This week is one of those weeks with so much brand new Blu-ray and DVD content, I wish I could just cuddle under my covers through Friday and power through TV shows like Major Crimes and The Newsroom, and movies like The Emperor’s New Groove 2-Movie Collection (never discount Disney’s two-for-one Blu-ray deals). Unfortunately, it would have taken a time machine or unemployment to have found the time to explore the nooks and crannies of each of the great Blu-ray and DVD releases this week, but hopefully this column will still be able to guide you into making the best purchases.
Read on to learn about some of June 11th’s best releases, and maybe even a few that may have slipped under your radar.
Oz The Great And Powerful Blu-ray
Oz the Great and Powerful is a unique tale spawned from a great premise. More than 100 years after L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and decades after Oz made its big screen debut via MGM, director Sam Raimi and writers Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire have put together a backstory loosely based on Baum’s other Oz novels. The original little tale taps into fantasy and imagination, while paying homage to the classic that came before it.
Oz The Great and Powerful follows Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a two-bit magician who gets caught in a tornado and ends up in the land of OZ. There, he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch who immediately falls in love with him, and Finley (Zach Braff), a winged monkey who becomes loyal to the magician. Eventually, we meet two other witches, played by Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz. The film is a colorful fantasy epic populated by winged monkeys and witches, china cities and out-of-this-world plants, but all is not well in Oz and it is up to Oscar to find the good in himself and determine who is a good witch and who is the wicked one.
The film was dazzling in theaters and even at home on a regular Blu-ray, it holds up well. Like The Wizard of Oz, Raimi begins his film in black and white before popping into his fantastical world in full color. Everything about this opening sequence sets fans up for a gorgeous and engaging adventure story, but it doesn’t all work.
While the visionary look of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the world building portions of the narrative never fall flat, the story is sometimes unappealing. The script and screenplay are carefully written and work in a lot of ways, but the finished product lacks the spark needed to invest us in the story or its characters. There’s no emotional pull related to either element and there’s not enough wit to propel the 2-hour (plus) movie forward. Part of this has to do with the sort of character Franco is playing, but the deeper problem is that we spend so much time traveling around Oz, we don’t get enough intimate moments with the characters. All in all, Oz the Great and Powerful is a technical achievement that's missing movie magic, and even a lovely score by Danny Elfman can’t wholly save the project.
Fans can order the set over at Amazon.
Best Special Feature: Disney has put together a set full of behind-the-scenes footage. If you want to spend some time with the cast and crew, you’ll enjoy some of the bonus features immensely. However, my favorite bit was the promotional segment “Walt Disney and the Road to Oz.” Sure, this extra gets a little mushy when discussing Walt’s love for Oz and his desire to create a wondrous narrative about Baum’s world, but a little Disney sap is far from the worst thing in the world. There's also a lot of jerking off to Walt in the segment, but we get the history of pretty much every Oz project in existence and how Walt’s hope for an Oz project eventually led to Mary Poppins.
Other Special Features:
Second Screen Experience
“My Journey In Oz By James Franco”
“China Girl and the Suspension of Disbelief”
“Before Your Very Eyes: From Kansas to Oz”
“Mr Elfman’s Musical Concoctions”
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters Blu-ray
Fans of horror, fairy tales, and the macabre will be right at home in Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. The movie plays with genre and mixes gruesome violence with creatures right out of fairy and folk tales. Despite it’s fairy tale roots, Hansel & Gretel is a gleeful R-rated flick created for a very specific type of grown-up.
We first meet Hansel and his sister Gretel as children, where they are going through the motions of the famous Grimm fairy tale. Left alone in the woods, the two manage to defeat an evil witch and later find out they have a knack for the profession. As grown-up witch hunters, Hansel and Gretel are played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, who both play characters that are far more detailed than their child counterparts. Hansel, for instance, has developed diabetes from eating so much of the candy house. That may seem groanworthy, but Hansel & Gretel is actually populated by details and facts that nod both at modern day society and the superstitions of the past. Audiences can either roll with details like these, or hate watch them, but the movie is more enjoyable for those who are able to do the former.
I’m more of the audience for Grimm, a dark retelling of some of the Grimm Brothers’ wildest creatures than I am for Hansel & Gretel, which chooses campiness and gore over more serious storytelling. However, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters certainly has an audience built in, and if you are wanting a fun and rollicking but maybe not so thoughtful ride, it may be worth investing a few hours and more than a few dollars in Paramount Home Entertainment’s flick.
You can order the set over at Amazon.
Best Special Feature: We first gave fans a glimpse at the “Meet Edward the Troll” segment yesterday. While there are a couple of more in-depth extras on the disc, I particularly liked this one. In a world where CGI has become commonplace, I appreciate that the film used a real person and a real costume to put together a troll with a full range of movement. Seeing how a troll can come to life in real time and space is a pretty unique experience and I found it more fascinating than some of the other behind-the-scenes looks.
Other Special Features:
“Reinventing Hansel & Gretel”
“The Witching Hours”
The Newsroom Blu-ray
HBO’s The Newsroom has a lot going for it in the first season. The show has a built-in audience thanks to Aaron Sorkin and offers an all-star cast, led by Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, John Gallagher Jr., Alison Pill, Sam Waterston, Jane Fonda, Dev Patel, Olivia Munn, and more. The writing is tightly woven and the characters in the program are complicated without ever seeming silly or convoluted. The biggest problem with Season 1 of The Newsroom is that it can’t decide whether it wants to be a program about creating the news or a program about human interaction and relationships.
Set in the recent past, The Newsroom tells the story of news anchor Will McAvoy (Daniels) who hires on his former girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Mortimer) to produce his program and change the way his office puts out the news. The crew spends long days, as well as many nights together, and it's no surprise that the show often features emotional overloads and plenty of sexual tension between its characters. This sort of melodrama actually works for the program, but Season 1 also spends a lot of time detailing what society perceives TV news should be and what McAvoy’s team thinks it should be.
This leads us to a secondary problem with The Newsroom during its first season. Not only does the show split time between breaking news and developing personal stories, when it is breaking news, it can’t decide if it wants to be an objective look at how news breaks or a partisan take real issues. It likes to think it’s both, but it can’t be. Mixing melodrama with two separate ideas about the news makes The Newsroom a schizophrenic program, and sharp writing and clever ideas can't change that.
Despite these problems, character development has always been an area where Sorkin has thrived and there are enough well-developed characters to enjoy The Newsroom that it should be worth sticking around for another season, in spite of the drama’s problems. Honestly, even if most of the characters weren’t so carefully crafted, McAvoy is complicated and weird, and offers both a fragile side and an increasingly confident one that makes watching the Newsroom worth it just to see what antics the character will get up to each week. There’s not a lot of characters on television that deserve more than four adjectives, but McAvoy is one of them, and, like McAvoy himself, with a little work The Newsroom could shape up into a show that knows exactly what it wants and what it is capable of accomplishing.
Best Special Feature: I’ve definitely gone on and on in the past about how nice HBO’s sets are. However, for those who aren’t regular readers of this column, The Newsroom Blu-ray comes in an excellently packaged set that also offers DVD and digital copies of the The Newsroom: The Complete First Season. The set is pretty and peppered with mentions of the news network, ACN, which totally works for the series.
If you are already an avid fan of the series, you probably have caught the “Inside the Episode” segments HBO often makes available after an episode airs, as well as online. These are also packaged as part of the set, and while the audio commentaries get more in depth for each episode, the “Inside the Episode” segments offer fans a unique window into the production. Plus, they are each short, but jam-packed with information, so it isn’t hugely stressful to sit through each of them, as it can be for the audio commentaries.
Other Special Features:
Audio Commentary, Episode 1
Audio Commentary, Episode 3
Audio Commentary, Episode 4
Audio Commentary, Episode 6
Audio Commentary, Episode 10
“Mission Control: Behind the Scenes Look”
Roundtable with the cast and producers
House of Cards DVD
House of Cards tells the tale of Frank and Claire Underwood (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright), a Washington D.C. power couple made up of a Congressional Whip and an enterprising charity runner. The Underwoods will stop at nothing to ensure they have gotten as far ahead in the political realm as possible. For Frank, this includes leaking information to journalist Zoe (Kate Mara) and blackmailing other congressional members, including rep. Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), to do his bidding. Similar to Frank, Claire is cold, and has no problem firing members of her staff to get ahead.
Like Starz’s Boss, Netflix’s drama is all about power plays and how far a person is willing to go to achieve a goal. Occasionally the plots border on the unbelievable, but within the context of the series’ tone and because the characters and dialogue are so carefully written, the audience should have no trouble buying into the series wherever the writers go in Season 1. It’s all the more impressive considering House of Cards is a relatively early outing for Netflix’s original programming.
Netflix is changing the way that some people watch television, releasing all of Season 1 in the same moment. Presumably, the DVD set is for people who don’t have the subscription streaming service or, for some reason, would prefer a physical copy of the drama. I wouldn’t call Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s House of Cards set the nicest thing I’ve ever seen, but it certainly offers a secondary way to watch the series for audiences who haven’t bought in to Netflix, yet, even though the list price for the DVD set is $55, whereas Netflix packages start at only $7.99 a month.
Other June 11 Releases:
Burn Notice: Season Six DVD
Atlantis 2-Movie Collection Blu-ray
Lilo & Stitch 2 Movie Collection Blu-ray
Major Crimes: The Complete First Season DVD
Ring of Fire
Save the Date
Betty & Coretta DVD
Amazing Race & Top Chef superfan with a pinch of Disney fairy dust thrown in. If you’ve created a rom-com I’ve probably watched it.
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