Blu-ray Reviews: “Caddyshack,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and More

Proving Blu-ray isn’t just for videophiles, Caddyshack makes the hi-def leap this week — a low-budget comedy made by an inexperienced director, and a movie that looked like shit 30 years ago and still looks that way today. So why give it a 1080p transfer?

Well, to make money, of course. And also because Caddyshack is awesome.

One of about a million “snobs versus slobs” comedies from the decade, Caddyshack took a diverse starring lineup and made the most of it, blending the old guard (Ted Knight’s stuffy bluster; Rodney Dangerfield’s dinner-theater shtick) with the new (Bill Murray’s mumbled improv; Chevy Chase’s arrogant buffoonery) to create something altogether smarter and funnier than any film co-starring a gopher puppet had any right to be. Stuffed with classic bits and quotable lines, it proved Harold Ramis’ success with Animal House and Meatballs wasn’t a fluke, and provided a launchpad for his (intermittently) successful directorial career in the bargain. It’s unapologetically lowbrow, and it’s brilliant.

Part of Caddyshack‘s brilliance is just how labored over the gags were; Ramis and co-writers Brian Doyle Murray and Douglas Kenney weren’t writing for a set cast, so they didn’t have the luxury of sketching an outline and relying on their stars to carry the picture. Instead, they had an absurdly long script, winnowed down to its funniest elements, which did the heavy lifting so the cast didn’t have to. It looks like a 99-minute accident that luckily ended up being funny, but what Caddyshack had, and so many modern comedies don’t, is a rigorous commitment to craft.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to own it on Blu-ray. Caddyshack is the type of shoestring flick that has always had all the visual gloss of a basic cable rerun, and it’s to this reissue’s credit that, increased detail notwithstanding, it remains true to its trashy origins. The color palette is garish, the soundtrack is flat, and that’s the way it should be. So why buy this version? Truthfully, I don’t know. You do get the added benefit of a few bonus features, but none of them are new — although it’s definitely nice to have the Biography Channel’s 80-minute Caddyshack: The Inside Story documentary (including the bits where they make Kenny Loggins pose with a stuffed gopher doll), and the older Caddyshack: The 19th Hole featurette includes some cool talking-head footage and deleted scenes, it’s hard to argue that either of them justify spending $25 on a hi-def remaster of a movie that never really needed it. On the other hand, if Caddyshack isn’t already part of your collection, I think it’s probably safe to say this is now the definitive version to own.

Far prettier, but a lot less entertaining, is the Joe Johnston-directed update on The Wolfman that turned out to be a box office dog earlier this year. Insofar as any reboot, reimagining, or remake actually needs to exist, this one had everything going for it — a director whose experience with effects-heavy films stretches back to Star Wars, the work of makeup wiz Rick Baker, and a sterling cast that included Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins, and Hugo Weaving. If Universal really felt like it had to raid the monster vaults, this had to be the best way of doing it, right?

Eh, not really. It’s fast-paced, full of action, and generous with shots of the rampaging Wolfman, but while everything else is going on, there isn’t much room for a story about characters who matter. And you might not think that’s much of a problem — but if you don’t, I humbly submit that you don’t really understand why the original Universal monster movies mattered in the first place. The creatures are cool to look at, but it’s the human element that really made those pictures work, and although The Wolfman understands that on some level, Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self’s screenplay — at least as it’s presented here — doesn’t know how to turn the two halves into a coherent whole. Underneath the fangs and claws, it’s a story about daddy issues and man’s struggle with rage and lust, but Johnston’s movie treats that part of the story like a necessary evil; these scenes are just gaps in the action, puffed up with Hopkins’ cartoon villainy and a few moments of unearned, borderline nonsensical passion between Del Toro and Blunt. As a result, there’s no drama in the dramatic climax; everyone in the frame, from Del Toro to Hopkins to the almost thoroughly wasted Weaving, is just a picture moving on a screen. Hollywood has perfected the art of delivering amazing special effects, and of throwing millions of dollars at unnecessary product, but they keep forgetting how to bring the damn things to life.

All that said, The Wolfman is fine for passing an afternoon, and on Blu-ray, it’s actually pretty awesome — not just because of the cool, sharp picture on the transfer or the suitably huge soundtrack, but because Universal did the bonus features right. Not only do you get the usual stuff, including a pair of alternate endings and a U-Control track led by Rick Baker, but the disc tosses in a few new wrinkles — the digital copy includes “pocket BLU” technology that allows the viewer to add bonus features to their mobile unit, and coolest of all, you can stream the original Wolfman, either to your Blu-ray player, to your portable device, or to your computer. It’s unfortunate that all this niftiness is tacked on to a pretty uninspired feature, but we see so many bare-bones Blu-rays that it’s worth celebrating a title that takes added advantage of the technology.

I’m not sure any filmmaker has been more poorly served by the CGI revolution than Tim Burton. A superb visual stylist, he has an annoying tendency to get so caught up in what his movies look like that he forgets to film anything worth remembering, and his cockamamie Alice in Wonderland is a case in point. Lewis Carroll’s original story was cheerfully insane, but it’s a book — you can only parcel out the nonsense as fast as you can read it, and you have time to digest or discard the subtext as you go along. And besides, Carroll wrote Alice as a true protagonist, not the sourpuss young woman, essentially a passive component in her own story, that Burton gives you here. He seems to have taken the book’s lunacy as a license to turn every goddamn inch of his movie into a twitching mound of quirk, with the whole headache-inducing mess topped off by Johnny Depp’s colossally annoying performance as the Mad Hatter.

The really frustrating thing is that Burton, through Linda Woolverton’s script, had a germ of an interesting idea here: What would happen if, years after the events of the canonical Alice in Wonderland, she returned? What might she find? Disappointingly, for all the gonzo imagery he dishes out, Burton’s Alice has a pretty boring answer to the question — the lightbulb-headed Red Queen (played with verve by Helena Bonham Carter, who seems to be doing her best Barbara Walters impression) is at war with the White Queen (a rather horrifying Anne Hathaway), and to set things right, Alice has to strap on a suit of armor and kill the Jabberwocky. In other words, after all the computer-generated spectacle, what it boils down to is a little bit of good old-fashioned violence, with a dash of sword-wielding feminism thrown in for good measure.

Why? I don’t know. Who cares? And for that matter, who cares about any of these characters? When a movie has a final act as carefully digitally sculpted as Burton’s Alice, you should feel the tension leading up to the inevitable happy ending, but I only felt like stifling a yawn. Not only is this Alice hollow, she’s pretty thoroughly unlikable. In this respect, she fits right in with all the other cartoon characters on the screen. You’re better off spending 109 minutes making a list of all the cool stuff you could have done with the $200 million Disney spent on this trifle.

Of course, on Blu-ray, it all looks great, and if you’re a fan of Burton’s work, I suppose that’s what will matter most to you. Me, I’ll wait for Burton to return to the kind of real storytelling he dabbled in with Big Fish. (Oh, right — the bonus features. They reflect a depressing lack of imagination: A dozen featurettes, evenly split between the making of the movie and some background on its characters.)

And then there’s James Cameron, who spent more than a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to move 3-D filmmaking into the future with Avatar — but didn’t forget the Joseph Campbell school of storytelling that has always served him so well in the past. Cameron’s movies are frequently derided for their stock characters and dialogue, but give him credit — he knows how to take a story you’ve heard a million times, wrap it in a larger-than-life setting, and carry you away until it’s two and a half hours later, your ass is numb, and you’re mad at yourself for getting sucked into his multibillion-dollar machine all over again.

And so it is with Avatar, which you may have heard a thing or two about, but if you somehow haven’t, I’ll just say takes place on a distant planet, and focuses on the war between mineral-hungry humans and a race of blue-skinned Native Amer — er, aliens. For a film with an absurdly inflated length, that’s literally dripping in CGI and 3-D gee-whiz camera stunts, Avatar is roughly six times more entertaining than it should be; yes, you’ll snicker at Cameron’s stilted dialogue, and yes, you’ll occasionally be taken out of the movie by the sheer wonder of the visuals, but by and large, this is a solidly immersive adventure. Did Cameron need to spend years plotting out the flora and fauna of Avatar‘s alien world? It’s tempting to say “no,” especially when so many of his creatures are so distractingly goofy-looking, but I’m inclined to simply be thankful for the fact that one of the few directors who has the financial wherewithal to do whatever the hell he wants is using his power to deliver real, honest-to-goodness entertainment. It may not be art, but Avatar absorbs you from its first frame, and for most of its running time, it doesn’t let go.

Long before it arrived on Blu-ray, you could bet on Avatar being solid reference material, and it is; the damn thing just looks and sounds simply marvelous. There isn’t a single bonus feature, owing to the movie’s elephantine theatrical gross and Fox’s knowledge that plenty of people will be willing to pony up to own it twice. (Let us not discuss the irony of choosing Earth Day to unleash a mountain of soon-to-be-replaced plastic discs on the marketplace.)

At the other end of the spectrum, in a universe where CGI barely exists, is Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. It’s based on a true story, but because Americans don’t give a shit about rugby, it’s one most of us don’t know: Specifically, the tale of how a recently elected Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman, in the role of a lifetime) used South Africa’s default entry in the 1995 Rugby World Cup as inspirational grist for the country’s (then quite crappy) team. Mandela knew he needed to bring South Africa together, and he knew it would be easier to rally them around a sports event than political talking points, so he reached out to the team’s captain (played here by Matt Damon in a blonder but no less steadying guise) and…well, it’s a sports movie, so you probably know where this is going, but why spoil it if you don’t?

Eastwood tends to stick with small pictures, narrow in focus, so the idea of him directing stadium set pieces might be a little discombobulating. But rest easy: The Eastwood who guided you assuredly through Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino is still at the top of his game. For a movie that deals with the turmoil of a nation, Invictus feels satisfyingly intimate, and Eastwood swings between the steadily merging stories of Mandela and team captain François Pienaar with a satisfying rhythm. You might not think a movie about South African politics and rugby sounds interesting — and really, without this cast, it’s easy to believe Eastwood would have had a much harder time getting this picture made — but set aside your doubts and reserve a couple of hours for Invictus. In a Hollywood drunk on computer-generated possibilities, Eastwood remembers it’s the human element that counts.

On Blu-ray, Invictus is solid, if not spectacular — about the same as any other recent Eastwood picture, really. The colors are vibrant and the contrast is crisp, but this movie isn’t really about the visual component. Home theater owners will notice, and be glad for, the film’s DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack during the World Cup scenes, when the speakers fill up with the sound of the crowd; you really get a nice feel for the contrast between the movie’s one-to-one moments and its packed stadiums. And the bonus features, somewhat atypically for an Eastwood joint, are plentiful; not only do you get a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes (“Mandela Meets Morgan” and “Matt Damon Plays Rugby”), but there’s also a picture-in-picture commentary track featuring Eastwood, the cast, and their real-life counterparts. Toss in the digital copy/DVD combo disc that’s included, and Invictus is well worth owning.

After more than 2200 words about the human element, and lack thereof, in modern cinema, I suppose there’s a certain amount of irony in pointing out that the most beautiful, humanity-affirming Blu-ray in the stack before me doesn’t really include many humans at all. I’m talking, of course, about Life, the marvelous four-disc collection of the BBC/Discovery Channel series that aired earlier this year. If you missed it on TV, or even if you watched it, Life on Blu-ray is 484 of the most uplifting minutes you’ll spend in front of your hi-def screen this year. Divided into 11 parts, it looks at (duh!) life on the planet Earth, from “Challenges of Life” (read: death) to reptiles, amphibians, mammals, fish, birds, insects, plants, and even those freaky-looking motherfuckers at the bottom of the ocean.

Yes, you’ve seen a thousand nature documentaries. But we’re getting better and better at filming the world around us, and Life is a gorgeous demonstration of that improvement; your father’s Mutual of Omaha special this ain’t. The camera gets right up close as creatures roam, forage, and are gobbled up by other creatures. It slows down and speeds up, Matrix-style. It zooms around the globe. It plunges into the sea. But all this wizardry isn’t distracting; rather, it ties you in to the story of Life on this planet. In a word, it’s captivating.

On Blu-ray, Life is a mite disappointing — this transfer is only 1080i; what’s up with that? — but it’s such a wonder to behold that any complaining seems churlish. The bonus features are relatively slim, as you might expect for a set this size, but they include an option that husbands and live-in boyfriends have been praying for since 1986: Namely, the ability to silence Oprah Winfrey, who provides narration.

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