MOS DEF

MOS DEF #1: The Latest and Greatest in Blu-ray

December 30, 2009 - 8:00 am   |   By  Mark A. Altman

For this, the first installment of MOS DEF, here's some thoughts on new and recent Blu-rays I've enjoyed...

Whatever Works (Sony): B+

A pristine transfer, effective, but subdued DTS-HD Master Audio mix for the dialogue driven film and the first rate pairing of the irascible Larry David and the brilliant Woody Allen as writer/director seems like the ingredients for a film classic. But while the Woodman's latest is a delightful, amusing confection, it certainly doesn't rank alongside his classics like Annie Hall, Manhattan and Husbands and Wives to name a few, all notably (and inexcusably) absent from BD thus far. As is par for the course for all of Woody's films, the disc is completely devoid of special features, but is a welcome addition to his oeuvre (and anyone's Blu-ray collection) nonetheless.

Star Trek (Paramount): A

Love it or loathe it, there's no arguing that this is, by far, the best Star Trek has ever looked or sounded on any home entertainment medium and the special features here outshine anything ever done for Trek on the format. Previous Trek sets which featured all the Classic Trek films and, later, the Next Generation movies all had a plethora of video and audio issues, but both have had some of the worst, cheapest and most inane special features committed to DVD. As bad as some of the original featurettes were, the BD releases managed to top them all, including commentaries from filmmakers who had nothing to do with the actual films with cheap video of ComicCon panels on the TNG set being a new low. That said, this Trek set which includes a demo-worthy version of the J.J. Abrams film which successfully rebooted the franchise as well as digital copy is only surpassed by the excellent documentaries assembled for the disc, featuring interviews with most of the principals and, shockingly, actually focuses on the making of the film (something you won't find on previous Trek discs). There's extensive deleted scenes (featuring one of my favorite Klingon performances from an uncredited Victor Garber from Alias) and a fun blooper real. There's even production designer Scott Chambliss trying to defend his skewed aesthetic for the reinvention, one of the only areas where the new film really falters. While filmmaker commentary is slightly too self-congratulory, it's an easy listen and, after watching the set, it's also hard to fathom why the filmmakers chose to omit a fun (and ultimately significant plot point) subplot featuring the green Orion Slave Girl played with relish by Rachel Nichols.

Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs: Diamond Collection (Walt Disney): A+

Disney returns to mine their vaults to unearth what is arguably their greatest and most memorable classic and delivers a meticulously restored hi-def picture and a new 7.1 HD mix along with extensive new bonus material combining both vintage material featuring Walt Disney as well as animator recordings, archival transcripts and much more which prove both fascinating and insightful. The so-called Diamond Collection manages to satisfy both Disneyphiles as well as kids by truly delivering the best of both worlds and its Magic Mirror menus are a fun, novelty as the mirror offers intuitive advice to the viewer. You may still be waiting for your prince (or princess) to come, but the definitive version of this Disney classic has arrived.

The Girlfriend Experience (Magnet): A-

Steve Soderbergh's latest low budget experiment about a disgruntled call girl, shot on HD, is an interesting, although ultimately unrewarding effort. Treading some of the ground he first plowed in Sex, Lies & Videotape, the film features a vapid Sasha Gray, a noted adult film actress, in the lead and it's stunt casting that doesn't entirely pay off. Special features help lend some insight, but ultimately the film fails to deliver on providing a new or compelling look inside this tawdry world. That said, one never loses complete interest and a standout is a scene in which a sleazy webmaster wants to sample the merchandise before he posts a review online. Not nearly as much fun as Showtime's Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (Paramount): B+

As silly and inane as much of this film is, it's probably the closest we'll ever get to a new Roger Moore Bond movie. Much like Van Helsing, Stephen Sommers film is over-the-top and overbaked, but at the same time, what do you expect from a film based on a 1980s toyline. It has some nice Gerry Anderson-like secret bases and non-stop action and Dennis Quaid, collecting a paycheck here, manages to hold it all together. Special features are ample and illuminating, but they can't disguise the fact this is no Citizen Kane. As mindless summer entertainment goes, you could do worse and tech specs are all reference quality.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Sony Pictures): B-
Wolf (Sony Pictures): B-

Both films look and sound excellent on Blu-ray, with new DTS 5.1 HD mixes, but there's no disguising the fact that there's a complete dearth of supplemental material. Given the troubled production of Wolf, a making of featurette would likely have been the most exciting part of this lackluster, arthouse werewolf film from director Mike Nichols pairing Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer who all feel like they're slumming here. Likewise, Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Frankenstein with Robert DeNiro as Frakenstein's creation makes the proceedings all too seriously and lacks the fun of the Boris Karloff original. Any insight into Branagh's interpretation can't be found on the bare bones disc.

Star Trek: Season Three (CBS Home Video): A-

If you're going to watch the worst season of Classic Trek than this new set is the definitive way to do it. Although special features continue to be inconsequential, the inclusion of both the original visual effects and the new, uneven CGI work make this a must-have. The HD transfers are pristine and either way you choose to watch it, the Blu-ray is no less than a revelation. The only essential bonus feature (which I've saw years ago at the Museum of Television & Radio) is the original cut of Trek's second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, which has the show's original credit sequence, Kirk narration and a leering Gary Lockwood ogling mini-skirted women. A delightful relic of a less civilized age. You may not be a fan of the flawed Season Three, but to watch Spectre of the Gun, The Tholian Web (particularly with the original effects), Spock's Brain (with the new CGI), The Savage Curtain, The Enterprise Incident and Day of the Dove in glorious hi-def are a joy to behold.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros): A-

Oompa-loompa, doompa-dee-do, have I got another Blu-ray waiting for you... if you're wise you'll listen to me. Using Warner Bros digi-book packaging, this modern day children's classic gets the rich treatment it warrants. Although special features are re-purposed from earlier DVD versions, the slick packaging and beautiful new 1080p transfer are marvelous. My usual complaint applies, however, in that the digi-book features an assortment of bios and press notes and lacks any serious scholarly retrospective look at the making of the film for which Alan Parker's Midnight Express remains a benchmark. After all, do we really need a two page biography of Peter Ostrum (young Charlie) although, admittedly, the film's song lyrics are a nice addition.

The Wizard of Oz (Warner Bros): A+

Follow the yellow brick road right to Best Buy and pick up this indispensable set of one of the world's most beloved films. Warner Bros gets it right with this feature laden, stunning restoration of the classic film in elaborate collectible packaging. The plethora of features will satisfy both children and cinephiles who've seen the film once or a hundred times. The only thing missing is a pair of ruby slippers.

Crank II: High Voltage (Lionsgate): B

A high wattage sequel to the overbaked, but rewardingly campy original, Crank II isn't nearly as much fun and is just way too over the top for it's own good. Once again, Jason Statham plays the seemingly unkillable Chev Chelios (the greatest movie name since The Arrival's Zane Zaminksy), but it's all so contrived and unrewarding playing like a video game on crack. Like Another 48 Hours, Airplane II or Beverly Hills Cop 2, this film is an utterly inferior and superfluous sequel. The film gets a slick transfer and potent 5.1 Dolby Digial EX mix. Commentary from writer/directors Neveldine and Taylor are also included along with two featurettes and digital copy. Still, there's little electrifying about High Voltage.

The Dark Crystal (Sony): A-
Labyrinth (Sony): B+

Like Muppets? Me too, although I prefer them shouting insults from the balconies and easing their way down Sesame Street. However, both of these films are ambitious and have their die-hard fans, but the intricate muppetry of both flights of fantasy can't sustain a full length running time. Dark Crystal is, by far the better and more ambitious film, albeit at times plodding, with its rich fantasy world and intense imagery. Labyrinth was the second attempt at doing a serious muppet film and this time David Bowie and a young Jennifer Connelly are along for the ride. Dark Crystal includes some of the footage from the special edition DVD from a few years ago which is all interesting along with additional new material including an introduction from screenwriter David Odell, a PiP storyboard track and unnecessary trivia tracks. Labryinth which also gets a nice hi-def transfer and TrueHD 5.1 sound mix makeover includes new PiP track with the puppeteers, actors, make-up artists and Cheryl Henson and original bonus DVD content. A nice improvement over the standard def DVD.

Gladiator (Paramount): A-
Braveheart (Paramount): A

The initial BD release of Gladiator's gotten a bad rap for its inferior video transfer, taken from a hi-def master made a few years ago - and, sadly, it's a justified criticism, particularly if you're watching the film on a big screen or home theater. However, it's hard to overlook the excellent 5.1 Dolby Digital mix and exceptional collection of special features carried over from the special edition from a few years back including the excellent feature-length documentary, Strength & Honor, as well as fascinating audio commentary from Director Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe. Disc includes both the theatrical cut and expanded director's edition. Braveheart, represents the best of Paramount's new Sapphire Series, with a gorgeous new 1080p transfer and several new HD special features including retrospective features on the making of the Oscar winning film.

 

Not High-Def But Highly Recommended...

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I: The Collector's Choice (Sony): A+

Sony's superb collection of film's restored with the help of the Film Foundation under the aegis of Martin Scorsese delivers of a collection of noir classics, with only The Big Heat, having been released previously on DVD. Films include The Sniper, 5 Against the House, The Lineup and Murder by Contract and, of course, The Big Heat featuring noir icons Glen Ford, Lee Marvin and luscious Gloria Grahame. Special features include commentary by noir historians Eddie Muller and novelist James Ellroy as well as appreciations from Scorsese and Michael Mann. It's nice to know with DVD sales in the toilet that noir continues to be big business for all the studios who have done a great job getting their classics out on disc and, along with Warner Bros noir series, Sony now delivers one of the best classic retrospective box sets yet. If only, we could start getting some of the classic noirs out on BD like Touch of Evil, Double Indemnity and Criterion's double feature of both versions of The Killers.

- Mark A. Altman

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