Ah, Thanksgiving! It's one of two days a year that you're legally obligated to spend with family, trying to ignore to your great-aunt's subtle-but-stubborn racism while you throw up a little in your mouth at the sight of your mom's marshmallow-infused mashed potatoes.
Looking for a break from the nonstop family time? No problem: "Accidentally" let slip that your sister had an abortion last month, then use the hubbub to escape the table and plant yourself in front of the TV. Two recent Blu-ray releases, Back to the Future: 25th Anniversary Trilogy and Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition, can help immensely with this; hit the jump for a couple of quick reviews, plus your chance to win the Back to the Future set on DVD.
THE FILM: If there's one movie I don't need to write a single word about, it's Avatar. You either saw it in the theater and thought it was badass, or you saw it in the theater and then spent the next six months bitching about how lame it was and what a travesty it is that it made 392 trillion dollars. I happen to be one of the people who thought it was pretty badass, warts and all, in no small part because I love the fact that a movie featuring nine-foot-tall blue aliens riding dragons has now been seen by every single person on the planet.
THE EXTRAS: If you're gonna pick up Avatar, this is definitely the way to go, unless you have a 3D TV and want to hold out until a general-release 3D Blu-ray hits. While Avatar's visuals definitely take a hit minus the 3D, it's not nearly as much as you'd expect; James Cameron's a phenomenal visual storyteller, and Avatar's striking, gorgeous, and frequently weird images hold up just fine without the theatrical release's immersive 3D—and on Blu-ray, the film's hyper-detailed, hallucinogenically vivid visuals really shine. The real reason to get this, though, is the "collector's extended cut" version of the film, which is 16 minutes longer and works significantly better than the theatrical release. Smoothing over plot bumps, adding a thrilling hunting sequence, and generally fleshing out the film for the better, this extended cut feels not unlike Cameron's director's cut of Aliens—longer, yes, but also better and more engaging. (If you didn't like Avatar, you're not gonna fall in love with it thanks to this cut, but you might like it a little better; if you did like it to begin with, hey, more Avatar.) The three-disc set also includes the theatrical release of the film, the special edition rerelease, and a version of the film with all the naughty words edited out, presumably for parents who are totally cool with having their kids watch blue aliens gently hump each other but don't want them hearing any swears.
Elsewhere on the set, there are 45 minutes' worth of deleted scenes, plus concept art, Cameron's original treatment for the film, a Wikipedia-like "Pandorapedia," a 20-minute doc on Cameron's (non-allegorial, non-CG) environmental advocacy, and more. The keystone, though, is a feature-length documentary, Capturing Avatar, that goes into the huge undertaking that was making a film as batshit-crazy ambitious as Avatar; the doc not only contains tons of interviews, but also weird factoids (like the fact that every piece of clothing was handmade, even if it would eventually end up being rendered digitally), an occasional honest peek behind the curtain (producer Jon Landau openly refers, at one point, to the film's "FernGully elements"), and plenty of Cameron's philosophy ("When people wrap on time, it's 'cause they ran out of ideas").
OLIVE: Ezra's dog Olive, seen above and who I got to pugsit a while ago, gives this set four enthusiastic paws up, and was glued to my television from start to finish.
THE FILMS: Back to the Future's still damn near perfect and every bit as great as you remember; Back to the Future Part II is darker and weirder than you remember (I'd totally forgotten that most of it takes place in a dystopian alternate timeline, and there's not all that much happy-go-lucky hoverboardin'); Part III, thankfully, isn't quite as crappy as you remember (while it definitely suffers from a vaguely desperate, Last Crusade-style insistence on fun fun FUN, it mostly is fun, so no harm, no foul). It's an added bonus seeing these in HD, too, rather than on the fuzzy VHS tapes that played throughout much of my (and I'm guessing your) childhood.
THE EXTRAS: A slew of deleted scenes, lighthearted featurettes (likeable physicist Dr. Michio Kaku damn near has a fanboy orgasm talking about how much he loves these movies), archival featurettes, makeup and special effects tests, goofy music videos from Huey Lewis and ZZ Top, a storyboarded alternate ending to Back to the Future that executive producer Steven Spielberg clearly retooled for a sequence in the latest Indiana Jones, and more. The good stuff, though, is in a six-part documentary that sits down director/writer Robert Zemeckis, producer/writer Bob Gale, Spielberg, Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, and more, then goes into everything from Zemeckis and Gale's writing methods to Eric Stoltz's ill-fated casting as Marty McFly to how John Z. DeLorean sent the filmmakers a fan letter after he saw the film. The stuff in here isn't as pioneering as what's documented in the Avatar documentary, nor is it as in-depth as anything on the hardcore Alien Anthology, but it's a solid Blu-ray set, and for anyone who digs Back to the Future, it's a fun watch. (It's also really interesting to watch Zemeckis in these. Comparing him now with what he must've been like back in the olden days—when he was still making pop films that were smart and funny and heartfelt—is something that's impossible not to do. It's also cool to hear Zemeckis and Spielberg riff on the weirder elements of Part II [Zemeckis says it "might be the most interesting movie I ever made," while Spielberg offhandedly remarks, "Movies should be experimental"]).
OLIVE: Olive fell asleep during Back to the Future, fell asleep again during Back to the Future Part II, and snored loudly throughout Back to the Future Part III, except for when she growled suspiciously and repeatedly at Mary Steenburgen.
OH! YEAH! AND A CONTEST! Universal accidentally sent me the Back to the Future set on both Blu-ray and DVD, which means I'm giving away the DVD set to a lucky Blogtown reader. YES, THIS COULD MEAN YOU.
Here's how to enter my half-assed contest: Email me no later than 9 am PST on Monday, November 29. Make sure "The power of love" is your subject line, and make sure to include your mailing address. On Monday morning, I'll pick a winner at random, write 'em back to let 'em know they've won, and stick the set in the mail for 'em. I know, I know—it'll be too late to help make Thanksgiving any easier, but hey, maybe it'll come in handy on Xmas.