High-Def Digest's Essential Picks: April 2015

Posted Tue May 5, 2015 at 09:15 AM PDT by
essentials april

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 attention, 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 epic journey through the stars, the latest entry in a blockbuster franchise, and a taut historical thriller. Be sure to check out the Essential Picks for November 2012, December 2012, January 2013, February 2013, March 2013, April 2013, May 2013, June 2013, July 2013, August 2013, September 2013, October 2013, November 2013, December 2013, January 2014, February 2014, March 2014, April 2014, May 2014, June 2014, July 2014, August 2014, September 2014, October 2014, November 2014, December 2014, January 2015, February 2015, and March 2015.

For April, we're covering a spooky horror flick, a classic comedy, and a truly peculiar mystery.  Please be aware, that if you haven't already seen them, there are some SPOILERS for the discs listed.

If you can only buy three titles that hit Blu-ray in April, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...

'The Babadook' - A scared child hiding under the covers. There is perhaps no better visual representation of fear than that. I mean, a thin sheet of cloth really isn't going to do anything to protect someone from a threat, but the impulse to hide when we are frightened doesn't adhere to logic. It's nearly involuntary and downright primal. And so, we hide under the covers -- hoping against hope that the monsters won't see us. In 'The Babadook,' both a mother and her son inevitably end up in this position trembling beneath their blankets, leading to one of the year's most terrifying and engaging horror flicks. Led by a creepy new silver screen villain and an affecting emotional arc, the movie manages to scare audiences on multiple levels, forcing us to once again reach for our covers…

Focused on the inherently powerful relationship between a parent and their child, the film weaves a spine-tingling monster tale that uses its fantastical elements to probe into deeper emotional subtext. On the surface, the story follows a widowed mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), who tries to protect her troubled young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), from a terrifying creature dead-set on devouring their souls. But this supernatural conflict also goes on to represent the characters' internal drama. As the "Babadook" slowly infects Amelia, her struggle to overcome the creature's dark pull directly parallels her lingering grief about her deceased husband and her increasingly strained relationship with Samuel, paving the way toward one of 2014's most cathartic climaxes. Of course, these thrills also work purely on a visceral level, with director Jennifer Kent bringing an appropriately spooky style to the screen marked by uncomfortable cuts and an eerie rhythm. The title creature itself is particularly memorable as well, with a creepy on-screen appearance and an incredibly effective pop-up book mythology, helping the film to cement its own unique stamp on the genre while still adhering to the classic, timeless terror of a scary bedtime story.

Though the movie never truly breaks away from horror conventions (we get requisite flickering lights, gross bugs, shadowy corners, and demonic possession), Kent's approach is both well-crafted and multifaceted, using the bond between a mother and her son to create a disturbing yet ultimately touching story about love and healing. And did I mention that it's just damn scary too? For viewers who can appreciate a good horror tale, this is easily one of April's top must own titles -- just make sure to have a blanket handy when watching. 


'Sullivan's Travels' - Art or entertainment? What should a motion picture truly aspire to be? Should a film tackle weighty topics and complex style? Or should it just serve as an easily digestible form of escapism from our already stressful lives? And are these two categories even mutually exclusive? Well, apparently not if you put "a little sex in it!" From director Preston Sturges, 'Sullivan's Travels' offers a fun and smart bit of Hollywood satire, illuminating eternal struggle between serious filmmaking and frivolous amusement -- proving that sometimes, directors don't actually have to choose between the two at all.

Note to burgeoning artists: if you want to experience real trouble, apparently the best course of action is to head to the train tracks while dressed up like a silent-film era tramp (complete with bindle). At least, that's what clueless Hollywood director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) believes. Through witty verbal sparring, silly physical gags, and a few satirical observations, the movie follows the filmmaker as he attempts to experience genuine hardship firsthand so that he can make a movie about the impoverished. And though the runtime initially has quite a bit of fun with his utter failure to do so, Sturges eventually sneaks in some legitimate drama. In fact, what starts out as a satire about a filmmaker trying to make a serious movie about poverty, actually becomes a serious movie about poverty. That is, in between all of the slapstick farce and flirtatious bouts with the irresistible Veronica Lake.
By examining the pitfalls and strengths of so-called serious filmmaking and so-called empty entertainment, Prestron Sturges ends up making a movie that is a little bit of both -- giving audiences everything they could want. Funny and thought provoking, the film blends social commentary, light laughs, and a sharp satirical edge, resulting in one of the industry's most enduring and influential comedies. Thankfully, this release from Criterion gives the film the special treatment it deserves, with a great technical presentation and supplements.  And even beyond all these Blu-ray bells and whistles, at the end of the day, the movie is just guaranteed to make you laugh. And sometimes, isn't that enough?   


'Inherent Vice' -  Plot is an important component of most successful screenplays. Detective stories, in particular, are famous for their intricate twists and turns. Classics like 'Chinatown' are even revered for their taut and meticulously structured scripts, carefully layering their narratives with clues and details that cohesively pay-off throughout the runtime. To this point, most mystery films usually succeed or fail largely based on their ability to remain coherent. Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Inherent Vice' is not most mystery films. Turning confusion into an art form, the director weaves an impossibly complicated detective yarn as filtered through the impossibly dilated pupils of a drug-addled hippie. If Philip Marlowe traded in his trench coat, fedora, and smoking gun for a pair of sunglasses, a straw hat, and a smoking joint, you'd probably end up with Larry "Doc" Sportello.  

Playing out like some kind of strange cinematic lovechild between 'The Big Lebowski,' 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,' 'The Long Goodbye,' 'A Scanner Darkly' and countless other classic pulp detective books and film noir flicks, the movie turns into something entirely unique… and totally groovy. The overwhelming story mixes various intersecting and escalating plot threads dealing with drug cartels, criminal dentists, real estate schemes, disappearing boats, deadly fangs, friendly snitches, actor cops, and lots and lots of weed. And though it's likely that all of these elements do add up to a cohesive mystery, it's nearly impossible to connect all the dots (at least on an initial viewing). Hell, the plot is so bewildering that even the film's narrator sometimes sounds confused. Anderson's approach to the material (adapted from Thomas Pynchon's novel) becomes a filmic exercise in winding mysteries and long camera takes, dissecting and extending the conventions and intricacies of detective plotting until the story balloons into a nearly incompressible maze of jumbled angles, motivations, twists, and resolutions. But as muddled and downright hard to follow as the script is, understanding the bigger picture starts to become less and less important. The little character details and quirky scenes end up standing brilliantly on their own, turning the movie into a bizarrely entertaining film that succeeds thanks to the effortless appeal of its main character. As Doc, Joaquin Phoenix once again proves that he is one of the best and most versatile actors of his generation. Constantly high, the shaggy-haired private investigator slinks about from scene to scene, following the case in a laid back haze of smoke. And though his slurred speech and slow reaction time might imply otherwise, Doc is surprisingly competent and even downright deadly when he needs to be. 

Thanks to the actor's captivating and endlessly amusing performance, the particulars of the narrative are almost unimportant, simply serving as an excuse to put Doc in action, set him free, and watch him dance. Viewers might not know exactly what the hell has happened by the time the credits roll, but the flick still adds up to an oddly satisfying conclusion. Though light on supplements, this Blu-ray from Warner Brothers features a great technical presentation, fully sucking viewers into Doc's increasingly strange world. For those willing to go with the flow and simply enjoy the ride, 'Inherent Vice' is easily one of the month's best titles. But be warned, if you try to too hard to make sense of the insanity, you might end up having a bad trip. And that's not cool, man. Not cool at all.

So, there you have it. While there were many titles worth picking up this April, 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 April's must own titles?

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Tags: High-Def Digest Essential Picks, Essential Picks, Fun Stuff, Steven Cohen (all tags)