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 gritty cop drama, a Woody Allen classic, and an action-packed sci-fi reboot. If you haven't already, be sure to check out the Essential Picks for November, December, and January.
After a fairly underwhelming start to 2013, the last few weeks have actually been packed with a great assortment of top-notch Blu-rays, including a 007 blockbuster, an epic clash of kings, and a thrilling Best Picture winner. If you can only buy three titles that hit Blu-ray in February, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...
'Skyfall' - When it was announced that a third Daniel Craig James Bond adventure was finally going into production, I was relieved. Then, when Academy Award winning director Sam Mendes was confirmed to be helming the picture, I was intrigued. And then, when celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins was announced to be shooting the movie… well, I think had a bit of a film geek heart attack. Suffice to say, I was fully expecting 'Skyfall' to deliver the goods, and thankfully, despite a few easily forgivable hiccups, the impressive creative team delivers in spades.
Fully acknowledging the series' important 50th Anniversary milestone, the script is packed with loving nods to the franchise's history, while also carving a unique identity of its own. All the essential elements of Bond are here -- the exotic locations, the beautiful women, the larger-than-life stunts, the cheeky quips, the shaken (not stirred) martinis, etc. -- but the filmmakers opt to put a slightly new spin on the proceedings, choosing to play up certain classic Bond aspects while diminishing -- but not altogether ignoring -- others. This allows the movie to further the more "realistic" interpretation started in 'Casino Royale,' without losing the sense of escapist extravagance that makes the franchise so fun to watch. The third act does take a notable departure from typical 007 fare, but this gamble pays off, and manages to result in a strong emotional component that emphasizes the interesting relationship between Craig's infamous philanderer and the only woman who's ever truly been able to tame him. In fact, while Naomie Harris and Berenice Marlohe both light up the screen with sultry allure, in her own way, it's really Dame Judi Dench who becomes the film's ultimate Bond Girl.
While 'Quantum of Solace' was forgettable (seriously, I can’t even say whether I liked it or not because I literally don't remember any of it), 'Skyfall' further elaborates on the strong promise established in 'Casino Royale,' leaving viewers with a 21st century 007. The Blu-ray itself is mesmerizing, the Oscar winning sound editing is sure to give your home theater a workout, and Roger Deakins' Oscar nominated (but sadly not winning) cinematography is an absolute treasure trove of eye candy (the film's lighting design is impeccable). Considering the various interpretations the character has gone through over the years, it's nearly impossible to completely satisfy every faction of Bond fandom. Though the flick does have its detractors, I think Mendes and company really have done a remarkable balancing act, resulting in one of the most successful entries in the series to date. Action-packed, exciting, visually arresting, and thoroughly entertaining, this is February's top must own title.
'Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season' - I'm not sure if I've mentioned this yet, but I really like HBO's 'Game of Thrones.' In fact, I've already spent two lengthy reviews extolling my great love for the series, and yet somehow I still haven't run out of good things to say about it. Hell, now that I look back at my last review, I can't believe just how much I didn't get to touch upon. Every element of the show's production and storytelling is so densely layered, that I could probably go on and on about even the most minute details. With that in mind, I'm now going to use this opportunity to elaborate on two aspects of the series that I failed to discuss in my full review.
First up -- Lena Heady. Wow. The actress was already impressive in season one, but what she does over the course of the second season (especially in episode 9), is just plain incredible. Cercei is not a likeable woman, and it would be all too easy for her character to come across as one dimensional, but the actress completely imbues her with a believable undercurrent of vulnerability and genuine pathos. As Tyrion himself points out, her one redeemable quality is her love for her children, and this comes to a head in episode 9. The actress' performance is simply masterful, balancing every conflicting range of emotion she's experiencing. From her torment of Sansa, to the brilliantly cut sequence where she tells her son a "little story" about lions, and stags, and wolves -- she somehow creates a character that is regal, motherly, petty, manipulative, terrifying, tragic, and reprehensible all at once. In a cast full of standout performances, her turn in "Blackwater" really does rise above them all.
While the first season offered some tiny hints of the supernatural, this batch of episodes takes us further into the realm of fantasy. Newborn dragons, White Walkers, shadow assassins, and creepy warlocks all make appearances, and the show's treatment of magic continues to be unique, avoiding many of the clichés and cheesiness sometimes associated with the genre. In the world of 'Game of Thrones,' spells don't just conjure up with the twirl of a wand. Instead, there is something dark, primal, and inherently physical about the show's take on the otherworldly. Likewise, many of the characters are just as surprised by the mystical happenings as we are, further grounding these supernatural aspects in a certain level of realism. And the season's final shot? Well, much like last year, it's pure fantasy awesomeness.
Again, I could continue pointing out even more impressive feats of acting and writing that litter the series, but really I think you all get the idea. This is one of the best shows on TV, and this set from HBO features demo worthy video and audio, and a great assortment of special features. It's a must own release in every sense of the word. While I continue to count down the days until season three premieres, HBO has decided to help make the wait a little less agonizing by finally releasing the first trailer (embedded below).
You know what? I think I was wrong. After watching that, the wait is even more agonizing now!
'Argo' - A harrowing hostage situation and a cheesy science fiction ripoff. Under normal circumstances, these are two worlds that should have absolutely no association with each other -- but in 1979, the United States Government and Hollywood thought differently. Based on actual events, Ben Affleck's 'Argo' is a classically structured suspense thriller with a true-to-life twist, celebrating the unlikely intermingling of international crisis and flying saucers.
Packed with edge-of-your-seat drama and palpable tension, the movie is among 2012's most absorbing, giving viewers an enthralling and anxiety-ridden experience that holds up surprisingly well under repeat viewings. Every element of the writing, editing, and directing works to create an aura of suspense, and Affleck goes a step further by including a faintly satirical sense of humor that never undermines the film's strong sense of danger. Fun jabs at Hollywood add some levity to the situation, and Alan Arkin and John Goodman both turn in memorable performances. More than just a source of laughs, however, the moviemaking connection is also used to draw some interesting parallels. One cross-cutting montage sequence is particularly striking. As we see images of the turmoil in Iran juxtaposed against an elaborate Hollywood table read (complete with silly costumes and lavish media fanfare), we suddenly realize just how bizarre the incongruity between these worlds is, and just how much is resting on the success of their improbable union.
Really, my only complaint about the runtime is just how transparent the script's third act divergences from history become, with the writer relying on all the most basic and predictable Hollywood suspense embellishments imaginable. Thankfully, though a tad forced, these tried-and-true beats are executed perfectly, proving that when done right, clichéd plotting can actually work. In fact, it can work brilliantly.
The film's final images are actually among my favorites from any movie released last year. Filled with an endearing fondness for science fiction wonder, these closing shots add some nostalgic perspective, further reinforcing the unbelievable reality that rests at the core of the film -- that one day in 1979, a silly little story about spacemen and aliens actually played some small part in helping to save six lives. Recently crowned the Best Picture winner of 2012, 'Argo' is a great suspense film that hits all the right beats. It's not my personal pick for the year's best film, but it's certainly deserving of recognition. This disc from Warner Brothers is technically strong, helping to make the movie an easy selection to cap off this month's top three must own titles. Also, if nothing else, the film is responsible for creating one of my favorite movie catch phrases of all time. Basically, if you don't want to pick up this disc, then just 'Argo' f*&%# yourself!
So, there you have it. While there are many titles worth picking up this February, 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 February's must own titles?