- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2010

The comic book permeates all levels of popular culture. This sporadic feature reviews some recent examples from the world of digital video discs (compatible with DVD-ROM and Blu-ray enabled computers and home entertainment centers) and also includes a recommended sequential-art reading list to extend the multimedia adventures.

Road to Perdition (Paramount Home Entertainment, rated R, $29.99)  Director Sam Mendes’ Academy Award-winning adaptation of writer Max Allen Collins and artist Richard Piers Rayner’s 1998 graphic novel returns to home entertainment centers on the Blu-ray format.

The 2002 movie (and original sequential art) is a grim and expertly crafted period piece that explores the 1930s Prohibition era, set in and around Al Capone’s Chicago.

The action follows Michael Sullivan, a father forced to go on the lam to protect his son from a crime family of which he was an intricate m’s latest release in high-definition clearly gives a breathtaking visual path to what made the film so special.

One might think the powerful performances of Tom Hanks as Sullivan, Paul Newman as the mob boss and Jude Law as a deranged assassin would dazzle. They do, but cinematographer Conrad L. Hall is really the star of the show as his techniques with lighting, film stock exposure, angle and rack focus bring a film-noir sensibility to every color frame of the film.

Also, his obvious reverence for and expansion upon the source material presents a blueprint of how to eloquently adapt the sequential-art format to the film medium.

Almost every frame could be hanging in an art gallery and certainly found in the very best of comic book artistry.

Best extras: The optional commentary track by Mr. Mendes is essential, as is the interactive scrapbook that delves into the film’s background and source material.

Called the Library, it comes loaded with research and insight as the viewer clicks on postcards (choices highlighted with bullet holes) that cover everything from historical influences to crime scene photography to the film’s graphic-novel roots.

As the scrapbook transforms to sections, it often displays art from the comic and film while combining still images with text and creator interviews  all compartmentalized on-screen like a living encyclopedia.

Most insightful are the interviews with Mr. Collins and Mr. Rayner as they discuss an illustrated project that took four years to complete.

Also worth appreciating is a look at some of the great Illinois gangsters of the era, as well as the economic and political climate of America that includes original news stories to read from the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Overall, the Library is a great idea that takes advantage of the Blu-ray format. It will fascinate not only the “Road to Perdition” fan, but also the history buff in the family.

Read all about it: Hunt down the original graphic novel “Road to Perdition” ($14.99 and up) from Paradox Press and expect to spend many an hour marveling at Mr. Rayner’s incredibly detailed black-and-white illustrations.

Rambo: The Complete Collector’s Set, (Lionsgate Home Entertainment, rated R, $59.99)  Cinema’s famed weapon of mass destruction gets a fitting high-definition tribute covering his quartet of cinematic exploits.

Sylvester Stallone’s explosive portrayal of John Rambo began back in 1982 and concluded last year with the fourth and most violent film of the franchise.

This four-disc Blu-ray set beautifully and consistently brings to visual life his adventures, reaching from the cold and dreary Pacific Northwest to steamy jungles of Southeast Asia.

In “First Blood,” our hero runs into a surly sheriff and blows up his town.

In “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” our hero runs into a surly Vietnamese leader in cahoots with Russians holding American POWs. So naturally he helps the prisoners and blows up the detention compound. (I’m seeing a trend here.)

In “Rambo III,” our hero travels to Afghanistan to help rescue his mentor, Col. Sam Trautman, from surly Russians and blows up a variety of aircraft and a small part of the country.

Finally, in “Rambo,” our now-surly hero reluctantly helps kidnapped missionaries, only to be pulled into a Burmese conflict that forces him to turn the Asian lands into a .50-caliber-machine-gun-assisted slaughterhouse.

The action and violence escalates and becomes more far-fetched with each film, much to the pleasure of this audience member.

Hopefully, Mr. Stallone can work with Rambo author David Morrell to bring our unstoppable hero back for another round of mayhem. Because as his character says, “Nothing is over.”

Best extras: There’s no question, the separate optional commentary tracks from Mr. Stallone and Mr. Morrell attached to the first film are required listening for the fan of the series.

Additionally, the first three films get a pop-up-box interactive called Out of the Blu Trivia. During parts of each movie (about every 10 minutes or so) text arrives over the action delivered via such visual cues as a small GPS tracking screen, a series of bullet holes and an open dossier file.

Viewers learn Harold Diamond (a world champion stick fighter and martial artist) fought Mr. Stallone in “Rambo III,” Mr. Stallone was paid $3.5 million for the first Rambo film, and Rambo’s famous cutlery is based on an aviator survivor knife.

The fourth film extends the viewer experience with a Bonus View (a too-small pop-up box) offering an on-screen commentary track with Mr. Stallone, who is watching the action with the viewer, along with behind-the-scenes footage.

My only beef with the set is that it should have included the recently released latest version of the final film (“Rambo: Extended Cut,” $19.99), which featured an 83-minute production diary in standard definition.

To sum up, for those who already own last year’s Blu-ray “Rambo” trilogy, there’s nothing new here, just the addition of the last film.

Read all about it: Let’s reach deep into the way-back machine and stop in the late 1980s to find the comic-book adaptation of Rambo and Rambo III from Blackthorne Publishing (still available for the cover price, $2). Also, check out a 3-D version of Rambo III from Blackthorne (a steal for $2, if you can find it).

Kick-Ass, (Lionsgate Home Entertainment, rated R, $26.98)  Sequential-art scribe Mark Millar and artist John Romita Jr.’s irreverently violent comic-book series became a live-action film starring Dave Lizewski, Chloe Moretz and Nicolas Cage earlier this year

The profanity-enriched, blood-soaked effort debuts in the Blu-ray format and actually tones down the audacity of the source material(reference the potty mouth of 11-year-old Hit-Girl for starters) but is still an acquired taste for those easily shocked.

This ultimate revenge-of-the-nerds premise finds a quirky and mostly underage superhero team of teen Kick-Ass, tween Hit-Girl and adult Big Daddy (the dopey father of Hit-Girl) out to stop a New York City crime lord.

The story plays out as a bizarre coming-of-age comedy but bathes it in the pedal-to-the-metal, ultraviolent vigilantism of “The Punisher” and “Kill Bill.”

The film does a solid job of paying a playful reverence to the comics’ genre. Viewers get an occasional on-screen dialogue bubble and even an illustrated scene worked into the movie (starring the art of Mr. Romita), all embellished with plenty of hard-core pop-art moments that look as if they were ripped from one of the original sequential-art issues.

As much as I would like to tell Hollywood to stay away from my comic books, director Matthew Vaughn got it right with “Kick-Ass.”

Best extras: Fans will not be disappointed with the two main extras on the Blu-ray disc.

First, Kick-Ass Bonus View Mode delivers with an intimate look at the film with help from the director and plenty of on-location footage.

Viewers get an over-the-shoulder perspective of Mr. Vaughn watching his work in an editing studio. He is exhausted from a premier party the night before, but that makes for great moments of honesty. He’s too tired to remember to gush about the film’s brilliance, but he does get into the difficulty of shooting and what he did not like about the film.

Unfortunately, the actual movie is relegated to a tiny box in the corner of the screen throughout the presentation. The Bonus View option is basically a weaker version of Warner Home Video’s Maximum Movie Mode in which the director acts more as a lecturer in front of the film as it plays.

Next, the 113-minute megadocumentary “A New Kind of Superhero: The Making of Kick-Ass” features more words from Mr. Vaughn and spends lots of interview time with the producer.

The four-part behind-the-scenes epic includes background with key personnel and examples of previsualization segments, comic animation tests, digital color grading, visual effects, editing and even a reaction to an audience test screening.

Just for the record, that’s almost four hours of film deconstruction when combined with the Bonus View.

Additionally, I’ll mention a fantastic 20-minute documentary, “It’s On! The Comic Book Origins of Kick-Ass,” that focuses on the books with interviews from Mr. Millar, penciller Mr. Romita, inker Tom Palmer and colorist Dean White. Most striking is that 90 percent of the feature highlights the artwork, as it should.

Read all about it: Marvel Publishing offers the entire eight-issue series bundled in hardcover format ($24.99). It is not recommended for younger children or anyone offended by nudity, profanity, brutality or nerdy kids kicking butt.


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