A Serious Man (Universal): The Coen Brothers returned from the Oscar success of No Country For Old Men, with this exquisitely crafted black comedy exploring the pointless nature of suffering. Beginning with a seemingly incongruous prologue set in an Eastern European shtetl, it moves on to explore the hellish suburban existence of a Jewish maths professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in Minnesota, during 1967.
With a hectoring wife (Sari Lennick) who wants a divorce, her annoying widower lover (Fred Melamed), a leeching brother (Richard Kind), a pothead son (Aaron Wolff ) into Jefferson Airplane, dithering academic colleagues, an awkward Korean student and a succession of perpetually useless rabbis, he appears to living in a modern day version of The Book of Job. One of the best films of the year, it might just be the Coen Brothers’ finest film to date. [Buy the Blu-ray | Buy it on DVD]
The White Ribbon (Artificial Eye): Director Michael Haneke won the Palme d’Or at Cannes back in May with this expertly crafted drama about the strange and disturbing things that start to happen in a German village on the eve of World War I. The action revolves around the dominant characters in the stern Protestant community: the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), the pastor (Burghart Klaussner) – who wields a significant influence on the local children – and the doctor (Rainer Bock).
As you might expect of a Haneke film the technical aspects are superb, especially Christoph Kanter’s production design and Christian Berger‘s stark black and white photography. The deliberate lack of a musical score helps add to the sense foreboding as viewers get a chilling glimpse of the generation that would grow up to embrace Nazism. [Buy the Blu-ray | Buy it on DVD]
Johnny Mad Dog (Momentum): A riveting and brutal examination of child soldiers in Africa from director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire ranks amongst the best war films in recent memory. Although nominally set in an unnamed African country, it was shot in Liberia – still recovering from a long civil war – and makes use of former child soldiers and documentary-style techniques to create a hellish recreation of a contemporary issue.
Elizabeth (Universal): This 1998 historical drama explored the early reign of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) and how she became one of the most iconic rulers in British history. Torn between her duty to political allies – Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) and Cecil (Richard Attenborough – and her love for childhood sweetheart Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), she also has to see off Catholic conspirators such as the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) and a Vatican spy (Daniel Craig). Capably directed by Shekhar Kapur, it plays fast and loose with historical details, but remains an absorbing look at one of the most fascinating periods in British history. The production design and costumes are convincing and all look terrific on Blu-ray. Nominated for several Oscars, it helped launch Blanchett as a star and also look out for small roles featuring Eric Cantona and a 12-year-old Lily Allen. [Buy the Blu-ray | Buy it on DVD]
A road trip film of sorts, it bears quite a few similarities to Shaun of the Dead in its jokey, referential humour. That said it is an entertaining ride and a welcome antidote to the scores of gory, horror remakes which have sprouted up in the last decade. Strangely, it also bears some similarities to Adventureland, which also starred Jesse Eisenberg, as well as featuring a theme park. [Buy the Blu-ray | Buy it on DVD]
An Education (E1 Entertainment): Coming of age dramas can often fall prey to cliché or sentimentality but this manages to avoid avoid such pitfalls to become something really special. Based on journalist Lynn Barber‘s memoir of growing up in the early 1960s, it explores the life lessons learnt by a 16 year old girl named Jenny (Carey Mulligan, outstanding in the central role) as she falls for an older man (Peter Sarsgaard) and the glamorous lifestyle he appears to offer her. Skilfully directed by Lone Scherfig from an intelligent and heartfelt script by Nick Hornby, it evokes the charming drabness of the period whilst accurately depicting the emotional minefield that teenage years can be. [Buy on Blu-ray / Buy on DVD]
Toy Story (Walt Disney): The first feature from Pixar finally arrives on the Blu-ray format. The 1995 film directed by John Lasseter had a brilliantly simple concept: what happens to toys when they’re not played with? The main characters it introduced us to were: Cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), the favourite toy of a young boy named Andy, who tries to calm his colleagues during a difficult time of year – the birthday – when they may be replaced by newer toys. Along comes the snazzy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), who mistakenly believes he is a real space ranger and not a toy. What could have been cheesy and overly commercial was instead a magical, innovative landmark in film history. Lasseter and his team won a richly deserved special Oscar “for the development and inspired application of techniques that have made possible the first feature-length computer-animated film”. [Buy on Blu-ray / Buy on DVD]
Toy Story 2 (Walt Disney): The 1999 sequel to Toy Story gets a simultaneous Blu-ray release in preparation for the third film, which is out at cinemas in June. As the only sequel Pixar have done (so far) Toy Story managed to preserve the quality of the original and in certain sequences surpass it. Toy collecting becomes the focus here, as Woody (Tom Hanks) – a rare doll from a popular 60s children’s show – gets kidnapped by a greedy collector and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) hatches a rescue mission with Andy’s other toys. A massive box office success, the second film demonstrated that Pixar were not only innovators in terms of CG animation but that they had tremendous story telling skills which have continued to delight audiences over the last decade. [Buy on Blu-ray / Buy on DVD]
Afterschool (Network Releasing): A US indie which explores the experiences of a teenage student at an elite East Coast school who accidentally captures on camera the tragic deaths of two female classmates. Their lives become memorialised as part of an audio-visual assignment intended to facilitate the campus-wide healing process, with the technophile Robert eventually overseeing the project, which creates unexpected tensions and unease. An interesting and distinctive debut film from first time director Antonio Campos which explores new and disturbing issues for a generation who have grown up in a world connected by the web. [Buy on DVD]
Directed by Tony Scott and scripted by Brian Helgeland, it largely came about because Sony had bought MGM and had the rights to remake certain titles in their library.
Although the original film is so distinctive and of its time, this version manages to be something more than just a rehash, mainly due to the fact that Helgeland went back to the original novel and changed some key plot points.
It features solid work all round from the two leads down to a fine supporting cast, which includes John Tuturro, James Gandolfini and Luis Guzman.
Scott directs in his usual frenetic, multi-camera setup style but there is something pleasingly straightforward about the way in which it is all delivered.
Commentary with Writer Brian Helgeland and Producer Todd Black
No Time to Lose: The Making of Pelham 123
The Third Rail: New York Underground
From the Top Down: Stylizing Character
Although I wasn’t sent the Blu-ray for review purposes, I would imagine the transfer looks very good, given that it’s a Sony release.
Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver says it “looks very strong on Blu-ray” and that the transfer is “thick and heavy – balancing nicely between over-saturation and textured grain” and that overall it is a “marvellous presentation”. He has several screen shots here.
Frozen River (Axiom Films): An deservedly acclaimed American indie drama about a desperate single mother (Melissa Leo) living in upstate New York who resorts to smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States as a means of making ends meet. Written and directed by first-timer Courtney Hunt, it co-stars Misty Upham and Charlie McDermott. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, it is well worth seeking out, especially for Leo’s performance which won her an Oscar nomination earlier this year. Axiom Films are releasing it on DVD priced at £15.99 (RRP) and on Blu-ray.
1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
English DD2.0 and DD5.1 Surround
Exclusive interviews with writer/director Courtney Hunt and star Melissa Leo
English subtitles for hearing impaired (feature only)
The Essential Michael Haneke (Artificial Eye): A substantial 10-disc box set entitled of the Austrian director’s work which includes all his previously released films including both the original and American re-make of Funny Games, his breakthrough film, and his adaptation of The Castle, based on the unfinished novel by Franz Kafka, which is released for the first time in the UK as part of this set.
The collection contains the following:
The Seventh Continent
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance
Funny Games (Original)
The Piano Teacher
Time of the Wolf, Hidden and Funny Games US.
Extra features on individual discs are identical to the original releases, with the addition of the previously unreleased documentary called ’24 Realities per Second’, which is a 60 minute documentary on Haneke and which has never been seen before on these shores.
At a whopping £74.99 it is pricey in these recessionary times, but this Haneke is one of Europe’s most accomplished living directors. The release of this coincides with Artificial Eye’s theatrical release of Haneke’s Palme D’Or winning film, The White Ribbon. [Buy on DVD]
The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Boxset (Eureka/Masters of Cinema): Throughout his career director Fritz Lang built a trilogy of thrillers focused on an entity who began as a criminal mastermind, and progressed into something more amorphous: fear itself, embodied only by a name – Dr. Mabuse. For the first time on DVD, all three of Fritz Lang’s Mabuse films have been collected for one package, in their complete and restored forms.
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler [Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler] (1922) – Lang’s two-part, nearly 5-hour silent epic detailing the rise and fall of Dr. Mabuse in Weimar-era Berlin.
Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse [The Testament of Dr. Mabuse] (1933) – A thriller with supernatural elements, all revolving around an attempt by the now-institutionalised Mabuse (or someone acting under his name and possibly his will) to organise an “Empire of Crime”.
Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse [The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse] (1960) – Fritz Lang’s final film, in which hypnosis, clairvoyance, surveillance, and machine-guns come together for a whiplash climax that answers the question: Who’s channelling Mabuse’s methods in the Cold War era?
A four-disc set, the features include:
Original German-language intertitles for ‘Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler’ along with newly translated English-language subtitles for each film
Newly recorded feature-length audio commentaries on all three movies by film-scholar and Fritz Lang expert David Kalat
Three video-featurettes totalling an hour-and-a-half in length on: the score of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler; the creation of Norbert Jacques’ “Mabuse” character; and the motifs running throughout the works
2002 video interview with Wolfgang Preiss, the star of Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse
An alternate ending to Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse taken from the French print of the film
Optional English-language dub track for Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse
3 lengthy booklets containing a new translation of Fritz Lang’s 1924 lecture on “Sensation Culture”; an essay by critic and scholar Michel Chion on the use of sound in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse; new writing on Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse by critic David Cairns; extracts from period interviews with Fritz Lang; an abundance of production stills, illustrations, and marketing collateral – and more.
All three films are presented in their complete and restored forms, refreshed and improved from previous Eureka releases of the first two films. Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse is released here for the first time ever on home video in the UK. [Buy on DVD]
The performances from Farrell, Plummer and Bale are nicely restrained, whilst Kilcher is terrific, bringing an impressive depth of feeling to her role.
James Horner’s score, alongside some judicious use of Wagner, is probably the greatest he’s ever written with a thrilling use of strings and melody.
When the film premiered in late 2005 in New York and Los Angeles with a running time of somewhere around 2 hour 30 minutes, Malick decided to cut it down by about 15 minutes for the wider release.
I remember going to a BAFTA screening in November 2005 and I caught the longer cut and when I saw the initial DVD release in 2006, it seemed a little cut down, although it isn’t the kind of film where the cuts were immediately apparent.
The ‘Extended Cut’ on the Blu-ray is the same the DVD released at October 14, 2008 which is almost 22 minutes longer than the original extended cut.
This is the kind of film that could have been made to highlight the Blu-ray format because the stunning cinematography )all shot on Steadicam using natural light) is a key element in the film’s power.
The new Blu-ray is a 1080P transfer the sharpens everything up in terms of colour and resolution.
DVD Beaver has posted some screen captures comparing the DVD and Blu-ray versions and they also note that grain is not as prevalent as expected and note that the audio is a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track at 1437 kbps.
The extras on the Blu-ray Disc include:
Behind The Story – Making ‘The New World’: A comprehensive 10-part documentary about the making of the film that expands by about 20 minutes on the original making-of doc on the original 2006 DVD release.
This new Blu-ray release follows an aging Sengoku-era warlord (Tatsuya Nakadai) who decides to abdicate as ruler in favour of his three sons and the subsequent chaos that is unleashed on his kingdom.
Returning to the Shakespearean themes he had previously explored in Throne of Blood, this was Kurosawa’s last major epic and silenced doubters who felt he couldn’t work in colour.
After a glittering career as one of world cinema’s most acclaimed directors, by the late 1970s Kurosawa had been struggling with numerous personal and professional problems which saw him have difficulty in getting financing for his films.
That changed with Kagemusha (1980), the story of a man passed off as a medieval Japanese lord, and it was financed with the help of the director’s most famous admirers, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
Ran explored similar aspects of medieval Japan but was bigger and more ambitious in scope, to the point that he spent nearly a decade planning it and trying to obtain funding.
With the help of French producer Serge Silberman, he finally managed to get it in production and the result was a stunning epic filled with memorable compositions and haunting performances.
However, the film has always had a noisy band of critics from the ludicrous gang of socialist delegates at the 1979 Berlin film festival who protested against the screening of the film – feeling obliged to voice their solidarity with the “heroic people of Vietnam”.
After Cimino’s epic fall from grace with Heaven’s Gate (1980), the knives came out as revisionists attacked the film: the Russian roulette sequence was historically inaccurate; the lead characters were too old; and of course the hoary old critique – beloved of contrarians apparently grasping at profundity – that it was somehow racist in its depiction of the North Vietnamese.
Some of these criticisms can be refuted by the fact that it is a work of imagination, not documentary, and that it isn’t actually about the politics of the Vietnam War.
Given the lies and political deceptions that created and prolonged the conflict, it is perhaps understandable that justifiable anger would spill out into discourse about the first major film to feature it as a backdrop.
But it isn’t a defence of US involvement in South East Asis and, if anything, is something of a cautionary tale of how innocence and idealism – very American virtues after World War II – can be devoured by the horrors of war.
If a film like The Green Berets (1968) was a deluded depiction of what some Americans actually thought was going on in Vietnam, The Deer Hunter represents the painful cultural hangover the nation felt at losing their first war.
Over thirty years on from its release, there is still a powerful sense of existential dread within the film which has probably been felt by any community scarred by sending its people off to war, be it Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Rather than being a sentimental celebration of fallen soldiers, it remains a haunting portrayal of patriotic ignorance being slowly crushed by the reality of armed conflict.
With a running time just over three hours, it is a slow and meditative epic filled with memorable images that were superbly shot by Vilmos Zsigmond and the Blu-ray does real justice to his visuals.
Some of the extras have appeared on previous versions by Warner and Optimum but for the Blu-ray Disc some new ones have been added.
The most interesting of these is a French documentary about the Vietnam War called ‘Unknown Images’ which is gives valuable context to what they describe as an ‘abominable war’.
Realising the Deer Hunter: Interview with Michael Cimino (23 mins)
Shooting the Deer Hunter: Interview with Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (15 mins)
Playing The Deer Hunter: Interview with John Savage (15 mins)
Unknown Images: Documentary on the Vietnam War (47 mins, NEW)
Introduction by Mickey Rourke (2 ½ mins, NEW)
Booklet: Analysis by Ryan Gilbey, film critic of the New Statesman (NEW)
An American Werewolf in London (Universal): A fully remastered re-release on Blu-ray for John Landis’ 1981 werewolf horror is most welcome, especially as it has a new set of extras including a feature-length documentary ‘Beware the Moon’ and a featurette ‘I Walked With a Werewolf’.
The plot involves two US tourists named David and Jack (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) who are attacked by a werewolf on the Yorkshire Moors. Jack dies but David survives and is taken to London where he falls in love with a nurse (Jenny Agutter). However, after dark dreams and visions he slowly realises he has become a creature of the night, wreaking havoc on the British capital.
Interestingly 1981 was the year of two other werewolf films (The Howling and Wolfen) but this one has accumulated a particular cult following due to its killer blend of scary horror (watch out for the curtains) and humour which is often at its best when you are least expecting it.
The other aspect of the film that is notable is the groundbreaking use of makeup and visual effects by Rick Baker. The famous transformation sequence was actually a major factor in makeup and industry technological contributions being recognized at the Academy Awards in 1981 as Baker won the first ever Oscar to be awarded to a special effects artist.
Landis has been effusive about the quality of the transfer to Blu-ray as he revealed in this interview with /Film at FrightFest last month in London:
French (European), German and Italian 2.0 Mono DTS
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Latin American Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese, Traditional Chinese, Canadian French, Greek
I Walked With A Werewolf (New) (HD) – Make-up effects artist Rick Baker tells of his life-long love of the Wolfman, how he would go on to create the creature in An American Werewolf in London, and how he was able to pour his passion into the upcoming Wolfman feature.
Beware The Moon (New) – In this feature-length documentary, filmmaker Paul Davis guides us through a never-before-seen, in-depth look at the Making of An American Werewolf in London, with the help of director John Landis and make-up artist Rick Bake
Making An American Werewolf in London, An Original Featurette
An Interview With John Landis
Make-up Artist Rick Baker On An American Werewolf in London
Casting of the Hand
Feature Commentary with Cast Members David Naughton & Griffin Dunne
Belle De Jour (Optimum): Another classic gets re-rleased by Optimum this week and this 1967 drama from director Luis Bunuel still exudes a classy eroticism.
Catherine Deneuve plays a frigid housewife whose sexual fantasies come true when she opts to become the high class call girl of the title during the day and a loyal housewife at night.
From the famous opening scene to the later stages, Bunuel creates a telling portrait of a suffocating bourgeois life (aided by the magnificent cinematography by Sacha Vierny) but also subverts many of the audience assumptions in the surrealist fashion distinctive of his other work.
Deneuve gives an immaculate performance in what is probably her most iconic role, her icy beauty sometimes overshadowing the subtleties of what is arguably her finest performance.
It is a film that repays repeated viewings, not only for the little enigmas that are peppered throughout (such as that mysterious box) but for the questions it raises about desire and fantasy which retain a lasting power.
The Blu-ray transfer is impressive and the specs and extra features are:
French 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio
Subtitles: English, German, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
The Last Script (1hr 34 mins, NEW)
Commentary from Spanish Cinema expert: Professor William Evans
Story of a Film documentary (29 mins)
A Story of Perversion or Emancipation: Interview with a sex therapist (28 mins, NEW) (HD)
BD Live (DynamicHD)
Booklet: Analysis of the movie by Derek Malcolm, film critic of the Guardian for 35 years and now critic of the London Evening Standard (NEW)
The Prisoner (Network): Network have announced the release of the complete series of The Prisoner on Blu-ray Disc. This iconic cult series starring Patrick McGoohan as a former spy taken prisoner in a mysterious village, marks Network’s first foray into the Blu-ray market.
The 6-disc limited edition box set is priced at £59.99 RRP and this is the first Blu-ray version of the series anywhere in the world and is the only home entertainment edition of the series to be officially endorsed by McGoohan.
Containing all seventeen episodes, extras on the set are as follows:
“Don’t Knock Yourself Out” a feature-length documentary which is the most comprehensive look at the production of ‘The Prisoner’, told by those involved in its creation
Restored original edit of ‘Arrival’ with an optional music-only soundtrack featuring Wilfred Josephs’ complete and abandoned score
Production Crew audio commentaries on seven episodes
Trailers for all episodes
Archive textless material, including the title sequence with clean themes by Ron Grainer, Wilfred Josephs and Robert Farnon
Commercial Break Bumpers
Behind-the-Scenes footage including much previously unseen
Script and Production Documentation PDFs
Image Galleries with Music Suites
Exclusive book on the making of the series by TV historian Andrew Pixley
Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mixes on all episodes + the original Mono