ATTN. CINEPHILES—Hey, look! Jamie and I watched some things on our televisions! Now we will tell you whether or not you should buy them! —Erik
Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season
For two seasons, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire has been a blood-soaked romp through the Prohibition. It stars Steve Buscemi as politician-slash-gangster Nucky Thompson, the criminal czar of Atlantic City, and details his personal travails as he trades gunshots and whiskey with the likes of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. The series—which has the distinction of having the world’s most disparate executive production team of Martin Scorsese, who regularly reinvigorates cinema, and Mark Wahlberg, who invented Entourage and failed to stop 9/11—is a mixture of Shakespearian tragedy and the best of motion picture history. It’s also part of television's laying claim to territory once occupied by the Great American Novel. Boardwalk Empire is not a show to watch randomly, whenever you happen to catch an episode on the air. It’s a complete work that only makes sense when consumed as a whole.
All the better, then, that HBO has seen fit to release Boardwalk's complete first season on Blu-ray, making it easier than ever to consume volume one of this epic saga in its entirety. You get everything: all 12 episodes, including the Scorsese-directed pilot, as well as all the expected audio commentaries and mini-documentaries.
If we’re to keep with the book analogies, Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season is the annotated edition. For those of us who're tired of the self-aggrandizing navel gazing that passes for DVD commentaries these days, the folks over at HBO have used the extra-space afforded by Blu-ray to create their “Enhanced Viewing” option. Viewers follow a running timeline along the bottom of the screen that maps out a selection of special features for each episode. As the show plays, picture-in-picture featurettes with the production crew and cast appear, as do text-based facts and photos, explaining historical aspects of the narrative, including architectural notes and music cues. In some cases, you can go to longer clips, galleries, or even listen to the full-length version of a song that is only excerpted in the actual program.
Fans of Boardwalk are likely already salivating at the prospect. With a period piece of this kind, the devil really is in the details, and many of us tend to watch each installment multiple times to digest as many story points and directorial flourishes as we can. These enhanced features open up the filmmaking process and reveal where history and fiction collide, allowing for a greater appreciation of just how much careful planning goes into each hour-long segment. The fact that this is a feature only available on Blu-ray and not standard DVD should also serve as a pretty convincing commercial to upgrade your system, if you haven’t done so already. HBO has used this option on some of its other shows, and this kind of exclusivity is going to become increasingly common. In a Blu-ray world, DVD is rapidly becoming the new Beta. JAMIE S. RICH
Star Trek: The Next Generation—The Next Level
If the production values of something like Boardwalk Empire make it clear that the show was meant to be watched in HD, those of Star Trek: The Next Generation are exactly the opposite. When it launched in 1987, the show was (A) pretty terrible, and (B) hardly a sure-fire success. Twenty-five years later, the show's now regarded as a sci-fi classic, having reinvigorated the constantly flagging Star Trek franchise and spun off into four movies. But in '87, it was just some goofy syndicated genre show, and one that pretty lazily cloned all the elements of the original Star Trek to boot.
The show got better—much, much better—after its first few seasons, though, and its expensive DVD releases have turned into a perennial cash cow for Paramount. It was only a matter of time until it showed up on Blu-ray, too, even if the show's low-fi production values don't particularly mark it as one that needs to be seen in HD.
Back in the olden days, TNG was shot on film but edited on video, and its special effects were composited on video, too—meaning in order to bring this thing up to HD quality, CBS DVD and Paramount Home Video are currently in the midst of the daunting process of digging up over 25,000 film reels, re-editing all the epsides exactly as they aired, and recompositing all of the show's many special effects shots. It's a massive undertaking, but by the time the whole series is out on Blu-ray in 2015 and Trekkies have emptied their wallets for it again, it'll likely pay off handsomely.
Whether you really want to see TNG on HD is up for debate, though. The show's current A/V quality on DVD and Netflix is pretty crummy, but it also matches what it felt like to watch the show over the air when it first aired. Now that its been so meticulously spruced up, though—earlier this week, Paramount and CBS put out a three-episode sampler disc to entice fans into paying for the complete Blu-ray seasons they'll start releasing later this year—it feels kinda... weird to see everything looking so sharp and clear. It's pretty, sure, but it also feels a little off to see something so shiny when, for the past 25 years, we've been watching the blurrier version.
Nowhere is that dissonance more notable than in some of TNG's effects shots and alien makeup, which were clearly designed for audiences who'd be watching them on shitty TV sets: Of the three episodes on this disc, it's the show's ass-clenchingly awful pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint," that highlights both how much better TNG got and how cheaply it was made: Worf's Klingon ridges looks like they're made out of Silly Putty and stuck on his forehead with double-sided tape, some of the practical model effects are great while others look like they're made for an elementary school diorama, and the sets look flimsy and hollow. None of these things are issues when watching TNG as it originally aired; in HD, they're super distracting. (But then, anything that distracts at all from "Farpoint" is probably a good thing.)
The two other episodes on the disc—season three's Klingon family drama "Sins of the Father," and season five's "The Inner Light," wherein Picard plays flute for like 40 straight minutes—fare much better. They're stronger episodes is the main thing, but the show's obvious budgetary limits are far less obvious than they were in the earlier seasons. For $15, this disc isn't a bad buy, but it doesn't really convince me I need TNG in HD, either. ERIK HENRIKSEN
To Kill a Mockingbird 50th Anniversary Edition
Universal's celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and one of the ways they're doing so is putting out some of their best and biggest movies on some pretty slick Blu-ray sets. The first of these is 1962's still pretty amazing To Kill a Mockingbird, and on Blu-ray, the adaptation of Harper Lee's 100 percent awesome book looks gorgeous. You've already seen it, and you've already read it at least once as part of a mandatory deal in high school, so, you know: To Kill a Mockingbird. On Blu-ray. Of course it's good.
There are a ton of extras, too, and while most of them are basically variations on "Gregory Peck is the most amazing person who ever lived," they're worth checking out for those interested in the film—in addition to things like Peck's Oscar acceptance speech, there are also two feature-length documentaries, Fearful Symmetry (about the making of the film) and A Conversation with Gregory Peck (about how Gregory Peck is the most amazing person who ever lived). I didn't watch either of them, but I did watch Mockingbird twice last week, so. ERIK HENRIKSEN
Manhattan and Annie Hall
Woody Allen doesn't like extras and he doesn't like commentaries, which means these releases of two of his best movies are utterly bare bones—the only bonus material on each disc is the film's theatrical trailer. I am totally cool with this, because these movies work on their own damn near perfectly. Once Allen dies and doesn't have a say in things anymore, I'm sure a whole bunch of feature-laden discs will be released. In the meantime, though, dude lets his movies speak for themselves, and both Annie Hall and Manhattan have a lot to say. On Blu-ray, they also look better than they ever have—especially the black-and-white Manhattan, which I could watch on constant repeat. (If I tried to do the same thing with Annie Hall, I'd probably just die from sadness somewhere around the fourth or fifth go-around.) ERIK HENRIKSEN