‘WWII in HD,’ ‘Michael Jackson: This Is It’ tops Blu-ray releases

[28 January 2010]

By Doug Nye

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

A must-see documentary, “WWII in HD” (A&E, 2009, $39.95), and a vivid look at a pop icon, “Michael Jackson: This Is It” (Sony, 2009, $39.95), lead a short but stellar list of new titles arriving on Blu-ray.

More than 70 years have passed since the start of World War II but it continues to hold a special fascination for millions of Americans. The reasons for that fascination aren’t difficult to figure out.

It arguably represents the last time that Americans and, indeed much of the world, were truly united in a common cause. Then there are the people who were willing to give of their time and, in so many cases, their lives to preserve freedom. And, on top of that, the good guys won.

“WWII in HD” presents the war as only those who were there saw it. Nearly 95 percent of the film used is in color and is presented in anamorphic high-definition wide screen. This is not a colorization job. This is actual footage that was shot in color in the 1940s. If you think black-and-white footage of Hitler and his Nazis are chilling, wait until you see them in color.

The color film, much of it never before seen by the public until the series aired on the History Channel, was the result of a two-year worldwide search. Be aware that the quality varies due to the age of the footage. Nevertheless, you won’t be able to take your eyes off of it.

Giving the 10-episode, 455-minute production a big boost are the stories of 12 Americans who were drawn into the conflict during the USA’s four-year involvement. Their stories, ranging from exhilarating to horrifying, are touching and leave a lasting impression. Most of them have been culled from letters and journals but some of the veterans are on hand to add to what we see on screen.

“WWII in HD” is from Lou Reda Productions which has been responsible for dozens of stirring history documentaries during the past 30 years. This documentary shows that Reda and his company are as good as ever. Gary Sinise is the narrator. Highly recommended.

“Michael Jackson: This Is It” is a compilation of film shot from April through June 2009 during rehearsals for a summer concert tour. We know now it was the tour that never was to be. Whether you were a Jackson fan or not, you will be struck by the enthusiasm and physical prowess of the man.

While watching him in action, it’s difficult to believe that he collapsed and died of cardiac arrest June 25, 2009. He seems so alive and not a person who was incapable of surviving the rigors of a 50-date tour, as some people had suggested at the time of the rehearsals. Later, it was revealed that Jackson had been taking numerous drugs under the supervision of a doctor.

That, coupled with the fact that Jackson had several controversies in his life, had people shaking their heads. But this film is not about that. This is a celebration of one of the great entertainers of our time. It includes many backstage moments and interviews from those who worked with him. And there are some surprises. Who would have thought you would ever see Michael Jackson and Humphrey Bogart on screen together?

The title of the film comes from the words of Michael Jackson. When he announced plans for the concert tour at a press conference in London, he said “This is it” and called it “his final curtain call.” The documentary was to include footage from that tour. But we’re still left with a final look at the King of Pop. Highly recommended, especially for Michael Jackson fans.

Other Blu-ray releases:

“Atonement” (Universal, 2007, $26.98) is an absorbing drama about three lives that keeps the viewer engrossed from the opening sequence to the closing credits. It begins in a beautiful 1930s English countryside where Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightly) lives as the oldest daughter of a well-to-do family. Working at the family estate is Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the housekeeper.

Despite their different social status, Cecilia and Robbie are drawn to each other romantically. One day Briony (Saorise Ronan), the 13-year-old sister of Cecilia, sees Robbie and Cecilia in what seems to be a frightening situation. Actually, it’s all very innocent but Briony spreads a lie about what she saw. That eventually causes Robbie to leave and puts an end to a blossoming romance.

Several years later, after World War II has begun, Robbie is a soldier stationed in France and Cecilia is a nurse in London. Briony, now 18, hopes to undo the hurt she has caused by having the three get together while the war still rages. Things never quite work out as you expect them to do in this movie.

The film jumps back and forth between France and England, updating the trio of lives along the way. There is a spectacular sequence of the evacuation of Dunkirk where Robbie is among those trapped. Highly recommended.

“Pride & Prejudice” (Universal, 2005, $26.98): It’s a double treat for Keira Knightly fans this week. She stars as Elizabeth Bennet in this latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s much-acclaimed novel. There have been other film versions of the book — such as the BBC’s terrific 1995 production — but this marvelously mounted effort is right up there with the best.

Elizabeth has four sisters and her mother (Brenda Blethyn) is determined to see that every one of them lands an acceptable husband. The centerpiece of the film is the reluctant romance between Elizabeth and young Mr. Darcy (Matthew McFadyen). Both fight it but eventually cupid wins out.

As befitting an Austen piece, the film is packed with a variety of interesting characters. It also does a good job of recreating the late 1700s. Highly recommended.

“Fame” (Warner Brothers, 1980, $28.99) is an incredibly energetic movie about a group of teenagers who attend New York’s High School of Performing Arts. All have some sort of musical talent but first they have to audition to gain acceptance. Then the film follows them from their freshman year to their senior year.

The class includes a wide range of youngsters from different backgrounds. In fact, anyone who remembers high school will recognize the class clown, the studious one, the wise guy, the timid soul and so forth. We get to see them grow and develop (or in some case not so much) during their four years at the school.

Among the songs on the soundtrack are “Fame (I’m Gonna Live Forever)” and “The Way We Were.” Irene Cara, Lee Curreri, Paul McCrane, Barry Myler and Gene Anthony Ray headline the cast. Recommended.

“Surrogates (Touchstone, 2009, $39.99): Here is a science-fiction film that at least tries to be different. In the future, people stay at home and live their lives through robotic beings which they control. These surrogates, as they are called, are all fine-looking specimens and do and go wherever their owners wish.

It is a peaceful world. There is no crime because there is no reason for it. That tranquility is jolted when an actual human college student is murdered. That forces cop Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) to leave his home and head back into the real world for the first time in years to investigate the killing. He soon discovers there is nefarious plot afoot and his life is in danger. The last half of the film is packed with suspense and almost non-stop action. James Ctomwell plays Canter, the guy responsible for this whole surrogate business. Recommended.

“Soul Power” (Sony, 2008, $34.95): A documentary about the three-day soul festival staged in 1974 at Kinshasa, Zaire, prior to the “Rumble in the Jungle” pitting Muhammad Ali against then heavyweight champion George Foreman. After the joyous celebration, Foreman injured himself and the fight was postponed for six months. In the ensuing years, many people forgot about the concert. But here it is in all its glory for everyone to see. The music includes performances by James Brown, The Spinners, B.B. King, Celia Cruz, Bill Withers, The Crusaders, Miriam Makeba and more. Recommended.

“Whip It” (20th Century Fox, 2009, $39.99): They just don’t make roller derby movies like they use to. Come to think of it, the last one I remember was “Kansas City Bomber” (1972) with Raquel Welch. In this one, Ellen Page plays Bliss Cavender, who lives in a small Texas town where her mom is pushing her hard to compete in a local beauty pageant. Bliss can’t take the pressure anymore and slips off to Austin, where she joins a Roller Derby team.

She lies about her age to get on the team. The veterans such as Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore) and Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) aren’t so sure the newcomer can take it. Then, Bliss takes the name of Babe Ruthless and proves how tough she is to her teammates. Recommended.

“Saw VI” (Lionsgate, 2009, $39.99) Another installment in the bloody series that tries to see how many human limbs can be cut off. The formula is getting tiresome. Actually, it never was very appealing except for those who for some strange reason like this kind of gore. Also included is a Blu-ray copy of the 2004 original.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/119839-wwii-in-hd-michael-jackson-this-is-it-tops-blu-ray-releases/