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Monday, June 24, 2024

TheaterByte’s Best Blu-ray Sets of 2016 (So Far)

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As summer draws to a close but before the holiday season kicks into high gear, we at TheaterByte sometimes like to take a quiet moment to reflect on some of the high points of the year in Blu-ray discs thus released. What we see an interesting menagerie of TV series spanning five decades intermingled with movie collections from this millennium and that other one too; remixed, remastered and/or reassembled into tempting new editions too good not to share.

Supergirl: The Complete First Season

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow: The Complete First Season

Lucifer: The Complete First Season (all Warner)

While DC is taking a critical and social media drubbing for its theatrical offerings of late, they seem to be having better luck with long-form, serial storytelling on the small screen. And while the returning favorites Arrow, Flash and Gotham (fourth, second and second season sets respectively released recently) have already made their bones, a new crop of heroes/anti-heroes are earning a name for themselves. The CW’s Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and Fox’s Lucifer are riskier but appear to be paying off, and their debut years are certainly worth a look.

Plucky Melissa Benoist is well-cast as The Girl of Steel, charming her way through a bumpy season as the grandeur of the Kryptonian heroine sometimes strains against the limitations of a weekly TV budget. It’s a departure from established canon, which might rub some the wrong way, but kudos at least for attempting to pull off yet another adaptation of the Alan Moore tale “For the Man Who Has Everything.”

Legends is a bit of a comic book salad, based on neither one specific title nor storyline. Time traveler Rip Hunter assembles a team of heroes and villains (Atom, White Canary, Firestorm, Heat Wave, Captain Cold, Hawkman and Hawkgirl) in order to thwart evil Vandal Savage’s takeover of the world one-and-a-half centuries hence. The resulting ensemble is a fresh exploration of these disparate characters—many never before dramatized in live action—and familiar themes.

This particular incarnation of Lucifer was created by Neil Gaiman as part of his acclaimed Sandman series, before spinning off first into his own series by Mike Carey and then this TV interpretation. Abandoning the underworld for Los Angeles, the Lord of Hell is a changed man, using his devilish ways to help punish the wicked. An impressive array of talent brings this quirky dramedy to life. (This one is actually on the Warner Archives specialty label.)

Each includes featurettes and the appropriate Comic Con panel if you’re so inclined, but the gag reels for all are far more fun, while Supergirl and Lucifer also collect several deleted scenes apiece.

The X-Files: The Collector’s Set (Fox)

With its winning blend of paranormal skullduggery of every sort, a central undercurrent of internal skepticism and quite a bit of humor, The X-Files struck a chord with audiences upon its 1993 premiere. The sexual tension between the dreamy stars Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny didn’t hurt, either. Week to week and across the seasons, mysteries big and small unfurled, teasing and frightening us and becoming one of the late 20th century’s TV standouts. To me at least, X-Files is also noteworthy as a bulletpoint on the résumé of a young Vince Gilligan.

Long-requested and oft-rumored, The X-Files finally arrived on Blu-ray late last year—past my deadlines for any 2015 roundups, so I couldn’t get to it until 2016!—with fine HD remasters of all nine seasons. The First through Fourth were originally broadcast at 4:3, the remainder at 16:9, but all are presented 1.78:1 here, and all with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks. So, ready or not, the show has been transported into the future (perhaps with some type of “fight,” anyone…?)

These are long seasons that contain at least 20 episodes each, and so the package tops out at a downright hefty 55 discs. Well, that’s not counting The X-Files: The Event Series (also known as “Season 10,” sold separately from the version I reviewed), for which Fox has thoughtfully left an empty space inside this massive slab. A few bibs and bobs have been lost on the way from DVD to Blu-ray, and while no new documentary, etc. has been produced for this occasion, some interesting, obscure content has been pulled in from various sources, much of it in SD, to make this the single most extensive aggregation of bonus material yet assembled for the landmark series. It was an ambitious undertaking, no conspiracy theories about that.

Game of Thrones The Complete Third and Fourth Seasons – Limited Steelbook (HBO)

Taken as a whole, these two seasons pretty much cover A Storm of Swords, George R. R. Martin third A Song of Ice and Fire novel… with some bits left out and others added in. Executive producers/series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss do pretty much what they want, and it seems to be working.

Rather than try to boil down two full seasons into a few sentences, I will tell you that Three and Four feature oodles of new journeys, meetings, schemes (successful and otherwise), revelations, sex, violence and intrigue involving the extended Stark and Lannister clans. For very different reasons, each season is highlighted by a memorable wedding, one “Red” and one “Purple,” respectively. Not a moment of these 20 total episodes is to be missed.

All of the outstanding passive/interactive bonus content from the original Blu-ray releases carries over here. The soundtracks—already among the best of TV—have all been remixed for Dolby Atmos home theaters, too: height channels and Daenerys’ dragons can be a potent combination. The other remaining differences are about the packaging, always-welcome slim-design cases, even better when they are snazzy steelbooks, each with a nifty season-relevant sigil magnet, either The Twins or The Wall. The Wall would be right at home on the refrigerator, actually.

The Hunger Games Complete 4-Film Collection (Lionsgate)

Film series such as The Mockingjay Trilogy (three books, four movies, new math) inevitably come together for complete sets, so here we are. In addition to the movies and previously released supplements, this six-disc box kindly folds in all of the previously Target-exclusive bonus material… but because it arrived day and date with the final movie, the Target extras from Mockingjay – Part 2 are still absent here. Which is not to say there’s not still lots to pick over here, much of it brand-spanking-new to viewers: six dozen featurettes, lots of deleted scenes plus audio commentaries from director Francis Lawrence on his three installments.

So yeah, if you’re a fan (and my wife certainly is), you won’t go hungry. The adaptation of Susan Collins’ books, begun under the direction of Gary Ross and completed by Lawrence, is an apt tale of grassroots revolution blended with YA empowerment and romance, with flourishes of science fiction as well. By and large they turned out better than they would have with a lesser cast and crew, although splitting the finale into two parts—and front-loading all of the fluff into Mockingjay – Part 1—was greedy. That’s the shortest one in the bunch but it feels like the longest.

In terms of technical quality, these Blu-rays have always been top-notch. DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 on first pair, Dolby TrueHD 7.1 with Atmos on back half owing to evolving standards and allegiances, but Part 1 has DTS Headphone:X track too. Catching Fire alone has a shifting aspect ratio to accommodate its IMAX scenes.

Lionsgate has also just announced individual releases of the four movies on 4K Ultra HD disc later this year.

Star Trek: The Original Series – The Complete Series 

Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Complete Series (CBS/Paramount)

Let’s be clear right from the start: These are straight-up re-packs of the previously released individual seasons newly assembled into monolithic “megapacks.”

The packaging for each is a tad slimmer than the single years all piled together, which might actually make a difference if your shelves are especially crowded. , but the big enticement here is the price. If you’ve managed to resist purchasing the many voyages of the NCC-1701 and the NCC-1701 D this long, your patience will be rewarded with a swell deal, especially with the deep discounts I saw at Amazon as I was writing this story.

Certainly quite a bargain versus the individual season purchases,

The three-season Original Series is a 20-disc set, the seven-season Next Generation 41. And what discs they are: TOS offers the beautifully restored vintage broadcast versions plus the option of newly created special effects seamlessly integrated, and we can toggle back and forth during each episode. I didn’t realize the potential value of this feature until I recently watched “Space Seed” with my kids for the first time, and their 21st-century way of looking at things. Not saying that I endorse changing the original, but I do understand the intent of a refresh, just so long as the classics remain readily available.

Next Gen was famously remastered in high-definition a few years ago, revealing detail within the show’s high production values that had always been there but had never been seen by home viewers until Blu-ray. For both, expect a healthy dose of modern featurettes, archival footage and the occasional commentary. And what better way to celebrate the golden anniversary of The Original Series (and the 29th for Next Generation) than by traveling back in time and reliving them all over again?

Orange is the New Black: Season Three (Lionsgate)

An outstanding fourth season currently streaming on Netflix compelled me to give Season Three—the weakest in my opinion—another look. It was a remarkably angry year, unabashedly condemning religion, bad parenting and the privatization of prisons, a bit heavy even for a comedy-drama. Then again, this dramatized indictment might have had some influence on the government’s recent decision to end the use of for-profit prisons to house federal inmates, so maybe I’m missing the big picture?

And Season Three’s tenth installment, “A Tittin’ and a Hairin’,” resonated above all others as a heartbreaking flashback that provided surprising insight into Pennsatucky’s (Taryn Manning) increasingly complex character. With such a diverse cast and such talented writers, OitNB never requires much of a wait for a good episode. An UltraViolet copy of the season is also included, along with commentaries and featurettes, one focusing on breakout star Laverne Cox.

Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory)

Perhaps the bitter paradox of “Brilliant but Cancelled” fits no series better than NBC’s Freaks and Geeks. This inspired dramedy ran from 1999 to 2000 and saw a mere 18 episodes but it managed to capture better than any show I’ve ever seen the ups and downs of the high school years, circa 1980. The torrent of spot-on pop culture references is even more relatable set to some of the best music ever needle-dropped for television, including an entire episode built around The Who.

Many from behind and in front of the camera have gone on to find greater appreciation in Hollywood, but I must acknowledge an amazingly powerful turn by a young Martin Starr in Episode 14, “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers.” His Bill Haverchuck is already the geekiest of the Geeks and yet is making the best of a less-than-idyllic adolescence, but when his former-exotic-dancer single mom starts dating the overbearing gym teacher, his whole world comes crashing down. Network TV seldom gets this effectively personal.

Shout! Factory seems to have taken a page from last year’s Battlestar Galactica: The Definitive Collection by offering buyers new 1080p remasters (in this case from 4K scans of the original camera negative) at both the originally aired 4:3 aspect ratio as well as contemporary 16:9. Close inspection indicates that the results are a combination of cropping top and bottom and pulling back the virtual curtains to share previously unseen picture information left and right, depending upon the episode. At either aspect ratio, the video quality is excellent, crisp and immediate and with a filmic warmth and rich color.

Bonus-wise, I’m happy to report that the extensive supplements from both the 2004 Complete Series and the 2008 Yearbook Edition sets have been ported over in their entirety, in glorious 480i. This SD treasure trove is in addition to a new, fairly in-depth conversation between creator Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow, as moderated by L.A. Times critic Robert Lloyd. There are even downloadable PDFs of the aforementioned yearbook plus a must-read unfilmed script in addition to a wonderful new 38-page companion booklet on genuine paper: old school!

The Vincent Price Collection III (SHOUT! Factory)

Spanning a key decade for the Merchant of Menace, these five titles offer a glimpse of the always-captivating Mr. Price as both an intimidating onscreen presence as well as beginning to soften into the lighter-hearted chiller of his later career. Included on these four discs are Master of the World (1961), Tower of London (1962), Diary of a Madman (1963), Cry Of The Banshee and An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (both 1970), this last one actually a TV special wherein he narrates Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Sphinx,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and” The Pit and the Pendulum.”

The technical specs vary quite a bit from program to program but all have been remastered from painstakingly sourced elements, most with new audio commentaries and more bonus content, plus the extended cut of the “Richard Matheson: Storyteller” documentary accompanying Master. Banshee is presented in both theatrical and a slightly longer, unrated director’s cut. Here too, Shout! has thought to include a photo-filled companion booklet.

A sound investment for the curious film buff and a downright indispensable volume for any serious Vincent Price fan.


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