DVD Reviews – Apr 22, 2009
It still slays me that a show like South Park that goes out of its way to have low-to-the-ground animation looks so damned great – especially on this South Park: The Complete Twelfth Season Blu-ray Disc box set (, Paramount). In fact, in addition to sheer technical prowess, the high-definition debut of the series really connects here. As any devout South Park fan knows, the show isn’t the most consistent beast in the world, but when this season truly connects (the Britney Spears episode is the first that comes to mind), it showcases a bravery and promotion of vision that no other entity on television would dare have. I even got to compare the BD presentation on this set to a buddy’s standard DVD, and the results are definitely noticeable: The 1080i transfers on this set really make colors pop, and fine detail comes across wonderfully.
In fact, it was almost unfair of me to watch something like My Two Dads: The Complete First Season (, Shout! Factory) directly after South Park on Blu-ray Disc, but sometimes that’s the way things go. This is the kind of nostalgia that will have one of two effects on those twenty- and thirty-somethings who say ‘Aw – I used to love that show!’ when they think of the show: It will either give you a warm, cuddly feeling or leave you utterly appalled that you ever had any kind of emotional reaction to such blantant sitcom-y schtick. Paul Reiser? Greg Evigan? Stacy Keenan? I think that might be enough of a review right there.
Speaking of unearthed 80s sitcom relics, where My Two Dads left this writer cringing with disdain, Mr. Belvedere: Seasons 1 and 2 (, Paramount) actually charmed me a bit. Sure, the Bob Uecker factor is at foghorn level throughout these discs, but the cranky charm of everybody’s favorite TV live-in butler is unavoidable here. Plus, it’s a pop culture trip to think about all those urban myths about the oldest son on the show actually being Marilyn Manson (it’s not true – or is it…?). And then there’s Family Ties: The Fifth Season (, Paramount), a release that is specifically for diehards and literally no one else. By its fifth go-round, the show was at least a year or two past its prime, and what was once an endearing investigation of baby-boomer family life appears on this DVD box set as…well, just normal everyday stuff – and what’s the fun in that?
And I’m not even sure where to begin with California Dreams: Seasons 1 and 2 (, Shout! Factory). This Saturday morning show from the creators of Saved by the Bell (there’s your first red flag) features a young pop band and their (mis)adventures. There are a couple goofy tidbits here and there, and the featurette included on this DVD set sheds a bit of light on the methods behind the show’s teeny-bop madness, but it never quite adds up to much. Let’s just say that I never thought I’d actually say out loud that I’d rather watch The Heights (how do you talk to an angel, anyway?). A show that I simply can’t fathom warming up to, however, is Caroline in the City. Caroline in the City: The Second Season (, Paramount) has the effortlessly cute Lea Thompson parading around like an idiot, spouting the kind of would-be career girl tripe that even Cosmopolitan would think twice about printing. The only thing scarier than this release is the concept that The Single Guy will soon be hitting DVD. It’s only a matter of time, people…
There’s better boob tube news from across the pond, thankfully. Midsomer Murders: Set 12 (, Acorn Media) is just about the best British mystery series out there, and this latest edition has our boys in fine form. The way Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) and his cohort Constable Ben Jones (Jason Hughes) interact with each other is sheer TV gold, and it doesn’t hurt that their black-comedy rapport is accompanied by some legitimately complex and intriguing murder mysteries. And even though Taggart: Set 1 (, Acorn Media) doesn’t have Midsomer Murders’ sleek, savvy style, any crime drama fan will be lassoed into this show from frame one. There’s more than enough drama and slippery criminality to the show, and the very Scottish way the four detectives at the center of the series work together adds to the show’s gritty draw.
You wanna see Gus cry like a little baby? Just pop in Marley & Me (, Buena Vista). The first 2/3 of the film is goofy, adorable fun, but as soon as the movie turns into an elongated this-is-how-we-put-our-dog-to-sleep sob-fest, it is impossible to escape it without emotional damage. But the film looks and sounds magnificent on this Blu-ray Edition, and there are a ton of cute featurettes and a fascinating dog training trivia track to add to the mix. It stands tall against Slumdog Millionaire (, Fox), which has officially hit ‘overplayed’ levels. Yes, the film looks lovely on this 1080p transfer (it was, after all, the first digitally-shot movie to win a cinematography Oscar), and Danny Boyle’s commentary – on which he’s joined by actors, producers and writers all associated with the film – is thorough and engaging, but even though I understand I’m in the minority in this regard, the film itself is a mess. Dev Patel makes a striking leading man, and there are moments in the picture’s Dickensian story that truly resonate, but Slumdog Millionaire is a movie heavy on shtick, and when it comes to shtick, you either buy into it or you don’t. I’ll pass.
Surprisingly more interesting is Bedtime Stories (, Buena Vista). Most critics poo-pooed this Adam Sandler flick last winter as being hyperactive kiddie-fare trash, but even though it’s not exactly a stellar picture on its own accord, it’s breezy, interesting, and often quite funny. And this 3-Disc edition should be the model for every high-definition release on the market: It comes with a Blu-ray Disc copy, a Digital Copy and a DVD copy of the film. Again, the supplements afforded the film aren’t great and I doubt that I’ll ever excitedly revisit it, but it’s nice to see a studio actually try to give their audience more bang for their buck.
Then there’s Doubt (, Buena Vista), a movie with more starpower than it knows what to do with. Meryl Streep and company all turn in laudable performances here, but while I’m sure it made for a very powerful stageplay, John Patrick Shanley’s cinematic adaptation of his prize-winning theatre piece is timid when it should be thundering and melodramatic when it should be intimate and introspective. Long story short: There’s a lot of screaming, a lot of crying and everybody gets a great ‘Oscar scene’ (no wonder all four main players from the film received nominations last year). The film does look and sound excellent, however, even if Shanley’s commentary track is almost defiantly difficult to get through.
Blu-ray Upgrade Decisions
Brokeback Mountain (, Universal)
Pros: Gotta be honest here: These cowboys get me every time. Even warmer and more tragically astute a few years after the barrage of release buzz, Brokeback Mountain really is one of the great love stories of modern cinema. And while I couldn’t tell much of a difference at all between this Blu-ray Disc presentation and the HD DVD edition of the film released a while back, the film definitely looks great here. There’s a bit of edge enhancement to mention, and the film isn’t always pristinely crisp in terms of detail, but for the most part, it still wows. And while we get an upgraded DTS-HD 5.1 sound mix, again, it is nearly identical to that on the HD DVD release. Long story short: It still looks and sounds just fine.
Cons: This is the FOURTH release of the film in the realm of home entertainment, and there still aren’t an appropriate number of bonus features here. It seems that with the way the film invaded the pop culture zeitgeist that there could be at least a documentary or a scholarly commentary track, but things here are pretty simple: A few featurettes, and that’s it. It may be a while before we get a truly comprehensive edition of the picture (if we ever do), but as it stands, while this is a good high-def release of the movie, it’s not a GREAT one.
The Verdict: It’s not a reference-quality edition, but Brokeback Mountain nevertheless remains a seminal modern movie. This Blu-ray Disc is definitely a step up from the film’s appearance on DVD, though, so if you haven’t upgraded, it might be time.
Winged Migration (, Sony)
Pros: A movie as light as air, Winged Migration may not be heavy on drama, but the documentary’s fluid investigation of birds and their methods of flight is enough to make you feel like you’re rising out of your chair while you watch.
Cons: The Blu-ray Disc presentation of this film, while a step up from the film’s presence on DVD, isn’t night-and-day. There are miniscule upgrades in the video and audio arenas (especially with the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound mix), but the bonuses are all shoehorned over from the film’s DVD, and at the end of the day, only true tech-nerds will feel the film’s high-def incarnation is that much better than the DVD.
The Verdict: A fine film, to be sure, but this isn’t one to rush out to buy. I’d rent it first and go from there.
No Country for Old Men (, Buena Vista)
Pros: So many recent Best Picture winners pale in repeat viewings (tried watching Crash lately?), but No Country For Old Men is a wonderful exception to that rule. Snapping The Coen Brothers back from a nearly decade-long slump, this dark, brazen thriller is one of the best suspense films of the last few years, and it just gets better and better every time you watch it.
Cons: This is a poopy ‘collector’s edition’. The transfers are identical to those on the film’s first Blu-ray Disc release in 2008, and the added bonus features here are redundant as Hell. The Coens don’t do commentaries, so that was too much to hope for, but the flimsy featurettes included here do very little to add to the film’s cultural status.
The Verdict: If you don’t already have it, now’s the time. If a No Country Blu-ray Disc already sits on your shelf, there’s no need to shell out the dough for this one
Pride & Prejudice (, Universal)
Pros: The transfers. A&E’s decision to open up the film to a full 1.78:1 aspect ratio not only makes it seem like one is watching the film for the first time, but its clarity and eye-popping punch is second-to-none. For those who have spent years adoring British miniseries in spite of their technical shortcomings, this new P&P transfer (and its lovely accompanying DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio sound mix) will literally leave you swooning.
Cons: Another forty bucks? P&P has been packaged and repackaged on an almost yearly basis, so between standalone DVD sets, this miniseries’ inclusion in various box sets and deluxe editions, a reservation about purchasing it again makes sense…
The Verdict: …but you gotta get past it. This Blu-ray Disc edition literally makes Pride & Prejudice shine. Rent it, watch it for five minutes and then tell me if you’re not sold…