Blu Tuesday: Hamlet

Running just over four hours in length, Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 production of “Hamlet” isn’t exactly the kind of film that the casual moviegoer pops in on a rainy day, but is instead tailored almost exclusively to cinephiles and diehard fans of Shakespeare. That’s because unlike previous film adaptations of the famous play, Branagh’s version is the first (and probably the last) to utilize the full text, resulting not only in one of the most ambitious studio movies of the last 15 years, but also the most complete film adaptation to ever be made. It just so happens to be one of the best, too, thanks in part to Branagh’s skillful direction, a treasure trove of fantastic performances (including Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Julie Christie as Gertrude), and gorgeous cinematography that benefits from Branagh’s decision to shoot the movie in 70 mm.

It’s completely coincidental that “Hamlet” was released around the same time as the formative years of my literary studies, but although I was already quite taken with Shakespeare’s play by the time I stumbled onto Branagh’s film, it only further deepened my appreciation for the work. And once you see his version of “Hamlet,” it’s really difficult to accept any other. I’m certainly not alone, either, as many people had been clamoring for the film to be released on DVD for years before Warner Bros. caved in with a belated 10th anniversary special edition. (And on my birthday, no less.)

Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait nearly as long for the Blu-ray, and the fact that it’s being released the week after my birthday makes me believe that, in some cosmic way, I’m somewhat responsible. So if you’ve been counting down the days until you could experience Branagh’s “Hamlet” in high definition, you’re welcome. Unfortunately, while the film looks brilliant in HD, there are no new special features to speak of. Granted, the ones that appeared on the two-disc DVD were already pretty good – the commentary by Branagh and Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson is entertaining and insightful, and the making-of documentary “To Be on Camera,” although a bit dated, features some nice interviews with the cast – but surely they could have dug up something from the archives. Not that it will matter. Anyone that owns the DVD will want to pick up the Blu-ray strictly for the technical upgrades. And when you’re dealing with a movie with such lush production values, it’s more of a necessity than a luxury.

  

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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: Vengeance Trilogy

Though it’s technically been available for a few months due to an exclusivity deal with Best Buy, Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy” is available everywhere else starting today, so it seemed like a good time to finally take a look at this fantastic four-disc set from Palisades Tartan’s Asia Extreme division. Since I’ve already reviewed all three films in some capacity over the years, I’m not going to again, other than to say that “Oldboy” remains the highlight of the trio and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” the most overrated. “Lady Vengeance,” on the other hand, is even better when watching the “Fade to White” version – a previously unreleased cut of the movie that is slowly drained of color until it eventually dissolves into black and white.

The “Fade to White” edition of “Lady Vengeance” is just one of many new extras that appear on the four-disc set. It’s also the only way to purchase two of the three films on Blu-ray in the U.S. (“Oldboy” has been available for a few years now), and although that may seem like a pretty voracious decision on the part of the studio, they’ve clearly done their research, because I haven’t come across too many people who want to own one of the films and not the others. With that said, Palisades Tartan has done everything in their power to make these new Ultimate Revenge Editions truly ultimate in every way. Both “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Lady Vengeance” boast audio commentaries with Chan-wook and his lead actors, as well as hours of production featurettes, interviews and more. They also look and sound great thanks to brilliant 1080p video transfers that really play to the film’s strengths, and DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks.

Of course, I’ve saved the best for last. While “Oldboy” isn’t quite as technically impressive as the other two films – namely due to an error on the packaging that promises a DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track that doesn’t exist – the studio does make up for it with some killer extras. There are so many, in fact, that it’s a bit surprising that they didn’t decide to split up the content between two discs like they did with “Lady Vengeance.” Along with three commentary tracks – one with Chan-wook, another with him and cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon, and the last one with the director and his cast – the Ultimate Revenge Edition also includes all the deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and interviews that have appeared on previous releases. The piece de resistance of the Blu-ray, however, is “The Autobiography of Oldboy,” a three-hour video diary that goes about as in-depth into the making of a film as you could possibly get.

Some studios are all too quick to splash around words like “special” and “ultimate,” but Palisades Tartan’s four-disc release of Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy” more than lives up to its billing thanks to an incredible collection of special features and a supplemental booklet filled with essays about each movie. Chan-wook’s ultra-violent revenge tales aren’t for everyone, but for fans of his twisted trilogy, this is quite the love letter.

  

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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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