Blu Tuesday: Hot Tub Time Machine, The White Ribbon and Predator

Now that the U.S. has been eliminated from the World Cup, most Americans will probably get back to their normal lives, but for diehard soccer fans like me, the quadrennial tournament remains the best form of entertainment around. Nevertheless, there are still several great titles being released this week, so if you are looking for something to pad out your daily soccer diet, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from.

“Hot Tub Time Machine” (20th Cent. Fox)

It won’t become a cult classic any time soon, and the title is probably the funniest thing about it, but “Hot Tub Time Machine” is still a solid comedy thanks to its great cast and a smart script by Sean Anders and John Morris – the same guys responsible for the equally funny “Sex Drive” and “She’s Out of My League.” From the inspired casting of John Cusack and Crispin Glover (who’s involved in a hilarious running gag involving his bellhop character losing his arm), to playful nods to “Red Dawn” and the King of Bullies himself, William Zabka, the film is a love letter to popular 80s cinema with the comic sensibility of today’s R-rated comedies. It’s just too bad that the Blu-ray’s special features are so tame, because this is a movie that would have benefited from hours of outtakes.

“The White Ribbon” (Sony Pictures)

Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” – winner of the 2009 Palm D’Or and Globe Globe for Best Foreign Language Picture – features an intriguing story, solid acting, and some truly beautiful cinematography. And yet, it’s perhaps one of the most unsatisfying films that I’ve seen in the last few years. Set in 1913 Northern Germany on the eve of World War I, the film centers around a series of mysterious accidents involving the children of a small farming village. Like most of Haneke’s films, “The White Ribbon” is a slow-burn – building tension over the course of its lengthy 144-minute runtime – but when it arrives at its climactic ending, the only thing that the director has to show for it is an open-ended analogy to WWI that will likely confuse and frustrate a lot of people. Up until that point, however, Haneke delivers one helluva suspense film, and though you might not like the way it ends, it’s worth seeing for the craftsmanship alone.

“Predator” (MGM)

With Robert Rodriguez’s reboot of the sci-fi action franchise due out on July 9th, MGM has unsurprisingly re-released the original “Predator” on Blu-ray for the second time in two years. What makes this edition different than the first, however, is a new digital restoration that holds up remarkably well, despite some special effect shots that really show their age. I almost forgot how much fun this movie is, and although Arnold Schwarzenegger is without a doubt the star of the film, the supporting actors definitely leave their mark – from Carl Weather’s cocky CIA agent to Jesse Ventura’s minigun-carrying commando. The single-disc effort also boasts a sneak peek of “Predators” and a new featurette that takes a look at the legacy of the original movie with interviews by Rodriguez and Nimrod Antal. If nothing else, it will serve to get you excited for the new film when it rolls into theaters in a few weeks.

Also Out This Week:

“The Crazies” (Universal)
“The Warlords” (Magnolia)
“When You’re Strange” (Eagle Rock)
“Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” (20th Century Fox)

  

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Blu Tuesday: Green Zone, She’s Out of My League and Entourage

With the World Cup in full swing, you’d think that the studios would have taken advantage of the event by releasing a few soccer-related titles on Blu-ray. (“Bend It Like Beckham” or “Victory,” anyone?) It was definitely a lost opportunity, but that’s okay, because there are still plenty of great titles to choose from, including the Blu-ray debuts of two HBO comedies.

“Green Zone” (Universal)

Though not as exhilarating as the “Bourne” films, or as poignant as “United 93,” director Paul Greengrass’ post-9/11 thriller, “Green Zone,” is still a damn fine movie that takes a politically-charged look at the botched search for WMDs in Iraq during the infancy of the 2003 United States-led invasion. Matt Damon once again teams up with Greengrass as the Chief Warrant Officer in charge of the investigation, only to realize after coming up empty on several occasions that the “solid intel” he’s been given may not be as reliable as his superiors believe. Greengrass’ trademark shooting style will still have some popping Dramamine just to keep from feeling dizzy, but the chaotic nature of the action makes sense in a war zone environment. I’m not entirely sure why this bombed so badly at the box office, but Universal clearly still believes in the film enough to release a Blu-ray that’s been adorned with plenty of bells and whistles.

“She’s Out of My League” (Paramount)

It’s not exactly the most original romantic comedy to come down the pike, but thanks to some sharp writing and great performances from its cast, “She’s Out of My League” is a great Judd Apatow clone that will have you laughing more than you might expect. Jay Baruchel is like a young Ben Stiller as the anemic geek who can’t believe he’s dating someone as hot as Alice Eve, and though the movie never gets quite as crazy as “There’s Something About Mary,” there are definitely shades of the film throughout. But just like that movie, as well as Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” “She’s Out of My League” really gets a lift from its supporting players, particularly T.J. Miller and Kristen Ritter as the mean-spirited best friends of the two leads. Pity Paramount couldn’t scrounge up better special features, because while “She’s Out of my League” is worth owning, the lackluster Blu-ray is better off just renting.

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Blu Tuesday: Dr. Horrible, Spartacus and Fullmetal Alchemist

This week’s major releases are a couple of real downers, so instead, I decided to choose a few other titles that might not seem like obvious choices, but surely have their share of diehard fans. And when it comes to the first Blu-ray on my list, I just so happen to be one of those fans.

“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” (New Video)

Who said nothing good ever came of the writers’ strike? While most of Hollywood was forced to sit on their asses (or stand around in a picket line) waiting for the studios to strike a deal with the WGA, Joss Whedon decided to take advantage of his newly earned free time by producing a free-to-the-public internet short that just so happened to be a musical. It was pretty ambitious stuff, but nothing out of the ordinary for Whedon. Still, even with a fanbase as loyal (and some might even say cultish) as his, no one could have anticipated that “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” would turn into the pop culture phenomenon it is today. From the casting of Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day, to the smart writing and memorable music, “Dr. Horrible” is certainly a one-of-a-kind experience. It might seem strange that a show originally conceived to be viewed on a computer screen would be released on Blu-ray, but it looks good in high definition, and its 42-minute runtime makes for brisk and enjoyable viewing. The inclusion of a making-of featurette and cast and crew commentary beefs up the single-disc release, but it’s “Commentary! The Musical” – a secondary track where the cast and crew sing about everything from the writers’ strike to an iPhone game called Ninja Ropes that they played during production – that is the real gem. It’s all very meta, and of course, very Whedon.

“Spartacus” (Universal)

Stanley Kubrick’s historical epic celebrates its 50th anniversary with a digitally restored edition of the film available for the first time on Blu-ray. Though I’m not exactly a fan of the movie (it’s incredibly cheesy at times, about an hour too long, and Kirk Douglas just rubs me the wrong way), there’s no denying that it played a major part in Kubrick’s evolution as a director. In fact, you can even spot some of his trademarks if you look hard enough. “Spartacus” is also terribly uneconomic with its use of time – from the overture and intermission to the numerous montages – but it’s still worth seeing at least once. It isn’t exactly the best restoration on the market, but it is a much-improved print that should please fans who’ve become accustomed to watching the film on cable.

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Blu Tuesday: Dragon Ball Z Kai, Invictus and Valentine’s Day

Anyone who’s become a frequent reader of my weekly Blu-ray column knows that to even call it a weekly column is a bit of a joke. Nevertheless, instead of making excuses as to why I haven’t written a post in awhile, let’s just jump right into it as there are several titles worth talking about, including Clint Eastwood’s latest and the Blu-ray debut of an anime classic.

“Dragon Ball Z Kai: Season One” (Funimation)

Funimation has certainly had its share of ups and downs when it comes to the “Dragon Ball Z” franchise. They were practically lynched by fans for releasing digitally remastered versions that cropped the image, and then were praised for bringing the Dragon Boxes (previously only available in Japan) to America. Now, they’re receiving some flak for the release of “Dragon Ball Z Kai,” a reinvention of the series that hews closer to Akira Toriyama’s original manga. Loyalists have claimed that this new version isn’t really “Dragon Ball Z,” and while they’re definitely exaggerating in their assessment, they’re not totally wrong, either. “Dragon Ball Z Kai” isn’t the “DBZ” you grew up with, but rather a meaner, leaner adaptation that does away with all the pointless subplots in order to keep the story moving. Those who have complained that the anime is bloated will love this new approach, and it doesn’t hurt that the series looks absolutely gorgeous in high definition. It’s not perfect, mind you, but between the cleaned-up prints and the revitalized animation, this is the “Dragon Ball Z” I wish I had watched from the start. The fact that only 13 episodes have been included on the two-disc set is a bit annoying (especially when nine of those appear on the first disc), but perhaps there’s some method in the madness.

“Invictus” (Warner Bros.)

When it was announced that Clint Eastwood would be teaming up with longtime collaborator Morgan Freeman for a biopic about South African president Nelson Mandela, I don’t think anyone expected a movie about rugby. But that’s exactly what we got, and though we didn’t learn nearly as much about the man as we would have liked, “Invictus” did do a good job of conveying the influence that Mandela had in uniting the country’s races. While the movie pales in comparison to some of Eastwood’s other work, it is a better-than-average sports drama with some fine performances from its two leads. Warner’s Blu-ray release capitalizes on their involvement with a behind-the-scenes look at how Freeman and Matt Damon transformed into their respective real-life subjects, as well as the difficulties of filming the rugby scenes. Various cast and crew members also contribute to an excellent picture-in-picture video track that makes watching the film a second time incredibly worthwhile.

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Blu Tuesday: The Informant!, The Damned United and The Vampire’s Assistant

There haven’t been many great Blu-ray titles released recently (at least, not enough worth discussing anyway), and while today’s selection is just as lackluster as those in past weeks, it’s been so long since my last post that I’ve finally decided to write one anyway After all, while many of these week’s releases likely won’t end up in your library, there’s a good chance you’ll want to catch them at least once before making up your mind.

“The Informant!” (Warner Bros.)

I’ve never been a very big fan of Steven Soderbergh’s work, so I was bit surprised at how much I enjoyed his latest effort. Though it didn’t get the attention it deserved during its theatrical release, “The Informant!” is the kind of whimsical dark comedy that Joel and Ethan Coen have been making for years. Granted, the lead character isn’t quite as memorable as anyone in their rogue’s gallery, but Matt Damon still delivers one of the best performances of his career as a schlubby biochemist who turns informant on the agricultural megacorp he works for. The supporting cast isn’t as strong as you’d hope, but between Damon’s hilarious turn as the real-life snitch, the whip-smart script from Scott Z. Burns, and the memorable score by veteran composer Marvin Hamlisch, there’s more than enough to love about this movie. Warner Bros. hasn’t included much in the way of special features, but the director commentary is definitely worth a listen, and the deleted scenes are fairly amusing.

“The Damned United” (Sony)

It may have only received a limited theatrical run in U.S., but for those looking for a solid drama with yet another great performance from Michael Sheen at the center, look no further than “The Damned United.” Based on the novel by David Peace about real-life football manager David Clough, the film follows Clough’s (Sheen) rise to the top of the English First Division with provincial side Derby County, only to see it all fade away due to a jealously-fueled rivalry with Leeds United manager Don Revie (an underused Colm Meaney). Though fans of the sport will likely enjoy “The Damned United” for the history lesson, football is merely the background setting to what is ultimately a very character-driven story. The actor-writer team of Sheen and Peter Morgan can seemingly do no wrong, because while it might be their first movie not to focus on politics (at least, not in the traditional sense, anyway), “The Damned United” is every bit as good.

“Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” (Universal)

Yet another movie based on a series of young adult novels, “The Vampire’s Assistant” is certainly no “Harry Potter,” and from a purely vampire-themed angle, no “Twilight” either. Though the story, about a teenager (Chris Massoglia) who becomes indebted to a mysterious vampire (John C. Reilly) after he saves his friend’s life, is actually rife with potential for a continuing franchise (especially when you factor in the cast that makes up the titular Cirque Du Freak), the movie is hampered by a remarkably bad performance from its young star. I’m not exactly sure what director Paul Weitz saw in the kid, because he’s so dull and unappealing that he sucks the life out of nearly every scene. Reilly at least makes the movie watchable, and Willem Dafoe has good fun in his brief role as a fellow vampire, but unless they plan on recasting the lead, this is one book-based franchise without much of a future.

Also Out This Week:

“Sorority Row” (Sony)
“The Box” (Warner Bros.)
“Nurse Jackie: Season One” (Lionsgate)
“Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths” (Warner Bros.)

  

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