Friday, January 18, 2008

2007 - The Tops In Blu-ray

The following are all Blu-ray exclusives, which means you'll still be able to buy them next year.

Ratatouille (2007)
Heaping praise on Pixar is getting to be unbearably trite, but here we are again. The second teaming of the studio with director Brad Bird, Ratatouille has found its way onto numerous ‘10 Best’ lists and is currently being positioned for a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars (rather than the animation category, which it already owns). Ratatouille is as good an examination of the euphoria of the creative process as we’ve ever seen – animated or not. A million miles away from the wisecracking, hip hop junk sensibilities of most other animated fare lately (“Oh no, he didn’t!”), Bird’s ease with conveying complex emotional states is awe inspiring. The animation is softer and the textures a bit more subtle than many other Pixar pictures, but the direct digital transfer to the 1080p resolution of Blu-ray may be the single best screen-to-home video presentation ever available on home video, regardless of format.

Casino Royale (2006)
Though we would dearly love to see the 1967 embarrasstravaganza find its way to HD disc, we’re actually talking about the newest member of the Bond franchise, reintroducing the world to Agent 007 in the personage of Daniel Craig. Since the late 70s, the producers of the Bond series have settled for spectacle as a platform for the delivery of one liners. Miraculously, people kept coming; through even the worst of the Pierce Brosnan years they still made a fortune, and the idea of doing a major overhaul must have seemed like folly when viewed from beneath a great big wad of cash. Brosnan’s exit (reports vary, but I’d bet on a salary dispute as the main sticking point) allowed them the chance to take a gamble, so in 2006 we had Casino Royale, a reboot that sets a more fallible, impetuous Bond loose in a world without rocket packs and invisible cars. The Bond films are a major trump card in Sony’s Blu hand, and Casino Royale quickly became the format’s top seller, and probably the first HD disc purchase for many.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977-1998)
Arriving on Blu-ray in the year of its induction into the National Film Registry, Spielberg’s ode to childhood wonder arrives in a lushly packaged 3 disc set that includes all three variants of the film, including the excellent documentary produced for the previous DVD edition. The initial 1980 Special Edition is a marked improvement on the ’77 theatrical cut, tightening the edit while adding a few major sequences, such as the discovery of a Russian ship in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Unfortunately, the price Spielberg paid for the opportunity to re-cut the film was including an extended special effects sequence after Roy Neary enters the mothership at the end of the film – allowing Columbia’s publicity department a thick peg on which to hang the re-release (“Now, director Steven Spielberg takes you inside the mothership!”). This ‘deal with the devil’ was finally nullified in 1998 when Spielberg released his final cut of the film on what was called a Collector’s Edition, with the removal of the mothership interiors as the only major alteration. It took over a year of Underworlds and Into the Blues before we got to Close Encounters – but it was worth the wait.

The Die Hard Collection (1988-2007)
Though the complete Die Hard series can be purchased in a pricey 4-disc set, Fox has been considerate enough to make each film available individually. The newest struck us as a bland time passer, and the third hasn’t aged all that well, but the second – directed by Renny Harlin, of all people – actually plays much better today than during its original release. The bits of over-the-top violence (of the icicle through the eye variety) now don’t seem so out of place, and I was too young too young in 1990 to appreciate the casting of Franco Nero as a Noriega-like military dictator, future T-1000 Robert Patrick and former Wanderer Tony Ganios as henchmen (not to mention Dennis Franz, John Amos, Tom Bower, and even Fred Thompson!). The snowed-in airport setting makes for a nicely opened up take on the original’s office building setting, while still retaining the ‘single-location’ hook that hadn’t yet become a cliché. But it’s the 1988 original that ought to move most to the Blu-ray camp; a gaspingly brilliant convergence of actors, director, and material, Die Hard set a quality benchmark that has been rarely equaled. Even ignoring Willis’ justly praised performance, co-stars Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, William Atherton (whose role as a Geraldo Rivera-type news monger fits snugly alongside his turn in Ghostbusters as the apex of 80s priggishness) Bonnie Bedelia, Hart Bochner (is there anyone in the history of cinema you’ve wanted to punch as much as Ellis?), and the late, great Paul Gleason and Alexander Godunov make as formidable a roster as any action movie could ever hope for. Extras are slim, with old commentary tracks being the most notable (each has a director track, with the Die Hard featuring a second partial track with visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund), plus the usual deleted/extended scenes and various EPK-style time soakers.

Hostel & Hostel: Part II (2005-2007)
For a closer look at the films themselves, you can read my comments from last year here. As I’ve already said my piece on these films and the silly controversy around “torture porn”, I wasn’t even going to mention them. But last week’s Ebert & Roper show featured their 10 Worst of 2007 lists, and that got my blood boiling all over again. Guest critic Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune lined up a typical selection – Good Luck Chuck, Wild Hogs, Bratz, etc. – but topping his list as the worst film of 2007 was Hostel part II. Really? Really?? Let’s forget that Transformers, 2007’s worst film by a Minnesota mile, didn’t even crack the list. Once again, Eli Roth’s badly misunderstood picture is marched into the public square to be disemboweled Braveheart-style for the sins of Captivity, Turistas, or one of the dozen other braindead horror features of the last few years that have tried to duplicate Roth’s aesthetic without any of his talent. I’m sure Michael is a decent guy, but did he really find the breakdancing stereotype-bot from Transformers that much more interesting or clever than anything in Hostel part II?