Sometimes, you have to feel sorry for Blu-ray. It just gets a formidable footing into the home theater market and along comes a new visual gimmick - 3D - to threat its format opportunities. Granted, the new dimensional take on titles will require the help of high definition to make its bid, but it seems unfair for another upstart to ride piggyback on something that’s yet to establish its own commercial credentials. Of course, the studios are really no help. They hinder expansion by focusing on frivolous concepts like sell-through date, theatrical to digital turnaround times, and that everyman clash between rental and retail. As a result, films that should get the best preservationist treatment are taken for granted, while the most recent box office bomb is fleshed out with more added content than a box of Criterion classics. When trying to sell your elitist approach to your standard cinephile, such a strategy is, more or less, a non-starter.
Even worse, the geek freak patrol are clamoring for their own lost treasures to be transferred over in the best possible remastered manner. They will not settle for shoddy visuals or a less than completist approach to bonus features. Even when a company can’t condescend to all of their demands, their sense of entertainment entitlements tends to stunt any significant growth. As we wander into the next decade of this new millennium, as 2011 promises a staggering 28 films in the trumped up 3D style, it looks like the battle will continue to wage. In one corner will be the cash kowtowing of a business model desperate to stay relevant in a realm of easy instant media access. In the other are those who want the artform given the historical respect it so richly deserves. Looking over the five titles featured in this third installment of our semi-regular Blu-ray overview, you can see that some distributors are trying to conform to the latter. On the other hand, they have to deal with the often uneventful needs as part of the former. Let’s begin with:
What a difference a format change makes. Back when it was released in theaters, this remake of the beloved Ray Harryhausen stop motion hit was criticized for being visually clunky - with most of the anger being volleyed at the late-in-release-schedule decision to render everything in that cinematic gimmick of the moment - 3D. Sadly, such a strategy ruined much of the well-meaning pomp and action-oriented circumstance of update director Louis Leterrier. Now, in full blown Blu-ray, the movie looks amazing, every mythological CG creature coming to life with actual watchability. Sadly, the story is still as shoddy as ever, a confusing combination of actual fable and full blown Hollywood hero worship. Stud of the moment Sam Worthington is decent as the bastard son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), hellbent on taking down his Mt. Olympus dad while Hades (Ralph Fiennes) plans his own dominion overthrow. In between, the snake-haired Gorgon is defeated, some giant scorpions make things tough on our champion, and of course, the Kraken is released. For his part, Leterrier delivers some wonderful moments of spectacle. But the narrative skips around too much, trying to satisfy everyone in the possible audience while managing to undermine centuries of storytelling. We expect a little whimsy from such flights of fancy. We don’t expect such scope to signify so little in the end.
(The Blu-ray release offers Warners’ patented Maximum Movie Mode, featuring PIP commentary, featurettes and behind the scenes details, as well as deleted scenes, an alternative ending, a look at star Worthington, and more Making-of material)
Spartacus (Score: 9)
It’s the stuff of cinematic legend. Famed director David Lean turned down star/producer Kirk Douglas’ offer to bring the material to life, and eventual helmer Anthony Mann was fired after a week. Remembering his experiences on Paths of Glory, the star of Spartacus tagged a young Stanley Kubrick to take over. The results would mark a high point in a struggling filmmaker’s early career and a benchmark for a fading Hollywood superstar. The resulting epic would go on to win four Oscars, and highlight the horrors of the infamous blacklist when it was later discovered that exiled writer Dalton Trumbo crafted the screenplay. It would also remain controversial for the many editorial cuts made (and well as the various rereleases) as well as its cultural timelessness. As a perfect example of the overblown spectacle of the era, designed to undermine the growing cultural fascination with the fledgling medium of television, this otherwise admirable movie has its flaws. There are moments when the action lags and when scenery is chewed with undeniable relish. There are also scenes of great tenderness and proficient acting prowess. Standouts include Douglas as the lead - he is absolutely electrifying - eventual Academy Award recipient Peter Ustinov, and an oddly contemporary Tony Curtis. Together with a literal cast of thousands and Kubrick’s keen eye for detail and composition, what could have been a moldy old antique remains a quasi modern classic.
(The disc contains deleted scenes, archival interviews, behind the scenes footage, five vintage newsreels, and extensive image galleries)
The Breakfast Club (Score: 7)
For the late John Hughes, this was perhaps the definitive statement of ‘80s Midwestern teen angst. It is often cited as his most beloved, most insightful, and most iconic work. Sure, some of the characterization is as pat as the actors hired to realize it (Really? Molly Ringwald AND Anthony Michael Hall again???) and there is some unrealistic wish fulfillment in an afternoon rap session that somehow renders all school social cliques irrelevant. But in the end, this is one Club that has continued to endure. Part of the reason that we enjoy this tumultuous Saturday detention session is that Hughes makes his archetypes instantly recognizable as well as dimensionally unique. Sure, we expect the stoner to be more sensitive than his angry demeanor suggests, and the jock is supposed to be harboring some machismo insecurity, but it’s their identification as type that solidifies our ability to rely on and root for them. Equally important is Hughes desire to mess with the narrative, offering up bits of silliness and slapstick when he thinks things are getting too heavy. He manages to keep things meaningful, thanks in no small part to the performances he gets from his capable cast. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the film is that, some 25 years after its initial release, it still feels contemporary and up to date.
(This release an amazing 12 part documentary entitled Sincerely Yours, featuring most of the cast in commentary on the Making-Of and influence of the film, a feature commentary by Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall, and a look at how “The Brat Pack” came about)
Nanny McPhee (Score: 6)
The last thing one thinks of when considering Emma Thompson is family fare. Best known for her work in such Oscar winning efforts as Sense and Sensibility and The Remains of the Day, she struggled for over nine years to adapt Christianna Brand’s popular Nurse Matilda books into this initial film in the series. The story centers around a horribly unattractive nanny who uses her hideous features - gray hair, uni-brown, facial moles - to teach behavioral lessons. Each time her charges learn one of the important instructions, Ms. McPhee loses one of her horrid attributes. Well received at the time, this tie-in released is offered in lieu of the character’s second foray into child rearing (coming to theaters 20 August). While some consider the character nothing more than a poor man’s Mary Poppins, Thompson brings a lot of tenderness and heart to the material. She also lets the antagonistic children be as bratty as possible, thereby making her creative comeuppances all the more satisfying. About the only downside here is the manic direction of Waking Ned Devine‘s Kirk Jones. Confusing chaos with creative a viable children’s fantasy, he’s too obvious in his cinematic mannerisms. A calmer hand would have accented, not distracted, from what Thompson and the rest of the cast is trying to accomplish.
(Included on this high definition update is a wonderful commentary featuring Jones and his child stars, a collection of cast and crew featurettes, a look at the making of the movie, a gag reel, and some deleted scenes)
Greenberg (Score: 7)
Noah Baumbach should have seen it coming. When his publicist supposed “dis-invited” a certain contrarian critic from the screening of his latest Ben Stiller starring vehicle, the Squid and the Whale/Margot at the Wedding helmer had to believe that his actions would cause a stir. Instead, it started a debate that few on either side were ready to deal with. Naturally, it also overshadowed what many considered to be a high point in both Baumbach and Stiller’s career. Playing a highly unlikeable forty-something with little aim in life, we watch as one man aimless drifts, settling down momentarily in LA to housesit for his far more successful sibling. As with any good character study, the famous Focker dials down the tics and delivers a deliberate, focused performance. He is well matched by British thesp Rhys Ifans (as a former band mate) and Greta Gerwig (as Greenberg’s brother’s assistant). True, there is still something rather arch and somewhat obvious about what happens here, and Stiller’s onscreen persona can take a little getting used to. But unlike the preplanned quirk of Margot, Baumback lets things play out somewhat organically, leading to a far more satisfying and sensible experience. Now if only he hadn’t banished said scribe from the preview…
(As part of the package, we get a look at LA, a talk with the director, and a basic behind the scenes featurette)