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This Week in DVD: 2/7/12

Lady and the Tramp

Lady and the Tramp (1955, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, & Hamilton Luske) – While Lady and the Tramp has languished somewhat as one of Walt Disney’s most slept on animated features, the stunning Blu-ray transfer of this simple, heart-warming classic reasserts the film as the game changer it truly was at the time. The first ever animated film to be presented in the CinemaScope aspect ratio (2:55, even more than the standard Scope ratio of 2:35) and more than 18 years in the making by the time of its release, this was the project Disney was overseeing at the same time he was watching Disneyland being built. The hard work shows through and Walt’s fingerprints are all over this one despite what must have been constant distraction and numerous long days.

The story of a young female dog of means befriending and falling for a street mutt that always stays one step ahead of the pound keeps things simple, but Lady and the Tramp actually comes across as one of Disney’s most adult features. Themes of animal and child endangerment and a potentially failing marriage are all out in the open for audiences to see, but it’s all tempered by a sweet story full of love, warmth, and most importantly a message of kindness and respect towards every living creature.

The picture quality on the Diamond Edition Blu-ray (which comes with DVD and Digital copies of the film) looks better than anything Disney has attempted with their catalogue titles thus far. The streets and backgrounds pop and the old school hand drawn animation doesn’t look cheap even when blown up onto a huge screen, a common problem with some older titles finding their way to Blu. The 7.1 sound mix doesn’t really add a heck of a lot and might be slight overkill, but it’s still sharp and crisp.

Much like with Disney’s recent release of Real Steel, Lady and the Tramp makes use of the Second Screen feature which allows users with a laptop or portable device to view conceptual drawings and 360 degree looks through the Disney archives while watching the film uninterrupted on their television, but the real treat to the Second Screen this time around is a branching feature that allows viewer to actually hear and see what the story meetings for the film were like. It’s a treat almost unprecedented for Disney completists and animation fans. Also included are all of the special features from the original DVD release, which include numerous featurettes, trailers, and assorted goodies. It’s a must have for fans of the film and definitely worth a look to the passing consumer.

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Texas Killing Fields - Sam Worthington

Texas Killing Fields (2011, Ami Canaan Mann) – Coming direct to DVD in Canada following a limited release in US cinemas last fall, Mann (daughter of famed director Michael Mann, who produces here) delivers a heartily reliable crime procedural about a real life case involving an extremely inhospitable bit of land just outside of a small Texas town.

Former New York City detective Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has recently moved to Texas City, Texas with his family and finds himself partnered with hard-nosed local homicide detective Mike Souder (Sam Worthington). While in the middle of investigating a homicide and dealing with a young girl from a rough family that’s constantly wandering the streets at night (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), the partners receive a call from a detective in a neighbouring community (Jessica Chastain) about something that will eventually bring them all face to face with the same people, the same problems, and a notorious dumping ground for bodies where even the cops fear to tread.

While the film gets off to a fast and almost disorienting start that makes it hard to keep the relationships between the characters straight, it settles into a more conventional and even handed groove, with Mann deftly sublimating a lot of genre clichés in the process. The NYC cop is the religious one, while the local is the devout atheist, and the female cop is smarter and stronger than both of the males in many respects. The cast all rises to the material with Worthington and Moretz delivering capable and engaging performances. Chastain is still as great as ever, and she even gets to throttle as many people here as she did in The Debt. The real standout here, however, is Morgan who gives the best performance of his career as a man becoming not so much corrupted by the case, but just increasingly burnt out and aggravated. The camera loves Morgan here and it’s almost impossible to take one’s eyes off him for any reason while he’s on screen.

Not a lot to talk about on the technical side of this one. No special features aside from an interesting director’s commentary, and the picture and sound quality are as good as one would expect from someone who started learning filmmaking at the hands of Michael Mann.

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Anonymous

Anonymous (2011, Roland Emmerich) – The idea that famed disaster film auteur Roland Emmerich would make a competent film about the controversy behind the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Sure, it isn’t the most historically accurate thing in the world and he still manages to work explosions into his film, but regardless of the name truly behind the world’s most famous plays, Shakespeare was a populist in an oddly similar way to how Emmerich is perceived today.

Pulling one story from a myriad of possible conspiracy theories surrounding the true identity of the Bard from Stratford, Emmerich and writer John Orloff settle upon telling the tale of Edward DeVere (Rhys Ifan), who because of his nobility as the Earl of Oxford and a past sexual relationship with Queen Victoria (Joley Richardson as a younger woman and Vanessa Redgrave in old age) found himself unable to stage and take credit for his written works. Instead DeVere delegated to perceived firebrand and local enfant terrible Ben Johnson (Sebastien Armesto), who then put the name of a drunken, borderline illiterate actor (Rafe Spall, having a ball as the “real” Shakespeare) to the works to avoid jail time of his own.

Emmerich and Orloff craft a unique and compulsively watchable tale of intrigue and deception, but it’s hard not to shake how hokey it all comes across at times. Emmerich doesn’t do subtle well (then again, neither did Shakespeare), but no matter what side of the scholarly debate one comes down on, they can all agree that it’s a bit much by today’s standards. Orloff’s script has the melodramatic drive that would’ve made this a smash hit on the big screen fifty years ago, but I actually mean that as a compliment. It’s a very “old timey” sort of over the top to the point where it almost feels classical by default.

There aren’t a lot of extras on the stand alone Blu-ray, but there are a few deleted and extended scenes and some nifty featurettes about the film’s casting and visual effects. The commentary track from Emmerich and Orloff is mostly self-congratulatory back slapping, but at times Orloff is able to get the usually reticent and distracted Emmerich to give a few nice tidbits of information. A featurette featuring the cast and crew chiming in on their thoughts regarding Shakespeare holds more useful insight than the commentary does. The disc also has a glorious transfer that really brings out the gorgeous production design and natural lighting of the film, with even the dirt and grime coming across crystal clear.

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A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas (2011, Todd Strauss-Schulson) – One would think that it shouldn’t be very hard to make a good looking Blu-ray out of a film that was shot digitally and was only in theatres three months ago, but apparently not. Forgoing the usual “wait until next year to put a Christmas movie on video” philosophy, the latest adventures of cinemas new favourite stoners arrives in a cheap, dispiriting package in the middle of February. It’s a severe shame because the movie itself is quite good and far better than the treatment it’s being given here.

After six years apart and after finding new best friends, Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are brought together again at Christmas by a package addressed to Harold mistakenly delivered to his former roommate. The present, a giant joint, ends up accidentally burning down the prized Christmas tree of Harold’s overbearing and threatening future father-in-law (Danny Trejo), leading the duo to team up on an all night run through New York City to find an exact replacement before Harold’s future family comes back from midnight mass. In their travels they run afoul of a Ukranian mob boss (Elias Koteas), get drugged by some teenagers, get a baby hooked on cocaine, turn into claymation characters, inherit a creepy waffle making robot from their old, cracked out friend Neil Patrick Harris, and they shoot Santa out of the sky.

It should do without saying that the film doesn’t play as well at home to begin with unless you have a 3-D television and grab the 3-D Blu-ray, since a lot of the gags rely quite heavily on the technology. Subplots involving Harold and Kumar’s new best friends (Amir Blumenfeld and Thomas Lennon) aren’t very funny in comparison to what the stars normally do on their own, but the best parts of the film involving the Wafflebot, NPH, and the generally sweet and believable interactions between Harold and Kumar remain intact. It doesn’t match the original film, but it’s still a considerable improvement over the duo’s second outing.

However, despite how decent the film remains, this package doesn’t do the film the slightest bit of justice. The sound is just fine, but the digital transfer is inexplicably abominable. Occasionally the film will seem slightly pixelated or fuzzy for no good reason even in scenes that didn’t utilize the 3D gimmick. It’s a Blu-ray that looks almost like bootleg quality, and the bigger the screen the more noticeable and maddening the flaws will seem. As for the extras, the “Extra Dope Edition” Blu-ray houses an extended cut of the movie running seven minutes longer that the theatrical cut, but it’s all just added dialog and extensions to the claymation sequence and a bit more with NPH in heaven pissing off Jesus after seemingly dying in the previous film. The added scenes are noticeable even to those who haven’t seen the film since there’s a noticeable difference in audio quality between them and the rest of the film. The special features aren’t all that special. There’s three go-nowhere deleted scenes, a bunch of fake, unfunny rants from Thomas Lennon, and a whole three minutes devoted to talking about the claymation sequence that says nothing more than “Whoa guys, we made a claymation sequence!”. This one probably should’ve waiting until the holidays to be released and maybe it will get cleaned up before then, but in this condition there’s nothing particularly jolly about it.

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Also out this week: Look guys, I know Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I gets released this week. I know that’s the star attraction, but the truth is that I couldn’t procure a review copy of the film before the column had to go up. If you guys really want me to do Twilight, leave a comment and I’ll consider throwing it in for next week if I can get a copy.

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