MOS DEF (RETURNS) #5: 2010 - The Best Discs of the Year
Hey, sorry I've been on hiatus for so long, but given all the love letters, it's nice to know I've been missed. All I can say is I've been busy and I'll tell you more about that later this year. First though, let me say, I'm going to change the format a little bit to free me up to discuss whatever I want, whenever I want, which will make it more fun for me and, hopefully for you. Secondly, I'm going to skip over a lot of discs because I refuse to review anything that I'm not sent for free. It doesn't mean I don't own them, it just means I'm not doing the studios any favors for cheeping out. You really don't need some other putz pontificating about bitrate and artifacting anyway. The only artifact I care about is the lost ark on Blu-ray, anyway. That said, before resuming this column already in progress, let's take this return from hiatus to do a quick Top 10 of 2010 before charging into 2011, the year after the year we make contact.
THE BEST OF 2010
1. APOCALYPSE NOW: THE FULL DISCLOSURE EDITION (Lionsgate): First, I must say I was mortified when I heard that Lionsgate had picked up the rights to Apocalypse Now. Actually, I think the words that actually came to mind were "the horror, the horror," but when I heard Hearts of Darkness would be included for the first time in hi-def I mellowed, not to mention I was further impressed by their recent Studio Canal titles released by Lionsgate and, thankfully, they did justice to this flawed masterpiece. I understand that Paramount actually didn't let this one slip away willingly so I can't make cracks about The Godfather one day showing up on Goodtimes VHS so Paramount can put out another DtV sequel to Without a Paddle, but the fab job Lionsgate did with Apocalypse does make me less considerably less concerned that Rosemary's Baby and Sunset Boulevard will show up somewhere on HD on another label that doesn't have a giant mountain at the beginning. Oh yeah, this friggin' set rocks with an abundance of special features and all the Apocalypse you'll ever need, both original and extra crispy. Some of the new features are particularly edifying including Francis Ford playing Oprah has he chit-chats with the always entertaining, lovable teddy bear of a right-wing nutjob John Milius, who's fabulous as usual here as he dishes about the making of the film, and Coppola, unlike many of his contemporaries, is quick to share the credit and humble to a fault. His conversation with Martin Sheen is equally fascinating. This is truly the definitive version of Apocalypse Now and an essential addition to anyone's Blu-ray library. This is not the film for your iPod (or even iPad) and, if you have a Zune, than I don't even know why you're reading this column. You clearly need help.
2. THE ALIEN ANTHOLOGY (Fox). Wow, so Charlie found even more crap about the four alien movies to pour onto these discs. Amazing! The best DVD set of all-time just got better. That said, it's almost too good. With such an abundance of material, the navigation is almost too unwieldy and confusing. I miss the day of easy-to-understand booklets and menus without all the bells and whistles. It's why I loathe BD-Live and discs that you have to download extra content for. Thankfully, there is some great, inventive and, more importantly, sturdy packaging to keep your discs secure and try and make sense of everything that's packed on here which I'll be pouring through for decades. As for the oft-repeated comments that Alien: Resurrection looks bad, my response is who cares? Are you really going to watch that ever again before it laser rots in five decades anyway? Probably not. Worth the wait.
3. THE EXORCIST (Warner Bros). After the train wreck that was The French Connection Blu-ray, I was very worried The Exorcist would suffer a similar fate in color timing from Mssr. Friedkin, but thankfully, that is not the case here. I guess after a tongue lashing from French's DP Owen Roizman, Friedkin saw the light. Warner's release of The Exorcist, both in its original theatrical version and less effective extended director's cut is welcome as is the release in the Digibook format which treats this cinematic milestone with the prestige format it deserves. Somehow putting movies like this in a slipcase just doesn't do justice to their vaunted place in cinema history. Special features are plentiful and satisfying. A superb BD of one of the greatest horror films of all-time. But where's John Boorman's sequel, The Heretic. Kidding. We're just happy Excalibur's coming next year. How ‘bout Point Blank, Santa?
3. AVATAR: THE EVEN LONGER VERSION (Fox): Fox released a bare bones edition earlier this year and made no secret that the star spangled version was yet to come this holiday season with a 3-D version down the road. Now as far as bare bones editions of movies go, it was pretty awesome. Picture and audio were first-rate and given the necessary compression of this rather long (some, including me, would say ponderous) film, it still looks great. Now let me say I'm not an enormous fan of the movie, but it was nice to see it without the distraction of 3-D, but I'll take Aliens, The Abyss and even Titanic on BD and watch them a helluva lot more than this gorgeously realized, but ultimately lightweight Lawrence of Arabia on Mars (okay, Pandora, whatever). Nonetheless, there's no denying that Cameron has once again moved the ball further downfield than any of his contemporaries and it'll be very interesting to watch where the technology goes from here. The second wave release was even more impressive, even if it only meant the film got longer. But the behind-the-scenes making of material is absolutely stellar and should be the final word on the making of the film. Until the sequel, that is.
4. ROGER CORMAN CULT CLASSICS (Shout Factory). Humanoids from the Deep, Piranha, Forbidden World, Galaxy of Terror. Shout, Shout, shout it all out – you've got to love Shout Factory who has given an amazing amount of TLC to these classic Roger Corman titles. Credit to Shout for unearthing the real gems of the catalog here and not simply revisiting the low-hanging fruit like Death Race 2000 and Battle Beyond the Stars, although both get impressive new editions as well. Shout not only delivers goofily retro editions which feature original key art, but they set the gold standard for schlock, and I mean that, as the highest compliment. The quaint 20th century custom of including extensive (and informative!) liner notes is revived here with some great inserts along with a rich bounty of new and re-purposed extras. Galaxy of Terror has almost as many special features as it does alternate titles (remember Mindwarp among others) as does the cheesy, Alien rip-off, Forbidden World (Mutant, natch) with a pre-V, post Spinal Tap June Chadwick looking as luscious as I remember her. Special features are as ample as the myriad women who disrobe in this truly exploitive, but not unpalatable anti-classic. Blu-rays of Humanoids from the Deep and Piranha, both minor classics, look as good as you could possibly imagine given the source material and there's an incredible array of deleted scenes and original marketing material. Piranha also boasts great commentary from Joe Dante (and producer Jon Davison) and additional network TV footage. Not only does Shout Factory go above and beyond with these remarkably realized re-issues (and the occasional extensive doc), the films themselves have never looked better. And Star Crash gets shown far more love than it deserves and our lives are all the enriched the better for it. Between the Hoff and the beautiful Caroline Munro and John Barry's memorable score, the film rocks, but Shout Factory rules.
5. WORLD WAR II IN HD (A&E): Move over Ken Burns, History Channel's recent miniseries, WW II in HD, makes its Blu-ray debut and, despite the rather cheesy sounding moniker, is a superb look at World War II using footage that has all been transferred in HD, the large majority in color, giving it an impressive, visceral impact. As much as I liked Burns' doc, The War, there are moments here that are even more potent. Special features are essentially EPK material on sourcing and transferring the footage, but the doc itself is superb and highly recommended.
6. FILM NOIR CLASSIC COLLECTION: VOLUME 5 (Warner Bros), FILM NOIR CLASSICS II (Sony). My favorite genre continues to get shown the love in two new editions of the best noir sets from the majors. Although the Warner cupboard is getting a little bare, they still managed to cull some interesting films for their latest set while Sony still has some classics to mine as part of their Collectors Choice series. Kudos to both studios for keeping the noir jewels coming.
7. CRITERION CLASSICS: NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/MODERN TIMES/CHARADE/THE BBS STORY: Whether they're simply re-issuing an already great release like the best Hitchcock film, Hitch never made, Stanley Donen's Charade in crackling hi-def (although regrettably lacking any new features) or creating an entirely new work of catalog mastery such as Charles Laughton's unjustly overlooked masterwork, Night of the Hunter, or revisiting silent classics such as Chaplain's Modern Times, much like 007, nobody does it better than Criterion. Another magnificent year for the venerable company and the biggest beneficiary of the studio's complete apathy towards catalog releases… other than fans like us. I'm already counting the days till Sweet Smell of Success…
8. THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN (Time-Life). At long last, Steve Austin, the world's first bionic man, is back in action. Insert sound effect here. An exhaustive feature-laden set from Time-Life covering the pilots, entire series and telefilms. Certainly among the best TV to DVD packages yet.
9. SPACE I999: SEASON ONE – 35th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (A&E): How can you take this seriously from a man who went out with his friends on September 13, 1999 to make sure the moon was still in earth orbit, but you have to give me credit, I was never that big a fan of this series to begin with. In fact, while I always admired its 2001-inspired production design and some of the coolest spaceship designs ever, this wannabe Trek never got me seeing stars. That said, the show looks a helluva lot better on Blu-ray than it ever did Saturday afternoon's on Channel 11 and the special features are bountiful and fascinating. A&E has done an excellent job supplementing previous releases with some fascinating new material that make this curious and oddball series worth a revisit on its 35th anniversary.
10. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (MGM). While this set of John Sturges' western classic and its progressively more inferior sequels doesn't warrant a plethora of adjective-laced accolades, it's great to have the original film in a superb HD transfer on Blu-ray along with its original bonus material intact, despite the lack of any new features. That said, the set is worth inclusion as being representative of a welcome trend in Blu-ray, the inclusion of titles that don't warrant their own separate release as part of an archival collection. The fact is all the subsequent sequels are pretty terrible, especially once Lee Van Cleef assumes the black hat of Yul Bryner after Return of the Seven. That said, there's something satisfying about having a box set of all the films knowing full well you'd never buy them as individual releases. Another good example is Lionsgate pairing the DtV sequel to Open Water with the original release making the set more appealing than if it were just the one film. A BD trend worth continuing where the sequels ARE the special features.
GRINDHOUSE (Viviendi), the Weinstein double bill and its accompanying faux-trailers finally gets a real release, although its admittedly light on new (and, more importantly, cool or kitschy) special features.
WB CATALOG TITLES: KING KONG, THX-1138, FORBIDDEN PLANET, THE MALTESE FALCON, CLASH OF THE TITANS, all great titles with paltry new material (and sometimes lacking even the original DVD bonus features as in the case of the Bogie title – and why no Digibook for Maltese anyway?), but welcome nonetheless as the transfers are great and it's nice to have at least one studio that has respect for its classic titles.
INCEPTION, much like The Dark Knight is demo-quality material, but despite some fascinating in-picture behind-the-scenes material, still seems somewhat lacking in terms of real insight into the making of the film.
SPARTACUS (Anchor Bay) is a nicely packaged release from Anchor Bay of the Starz series – although it relies mostly on re-purposed EPK material from the set as opposed to new special features.
And very special recognition to Warner Archives for its welcome release of PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, the Gene Roddenberry written and produced sexpoitation film directed by Roger Vadim starring Rock Hudson, Telly Savalas, Angie Dickinson and Roddy McDowall. It has to be seen to be believed. How illogical.
And finally THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, yes, Warner Bros does another great job with one of their TV titles with flawless transfers and an abundance of substantive featurettes and not simply warmed over EPK interviews. A CW series that's not just for the Twilight set.
IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES, IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES…
Thumbs Down: Speaking of trends that will make a cinephile cry, did anyone actually see the last episode of "At The Movies," the successor to "Sneak Previews" which Siskel & Ebert brought to TV syndication, eventually redubbed "Siskel & Ebert" and then "Ebert & Roeper" and then back to "At the Movies." Following reviews of The Expendables and Eat Love Pray, film critics Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott finally got around to paying homage to the late, great Gene Siskel and his cohort in crime Roger Ebert. There were some vintage bon mots that warranted a two hour special which instead got about two minutes. Of course, Ebert did call Clash of the Titans "Ray Harryahusen's Masterwork" so maybe they weren't the towering geniuses of film criticism I give them credit for. Either way, Siskel & Ebert deserved a lot more than this minor footnote as their epilogue.
Body Politik: I made the mistake of watching Jennifer's Body, which is truly as bad as its reputation. There's a ridiculously fetishistic ode to Megan Fox which ranks alongside some of the silliest bonus features I've seen. Unfortunately, Diablo Cody's Juno-esque tinged dialogue isn't nearly as effective here than in her Oscar ™ award winning screenplay and the only thing particularly horrifying is how the director got another movie after making Aeon Flux.
Fame, don't remember my name. What better illustration of the difference between 70s filmmaking and today. The original Alan Parker musical, Fame, which was released in 1980, is dark, edgy and thoroughly engrossing. And I hate musicals… except for Singing in the Rain. The actual transfer here is not bad, considering the film is 30 years old. Then take a look at Fame 2009, which can best be described as a High School Musical wannabe that completely lacks all the qualities of Parker's original that make it one of the most memorable films of the 80s. The less said, the better.
Lost in the Game Grid. Tron sequel comes out in theaters in December 2010, Tron on Blu-ray doesn't.
All Dogs Go to Heaven. The series finale of Lost. Fortunately, the BD was great even though the finale remains as completely frustrating and unsatisfying now as upon it's first airing.
Party Downed! For shame, Chris Albrecht, canceling this series, one of the most consistently entertaining comedies on TV, Party Down, with the best ensemble on cable. That said, Anchor Bay does a nice job of delivering the great first season on DVD, although special features are lackluster, largely re-purposed EPK material that aired on Starz. There are a few new commentaries, but the real meat here are the episodes themselves with comedic tour de force performances from Adam Scott, Ken Marino and the great, goody freak and geek himself, Martin Starr. Jane Lynch is terrific in the first season and is replaced to diminishing results by Jennifer Coolidge and Megan Mullally in the second season. If you're one of the millions of people who've never partied on with Party Down, you owe it to yourself to check it out. The DVD may not be four star, but the series is.
Back soon with plenty of new and non re-purposed thoughts on DVD and the world in general, particularly idiots no one cares about who Tweet about their lives.
Mark A. Altman