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The Shelf: Best Blu-rays of 2014

Every year, I review dozens of Blu-ray releases, and to say nothing of the quality of the film or television show itself, the art of a good Blu-ray has everything to do with presentation and extras. I want the best bang for the buck. A lot of the best ones on the list are box sets and special editions, and it’d be easy to just include every Criterion release because they are the cream of the Blu-ray crop, but I’ve made a short list of my favorite releases that made 2014’s Shelf much more impressive.

Halloween The Complete Collection
Last year was the 35th anniversary of John Carpenter’s Halloween, and Anchor Bay put out a really nice Blu-ray of it, with a new commentary and a new documentary about Jamie Lee Curtis going to a Halloween convention. Based on this, I would never have expected another Halloween release so soon, but it happens to be a mammoth, fantastic one. Anchor Bay and Scream Factory have teamed up to release a complete Blu-ray box set of all 10 Halloween movies, from Carpenter’s original all the way through Rob Zombie’s two. And not only that, but each film has a bevy of amazing special features, including new retrospective documentaries and featurettes on Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween 5, Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, and Halloween Water, which had been released by other companies with only meager features prior to this. Halloween: Resurrection, and Rob Zombie’s Halloween and Halloween II don’t have any new features, but at least Zombie’s two had decent features to begin with. And, let’s face it, Resurrection isn’t really worth a bunch of new features.

Halloween is one of the top five horror movies ever made, and just an utterly astounding piece of suspense filmmaking. It’s the catalyst for a billion knock-offs and holiday-named pretenders, but none have ever come close to its brilliance. Even the much more popular Friday the 13th series, which made a star out of its hulking masked murder Jason, is mostly comprised of schlocky scares. The Halloween series has always been my favorite of the slasher franchises and I think, in general, it has the highest number of good entries.

Halloween II wasn’t as good as Carpenter’s original, but nothing can be. Halloween III: Season of the Witch obviously isn’t a sequel really, just a continuation of the theme of Halloween-set horror. This one was a weird little witchcraft-aliens-mind control movie, which I think is severely underrated. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is actually a good, if low budget and sort of dreary, next installment of the Michael Myers saga. It’s probably my second favorite of the bunch, which is sad because it’s followed by the largely abysmal Halloween 5 and the heavily-plagued Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, which had too many cooks in the kitchen with its new involvement with Dimension films. (H6 features both the theatrical and producer’s cut of the film.) Halloween H20 is actually quite an entertaining, if incredibly brief, movie and sees a welcome return to Jamie Lee Curtis. This should have been the end of everything, but then they made Halloween: Resurrection which tried to be way too topical and failed miserably. Zombie’s two movies are interesting. The first one tries to tell more of Michael’s backstory but kind of only succeeds when it’s aping Carpenter directly, and the second one… well, Zombie himself didn’t even really want to make that one.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, this is easily my favorite Blu-ray set of the year, and a major recommendation to anyone who likes these movies, or just likes the history of one of horror’s biggest phenoms.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

For me, he heart of all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been Steve Rogers, a/k/a Captain America, played by Chris Evans. Of all the Avengers lead-up films, Captain America: The First Avenger was the one I was most surprised and delighted by. Despite his incredible new abilities of strength, speed, and stamina, Rogers remained an Average Joe who wanted to do the right thing and serve his country. He is the everyman superhero, and the one most people can relate to. Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy with an ego the size of Pittsburgh, Bruce Banner is essentially a monster trapped in the body of a normal human some of the time, and Thor is a damn god! While they’re all great characters, and all certainly “good guys,” they’re more aloof and unreachable than Steve. Even Black Widow and Hawkeye, with their years of covert operations and clandestine workings for S.H.I.E.L.D., are at arm’s length as far as relatability.

The Blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic, of course, which is something we’ve come to expect from a Marvel disc. There are, however, not that many special features, which is a bit of a shame. By far the best feature, and the most informative, is the feature-length commentary by directors Joe & Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. This track is packed with anecdotes and discussions of the action sequences, but most interesting is the talk about the way the script progressed over the 8 months between first draft and shooting script, and the different character motivations and comic book connections. As a fan of writing and story creation, I eat that stuff up.

There are also around 20 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes, most of these produced for the Electronic Press Kit. These are interesting enough, but not particularly thorough. We’ve also got a 3 minute gag reel which is pretty funny, and four deleted/extended scenes with optional commentary, which don’t add too much. That’s really it as far as bonus materials, save a couple of trailers and things. That’s kind of disappointing, especially given the wealth of information that I’m sure is out there.

It’s a great movie, a great commentary, and even the lack of other good special features shouldn’t put you off from buying it, because let’s face it: it’s Marvel’s best movie to date, with an obvious argument to be made for Guardians of the Galaxy. But, it’s the best other than that, and that should be enough. Support your Captain.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse Complete Series

This is a show that hits me right in the nostalgia button. Airing between 1986 and 1990 (when I was 2 to 6 years old…holy crap!), Pee-wee’s Playhouse was one of the most popular and lauded children’s programs, and still nearly 30 years later it’s hailed up and down the place. I remember watching this very vividly, and “vivid” is perhaps the only way it can be remembered. The colors and sets and characters and pacing were all incredibly vibrant and exciting and they stick with you. Back in the late-90s, several volumes of the series were put out on VHS, and I was brought right back to waking up Saturday mornings to watch Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) and his house full of talking things get up to silliness and shenanigans. Now, I’m delighted to say, Shout Factory has released all 45 episodes of this landmark television series, looking and sounding more gorgeous than ever thanks to a Reubens-overseen HD upgrade, now on Blu-ray.

For those who’ve never seen or can’t remember the show, each episode contains the following: A nearly 3 minute opening title sequence with music by Mark Mothersbaugh and sung by Cyndi Lauper doing a Betty Boop voice, Pee-wee doing various art projects or chores, waking up Conkey the robot and asking him what today’s secret word is (if anybody says the secret word, you have to scream real loud), get a visit from Reba the Mail Lady (S. Epatha Merkerson), get a visit from Miss Yvonne, the most beautiful woman in Puppetland (Lynne Marie Stewart), throw to a Penny cartoon (a claymation short featuring a little girl with pennies for eyes), get a visit from the King of Cartoons (William Marshall), play the cartoon he brings (usually an old public domain or easily obtained bit of nothing), get a visit from Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne), talk to one or more of the following living inanimate objects: Chairry, Clocky, Globey, Dog Chair, Mr. Window, Mr. Kite, Magic Screen, and Floorey, look at his ant farm, check in with the Dinosaur Family, talk to any of the other puppets, like Pterri the Pteranadon, Dirty Dog, Cool Cat, Chickie Baby, or the Cowntess, talk Randy the wiseass marionette out of doing something awful, and get a wish from Jambi the Genie (John Paragon). That’s a typical 25 minutes of television. It’s BANANAS how much they were able to pack into that show, and every single time it ends you go “aww, already?”

On top of the gorgeous transfer of each and every episode, the set is also packed with bonus interview material, covering every aspect of the Playhouse, from its inception to the casting, to the writing, to the puppets, to the music, to the merchandise, to the legacy, and beyond. It’s astonishing just how many amazingly talented people were involved in this program (and how many of them show up to be interviewed). I for one never thought Laurence Fishburne would come back to talk about being Cowboy Curtis, but he does and he talks a lot and is genuinely thrilled by it. It’s a show that everybody who worked on it remembers fondly. Reubens himself doesn’t appear in any of these interviews, however, but he’s definitely a presence felt in every inch of it.

This set is highly recommended and well worth everybody’s time.

Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery

When it premiered in 1990, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks was a cultural phenomenon, becoming one of TV’s most watched miniseries and garnering 14 Emmy nominations. People were fascinated by the dark, horrific, and unbelievably weird series about an FBI agent (Kyle MacLachlan) who comes to a quirky mountain town to help solve the murder of high schooler Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). It was appointment television, and was perhaps the most perfect version of Lynch’s trademark subversion of Americana and stark, disturbing imagery coupled with humor.

The ratings began to dwindle in the second season once the mystery wrapped up and a new plot was unfolding. Eventually, the series ended after only those two seasons, however interest (and in some corners of the world, pandemonium) about the show persisted until, in 1992, Lynch made Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, a movie which served as both a prologue and epilogue to the series, and also being full of all the weird and dark things Lynch probably wanted to do on network TV but couldn’t.

Now we have “The Entire Mystery,” a new Blu-ray set which contains every episode of the television series as well as Fire Walk with Me on ten discs, including brand new retrospective material. The biggest new feature is “The Missing Pieces,” the first time ever the 90 minutes of scenes cut out of Fire Walk with Me have been presented anywhere, cleaned up and editing properly with supervision from Lynch himself. It basically doubles the amount of things you see in the movie.

This is the absolute definitive version of the Twin Peaks saga and one not to miss for fans of the show or just those interested in delving deeper into Lynch’s warped mind.

Cowboy Bebop The Complete Series
There is no two ways about it: if not for Cowboy Bebop, I and many people like me wouldn’t have given anime the time of day. It had everything I thought was awesome going for it: spaceships, gunfights, western symbolism, and acid jazz. I didn’t even know I liked acid jazz until I saw this show, but I do know now. This sci-fi action series was a landmark in almost every aspect, with all of the production team firing on all cylinders, including director Shinichirō Watanabe, screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto, character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, mechanical designer Kimitoshi Yamane, and composer Yoko Kanno.

Following the exploits of bounty hunters Spike Spiegel, a former mafia enforcer hiding from his past, and his friend Jet Black, a former police officer who now pilots a dilapidated ship called the Bebop as they try to make enough money to buy beef for their dinners, and usually failing even when they succeed. Quickly, they start picking up more ragtag drifters, like Faye Valentine, a con woman with a sordid past of her own, a young and weird genius who calls herself Edward, and a genetically-engineered Welsh Corgi named Ein and their adventures get a lot more complicated. Spike is the epitome of cool, walking through life with a scruffy suit, a bent cigarette, and a lackadaisical attitude, but inside he’s full of doubt and turmoil at the thought of his former love, Julia, and his best friend turned arch nemesis Vicious. The series features some of the best action of any series, anime or otherwise, and the visuals and eclectic storytelling style set the precedent that anything goes. There’s even a whole episode where the crew takes drugs and hallucinates, and another where a creepy hopping clown guy is chasing them.

After such a long wait, you’d hope the Blu-ray would be worth it. On top of pristine visual and audio, something Funimation do very well, we also get a good pile of extras including: a 68-minute special where the English voice cast get together for dinner, talking, and a special script reading; a 95-minute retrospective documentary; commentary on five episodes by a mix of Japanese and English cast and crew; interviews, music videos, and more.

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  1. Craig Christakos says:

    Should also add that the bluray discs for Bebop themselves are beautiful.