Dark Skies—A family experiences a series of terrifying events that suggests dark forces are working against them.
The Movie: Though beholden to a number of films that preceded it, not the least of which being ’s Signs, Dark Skies actually contains plenty of substance both in terms of well-earned scares and moving family drama. Initially skeptical, I was won over by the performances, lingering frights, and formula-defiant third act mechanics.
Sight & Sound: An unsurprisingly clean transfer here. The details are stark and crisp with plenty of rich contrast. With atmospheric horror, sound mix is key. Immersing the viewing audience in an ominous soundscape is vital to creating that atmosphere. To its credit, the Blu-ray release of Dark Skies features a dynamic 5.1 mix that accomplishes precisely that.
The Goodies: Not much to phone home about here in terms of supplements. The commentary with director Scott Steward, editor Peter Gvozdas, and producers and is at its most interesting when Blum is outlining his distribution model for future horror films. The deleted and extended scenes do little more than illustrate that the ending we got was far preferable to the ending that was cut.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: If you prefer your horror films centered on family dynamics, and if you long for a few substantial scares intermixed with the cheap jumps, Dark Skies is for you.
Escape from Planet Earth--Planet Baab's number one explorer/adventurer Scorch Supernova has disappeared. Now it's up to his brother Gary to save Scorch from the dangerous dark planet known as...Earth.
The Film: A few clever jokes notwithstanding, the biggest problem with Escape from Planet Earth is that it doesn’t quite work as a kid’s movie nor does it offer much for the grownups in the audience. The best family films consider both kids and adults when constructing their humor. Escape’s content aimed at children is lazily slapped together from so many other stronger sources. Meanwhile the winks, nudges, and nods meant to soar over the kiddies’ heads will land with a resounding thud when reaching the ears of their parents. Oh, your Monsters, Inc lookalike alien containment teams are all named for famous directors…that’s…yeah.
Sight & Sound: Escape from Planet Earth utilizes a vibrant color palette for its animation. The Blu-ray version upholds that palette quite well. The release also contains a 3D Blu-ray, which will inevitably dull colors, and the overall brightness, but the overall quality of the picture is nonetheless better than average. The sound mix is rich and full, making good use of 5.1.
The Goodies: Escape from Planet Earth features a smattering of ho-hum bonus content. There is the general “making of” featurette, a very basic explanation of storyboarding, a few deleted scenes, and a trio of music videos from the movie’s incredibly mediocre soundtrack.
Optimal Purchasing Conditions: If you have a youngster who enjoyed the likes of Planet 51 and Mars Needs Moms, this might float their spaceship.
A Good Day to Die Hard--John McClane is back in action, this time teaming up with his secret agent son Jack as he tries to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of Russian terrorists.
The Movie: I feel like I owe an apology to Live Free or Die Hard; compared to A Good Day to Die Hard, Live Free is a stellar franchise entry. Director was not content simply making a subpar Die Hard film, instead he fails in several areas of basic filmmaking so that Good Day can't even be called competent. Stunt pads visible in the middle of shots?! looks as bored as the audience and is an unsympathetic block of wood. Very few of the story elements make a lick of sense and the script seems deadset on turning McClane into a stereotypical ugly American. As much as I love Die Hard as a property and McClane as a character, it is long past time for this franchise to die.
Sight & Sound: The film seems to be aiming for a different visual signature than the other entries, but frankly it makes for a shoddy Blu-ray transfer. There is a considerable amount of grain and noise on the screen at pretty much all times, but not in a way that screams "artistic choice" as much as "half-assed photography." The black levels are cranked to a point that it's often hard to see character's eyes or make out details in their faces. The DTS-HD 7.1 audio mix on the other hand is pretty fantastic, with so many shards of shattered glass and empty shell casings seemingly littering your livingroom. The sound quality is the best aspect of this release.
The Goodies: A number of underwhelming deleted scenes, several featurettes including a rather self-indulgent, hour-long making of segment. Also included are visual effects sequences, pre-vis, trailers, a still gallery, and a commentary from Moore and his first assistant director Mark Cotone. Apparently, Cotone was the only person they could get to agree to sit in a room and talk about this movie with Moore after the fact; should tell you something.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: For Die Hard completionists only.
The Movie: Holding steady as my pick for worst film of the year, Identity Thief nevertheless made an insane amount of cash. Where I take exception to Identity Thief is the script that asks the audience to lend sympathy to a life-wrecking career criminal simply because “she’s so lonely” and “she has low self-esteem.” In further testament to Hollywood’s loss of touch with its audience, ’s character even suggests that perhaps his life needed to be shaken up; a line meant to provide absolution to ’s thievery. What?! You mean your loving family, suddenly fulfilling career, and general upstanding citizenship? Is that what needed shaken up? The filmmakers seem to think reprehensible people who destroy the lives of others just for personal financial gain are hilarious. No thanks.
Sight & Sound: Plenty of visible finite detail and robust color to be found here, but the less than one-year-old film was shot on an Arri Alexa so it would be shocking to see any loss of picture quality from big screen to small. The sound is also suitably well-mixed.
The Goodies: The Identity Thief Blu-ray features what has to be the shortest gag reel I’ve ever seen (48 seconds), but admittedly providing of just as many laughs as the movie itself. Also included is a making of featurette packed with plenty of delusional statements from cast and crew. The comparison to Planes, Trains & Automobiles was especially exasperating. Beyond that is a sneezing of alternate takes, a featurette of the “comedy” of the film, and leading us on a tour of his character’s van round out the bonus content.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: If characters, motivations, and logical plotting are not prerequisites for your enjoyment of studio comedy, or if your fandom of McCarthy is astronomical, definitely pick this up. If you have recently been the victim of identity theft, you will probably find yourself seething with anger by the ten-minute mark.
Mad Max Trilogy—’s epic post-apocalyptic road movie trilogy centering on wasteland hero Max.
The Movie(s): The first two Mad Max films are absolute landmarks; triumphs of the genre. They would form the template for car stunts and post-apocalyptic action cinema for years to come. At a mere twenty-one years old, proved to be a formidable leading man. Oddly enough, despite being far and away the weakest of the trilogy, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome contains the majority of terminology and set pieces that would come to define these films to the casual film consumer. While Mad Max and Mad Max 2 (alias The Road Warrior) have been previously released on Blu-ray, this trilogy pack marks the first Blu-ray release of Beyond Thunderdome; also available separately from Warner Brothers.
Sight & Sound: Mad Max and The Road Warrior are both ports from previous Blu-ray releases, but the good news is that the transfers on those initial releases were stellar. The depth of contrast, particularly on Mad Max, is dazzling and the sound of the furious street machines raging across the outback is impressive despite being artificially spread to 5.1 from its original mono recording. Then…we come to Thunderdome. While its easy to understand why WB would put the least amount of effort into Beyond Thunderdome, the fact that it is the most recent of the three films and looks this bad is hard to excuse. Noisy at almost every turn, with only the bare minimum of contrast and a nagging flickering. The sound mix is decent, but does little to atone for the lousy picture quality.
The Goodies: Again, the first two movies are essentially just ports from the previous Blu-rays. As such, the featurettes and commentaries from the previous releases have been transferred over. The one major logistical difference being that Road Warrior has had its menu screen retrofitted with the obnoxious Warner Brothers menu icons that make it appear as if you’re watching the movie on a Fisher Price Baby’s First Blu-ray Player. Thunder Dome boasts only a single trailer in the extras section. The metal keep case is something of a bonus feature in and of itself.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: Despite its attractive packaging, this trilogy set is strictly for those who do not already own the Blu-ray releases of Mad Max and The Road Warrior. If you have the previous Blus of the first two, and are such a completionist that you must own Beyond Thunderdome, I'd recommend the standalone copy.
The Newsroom Season 1--After an appearance on a college campus turns into a public relations nightmare, news anchor Will McAvoy finds himself working with a brand new crew.
The Show: The Newsroom is a rallying cry; a love letter to the ideals of journalism. plies his masterful trade and crafts a drama brimming with both unflinching optimism and the confrontation of harsh truths. The second episode dips a bit, mostly in the shadow of the magnificent pilot, but the series rights the ship quickly. The cast is so captivating, and the writing of the show so exquisite, that the first season serves as an inspiration for anyone who strives for truth and/or those who create for a living.
Sight & Sound: Top notch picture quality, even considering the soft visual aesthetics at points. The difference in shooting formats between the pilot and the rest of the series is quite stark (the pilot shot on Super 16 film stock), but personally I enjoyed both sides of the film/digital coin. Though not a monumentally encompassing sound mix, the pulse and din of the ever-buzzing newsroom, as well as the intensive dialogue, is adeptly communicated by the front channels.
The Goodies: Commentaries on about half the episodes, and most feature Sorkin himself. Also included are deleted scenes, episode recaps and previews, a featurette on the newsroom itself, and a general discussion with Sorkin, , , , and .
Optimal Purchase Conditions: If you are a fan of Sorkin's work, this may very well be the best thing he's written since The West Wing. Similarly, if you count yourself an idealist enraptured by the bygone era of pure journalism, of the days of Murrow and Woodward and Bernstein, this is a show you need to be watching.
Shoot First, Die Later--A highly respected police detective is secretly on the take with the local organized crime element. When they ask him to recover a report from police archives, his secret is threatened.
The Movie: A standout entry in the under-appreciated exploitation niche known as poliziotteschi. It’s as violent as ’s other work, but there is an elevated emotional context for much of the brutality that gives the movie a far more legitimate visceral quality. The simplicity of the story allows for the characters and performances to take center stage. There are also quite a few jarring twists and turns that, while unexpected, never feel cheap.
Sight & Sound: Remarkably clean new transfer struck from the original 35mm print. There are a few hazy points that obscure finer detail, but given the age and obscurity of the title, the overall presentation is staggering. The folks over at Raro Video have even gone to the trouble of digitally restoring and improving the English subtitle translation. The audio is free of distortion; though cranking the volume is not ill-advised considering the limits of the original two-channel mix.
The Goodies: Raro has included on this release an interview with Di Leo as well as an interview with the film's second unit director Franco Lo Cascio. In addition both an English and Italian trailer are included. Most interesting however is the nearly twenty-page-long color booklet providing a wealth of information on the production of the film. It is reminiscent of a Criterion Collection release.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: If you're already a fan of poliziotteschi, you don't need me to tell you this is a must-have. However, if you are unfamiliar with the subgenre, and not a soul could blame you, preferences toward the likes of , early , and the Hong Kong actioner Infernal Affairs should make Shoot First, Die Later a blip on your radar screen.
The Star Chamber--Due to the rising number of heinous criminals being released on legal technicalities, a group of judges convenes to pass their own sentences...and immediate executions.
The Movie: The Star Chamber is not necessarily a slow burn thriller, but it also isn't afraid to take the time to develop its characters. Director allows creative and exciting framing to enhance otherwise restrained action set pieces so that the audience gets a taste for action while actually experiencing a methodically plotted mystery that delves into some very unsettling questions about the nature of justice.
Sight & Sound: The Star Chamber’s Blu-ray transfer is far from flawless, but it’s solid and quite respectable considering the unique challenges the film presents. Much of the movie is filmed in shadow; in half-lit houses and dim court rooms. Seriously, in what budget-stricken district does ' court reside that they can't turn on all the lights? All this darkness means that the black levels must be well-maintained to prevent a loss of contrast depth. At no point does noise crop up in these dark portions of the screen. Well done.
The Goodies: Absolutely none. In fact, the presence of a menu screen was somehow deemed a bonus feature and is therefore similarly absent. Bizarre.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: If you really enjoy the vigilante justice of Death Wish, but wish had been a committee instead of a single man, The Star Chamber is your movie. In all seriousness, fans of gritty courtroom/crime thrillers should pass favorable judgement on this Blu-ray.
Warm Bodies—Long after the zombie uprising, one particular walking corpse finds himself falling in love with the girlfriend of his latest human meal.
The Movie: Supernatural teen romances are hardly a novelty these days, but what is rare is the appearance of a worthwhile supernatural teen romance. On the surface, Warm Bodies appears to be courting disaster by tampering with zombie canon, but as any diehard fan of the living dead will tell you, the exact parameters of zombie lore are hopelessly nebulous and have been restructured several times over the last few decades. That in mind, what comes to the surface is a funny, charming, and sweet love story executed by two actors with a great deal of strength. The comedy largely comes from 's interior monologue, and his narration excels.
Sight & Sound: Despite the film’s expansive use of a muted, post-apocalyptically dreary color scheme, the visual presentation on the Blu-ray is striking. What is most astounding is that, despite the exceptional level of detail visible, Hoult's extensive zombie makeup never appears false and the high quality of the transfer actually allows for the appreciation of his subtle transition back to flesh tones. The sound is well-mixed, but given the infrequency of action sequences, one wonders if the 7.1 mix is entirely necessary.
The Goodies: The extras on the Warm Bodies Blu are in effect a massive EPK (electronic press kit). There are more featurettes than you could shake a tasty severed arm at, and they definitely range in amusement factor. However, the Zombie Acting Tips with is hysterical. Also enjoyable is the gag reel, which further illustrates Hoult's charisma and comedic sensibilities.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: If you were a big fan of Shuan of the Dead, you'll find plenty to like about Warm Bodes. Also strongly suggested for those who erroneously think Twilight represents the pinnacle of supernatural teen romance.
Check out next week's list for the latest Blu-ray releases.