Blu-ray Reviews: “American Beauty,” “Seven,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Anchorman”
The Blu-ray market was made for reissues, but not all reissues are created equal. With that in mind, here are four recent Blu-ray sets that bring some hit films of the past into the hi-def era. Which ones take advantage of the technology’s expanded storage limits? Which ones were put together with the fans in mind? Read on to find out:
American Beauty is the latest addition to Paramount’s Sapphire Series collection, and in terms of critical stature and awards, it fits right in alongside previous Sapphire titles such as Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan, and The Godfather. Sadly, Beauty also fits in in terms of missed opportunities; Sapphire titles have started to gain a reputation for being problem-plagued (Private Ryan’s audio errors) or just plain uninspired (the straight Godfather repackages), and this one is no different.
First, the good stuff: Beauty’s 1080p AVC encode does all right by cinematographer Conrad L. Hall’s gorgeous work, giving the film’s rich colors a noticeable boost over the ‘99 DVD release. It isn’t perfect — various bits of speckles and noise appear here and there, and I suspect the overall quality is more indicative of the movie’s recent vintage than any real investment in the transfer — but if you aren’t watching simply to pick it apart, the picture’s fine.
Likewise the DTS HD Master Audio track, which puts Thomas Newman’s haunting score front and center where it belongs. Alan Ball’s script is sharp and darkly humorous, and the acting is uniformly solid — particularly from Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, and the always-excellent Chris Cooper — but quite a bit of the film’s emotional resonance stems from Newman’s work, and it really surrounds you here.
Where the Beauty Blu-ray really falls down is on the added content front — all of the special features have been ported over from the original DVD, which means that not only are all the bonuses old, there simply aren’t that many of them. You get a commentary track from Ball and director Sam Mendes (dominated so thoroughly by Mendes that I think Ball may have fallen asleep), a behind-the-scenes documentary, a storyboard presentation with Mendes and Hall, and a pair of trailers. Is that, plus upgraded audio and video, worth $29.99 list? Follow the advice of American Beauty’s tagline and “look closer” — the answer’s pretty obvious.
Far better is Warners’ digibook reissue of David Fincher’s Seven (or Se7en — whatever). The Warner Bros. digibook line is a little pricier than Paramount’s Sapphire Series, but it’s also a lot more consistent, boasting careful upgrades of recent titles (such as Falling Down) and what remains, hands down, the best archival Blu-ray reissue I’ve ever seen (North by Northwest).
Overall, the Seven Blu-ray is one of the better entries in a remarkably solid line. The VC-1 codec transfer is sharp and full of detail, which is sort of remarkable considering how dark the movie is — and how deep and rich the movie’s blacks are. I wouldn’t have believed it was possible, but the oppression and dread are even more palpable.
Like American Beauty, Seven benefits from a powerful score, and this Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio track does a splendid job of immersing the viewer in a well-balanced presentation of Howard Shore’s music with the dialogue and ambient noise. Watch it late at night when you’re home alone, and feel your skin crawl.
Seven’s bonus features don’t include anything new, but unlike American Beauty, there’s a ton of added content — Warners brought over everything from the double-disc Platinum Series reissue, including four commentaries, additional footage (including alternate endings and the alternate beginning), a series of clips showing how the opening titles were created, production design stills with commentary, a featurette about the creation of John Doe’s creepy diaries, and more. Plus, you get more than 30 pages of essays, photos, cast bios, and various bits of behind-the-scenes perspective.
Ultimately, the Seven Blu-ray digibook doesn’t offer anything truly revelatory, but it’s an attractively packaged reissue of a terrific film, obviously assembled with enthusiasm and care. If you’re a fan of the movie, this is absolutely the definitive edition to own.
Speaking of definitive, the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest special edition Blu-ray — also out courtesy of Warner Bros. — gives a counterculture classic its hi-def due with a handsome, extras-laden box. If you happen to know an aging hippie or ‘70s film aficionado with a Blu-ray player, this set just made your Christmas shopping a little easier.
With films this age, you can tell from the opening credits just how much time and money was spent on a Blu-ray transfer, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest holds up remarkably well. Cuckoo’s has already received a deluxe DVD reissue, and if you own that, the Blu-ray will represent a noticeable (if not astounding) improvement. The new transfer is faithful to the original’s grainy quality and cool palette, and although you’ll notice dirt specks here and there, that’s to be expected for a movie that came out in 1975.
The audio track holds up similarly well, providing a fine balance between the dialogue and Jack Nitzsche’s startlingly original, Academy Award-winning score. This isn’t home theater demo material, obviously, but again, we’re talking about a 35-year-old movie; Warners always seems to do right by its vault Blu-ray titles, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is no exception.
Fans of the film will also be thrilled with the special edition’s bonus materials, which include nifty swag (a reproduction of the original press book, photos of the main characters, a deck of special Cuckoo’s Nest playing cards) to go with the usual stuff: A beautiful, interesting 52-page book about the movie, an audio commentary track, eight deleted scenes, and the trailer, all ported over from the 2002 reissue. But that’s not all: you also get the complete Completely Cuckoo, the fascinating Charles Kiselyak documentary about the making of the movie that was presented in a shorter form in the 2002 package, as well as a new, half-hour documentary about how mental hospitals have changed in the decades since Ken Kesey wrote the novel on which Cuckoo’s is based.
All in all, it’s the kind of release that’s as almost as much fun to open and sort through as it is to watch, and at $49.99, it’s reasonably priced. Give it as a gift — but make sure you hand it over quickly, or you might find it “accidentally” ending up on your own shelf.
Finally, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the skimpy American Beauty, we have the “Rich Mahogany” edition of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. If it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, you’ve got it here; this double-disc set collects what must be every single bit of Anchorman-related content ever filmed. Here’s some — but not all! — of what you get with this Best Buy exclusive:
1. The theatrical and unrated versions of the film
2. A suitably nonsensical commentary track, featuring cast, crew, and Lou Rawls
4. A towering stack of deleted and extended scenes
5. Ron Burgundy’s long-lost audition for SportsCenter
6. An “Afternoon Delight” music video
7. Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie, presented in HD
8. A brief (albeit pretty funny) commentary track for Wake Up
9. Tons of raw footage showing the cast experimenting and ad-libbing
10. Cast audition footage
11. Brief promos aired on Comedy Central and Cinemax
12. Ron Burgundy’s celebrity interviews at the 2004 MTV Movie Awards
13. Bill Curtis’ interview of Ron Burgundy
14. Burgundy’s insulting “happy birthday” clips for AMC Loews’ 100th anniversary
15. A cast table read
All of which gives you something like 400 hours of Anchorman goodies to sift through, plus a set of 12 trading cards and a 32-page Ron Burgundy “diary” — basically, everything a fan of the film could ever ask for. Your mileage will vary, obviously, depending on just how much you love Anchorman, but you can’t fault Paramount for including tons of extra content, and at $24.99, they certainly aren’t guilty of overcharging. Even if you’ve already purchased one of the myriad Anchorman editions already on the market, the “Rich Mahogany” edition might prove too tempting to resist.