Dune: Part One

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Warner;
Sci-Fi;
Box Office $107.35 million;
$34.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray, $49.98 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material.
Stars Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem.

Efforts to adapt Frank Herbert’s landmark 1965 sci-fi novel Dune have been met with mixed results over the years.

The 1970s saw Alejandro Jodorowsky envision a 10-hour movie version, and when that fell through, producer Dino De Laurentiis grabbed the rights and hired Ridley Scott to give it a go as a follow-up to Alien, though the scope of the project proved too daunting for him as well.

Then David Lynch came on board, choosing to adapt Dune over, among other projects, directing Return of the Jedi. His version finally arrived in 1984 after a troubled production and massive edits to bring his three-hour initial cut to a bit over two hours for the theatrical release, a running time that so crammed Herbert’s story that it was generally panned by critics for being incomprehensible.

The Sci-Fi Channel in the early 2000s had a bit better luck with a pair of miniseries based on Dune and a few of Herbert’s sequels to it, earning ratings success while leaving fans of the books to continue to clamor for a worthy big-screen version.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation seems to have met those aspirations.

Villeneuve’s Dune presents the narrative as a sweeping epic of galactic politics and feuding families, marked by stunning visual splendor and scope.

Covering roughly half of the first book, Dune: Part One, as it is announced on screen, tells the story of a desert world named Arrakis, thousands of years into the future when humanity has colonized the vast expanses of outer space and formed an empire to control it, led by wealthy and influential families. The planet’s sands provide the only known source of the spice Melange, a substance with mind-altering properties that makes celestial navigation possible.

The Emperor has ordered the House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) to take over administration of Arrakis from Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). Leto’s son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), begins having visions of living among the Fremen, remnants of the tribes that originally inhabited the planet.

The Fremen are experts at surviving the harsh desert environment and dealing with the giant native sandworms that roam beneath the surface, both depositing the spice and menacing the efforts to extract it. Paul is rumored to be a prophesized messiah to the Fremen.

The Atreides will not have an easy time of it on Arrakis, however, as it quickly becomes apparent that their appointment to govern the planet is a trap by the Emperor and the Harkonnens to diminish their power, if not eliminate them altogether by a full-scale assault on the planet.

Villeneuve places the emphasis on the human and character aspects of the story, rather than the more bizarre sci-fi elements that seemed to fuel Lynch’s version.

At around two-and-a-half-hours, he also takes 20 more minutes than Lynch to tell half the story, allowing it to breathe by not trying to cram the density of the first book into a single movie, as the 1984 version did.

To make sure viewers who didn’t read the book are not left completely baffled, long early stretches of the film are very heavy in exposition, explaining who the families are, the Fremen and the culture of Arrakis. But this is all necessary worldbuilding endemic to any good sci-fi franchise and should continue to pay off with future installments.

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Savvy viewers may have noticed the influence the original novel had on countless burgeoning sci-fi franchises in the years it took to get a movie adaptation off the ground, with “Star Wars” and its desert world of Tatooine being the most notable example. Because of this, some fans might find a lot of similarities between this latest Dune movie and some recent “Star Wars” shows set on Tatooine, such as “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett.”

The exposition provided in the film is expanded upon in the Blu-ray bonus materials, with an eight minute featurette about the Royal Houses, and 10-and-a-half-minutes of video encyclopedia entries similar to the ones Paul watches in the film in order to learn about Arrakis.

The Blu-ray also includes nearly an hour of behind-the-scenes featurettes as well, with individual videos focused on the usual things like production design, cinematography, costumes and visual effects

Some dig deeper, such as a creating the makeup effects used to create the Baron’s bloated physique. Another looks at the fighting styles used to give the battle scenes a heightened since of verisimilitude. Others show how the visual effects team pulled off the film’s unique vehicles, as well as the giant worm attacks; the longest is an 11-minute examination of the film’s distinctive sound design and Hans Zimmer’s musical score.

Collectively, they demonstrate the precision and craftsmanship that went into constructing the film.

The Card Counter

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Universal;
Drama;
Box Office $2.66 million;
$22.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality.
Stars Oscar Isaac, Tifany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe.

Writer-director Paul Schrader’s searing The Card Counter is the latest entry into his canon of films that, as he describes it on the Blu-ray’s bonus featuertte, involves a loner in a room just sitting there waiting for something to happen.

In this case it’s Oscar Isaac as a man who goes by the name William Tell, a former soldier who was involved with the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and went to prison, where learned how to play cards. Upon his release, he travels to different casinos to eke out a living as a gambler.

The set-up is a bit like if the film were Rounders told from the point of view of the Edward Norton character, if he also had PTSD and wasn’t a manipulative jerk.

Tell runs across the son (Tye Sheridan) of another soldier whose life was destroyed by the scandal, and vows revenge against a commanding officer (Willem Dafoe) who was not punished at all.

The kid asks Tell to help him murder the commander, but Tell instead convinces him to tag along on the road to learn about the key to winning various card games. This is accompanied by voiceovers from Isaac explaining the rules and quirks of some of the games for those in the audience who don’t already know.

In their travels, Tell encounters La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who makes a living staking gamblers in high-money games and then collecting a piece of the action. She recruits Tell to her stable to play in various poker tournaments.

All the while, Tell continues to be haunted by his past, which only adds to his dismay as he tries to dissuade the kid from his desire for vengeance.

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Isaac gives an engaging performance in what is a bit of an acting showcase, while Haddish plays against type in a departure from her typical comedic roles.

Schrader also keeps the film visually interesting with some good camerawork in the casinos, particularly one tracking shot over a massive room of poker tables.

The only extra on the Blu-ray is a five-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.

Thriller ‘The Card Counter’ Available Digitally Nov. 23, on Disc Dec. 14

The crime thriller The Card Counter was released through digital retailers Nov. 23, and arrives on Blu-ray and DVD Dec. 14 from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

Executive produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Paul Schrader, the film follows an ex-military interrogator turned gambler who is haunted by the ghosts of his past decisions. The film stars Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan. 

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Bonus content on Blu-ray and DVD includes the featurette “A High-Stakes World,” in which Schrader discusses developing the characters and how the world of poker provided the perfect metaphor for William Tell’s predicament. The featurette also includes interviews with stars Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish, as well as poker consultant Joe Stapleton.

HBO Max Meets Troubled Times With ‘A World of Calm’ Series

WarnerMedia’s SVOD service HBO Max has ordered the 10-episode “A World of Calm,” a TV experience that combines mesmeric imagery with narration by stars — including Mahershala Ali, Idris Elba, Oscar Isaac, Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, Lucy Liu, Cillian Murphy and Keanu Reeves.

HBO Max’s first project in the health and wellness space, “A World of Calm” is the result of a collaboration between the makers of Calm, the app for sleep, meditation and relaxation, and Nutopia, the team behind Nat Geo’s series “One Strange Rock.”

“A timely antidote for our modern lives, each half-hour episode takes audiences on an immersive visual journey into another world,” according to the press release.

“Building on Calm’s Sleep Stories — bedtime stories for grown-ups with more than 250 million listens — each relaxing tale is designed to transform how you feel,” the release states. “Transporting the viewer into tranquility through scientifically-engineered narratives, enchanting music and astounding footage, to naturally calm your body and soothe the mind, each story is brought to life by a different iconic voice.”

“With the considerable amount of stress and chaos we are all experiencing at this particularly challenging time, we could all use a bit of guided relaxation and ‘A World of Calm’ is here to help,” Jennifer O’Connell, EVP of non-fiction and kids programming for HBO Max, said in a statement. “With soothing imagery and tranquil narration, this is one HBO Max original that we hope becomes part of your daily routine.”

“We are thrilled to work with such amazing partners as HBO Max and Calm for this new cutting edge endeavor,” Nutopia CEO and founder Jane Root said in a statement. “Although this collaboration has been in the works for many months, this series has been entirely created during quarantine using Nutopia’s worldwide network of award-winning cinematographers and filmmakers. We hope this series of serene stories will bring a sense of much needed calm to audiences.”

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“Calm started life as a meditation app but the brand has evolved far beyond that,” Calm co-founder and co-CEO Michael Acton Smith said in a statement. “We are delighted to bring the magic behind our audio Sleep Stories to the screen for the first time.  These experiences are visual Valium and will help people relax and unwind during these stressful times.”

The series is co-produced by Calm and Nutopia with Root, Nicola Moody, Smith and Chris Advansun serving as executive producers, and Sara Brailsford and Fiona Caldwell as co-executive producers.

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Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 3/31/20;
Disney/Lucasfilm;
Sci-Fi;
Box Office $515.2 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sci-fi violence and action.
Stars Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams.

In the wake of divisive fan response to Disney’s approach to “Star Wars” since its purchase of Lucasfilm, the studio turned to J.J. Abrams to deliver a final chapter to the nine-episode trilogy of trilogies that has been dubbed “The Skywalker Saga.”

Watching Rise of Skywalker, however, it quickly becomes evident that the studio and the creative team in place to make these new “Star Wars” films had no firm plans in place for the overarching story they were trying to tell, let alone connecting them to the previous six chapters.

The resulting concluding chapter, while a fun, entertaining, grand-scale adventure filled with franchise references for fans to enjoy, still comes across as a bit of a disjointed mess, picking and choosing which story threads from the previous films to carry through (if not outright retconning them) as if on a whim, while introducing vast and sometimes bizarre new ones that don’t stand up to too much scrutiny (or, worse, require fans to turn to myriad tie-in books to explain it). While the “Star Wars” franchise has never been a stranger to these kinds of strained plot mechanics, the rumored behind-the-scenes troubles at Lucasfilm have made the seams of Rise of Skywalker especially noticeable, and the accompanying plot developments rather jarring.

So there are two ways to look at Rise of Skywalker — it’s fine for what it is, and there’s plenty to like in it, but it’s also a reminder of what could have been.

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Instead of flowing from the natural plot implications of the previous episode, The Last Jedi (which, contrary to the vocal complaints of a few haters, were abundant enough to fuel a decent third act, as evidenced by the earlier script drafts floating around the Internet), the new film decides to drop a plot nuke right at the beginning: Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) never really died and has been manipulating things the whole time. Leia’s Resistance, still recovering from the previous film, then turns its focus on fighting Palpatine, sending Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca, C-3PO and BB-8 on a mission to find a device containing the location of the Emperor’s hidden base. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wants to eliminate Rey in exchange for the Emperor’s powers. Be prepared for some big reveals.

While reintroducing the Emperor, who was the underlying threat for the first six movies, is as good enough a reveal as any for how the Empire returned in the guise of The First Order for these films, its sudden inclusion in the third film without any clues planted in the previous two just calls attention to the lack of planning. For example, a properly planned trilogy with Palpatine as the hidden villain wouldn’t have bothered to make Snoke an actual person in the second chapter when the hologram form he displayed in the first movie serves as the perfect cover, a la The Wizard of Oz.

There’s also the fact that the Emperor’s return smacks of similarity to storylines from the “expanded universe” of “Star Wars” books, comics and video games that the studio and Abrams had very publicly said were no longer canon. If the end result is just going to borrow ideas from them anyway, why not adapt them outright? The problem with trying to replace them with something new usually means that if whatever you replace them with isn’t better, fans aren’t going to be too happy.

The big wrinkle in the plan, of course, was the unfortunate death of Carrie Fisher after the filming of Last Jedi. With Leia poised to play a significant role in Episode IX, original story plans were scrapped, and a new screenplay was constructed to build scenes around unused footage of Fisher shot by Abrams for 2015’s The Force Awakens. The obvious limitations of this had a ripple effect on the rest of the story, while Abrams’ presence in the director’s chair was meant to assure fans that the saga was in good hands, given how much of a box office hit Force Awakens turned out to be.

Of course, the dirty little secret that many fans didn’t want to admit about The Force Awakens when it first came out was how, as a shallow remake of the original 1977 movie, it wasn’t a very meaty beginning for a new trilogy meant to continue the larger story. For all its faults, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi at least tried to be about more than the sum of its parts, while re-framing the franchise for a new generation.

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Abrams’ return to Rise of Skywalker means the film, at the very least, benefits from his strengths of striking visuals and dynamic action. There are some great scenes in the film that will make fans smile, and truth be told, it’s a more enjoyable viewing experience than Force Awakens simply for being bold enough in its own right and not just wholly remaking an earlier film. However, when adding Rise of Skywalker to the context of Abrams’ whole career, it’s clear he talks a better game than he delivers.

This is readily on display in the two-hour The Skywalker Legacy behind-the-scenes documentary included with the film’s home video presentation. The program is a masterstroke in editing as it contrasts scenes being filmed for Rise of Skywalker with similar scenes from the original trilogy, complete with new and archival interviews with the same actors discussing their roles and the saga in general. It’s a fascinating piece filled with wonderful nostalgia, but also serves to highlight what a lesser copy these new films have been to those of the George Lucas era.

Speaking of which, for a film meant to conclude a nine-chapter saga, Abrams’ films are rather devoid of references to the prequels, despite where revisiting them would make more sense for the story. But, really, who can blame him for focusing almost all the screentime on the new characters he created for this new trilogy, since he was given the chance to do so? In Rise of Skywalker, Abrams even introduces a new little droid called D-O that looks like it was made from a desk lamp, which he himself voices as the droid comments on the scene going on, as if telling the audience how they’re supposed to feel about it (literally saying “sad” or “happy,” etc.).

In addition to the visual candy, the film’s most reliable highlight, as usual, is the score by John Williams, who does his level best to inject depth into the proceedings through his music. His efforts are the focus of an 11-minute digital exclusive featurette, but there’s also a segment about his work in the feature-length documentary. In his cameo as an alien bartender, Williams is surrounded by mementos of the first 51 of his Oscar-nominated scores. His 52nd nomination came via Rise of Skywalker itself.

The remaining extras are all behind-the-scenes featurettes, the best of which is “Warwick & Son,” a five-and-a-half-minute look at actor Warwick Davis’ previous roles in the franchise and how he was joined by his son for a cameo in Rise of Skywalker.

Other featurettes include a 14-minute look at filming a speeder chase, a six-minute video about creating an alien celebration in the deserts of Jordan, a five-and-a-half video about the creation of D-O, and an eight-minute look at the puppetry and makeup effects used to create the film’s creatures.

Vudu offers a couple of additional videos: a three-minute “Legacy” trailer and an eight-minute “End of the Saga” featurette.

It’s a bit disappointing that there were no deleted scenes included, given how much the filmmakers have been discussing in promotional interviews all that was cut from the film, but don’t be surprised if those and additional extras, like an audio commentary track, are one day included in an expanded home video release.

 

Animated ‘Addams Family’ Due Digitally Dec. 24, on Disc Jan. 21

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment will release MGM’s animated adaptation of The Addams Family through digital retailers Dec. 24, and on Blu-ray, DVD and on demand Jan. 21.

Based on the kooky comic strip characters created by Charles Addams, The Addams Family puts the eccentric and unconventional family in the spotlight as they move to a bland suburb, where Wednesday Addams’ friendship with the daughter of a local reality show host causes tension between the families.

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The voice cast includes Oscar Isaac as Gomez, Charlize Theron as Morticia, Chloë Grace Moretz as Wednesday, Finn Wolfhard as Pugsley, Nick Kroll as Uncle Fester, Snoop Dogg as It, Bette Midler as Grandma and Allison Janney as Margaux Needler.

The film has earned $96.4 million at the domestic box office.

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Home video extras include deleted and extended scenes; a Christina Aguilera “Haunted Heart” lyric video; a “My Family” lyric video featuring Migos, Karol G, Rock Mafia and Snoop Dogg; an “Addams Family Throwback” featurette; a “Welcome to the Family” making-of featurette with character profiles; a “Life of a Scene” featurette that follows the filmmakers bringing a scene to life from storyboards to layouts to animation; and “Charades With Thing,” a look at the stars of the film trying to guess clues in a game of Charades with Thing, who is just a hand.

‘At Eternity’s Gate’ Due Digitally Jan. 29, on Disc Feb. 12

Lionsgate will release At Eternity’s Gate digitally Jan. 29, and on Blu-ray and DVD Feb. 12.

Directed by Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate focuses on the troubled final years in the life of painter Vincent van Gogh, re-recreating scenes based on van Gogh’s letters, known events and speculation.

Willem Dafoe stars as van Gogh and earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Drama, as well as Best Actor at Venice Film Festival. The cast also includes Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen and Oscar Isaac.

Extras include commentary with Schnabel and co-writer/co-editor Louise Kugelberg, plus the featurettes “Made by a Painter,” “Channeling van Gogh” and “Vision of van Gogh.”

Operation Finale

Munich meets Argo in this low-key depiction of Israel’s secret mission in the years after World War II to capture Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and bring him to trial for his role in the Holocaust.

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Universal;
Drama;
Box Office $17.61 million;
$29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some language.
Stars Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, Haley Lu Richardson, Peter Strauss.

At the end of World War II, as so many Nazi leaders were being captured, or committing suicide to avoid facing justice for war crimes, SS officer Adolf Eichmann managed to flee from Europe.

Widely considered to be one of the major architects of the Nazi Holocaust that resulted in the death of 6 million European Jews, Eichmann was considered a prime target for the Nazi hunters who popped up after the war, though his whereabouts remained a mystery for more than a decade. He was eventually spotted in Argentina, where many former Nazis fled because their ideology meshed well with local political movements at the time.

In 1960, Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, organized a secret mission to capture Eichmann and bring him to Israel to stand trial for war crimes.

Operation Finale dramatizes the key events of the mission, though not as intensely as other depictions of Mossad operations on the big screen, such as Steven Spielberg’s Munich.

So much of the story involves characters waiting around and getting the proper paperwork in order — not exactly riveting viewing. As a result, director Chris Weitz puts less emphasis on the process of finding Eichmann and the decision to capture him, and focuses more on the characters involved in the operation, particularly the growing rapport between agent Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) and Eichmann (Ben Kingsley). Fortunately, the performances are strong enough all around to hold audience interest.

One interesting affectation Weitz brought to his handling of the performances was an edict against artificial accents, so the actors use their normal speaking voice regardless of what nationality they are meant to be. It’s a noticeable choice but certainly not as distracting as an actor stumbling through an accent they have no mastery of.

Weitz also rearranges the chronology of events to ramp up the tension a bit, aided by a pulsating musical score by Alexandre Desplat.

In a solo commentary, Weitz says he thought of Operation Finale as a spiritual companion to another Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies, which takes place at the same time. As such, he included a brief scene of the Mossad agents hearing a news report over the radio of American spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers being captured by the Soviet Union.

Weitz also mentions how the story parallels that of Argo in that it too climaxes with an escape via plane before local enemies can figure out what is going on (in this case, Eichmann’s family and supporters conducting a manhunt to find him after he disappears), and how he went about structuring the sequence so as to avoid comparisons.

The Blu-ray also includes a six-and-a-half-minute “Inside the Operation” featurette about the making of the film with interviews from the cast and filmmakers.

A featurette about the actual events would have been an appropriate inclusion as well, but as long as the film encourages people to look into the real story more, it’s definitely a win for the study of history.

Operation Finale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Universal Releasing ‘Operation Finale’ Digitally Nov. 20, on Disc Dec. 4

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment will release MGM’s Operation Finale digitally Nov. 20, and on Blu-ray, DVD and on demand Dec. 4.

Based on a true story, the film follows an Israeli intelligence mission in 1960 to capture high-ranking Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) in Argentina and prosecute him for the deaths of millions of Jews in concentration camps during World War II.

Directed by Chris Weitz, the film also stars Oscar Isaac, Mélanie Laurent, Lior Roz, Nick Kroll, Haley Lu Richardson, Joe Alwyn, Pepe Rapazote and Greta Scacchi.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a feature commentary with Weitz and the making-of featurette “Inside the Operation.”

Annihilation

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Paramount;
Sci-Fi;
Box Office $32.73 million;
$25.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality.
Stars Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong, Oscar Isaac.

Director Alex Garland is settling into a nice niche making deliberate, thought-provoking science-fiction films that defy the usual tropes of the genre.

His 2015 directorial debut Ex Machina made waves for its exploration of artificial intelligence and the nature of identity and what it means to be alive, and Annihilation deals with some of those themes as well.

Based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation is a sublime mix of alien invasion movie, psychological thriller and horror film. In the disc’s bonus materials, Garland discusses his apprehension in trying to adapt the source material, before settling on the strategy of, as he cleverly phrases it, adapting his subjective reaction to his reading of the book, rather than attempting a straight linear narrative.

The film stars Natalie Portman as a member of a team of scientists who explore a strange barrier that has surrounded an area of Southern swampland and continues to expand, distorting the biological processes of all life within it. The team encounters a litany of bizarre occurrences, such as different species of animals merging together. They find videos left by previous teams that explored the region, including Portman’s character’s husband, and watch their descent into madness. And the women soon realize the area is beginning to change them as well, adding urgency to the need to uncover what is happening and how to stop it.

The film is visually stunning, both for its reinterpretation of nature and also, in a twisted way, the very artistic ways the production crew has re-created the aftermath of some of the violent deaths of previous explorers. The film’s rich subtext and visual details will require multiple viewings to fully absorb Garland’s vision.

The Blu-ray includes six featurettes grouped into three categories, which all told equate to a comprehensive and insightful 75-minute behind-the-scenes documentary.