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 a 007 blockbuster, an epic clash of kings, and a thrilling Best Picture winner. If you haven't already, be sure to check out the Essential Picks for November, December, January, and February.
This month, we're covering a noir mystery with an animated twist, a controversial historical thriller, and a visually stunning examination of survival. 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 March, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...
'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' - When I think back on my early movie watching experiences as a kid, there are five specific films that instantly jump to mind. Five particular films that left an indelible impression on me, helping to define my burgeoning taste in motion pictures. They are, in no particular order, 'The Wizard of Oz,' Richard Donner's 'Superman,' Tim Burton's 'Batman,' the British animated short 'The Snowman,' and this month's top must own title, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit.' The infinitely re-watchable flick has remained one of my absolute favorite movies since the very first time I watched it over two decades ago, and no matter how many times I see it, it never fails to put a smile on my face.
Loosely based on Gary K. Wolf's novel "Who Censored Roger Rabbit," the film offers a brilliant cartoon twist on classic noir conventions. In fact, in many ways the script becomes a "family friendly" version of Roman Polanski's masterpiece 'Chinatown,' as the story features very similar plotting and narrative beats -- that is, along with a clever animated spin. Creating a 1940s world where cartoon characters and live action human beings literally live together, Zemeckis and crew are able to lovingly celebrate and satirize the Golden Age of animation. More than just the colorful characters they play in their cartoons, the animated stars are revealed to have actual lives off screen, complete with personal dilemmas, relationship woes, and even legal troubles. This all leads to a fun, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that layers self-aware jokes within sly references and innuendo -- resulting in an experience that plays equally strong to children and adults alike. Beneath it all, the filmmakers are also able to use the precarious relationship between toons and humans to layer in some solid commentary about race and discrimination, further milking the creative premise for all it's worth.
Of course, even ignoring its entertaining mystery, smart comedy, charming characters, and impressive technical achievements, the film is worth the price of admission alone for the sheer number of classic cartoon characters it's able to wrangle together. I mean, even the most hardened and cynical of adults can't deny feeling a certain sense of glee at getting to watch animated icons like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse share a scene together, can they? Thankfully, Disney has done a nice job with the Blu-ray, offering a solid technical presentation and a welcome assortment of special features. While I'm definitely a little biased here (this is one of my personal favorites, after all), 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' is a film that appeals to all ages, and continues to delight with its wit and creativity, making it March's top must own title. Now p-p-p-please don't be a sourpuss -- go pick this disc up now!
'Zero Dark Thirty' - As a result of man's infinite search for meaning, most people choose to fill their lives with family, friends, love, religion, work, or any other limitless combination of all of the above. Others, however, are much more precise in their focus. Others have no room for variety, no space for frivolous interests or personal relationships. Instead, these few individuals choose to fill their lives with a singular objective. They choose to fill their lives… with a mission. But what happens when that all-consuming drive is finally satisfied? What happens when one's purpose is fulfilled? A slow-burn historical thriller steeped in escalating obsession and determination, Kathryn Bigelow's 'Zero Dark Thirty' is an absorbing procedural marked by real-life drama, potent action, thought-provoking questions, and an extraordinary performance by Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain.
After witnessing her numerous star-making turns in everything from 'The Tree of Life' to 'The Debt,' I've quickly fallen under the spell of Ms. Chastain's fiery-haired allure. The actress has quickly risen to the top of Hollywood's A-List, and 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a prime example of her impressive skills. With that said, I must admit, it took me a little while to warm up to her performance here, and on the surface I can understand how some might be initially underwhelmed by the role. When she is first thrust into the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Maya starts out as nothing more than a passive witness. She simply stands by and idly watches events occur around her, requiring Chastain to do little more than sulk about and grimace. However, the genius of the character, and in effect the film itself, lies in the gradual and delicately nuanced transformation that occurs. By the time the movie winds down to its powerful conclusion, Maya has become a genuine force of nature. Wholly consumed by her assignment, she turns into a living embodiment of fortitude and resolve. She has one goal, and it will be accomplished at all costs. A certain level of lofty hubris also permeates throughout the role, adding increasingly provocative layers to the character. And while her frequent grandstanding and overly-confident declarations could have otherwise proven unlikeable, the filmmakers completely earn this carefully concentrated gravitas by maintaining an underdog status and continually demonstrating one clear fact: she's practically always right.
At its core, this isn’t a film about the CIA. This isn't a film about torture or terrorism or controversy. Hell, at its thematic base, this isn’t even a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. This is a movie about sheer, unflinching drive, and how that compulsion can go on to shape and define a human being to such an extent, that once it's gone, they're rendered incomplete and without direction. In a moment of devastating catharsis and ambiguous uncertainty, the film ends with a simple question -- a question simultaneously posed to its protagonist and its audience. Bigelow doesn't provide an answer. Instead, as is the case throughout the entire experience, the director's visceral and unassuming approach allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions. This Blu-ray from Sony is demo material through and through, with fantastic video and audio. While it might be a divisive release for some, as far as I'm concerned, it's easily one of the month's top titles. Beyond the moral and political debates it engenders, the movie stands tall as a powerful piece of filmmaking that respectfully chronicles a dark period in our country's very recent history.
'Life of Pi' - In literature, "story-truth" is a term used to describe the idea that fiction can somehow reveal a deeper reality than simple facts. In other words, sometimes lies can actually be truer than the truth. How an event feels as one experiences it can't always be conveyed through facts, and with the aid of dramatic embellishments and metaphors, writers are able to better evoke the emotions of an incident, cutting down to the greater heart of their experiences -- to the very soul of the truth. It's a concept frequently explored by authors like Tim O'Brien, and was one of the central themes of Tim Burton's motion picture love letter to tall-tales, 'Big Fish.' Based on the book written by Yann Martel, Ang Lee's 'Life of Pi' partially addresses this fascinating notion, resulting in a visually splendid story of survival, that goes on to reveal the limitless power of allegory, and its potentially invaluable impact on our deeper understanding of life and the very world around us.
Cutting to the chase, this is simply one of the most cinematically stunning films to be released in quite some time. The Oscar winning filmmakers have really done a remarkable job, using CG to help create a world bursting at the seams with potent hints of awe-inspiring magic. As Pi's journey across the sea with his tiger companion/antagonist evolves and grows, we are treated to a dazzling display of incandescent beauty and dangers. Throughout it all, Lee uses 3D to fully immerse the audience in the film's unique universe. In one of the most playful uses of the technology I've seen yet, at one point flying fish even literally jump out over the letterbox bars of the screen, as if spilling out from Pi's world into our own. Thankfully, Lee knows that arresting images alone aren't enough to carry a story, and in addition to the engaging thematic material, the film becomes a truly harrowing and deeply affecting tale of survival and love. The unique bond that forms between boy and tiger is incredibly moving (even if it is only one-sided), and Pi's devastating recount of their final farewell proves to be an utterly heartbreaking emotional climax.
As much as I love the film, it's oddly the aspect that I admire the most that actually ends up fueling the movie's weakest point. The script ultimately draws a direct parallel between the concept of "story-truth" and the idea of faith, and it's here where the film becomes a little muddled and misguided. Without getting into specifics, the conclusions the filmmakers come to aren't as fleshed out as they need to be, and instead of offering the multifaceted examination of religion that they aspire toward, the end results could paradoxically end up rubbing both believers and non-believers the wrong way (and that's no small feat). Of course, these ideas are all open to wide interpretation (which is one of the story's great strengths and key themes), and even though I wasn't too keen on this specific correlation, the film as a whole is simply marvelous.
'Life of Pi' is a pure cinematic spectacle that somehow manages to back up all of its gorgeous eye-candy with equally rich themes and poignant heart. As a stirring tale of survival and a thoughtful commentary on the power of allegorical storytelling, it's nothing short of a masterpiece. As a deep examination of religion and faith, it's a little less successful -- but its flaws are miniscule compared to its strengths. This is a film about man and beast, about fact and imagination, about wonder and reality, and the surprisingly thin line that separates them all. 20th Century Fox's Blu-ray release is exceptional, with incredible video (especially in 3D), immersive audio, and worthwhile special features, making it the perfect title to finish off this month's list of must own discs.
Special Mention - 'Schindler's List' - While it might technically be appearing at the bottom of this article as an apparent afterthought, to be honest, this is one of those truly rare films that completely defies ranking for me, and I'd be remiss if it wasn't included here in some capacity. This is important cinema at its finest, perfectly combining daring subject matter with artistically engaging filmmaking -- all brilliantly molded together with a deftly sensitive hand. Through Oskar Schindler's inspiring actions, Spielberg tells the devastating story of a selfish war profiteer desperately afraid of becoming a good man, who despite his best efforts, can't help but become a great one. This isn't an easy film to watch, nor is it a title that most will be revisiting on a regular basis, but this is perhaps the definition of essential cinema, and it belongs on the shelf of any serious cinephile.
So, there you have it. While there are many titles worth picking up this March, 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 March's must own titles?