Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (Paramount, $99.99 for DVD, $129.99 for Blu-ray) — The national parks, which Ken Burns audaciously calls “America’s best idea” in his latest documentary, aren’t as old as the country itself. But one of the thoughts that gave birth to them is.

Mr. Burns, speaking by telephone a few days before his 12-hour film premiered on PBS last month, says it was Thomas Jefferson’s idea “that he had inherited a continent that was a Garden of Eden. He thought it would take 100 generations to fill it up. In less than five, we filled it up. The parks are an attempt to reclaim that Garden of Eden.”

That biblical language isn’t accidental. “The original impulse to save these parks was transcendent, religious, spiritual,” Mr. Burns says. Only later did conservation of land become the dominant principle — but even now, visiting the 58 national parks is a sometimes mystical experience.

“You free yourself of the tyranny and momentum of ordinary life,” Mr. Burns says. “The parks perform open-heart surgery. We feel a kinship with everything and everything else we don’t get in ordinary life — where we are acquisitive, extractive, [narcissistic], it’s all about me. A virtual reality that we think is reality, but it’s not.”

This is Mr. Burns’ first film to be released on Blu-ray, and it’s fitting that he starts here because it has some of his most beautiful cinematography yet.

If the 12 hours that aired on PBS weren’t enough for you, there are three hours of bonus material here, also in high definition and including two featurettes on the making of the film. “The National Parks: This Is America” is a minidocumentary exploring the diverse history of the national parks. Five short films on what’s going on in the national parks today also emphasize diversity — “City Kids in National Parks,” for example, details efforts to bring inner-city youngsters into the parks. There also are outtakes and a collection of music videos featuring footage of the parks set to music from the series.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney, $39.99) — Disney is bringing its first feature film — and the first American animated film — out of the vault for its first appearance on Blu-ray. The set, which includes both DVD and Blu-ray copies, is the first in Disney’s new Diamond Collection. (You’ll be able to buy the DVD on its own Nov. 24.)

The American Film Institute considers “Snow White” the greatest animated film of all time. Its success on its release in 1937 allowed Walt Disney to build the studio that bears his name. It must have been a sweet success — the film had been nicknamed “Disney’s Folly” in production by cynics who didn’t believe the public would be interested in seeing a movie about a bunch of short guys.

The picture has been newly restored for this release, and the sound is in glorious 7.1 DTS. The extras, which include a few games, emphasize the interactive. The Magic Mirror — the one that ruled on the fairest of them all — takes viewers through the features and suggests where to navigate next based on where they’ve been so far. Viewers can upload a photo and see themselves on-screen in the film as one of the seven dwarves. “Hyperion Studios” gives viewers a tour through Disney’s original studio, in which he made his first feature. The featurette includes newly dimensionalized archival photos, newly discovered recordings and footage of Disney himself. As with the “Pinocchio” Blu-ray release, Disney artist Toby Bluth has given “Snow White” the DisneyView treatment — original art on the sides of the film These classics were not made in the widescreen aspect ratio, so Disney has given viewers something more interesting than black bars to see on either side of the film.

My Life in Ruins (20th Century Fox, $29.98 for DVD, $39.99 for Blu-ray) — It’s impossible to imagine why Nia Vardalos thought she could resuscitate her career by reliving past success. “My Life in Ruins” has little of the charm and hilarity of the film that made her famous, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” This film isn’t even the first time she’s tried it — a television series based on “Wedding” was a dismal failure, too.

The laughs are few and far between in this film, in which Miss Vardalos plays an American tour guide in Greece who spars with ugly Americans while slowly growing fond of the Greek god under her nose (and a whole lot of facial hair).

Extras include commentaries with Miss Vardalos, director Donald Petrie and writer Mike Reiss, deleted scenes and a featurette on the Greek love interest.

Chinatown (Paramount, $24.99) — What timing: One of Roman Polanski’s most acclaimed films is getting a Paramount Centennial Collection release for its 35th anniversary just as the director is back in the news after being arrested in Switzerland last month for his 1977 rape charge.

The neo-noir film stars Jack Nicholson as a private investigator who gets embroiled in disputes over land and water rights in 1930s Los Angeles.

The two-disc set offers a plethora of extras, including some new material. Robert Towne, who won an Oscar for his screenplay, does an audio commentary alongside “Fight Club” director David Fincher. Mr. Towne is also on hand for “Water & Power,” a three-part documentary on the history behind the movie. “Chinatown: An Appreciation” features a number of fans of the film, including director Steven Soderbergh, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer James Newton Howard.

There also is material previously released on past DVD editions, including making-of featurettes.

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