The Shelf Space Awards: July 2012

Fred Topel is back with the best, worst and weirdest Blu-ray releases of the month. 

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


This month’s Blu-ray releases were heavily weighted towards the classic releases. When I say classics, I don’t just mean the acclaimed classics. I mean films that were significant to us despite what critics or history books would say. I was very happy to see that those personal classics were treated with as much respect as the A-list titles in July’s Blu-ray slate.


The Sixth Time’s The Charm Award

Having only seen Detention five times in theaters, screenings and festivals, I definitely needed a sixth viewing on Blu-ray. Thankfully there is “Cheat Mode,” a video commentary that points out even more subtle tidbits in the multi-layered plot. Video sound bites with writer/director Joseph Kahn and screenwriter Mark Palermo, and cast members Josh Hutcherson, Allison Woods, Shanley Caswell Aaron David Johnson and basically every supporting actors are cut together for a pace as fast as the movie itself. No dead spots like most commentaries. As for what I noticed the sixth time that I didn’t in the past five, well, Blu-ray helped me out with this. While Detention itself is a perfectly crisp vision of digital photography, the film within the film Cinderhella is degraded to look like 35mm film, a distinction I only noticed on Blu-ray. Joseph Kahn fought Sony to put this limited release out on Blu-ray, so show them he’s right by buying the Blu-ray. 


The Classic Award

Warner Brother’s big box set for Singin’ in the Rain has a lot of frills, but the movie itself is the most glorious. As with all their classic library films, Singin’ has been restored in what looks like beyond HD. Picture is perfectly clear, bright colors via Technicolor and a portrait of old Hollywood that looks like it could be today, except for the fashions and stars who are no longer with us. Gene Kelly’s smile is just charm incarnate in HD. While not as large a box or as hard a marketing push, the Studio Canal collection Le Grande Illusion looks mighty nice too. Crisp black and white, grain minimized but authentic, subtle shades of gray (literally, but I guess figuratively too.)


The Week with Marilyn Award

The Forever Marilyn Collection actually has seven movies in it, so you could spend a week with Marilyn watching one a night. These Blu-rays are unreal. The pictures are super sharp and clear, with insanely bright colors in all the song and dance costumes (the pink dresses and red steps, you know the scene.) The cinemascope films like How to Marry a Millionaire look even more epic (and a tad wider than the usual letterbox). In River of No Return with its brown western setting, the colorful song and dance costumes stand out even more. But then Marilyn standing out in the midwestern plain, she’s luminous. In Seven-Year Itch you see the gritty detail of the subway grates as the angelically smooth Marilyn holds court above them. You see a tad of film grain if you’re looking for it, a little more in There’s No Business Like Show Business, but for movies I’m used to seeing as old standards in the archives, these Blu-rays make them look real and current. Some Like it Hot and The Misfits are previous releases, but the five new ones are stunning and worth the whole set.


New Studio Movie Award

With all these classics and old favorites coming my way, The Three Stooges was pretty much the only new release I focused on in July. It looks great like a digital new release, perfectly clear picture and crisp frame for all the slapstick to unfold. I’m pretty sure you see a Sofia Vergara nip slip when she launches Craig Bierko over a wall. If you liked Casa de mi Padre, that looks good too. Bright western lighting, the kind that looks like the film itself is sweating, with minor digital noise flares. 


The Indie Movie Award

Okay, I guess this is a new release too, but I wanted to distinguish 4:44 Last Day on Earth because it is one of those surreally clear Blu-rays. The little seen Abel Ferrara movie is full of details to see in its interior single location, an art studio with splatters and grit. It’s also stark for the close-up intimate portraits of intense actors’ faces, which I find lovely.


The Hi-Def Concept Award

Coincidentally two very high concept movies came to Blu-ray this month. Silent House is essentially a single take, and Brake is Stephen Dorff trapped in a trunk the whole movie. With its digital photography allowing the long takes (seamlessly spliced together for the continuous effect), Silent House is 100% clear and gorgeous in the isolated setting, and as well in the low light house at night. Brake holds up well too for its limited light and setting, but flares up with digital noise a bit more. 


The Catalog Award

Warner Brothers released two batches of catalog titles in June for a whopping total of 13 old favorites on Blu-ray. On July 10 we got Altered States, Coma, Brainstorm, The Astronaut’s Wife, Spawn and Outland. On July 17 we got Hard to Kill, Next of Kin, Butterfly Effect, Butterfly Effect 2, Frequency, Just Cause, A Perfect Murder, Murder in the First, and oh, Mean Streets. These are from all different eras and genres of film, but all hold up really well on Blu-ray. If not top tier titles, they certainly got a strong HD transfer.

‘70s classics like Mean Streets have that look of some sharpened HD details that don’t compromise the integrity of gritty Kodak film. Same with Coma, authentically grainy in the opening titles, then sharpened up and clarified considerably for the rest of the film (perhaps a residual effect of optically printing titles?) 

‘80s action favorites like Hard to Kill and Next of Kin are sharp and full of gritty detail. Digital noise or film grain can flare up but it looks brighter and crisper than a DVD. Sci-fi gets even better. Outland has some beautiful miniatures matted around the space station. Altered States is a ridiculously clear and smooth picture, totally devoid of grain and full of detail for the trippy experience.

Right at 1990, Hard to Kill is in a transition period. It’s sharp and full of detail, but some digital pixels and even a little noise speck up. It’s way better than a DVD and you’ll see bright colors and a lean Seagal in his prime cutting a crisp figure through the action. By the mid-‘90s, Murder in the First has a smooth picture. It has hints of the original film grain, but it’s cleared way up showing all the period detail in the historical drama.  

Frequency and The Butterfly Effect are the only one that crosses into the ‘00s and look the most modern of this batch. They’re able to remove most of the grain in the key scenes, though it gives way to slight digital noise in the quieter sections. Night scenes, outdoors, the past, the present all look beautiful. Just a few establishing and exposition scenes inside flare up. If you agree these are underrated time travel gems, you’ll be very happy with these Blu-rays.



Early August Awards 

A few of next month’s big Blu-rays came to me in time to publish this month!


The Trailer Award

The below Buena Vista catalog releases open with a trailer for the Who Framed Roger Rabbit Blu-ray. This looks amazing. A clear live action picture with bright animated characters, and even brighter for the three Roger Rabbit animated shorts. Then it goes to an anti-smoking commercial which is a bummer. 


The John Cusack Double Feature Award

Both Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity come to Blu-ray August 7. Fidelity looks perfectly clear, a true remastered restoration. Crisp, detailed images of Chicago, and the sets of Rob Gordon’s hangouts. Doesn’t even matter how dark it gets in the DJ clubs. Blank looks a little bit more like film stock which is a nice effect. It’s smooth but you can tell it’s grainy celluloid, the colors and the polish that entails. It’s a little redder/pinker. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t bother me. Happy with both of these. 


Fred’s Foreign Foray Award

I’m constantly exploring Asian cinema, so next month I get to delve in to Warriors of the Rainbow Seediq Bale. Well Go USA’s Blu-ray looks like the standard contemporary Asian film. It’s clear and sharp, a little muddy in tint but that gives it the same color as Hong Kong films (this one’s set in Taiwan). Dense forests provide the epic settings for battle with a slightly muted green and lots of detail in the dirt and leaves.  


The Original Crush Award

Wow, Elisabeth Shue in Adventures in Babysitting looks luminous in HD. Unfortunately, the whole movie is so full of white digital noise, I wonder why they even put it on Blu-ray. However Shue manages to be impervious to the technical flaws. 


The Film Festival At Home Award

I missed Blue Like Jazz at SXSW this year so I’m glad the Lionsgate Blu-ray release has a totally clear transfer. These indie movies shot on RED cameras end up looking better than big studio movies. Colors pop out, like even the yellow hand bars on a train car or the collection of civil disobedience costumes.