by Steven Cohen
Every month, dozens of Blu-rays hit shelves, littering stores with high-def temptation. New releases, catalog titles, complete TV seasons, and elaborate box-sets all vie for affection, and with so many worthy releases targeting our wallets, choosing which discs to spend our hard earned cash on can be rather tricky. To make things a little easier, we here at High-Def Digest thought it might be helpful to bring you our top three must own recommendations for the month.
From important classics to contemporary blockbusters, these are the discs that we consider to be the absolute cream of the crop. High quality releases with great video, audio, and supplements, these are the Blu-rays that are truly worth every penny.
Last month we spotlighted an expertly crafted Southern drama with a heart, a multifaceted examination of rippling consequences, and a visually stunning science fiction adventure. If you haven't already, be sure to check out the Essential Picks for November, December, January, February, March, April, May, June, July, and August.
This month, we're covering an Academy Award nominated thriller, a Cold War spy tragedy, and a comic book blockbuster. Please be aware, that if you haven't already seen them, there might be some spoilers for the films listed.
If you can only buy three titles that hit Blu-ray in September, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...
'The Fugitive: 20th Anniversary Edition' - I love weighty art films as much as any snooty critic -- but there's certainly something to be said about really great popcorn entertainment, especially when there's some legitimate intelligence and craft behind it. 'The Fugitive' is a perfect example of such a film, and even more, it ends up being one of those truly rare flicks that remains infinitely re-watchable. Seriously, whenever this movie is on, I'm somehow compelled to watch, and invariably always get caught up in its effortlessly thrilling drama.
With a taut and twisting script, the filmmakers essentially play by all the rules of standard Hollywood filmmaking, but they execute the story's beats with such precision and excitement that this adherence to formula actually ends up being one of the film's strongest suits. And more than just an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride packed with memorable action, tense stand-offs, and strong character moments, the film also succeeds with one particularly tricky break from convention -- the use of dueling protagonists/antagonists. In some ways, both Kimble (Harrison Ford) and Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) could be viewed as the heroes of the film, and while Kimble's quest for justice is the real focus, the movie sheds light on each man's motivations, creating a surprisingly complex dichotomy. Ford is at his grizzly, determined best here, fully selling his character's desperation and steadfast resolve, and Jones, in an Oscar winning turn, is simply perfect as the no nonsense Marshall purely out to get the job done. Add in Joey Pants and a one armed man, and you've got all the essential ingredients for a classic 90s thriller.
With an improved video transfer, a new lossless audio track, and some solid special features, this 20th Anniversary release from Warner Bros. actually offers fans a very worthwhile upgrade. Basically the model by which most contemporary Hollywood thrillers are judged, 'The Fugitive' is pure entertainment without losing sight of interesting characters and an intricate plot. This is the type of title that viewers can watch and watch and watch, and somehow never get tired of -- and really, I think that might the very definition of a must own disc.
'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' - The over-the-top adventure and debonair thrills of James Bond will always have a special place in my heart, but there is another side to the espionage genre equally worthy of praise. A side cast in murky shadows, where the line between hero and villain is sadly inconsequential. Where right and wrong are sacrificed for efficiency. Where human beings are simply tools, and the world is covered in an icy fog. Through a comparatively realistic take on spies, Martin Ritt's noir thriller, 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,' presents such a world, and its chilling insights are haunting.
A far cry from the cheeky escapism of 007, Richard Burton's Alec Leamas is in many ways the antithesis of all things Bond. He's brooding and disillusioned, and though he carries a certain brutish physical appearance, he's not much of a fighter and he doesn't ever brandish a gun. Likewise, he doesn't travel to exotic locations or play around with cool gadgets, and instead of womanizing femme fatales, he sincerely falls in love with an innocent librarian. And perhaps most dramatically of all, his drink of choice is not a martini (shaken or stirred), it's simply whiskey -- and lots of it. This isn't the portrait of suave secret agent. It's the downtrodden reality of a used up civil servant, worn away by foul plays and rotten manipulations, and while this stark and cynical take on espionage lacks the fun of cinema's most famous spy series, the film's examination of heartless Cold War politics and dwindling humanity is palpably rich and thoroughly complex.
While my full review covers many of the film's merits, I somehow failed to address the fantastic performances from Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner. As the elegant but naïve Nan, Bloom exudes comfort and support, and her tragic realization of the manipulation she's unwittingly been a part of is handled with heartbreaking frustration. In the role of Fiedler, a Jewish German communist determined to oust a double agent among his party, Oskar Werner is superb. His scenes with Burton are a joy to watch, and the mutual respect that develops between the two exploited men carries strong emotional resonance, especially when the true goals of Leamas' mission are exposed -- painting the solemn picture of a callous system that plays by only one rule: "expediency."
Really every aspect of the production, from the gloomy black and white cinematography by Oswald Morris, to the achingly somber score from Sol Kaplan, is perfectly attuned to express an air of defeatist dread -- but as sorrowful as the tragedy is, and as a cold as the intricate plotting remains, there is a real human story here as well, exposing the manner in which even love and morality can be used as weapons by those in control. A near masterpiece of the espionage genre, and a fascinating counterpoint to the frivolous thrills of James Bond, 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' is a spy noir that only continues to gain prestige with age. This release from Criterion is exceptional, with fantastic video, audio, and supplements, making it an essential addition to any classic cinema fan's collection.
'Iron Man 3' - To be honest, though Marvel's celebrated armored hero is listed above, this last spot could have also easily gone to any one of this month's major blockbuster releases -- specifically 'World War Z' and 'Star Trek into Darkness.' They're all enjoyable flicks (though, with some notable flaws), but Tony Stark's latest adventure narrowly beats out the rest for September's final must own title.
With Shane Black on board to write and direct, I was quite excited for 'Iron Man 3.' After all, Black and Robert Downey Jr. already proved that they make for a great team in the director's previous film, 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,' and with the added benefit of a super-powered suit of armor, there's really no way this flick could fail. Thankfully, for the most part, this assumption holds true. The cast is uniformly excellent, the plot places a welcomed emphasis on Stark's emotional plight without sacrificing big action, and Black injects the film with the clever wit and personality he's known for while playing up many of the same trademark sensibilities that fueled his 90s action scripts.
With that said, not all of these quirks seem to fit well within Marvel's established world, and there are times when certain old school beats feel out of place (as sporadically amusing as it is, I could have done without the kid sidekick subplot). And then of course there's the "twist." As a comic book geek I was a little disappointed (though not surprised), but what really bothered me wasn't the reveal itself -- it's what we were still left with in its wake: a really generic villain. The bad guys have been the weak spots of all the Iron Man films, and sadly the filmmakers don't do much to fix that here. Still, the movie mostly works, and getting to hear Black's dialogue coming out of Downey Jr's mouth is worth the price of admission alone.
Probably the most well-rounded of the trilogy, this latest installment in the franchise fits in well with its predecessors and is a very solid addition to Marvel's growing cinematic universe. For better or worse, hiring Shane Black proves to be an inspired choice, and though some might not like all of the decisions made, the director certainly puts his own unique stamp on the flick -- something that's increasingly hard to do on big budget Hollywood productions. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Blu-ray itself features excellent video and audio, making it a great demo disc for home theater enthusiasts. And even those who hate the twist have to admit… Ben Kingsley is kind of awesome.
So, there you have it. While there are many titles worth picking up this September, those are our top three must own recommendations. We'll be back next month with three more essential picks, but for now, what do you think of our selection? What are your choices for September's must own titles?