Wonders of the Solar System

Those who basked in the wonders of “Planet Earth” and its follow-up “Life” would do well to delve into this frequently mind-blowing five hour series from the Beeb, hosted by physicist (and ex-rock star) Professor Brian Cox. “Wonders of the Solar System” is a triumph of both education and entertainment. On solar eclipses, Cox explains: “The sun is 400 times the diameter of the moon. And by sheer coincidence, it’s 400 times further away from the Earth. There’s something like between 145 and 167 moons in the solar system, depending on how you’re counting, but none of them produces such perfect eclipses as the Earth’s moon.” He then goes to India to partake in a breathtaking total solar eclipse in the presence of a massive, fervent crowd. Cox marvels, “That’s the solar system comin’ down and grabbin’ you by the throat!”

The youthful professor trots all over the globe, using locations and incidents on Earth such as volcanoes, the Grand Canyon, tornadoes and the Northern Lights to practically explain what the rest of the planets in our solar system are actually like. The series also mixes satellite photography and gorgeous CGI that give plenty of insight into our neighboring worlds. When it really comes down to it, though, it’s Cox’s enthusiasm, intelligence, and unexpected bursts of humor that give “Wonders of the Solar System” an edge over other, similar documentary series. It’s a pleasure to have this man as a living, breathing guide as opposed to an unseen narrator. The only area where the series comes up a little short is in the aforementioned CGI department, as a fair amount of it manages to be recycled perhaps a few too many times. There are two extra programs (presented in SD) entitled “What on Earth is Wrong with Gravity?” and “Do You Know What Time It Is?,” which brings the total running time of the set up to almost seven hours. While watching this material, I kept thinking, “If I’d been able to see this kind of stuff in high school, I probably wouldn’t have fallen asleep in science class.”

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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: 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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Blu Tuesday: Gamer, Magnolia and Whiteout

It’s another busy week in Blu-ray, but despite the wide selection of titles to choose from, there aren’t too many standouts. In fact, two of the films I’ve decided to highlight wouldn’t even make the final cut most weeks, so before I talk myself out of finishing today’s post, let’s jump right into it.

“Gamer” (Lionsgate)

Fans of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s “Crank” series will no doubt enjoy their latest film, but despite a pretty cool premise that shamelessly steals from cult classics like “The Running Man” and “Death Race 2000,” “Gamer” fails to impress. A big reason for that is the script, which is definitely more restrained than the “Crank” movies but still pretty batshit crazy. (Case in point: “Heroes” star Milo Ventimiglia cameos as a “Sims”-like character named, wait for it, Rick Rape.) One thing that does work is the look of the film. Neveldine and Taylor may not know how to censor their own twisted imaginations, but they’re talented filmmakers with a great visual style. They also put together some great extras for the Blu-ray release, including an audio commentary, a making-of featurette, and a behind-the-scenes look at the RED camera technology used on the film.

“Magnolia” (Warner Bros.)

Paul Thomas Anderson might not be as prolific as his fans would like him to be, but whenever he does decide to make a film, they usually turn out pretty well. “Magnolia” has been called overrated by some, and whether or not that’s true, it’s hard to deny the brilliance behind it. For starters, Anderson reportedly wrote the movie in only a few weeks, which is quite the achievement when you consider the complexity of the narrative. It also boasts a great cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, and Tom Cruise in his Oscar-nominated role, and some of the best editing of the last decade. Clocking in at just over three-hours, “Magnolia” may be Anderson’s longest movie, but it glides by faster than any of his films. Warner Brothers’ Blu-ray release delivers a solid HD transfer, while the included video diary offers an intimate look at the making of the film.

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Blu Tuesday: The Hurt Locker, Moon and 8 1/2

After the craziness of the holiday shopping season, the home video market tends to slow down considerably for a few weeks. Now that we’re all back in the swing of things, however, the studios have commenced their usual release schedule, and with the holidays leading to a significant increase in Blu-ray ownership, it’s going to get really crazy. This week’s selection features two of the year’s best films, an old favorite, and much more.

“The Hurt Locker” (Lionsgate)

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq war thriller is one of the most suspenseful movies I’ve ever seen, piling on the tension so high that you’ll literally spend the entire film on the edge of your seat. It also happens to be one of my favorite movies of the year and is a highly considered favorite to take home this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. Jeremy Renner is a marvel to watch as the bomb squad thrill junkie at the center of the story, but the real star is Bigelow, who takes an otherwise barebones script and transforms it into a series of memorable set pieces that continually upstage the one before it. The included special features aren’t as great as they probably could be, but the audio commentary by Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boals (not to mention the Q&A track that plays over a 23-minute photo gallery slideshow) is definitely worth a listen.

“Moon” (Sony)

It wasn’t that long ago that Sam Rockwell was being hyped as the next big actor of his generation, and although his career never really reached the level that many expected, the guy has been turning out great performance after great performance for years. However, in Duncan Jones’ directorial debut, “Moon,” Rockwell delivers the performance of a lifetime as a contract astronaut working on a moon-based space station where he monitors the mining of a green-energy source called Helium-3. The indie sci-fi flick takes a trippy but exciting turn when Rockwell’s character discovers a doppelganger tasked with the same mission. With no one else to play off but himself (and Kevin Spacey’s voice as a HAL-like computer called Gerty), Rockwell takes an already good story and makes it that much better. Yet another great sci-fi film to add to 2009’s ever-growing list.

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