To the delight of my good friend Eric and other skin-tight rubbersuit enthusiasts everywhere, Kate Beckinsale returns to the “Underworld” franchise in “Underworld: Awakening,” another entry in the vampires-versus-werewolves action series. Beckinsale reprises her role as the death-dealing Selene, a vampire warrioress who, having escaped years of in-limbo imprisonment, finds herself in a world where humans have discovered the existence of vampires and Lycans (or werewolves), and are hellbent on eradicating the immortal creatures once and for all. Discovering the existence of a uniquely gifted hybrid daughter, Eve (India Eisley), that she never knew she had, Selene meets up with David (Theo James), a young vampire and sort of Lancelot to her Guinevere, and starts laying fools to waste.
Bathed in the same blue-grey-green hues of its predecessors, “Awakening” makes a convincing enough case for franchise continuation, at least with respect to its hardcore fans. In truth, though, this slick but slim genre piece offers pretty much nothing for those unfamiliar with the previous three films, and even then it just mainly works as a set-up for future spin-off installments. There’s a right good bit of CGI-enabled gore, and as Selene, Beckinsale delivers a furrowed brow and occasionally quivering lip that lends a modicum of sympathy to her otherwise vicious, throat-slashing character. Narratively, though, there’s just not enough going on here to merit a sincere recommendation.
That said, “Underworld: Awakening” comes to Blu-ray in a nice treatment, housed in a standard case and presented in a 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, with a bombastic 7.1 DTS-HD master audio track (and the obligatory array of optional subtitles). Producers Richard Wright and Gary Lucchesi, co-directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein, and visual effects supervisor James McQuaide all sit for an audio commentary track, which is rangy and comprehensive in its coverage of technical, thematic and narrative elements of the franchise. Five featurettes, ranging from nine to 19 minutes, cover all aspects of the production, from the return of Beckinsale and the casting of the movie to its action set pieces and CGI work. The nice thing about these featurettes is that series producers like Lucchesi and Tom Rosenberg have a real grasp of the franchise’s ins and outs, and are able to speak eloquently and engagingly about a wide range of choices and elements; Beckinsale, too, is great, putting a human face on the proceedings and confessing a bit of fear in returning to the same skin-tight costuming 10 years removed from the original.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray version of the film is a picture-in-picture experience which interweaves facts and footage from the mythology of the “Underworld” franchise. In theory, this is a good idea, allowing for catch-up on weapons and backstory for newer viewers. Some of the pop-up information is nice, but there’s no way to toggle back and forth, so when this element sometimes goes to split screen clips and takes over the audio track, it makes following “Awakening” extremely tough, to say the least. Basically this is an add-on for those who have already seen the movie, which ironically lessens its experiential value for those who would derive the most use from it. Highlights from a three-minute-plus blooper reel include some Lycan humping and other air vent crawling mishaps, plus a jacket that pools around Beckinsale’s shoulder and refuses to fall down. A music video for “Heavy Prey” rounds out the supplemental features.
A refined and not entirely disagreeable slice of square-jawed drama with all the smooth, uncomplicated contours of a film made to please the broadest possible audience, Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” clings steadfastly to very old-fashioned — and sometimes outright torpid — notions of emotional engagement, in telling the story of a young, peasant Englishman (Jeremy Irvine) who, during World War I, gets separated from and ultimately reunited with his beloved horse. With its episodic stabs at poignancy, there’s not much to assail with fury here, but neither is there much about which to get passionately excited or interested.
Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is superb and at times almost redolent, capturing the smells of lush fields and grimy trenches, and everything in between. And the acting is solid, certainly, along with all of the other craftsmanship one would expect from a Spielberg production. But the very prescribed and not particularly ambitious melodramatic inclinations of “War Horse” make themselves known early on, and prevent much of a deep rooting interest. The film’s embrace of pat drama rather than knotty, bruising complications mark it as middle-of-the-road entertainment, and artificial uplift.
Again, though, the movie’s home video release is absolutely superlative, arriving in its most tricked-out edition in a four-disc combo pack. The Blu-ray presentation of “War Horse,” in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio and 1080p high definition, is gorgeous, with solid blacks, lush color differential and magnificent detail. Likewise, the disc’s immersive 7.1 DTS-HD master audio track wonderfully supports the material, capturing the full aural spectrum of war and, in its quieter moments, nature. DVD and iTunes-compatible digital copies make this a great cross-platform addition to the collections of diehard Spielberg completists and/or those predisposed to enjoy animal-centric heartstring-tuggers.
Bonus material is anchored by some typical featurettes, on editing and scoring the movie, as well as a longer, 20-minute piece comprised of interview material with cast and crew. A four-minute scrollable slideshow also showcases some of producer Kathleen Kennedy’s on-set photographs. A nice little curveball, however, arrives in the form of “An Extra’s Point of View,” which examines the production from the perspective of a day-player, in this instance Martin Dew, who portrays a variety of both British and German soldiers, depending on the scene. This is a different and delightful little look at big-budget moviemaking from the angle of a (in this case literal) foot soldier. The biggest and best featurette, meanwhile, is the full-length documentary “A Filmmaking Journey,” which leans heavily on Spielberg and Kennedy in tracking the project’s somewhat unlikely path from stage hit to movie, inclusive of location scouting, horse training and war recreation, with which of course Spielberg has more than a little familiarity.
A former finalist on “Last Comic Standing,” Ralphie May is… well, a really big guy. And that’s part of what’s behind the name of the comedian’s fourth Comedy Central Special, “Ralphie May: Too Big To Ignore,” certainly. But May has a genial nature, sharp wit and broad knowledge base to boot. Thankfully, he doesn’t limit himself to easy first-person experiential jokes about his weight, and so in the process he explodes unspoken stereotypes about what sort of material is to be expected from a plus-size comedian. May doesn’t shy away from talking about his doughy face or considerable girth (in fact, one of May’s funniest jokes is about Chaz Bono’s potential regrets over going through with gender reassignment surgery if Bono knew she/he would end up looking like him), but most of the material here actually centers around politics, marriage and his family life. The latter category includes an extended riff on May’s commingled exasperation and secret joy over his toddler son’s affinity for certain curse words, and his naive grabbing of a random woman’s buttocks and nether regions. May also wades into gay marriage and other hot-button social and political issues, and then again defies expectations by ending his show talking about sex and his perception of women’s cluelessness regarding fellatio. It’s funny stuff with a big heart, and it’s nice, too, that May’s show, at 108 minutes, is much longer than the truncated version broadcast earlier this year on cable television. Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track, and housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, “Ralphie May: Too Big To Ignore” comes to DVD with a small slice of behind-the-scenes material as its sole bonus feature.
While other networks have over the past six to eight years struggled to cultivate, hone and sustain their voices, FOX has indisputably put its programming stamp on cartoon comedy, via its successful “Animation Domination” bloc. Its newest series, “Bob’s Burgers,” hails not from Seth McFarlane or Matt Groening, but Loren Bouchard, the cracked mind behind “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist.” Plenty of the first season of “Bob’s Burgers” focuses on the title character’s beloved restaurant, a beachside joint in a small tourist town, but his family life, with three wild kids, is also on ample and amusing display. The constant push-and-pull of that drama — along with an unreasonable landlord, a rival pizza place, intrusive relatives and health inspectors that tend to pop up at the most inconvenient times — give the series its comedic energy and tension. Voicing Bob, Jon Benjamin is a hoot. As Bob’s youngest child, nutty daughter Lousie, Kristen Schaal also lends her distinctive pipes, to amusing effect. The show takes a while to get into, but about halfway through its run it really finds its voice and hits its stride, which augurs well for its future.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, the two-disc set of “Bob’s Burgers: The Complete First Season” is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and boasts a selection of uncensored extras that the cover box touts as “too tasty” for TV. At least one audio commentary track on each of the 13 episodes (a couple get multiple efforts) is a nice way to give voice (literally) to the many folks with a hand in the show, and shine a light on the honing of the creative process involved in animation. There are also some deliriously filthy audio outtakes for “Bed & Breakfast” and “Sexy Dance Fighting,” plus another little jokey promo piece. Far and away the best supplemental feature, though, is the original demo for the series, with an introduction by Bouchard; for those wondering just how tedious or in the weeds network feedback on an animated show might get, this delineates quite nicely the changes and give-and-take involved. A music video, “Lifting Up the Skirt of the Night,” featuring Steve Agee rounds things out.
“She’s Not Our Sister” could be the title of a searing drama that explores the various biases amongst women in the African-American community, or it could be the title of a latter-day Olsen twins or Duff sisters movie in which mistaken identities and/or social embarrassment fuel wacky hijinks that involve shoe shopping, a costume party, a really important internship at a fashion magazine and some male eye candy from a series on the CW. Perhaps somewhat unfortunately, director Vernon Snoop Robinson’s movie is neither of those, actually. An adaptation of playwright Johnnie Johnson’s bickering musical comedy, this GMC/Gospel Music Channel movie — already spun off into a series — details the story of three sisters who learn both of the existence of a heretofore unknown half-sister and that their estranged father may have left them a multi-million dollar inheritance. Sparks fly, predictably, and the attractive cast here is certainly game, but this so-called “roller coaster ride of emotions” consists only of familiarly laid track. Presented in a clear plastic Amaray case, “She’s Not Our Sister” comes to DVD presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, with a Dolby digital stereo track, a small collection of trailers and a photo gallery as the sole supplemental extras.
With “Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero,” Ana Carrigan and Juliet Weber deliver a decidedly unpreachy yet still stirring documentary snapshot of spiritual faith and great courage. In the 1970s, as El Salvador moved closer to civil war, one man’s voice rose above few others as the champion of the poor, disenfranchised and disappeared. Appointed Archbishop in 1977, Monsenor Oscar Romero worked tirelessly for peace and human rights, all while in great personal danger. With rare recordings and film footage, as well as a wide range of interviews with those whose lives were changed by this brave man, “Monsenor” stands as a testament to his activism and steely individual resolution. First Run’s straightforward DVD release of the title, in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby digital 2.0 stereo track, includes a downloadable study guide for classroom discussion. For more on the title, visit www.FirstRunFeatures.com.
Finally, several more manufactured-on-demand DVD releases from MGM and 20th Century Fox allow for collectors to finally have a go at classic movies heretofore unavailable on any lasting/digital home video format. A weird, “After Hours”-type slice of comic fantasia, 1989′s British import “Getting It Right” centers on a 31-year-old virgin hairdresser, Gavin Lamb (Jesse Birdsall), who loses his virginity to one woman, is almost forced to marry another, and possibly finds true love with a third. The women are Helena Bonham Carter, Lynn Redgrave and Jane Horrocks (John Gielgud also pops up, but that’s another story), but Elizabeth Jane Howard, adapting her own novel, saddles the movie with awkward and unenlightening voiceover, and Birdsall is a drip in the lead role. Notable mostly for Bonham Carter’s early nudity, “Getting It Right” certainly doesn’t live up to its name. More palatable, if also kind of inescapably middle-of-the-road, is “Modern Girls,” a lightweight charmer from director Jerry Kramer in which three girls (Cynthia Gibb, Virginia Madsen and Daphne Zuniga) constantly looking for romance finally come around to the conclusion that their friendship is more important than love.
Finally, for those unsatisfied with Robert Blake’s creepy turn in “Lost Highway,” and looking to trip back in time to sometime before he was a convicted murderer, to see if there are any unintentionally hilarious audiovisual markers of his dormant rage and homicidal impulse, 1973′s cop dramedy “Busting,” with Elliott Gould, might just be your ticket. Written and directed by Peter Hyams, this formulaic but fun affair finds the aforementioned pair slotted as Los Angeles vice cops who, while dealing with dangerous criminals, are also forced to wage a war on crooked cops within their department. Busted noses and heated threats ensue; it’s surreal to think about the audio commentary track that, in an alternate universe, could be recorded today. Housed in regular plastic Amaray cases, each of the above titles come to DVD free of any bonus features, save their respective theatrical trailers; the latter two are 1.85 letterboxed, while “Getting It Right” opts for 1.66 side mattes.
Written by: Brent Simon