You know what? This is actually another pretty massive Blu-ray release week. In addition to my top picks, you’ve also got the latest seasons of great shows like Sons of Anarchy, House and The Twilight Zone, 3D releases of some recent Fox hits, individual releases of the Shrek films (previously only available in the Shrek boxed set from Paramount), Gus Van Sant‘s Good Will Hunting, nutrition vs. disease doc Forks over Knives and Thai actioner BKO: Bangkok Knockout (out in two weeks, here in Canada.)
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Blu-ray disc of the week: THE COMPLETE JEAN VIGO
- “Even among cinema’s legends, Jean Vigo stands apart. The son of a notorious anarchist, Vigo had a brief but brilliant career making poetic, lightly surrealist films before his life was cut tragically short by tuberculosis at age twenty-nine. Like the daring early works of his contemporaries Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel, Vigo’s films refused to play by the rules. This set includes all of Vigo’s titles: À propos de Nice, an absurdist, rhythmic slice of life from the bustling coastal city; Taris, an inventive short portrait of a swimming champion; Zéro de conduite, a radical, delightful tale of boarding-school rebellion that has influenced countless filmmakers; and L’Atalante, widely regarded as one of cinema’s finest achievements, about newlyweds beginning their life together on a canal barge. These are the witty, visually adventurous works of a pivotal film artist.“
The Complete Jean Vigo is like Christmas come early for cinephiles but will most likely slip under the radar of casual North American film fans. But I’m here to tell you, this is the disc to pick up this week, if you get anything. This collection of four films comprises the entire body of work of the late, great filmmaker and, along with a killer supplemental selection, can almost be considered a master class in his ouvre and its influence. The most remarkable thing you’ll discover when watching through the films, dated between 1930 and 1934, when Vigo lost his life at the age of 29 as a result of literally working himself to death on his final film, is how they don’t feel like anything else from that time. While not completely modern, these films feel as if they were made alongside those of the French New Wave, related more in form and style to Breathless and The 400 Blows than the theatrical, stagey films of the era. It’s almost as if Vigo, who had a clear understanding of the language of the medium, was unveiling its magic and potential for future generations. Providing a glimpse of what was truly capable with film in its ability to both capture the truth in a moment as well as fashion the most imaginative dreamscapes in image and motion. These are four of the most important films you’ll ever see. This is one of the most important Blu-ray releases of the year.
All four of the films – À propos de Nice (1930, 23min, silent), Taris (1931, 9min, mono), Zéro de conduite (1933, 44min, mono) and L’Atalante (1934, 87min, mono) – look better than you’ve ever seen them before, the two oldest films from 35 mm fine-grain master positives, Zéro de conduite assembled from 35 mm fine-grain master positive and a 35 mm fine-grain duplicate negative and L’Atalante from the 2001 Gaumont 35 mm restoration negative (though I’d argue that Criterion has put a little more spit and polish on their transfer than is present on the Gaumont neg.) If you’ve seen these films before, get ready to be blown away by how vital they appear on this disc. If you’ve never seen them before, just get ready to be blown away. Audio, of course, can’t compete with anything modern but is given greater depth here in these uncompressed mono tracks.
The special features of this disc set can almost be considered exhaustive. I can’t get over the wealth of supplemental material crammed onto a single disc – the blessing and the curse of the Blu-ray. A blessing as you’d be hard pressed to find better analysis and appreciation of Vigo’s work outside of these masterful commentary tracks, the hour-and-a-half Cinéastes de notre temps episode and the Les voyages de “L’Atalante” restoration, among other fine splendid extras. A curse because there’s just way too much crammed onto this disc. I would have much preferred that Criterion spread the content over two Blu-ray discs and let the features breathe, as they did with the DVD edition, also released today. That said, I didn’t see any untoward digital noise or any other way the content might suffer from over-compression, despite the sheer bounty on the disc.
Highest possible recommendation!
- New high-definition digital restorations of all of Jean Vigo’s films: À propos de Nice, Taris, Zéro de conduite, and L’Atalante (with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray edition)
- Audio commentaries featuring Michael Temple, author of Jean Vigo
- Alternate shots from À propos de Nice, featuring footage Vigo cut from the film
- Animated tribute to Vigo by filmmaker Michel Gondry
- Ninety-minute 1964 episode of the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps on Vigo, directed by Jacques Rozier
- Conversation from 1968 between filmmakers François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer on L’Atalante
- Les voyages de “L’Atalante,” Bernard Eisenschitz’s 2001 documentary tracking the history of the film
- Video interview from 2007 with director Otar Iosseliani on Vigo
- New and improved English subtitle translations
- PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by film writers Michael Almereyda, Robert Polito, B. Kite, and Luc Sante
Also from Criterion this week:
- “Jean Cocteau’s update of the Orpheus myth depicts a famous poet (Jean Marais), scorned by the Left Bank youth, and his love for both his wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa), and a mysterious princess (Maria Casarès). Seeking inspiration, the poet follows the princess from the world of the living to the land of the dead, through Cocteau’s famous mirrored portal. Orpheus’s peerless visual poetry and dreamlike storytelling represent the legendary Cocteau at the height of his powers.“
Cocteau was no doubt inspired by the dream-like imagery of Vigo’s films. He’s at the height of his powers here, in Orpheus, a Blu-ray upgrade essential for collectors and film fans alike.
- “Lindsay Anderson’s If…. is a daringly anarchic vision of British society, set in a boarding school in late-sixties England. Before Kubrick made his mischief iconic in A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell made a hell of an impression as the insouciant Mick Travis, who, along with his school chums, trumps authority at every turn, finally emerging as a violent savior in the vicious games of one-upmanship played by both students and masters. Mixing color and black and white as audaciously as it mixes fantasy and reality, If…. remains one of cinema’s most unforgettable rebel yells.“
A boarding school drama like Vigo’s Zéro de conduite, Anderson allows himself to slip into the surreal – another potential nod to the late French master.
- “A provocative film that explores the difficult choices between revenge and forgiveness, In a Better World follows two Danish families and the unusual and dangerous friendship that develops between them. Bullied at school, Elias is defended by Christian, a boy greatly troubled over his mother’s death. So when the two become involved in an act of revenge with potentially tragic consequences, it’s their parents who are left to help them come to terms with the complexity of human emotions, pain and empathy. “
Ah! I was hoping and praying that a screener for A Better World (Hævnen) would turn up before today but alas, it wasn’t to be. That doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm to spend a good couple of hours with this Danish Academy Award winning film. I’m expecting the disc to be picture perfect, as is the case with most Sony Blu-ray transfers these days. Special features include commentary with director Susanne Bier and editor Pernille Bech Christensen, deleted scenes and an interview with Bier.
Oh my god oh my god. This is a box full of awesome! But if you love movies at all you don’t need me to tell you this. It’s four of the best ever Coen Brothers films, three of which are new to Blu-ray, all collected in a spiffy looking box! Now, to be fair, all four films are also available on their own as of today, so the boxed set doesn’t offer you much beyond the box itself and a savings of somewhere in the neighbourhood of $20. As to the quality of the discs, I haven’t seen them yet myself (par for the course with Fox releases, which generally tend to show up a week or two after street date) but early reviews from DVD Beaver offer exactly the reviews I was expecting – honest transfers that present the movies exactly as they appear on film, without any tampering for good or ill (meaning Blood Simple still looks pretty low budget and Miller’s Crossing still a bit muddy.) I’m excited to get my hands on this box and will report more thoroughly on the titles once I’ve screened them.
- “The first full-length feature project of pantheon Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, Strike is a government-commissioned celebration of the unrealized 1905 Bolshevik revolution. The story is set in motion by a series of outrages and humiliations perpetrated on the workers of a metalworks plant. The Czarist regime is unsympathetic to the workers, characteristically helping the plant owners to subjugate the hapless victims. Finally, the workers revolt, staging an all-out strike. Here is where Eisenstein’s theory of “the montage of shocks” was given its first major workout. While the notion of juxtaposing short, separate images to heighten tension and excitement was not new, Eisenstein was the first to fully understand the value of using sudden-shock images (a bloody face, a fired weapon, a descending club) to make his dramatic and sociological points. Playing to mixed reviews and small audiences in Russia, Strike proved a success worldwide, assuring Eisenstein complete creative freedom on his next project, the immortal Potemkin. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide.“
I’ve never seen Strike but Kino had me at “first full-length feature project of pantheon Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.” If this transfer stands toe-to-toe with Kino’s best silents (Metropolis, The General) this Blu-ray disc should be something to behold. Extras include Eisenstein first short film Glumov’s Diary, a 37-minute doc called “Eisenstein and the Revolutionary Spirit” and a trailer for his Battleship Potemkin.
- “They’re back – and they’re not alone. The seductive characters of “The Vampire Diaries” return for a stunning 4-Disc 22-Episode Season Two. This time Elena, Stefan, Damon and the other residents of Mystic Falls are joined by sinister new blood. Released from the tomb, Katherine unleashes her personal brand of evil in a diabolical plot. The Originals – the world’s oldest and most dangerous vampires – hunt for Elena, who discovers she has a terrifying connection to their world. And now bloodsuckers aren’t the only monsters in town. On moonlit nights, werewolves roam in search of victims… including vampires, who succumb to a single werewolf bite. “The Vampire Diaries“: unending suspense, undying romance.“
You’ll recall from last year around this time that I was a little taken aback by how much I enjoyed the first season of Vampire Diaries. I swear to God, I didn’t mean to watch it at all, never mind get caught up in the soap-operatic drama of the thing. But there you go. Warner sent the boxed set. I popped it in one night. And that was that. Now, with it’s second season wrapped up, I can honestly say I’ve grown tired of the once-vital series. I’m not sure if I care to sit through season three.
Perhaps it’s less the show itself and more about my attention span with series in their sophomore years. Vampire Diaries feels as if it suffers from the same problems I perceive in a lot of series’ year two – random musical-chairs relationship shifting, out-of-character action to drive desperate plot contrivances and general, all around silliness. Add to Diaries‘ missteps some critically dreadful miscasting (Daniel Gillies, not a particularly awful actor, should not be playing a millenia-old vampire, for example) and you can see how the show managed to chip away at my good will toward it over the course of this second batch of episodes. To it’s credit, it’s still well shot and still has some compelling performers leading the cast (even when Ian Somerhalder slips into parody he’s always entertaining.) And despite my grousing, I’ll most likely tune in to at least a few episodes of season three. But if the producers don’t figure out a way to make this thing sing again, I’m out.
Warner has yet to send over the Blu-ray screeners for The Vampire Diaries: The Complete Second Season. I’ll update this post when I get a gander at the discs. I can tell you this – this is one of the first Blu-ray season sets to receive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio tracks from Warner. Kudos to them for finally seeing the light. Extras include one commentary (on the episode “Masquerade“), deleted scenes, Pages of the Wolf (3 behind the scenes werewolf featurettes totaling around 20-minutes or so), “The Perfect Love Triangle: Vampires, Werewolves, Witches“, “Her Own Worst Enemy: Elena, Katherine and Nina! “, “Second Bite” gag reel and BD-Live.
- “Kei Kurono and his childhood friend Masaru Kato attempt to save a man who has fallen onto the train tracks but are run down by an oncoming train. However, rather than finding themselves dead, they are transported to a strange apartment in which they find a mysterious black orb known as “Gantz”. Along with others there, they are provided weaponry and sent on missions to battle alien beings. Is this world, which tests your will to survive, a game or reality.“
Gantz is a farily successful live-action Japanese adaptation of Hiroya Oku‘s manga series of the same name. And it is weeeeeird! I mean, it’s not really strange in the way it presents it’s characters – a collection of fairly normal students, fathers, grandmothers, etc. It’s the circumstances they find themselves in that presents the weirdness. The black orb called Gantz beams these folks to a barren, locked apartment and offers them magic alien-’sploding guns and cool black, plastic Evangelion-cum-Matrix super-suits to wear before shooting them out into the street to hunt otherworldy ne’re-do-wells. Why? Well, it’s never quite explained outside of the fact that these are aliens. I bet they’ve come to take over the earth. But that wouldn’t explain why these strange creatures all seem to be trying their best to hide and to be left alone. More questions abound; Are these recruited “warriors” just playing a game (they’re awarded points for every kill, just like a video game)? Are they alive or dead? And just what the hell is Gantz, exactly? I’m assuming most, if not all of these questions get answered in the sequel, which I await with bated breath. Gantz might not make a lot of sense but it’s a fun bit of Japanese post-modern superhero nonsense that’s got more style than your average X-Men film.
Gantz also looks like a million bucks on Blu-ray. Warner has afforded the film a killer, super high-bit-rate transfer that will knock your socks off. Any issue you’ve got with the way this bad boy looks harkens back to the source. This is a slick presentation. Audio is available in both the original Japanese as well as an English dub. Although most info states these to be lossy DD 5.1 tracks, my equipment is showing that both are DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks. Awesome! I watched the Japanese as the English dub was doing my head in. The 3-disc set also contains two DVDs – one with an SD copy of the feature and a second with trailers and a 28-minute interview with director Shinsuke Sato.
- ““Top Gun” takes a look at the danger and excitement that awaits every pilot at the Navy’s prestigious fighter weapons school. Tom Cruise is superb as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a daring young flyer who’s out to become the best of the best. And Kelly McGillis sizzles as the civilian instructor who teaches Maverick a few things you can’t learn in a classroom.“
I can’t believe it but I actually found myself laughing at Top Gun watching it again for the first time in over a decade. Tony Scott’s ode to oiled-up pilots and their mechanical crotch-rockets is still a great, fun ’80s film but the blatant man-gazing photography (inspired by the work of Bruce Weber) is tougher to take seriously now than it was 25 years ago. Speaking of which… This film is actually 25 years old no?!. Urgh. Stick a fork in me, I’m old.
Look, it’s Top Gun. You’ve seen it. You either love it for what it is or you don’t. The F-14 action is pretty much unrivaled and Cruise is at his absolute best. What more do you need to know?
This new 25th Anniversary Blu-ray edition of Top Gun is actually just the same excellent disc from 2008 gussied up and given some new packaging. Nothing wrong with that! The transfer is a bit glossy and could probably use an update but holds up well enough. Audio is strong in various lossless formats (DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 among others) and special features plentiful enough you’ll have to spend an entire Sunday watching the disc to get through them all. I recommend the two-and-a-half hour long “Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun“, if you check out anything. It’s a thorough and engaging documentary that covers just about every aspect of the film and its production. The disc also features a commentary track, multi-angle storyboards with commentary, a look inside the real Top Gun, music videos, trailers, behind-the-scenes featurette, Survival Training featurette, Tom Cruise interviews, and a digital copy of the film.
ALSO AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY THIS WEEK
Clicking an image will take you to Amazon.com where you can learn more about and purchase the Blu-ray disc: