REVIEW REMINDER ROUNDUP: Battle Royale, Wizards Digibook, Game of Thrones, and more...

I submit to you the latest review reminder roundup. It was an interesting batch of stuff last month. Highlights for me def included the emergence of Battle Royale and Wizards on Blu as well as the release of Melancholia and The Muppets. Game of Thrones Season One was nothing to sneeze at either. Totally capping off my month was the release of the 35th Anniversary Edition of I Claudius. 




CASABLANCA 70TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION


If you don't have Casablanca, and want a really nice version of it, this is worth the price. The box looks great on a shelf, and it comes with a large poster (folded), a leatherette case containing 4 nifty coasters from various club locations within the film and a large hardcover book with tons of neat photos and production info in it. It also contains all of the extras from the previous BluRay release that is (inexplicably) twice as much on Amazon. The main new extra is a DVD containing a documentary on Jack Warner. 


But the most important thing to know is that this release absolutely kicked my TV's butt!!!! It looks outstanding. They've upgraded the image with a 4k transfer and the audio is now lossless. WOW! If you don't have Casablanca, ask yourself why. Ask hard. Casablanca is food for the movie-lovers soul. There are hours upon hours of film history packed extras here in the special features. Simply the best treatment this film has ever had. There are even two commentary tracks, one featuring Roger Ebert and the other, film historian Rudy Behlmer. 


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I CLAUDIUS


How depressing is it to realize that I remember seeing this when it was first broadcast? The good news is that watching it made me feel anything but old. This was and is one of the crowning jewels in the history of PBS and featured a coterie of Shakesperean greats  including Brian Blessed, John Hurt, Derek Jacobi, and Patrick Stewart in their prime. The intrigue is palpable as Claudius relates, thru flashbacks, the major events of Roman history during a period that ranged through the death of Marcellus to his own death, Augustus search for an heir foiled by the wicked machinations of his wife Livia, and the subsequent reigns of Tiberius, Sejanus and the depraved Caligula. Though aged somewhat in presentation this show offers an unforgettable dramatic experience. 

The extras on this thing are great as well. You get extended versions of episodes one and two, a feature length behind the scenes doc, another feature length doc on a failed 1937 adaptation of the story, a short interview with Jacobi, a half hour look back at cast and director favorite scenes and an eight page booklet describing the historical accuracy of the show with a Julio-Claudian family tree. 


Best of all the mini-series looks better than it ever has. The source material has proven problematic on all previous releases of this thus far and while the results here are far from the broadcast standards of today they are much better. You'll know you're watching something that was made in 1976 but even the sound is nice and crisp. There are subs but I would be surprised if you needed to use them. 


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TO CATCH A THIEF


Hitchcock, even in his lesser form is nothing to, underestimate. To Catch a Thief on Blu is a stark reminder. This sharp upgrade in image quality showcases what the master was going for when he was making this "lesser" film and the end results are enough to make even the most casual film Hitch fan flash a fleeting smile for the glory days of Hollywood. This elegantly mannered suspense entertainment features Cary Grant and Grace Kelly at their most glamorous and offers a story full of exotic locales, gorgeous cinematography and lazy but fun twists and turns through a make believe world of honorable thievery and lovable rogues. As a confection it's almost pure sugar but it is greatly sweetened  by the sure hand of Hitch who escortss the viewer through the proceedings like the world's most entertaining tour guide. There are some very good extras here including a commentray from film historian Dr. Drew Casper. various featurettes, a gallery and original trailer.  


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THE ADVENTURES OF TIN TIN (Three-Disc Combo: Blu-ray 3D / Blu-ray / DVD / Digital Copy)


It's official, I don't care much for this film. I"ve tried and tried but I was largely nonplussed by this latest attempt to recapture the adventure by Steven Spielberg. I'm normally a staunch defender of his lighter side, but despite several larger than life action set pieces and some charming moments Tin-Tin seemed like...a cheap tin toy. Take away the incomparable art style of the tin-verse and you are left with surprisingly stale pot boiler narrative at best. This might be due to the mashing up of several TIn-Tin adventures (The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure, and The Crab with the Golden Claws) but somehow it all feels done before. It doesn't help that the action sequences are so over the top that they feel as if the filmmakers are trying to make up for the predictability of the rest of the show. Stop this film on any one frame and I'm sure it's gorgeous but those gorgeous frames are wrapped around too much cliche to have much of an impact once they get moving. There are a lot of extras here (no commentary of course but a lot of featurettes that add up to a feature length doc) and it should be stated that the sound and picture are simply outstanding. This is gorgeous to look at and listen to and the 3D is top notch. Am I just getting harder as I grow older? 


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GAME OF THRONES THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON


I confess I'm not yet a slavish devotee as I'm only a couple episodes in. But, they were dynamite and  the presence of Peter Dinklage and the knowledge that he plays an increasingly prominent role in the show means I probably soon will be. The bazillion characters and countless levels of intrigue should have derailed any attempt to adapt  the Song of Ice and Fire series but by all accounts the opposite is true. Like I, Claudius reviewed above, this is serious drama in an unforgettable setting that just screams pick your favorite, villain, heroine, noble, knight etc. It has the added benefit of amazing production values. I would put this show on a par with Deadwood for the level of artistry brought to bear on bringing the show to life as I'm to understand it gets even better as the season goes on. 


The extras are insane. Most of the episodes have commentaries, and they even included author George R. Martin, and the rest of the featurettes and supplemental material can only be faulted for leaving you wanting a little more. All in all I can't remember HBO treating another show this well. 


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THE TOWN ULTIMATE COLLECTOR'S EDITION


This is a decidedly odd choice on the part of Warner.  The Town is a very good film but I'm not sure I understand why they think a release in this format was good marketing. 

Plus they just haven't added on enough here. You get an optional alternate ending,  but the commentary is the same as on the last release, the transfer seems the same and the featurette offers Affleck repeating things he covers in the commentary. You also get various paper ephemera but nothing I would call super nice. The hardcover book is nice but typical of the kind of thing in such sets these days.  


I will say it is a pleasure to see Ben Affleck continue to wear the mantle of writer/director so well. His pedigree now includes directing and screenplay credits for Gone Baby Gone (2008), and The Town (2010) with an upcoming directorial project, Argo, due to hit theaters in September 2012. Perhaps most noteworthy in his short career has been  how capable he shows himself to be handling a powerhouse cast. In a sea of forgettable crime caper flicks The Town offers plenty of complex adult drama to go along with the heady thrills of bank robbery and car chases. 


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HAPPY FEET 2 (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + UltraViolet Digital Copy) 


I love the original Happy Feet. For one thing it has a great soundtrack that, unlike other kiddie films (cough...Chipmunks cough...) offers fresh takes on old classics using it's music in a narrative rather than just pasting songs in to help sell records. It's a gorgeous looking film as well. Happy Feet 2 gets some things right but feels way more like leftovers lacking any real punch. Darn shame too. As much as I wish George "Mad Max"  Miller would do another action movie he turned in fabulous work on the first Happy Feet, as well as the Babe films. Babe: Pig in the City alone should make anyone have interest in his family film work. There are a few standard extras here in the way of featurettes and download that offers kiddies the chance to play games with the characters etc. But isn't there something insidious about that considering the whole film feels so perfunctorily a commercial for the possible direct to video franchise? 


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BATTLE ROYALE: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION 


I haven't bothered tracking down the myriad versions of these films that have been available abroad. Suffice to say that there are many, and some of them are no doubt nicer than this one, in terms of packaging and extras. But for those, who like me, just want an easy purchase of a solid edition of both BR films this comes as a godsend. The BluRay transfers offer noticeable upgrade in image and audio and you get the theatrical cut of the first film, a director's cut, and the theatrical cut of Battle Royale II:Requiem. 

The book style case looks and feels solid and I've been slipping the discs in and out with no problem and no damage. Oddly, all the extras are packed onto the fourth disc in the set. The lack of an audio commentary here is troubling for all sorts of reasons but chief among them is that director Kinji Fukasaku died while making BR II and though that film is far from his best work, even it speaks of an artist of deep social insight.  There are certainly a host of scholars, historians, critics etc. who could have done a fascinating overview of where these films sit in Fukasaku's oeuvre and what they have to say about the society that spawned them. 


Still the extras here are so substantial it's difficult to find much fault. The Making of Battle Royale clocks in at just under an hour and between that and several other featurettes the set contains more than enough behind the scenes stuff, solid interviews and  promotional stuff to be worth picking up. The first Battle Royale is a film of exceptional power but I was amazed not only at how good it looked but how timeless it seems. The dystopian conventions it presents are often second to it's power as a piece of satire and social commentary. Battle Royale II, not so much. 


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GAINSBOURG


I have ample interest in seeing this biopic of French singer, songwriter, actor and director Serge Gainsbourg but haven't been able to yet. Things that are sure to get me to watch it very soon include the following. Gainsbourg, was the father of Charlotte Gainsbourg, the actress/musician that you may have seen in Lars von Trier's Anti-Christ, Lemmings and other very, very good films. It is an adaptation of Joann Sfar's original graphic novel which also marks his directorial debut. By all accounts the film is a visual delight. It also stars the fabulous Doug Jones as a masked muse figure who haunts Gainsbourg. As if all of that weren't enough, Gainsbourg also tells the story of a legendary pop music icon, lover of beautiful women, whose career was cut short by a wild lifestyle that left him an embittered alcoholic, dead at the relatively young age of 62. Interested yet?The extras here are good, but not great. On the first disc we get a ten minute Behind the scenes featurette and a comparison of the beautiful watercolor storyboards of writer director Sfar. The second disc (a DVD) contains a lenghty documentary on Sfar and his remarkable career. 


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A LONELY PLACE TO DIE 


I missed this at Fantastic Fest last year but did get a chance to chat with director Julian Gibney. He was affable and enthusiastic about his film and having seen it, I can understand why. There's a lot to like about this tense, well-paced, action-thriller. It's full of imaginative twists and turns, has great characters and ultimately delivers on the promise of it's baleful title. The story concerns a group of climbers who find a kidnapped girl in a remote mountain location and must subsequently make their escape while pursued by her captors. Meanwhile the girl's father, a notorious drug lord has his own ideas about getting the girl back. This is no Deliverance (1972) or Eden Lake (2008) but A Lonely Place To Die is definitely above average genre fare and the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking at times. Every year I keep a running tally of films I absolutely have to get to and this was on that list simply by virtue of it being picked for FF. If you have a similar list stick this on it, you won't be disappointed. No extras here other than the trailer. 


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MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL


Things that make me smile. The films Equinox (1970) and Carnival of Souls (1962) being picked up by The Criterion Collection a few years ago, Gary Busey managing to maintain a career. And, forever, no matter how old I get, the phrase, "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries."  Originally shot on 16mm and always a bit crappy looking Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975) arrives on BluRay looking quite spruced up and with all the extras from the outstanding two disc DVD release of a few years ago. What else is there to say except that this offers a very solid image and audio upgrade? Frankly this is such a great release all the way around I would call it a must upgrade situation for anyone. There's even a nifty App for your iphone. 


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MELANCHOLIA


If Antichrist (2010) was Lars von Trier's way of saying "I'm depressed and I want you to be too" then Melancholia is his light at the end of the tunnel. The two films would make an almost unbearable, if thoroughly appropriate, double feature. I love Melancholia. In my own struggles with depression there is always the constant voice, matter of fact in tone, that says, "You do not matter. Nothing you do will ever make a difference. Someday you will die and leave behind nothing but a meaningless series of thoughts and actions." At it's heart Melancholia is a tale of a woman fighting this same voice and reaching forward in time of great tragedy because of a revelation that she has the power to love- even at the end of the world. This is powerful stuff for those open to von Trier's heart on the sleeve symbolism. The video here is simply perfect and the audio darn near. Extras are light however. There are just over half an hour of featurettes on this release and really no other features to speak of. 


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IMMORTALS


Perhaps the most important thing that can be said about Tarsem Singh is that despite an uncanny knack for composing breathtaking images he himself has always eclipsed his films in the press. The Cell (2000) and The Fall (2008) seemed to herald something special, an artist on the rise and while it's probably too early to write obits for a man whose only made four films this, and Mirror, Mirror, do not bode well. That is to say, his legacy is likely to be anything but immortal. Only completists will need to see this. There's some gorgeous stuff in here but compared to 300 this just seems like very well dressed (even half-baked) narrative left-overs. Extras include 2 featurettes which total out at about half an hour, another half hour of deleted and alternate scenes, and a presentation of material from the graphic novel. Even the visual sensibility of Immortals seems a tad off. There's a murkiness that seems inherent to the way the film, despite viewings on both a well calibrated 52 inch LCD and a likewise calibrated 60 inch plasma. And while Tarsem's previous films seem to choose every single object in the frame with great care for color and composition there are props and costumes here that almost render some sequences cheap- even silly looking. 


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WIZARDS 35TH ANNIVERSARY BLURAY BOOK


I'm not sure what to say about Wizards except that I was excited to hear about it coming out on Blu in Digibook format. I could take or leave the packaging but it did mean a review copy would be coming my way. Having gotten it I can say the book is super nifty. But the real joy was in watching the film yet again. Wizards exists in a moment of my childhood that rendered me speechless. It was an adult sci-fi, cartoonish in aspect, but deadly serious in purpose and visually unlike anything I had seen before. I'm not a slavish devotee of Bakshi, I think he relied too much on his beloved rotoscoping and his stories never lived up to the promise of his animation, but there is no doubt animation history would be emptier if he hadn't poured his independent heart and soul into getting his unique projects made. I'd be hard pressed to say which I prefer more, this or Fire and Ice (1983) but you can't really go wrong either way. Extras here include a Director's Commentary,  and a half hour doc on Bakshi as well as various promotional odds and ends. 


The film has certainly never looked or sounded better than it does here even if it there's still room for some improvement. What's really needed is some sort of restoration from the source material but this is a strong, strong presentation


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THE MUPPETS (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy + Soundtrack Download Card) 


Jason Segel deserved the Academy Award he won for Best Original Song this year.. But beyond the virtues of Muppet or a Man he deserves a medal. This is a film that manages to resurrect a national treasure and remind everybody what they've been missing. Only a cynical, self-important hipster wouldn't laugh out loud and sing along to this ode to the goofy twelve year old in all of us. 


Besides one of the great gag reels of the year this also includes about every single extra you could ask for. Audio Commentary (sadly not with muppets but featuring Segel and Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin, all the spoof trailers including some unreleased ones, a "read-through" with the muppets (that sort of makes up for the lack of their presence on the AC), and there's even an extended version of Chris Cooper's rap number. The three-disc combo pack also includes a DVD, Digital copy and a download of the entire soundtrack. Lastly the picture and audio here are absolutely stunning. My advice? Invite some kids over and make a root beer drinking game out of trying to spot lint fuzz on the characters. That's how good the picture is. 


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TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2-Disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy + UltraViolet) 


The 1970's BBC version of this is held sacred by many. There's no doubt that Alec Guiness carries away the role of Smiley and as adapted from John Le Carre's seminal spy thriller, the made for TV version is an elegant wonder, well worth watching for anyone who likes serious adult drama. So why make a big screen version? There are lots of reasons, but chief among them is it affords potential viewers the chance to see Gary Oldman in all his subtle mastery. He plays the role of Smiley with an understated world weariness that gets right at the heart of the character every bit as effectively as Guinness did. He's also surrounded by an outstanding cast that includes hardly a young pretty face in the bunch. This is serious adult drama dressed up in the clothes of cinematic espionage and it could hardly be more elegant or absorbing dezpite the lack of explosions. 


There are some very good extras here. Why the Audio Commentary with director Tomas Alfredson and Oldman isn't mentioned on the packaging I don't know. It would be a major sell point for me. You also get an hours worth of interviews, that include cast members and author John le Carre, a  short featurette and a very short series of deleted scenes. 


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