray for exceptional video and audio, though it’s not being considered a reference disc to show off an HD system.

Shekhar Kapur’s wonderful Elizabethan-period films, respectively Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Universal 1998/2007), feature a dynamic Cate Blanchette as the titular Queen of England both before and after her ascension to the throne.  They are sumptuous looking costume dramas, though the first film really offers more dramatic meat but about the same amount of specious historical facts.  Both BD’s are single-disc efforts with 1080p 1.85:1 with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio.  It should look and sound fantastic, but these are really for fans historical dramas with excellent acting.  Blanchette was nominated for a best actress Oscar… the first film also was nominated for Best Picture and, of course, costumes and art direction… it won for, of all things, makeup.  Both BD’s feature commentary with director Shekhar Kapur, EPK featurettes on the making of the films, while the “Golden Age” disc has a few more features on effects work and location shooting.  These extras are the ones found on the HD DVD version and the DVD Spotlight Series version.

The final performance of Heath Ledger comes to Blu-ray… Terry Gilliam’s flights of fantasy have not hit all the right notes in some years, but you can’t fault the guy for trying to make the alchemy of his imagination work onscreen.  Still, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Sony, 2009) is one of Gilliam’s better efforts though hardly coming close to his Time Bandits/Brazil/Munchausen trilogy, or even latter works like The Fisher King or 12 Monkeys. The knockout visual effects representing magic mirror leaps into the dreams and nightmares should look great on Blu-ray in 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p as Gilliam’s work is always a treat, dazzling the eyes as much Gilliam’s narrative confounds the brain.  Though it’s a rather simple Faustian tale wherein devilish deals are made and the main gambits are souls, Gilliam’s frenetic visual style, and Ledger’s untimely death that sadly curtailed his performance, make for a somewhat muddled story.  Nevertheless, Gilliam soldiered on with a unique solution (luckily the story lends itself to such a fix) as Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law stand-in for Ledger when the action’s set in the fantasy world segments of the film. There are LOADS of features on this disc, both for SD and HD formats, but the HD offers some exclusive bonus items, too.  You get an introduction by Terry Gilliam which make note of Ledger’s passing, as well as Gillian’s audio commentary, a deleted scene, the film’s EPK called “Behind the Mirror,” and plenty of short takes on the effects work, costumes (with a Ledger wardrobe test), an interview with Heath himself, publicity goodies, an artwork showcase with Gilliam narrating, trailers and previews.  The HD only content consists of another EPK regarding the concept of the Imaginarium/mirror, a multi-angle making of moment integrated into the film (that can also be watched as a stand-alone piece) and another set of interviews regarding Ledger’s career and passing.  This is a somewhat poignant release, in light of the real-life tragedy, but the film should also be remembered as one of the more solid efforts of a great cinematic fantasist.

Tombstone (Disney/Buena Vista, 1993) still holds up well after all these years, and has become one of those well-loved, oft-quoted films that you’d think it was a cult classic rather than a mainstream entertainment from Disney.  Though Lawrence Kasdan’s terrific, highly detailed epic, Wyatt Earp came out a year later and remained a little truer to the actual events before, during and after the legendary OK Corral shootout (and offered Kevin Costner, during the height of his fame, as Earp), it is Tombstone that is favorably remembered by most film fans.  Though the famous 30-second shootout is the focus of Tombstone, the pop characterizations by Kurt Russell as Wyatt, along with Bill Paxton and oater stalwart, Sam Elliot, as the Earp brothers Morgan and Virgil.  And though the outlaw Clanton/McLaury Cowboy gang led by Bill Brocious (portrayed with sinister gravitas by Powers Boothe), Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) and hair-trigger Johnny Ringo (a twisted Michael Biehn) comes off as entertainingly theatrical, it’s Val Kilmer’s turn as the walking TB case, Doc Holliday, gunslinger and gambler, that remains in the mind long after the credits have rolled.  It’s easy to understand why… His lines are classic barbs and taunts delivered in a droll Southern fashion, and Kilmer just steals the show with his wry performance (and bests Dennis Quaid’s take on Doc).  Perhaps he’s not been as good since.  In any case, the ensemble cast is terrific, and the direction is breezy and light… though the film, credited to oft-maligned “ghost-director, George P. Cosmatos, is said to have been directed by Russell (at least the performances).  Interesting, but it doesn’t take away from the finished film’s entertainment value.  The AVC-1 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is getting some mixed reviews thus far, but still seems a good HD pick from the perspective of fine detail, color and grain, though black-levels appear to be compromised in darker scenes with some loss of detail. DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 gets much better critiques thus far, for a big wide sound full of sonic range and ambiance.  However, Disney has come up with petty features for such a beloved movie.  They did a great job with a late-edition DVD, but this release lacks any new HD features and basically includes a making-of featurette, some storyboards, some trailers and short teasers from the film, and Disney sneak peaks at other upcoming releases.  Really?? Come on Disney, throw fans a bone for this HD release, unless you’re planning on double-dipping it later this smacks as carelessness on the part of the studio and their home video division.  I think the DVD release is still king in this instance, and will upscale nicely on any HDTV.  It’s not Blu-ray, but you get more bang for your buck, huckleberry.

Our last highlight this week is on Traffic (Universal, 2000)… No, not the kind you might face every day on your commute, but the rather bleak Steven Soderbergh film adapted from a BBC mini-series that takes a multi-faceted view of the drug war from all perspectives: the drug warriors, the drug kingpins, the users and the collateral victims.  Soderberg famously used a variety of visual techniques to create a visual pattern for the viewer to follow each story thread as they are intercut between each other to form a grim tapestry of deceit, paranoia, tragedy and guilt.  The ensemble performances are terrific from veterans like Michael Douglas to freshly-minted stars like Topher Grace, but the film’s most intriguing performance easily comes from Benicio del Toro, who is outstanding in a bilingual role as a border-cop with serious decisions to make about which side of the drug war he represents.  Beyond that, the film takes a mostly a-political approach, but it’s quite clear that the Drug War is a disaster with no successful outcome for anyone except politicians that try to exploit it and drug cartels who might profit from it.  The film, in fact, contains a number of real, U.S. politicians in a scene that lends an air of realism and authority to the filmmaker’s vision.  The complex, award-winning script by Steven Gaghan is taut and focused even as the story leaps from characters in one location to the next.  The film won awards for Best Director and editing as well (with one supporting actor Oscar for del Toro), and it’s so easy to see why as the story shifts and turns, exposing the true cost of the illegal drug trade and the fight against it.  Fascinating stuff… and sadly still very much relevant in contemporary life as Mexico struggles with violent drug cartels and military solutions to the problem.  It’s hard to gauge the Blu-ray release on the video side of the equation.  Like other films shot in multiple formats both new and old (Natural Born Killers, for example), Traffic offers various looks and color filters to achieve the cinema verite feel of a hand-held documentary with stylistic changes in overall hue throughout.  For instance, the users sequences are filmed in a sharper, bluish hue, while the Mexico scenes have a washed-out, grainy, sepia look, and the San Diego sequences are filmed in full color.  It’s an interesting way to visualize the different stories, but it’s hell on making a distinction of quality for Blu-ray… as many reviewers are noting.  The 1.85:1 widescreen image is definitely in 1080p HD, but may not always look it though the Blu-ray appears to capture either the grain or sharpness of a scene perfectly for some critics. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound is uniformly good, but not spectacular to many, while the features leave a bit to be desired, especially in light of the Criterion Collection’s DVD edition.  Rather than robust commentaries from director, writer and other above the line crew, extended scenes, featurettes on the filmmaking technique, and other goodies exclusive to that edition, this Blu-ray version features only several deleted scenes and an EPK called Inside “Traffic.” Once again, this type of offering might make for a fine rental but isn’t really worth the purchase unless you feel compelled to upgrade from the Criterion release or simply do not own a copy (the Blu-ray is a flipper and features a DVD copy for no apparent reason, unless the kiddies enjoy watching complex adult dramas in the minivan).  For such a fantastic film it’s tough to watch on repeat viewings except to admire the acting and visual expertise, but it is not nearly as much an endurance test as the similarly themed Requiem for a Dream.  Guess it depends on your drug of choice or choice of directors.

Follow this link for current pricing of this and all prior week’s recently Blu-ray releases.

Lastly, here’s the rest of the Blu-ray releases for Tuesday, April 27th…. Just because we didn’t spotlight them doesn’t mean that some (Out of Africa and Ride with the Devil especially) aren’t worth checking out via rental or purchase:

  • Class of Nuke ‘Em High (Troma)
  • Dark Nature (Troma)
  • Disgrace (Image)
  • District 13: Ultimatum (Magnolia)
  • Dogora (Severin)
  • Five Minutes of Heaven (MPI)
  • It’s Complicated (Universal)
  • The Jackal (Universal)
  • Out of Africa(Universal)
  • Ride with the Devil (Criterion Collection)

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Christian Hokenson

Christian Hokenson

Christian Hokenson enjoys knife throwing, growing exotic mosses, and that warm spot where the sun shines through the corrugated box. Christian also writes for Gadget Review. You can also find Christian on Google+, and Twitter.

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