After a few weeks of hellish uncertainty, This Week in Blu-ray is back to being on time. That is, if you count being available at some point on Tuesday as being “on time.” Which I do, for the record. Moving on, the most important thing to remember is that we’re back with some advice in one of the most diverse weeks of Blu-ray releasing so far in 2011. We’ve got a new one from Criterion, a few classics, action films for people who wish they were Jason Statham, horror films, an animated superhero epic, and a movie starring Kat Dennings. There’s something for everyone this week.
Pale Flower (Criterion)
I must differ to Roger Ebert for a moment, as he says it far better than I ever could: Pale Flower is “one of the most haunting noirs I’ve seen, and something more; in 1964 it was an important work in an emerging Japanese New Wave of independent filmmakers, an exercise in existential cool. It involves a plot, but it is all about attitude.” What Masahiro Shinoda created in 1964 is an enduring and indelible excursion into Japan’s underworld. It’s also a relentlessly cool film for its time. Criterion, to their credit, has gone to great lengths to preserve it and restore it for HD Blu-ray. They’ve included an uncompressed monaural audio track, brand new video interviews with the director and a new (and allegedly improved) English translation. As this is my first experience with Pale Flower, I can’t say how much improved the translation is (I also don’t speak Japanese), but the subtitles do deliver dialogue that fits with what the characters are doing. Either way, Shinoda’s film is so visually compelling that it’s hard to say whether or not you even need subtitles. Packaged beautifully by Criterion and accompanied by a book of thoughtful essays on the film’s impact on the Japanese New Wave, Pale Flower is yet another prize to be added to any collector’s Criterion shelf.
Thor: Tales of Asgard
One of this week’s more impressive complete packages is a toon that rides on on the back of the big screen debut of Marvel’s Thor. Thor: Tales of Asgard is the animated tale of the God of Thunder in his younger years. Directed by Sam Liu, the same guy who brought us All-Star Superman, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, Planet Hulk and Superman/Doomsday, Tales of Asgard combines sharp, anime-influenced visuals with a colorful, age unrestricted tale of the land of Asgard. It benefits from a wide scope and universal hero’s story. Also, Loki is still a creep. It makes for a nice companion piece to the big screen version, bridging Ken Branagh’s Thor with the Marvel comics. It’s solid fair to bring to the young ones who will undoubtedly want Mjolnir for their birthday. Most impressive is the exceptional level of care given to the release by Lionsgate. As they’ve done with many of the Marvel Animated releases, they’ve included several featurettes, several commentary tracks and combined BD with DVD. It’s a complete package that would be at home in any well-curated collection of superhero tales.
The Usual Suspects (Blu-ray Book)
There’s nothing I hate more than being painted into a corner by a solid Blu-ray release with almost zero extra features. As we’ve discussed before, supplements can make all the difference in the world. But what happens when a great movie — one of the better crime thrillers of a generation — is delivered unto Blu-ray for a second time, in a manner that vastly improves upon its previous release, but still doesn’t deliver big extras? It ends up in the buy section, as if the case with the Digibook edition of The Usual Suspects. The transfer is very solid, with no ghosting, artifacting or grain, the soundtrack booms, and the whole thing includes a 20-some-page booklet filled with essays, profiles and trivia. It’s a far better release than the Usual Suspects Blu-ray that hit stores in 2007. There’s a marked visual improvement in the film, which to me is worth the upgrade. My hope is that you avoided paying $40 for the ’07 release and can spare $20 for this one, as it’s probably the most worthwhile Usual Suspects BD release we’re ever going to see.
Jason Statham plays one character really well. The hired gun, the guy who works alone and sticks to a code of ethics that make his actions almost completely forgivable, whether he’s transporting human cargo or killing bad people. It’s this fact alone that makes his take on the classic Charles Bronson story The Mechanic such a fun one. He may not be displaying some of the high-kicking martial antics that he’s shown in previous films, but his Mechanic is a classic Americanish tough guy who keeps the bodies dropping fast enough to keep us interested. When he’s paired with Ben Foster, who shows us his tough side, and director Dominic West, who is no slouch when it comes to making mindless adrenaline films, it’s enough to make The Mechanic a bloody, entertaining ride. The Blu-ray release in question is a solid one, short on quantity but not on quality. One “tools of the trade” featurette gives light to how some of the action is pulled off. And that’s really all we want to know when the final credits role. Why have interviews with the writers about character development when they didn’t do any character development? Sometimes a film gives you everything you need in explosive 1080p with a blistering 5.1 soundtrack. It makes movies like The Mechanic the perfect rentals.
Vanishing on 7th Street
The world’s light disappears along with the majority of the population leaving behind a handful of stragglers struggling to survive in the dark. Hayden Christensen brings his wooden acting style to Brad Anderson’s latest film and is joined by Thandie Newton and John Leguizamo as strangers hiding from the shadows and wondering why exactly everyone else has disappeared and left their clothes behind. There are some very cool and occasionally frightening set pieces to be found here, but unfortunately the ending is a complete wash. Still, until that point there’s a substantial amount of mystery begging some interesting questions. Magnet’s Blu-ray features a commentary from Anderson along with a few behind the scenes featurettes that shed some light (puns!) on what’s happening here. The disc also includes multiple alternate endings that are basically the same damn thing over and again just edited in different ways and lengths. - Rob Hunter
Here’s what’s tough about a release like The Roommate. It’s a solid Blu-ray release, technically. It includes a fair amount of special features, including several featurettes that are exclusive to the Blu. So I can foresee a fan of the film getting their money’s worth. The problem is that this film doesn’t seem to have many fans. It’s a lame-duck rehash of the Single White Female tale, in which one young lady (Minka Kelly) is terrorized by a new roommate (Leighton Meester). To her credit, Meester tries to play the monster, but with all her might she can’t muster up anything that rises barely off of the page. They look stylish, in a CW-generation kind of way, but the film lacks the bite of the far better takes on this story that have come before. If you saw it in theaters and enjoyed it, you’ll get something to enjoy in the Blu-ray. If you haven’t partaken yet, consider the risks before making a rent or a blind buy.
Some Like It Hot
Another of last week’s releases that hit my desk late, Some Like It Hot is a venerable classic. Constantly ranked among the 100 best films of all-time. The story of two innocent bystanders who witness a gangland shooting, only to find themselves dressing in drag and posing as members of an all-girl jazz band, it’s one of the most memorable films of its time. The charm of Jack Lemmon, the audacity of Tony Curtis and the screen-sizzling beauty of Marylin Monroe. This movie embodies the word classic. It deserves a better Blu-ray release than this. Not to sound like a broken record, but films of this quality deserve something a little better. This isn’t a bad release. The transfer is a little dirty and the 5.1 soundtrack doesn’t pop as much as you’d imagine it would. And it includes a selection of special features that add a great deal of value. But something about it has me believing that a much better, collector-level release is out there somewhere. Until then, this one is a solid rent.
“As I drove away from the theater I could literally feel the details of this film’s particulars slipping from my memory. Five years from now I’ll question whether or not I ever saw it.” The words of Nathan Adams’ review of The Rite rang loud and clear with me as I gave it a chance this week on Blu-ray. In fact, I couldn’t tell you if I still have a copy on Blu-ray, even though I just watched it. Alright, so maybe that’s a stretch — but the fact remains that this Anthony Hopkins led exorcism pic has very little in the way of lasting effects. Even the Blu-ray’s highly touted “chilling alternate ending” does little to make it a memorable film, much less a buyable Blu-ray. The other problem is a lack of pizazz. The Blu release includes the movie, the aforementioned alt. ending, a lone featurette about the real priest upon whose life story the film is loosely based, and some deleted scenes. The most exciting bonus feature is the Digital Copy — because, you know, if you really liked this movie you may also be the kind of person who would want to load it on your iPad and carry it with you everywhere you go.
The Terminator (Blu-ray Book)
It’s not hard to spot a really bad Blu-ray transfer. If you’ve been working with the format for a while, you’ve probably seen enough of a range of films to spot the best and worst. At the worst, a poor Blu-ray transfer often appears as if there’s a not exactly clean layer of glass between you, the viewer, and the movie. That’s about how bad The Terminator looks. But I didn’t even need to get that far before I was thoroughly annoyed by this release. The point of no return could very well have been while browsing the menu. It was clunky to move from a menu to a submenu, lazily thrown together in something that predates iDVD and the sound effects are overly loud and borderline obnoxious. It seems like a nitpick, but it’s indicative of a very poor effort on the part of MGM. So much was done right by Lionsgate with the recent Terminator 2: Judgement Day – Skynet Edition Blu that it makes this release all the more shameful. The accompanying Blu-ray book and solid form packaging are the only highlight, and they’re hardly worth the money. The video quality is poor, the audio might as well be coming out of a single speaker and the extras are laughable. You’d have to try pretty hard to deliver a worse release of such a quality film.
Moved by her widowed father from the big city to a small town, Caroline (played by Kat Dennings) finds that the only interesting thing to do in her new zip code is get hot for teacher. Her teacher, as played by Josh Lucas, goes without much of a struggle and a twisted love triangle is born when a classmate (Reece Thompson) also takes an interest in Caroline. The film lethargically takes a story that you’ve seen before and plays it slowly, unsteadily and with as little inspiration as possible. Dennings is a charismatic lead, and Reece Thompson has been in much better movies, but the whole thing is a terribly uninspired, low-rent affair. Simply boring. To the extent that there was no reason to even watch the Blu-ray’s single behind the scenes featurette. That’s not a good showing for any release, let alone one that sports such promising talent.