This week on Blu-ray Warner Bros is offering up some goodies worthy of the format. Criterion also puts two older titles on Blu-ray, and that’s always worth a mention for the loving care they give their releases; however, if you own the already awesome DVDs, you need to consider the extra spend for what amounts to minor improvements at best.
Warner’s releases some fan favorites on Blu-ray, including Gettysburg: Director’s Cut (1993) and Gods and Generals: Extended Director’s Cut (2003) just in time for the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the American Civil War. Both films feature rich performances (a literal who’s who of A-list and B-list actors… with plenty of redshirted C-listers in there for good measure) and plenty of detail… the kind of stuff fans of the Jeff and Michael Shaara historical novels absolutely love to get lost in. Both releases are minor upgrades from prior BDs. The new editions are Digibook offerings with plenty of extras, but be forewarned that both films are extraordinarily long (some would say bloated), with Gettysburg nearly holding the record for one of the longest features ever theatrically released… and Warners is offering the films (respectively) on one BD with the extras mainly confined to an SD disc. Some reviewers have noted compression issues due to the length of the films on one disc, but for the most part the reviews say these are two discs worth owning… especially if you’re a Civil War buff.
Auto racing enthusiasts also have their day in the sun this Tuesday, as Warner Bros. releases the 1966 racing feature Grand Prix, on Blu-ray while Paramount releases it’s own cult classic race movie, Le Mans (1971), featuring Steve McQueen, himself a race car driver when not acting, or boxing or doing any number of other he-man stuff he was more than capable of doing. Interestingly, Steve McQueen had tried to get the Grand Prix idea filmed, striking out to do a similar film, when the lead role in Grand Prix went to James Garner. McQueen couldn’t get his film off the ground, and later made Le Mans, but Garner and McQueen, both avid race fans and race car drivers themselves, they lived near each other and maintained a long friendship. Both releases on Blu-ray are getting very good reviews with most saying that, despite the age of these films, they look and sound terrific, with both studios offering outstanding transfers of what, for the most part, are cult films, though many fans would consider each a contender for best auto racing film ever made.
Speaking of McQueen, one of his finest films as an actor gets its release on Blu-ray in another loving Digibook release from Warners. Now, not all of Warner’s releases are of this quality to be sure, but they’ve given Papillon a very nice transfer, as nice as can be considering this film has always looked a bit murky and out of focus, and ought to be commended for their Digibook versions which, for the most part, offer excellent keepsakes for the HD library, with well researched items for each film culled from Warner’s vast archives. With Papillon, one of the great escape movies McQueen made after 1963’s The Great Escape (where he starred with James Garner), pairs him with Method-man, Dustin Hoffman, for a grueling look (both in scope and detail) at life in a penal colony… in this case, France’s notoriously nasty Île du Diable, or Devil’s Island. Based on the heavily disputed 1969 memoir by prisoner Henri Charriere, also know as “The Butterfly”, the film by Franklin J. Schaffner (one of the studio system’s better helmers, he had previously won the Director’s Oscar for Patton), is grim, with long stretches showing the ennui of the prisoners including their physical and mental deterioration, while providing excitement in the various plans and actual escape attempts from the island. McQueen, always known as a physical actor who took risks rare on today’s film shoots, did many of his own stunts including the breathtaking leap off the cliffs of the island to the sea below. I always thought this film a great Saturday matinee movie, and it’s actually held up well through the decades and features a pathos, yet sometimes comical turn, by Hoffman (all toothy smiles and spectacles) as the counterfeiter, Louis Dega, who befriends, in his own sniveling way, Papillon and helps him plan his attempts at freedom from the tropical island gulag. For fans of McQueen, who died all too young, but left behind some great, exciting films, this is a must own. For others, this is definitely worth a rental… though young folks may be frustrated with the film’s slow pacing and lengthy, it’s a great way to see Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in top form with excellent, underrated performances from both.
Controversial, and much debated, The Great Dictator becomes the second Blu-ray release of Charlie Chaplin’s masterworks from the hallowed vaults of the Criterion Collection. As usually, Criterion does a magnificent job with this quasi-silent film (it’s not, and there’s plenty of dialogue in this, Chaplin’s first real “talkie”, but for certain stretches where Chaplin gets in touch with a certain Little Tramp guise, the scenes need no spoken words to get the emotion and humor across). Chaplin took plenty of risks with this film, mocking Germany (called “Tomania”) as dangerous in their anti-Semitic pogroms before the U.S. even formally entered the war. His take on Hitler, as cinematic surrogate Adenoid Hynkel , aims for the bluster, the arrogance and the empty-suited military ineptitude of the der Führer, but he also is able to bring forth his sweeter side (akin to his Little Tramp character from his silent films) as an unnamed Jewish barber who finds himself at the mercy of the jack-booted Tomanian thugs, but then finds himself mixed up in the middle of Tomanian politics since he’s a dead-ringer for the Phooey in charge, Hynkel himself. By the time Chaplin, in a rare moment for a Hollywood film, breaks the fourth wall to address the audience (by way of the film’s ingénue) on hope in times of darkness, you’ll know you’ve seen something rather extraordinary. Previously released in a great DVD version from Warner Home Video Criterion’s Blu-ray is getting high praise for the transfer which cleaned up the 35mm master elements with “thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker manually removed.” This, along with Criterion’s top-notch extras (a filmmaking / film history class on a disc), make The Great Dictator a must own HD release.
Criterion is also releasing Andrei Tarkovsky’s film of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris (1972). Many cinéastes consider it a landmark speculative (some would say science fiction) meditation on life the universe and the loneliness of the Soviet spaceman, but I’ve always had a hard time sitting through it (might as well prop my eyes open like Alex DeLarge… I have a similar narcoleptic problem with Last Year at Marienbad, so sue me… Bad film geek, bad!). In any case, Criterion does their usual bang up job in presenting this meticulously paced movie… and while the transfer is the best they can produce with the source material they have, the result is, from the word on the street, excellent and a welcome addition to Criterion’s HD offerings.
You might also check out Tigerland (MGM/UA), which might be considered one of the best things Joel Schumacher’s ever done.
As for the rest of this week’s Blu-ray releases, it’s a mixed bag, but these might satisfy your need for entertainment:
Anton Chekhov’s The Duel (Music Box Films) The Big Bang (Starz/Anchor Bay) The Big Country (20th Century Fox) Burning Palms (Image) The End of Poverty? (Cinema Libre) Gnomeo & Juliet | Gnomeo & Juliet – 3D (Disney/Buena Vista) Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (Warner Brothers) I Am Number Four | I Am Number Four [Combo Pack] (Disney/Buena Vista) Quigley Down Under (20th Century Fox) Samurai Champloo: The Complete Series (FUNimation) Soul Eater: The Meister Collection (FUNimation)
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.