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HDD Presents: The Best and Worst from This Year's SXSW Film Festival
Tags: Drew Taylor (all tags)
by Drew Taylor
The last time I attended the South by Southwest Film Festival, in my hometown of Austin, Texas, it was 2002. The festival was tiny; most of my recollections revolve around the "screening room" in the convention center, which consisted of a small screen and a bunch of folding chairs (yes seriously). This year, there were ten locations where films were being screened, and long lines that snaked alongside buildings and into parking lots. In short: things have exploded.
And most of this was for the best, because the festival now offers more variety and flexibility, although once the music portion of SXSW started, about midway through the film programming, things got considerably hairier and more congested. Downtown Austin seized up, its arteries clogged with hipsters, which made things more difficult, in terms of making certain screenings.
All in all, it was an amazing festival, and so in honor of it, I've put together my list of my five favorite (and five least favorite) films from this year's SXSW. And be sure to click over to The Bonus View to see individual reviews of many of the films I mention here (still updating that stuff, so please be patient with me).
My Five Favorite Films
I took part in a brief panel this year, and when the moderator asked me what my single favorite movie was this year, I said, unabashedly, Joe Cornish's 'Attack the Block.' Cornish, who in recent years had made a name for himself as Edgar Wright's co-writer, polishing Spielberg's 'Tin-Tin' script, and writing 'Ant Man' for Marvel, totally hits it out of the park with his debut feature. The film's tagline, "Inner city vs. outer space," is a good indicator of what the film is, a 'Goonies'-ish take on the alien invasion genre. Instead of landing in some posh area of London, the beasts smash into the heart of the south London ghetto, and it's up to a group of street hoods to defend the neighborhood from the invaders. Everything about this film is pitch perfect – the kids (many of whom had never acted before), the monsters (brought to life via practical effects), and the score (co-authored by British dance pop duo Basement Jaxx). Rarely does a film who walks as fine a line, tonally, and succeed the way 'Attack the Block' does. The fact that the film won the Midnight Movie award didn't surprise me, what did surprise me was that it left the festival without having secured a domestic distributor. God knows when we'll be seeing this stateside.
On the completely opposite end of the spectrum is Mike Mills' touching, funny, absolutely brilliant 'Beginners.' Ewan McGregor plays a man whose father (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet after his wife passes away. The movie takes place after the father has died, ingeniously inter-cutting between the present, with McGregor taking care of Plummer's adorable dog and his own fledging romance with Melanie Laurent (not hard to fall in love with her), and the past, with Plummer's condition worsening. It sounds like it could be dreadful and depressing, but Mills, who went through a similar situation a few years ago, brings a light, graceful touch to the material. Amazingly, it simulates the way that memory works – flashing back and forth between eras with little provocation, or being interrupted by a series of interstitial, graphics-based title cards – and manages to tell a compelling story along with it. The movie opens in early June and I can't wait to see it again. I fell in love. You will too.
This year's SXSW was gifted with a number of outstanding documentary films (like the sports doc 'Elevate' and the horse whisperer biography 'Buck') but my favorite by far was 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop,' a look at Conan's whirlwind cross country comedy tour that immediately followed his dismissal from NBC and 'The Tonight Show.' The documentary is hilarious, for sure (large chunks of the movie I missed simply because people were laughing over it), but there's a fair amount of psychological insight into who Conan is as a person, that makes the movie unpredictable and enlightening. He's a dude that's unafraid to venture into darker, weirder territory, and the movie is immensely better for it.
But back to the schlocky stuff. There were a couple of movies, part of SXSW's midnight movies program, that I absolutely fell in love with.
The first is 'House of the Devil' director Ti West's new film, 'The Innkeepers.' Some peers found it slow and meandering, but I thought it was basically perfect, a wonderfully oddball mixture of chatty relationship drama and supernatural fright-fest. It's about a pair of young hotel workers (played by Pat Healy and the absolutely entrancing Sara Paxton) as they fight back boredom (and ghosts) during their final shifts at a haunted hotel.
'The Innkeepers' hits that scary-funny sweet spot incredibly well, and the movie is wonderfully photographed and paced. I saw this kind of late in the week, which I was starting to really get worn down, and I was still riveted throughout the entire thing. It might be West's most accomplished, fully realized film. A total triumph.
Then there's 'Kill List,' from 'Down Terrace' director Ben Wheatley. Saying anything about this film, which combines crime elements with more horrific genres, seems like an affront. So I'll just say that I was absolutely shocked, moved, and terrified. If I said any more someone would come to lock me away. But by the end of the festival, it established stateside distribution, so hopefully everyone will be able to be in awe of this ingenious little movie, very, very soon.
But it wasn't all sunshine and lollipops at SXSW this year. As with any festival, there are going to be some things that are really, truly terrible – and this year's SXSW was no different.
My Five Least Favorite Films
Maybe my single least favorite film of the entire week was 'Another Earth.' A much buzzed about "surprise screening" at the festival, it was directed by newcomer Mike Cahill and co-written by its star, the effective and adorable Brit Marling. It's basically an indie melodrama with a fine layer of science fiction on top, concerning the discovery of a parallel planet, exactly like ours, peeking out from behind the sun. No amount of cheap-ass Photoshop work is going to convince me this thing is a science fiction movie; and the overwrought emotions were just as phony as its special effects. I suggest the film's tagline should be: "In space, no one can hear you mumble." I doubt it'll catch on.
From the very small to the very huge, Jodi Foster's 'The Beaver,' -- one of the most talked about debuts at the Festival, if only because of the off-screen antics of its star Mel Gibson -- was really very awful. The tale of a disturbed man (Gibson) who only communicates via a beaver puppet (which he refuses to take off) needed a more sure hand in terms of nailing its weird tonal shifts between drama and comedy. It also seems to have too doggedly emulated its script, in ways that, in the actual movie, feel forced and contrived, leaving many of its characters without resolution to their respective arcs. In short: I hated it. And it had nothing to do with Mel's real life bad behavior.
Bad behavior, or at least a complete lack of investigative interest, is what hobbles Morgan Spurlock's new documentary, 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.' Posing as an expose of product placement run rampant, it instead turns into this cutesy, winking other-thing, with Spurlock selling off pieces of his own movie. It's mildly clever, in a cloyingly meta-textual way, but his refusal to give the movie any kind of depth really keeps it from ever being as special (or as funny) as it could be. Spurlock's like the class cut up that thinks, since he makes everyone laugh, he doesn't have to do his homework. Well, he does.
'Hesher,' with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman, has a similar problem. It's the tale of a long-haired stranger who disrupts the lives of a family mourning the loss of a parent, but its sole interest seems to be in it's "screw the world" attitude. That's all well and good for a few minutes, but when the movie violently shifts in the last act towards a kind of screechy sentimentality, well, it just falls apart completely, and what was a mildly interesting curio becomes an unmitigated disaster.
And speaking of disaster, the post-apocalyptic 'The Divide' (from 'Frontier(s)' directoer Xavier Gens) is pretty disastrous – and I'm not even talking about the hail of nuclear missiles that blows apart New York in the opening sequence. No, this movie, an unrelentingly ugly and misogynistic pile of trash, is a disaster in every sense. If you've ever wanted to see how people would never, ever react in a post-apocalyptic scenario, then this is the film for you!
'Let Me In'-terview: Director Matt Reeves Talks About His Vampiric Masterpiece
Tags: Drew Taylor (all tags)
High-Def Digest's Drew Taylor has been pretty outspoken on the blog about his love of Matt Reeves' 'Let Me In.' He took what was essentially a new classic, the Swedish vampire story 'Let the Right One In' and did the unthinkable: he made it better. It's sexier, more political, and more emotional. And it's finally out on Blu-ray and DVD this week, so all of you chumps that ignored it when it was in the theater (sorry, no sparkly vampires here) can finally see it for yourselves. Drew Taylor got a chance to talk to the director (who, between this and his work on 'Cloverfield' has established himself as one of the most amazing genre filmmakers working today), and they discussed the movie's subtext, its gender politics, and what it was like being the first new Hammer Film in decades.
HDD: What was your approach to remaking 'Let the Right One In' in terms of the subtext you wanted to emphasize?
Matt Reeves: Well, you know… I don't need to be semi-distracted but I think it's literally the USC Marching Band is playing across the street from my house. That's so weird. I have no idea why. I'm trying to focus my thoughts as they're playing… [he starts humming some marching band song]
You know, that was the whole reason I wanted to make the movie in the first place, was the subtext. What I loved about the story was that it was using the vampire myth to explore the pain of adolescence. I thought it was an original take and a really heartfelt take. And so the subtext was what drove everything. To me, creating Owen's world and trying to tell the story through his point of view and in the depiction of Abby, you know, when Chloe and I were talking, wanting to ground what she was in some kind of reality. You know, as strange as it sounds, the mission was to take this fantasy and make it as real as possible, to ground it in emotions that felt real and to create that level of alienation.
It really mattered to me when, like, I was hiring my production designer, you know, a lot of production designers would come in and say, well, "I imagine that color" and that sort of thing. And there's definitely artistry to that. But my production designer, when he came in to meet with me, he said, "You know I think that in Owen's house his mother got this kind of brief burst of influence after she and her husband split up and then it hit her how she really felt and the house fell to hell after that." And I knew exactly what he was talking about, I knew what that would look like when it came to the detail of how to realize that. But I realized he was talking about the space as occupied by the people who lived there and affected by their emotions. So everything was about that subtext.
I also tried to bring out some of the subtext of the time, this idea of the Reagan era, but what all that was about was creating a context for Owen's story. Because in the story, I mean Oskar in the novel and in the first film and in our's, has these tremendous fantasies of revenge and [original novelist and screenwriter [John Ajvide] Lindqvist grew up in the 80s and I did at the same time, we're about the same age. And in the United States it was really the Reagan Era and there was that Evil Empire speech he was making and I thought, as I was musing about how to adapt it and thinking about it, I thought – What would it be like to be a 12-year-old who is brutally bullied every day and who has these dark thoughts, to be told by adults and the world around him that evil isn't something inside of us, but it's something outside of us. Like the Soviets were supposed to be evil, and Americans were fundamentally good. And I thought that all of this would make him feel like more of an outsider – that he couldn't talk to anyone around him and he wouldn't know how to express his darkest feelings.
And then when she would arrive, it would be someone who could finally understand him. [Pause] Did that answer your question? [laughter]
So was the removal of the neighbor's detective story line an effort to make it more from Owen's point of view?
That's was the whole thing, yeah. I wanted to, as much as possible, change it to be more from his point of view. And in aspects that would affect his story. So the introduction of the policeman… I mean there's a character in the book who is a policeman and that opening sequence is loosely based on a scene that's in the book. But I thought of the policeman, in terms of how he functions in the story, as Fate approaching, ever closer, into the Romeo & Juliet story that is the relationship between Owen and Abby and so I wanted that line to move in even closer.
But everything else is, as much as possible, from his point of view. And I thought – how can I use the neighbors? And my thought was to use them, through his point of view, to highlight the coming of age story, to show the neighbor as his first fascination with sexuality, and all that stuff that goes along with preadolescence and discovering the world of adults around you. It's somehow alluring but also overwhelming and frightening. So I wanted to take the neighbors and shift them, to put them through that prism.
Because, in reading the book (which I loved), the only way to be totally faithful would be to make a very long, what would have had to have been a miniseries. The thrust of it is of course Oskar's story and it's a coming of age story, but many chapters change point of view and follow the neighbors, there's a whole separate story that happens with the father figure, in the book. And all of that would have overshadowed, in a 2 hour movie, the focus that was important to me, which was to take out that coming of age story and make it central to everything.
Now you talk about the sexuality of the movie, and there's a lot of interesting gender stuff in the movie. He's called "little girl" instead of "little piggy."
But then you hold back on one of the big moments from the original, which is the implication that Abby could have, at one point, been a boy. Why would you go so far and then hold back?
I guess because I saw the film before I read the book, and this was all about a year before the film even came out, and I didn't understand that she was once a boy until I read the book. And, again, in terms of trying to focus the story to what you understand, unless I was going to be able to truly give the back-story for that, I felt that it would be something that would just pull you out. I feel like that is a detail that you only really contextualize because you know the story. When I saw it, at least, my experience was I didn't know quite what I was seeing. I thought it was him watching her dress and being fascinated that she was different than him. And that was my interpretation of it.
So when I did this version of the story, I had read the book, and I did know what the back story was, but there was no way, I felt, within the time frame of the movie, to create that part of the story in a way that wouldn't do anything but pull you out. Because it would create an emotional distance where you're thinking about what happened and where did it happen, instead of making it this thing about two kids where, there's an androgyny to that age, and as a kid I was often mistaken for being a girl. And that level of humiliation and confusion is all part of that adolescent moment. But that story point, as it was used in the first film, and as much as I love that movie, I didn't understand what that point was, except in the context as I viewed it, which was a coming of age moment.
So what I did was, I didn't do that shot, because I didn't want that moment to be some strange, left-field moment like "What is that?" But at the same time I did keep the camera on his face so that those people who had read the book and wanted that interpretation, there's nothing in the movie to say that that isn't the case. But, for people who don't know the story, it doesn't pull you out, like "wait a a minute, I'm confused, what was that?" And that was just an emotional decision of mine.
Now can you talk about Michael Giacchino's score and what your approach was for that? It seems like one of the more openly gothic elements of the film.
Well, you know, it's interesting because we had worked together on 'Cloverfield,' andnd there's no music in 'Cloverfield,' no score, except for the end, and he was a huge fan of 'Godzilla' movies and when he found out we were doing the movie he was like "Oh my god! I can't wait to score it!" And then I had to say, unfortunately, there's no score. And he said "Oh no! Well, you have to let me write this closing credits overture." Because he had to exorcise some Godzilla-themed demon inside of him. I loved working with him, I thought he was so great.
And so I was really hoping he'd do this. And I showed him and he was really excited about it and one of the things he was really excited about was, even though he was a huge fan of Bernard Hermann and had done so much great darker stuff on 'Lost' in addition to the great stuff for Pixar and all the other big movies he had done, he had never done a horror film. And he was excited about that, and doing the gothic side of things. But what he liked most of all, and what drew me to it, was that it was an emotional story. And a tender story. And we sat down together and he did these sketches and we would talk about them and it was a great experience. I just think he's an amazing composer. And he wanted to bring out that sort of darker side. We talked a lot about [experimental Polish composer Krysztof] Penderecki and we talked about some composer and listened to some music. And then he created what he created, which I thought was just tremendous.
Was there any pressure on your end that this was going to be the first Hammer Horror move in a long time? And how jazzed were you to see that logo at the front of your movie?
I thought that was great! It was very exciting, I mean, to be part of that tradition and the re-launching of that label. To be honest, there wasn't much of a pressure. There was another movie they were making [presumably the straight-to-home-video Hilary Swank vehicle 'The Resident'] and I was worried that the other movie would be the first movie to be the Hammer film. And I just really wanted to be the first one. And I was like "Ah, really? It should be this one!" And I was really excited and they decided it would be.
Can you talk about the car crash sequence? I know on the Blu-ray you talk about being inspired by a similar sequence in 'Dial M for Murder' but were there any specific long shots that you took inspiration from?
Well, it was more… The whole approach was to filter through point of view as much as possible. And that sequence wasn't from Owen's point of view, obviously, but I wanted to do that with the father's point of view, to take you through this experience and bring you down the hill. And it was sort of in the script that way. From one moment, you're watching him get away from these kids and looking at them through the windshield and the tension that he's escaping is right in front of you on camera. And in an instant, suddenly realize that the whole world had turned upside down and this escape was not to be and to take you down that crash with him so you would feel the disorientation and, in the end, the tragedy of it.
There are a lot of long shots in movies that I love. Certainly that long shot in 'Children of Men' is a shot that I probably thought of, although that's so different because it's such an elaborate shot and ours is such a simple shot. But I remember being absolutely blown away by that shot. And this is obviously a much simpler version of that idea. But it was really taken from trying to take you through, in a point of view way, the experience of what the character was going through cinematically.
"High-Def Digest-Digest" - January 18, 2011
Tags: High-Def Digest-Digest, Dick Ward, Josh Zyber, Drew Taylor, Mike Attebery, Industry Trends, High-Def Retailing (all tags)
The first few weeks of January have been huuuuuge, thanks in part to CES 2011. New gear was announced, 3D technology was pushed further forward, and we got what might be the biggest Blu-ray announcement of all time!!! Not sure what we're talking about? That's what the High-Def Digest-Digest is for.
'Star Wars' Announced for Blu-ray!
If you didn't hear about this one then you're really out of the loop. The trilogy everyone's been waiting for and the trilogy everyone wants to forget about are hitting Blu-ray on September 18th.
'The Lion King' & 'Beauty and the Beast' Announced for Blu-ray 3D
Disney's going 3D with some of their classics, including 'The Lion King' and 'Beauty and the Beast.' Even more titles are rumored, including 'Nightmare Before Christmas.'
'The Incredibles' Blu-ray Dated
It's always exciting when a Pixar movie goes HD, and we couldn't be more excited for the Blu-ray release of 'The Incredibles' on April 12.
'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' Criterion Announced For Blu-ray
If you're a 'Fear and Loathing' fan, you'll be happy to know that the Criterion Collection Blu-ray will be hitting shelves on April 26. We're still trying to get Drew Taylor to stop giggling and clapping his hands together maniacally.
'The Ten Commandments' Blu-rays Detailed
The Cecil B. Demille classic will be hitting Blu-ray on March 29th along with documentaries, commentary and more.
Blu-ray Director’s Panel – CES 2011
Oliver Stone, Baz Luhrmann, and Michael Mann sat down to talk about Blu-ray and what it means to them.
The State of Blu-ray At CES 2011
There weren't very many big Blu-ray player announcements at CES 2011 - Dick Ward says that's a good sign.
Samsung Roundtable – CES 2011
Samsung holds a roundtable to discuss the present and future of the company with some of its top execs and a few members of the press. High-Def Digest is there.
Philips Announces World's First Wireless HDMI Blu-ray Player
Aside from the power cord, you can go wireless with the new Philips player, giving you freedom to put the player anywhere you want - within 100 feet of course.
Japan Gets First 3D Series, And It's a Drama!
Adventure? Excitement? A Japanese 3D audience craves not these things. Even if they do want it, they're getting a drama about air traffic controllers instead.
Netflix Buttons Are Coming to Remotes Everywhere
Netflix fans with connected TVs and Blu-ray players will have an even easier time getting to their favorite streaming content thanks to the addition of Netflix specific buttons.
Goodbye Component - From Now On Only HDMI Will Do HD
Analog video users are out of luck thanks to the new standard. Starting in 2013, Blu-ray players won't even offer component outputs.
The Bonus View
The Year in Review: The Best Films of 2010
Drew Taylor takes a look at the year's best and inspires controversy with 'Piranha 3D.'
How Soon is Too Soon for a Remake?
The impending remake of 'Total Recall' makes Josh Zyber ask - is twenty years too soon?
My Latest Addiction: 'Game Dev Story'
Dick Ward is hooked on an iPhone game - and he doesn't even have an iPhone. 'Game Dev Story' is the game worth borrowing your rommate's phone to play.
Worst Weekend Ever
Josh Zyber hates on Vampire Weekend, or at least one song in particular in his rant about the music used in TV commercials.
High-Def Digest Holiday Gift Guide 2010: The Best Blu-rays of the Year
Tags: HDD Holiday Gift Guide, Holiday Guide 2010, Drew Taylor, Industry Trends, High-Def Retailing (all tags)
by Drew Taylor
Has another year of HD releases really flown by already? Just about! I guess now is as good a time as any to look back on the year that was and pick out the highlights. And yes, while there are still a handful of big releases headed our way before the year is out ('Inception,' 'Fantasia/Fantasia 2000,' and 'Cronos,' to name a few), I'm trying to help you with your holiday shopping, so I have to draw the line at today's day and date.
2010 was really the year Blu-ray came into its own. There are a ton of viewers who now have Blu-ray players, and subsequently, the number of discs (and the quality of those discs, for the most part) have skyrocketed. With titles like 'Avatar' and 'Toy Story 3' leading the charge, Blu-ray became a format that everyone, not just film geeks like ourselves, could lovingly embrace.
So, lets get started, shall we? I now present the top ten Blu-rays of 2010. (One more caveat: I did a list earlier this year and none of those titles are also on this one.)
1.) Roger Corman's Cult Classics (Shout Factory)
One of the reasons I'm crowning this small collection of genre favorites (among them: 'Starcrash,' 'Humanoids from the Deep,' and Joe Dante's 'Piranha') as the top Blu-ray release of the year is because they were such a surprise. Initially, '
2.) The Thin Red Line (Criterion Collection)
In my review, I said this disc contained the single greatest live-action Blu-ray transfer that I had ever seen. I'm going to reiterate that here and now: this really is the most striking live action transfer I've ever seen. And, you know what? That might have been enough to at least chart on my end-of-the-year list, but the disc as a whole is so beautiful – the audio is just as wonderful as the video, and the collection of extras, which sheds significant light on the film without ever demystifying it (for instance we just get a handful of deleted scenes, when we all know that hours of footage was shaved away), were indispensible. Malick's lyrical tone poem, ostensibly about the Pacific conflict during World War II, remains one of the most haunting and gorgeously rendered war films of all time; a stunning, staggering piece of work. The movie is more than 10 years old, which is plenty of time for the film to be worn and torn (this is a preemptive rebuttal to those who will undoubtedly say that it probably wasn't that hard to clean up). For Criterion to bring it to high definition in such a lavish package is worthy of praise.
3.) The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Fox)
Yes, I know, as of this writing I haven't finished my review of this beauty yet, but take my word for it: it's phenomenal. First of all, the movie has never looked or (more importantly) sounded this good. Ever. But more than that, the 'Rocky Horror' Blu-ray represents the seemingly boundless potential for Blu-ray. It maximizes the viewers' experience by offering something that only Blu-ray could: a mix-and-match of audio features, including a vintage recording by the fan club and an all-new, "shadowbox" broadcast, with actors chosen by various 'Rocky Horror' weekly screenings from around the world. (This is documented in an hour-long documentary that plays like a particularly deranged episode of 'American Idol.') The fact that you can watch the film with multiple audio/video tracks while importing all of the extras from the previous special edition DVD makes this 'Horror' truly heavenly.
A funny thing happened while I was compiling this list, at almost the eleventh hour: a package arrived that contained the second season of 'The Twilight Zone' on Blu-ray. Skeptical of its high definition worthiness, I popped in the first disc, and was utterly blown away. It was eerie, in a specifically 'Twilight Zone'-y way, how good the old series looked on Blu-ray, with its black-and-white richness taking on a kind of velveteen texture. It was absolutely marvelous. And the extras? Oh the extras! Matthew Weiner, creator of AMC's 'Mad Men,' sits in for a commentary track discussing the episode in which William Shatner becomes obsessed with a fortune telling machine in a small town diner. Is there any better way to spend a Friday night? With these new sets, Image really gave it their all, and it shows. 'The Twilight Zone' not only warrants this kind of lavish high-definition attention; it demands it. As far as I'm concerned, these are the TV-on-Blu-ray releases of the year.
5.) Alien Anthology (Fox)
The 'Alien' box set is something you could quite literally get lost in for hours on end. The number of supplements and alternate versions of the films (each entry has two iterations) seems almost limitless. The franchise itself is a fabled and fascinating rollercoaster ride: from the haunted house thrills of Ridley Scott's original 'Alien' to the hellzapoppin' James Cameron-helmed sequel 'Aliens,' to David Fincher's atmospherically gloomy 'Alien 3,' to the bizarre horror-comedy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 'Alien: Resurrection.' Each film has a lot going for it, and seeing them all so pristinely presented, with optimized picture and sound, is a joy. But it's the small pleasures that stick out: the uncut version of the 'Alien 3' documentary that was left out of the DVD box set from a few years ago. Hearing stories of how David Fincher more or less left the film shortly before its completion is the kind of kicky, insider stuff that geeks absolutely eat up. (It's also nice that they cleaned up the audio on the vastly superior work print cut of 'Alien 3.') I'd also like to thank this anthology for truly opening my eyes to the hideousness of 'Alien Resurrection,' a film I had previously had a weird sense of affection for. Somehow, in high definition, it showed me that the emperor really wasn't wearing any clothes.
6.) Grindhouse (Vivendi)
Yes, there was some minor kvetching about the disappointing lack of a true HD sound mix on this disc, but really, it shouldn't be that a big deal since the movie is supposed to sound like a grungy drive-in double-feature. The Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino dual movie showcase, an expert bit of sleazy homage, bombed spectacularly in 2007, only to be released on DVD and Blu-ray as separate, elongated films later that year. It had never been released on home video intact. And now it has! As a Blu-ray-exclusive, no less! Woo! It was a big kick to watch the whole 'Grindhouse' experience as it was intended, but what really makes this two-disc set so special are the extras, particularly the complete, hour-long New York Times Talk with the two directors, plus all the attention lavished on the phony trailers that bridge the two films. You have to love the perpetually impish Eli Roth, director of the 'Thanksgiving' trailer, saying "I've got a naked girl jumping on a trampoline and I'm only going to do one take?"
7.) Scott Pilgrim vs the World (Universal)
Potentially the greatest non-animated new movie-on-Blu-ray release of the year, 'Scott Pilgrim' combined peerless audio and video quality with a wealth of informative extras that, instead of removing the mystery, enriched the film and made you appreciate it even more. (A lot of people worked really, really hard on this thing.) The fact that the movie was mostly passed over by critics and audiences makes you even more thankful: they could have dumped this on Blu-ray without a single commentary (this disc has four!) Mercifully, that didn't happen. And 'Scott Pilgrim' remains one of the most re-watchable movies of the year.
8.) Psycho (Universal)
This Halloween-timed treat was a true delight: 'Psycho' had never looked or sounded so beautiful. The sound, for which they went back and optimized the mono track for multiple channels, is a true triumph; it doesn't seem the least bit tinny or phony (think back to that DVD release of 'Jaws' that had people up in arms). This includes all the goodies from the previous 'Psycho' DVD releases, plus a bit more, and while there was some consternation in relation to the aspect ratio, it seems that this presentation closes that book forever: Hitchcock shot the movie so it could be seen in a widescreen format and for television.
Two of cinema's greatest trilogies finally made it to high definition, and they did so spectacularly: 'Back to the Future' featured a wonderful host of bonus features that followed the evolution of the franchise, providing wonderful context for the Michael J. Fox-starring series. (The movies looked and sounded brilliant, too.) For 'Toy Story,' Disney and Pixar brought their usual sense of perfection to these discs, which are unparalleled visually or aurally, and arrived with a whole bunch of great features. In particular, seeing 'Toy Story 3' "flat," as it were, makes you realize what an unnecessary gimmick the current 3-D trend really is. After all, we didn't need a three-dimensional DeLorean headed towards us to really wow, right?
10.) House (Criterion)
Yes, I have gone on record about the bonkers-brilliance of this 1977 Japanese gem, but I truly believe 'House' deserves to be on the list for containing the single most heart-tugging moment ever captured on a supplemental feature for a movie in which a young schoolgirl gets eaten by mattresses. In the accompanying documentary, Nobuhiko Obayashi says, tearfully, that the movie was an ode to his own childhood friends, all of whom were killed in the nuclear attacks that ended World War II. It makes you look at this very silly movie in a very serious new way.
So what'd I forget? What'd I get wrong? Sound off in the message boards (I know you will, you cheeky monkeys!) Last time around, somebody erroneously posted me as a kind of 'Monopoly'-esque tycoon, surrounded by studio money, implying that my choices had been paid off (little did they know that I bought almost all of the titles on the last list). Let's see what else you have this time! Extra points for creative Photoshop skills!
High-Def Digest Interviews Brian Koppelman and David Levien
Tags: Drew Taylor (all tags)
Drew Taylor Interviews Brian Koppelman and David Levien
Last week 'Solitary Man,' a charmingly salty-sweet drama, starring Michael Douglas as a disgraced car salesman who looks to rebuild his life despite an uncanny knack for self-destruction, hit Blu-ray. The movie has a novelistic feel, dense with character development and emotion (the deck is stacked heavily, thanks to a wondrous supporting cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Jesse Eisenberg, and star-in-the-making Imogen Poots) and features Michael Douglas' best performance in – no joke - years (Speaking of which, where is the 'Wonder Boys' Blu-ray?!!).
Released early this past summer, it was a welcome change-of-pace from the nonstop onslaught of movies like 'The A-Team' and 'Knight and Day,' if only in the fact that people actually talked to each other in 'Solitary Man' instead of just screaming loudly while running away from fireballs.
I got to talk to the co-directors of 'Solitary Man,' David Levien and Brian Koppelman, who have an impressive resume of wonderful for-hire screenplays (they penned 'Ocean's Thirteen' and 'The Girlfriend Experience' for Steven Soderbergh) as well as writing and directing 'Knockaround Guys' and producing 'The Illusionist' and 'The Lucky Ones' for director Neil Burger.
The filmmaking team, who began with the selling of their first screenplay for John Dahl's poker thriller 'Rounders,' are also incredibly nice guys. Read on for their thoughts on 'Solitary Man,' Steven Soderbergh, and what's next for these two!
DT How did you guys get together as a creative team?
DL We've been like brothers since we were 14 or 15 years old. We met on a student teen tour when we were kids. Growing up we were always watching the same movies and talking about movies incessantly, and we sort of went down different paths at different times but about 12 years ago we decided in earnest to write a script together. And that script turned into 'Rounders.'
DT In terms of 'Solitary Man' what drew you to it as a directing vehicle as opposed to something that you would sell to somebody else?
BK That's a really good question. We never had a conversation about anybody else directing this one. Somehow, our fascination with the world in which it takes place and a character like Ben made us not want to try and do it in a different way or want to be at arms length from it. We wanted to be intimately involved in telling the story. And I think that, from the writing of it, that's what was intended.
DT Was this a deliberate attempt to do something that wasn't genre-related?
BK We never had a conversation where we said "Well, the next thing we direct shouldn't be in a genre." It was more that the story occurred to me to write, and I guess you could take a character like Ben and put him in a context of more typically genre, like a crime context, but instead I wanted to treat it as it was. And put him in a context that was realistic and straight and funny also. And when I showed it to David, we immediately started talking about making the movie. And it immediately became clear we were going to tell it as clearly as we could.
DT Was this something that you wrote outside of the partnership and then later the two of you decided to co-direct it?
BK David and I are a filmmaking team and there was never a question that we were going to direct it together. It was just that I had started writing the first 20 pages and brought them to Dave and he read them and said "You should just finish it yourself, because you have the tone and the voice."
DL It just seemed very clear to me that I wanted to see it without my imprint in there.
DT It seems to me that one of the great assets of the movie is that it seems to deliberately sidestep some of the clichés that are inherent with this kind of material. Were there things that you guys avoided when putting it together?
BK That's very nice of you to say. It took me four years to write it and one of the reasons why was I was determined to let it unfold in a way that felt organic and real. And Dave has pointed out to me that sometimes when you have a time deadline, that's when it's easy to reach for the stuff that's familiar. You're not even intending to, but it's like what first occurs or when you're trying to manipulate the story or characters you might fall into that trap. But instead, we were trying to the truth of the moments. And so hopefully that helped us avoid those traps.
DT You guys are buddies with Soderbergh, you wrote 'Ocean's Thirteen' and 'The Girlfriend Experience' for him and he produced this. How is he as a producer as opposed to a director
DL Soderbergh is a great collaborator, no matter what capacity anybody is in. When he's directing and you're writing for him, it's a great experience, when we were directing and he was producing, it was great. And we also had Paul Schiff working with us. These guys were great. They were all about making the movie better and using all of their experience and knowledge in the business to help us maximize our resources.
DT One thing that struck me was the uniformity of excellence in the cast. Everyone, even the smallest role, was so wonderfully cast. Was it just that people read the script and responded to it?
DL It started with Sodbergerh. And I would say that there's this great word in the Paul Schrader-written movie 'City Hall,' where someone is referred to as "mensch-type." And Soderbergh is really "mensch-type." He gave the script to Michael Douglas and then Paul Schiff and Steven were able to take the script to various other actors. And everybody seemed to respond to the script and to the chance to work with Michael.
DT Can you talk about the differences between directing your own stuff than producing for someone to direct? Is there ever a time when you're heartbroken to give one of your scripts away?
DL We don't have the horror stories that you hear from some writers, where they write this perfect script and a director comes along and ruins it. So for the most part we've been part of the process and haven't felt shut out and feel relatively good to the way the movie comes out in comparison to the script. Some of the stories seem slightly more personal like something you want to spend the other year and a half completing and taking it all the way to finished film. I wouldn't say it's a reaction to any horrible experience, it was just a natural decision.
DT So you're working on the adaptation of Josh Bazell's 'Beat the Reaper,' which was one of my favorite books of last year…
BK We love that book man!
DT So how is that coming along?
DL That's set up at Regency and Leonardo DiCaprio is attached right now. It's hard to talk about movies that are being put together. Sometimes they happen and sometimes they don't.
BK We took it so seriously because we loved the book. And boy, do we want to see that movie!
DT I wanted to ask you guys about John Dahl, since he directed your first screenplay.
DL John was great. He really gave us our education as filmmakers. None of us went to film school. So being on the set of 'Rounders' was film school. He gave us total access. We were involved in bringing him into the movie. We were always interested in working with him. And we were involved in getting him the script and having the first meeting with him to get him on board. And because of the complicated nature of hold 'em, back then, it wasn't on TV and people didn't know the game like they do now, we were sort of the resident experts, so we had some utility. So John let us work with the actors and gave us a taste of the whole filmmaking concept, which inspired us to direct our first movie next, which was 'Knockaround Guys.'
DT Alright guys I think that's it. Thank you so much for your time! Really loved the movie!
BK Thanks for your interest and for seeing the movie. Oh, and anything that either one of us said that was a little bit sketchy, please attribute to Dave.
The Quarterly Report: The Best Blu-rays of the Year So Far...
Tags: Best of, Industry Trends, Drew Taylor, High-Def Digest (all tags)
by Drew Taylor
Where has the year gone? Oh right, watching movies. Well, as 'Ferris Bueller' said, "Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." That roughly translates to, "Take a look at the best Blu-rays a few times a year." And guess what – it's that time!
1.) Che (Criterion)
In 2008 Steven Soderbergh delivered 'Che,' an uncompromising, two-part portrait of the insurrectionist, revolutionary, and guerrilla warrior Che Guevara. Like the man himself, the film (its two parts labeled 'The Argentine' and 'Guerrilla') was squabbled over, with critics finding it alternately exhilarating and frustrating (particularly polarizing was the film's the second half – the cinematic equivalent of a long slog through the South American jungle). Some critics were gunning for it before its premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, calling into question the director's hubris at making such a long historical film. When it was finally released, it was sometimes presented as a "roadshow" attraction, with both halves being linked by the now-famous 'map' intermission. Elsewhere, it played as two separate movies (as well as being available from IFC's On Demand pay cable channel). In all the hubbub about how it was shown and where you could see it, a real discussion of the work itself (a towering, brazen, unforgettable accomplishment) faded away. Thankfully, Criterion (through their partnership with IFC which has brought about some of the year's best Blu-rays – and will continue to throughout this year) set things right with their gorgeous, two-disc set which is the closest thing we'll ever get to that original roadshow presentation (complete with the map intermission). With a host of special features that investigate the history of the real-life Che (John Lee Anderson, whose indispensible biography, 'Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life' was the movie's foundation, provides an invaluable commentary track) and the film's own revolutionary moments, like being the first film shot on the RED Camera (which has since shot everything from 'District 9' to David Fincher's forthcoming Facebook movie, 'The Social Network'). On the same tip, the transfer is absolutely breathtaking. And you won't find a more open and honest portrait of a filmmaker letdown and frustrated by his own efforts than on the disc's voluminous extras, where he candidly suggests that maybe all the hard work and heartache of 'Che' wasn't worth it. I'm here to say that yes, it was. People will be looking at this movie for years to come. Or, at the very least, I will.
2.) Avatar (Fox)
Let the haters hate (that's what haters do, after all), but 'Avatar' continues its juggernaut-like reign on everyone's favorite high definition home video format. Here's why, even if you don't think that James Cameron's emotionally resonant sci-fi spectacle is the bee's knees (because, well, it is), you should be happy with 'Avatar' and its beautiful presentation on home video: It's selling a ton of Blu-rays and, so with it, Blu-ray players. As much as we'd like to think that everyone feels inclined to go pick up a new piece of home entertainment hardware that will set them back hundreds of dollars - that just isn't the case. But when people get a look at 'Avatar,' with its peerless audio and video (aspect ratio debate aside), the true power of the Blu-ray format becomes illuminated. To say nothing of the re-playability of the film, which seems to get better (or at least more fun) with every passing viewing. On Blu-ray the world of Pandora looks brighter and more alive and you're able to take in all the aspects of subtle storytelling work that went into this monolithic achievement. Even after its stellar theatrical 3-D run it continues to be an envelope-pushing technological game changer by selling a reluctant audience on an entirely new home video format (one that we already love, obviously). And that's just swell.
3.) Foreign Films on Blu-ray (Various)
There was always a fear, in my mind at least, that there would be some niche avenues of film that would get forgotten or glossed over in the high definition world. One of these, I surmised, would be foreign language films, many of which do not contain the fast moving action and elaborate special effects that are marked by some as the hallmarks of the new format. It seems I was an idiot. (The sound you just heard was the forums erupting in wild applause.) In these past four months we have seen a handful of stellar releases (mostly from the fine folks at Criterion and Sony's art house arm Sony Picture Classics), including but not limited to 'Revanche,' 'Broken Embraces,' 'Red Cliff,' 'Summer Hours' and 'The Baader Meinhof Complex.' What's even more promising is that some wonderful older titles have also seen the high definition light of day, including 'Vivre Sa Vie,' '8 ½' and 'Fallen Angels.' Throw in that Chan-wook Park 'Vengeance' trilogy (currently a Best Buy exclusive but out next month for everybody) and you've got a pretty impressive line-up of both contemporary and classic world cinema. The cynics among you will claim that this is mostly because Sony, who created the Blu-ray format and remain its biggest cheerleader/pusher/supporter/whatever, wants to reach its slimy corporate tentacles into the fans of art house and foreign films and sell them on the promise of Blu-ray. This may be true. But whatever the reason, I'm just glad to have these films on Blu-ray. They're enough to enhance any library (and may even forgive that copy of 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' sitting on your shelf).
4.) In the Loop (MPI)
If the merit to be a part of this list is based solely on how many times I've re-watched a certain Blu-ray, than Armando Iannucci's hilarious, Academy Award-nominated 'In the Loop' deserves to be on this list, maybe at the top. The gleefully profane comedy, a kind of Bush-era 'Dr. Strangelove' (which makes it both timely and somewhat dated) about the lead up to the Iraq War, milks the faux documentary style, recently made popular by filmmakers like Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais, for every awkward possibility. And it probably ends up being closer to reality than most documentaries about the behind-the-scenes machinations of the invasion. Peter Capaldi, as the Prime Minister's chief wag Malcolm Tucker, has gone a long way in creating a timeless comedy icon, and every F-bomb he drops resonates like a nuclear device. Or some other theoretical WMD. I recommend this movie for countless and different reasons: because you're tired of neat-and-tidy Hollywood comedies, because you want to see something with teeth, and because you want to laugh til you have some sort of bodily function accident. Just talking about it makes me want to watch it again. Be back in 90 minutes.
5.) The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox)
When I saw Wes Anderson's 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' at a press screening last fall, I wasn't exactly sure what to think of it. After all, Anderson is, for better or sometimes worse, the maestro of quirk. The fact that he was applying his singular style to a children's film seemed like something of an odd fit. It was cute, to be sure, but would it really stand up on repeated viewings, like 'Rushmore' or 'Bottle Rocket' or 'The Royal Tenenbaums?' Well, the answer is yes. In fact, I'm now of the opinion that 'Fantastic Mr. Fox,' a gorgeously realized work of stop motion wizardry, is among the director's finest accomplishments. Stop motion benefits greatly from the intricacy of the high definition image (as 'Nightmare Before Christmas' and 'Coraline' have proven) and revisiting 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' is a visual delight, a contraption that keeps revealing new secrets and hidden detail. But the unexpected joy comes from the film's screenplay, which is deceptively dry and oh-so-hilarious. Who knew that George Clooney's finest performance of last year would come not as a travel-addicted axe man but as a rakish animated animal?
As dazzling as the stop motion of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' looks and as the computer generated films continue to impress on Blu-ray ('How to Train Your Dragon' is on my shortlist for most anticipated high definition home video releases for the rest of the year and the two 'Toy Story' films, released this year on Blu-ray, are highlights to be sure), there's something to be said about how fantastic old school traditional animation looks on the format. These two films, both adaptations of classic fairy tales told in wildly different ways (one a traditionally Japanese translation, the other a Cajun-fried take), looked beyond phenomenal in high definition. And they're also truly astonishing cinematic accomplishments, too. 'Ponyo' is easily Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki's best, most touching film since 'Spirited Away,' and 'Princess and the Frog,' Disney's long-awaited return to hand drawn animation is a rip roaring princess story for a new generation, with killer songs and an all-time great Disney villain in the form of Keith David's lithe Dr. Facilier, The Shadow Man. Both films are true testaments to the singular cinematic magic of traditional animation.
8.) Gangs of New York (Remastered) (Disney)
There were two Martin Scorsese reissues put out on Blu-ray. One was a shameful cash-in that did nothing to improve the previous release, besides tack on a handful of forgettable extras. Then there was another one that improved in every way on its previous iteration, upping the visual and audio quotient in exponential ways and, granted, some new special features would have been nice (maybe a retrospective documentary on there), the overall feel of the release is one of real reverence and respect for a future classic. 'Gangs of New York' is the latter release. When it was released, Martin Scorsese's period epic, about warring urban tribes in turn-of-the-century Manhattan (his first film with Leo), was met with quizzical stares. Was this the movie he had really been working on for 20 years? Well, yes. And while it isn't the flawless masterpiece it maybe could have been, it is a challenging, whip-smart, bloody violent film that can now, finally, be appreciated in glorious high definition form. (The 2008 release has rightfully been discontinued.) With 'There Will Be Blood,' Daniel Day-Lewis took everybody's breath away, but I'd argue that his performance here as Bill the Butcher is just as breathtaking, if not as nuanced or layered. As they say in hoary advertisements, watch it again, for the first time.
9.) Michael Jackson: This Is It (Sony)
There were a lot of great music Blu-ray releases put out in this quarter ('Soul Power' among them), but the grandiose and occasionally ghoulish Michael Jackson release, chronicling his planned but never executed comeback tour, is still my favorite. The songs are as good as ever, giving any pro-level surround sound system a proper workout, and the movie (a minor masterpiece of editorial craftsmanship) is just as strong and just as weird as it was in the theaters. Oh, and that special feature on the making of his costumes remains one of my favorite documentaries of the year. Now if only we could get 'Captain Eo' in high definition…
10.) The House of the Devil (Dark Sky Films)
Ti West's teeny tiny horror treat 'The House of the Devil,' a nifty throwback to both the babysitter-alone-in-the-house and devil-cult-worship sub-genres of the late 70s and early 80s, is one of the strongest Blu-ray releases of the year thus far for a couple of reasons, but first and foremost is the fact that the high definition format does nothing to betray the feeling that you really are watching a battered old horror movie from that time period, one you've probably rescued from bottom shelf obscurity from your local video store. (Some promotional copies of the movie came with a VHS copy, complete with the oversized box favored by cheapie horror fare of yesteryear.) The other big reason to recommend 'House of the Devil' is that it really is the rare scary movie that gets better the more times you watch it. And it's a perfect flick to pull out when your movie illiterate buddies say, "They don't make really scary movies anymore!" This ought to shut them up.
And thats the list for now. Stay tuned for further updates later on this year!
High-Def Digest Talks With 'Avatar' Producer Jon Landau
Tags: 20th Century Fox, James Cameron, Avatar, Drew Taylor, 3D, Industry Trends (all tags)
by Drew Taylor
A week ago, I was invited to take part in the 'Avatar' Blu-ray press day, at a fancy schmancy penthouse in midtown Manhattan. Jon Landau, producer of the biggest movie of all time, was on hand for the event, which included a brief introduction to several sequences from the Blu-ray (projected, beautifully, via HD projector). He told us that the movie was the only thing on this disc, there wouldn't be a single special feature (the emphasis here is on picture and sound – a four-disc jumbo deluxe edition will be out in time for Christmas, duh). (We didn't get a copy of the disc at the event, but I had already secured mine from a local vendor, I just hadn't watched it yet. Now that I have watched it, I can tell you it is beyond amazing.)
After all the interviews were done, Fox hosted a screening of the Blu-ray in its entirety. In between the demonstration and the screening, they served a blue, Pandora-inspired drink. I didn't have one, but it was turning everyone's teeth blue.
I was lucky enough to secure a one-on-one interview with the very gracious Landau, and a transcription of our chat follows.
HDD: My first question is – was there ever any doubt that people just wouldn't want to watch it on home video if it wasn't in 3D?
HDD: No fear whatsoever?
JL: There was a fear that people wouldn't go see the movie. [laughs] We always believed in the movie but you never know if people would go see the movie. But the 3D versus 2D was never a question to us, because we watched the movie in 2D, we edited the movie in 2D, we screened the movie for ourselves for a year and a half in 2D. That's how we watched it and that's how we made our creative decisions.
HDD: You didn't see it in 3D until when…?
JL: December 5th. Two weeks before it came out. [Note: I saw the movie in 3D on December 10th, which is kind of incredible to think that I saw it five days after the producer first watched it in 3D.) We would see things when we sent stuff to Weta [the effects house] but we didn't watch it as a complete 3D piece of content until two weeks before the movie came out.
HDD: So you guys just kind of hoped for the best?
JL: We knew that technically the shots worked. It was important for us, with the 2D version, to dramatically work. And that's what our focus would be on.
HDD: Well, if it didn't, you guys would be a couple of billion dollars off…
HDD: Since the movie is the only thing on this disc, and there's nothing else, you just maxed out the space on the disc?
JL: The disc is full. We used every bit available.
HDD: So technically is this the most perfect Blu-ray yet?
JL: This is, technically, the best version that we can possibly present, both Blu-ray and DVD.
HDD: The later edition, the one you referred to earlier with the special features, is it not going to look as good as this disc? Or is there going to be a separate disc for that stuff?
JL: We have to decide that. We know we're going to come out with a four-disc set. We're going to have to see if we're just going to keep the movie on one disc as a stand alone or if through this process we can learn, "Gee, the daytime sequences arriving on the planet don't really need the bit rate we allowed for them" and we can reduce it by x, y or x and you won't be able to tell the difference there and allow us to have pieces (via branching) that tease to the other discs. I think that's all the stuff we have to look at. And now we'll look at that and continue to evaluate that and see if we can get away with a little more compression where we don't feel that it makes a difference. It won't be across the board, it will be specific sequences. Like the bioluminescent nighttime sequences we probably won't touch because we wanted you to be able to see all the detail and all of that.
HDD: What is the aspect ratio on this?
HDD: But in terms of the frame, how did you come to that conclusion? Because there was the IMAX version and the regular theatrical presentation…
JL: When we made the movie, we finished everything to a 16x9. For the theatrical release of the film we never sacrificed width in the theater. There are theaters, if you wanted to go 16x9, you would have to bring the sides in. So those theaters were 2.35. But wherever we could, get maximum width, and add height. That was in select digital screens and in all IMAX screens.
HDD: Was there any talk about doing it like "The Dark Knight," where it would sort of 'pop up?'
JL: No, no. Again: my feeling is, anytime you do something like that, you have interrupted your suspension of disbelief that you're asking from your audience. It might look cool, but you've lost that engagement with them and now you have to earn it back.
HDD: Now, I thought it was great that you guys came out and said, very honestly, "Listen, there's going to be another edition coming out." Was that always the plan?
JL: Well, we had to figure out the timing of the release. We had first thought that we would just do one release in November. But there was such public demand for something now, we couldn't do added content now, we don't have the time to prepare it. There's so much material that's available on the Internet of behind-the-scenes material. We don't just want to throw that stuff on the disc. We wanted to create original content. With the demand from people now, we didn't want to let the black market pirates to come in and take over that. So we came up with the idea of doing a disc now but let's be up front with people. Most people, the vast majority of people around the world, never watch the added value content. We don't live in that circle, we don't work in that world, but they do. So for them, this will fulfill their needs, and for those others, we'll be upfront with saying "Here's what we're doing." Somebody else said "let's discuss the elephant in the room." I said: "There is no elephant! The elephant is something you don't talk about it! We've been up front about this!"
HDD: It seems like if Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland' hadn't come out you guys would still be in the theaters.
JL: You know what I'd like to see happen? I'd like to see IMAX pick 50 of their screens and make it like a "Rocky Horror Picture Show," where it plays every Saturday night at 10 o'clock.
HDD: Do you have stuff plotted out for the four-disc set?
JL: We're still working on that. We know conceptually what we want to do, we want to do a filmmaker's journey. That would be a 2 hour + documentary about the making of the film. We want to do some in-world content, about Pandora itself. We want to do branching that takes people through all the layers. We want people to be able to watch sequences, picture-in-picture, where they can see the performance that the actors gave and the characters.
HDD: I was going to ask if you were going to do one where you could watch them just running around the motion capture set.
JL: Yes, we'll make that available through branching. Maybe not through the whole movie, but for certain sequences, I want to be able to watch the capture version.
HDD: Now there are going to be deleted scenes that are being finished by Weta? But they're not being put into the body of the movie or will they just be deleted scenes?
JL: That depends. I think in some versions they will be put in the body of the movie. But it won't be a director's cut. The movie is the director's cut.
HDD: Do you know what those scenes will be?
JL: I think those scenes will range – there will be dramatic scenes that give us background on Sigourney and the schoolhouse, there will be action scenes with Jake, there will be a little more of the bioluminescence, we will deliver on the things people responded to when they went to the movie. But this is not about "Oh, let's take this sequence that exists and add fifteen seconds to it." It's about taking something new that really wasn't in the movie before, and put it in.
HDD: I noticed from these sequences you showed [during the presentation] that things were brighter and sharper than they looked in the theater. The 3D is a little darker.
JL: There are two drawbacks to 3D in the theaters: one is brightness and the other is frame rate. But Jim went into Modern Film & Video, who did our color timing for the movie, he worked with our same color timer for a week and he sat there with five or six different monitors. They had never done this before – they had always color timed to one screen. And he went through and saw what looked good on a Plasma television, what looked good on an LCD, and made sure he got the best transfer across all of the screens. So it really does look the best.
And with that, our time was up. I thanked Mr. Landau for his time and for the opportunity to talk with him about the amazing world of Pandora.
The Best Blu-rays of 2009 (Since the Last Time We Did This List)
Tags: Drew Taylor, Best of 2009, Industry Trends, Warner, Criterion, 20th Century Fox, Sony, Universal, Disney, Pixar, Paramount (all tags)
Drew Taylor picks up where he left off last summer, to give us the latest and greatest list of HDD favorites!
by Drew Taylor
It was in August that I compiled my list of the Best Blu-rays of the Year, thus far. Now I'm back, with a few more months under our belt and a whole lot of fantastic high definition releases. Now, without further ado, another list of some of the year's best Blu-ray releases. These are the ones that deserve some recognition!
1.) 'The Wizard of Oz' (Warner Bros.)
Warner Bros. released a whole slew of high definition editions of their vaulted classics this year, most notably an admirable 'Gone with the Wind' and 'North by Northwest.' But it was their re-mastered edition of 'Wizard of Oz' timed to this fantasy classic's 70th Anniversary that really blew my mind. Not only did the film look and sound absolutely stunning, but it also contained enough special features to make even the wickedest witch gush enthusiastically (handfuls of documentaries, deleted scenes, archival materials, as well as retrospective pieces). Seeing this presentation of 'Wizard of Oz' is probably the closest any of us will have to the experience of viewing it when it was in the theaters, and after what felt like a dozen or so releases on DVD, this seems to be the definitive edition of this timeless film. The only annoying thing about this release was the way it came out, with an unnecessarily deluxe box set and varying editions at mass merchants. How about the next time you put out one of your heavy hitters, we skip all that needlessly wasteful packaging and just put it out in a classy edition everyone can afford? Still, you'd need to have lost your heart, brain, and courage not to go pick this one up immediately.
2.) Cult Movies on Blu-ray (Various)
While DVD seems to be petering out when it comes to releasing catalogue titles on home video (leaving the void to be filled by weirdo made-to-order services like Warner Archive and Amazon's Disc on Demand), Blu-ray is pressing ahead, giving us high definition versions of movies that barely made their way to DVD in the first place. Not only did the new format give us serviceable upgrades for older movies as varied and bizarre as Sam Raimi's 'Army of Darkness' and 'The Quick and the Dead;' Jim Henson's 'Labyrinth;' Fred Dekker's 'Monster Squad' and 'Night of the Creeps;' and John Landis' 'An American Werewolf in London,' but it also presented us with deluxe editions of more recent cult classics, like Jody Hill's 'Observe and Report;' Sam Raimi's 'Drag Me to Hell;' Michael Dougherty's direct-to-video 'Trick R Treat;' and Karyn Kusama's 'Jennifer's Body' or, as I like to call it, 'J-Bod.' I'm not saying these movies are for everyone, because, clearly, they aren't, but what's so nice is that we can now watch these esoteric films on the best possible format. Even more so than DVD, Blu-ray seems to be the real film lover's format, and these titles do much in the way to support that.
3.) 'Inglourious Basterds' (Universal)
Quentin Tarantino's World War II masterpiece, which might be the versatile director's greatest work as of yet, crash-landed on Blu-ray just before the year's end in an edition every bit worthy of the film. A flawless audio and video presentation highlights the delicate work that went into this rompin'-stompin' tale of Jewish soldiers seeking revenge behind enemy lines (led by a scenery chewing Brad Pitt). Augmented by a nice array of special features (including a great conversation between Tarantino, Pitt, and critic Elvis Mitchell), and you've got a must-own for any discerning film lover.
Disney and Pixar team up and make beautiful movies together. They also make absolutely fabulous Blu-rays. The direct digital-to-digital transfers mean the images are peerless (ditto the audio), and the special features are second to none. Marvel on the 'Up' disc as the creative team ventures to the same perilous mountains depicted in the film. On the 'Monsters, Inc.' disc, the special features are largely a retread of the DVD edition, except for the new retrospective roundtable discussion, which features disarmingly honest talk about how the 9/11 terrorist attacks impacted the film's production and release. Also, you get to see the 'Monsters, Inc.' ride at the Japanese Disney Park, which made me want to book my flight immediately.
5.) 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (Disney)
As impressive as all the glittery computer-generated fare from Disney and Pixar can be, when Disney decided to release Walt's very first animated feature on high definition, the immortal fairy tale 'Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs,' they really did a great job with it. Not only was the transfer an absolute stunner, even if you chose to watch it with the silly "borders" (since it was a 1.33:1 film), but the amount of supplemental materials was just as staggering. Sometimes it's easier to "appreciate" these landmark films than to enjoy them, but 'Snow White' is every bit the emotional sucker-punch that it was when it was first released, and with the bevy of extra features giving you added context, it's an even more powerful experience.
These films are two new classics of Italian cinema. Paolo Sorrentino's 'Il Divo' is a hyper-stylish political film, a kind of evil 'West Wing,' about the corrupt Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (played by Toni Servillo). While you won't always understand what's going on in the politics, it's such a strong character piece that you really won't care. 'Gomorrah,' by Matteo Garrone, demystifies the cinema gangster by showcasing the down-and-dirty lives of the lower level mafia guys (the guy that does the payroll, kids infatuated with 'Scarface' etc.) By splintering the story into five mini-arcs, Garrone does more to break apart the dangerous allure of big screen bad guys. Both films are devastating, powerful, invigorating tales made all the more dynamic by their flawless high definition presentations and a stolen truck's worth of extra features.
7.) 'Fight Club' (Fox)
Simple rule to follow: if David Fincher is going to put out one of his movies on Blu-ray, it's going to end up being one of the best discs of the year. Having already given us the high watermark-setting discs for 'Zodiac' and 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' this year, he finishes strong with his ten-year-old rumination on modern masculinity, male powerlessness, underground boxing, homosexual love, and the simple joys of bringing structured society to its knees through explosives and the power of corrosive thinking. The Blu-ray looks and sounds great (every thrown punch sounds like it originated from where the cat was just sitting), with all the special features from the deluxe DVD, plus a few brand new additions, including a hilarious look behind the scenes when Fincher and co-stars Brad Pitt and Edward Norton were awarded at a ridiculous Spike TV Awards ceremony. Now if only Criterion would surprise us by bringing out 'The Game' in 2010! Just imagine!
8.) 'Star Trek' (Paramount)
Boldly go. JJ Abrams' zeitgeist-capturing 'Star Trek' reboot absolutely sparkles on Blu-ray. The brightly optimistic future (indicated by all those lens flares) looks flawless in high definition, and the perfectly calibrated not-too-many, not-too-few special features illuminates the process without ever demystifying the film and its inherent magic. In terms of a 'new movie on Blu-ray' package, it doesn't get much better than this.
9.) 'Boogie Nights' (Warner Bros.)
Paul Thomas Anderson's signifier of future genius, a whirligig epic set in the San Fernando Valley porn scene in the 1970's, comes to Blu-ray in a blistering package that surpasses any previous home video version. (The extras, sadly, remain the same.) Sometimes historical detail and period costumes overwhelm the narrative, but not in the case of 'Boogie Nights,' which remains a profoundly human story. Still, it's kind of hard not to stare dumbfounded at how good this this film looks. Why Warner Brothers debuted such a stellar disc as a Best Buy exclusive is beyond baffling.
10.) 'Lost: Complete Fifth Season' Ridiculous Dharma Initiative Packaging Edition (Disney)
Because no other TV-show-on-Blu-ray was presented with the balls-out go-for-broke-ness that Disney gave the difficult penultimate season of their wondrous, time-bending sci-fi series 'Lost.' The largely 1970's-set season (don't ask) was reproduced with a package that included an oversized box and floppy discs. Oh, and the discs themselves? Well, the series has never looked or sounded better. When Disney broadcast the series in HD on ABC, the resolution was only 720p, so here, for the first time, is 'Lost's' fifth season in honest-to-god HD. Rounded out by a great collection of supplemental material and this is the ideal package for any 'Lost' die hard.
*Until Drag Me to Hell Comes Out
Tags: Industry Trends, Drew Taylor (all tags)
It's been an eventful year for Blu-ray releases, with each of the studios tackling the reigning High-Def format with varied levels of commitment and success.
As he did with last month's Mid-Tear Blu-ray Report Card, Drew Taylor has looked back at the titles released so far this year, as well as the titles about to hit shelves, and picked out the discs he feels have really hit it out of the park.
As always, there's bound to be disagreement and conversation about this one, so read what he has to say, then join the discussion in the forums.
The Top 10 Blu-ray Releases So Far This Year*
*'Until Drag Me to Hell' Comes Out
by Drew Taylor
1. Repulsion (Criterion, Roman Polanksi, 1965)
Criterion's commitment to Blu-ray in 2009 was staggering (they really jumped right in!), but towering above all other releases is this, the delightfully creepy little shocker by Roman Polanksi.
For dozens of years, you could only find 'Repulsion' in grey market or public domain formats. An earlier DVD looked almost completely washed out, like someone was filming it on a camcorder while the movie played on some junky late night public access horror show. All the nuance of the cinematography, the elegantly choreographed thriller beats, and the beauty of the central performance by Catherine Deneuve (seemingly the most gorgeous human being on the planet), was lost. And it looked like it might remain that way forever.
Thankfully, Criterion stepped up to the plate, licensing the film from Sony (which now controlled the rights), and delivering the special edition we'd always hoped for but never really thought we'd get.
For those who have never seen it, let be briefly recount the plot. 'Repulsion' is the tale of a young Belgian manicurist Carole (Deneuve) who works in a London salon and lives with her sister (Yvonne Furneaux). When the sister leaves for vacation with her lover, Carole is forced to fend for herself, and finds her mind begin to unravel. To say any more would give away the "did I just see what I thought I saw" fun of 'Repulsion.' It is fair to say that 'Repulsion' is one of the more shocking, surreal, and compelling horror films ever.
And thanks to Criterion it's never, ever looked this good. The high definition format has been kind to black-and-white releases, but this goes above and beyond. This is a marvel. The amount of detail is insane, the lusciousness of the blacks and grays is beyond belief, and its depths add even more to the film's overall nightmarish feeling. (It's affecting sound design is heightened as well.)
While the supplements are a little light, especially for a Criterion release (a commentary held over from an old Criterion laserdisc, a documentary from a Blue Underground UK release, some hammy trailers), there is a gem of a feature in the brief black-and-white documentary "Grand Ecran," which features footage of the director and stars on set (it's the kind of historical oddity that only Criterion would think to dig up).
This really is the most essential "must buy" release for any serious film fan, thus far this year. It's a killer movie, and Criterion has put together a killer disc to accompany it. Anytime a doubting friend says, "Well, is Blu-ray really THAT much better?" Just pop this baby in and wait for the "oohs" and "aahs."
2. TV Shows on Blu-ray (Various)
Blu-ray is still a relatively new format. And as a new format, it's still finding its legs - what it can do, what it can't do, and where exactly it'll go. One of the big question marks, for critics as well as consumers, is how television will fit into this new format. With television shows on DVD still incredibly popular (and now being built into the marketing of shows) and with more and more shows being broadcast in HD, we're at an interesting crossroads when it comes to TV shows on Blu-ray.
Thankfully, a handful of titles have risen to the challenge and delivered truly outstanding collections. (TV shows on Blu-ray will have to be uniformly excellent to justify the price increase for most customers.) I'm thinking specifically of the recent 'True Blood,' 'Venture Brothers,' 'Dollhouse,' and 'Mad Men' sets, each of which bring new levels of depth, ambition, and elegance.
This diverse group of shows (a ribald animated adventure, a sex-and-violence horror series, an ambitious sci-fi fable, and a period drama) are similar in their presentation (both audio and video are wonderful), and they come loaded healthy collections of extras. They've also helped refine the way that the TV-series-on-Blu-ray interfaces work, with commentary and trivia tracks for episodes seamlessly branching from a central or pop-up hub. All in all, they're so good they make you want to skip the initial viewing, just to wait for the Blu-ray to hit stores.
Blu-ray has largely been heralded as being the movie lover's home video format, but with the care and attention that studios have begun to show television series, it's looking more like a one-stop shop for pop culture junkies everywhere.
3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Criterion and Paramount, David Fincher, 2008)
David Fincher's one-two punch of digitally shot historical dramas (see below) will go down as one of our most impressive directorial feats (trust me, one day geeks will be boggled by it in the same way they'll scratch their heads raw thinking about how Francis Ford Coppola directed 'The Conversation' and 'The Godfather, Part II' back-to-back).
'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' is an absolutely wonderful film - the sprawling (yes, sometimes rambling) historical drama about a man born, curiously, as an old man and forced to age backwards. As the titular character, Brad Pitt confirms his place as one of our generation's greatest (and strangest) leading men. His Benjamin Button is less an ordinary man afflicted and more a sort of unstuck time traveler, passing through the ages without ever really connecting with anyone. As the woman that grabs him as he slips through the stream, Cate Blanchett has never been so radiant.
This being a David Fincher movie, it's more about death than it is about life, but his mastery of cinema - his command of visual effects, of lighting, of camera movement and placement - is unparalleled, and no matter how emotionally distant it might seem, remains a profound and affecting work of utter genius.
Since Fincher shot this digitally, the image is literally perfect. It's reference quality. Ditto the sound. And given that this is a Criterion release (and that the supplements were overseen by Fincher mainstay David Prior), there is an epic-length documentary (in HD!), over three hours long, as well as extra little treasures (including a dry but rewarding commentary by Fincher himself) and an elegant menu design.
Rarely does a film's power increase with repeated viewings, but hey, this is a curious case indeed.
4. Zodiac (Paramount, David Fincher, 2007)
The second half (though technically the first) of David Fincher's digitally-shot double feature, this one a detail-rich period procedural centered around the Bay-area Zodiac murders, is just as amazingly well done as 'Benjamin Button,' if not more so. It's lower on the list if only because it's special features, while still involving, don't go into the insane level of detail as 'Benjamin Button's.'
'Zodiac' is about obsession. The obsessive tendancies of the killer, for sure, but also of those investigating the crimes - first investigative journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and then later cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). It's an epic, intricate movie (it's more 'All the President's Men' than 'Silence of the Lambs') but it's also David Fincher's most autobiographical. This is a filmmaker obsessed, after all, with detail, camera movement, and editing. It consumes him. And just as many of the characters feel they lack closure at the conclusion of 'Zodiac,' so must Fincher feel when his films are finally released into the world.
This director's cut restores a couple of key moments, including a brief "intermission" sequence, where the passage of time is indicated by a black screen while the soundtrack runs through popular pop songs of that era to symbolize the passage of time. This is brilliant, heady stuff, and although it was criminally overlooked theatrically, it seems to be gaining some steam on home video. This wonderful disc will aid in that cause.
Again, since this was a digital production, the picture is perfect (an establishing fly-over of a completely digital San Francisco literally takes your breath away), and ditto the sound. The special features are almost as haunting as the movie (including interviews with real life people involved in the investigation), and a pair of commentary tracks (one with Fincher solo, the other including the "mad dog of crime fiction" James Ellroy) ensure that you watch the movie a couple more times (at least).
For a movie about obsession, it's also hard to not get obsessed with 'Zodiac.' It's a movie that offers endless pleasures on repeated viewings. The only downside to this disc is that they didn't include the original theatrical cut, a mere 9 minutes shorter, which would have been nice.
5. Pinocchio (Walt Disney Pictures, Ben Sharpsteen, et al., 1940)
Animation always does right by Blu-ray, and no film did better than this Walt Disney animated classic, gorgeously remastered in high definition.
It's a film we've all seen a dozen times, first appreciating its kinetic and at times nightmarish kick as children, then, as we've grown, marveled at its complexity and wit (while still being spooked by the same stuff). But we've never seen it look (or sound) quite as amazing as it does on Blu-ray.
The immortal, kaleidoscopic tale of a young wooden doll who longs to be a real, human boy, is just as powerful as it was when the character first appeared in 1888. Through Walt Disney's deft imaginative touch, the story truly comes to life and his fearlessness in exploring the dark psychological corners of the story is still totally ballsy.
The animation is some of the best the studio has ever produced, and the digitally cleaned-up version presented here is nothing short of breathtaking. The sound is wonderful, too. And the extras, which do a fine job of presenting historical context, what went into making the film, and its continued impact on animation (many animators today are inspired by the film and largely herald it as the greatest animated film of all time), are nothing short of spectacular.
While computer-animated and stop motion animated movies really do look amazing on Blu-ray, there's a simple power to watching a traditionally animated film on the format that is almost unparalleled.
6. The Bourne Trilogy (Universal, Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, 2002, 2004, 2007)
At the beginning of the year, Universal gave us this kick-ass box set of Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass' era-defining action trilogy. And you know what? We couldn't be happier.
As Liman's slicker original film gave way to the herky-jerky action realism of Greengrass' later two installments, the films became less about a spy (Matt Damon) whose amnesia leaves him in a morally spotty position of figuring how who's to blame while simultaneously taking exacting revenge on those that tried to kill him, and more about the pure, kinetic power of action cinema. (In the process, the filmmakers did nothing short of change the film language for action films - without 'Bourne,' James Bond would never have been reborn in 'Casino Royale.')
The trio of discs that Universal provided (in a nifty metal tin) are exemplary - the audio and video are outstanding, and the wealth of special features is mind boggling. By the time you get through enjoying all three films, the series' place in cinema history is cemented. These movies started out as good junky fun and turned into something that redefined action movies as we experience them. And the experience on Blu-ray is even more amazing. These are discs you won't soon forget.
7. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned How to Love the Bomb (Sony, Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
People quipping about the amount of grain present on this presentation of Stanley Kubrick's unforgettable Cold War comedy are severely misguided. First of all, the grain really shouldn't be an issue. Kubrick sought out the most grainy film stock he could find, on all his films, and if you're going to do a high definition transfer, then the grain will be more pronounced. Also - it's an old movie. There's going to be grain regardless. If you scrub the image too clean it makes everyone look like creepy plastic doll-people. And nobody wants that.
So, now that we've moved on from that - how does the rest of the disc stack up? Really, really well. Not only are all the special features from previous home video editions of 'Dr. Strangelove' included, but there's an additional trivia track, containing text and video, that ranks amongst the best of its kind.
But really, does anyone need a reason to re-watch this movie?
8. Sin City (Dimension, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, 2005)
Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Frank Miller's hugely influential black-and-white comic book series is first and foremost a visual feast. It's stuffed with crooked, super-noir-y stylistic flourishes (constant rain, copious amounts of hardboiled voice over, and tons of gunplay and gangsters) that, when rendered in high definition, absolutely stun. (It was shot digitally, so the image is peerless.)
Watching big-time movie stars like Benicio del Toro, a pre-comeback Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen, and Brittany Murphy sulk around completely computer-generated, German expressionist-by-way-of-pulpy-paperback-novel-backgrounds is a singular, simplistic treat. And with the added value of being able to watch each of 'Sin City's' compartmentalized segments as its own piece makes it that much more fun.
Combine the flawless video quality with an aggressive and well-prioritized sound mix, and a genuinely ridiculous amount of extra features (some in glorious HD) and you've got a totally great package. It may not be a perfect movie (it is a bit overlong and all that violence gets a bit, well, dull), but that doesn't mean it can't look and sound perfect.
9. Synecdoche, New York (Sony, Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
I'm still sorting out my feelings about this film, the debut directorial feature by 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' screenwriter Charlie Kaufman about a dumpy, oddball theatrical director (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who stages a mind-bogglingly meta-play within a giant warehouse, but that's okay.
'Synecdoche' is on this list because I'm eternally grateful to have a high-definition copy of this movie to watch and rewatch and attempt to figure out. It's a gorgeous, complicated, challenging, prickly piece of artwork. It looks and sounds dynamite and it's got a great selection of special features, which can aid in your assessment of the final film.
Sorting 'Synecdoche, New York' out in gorgeous Blu-ray is a wonderful experience - and something definitely worth praising loudly.
10. Watchmen (Warner Bros., Zack Snyder, 2009)
Sure, 'Watchmen' is a big-time mess - sloppily plotted (which just doesn't make sense given its intricate comic book origins), often emotionally and dramatically rudderless and the drastic changes from the source to the screen seem even stupider - but that doesn't stop this disc from being 100% must own.
Part of this is due to the unparalleled visual majesty that director Zack Snyder wrangles from this tale of superheroes being bumped off, thermo-nuclear war, and the frailty of the human condition, which, in HD, simply boggles the mind. (The sound is none too shabby, either.) Marvel at the rich blue hues of atomic god Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup)! Be amazed by the glassy Martian timepiece; Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and his hovering Owl Ship; and the morphing mask of psychologically unstable Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley)!
Sure, the lack of the theatrical cut is a sore spot (and, where, exactly, is that teaser trailer that got everybody excited about the movie in the first place?), but its "Maximum Movie Mode" option, which really is just a glorified version of Universal's U-Control feature, seems somewhat groundbreaking. A combination of visual commentary (with Snyder stepping into picture, sometimes stopping and rewinding the scene he's talking about), alternate timeline (showing where the "real world" and "Watchmen world" differ in key historical events), and pop-up commentaries and photo galleries, it feels a little bit too overstuffed but at the same time feels completely new. While watching it you get the sensation that this, THIS, is what Blu-ray is really capable.
And that's a great, hopeful feeling to be left with during a movie in which the doomsday clock ticks closer to Armageddon.
So that's the list. Now join in the conversation and tell us what your top ten list for 2009 looks like so far.
High-Def Digest's Mid-year Blu-ray Report Card
Tags: Drew Taylor, Industry Trends (all tags) by Drew Taylor
HDD walks you through the highs and lows of the 2009 Blu-ray releases so far...
Well, we're halfway through the year, and the studios face essential questions related to Blu-ray releases.
What, exactly, warrants a high definition version? Do the studios go through the trouble and effort of striking a new high definition master, or do they just fuss with transfers prepared for previous home video releases? And what of special features? Do they kick those up to HD, or just port them over in standard definition? And what, exactly, should the ratio be between new and catalogue titles? What's more, how do you get someone to buy another version of a movie they've already owned numerous times before? Some of these discs retail for $40 a pop! Slapping on a high def version of the theatrical trailer isn't going to persuade anybody.
The answers to these questions define the releases of 2009 (so far). The home video industry is in an uncertain place at the moment, with retail stores on the decline and the studios' home video profits shrinking. With more people equipped with Blu-ray players than ever, this is the year the studios can make the format an essential part of everyday America. But people don't have the kind of disposable income they used to, and retail giants don't discount high definition discs like their standard DVD counterparts, so this is a crucial and complicated time for the format.
Keeping all of that in mind, let's review the year so far, and rate how the studios are doing. In short, it's time to take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Criterion has only been in the Blu-ray game since the end of last year, but they've already made quite the splash.
Just look at the movies they've released this year, they pretty much speak for themselves - 'The Third Man.' 'Last Year at Marienbad,' 'The Seventh Seal,' 'Wages of Fear,' '400 Blows,' 'In the Realm of the Senses,' 'The Last Metro,' 'El Norte,' 'Man Who Fell to Earth,' 'The Last Emperor,' and in collaboration with Paramount, arguably the single best Blu-ray release of 2009, David Fincher's historical epic 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.'
All of these editions are lovingly put together and are either updates of previous catalogue titles or high definition accompaniments to new entries in the collection. Even with the company suffering a couple of devastating blows (losing the high definition rights to 'Ran' and 'Contempt' at the last minute) and not exploiting the format for every new addition to the collection ('The Hit' and 'Magnificent Obsession' were just dying for simultaneous Blu-ray releases), this has been an impeccable first half of the year.
And with some true stunners still on the way (Guillermo del Toro's 'Cronos,' Steven Soderbergh's epic two-part 'Che,' Roman Polanski's 'Repulsion'), Criterion has shown Blu-ray the same love, care, and excellence they afford all of their releases, and in just a few short months have set themselves apart as one of the greatest Blu-ray studios out there.
In 2009 Disney offered a solid high definition release slate that mixed new films, which were generally pretty lousy but looked positively magical in high definition, complete with sparkling transfers, wonderful audio, and a host of features ('Beverly Hills Chihuahua,' 'Bedtime Stories,' 'Confessions of a Shopaholic,' ''High School Musical 3') with older films that offered sturdy transfers and nice features ('Pretty Woman,' an unnecessary but still great 'No Country for Old Men' double-dip). Their releases were shrewd and spare. This wasn't a company that bombarded the market every week. And their decision to package many of the newer films (and some of the catalogue stuff) with a bonus DVD version of the movie, is very appealing, particularly to those large families that only have one Blu-ray player or like to travel with DVDs on hand.
The studio went above and beyond in a couple of categories, however.
True to form, the studio's animated releases were really spectacular. Their deluxe release of the original Walt Disney classic 'Pinnochio' stands as one of the best releases of the year, hands-down. 'Bolt,' while losing some of its luster in the conversion from the 3-D theatrical experience to 2-D home video, still looked like a million bucks and had a nice array of special features. And, obviously, any Pixar release is going to be outstanding. This was definitely the case with the recent 'A Bug's Life' disc (look for two more Pixar favorites - 'Up' and 'Monsters, Inc.' - by the end of the year).
Also, with the two earlier 'Lost' seasons released in high def, they did the impossible, they made the upgrade to high definition -- with an expensive television series box set no less -- seem like an absolute necessity. By combining an alluring series of advertisements, with monetary incentive (a money back voucher if you buy the sets, a heavy discount with online retailers, a combination deal on Amazon - the more sets you buy, the more you save), the studio made something that most of us saw several years ago on crummy standard television (and something that the super-fans already bought on DVD), seem like a worthy addition to our libraries, no matter the expense. (And it turned out the box sets were pretty great.)
We'll see if they can keep this momentum going through the second half of the year - with the aforemtnioned pair of Pixar favorites, some catalogue titles ('Waterboy,' 'Sling Blade'), new films ('Race to Witch Mountain'), television ('Grey's Anatomy,' 'Lost'), and one 800 pound animated gorilla ('Snow White and the Seven Dwarves') - it looks very possible. It'd be nice to see them exploit their rich Miramax catalogue ('Jackie Brown,' 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' etc.) and put out more animated stuff. Their overall grade is deducted a full half-a-letter for putting out a wonderful, stuffed-to-the-gills edition of 'Lilo & Stitch' on standard definition, but failing to give it a deluxe Blu-ray counterpart. Shameful.
This studio came to the table with a line-up as horrible as Criterion's line-up was great, punctuated by a pair of catalogue releases (a workmanlike 'Arrival' and the debatable 'Terminator 2' reissue). When 'Punisher: War Zone' is unquestionably one of the studio's highpoints, you know something is wrong. Listing the movies would just add insult to injury (oh okay, how about a few - 'My Best Friend's Girl,' 'Transporter 3,' 'Midnight Meat Train,' and 'Bangkok Dangerous').
Truth be told, I haven't seen many of their releases this year. I made it through about fifteen minutes of 'Repo' before getting too confused and having to shut it off. Still, despite the movies themselves, most of the HDD staff have given Lionsgate props for their great audio and video - both are usually very strong. For those who want to show off their superior home theater set-ups with inferior movies, this is the way to go.
Still, this is a studio with a fairly rich catalogue (they could at least put out stuff like 'Open Water' and 'Cabin Fever,' movies that are only a few years old), but instead they stick to their theatrical releases, which offer only minor pleasures (why wasn't 'My Bloody Valentine 3-D' released in an unrated cut when all the press leading up to the film's theatrical releases suggested there was much left on the cutting room floor?)
This is just bad, bordering on awful. Here's hoping there will be a few more things to look forward to in the coming months.
As of this writing, Magnolia has only released a handful of movies on Blu-ray in 2009. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Overall, Magnolia's slate (mostly modestly budgeted independent and genre pictures) is fairly strong, although I would like to know what makes them choose which movie to release on high definition and which to hold back on (I'd love to know why the fantastic Spanish thriller 'Timecrimes' didn't get the much deserved upgrade).
But really, when talking about Magnolia this year we've got to talk about one release specifically - 'Let the Right One In.' This Swedish vampire flick was one of last year's critical darlings (it won the Audience Award at the hoity toity Tribeca Film Festival for crying out loud) and when it was released on Blu-ray, in a lovingly put together special edition package, the world rejoiced. Then, it turned out, that Magnolia had gone with a different, and much less accurate subtitle translation. They took a little while, then admitted their mistake, but didn't offer any kind of trade-in policy and said that when ordering the title on Amazon, there would be no way of knowing which one you would get - the corrected one, or the one with the iffy subtitles.
This bungle showed a huge amount of disrespect to the movie and, more than that, the high definition fans who would now have to purchase the movie twice on Blu-ray, without any insurance.
If you only release a handful of movies during the year, some of them quite good ('Splinter' is a nifty little creature feature), but treat your biggest and most important release like this, well, it doesn't bode well for your studio overall.
Since MGM is now a production house (distributed theatrically by Sony) instead of a full fledged movie studio (with Fox handling all of its home video releases now), it makes it harder to judge who is making the decisions and who to applaud (or criticize) as a result. Still, I'd have to say that overall, I have been extremely impressed with this year's output from MGM (or Fox).
The only problem with this Fox-MGM home video hybrid is that Fox has been applying its usual tricks to MGM classics. Namely, releasing Blu-ray versions that are little more than their DVD special edition counterparts, with lackluster video and sound, and slapping a $35 list price on them. It's an unsightly process, and one dumped on truly spectacular films (like 'Ronin' and 'Silence of the Lambs'). Fox needs to understand this is a NEW format, with HUGE possibilities. It shouldn't just be a gimmick to try to hustle people out of money, and these prices certainly shouldn't be set at the near Laserdisc level costs of ten and twenty years ago!
(MGM has also inherited Fox's annoying tendency to have trailers automatically run before the movie - for both MGM and Fox films.)
To many, MGM = James Bond, and this year they really delivered, with tricked-out high definition editions of classics (I use the term loosely) 'Moonraker,' 'Goldfinger,' 'License to Kill,' ''Man with the Golden Gun,' 'Never Say Never Again,' and 'World is Not Enough.' In addition, they released the newest Bond feature 'Quantum of Solace,' which looked and sounded like a million bucks but definitely skimped on the extras. Watching the 'Quantum' Blu-ray you could practically envision the forthcoming "special edition" double dip, and that's a lousy feeling to have as a customer.
The combined catalogues of MGM and Fox are mighty, and here's hoping they'll actually put the time and effort into first rate high definition presentations, instead of just shameless cash grabs. (more on Fox below)
After a troubled history (for a brief period in 2007 the once "purple" Paramount was only committed to HD DVD discs), they committed to Blu-ray in 2009 to an absurd degree. Really, they were firing on all cylinders. Unlike the aforementioned Fox/MGM, they really committed to their catalogue titles on Blu-ray, providing vastly superior picture and sound that made the extra money actually seem worth the upgrade (movies like 'Primal Fear' and 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off').
They were also committed to quality TV, with the first two seasons of Showtime's 'Dexter' getting our 'Highly Recommended' mark. They also released a season of 'South Park,' the magnificent 'Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1' (which garnered another 'Highly Recommended' stamp of approval from us) and 'CSI.'
They were also responsible for the two single greatest Blu-ray releases of the year - David Fincher's 'Zodiac' (released way back in January and still a huge highlight) and 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (in conjunction with Criterion). Two films by the same director, both digitally filmed (which made for absolutely breathtaking video) that really put the new format through its paces. Just wonderful.
But to most, the success or failure of Paramount so far this year will hinge on their commitment to two franchises - 'Star Trek' and 'Friday the 13th'. While I wasn't particularly impressed with the 'Star Trek' box set, which compiled all of the original Shatner films, our reviewers seemed to deem them acceptable for the most part, with audio and video being the standouts. (Would it have killed them to release each movie individually? Probably.) Still, their continued commitment to the series is commendable, and we look forward to having the 'Next Generation' movies, presumably about the time this summer's big screen reboot arrives on home video.
As for the 'Friday the 13th' releases (they released the first three films in high definition this year), well, our resident 'Friday' scholar deemed them acceptable entries for a horror nut's library, and I felt they were pretty good for what they were - nice new versions of the movies, with improved picture and sound and a meaty collection of extras. The great thing about the 'Friday' releases was that you could normally find them for under $20 online, so if you weren't blown away it wasn't a huge commitment (the 'Star Trek' boxset, meanwhile, would set you back close to $100).
So Paramount really pushed things forward on the Blu-ray front these past few months and here's hoping they continue their commitment to catalogue excellence and new release innovation as the year continues (I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say that I can't wait for the new 'Star Trek' movie to hit high def). Just one question - where's the long promised Blu-ray release of 'Stardust?' It's a guilty pleasure that could be a next generation Blu-ray dazzler.
Sony started the year with nothing but promise: They began 2009 with the release of the wonderful 2-disc edition of David Gordon Green's masterful dope comedy 'Pineapple Express.' It was everything that a new release Blu-ray should be - great transfer, a wealth of extras, wonderful sound. There was also promise of a different sort - with the release of a 'Ghostbusters' videogame, Sony would be releasing a great new Blu-ray disc of the classic film to coincide with that videogame.
And then the 'Ghostbusters' disc finally came out. And it was a huge letdown, complete with a questionable transfer and only a handful of new special features. All in all, it barely offered a bump up from the previous standard DVD.
Between 'Pineapple' and 'Ghostbusters,' Sony released a batch of movies (both new releases and catalogue favorites) that were mostly strong in the AV departments and occasionally had strong extras. (You'd expect nothing less from the company behind the format, right?)
Special props should be given to them for releasing a slew of independent features, most notably the great disc for 'Synecdoche, New York,' and giving them the care and attention they really deserved. These would be notable discs if only for the films, but Sony really went above and beyond.
Overall, this has been a strong half of the year, marred only by the occasional new disc that's wrought with technical issues ('Underworld 3') and their bizarre decision making abilities for what catalogue titles to upgrade. Also - may I suggest, in the snowball's chance in hell category, a deluxe, multi-disc reissue of Richard Kelly's 'Southland Tales,' complete with the three hour long Cannes cut that restored may missing segments, including much of Kevin Smith and Janeane Garafolo's performances?
20th Century Fox
Yep, we're back for more. Can we first please talk about the annoying commercial that runs everytime you put in a Fox Blu-ray? It's a commercial touting the awe-inspiring incredibleness of Blu-ray, except that, you know, we already know this, because we put down the money to buy a Blu-ray player and even more money when we went out and bought the disc. Talk about preaching to the converted! This is just such a loud, annoying, unnecessary introduction to every disc. Ugh.
Fox is a hard company to give a grade to. As a movie studio making new movies, they're absolutely abysmal, so even if 'Max Payne' looks and sounds amazing on Blu-ray (which it did), it's such a crappy movie that you would never want to recommend it to anyone. The smaller Fox Searchlight imprint does have a much better track record, and the this year the studio released great discs for 'The Wrestler,' 'Slumdog Millionaire,' and 'Little Miss Sunshine.' At the same time, they are really uneven with what catalogue titles they wish to show actual care and support. For example, 'South Pacific' is an amazing title (look at those colors!) but 'Sideways,' just a few years old, is totally lackluster - and they're both selling for the same exorbitant price. You could go through the entire release list this year and you could almost alternate 'wonderful' and 'terrible' when describing the high def package for each disc.
Sometimes this tug of war was happening within the same disc. 'The French Connection's Blu-ray caused quite a stir with different high profile movie bloggers claiming it to be an exemplary transfer, while others, including our own Josh Zyber, saying it was one of the worst treatments of a classic film that they had ever seen it. (Director William Friedkin claimed personal responsibility, for good or bad, for vastly altered color done without the participation of the film's cinematographer(!) that differed greatly from the film's initial release)
It's this unevenness that makes grading the studio on a whole so hard. Here's hoping they can get their act together from here on out and only provide excellent quality content, instead of waffling on so many titles. (Editor's Note - Just as importantly, the studio really needs to alter its stance on sending out review copies. At the moment they will not send a title out for review until after it has hit store shelves, meaning no Blu-ray reviews are possible before or by a film's release date. This is a terribly policy if the studio wishes to build any advanced word of mouth.)
Universal started the year off with a bang by releasing the 'Bourne Trilogy' in a kick-ass deluxe three-disc package that remains one of the year's best box sets. From then on, Universal has been almost unparalleled in terms of their shrewd decisions with what to pull from the catalogue, the care and attention given to each Blu-ray release, and their emphasis on HD exclusives - namely, their very own U-Control feature, which started out as nothing more than a gimmick but is now evolving into something very, very cool.
'The Rundown,' 'Frost/Nixon,' 'Do the Right Thing,' 'King Kong,' 'Children of Men' - these were all great movies that were only heightened by their Blu-ray releases, which featured exemplary Audio and Video and wonderful extras. (And 'King Kong' had both versions of the movie - the theatrical and the miniseries length 'extended cut.' It was definitely a cut above the HD DVD release.)
They also did right with their release of Spike Lee's 'Inside Man.' When an initial pressing was sent out to reviewers, and some of those discs were found to have audio problems, Universal issued an immediate re-pressing, and even sent a second copy out to reviewers, even though not all discs were affected. This was a really classy move, and showed Universal's commitment to the format, unlike Magnolia's bungling of the 'Let the Right One In' disc. Stay classy, Universal home video.
There's not a lot wrong with Universal's 2009 slate so far. We only wish every studio would revisit their films with this degree of intensity, and while U-Control still has some kinks to work out (like the noticeable lag between interactive features on the 'Children of Men' Blu-ray), confidence is growing that this isn't just some ploy, but can actually turn into something really great and informative.
In short: keep up the good work, Universal. And also: we'd really love 'Jaws,' 'The Frighteners,' 'Psycho,' Rear Window,' 'Vertigo,' and 'Slither' Blu-rays in time for Halloween.
First: some grievances.
Chief among them is the "auto play" feature that, as soon as you put your disc into your player (or your PS3, for that matter), immediately starts the movie. Now, sometimes this is okay - there are moments when I just want to watch the movie; but often, it thrusts you into the movie prematurely. Maybe you're still rounding up your snacks, refilling that beverage, deciding on the proper audio and subtitle options etc. Or maybe, just maybe, you popped the disc in to check out the special features detailed in the review from your widely loved High-Def Digest. (Yes, I know the pop up option is there, but sometimes it's nice to emanate from a central hub.)
Secondly, the fact is that sometimes the default sound setting for the disc isn't the high def Dolby Digital HD 5.1 but some lossy 5.1 mix. Sometimes you don’t notice it until a little while in, and then you're mad that you've been listening to a crappy mix when you could have audio gold. (This is a minor complaint compared to how often they would just leave an HD audio track off the disc, only to have to fix it later as with 'Superman Returns.' Oh, and we're still waiting for a corrected 'Speed Racer' disc.)
One last gripe, and this one is more severe - Warner Bros. needs to stop releasing Blu-ray discs that are just marginally improved versions of the previously released DVD special editions. We've seen this with recent releases of 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' and 'True Romance,' and I'm sure there will be more to come. More than just being a letdown and a rip-off, it does much to obscure what Warner Bros. did RIGHT this year, like their exemplary 'Amadeus' and 'Woodstock' discs and the much-appreciated '2010.'
Warner Brothers has a similarly hard-to-define track record with their new releases. Things like 'Appaloosa' and 'Rock N Rolla' looked and sounded like a million bucks, while 'Inkheart' and 'Pride and Glory' sported decidedly mediocre AV.
There should be mad props given, however, for their commitment to quality animated product, mostly from their WB Premiere wing. The 'Wonder Woman' disc and the pair of 'Watchmen' animated titles were really outstanding, and yet another example of how animation fully comes alive through the magic of high definition. With 'Green Lantern' and 'Superman/Batman' animated films in the pipeline for the rest of the year, things are looking up.
Plus, October will finally see the release of 'Trick 'R Treat,' a wonderful little horror film that some of us (including myself) have seen, and absolutely love. This is a future Halloween classic, and finally the world at large will see it - in HD!
If Warner Bros. chooses to fix the aforementioned issues (and have some consistency in the quality of their new releases and catalogue titles), then they really could be one of the great providers of top notch Blu-ray discs. From what I've seen of the forthcoming 'Watchmen' Blu-ray, that release alone could bump Warner Brothers grade up a whole letter. Instead, I'm forced to grade them right now, where they're merely middling.
Wow. Really? Less than a dozen releases so far this year. One of them, the Oscar-winning ''The Reader,' got high marks from us on audio and video, but not much else. By now we've all heard about the dire financial straights the Weinstein Company is in right now, which partially explains the reason why you can get Canadian Blu-ray releases of some of their films (the underrated monster mash 'Outlander,' the Mickey Rourke crime drama 'Killshot,' and the odious comedy 'Fanboys'), but you'd think they'd want to rope viewers (and buyers) in with their excellent Blu-ray product.
But no. Keeping in mind that the company is sitting on the conjoined version of 'Grindhouse' (at least we know Robert Rodriguez is working on this one, thanks to a recent Twitter post) as well as the infamous but rarely screened 'Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair' in addition to the titles above, it just doesn't make sense for them to continue to let this market go untapped. Two years ago, in our end-of-the-year survey, we gave them an F. Because of 'The Reader' and 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'(loved it) we'll go ahead and bump that up to a D-, with the hope that we'll get a kick-ass version of 'Inglourious Basterds' by the end of the year.
And there you have it. The year so far. Now go ahead, lets hear what you think. We've given you a lot to chew on, and we know you have a ton to add to the conversation.