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 undead comedy romance, a classic of world cinema, and an imaginative cartoon for all ages. If you haven't already, be sure to check out the Essential Picks for November, December, January, February, March, April, May, and June.
This month, we're covering an inspirational biopic on one of baseball's greats, a hypnotic noir thriller, and the gruesome return of a cult horror franchise. Please be aware, that if you haven't already seen them, there might be some spoilers for the films listed.
If you only buy three titles that hit Blu-ray in July, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...
'42' - Fully embracing old school Hollywood sensibilities, Brian Helgeland's '42' tells the incredible true story of Jackie Robinson with all the heart, grandeur, and humanity the subject so greatly deserves. Focused on Robinson's inaugural season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the film follows the man as he overcomes vicious racism from disgruntled fans and peers alike in order to stand tall as the first African American player in modern major league baseball. It's inspiring, exciting, and just the right amount of sentimental. In other words, it's exactly what one looks for in a great baseball flick.
As Jackie Robinson, actor Chadwick Boseman evokes the perfect amount of steadfast determination, breezy charisma, and boiling frustration. Faced by an onslaught of discrimination from those unwilling to accept a black player in the league, Robinson is subjected to cruel taunts, relentless threats, and even violent abuses, and Boseman bottles up a palpable layer of rage and pain within the character, giving the audience just a small taste of what it must have felt like to walk in his shoes. Though he wants to fight back, Dodgers' General Manager Branch Rickey urges him to "turn the other cheek," and through this effort to take the high ground, Robinson's struggle reveals that choosing not to fight takes much more strength than simply throwing a punch. In the role of Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford actually gets to act, something the celebrated movie star hasn't really done much of in recent years, and he fully inhabits the larger-than-life true character, giving Boseman's Robinson the little extra support and backup he needs.
Writer/director Brian Helgeland hits all the right dramatic beats on and off the baseball field, eliciting the type of grand inspiration that only the best silver screen stories can. Admittedly, his approach can be a bit hokey and generic at times, but the film's old fashioned tone is actually refreshing, and despite the rousing sentiments of hope, Helgeland never shies away from the dark challenges Robinson faces, respecting the incredible perseverance it took to break the color barrier. The story of two great men who worked together to change the face of baseball -- and in some ways the very face of our country -- '42' is classic Hollywood inspiration at its best. The Blu-ray from Warner Bros. might be a little light on extras, but the technical presentation is top-notch, helping the disc slide into the number one spot on this month's essential picks.
'Trance' - Director Danny Boyle has had a very eclectic career, taking on projects of all genres. From science fiction, to horror, to modern day fairy tales, and even family friendly adventures, the British filmmaker has just about covered the entire spectrum of cinema. 'Trance' sees the director more or less return to his earlier roots, tackling a noir inspired thriller filled with psychological twists and turns. A cerebral heist film concerned with memory, identity, and control, the film takes audiences on a parallel journey to its characters, confusing and manipulating our perceptions at every turn.
Through the deceptively simple story of an art heist gone bad, the movie constantly forces viewers to question what's real. On the surface, the plot is about using hypnosis to uncover the forgotten location of a stolen painting, but there's really much more than money and art on the line here. Sanity, identity, and free will itself are the real stakes. Tackling concepts of exploitation, revenge, and fractured psyches, the movie features an ensemble of flawed characters -- and while poor Simon (James McAvoy) and his increasingly fractured mind might be our main window into this world, in the end, no one here is really good or bad. They're all manipulators and the manipulated, anxious to remember and desperate to forget. Innocents become exploiters and predators become victims and even their very desires become subject to the whims of those in power. But just who is really pulling the strings?
That's the central question that runs throughout the runtime, and once Boyle provides us with the answer, we realize that the film's duped characters never really had a chance. Combining elements of noir, heist flicks, and psychological thrillers, the script's manipulative plot and exploration of mental thievery evokes everything from David Fincher's 'The Game,' to Christopher Nolan's 'Inception,' and even Michel Gondry's 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,' weaving a familiar but still original caper that keeps viewers on their toes for the duration of the runtime. Just when you think you know what's going on, you're taken down a new path, and while some of these turns can be a little convoluted or messy, the overall experience is engrossing and exciting. This disc from 20th Century Fox features a great video presentation that respects Boyle's dreamy and distorted visuals, a fantastic audio track that surrounds the audience with the film's rhythmic beats and delicate sound design, and a very welcome collection of interesting supplements. It's not a perfect movie by any means, but the hypnotic direction's cinematic power of suggestion will likely compel one to forget many of its flaws.
'Evil Dead (2013)' - Though it lacks some of the "groovier" qualities that make Sam Raimi's classic trilogy ('The Evil Dead,' 'Evil Dead II,' 'Army of Darkness') so much fun, as an exercise in visceral, gory mayhem, Fede Alvarez's 'Evil Dead' reboot offers horror fans a frantic, terrifying return to the woods. Through a striking and often downright disgusting sense of impending dread and non-stop terror, the film should leave many viewers' hearts racing and stomachs churning.
Though filled with several loving and bloody nods to the original series, Alvarez's take on the material is actually a little different, helping to give the flick an identity all its own. Sure, the film still focuses on five friends who find themselves stranded in a cabin haunted by an evil presence summoned by The Book of the Dead, but the story and mythology is a little more fleshed out, introducing a drug rehab plotline that serves as a surprisingly effective metaphor for demonic possession. Likewise, while the original film carries an undercurrent of comedy (and the sequel is a flat-out slapstick masterpiece), Alvarez basically plays it straight here, upping the gore to extreme levels while assaulting the audience with impossibly gruesome imagery and dismemberments. With that said, as M. Enois Duarte mentions in his full review, this extravagant display of blood soaked mayhem is so excessive that there does end up being a subtle sense of absurd humor layered beneath the disturbing content. The director also displays a penchant for cinematic ingenuity and deprave creativity when it comes to finding new ways to torment his characters and terrify his audience, evoking Raimi's original kinetic visuals with impressive camera movements and exciting scares all his own.
Sadly, there are times when this new take on the franchise does start to veer too much toward "torture porn" for my tastes and, for the most part, the characters are severely underwritten. Thankfully, as the recovering drug addict Mia, Jane Levy ends up being a great lead and does an amazing job -- whether she's trying to fight off evil with a chainsaw or succumbing to it as a possessed blade licking demon. In fact, Levy's brave performance and Alvarez's inventive camera work are what end up elevating the film, saving it from becoming just another disposable, gratuitous horror remake -- though, as the end credits reveal, this may not be a true remake at all…
While I can't help but miss the goofy, slapstick humor that permeates throughout the original franchise, this new take still offers a palpable explosion of horror that manages to earn the final spot on July's list thanks to the help of a killer disc from Sony. Now hurry up with a sequel! I can't wait to see what Raimi and Alavarez have in store for future installments, and if things work out as planned, Levy and the impressively chinned Bruce Campbell could make for a very entertaining duo. After all, two chainsaws are definitely better than one.
So, there you have it. While there are many titles worth picking up this July, 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 July's must own titles?