September Blu-rays Roundup
The mighty, photogenic Niagara Falls is the star of this specious would-be comic drama about a free spirited young woman, her reluctant husband and honeymoon plans gone awry. Sienna Miller pours on the overacting as Camille, James Franco tries to underplay her doormat husband, and veterans Scott Glenn, David Carradine and Ed Lauter look properly embarrassed as elders in this couple’s life.
For 90 minutes, we are force-fed cutesy dialogue, annoying caricatures masquerading as loveable eccentrics, and—too little, too late—stunning shots of one of the world’s natural wonders (even if those familiar with the area know that the movie’s geography makes no sense). Those shots of the Falls are top-notch on Blu-ray; there are no extras.
This 40-minute film was originally made for 3-D viewing on those huge IMAX screens, so inevitably, there’s something lost watching it on a smaller TV screen. Even so, Dinosaurs Alive! is a treat for dinosaur lovers of all ages, as it mixes the latest findings with recreations of life millions of years ago, thanks to the very latest CGI technology.
Michael Douglas narrates as a group of eager scientists find and preserve fossils, but the real reason to watch is to see the dinosaurs in action, looking far more realistic and menacing than they did in Jurassic Park (which is ancient stuff now that it’s 16 years old). The bonus feature is a making-of documentary, along with BD Live material.
This entertaining nature documentary shows us one year in the life of our planet’s animal kingdom, from polar bears in the Arctic to great white sharks off the coast of South Africa, with many others in between, all frolicking, hunting or being chased as James Earl Jones’ booming bass voice narrates.
Put simply, the photography by several teams over the course of five years is absolutely marvelous; it’s sometimes hard to believe that this is actual footage of real animals, not merely CGI effects (we’ve been spoiled by computerized “action” in current movies). Needless to say, this Blu-ray release is the gold standard, with breathtaking visuals, superb surround sound audio, and extras that delve into the fascinating outdoor shoot.
This rollicking adaptation of an early Noel Coward play plays off stiff-upper-lip British and devil-may-care Americans. Car racer Larita (deliciously haughty Jessica Biel) marries John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), son of whimsical Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth) and bitch-on-wheels Mrs. Whittaker (sharply amusing Kristen Scott-Thomas); the household is turned upside down when John appears with his Yank bride.
Coward's wit, left intact by director Stephan Elliott and co-adapter Sheridan Jobbins, includes his perceptive look at the differences between Brits and Yanks. Elliott’s fresh musical take on songs by Coward and contemporaries punctuate the action, sung by the actors. (Yes, that's Biel’s breathy "Mad about the Boy" over the credits.) Extras are deleted scenes, gag reel, director’s commentary and the film’s New York premiere.
Zhang Yimou’s 2002 martial arts epic outdoes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for eye-popping action, and with this Blu-ray release, goes far beyond what Ang Lee did. The 99-minute Hero is an epic in the truest sense, covering lots of visual and narrative ground in a breathtaking fashion, notably the explosive fight sequences, where the participants literally fly around each other, and the incredible widescreen compositions that feature the most delirious color-coding ever. An array of stars—Zhang Ziyi, Jet Li, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung—are sensational eye candy, but Hero itself is the star, with Blu-ray’s hi-def transfer giving it a thrilling new “look.” Extras include making-of featurettes and interviews.
Legend of the Drunken Master
These two action flicks, along with the far superior Hero and far bloodier Zatoichi, form The Ultimate Force of Four Blu-ray boxed set. Drunken Master is a vintage Jackie Chan vehicle, and Iron Monkey is a mediocre example of the genre, which is why “Quentin Tarantino Presents” is being slapped on its cover. And why not? If neither movie is especially memorable or original, each has its moments, and the fast-paced stunts and action sequences are worth it for those who take the trouble to watch them. The films don’t look as good as Hero (what could?) or Zatoichi, but the transfers are acceptable, and extras include interviews, behind the scenes glimpses.
The Quick and the Dead
This forgettable 1993 western is director Sam Raimi’s most derivative film, with none of the stylishness he brings to his horror flicks. The actors largely phone it in, from Sharon Stone’s vengeful woman to Gene Hackman’s nasty villain; only Leonardo DiCaprio has any bounciness to his performance.
Even the Blu-ray transfer isn’t much of an upgrade from the original film, which might have been the lone reason to sit through it again. There aren’t any extras, either.
Lawrence Kasdan’s revisionist western seemed a breath of fresh air in 1985, but its jokiness and sentimentality haven’t worn well. A capable cast (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy) is overwhelmed by Kasdan’s cutesiness and inability to take anything seriously, so that when the dramatic climaxes kick in, they are at sea.
Kevin Costner, in his first starring role, acts so unhinged that it’s unsurprising it took another couple years (with Bull Durham and The Untouchables) for him to become a star. At least Silverado looks fine on Blu-ray, with stunning New Mexico locations doing the bulk of the work. Extras include new interviews with Kasdan and Costner.
Sons of Anarchy
This biker drama is based on Hamlet, of all things, and stars Ron Perlman and Katey Segal as leaders of a gang who take matters into their hands too often, which gives her son (Charlie Hunnam) pangs of conscience. As with many new action series, Sons of Anarchy is so visually fluid that it takes awhile to realize how hackneyed its storylines and characters are. But—particularly on Blu-ray—enough is notable both visually and histrionically (the excellent acting is led by the always underrated Segal) that it remains a fun if bumpy ride. Extras include interviews, deleted scenes, a gag reel and making-of featurettes.
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s follow-up to Half Nelson is a subtly-done character study about a Dominican baseball player (an authentic portrayal by Algenis Pérez Soto) who begins playing for an Iowa farm team hoping to graduate to the big leagues. With minimal condescension and maximal insight, Sugar shows the difficulties for both Latino players and their American hosts, balanced by small triumphal moments on and off the field for someone desperately trying to learn English while deal with teammates and coaches…and remembering his family back home.
Well-shot with a subdued palette by cinematographer Andrij Parekh—and faithfully rendered in the first-rate Blu-ray transfer—Sugar fulfills the promise of this writing-directing team’s debut. Extras include interviews and making-of featurettes.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
The Complete Second Season
This action-packed chronicle of a future where robots and humans do battle was inspired by the Terminator films starring a certain California governor. But the heroine, Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton on the big screen and by Lena Headey here), is the nexus of the series. Even amid dynamic set pieces, Headey’s dignified portrayal humanizes and propels the show forward.
On the debit side, this is a five-disc Blu-ray set whose material could snugly fit on two or three discs. Still, the visuals are spectacular, and the solid extras include commentaries on select episodes, storyboards, “terminated” scenes and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
Takeshi Kitano’s samurai epic has the requisite buckets of squirting red blood, but it’s a far cry from Kurosawa’s and Kobayashi’s classics. Whether he was aiming to update or outdo them is immaterial, since he does neither. Zatoichi is well-made, like all Kitano films, with cleverness in the storytelling and filmmaking. And the bloodletting sequences look absolutely fantastic in the new hi-def transfer: you’ll instinctively cover your eyes to avoid being hit by spurting red geysers.
Just don’t expect anything earth-shattering: unless, of course, you’ve never seen Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Hara-kiri or Samurai Rebellion! Extras include a 50-minute making-of featurette and interviews with Kitano’s collaborators.