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 well-crafted Hollywood action thriller, a spooky contemporary horror flick, and an esoteric excursion into experimental science fiction. If you haven't already, be sure to check out the Essential Picks for November, December, January, February, March, April, and May.
This month, we're covering an undead comedy romance, a classic of world cinema, and an imaginative cartoon for all ages. 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 June, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...
'Warm Bodies' - Paranormal romance flicks are a dime a dozen these days, and it's rare to find a title in the genre that's not only enjoyable but actually brings something new to the equation. Thankfully, Jonathan Levine's endearing and hilarious 'Warm Bodies' does just that, slowly dragging, shrugging, and mumbling its undead way into viewer's hearts and the top spot on June's Essential List.
Right off the bat, Levine instantly distances the movie from usual 'Twilight' clones by introducing a supernatural hero that is the antithesis of the increasingly popular brooding, perfectly dressed, flawlessly manicured, sparkling vampire variety. Indeed, unlike typical Hollywood bloodsuckers, werewolves, ghosts, aliens, or witches, our zombie protagonist -- with his decomposing flesh, insatiable hunger for brains, and incapacitated speech -- proves to be an inherently unromantic choice for a movie monster heartthrob, and the filmmakers play up this fact brilliantly. Through "R" (Nicholas Hoult), we're given an atypical perspective and his voice over narration guides us through the trials and tribulations of being a lovelorn undead corpse with clever wit and surprising heart. The decidedly unconventional courtship that develops between our zombie lothario and the living object of his affection, Julie (Teresa Palmer), is funny, sweet, a bit morbid, and appropriately odd in all the right ways, and their burgeoning relationship is set to a truly awesome soundtrack fueled by old school and new school hits.
The filmmakers even add their own twist to the usual zombie mythology, playing up the tried-and-true slacker metaphor with a rather poignant new supernatural rule. You see, these brain feasting corpses can actually absorb and relive the memories of their victims, potentially reigniting sparks of emotion that lay dormant in their own decaying minds. By borrowing a dead man's memories, R sets off a revolution, proving that even in the face of the zombie apocalypse, "all you need is love." It's all really quite sappy actually, but the film's unapologetically romantic sensibilities ring true and are wonderfully balanced by humor and horror. Charming, original, and entertaining, 'Warm Bodies' easily rises above the many inferior efforts in its increasingly crowded genre, and this Blu-ray release comes packed with great video, audio, and extras. If nothing else, the movie finally dethrones 'My Boyfriend's Back' to become the best zombie, comedy, romance film of all time (I can't be the only one who remembers that "classic"). And that alone has to earn it the top spot on June's list, right?
'Wild Strawberries' - There are some filmmakers so legendary in their contributions to cinema, and so consistent in their execution of brilliant filmmaking, that no Top 10 list of greatest movies could be complete without at least one film from their impressive repertoire. In fact, some directors' filmographies are so storied, that any number of their works could be included with little protest. Hell, in some very rare cases, an entire Top 10 list could almost be comprised using only the director in question's films, and most would still be hard pressed to argue with the results. Ingmar Bergman is such a filmmaker. Throughout his celebrated career, the Swedish director brought his own unique vision of contemplative, brooding, bittersweet storytelling to the silver screen, giving self reflection and inner turmoil striking visual form. From 'The Seventh Seal' to 'Persona,' his movies weep with introspection and devastating insight -- and his 1957 masterpiece, 'Wild Strawberries,' is easily among his very best work.
From the very first frame, Bergman instantly reveals a complete mastery over the screen, harnessing his images to control a sense of space, isolation, emotion, and eerie stillness. Through this pensive visual style, the director weaves a bittersweet story of self reflection that sees an aging man, Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), look back upon his life. As he embarks on an existential road trip of the soul, his past and present blur, causing memories and dreams to play out before him in a spectral theater of grief and delight. Interestingly, despite these frequent excursions into recollection, we never actually see Isak's younger self. Instead, we are forced to learn about the character's past exclusively through the perspective of others, and the portrait they paint is frequently contradictory. Throughout the entire film we are told what a cold and callous man Isak is (particularly from his daughter-in-law), but Bergman deliberately refrains from fully showing us this side of him. All we see is a kind old man increasingly overcome by melancholy and regret. We see various past instances that might have helped shape his future insensitivity, but we don't actually see this behavior in action, creating a fascinating disconnect that seems at odds with what we are repeatedly told.
Victor Sjöström is simply heartbreaking as Isak, and the actor carries a wealth of emotional baggage in every wistful stare and longing glance. There is a gentleness to his demeanor in the present that is instantly likeable, and yet there are still moments when one can see hints of the icy detachment that his daughter-in-law continually condemns. Bergman mainstay Gunnar Björnstrand is also great as Isak's seemingly heartless son, and through his cold behavior we catch a glimpse of the arrogant, unfeeling man Isak supposedly is. As the aging doctor walks through the halls of his past, a portrait of love, pain, loss, resentment, and healing is formed, allowing Bergman to probe the deepest recesses of the human soul through rich themes, insightful dialogue, and haunting imagery. Surreal dreams and arresting metaphors bolster the otherwise modest content, and the director manages to find an elegant visual beauty in mere conversation. A painful but ultimately joyous reverie on the past, 'Wild Strawberries' is an infinitely rich examination of human connection, life, death, and memory. One of Bergman's very best films, it's also one of the shining achievements of world cinema. The Criterion Blu-ray features a great technical presentation and worthwhile supplements. This is a release that belongs on every cinephile's shelf, and if you still need more reasons to pick it up, here's three more straight from Criterion:
'Adenture Time: The Complete First Season' - What's that? A children's cartoon is capping off June's list of must own titles? This must be some kind of mistake, right? Wrong! Believe it or not, Pendleton Ward's 'Adventure Time' is one of the most unique, creative, intelligent, and wonderfully silly shows on TV. Through the story of a young boy and his magical talking dog, the writers and animators have tapped into something truly wondrous, creating an offbeat sense of humor that somehow appeals to all ages in equal measure.
As I detailed in my full review, 'Adventure Time' really is something special. In fact, it's so distinct in its style and voice that it's actually a little hard to describe. Take aspects of 'Dungeons and Dragons' and other classic role-playing adventures, add a dash of video game questing logic, throw in a healthy dose of fairy tale magic, sprinkle in a bit of Lewis Carroll inspired surreal randomness, and finish it off with a pinch of subversive wit and you'll start to form a pretty good idea of what the series is all about. But despite all these clear influences, the show's quirky sense of humor and atypical storytelling rhythms really defy explanation, and the series needs to be seen in order to truly understand its silly madness.
With an endearing cast of characters brimming with life and personality, and a fantasy world bursting with limitless possibilities, each episode takes viewers on an imaginative 11 minute journey that creates its own narrative rules. Though seemingly random and nonsensical, the writers actually do build up a pretty comprehensive mythology over the show's run, and all that groundwork is set up here in season one. Filled with fun action, juvenile gags, surprisingly intelligent jokes, offbeat vocal deliveries, and plenty of songs, the show has something for everyone. There's a bubblegum princess, a rocker vampire, a kingdom of candy people, and even a (not so) devious Ice King, and the show plays against typical archetypes, clichés, and storytelling beats to create characters, locations, and plotlines that are wholly unique and refreshingly weird. June saw the release of not only the first season, but season two as well, and both sets are equally strong with great presentations and appropriately odd supplements (the atypical commentaries are especially amusing). Though some might balk at the idea of owning a "kid's show," 'Adventure Time' is one of those rare series that challenges typical demographics. Young or old, this is a show that will appeal to anyone who loves idiosyncratic humor, goofy fun, sharp wit, imaginative fantasy, and good old fashioned (and extremely bizarre) adventure!
So, there you have it. While there are many titles worth picking up this June, 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 June's must own titles?