Fargo on Blu-ray

We hadn’t seen Fargo before the special edition DVD arrived on our doorstep a few years back, but we're sure glad we did! It’s a terribly entertaining movie, a combination kidnap caper, comedy of errors, satire, suspense thriller, and blood soaked violence - a loving look at a couple of violent and desperate criminals. And MGM's Blu-ray release of the movie makes it even better.

William H. Macy plays Jerry Lundegaard, a used car salesman at his father in law’s GM dealership - but who’s in a bind. He needs money fast; we aren’t sure exactly why but it looks as if he’s been doing some shenanigans at the dealership - though where the money has gone is unclear.

He comes up with a scheme to have his wife kidnapped, and have his wealthy father in law (Harve Presnell) pay the ransom, which he’ll split with the kidnappers.

The plan quickly goes awry and ends up turning into a bloody series of murders and betrayals rather than the rather straightforward caper it was supposed to be. As murder raises its ugly head, small town police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, who won the Oscar for her performance) gets involved. She’s pregnant, kind of laid back, but sharp as a tack - and she makes the movie.

Margie at first appears to be nothing more than a stereotyped small town cop in a case that’s over her head. She comes off more as a housewife than a cop - but don’t let that fool you.

As with most of the characters, she’s a fount of Midwestern twang and sensibilities - or at least this is how the movie portrays these people. We’ve never been to the area, but it’s believable enough and the liner notes for the DVD says this is the way people there talk, so we’ll believe them.

Marge is a smart cookie, but in a gentle way that also fools people with whom she deals - including Macy’s character when their paths cross inevitably.

This flick is chock full of great performances. The always-oily Steve Buscemi is one of the kidnpappers, and Peter Stormare (who has maybe twenty lines in his terrifyingly smoldering performance) is the other, and they’re cast perfectly. Macey is also ideal in his characterization; his desperate husband who’s increasingly out of his depth is so stressed out and afraid it’s enough to make you squirm.

Fargo’s portrayal of the accents and mannerism of the people could almost be taken as the filmmakers making fun of them, but it actually comes across more as an homage than a slam. These aren’t Hollywood people, and they don’t act like Hollywood people - yet they’re every bit as smart, as decent - or as stupid and bad - as the glitterati. It’s actually a charming and refreshing look at some “real” people.

There’s some pretty disturbing stuff here, but it’s never over the top and it’s all necessary in order to tell this bizarre story. The violence, and there’s a surprising amount, isn’t dwelled upon; instead it’s handled matter-of-factly with no fuss.

The Blu-ray is done very nicely. MGM has presented it in 1080p widescreen and the picture quality is excellent. The opening snowscape doesn't hint enough at just how "pop off the screen good" the rest of it is, so keep your eyes peeled. Blacks are excellent and there's very good depth.

Audio is 5.1 dts HD Master Audio and it's also very good indeed.

Extras include a running commentary with director of photography Roger A. Deakins. There’s also a documentary “Minnesota Nice,” a behind the scenes photo gallery, a trivia track and an American Cinematographer article.

This movie may not appeal to the squeamish. But everyone else should definitely see it.

Fargo, from MGM Home Entertainment
98 min. 1080p widescreen (1.85:1, dts HD 5.1 surround
Starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Prsnell, Peter Stormare
Produced by Ethan Coen
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Directed by Joel Coen

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on Blu-ray

Clint Eastwood is the good, Lee Van Cleef is the bad, and Eli Wallach is the ugly in this final entry in director Sergio Leone's spaghetti western trilogy.

It's a sweeping epic in which the three main characters form a variety of alliances of convenience in their ruthless quest to find a cache of Confederate gold.

It's also a gritty and at times violent western, where Leone brings a weathered and "lived in" look to the old west and isn't afraid to mess up his stars' faces in order to propel the story onward.

This Blu-ray relases is of the restored "original" extended version of the film that was edited down before its US release back in the 1960's. And it's a great disc, with a picture quality that at times is spectacular (though at other times we noticed quite a bit of grain) and with audio that's probably about as good as you can get from the original tracks.

This edition of the movie includes some 14 minutes of scenes cut previously, and to pull it off they apparently got Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach back into the editing suite to add their voices to sections that had never been dubbed into English back then.

The extra material is good to have. There's nothing that really jumps out at you with a "Wow!", but it's still good to have the movie accessible the way Leone originally wanted it. And you get some pretty good background that was missing before.

The 1080p widescreen picture is superb in places, with excellent depth and wonderful blacks and colors. And it's accompanied by a dts HD 5.1 soundtrack that gives you good use of the surrounds and of the three main front channels, though we sometimes they put voices off screen, from the left or right speakers, and while we understand why they did this (the faces are off screen, too), it's a little disconcerting at times, especially if your main stereo speakers are spaced widely beyond the confines of the video screen..

The package also includes a running commentary from film historian and reviewer Richard Schickel, featurettes on "Leone's West" (20 mins.), "The Leone Style" (24 mins.), and "Reconstructing The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" (11 very interesting mins.), as well as a documentary "The Man Who Lost the Civil War" (15 mins.).

And that isn't all. There's also an appreciation of composer Ennio Morricone whose score for this film is so memorable, and Tuco's extended torture scene. It's a lot of good stuff.

In all, not a perfect but indeed an excellent presentation of a western classic.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, from MGM Home Entertainment
179 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1, 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 5.1
Starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach
Produced by Alberto Grimaldi
Written by Age Scarpelli, Luciano Vencenzoni and Sergio Leone, directed by Sergio Leone

Anaconda on Blu-ray

A giant snake in the Amazon rainforest that eats people probably seemed like a great idea for the next Hollywood action thriller.

And it is a good idea, but the writers didn’t seem to do anything with it except give us exactly what we’d expect.

Terri (Jennifer Lopez) and Steve (Eric Stoltz) are heading out into the Amazon to film a documentary with their crew. They come across a sailor in distress (Jon Voight), so they invite him on their ship so they can help him to his destination. What they don’t know is that they’re being stalked by a huge anaconda that, for some reason, needs to feed every few minutes. What their new friend neglected to tell them at the start is that he’s actually after the snake, wanting to take it alive so he can make millions off it. And he’s willing to risk every one of their lives for it.

It sounds like a pretty standard plot, and it definitely is. As you’re watching the movie, you can figure out what’s going to happen long before it does, and if you’ve seen enough of these movies, you can probably figure out who’s going to die (and in what order).

But that’s not to say the movie is a total disappointment. It’s actually quite fun despite its predicatibility. Why is it that sometimes the fact that a movie sucks makes it worse; but in some cases, it actually makes it better? Case in point Anaconda or Resident Evil. Both horrible movies, but for some reason, oddly entertaining. Could it be that you know ahead of time that it’s going to be bad so you can just sit back and enjoy it for what it is?

At a mere 89 minutes, Anaconda is short enough to not overdo it. It moves along pretty smoothly, and before you know it, the credits are rolling. This doesn’t hurt its tolerability. The effects are unbelievably cheesy, and that may be one of the factors that helps you realize that it’s meant to be terrible. And the acting is okay at best, except for Voight, who is actually a treat to watch. He plays a great bad guy, equal parts mysterious and creepy.

If you have a high tolerance for bad movies (for example, if you enjoyed Resident Evil), then you may want to check out Anaconda. All others, be warned.

Though presented in 1080p widescreen it doesn't seem quite up to the standards, with a picture that's softer and grainier than we'd like. But the sound is very good, with an excellent Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. The action scenes fill the room from all speakers, and almost blow you off your seat. Sound effects and the score are the major surround players, and most of the dialogue is set to the front.

The disc is also BD Live enabled, so you can surf by the site and download all sorts of silly stuff and there's a bunch of trailers.

Anaconda, from Sony Home Entertainment
89 minutes, 1080p widescreen (2.40:1), 5.1 Dolby TrueHD
Starring Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Jon Voight, Eric Stoltz, Jonathan Hyde, Owen Wilson
Produced by Verna Harrah, Leonard Rabinowitz, Carole Little
Written by Hans Bauer and Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr.
Directed by Luis Llosa

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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