You really do have to feel sorry for Blu-ray. It just gets a formidable footing into the home theater market and along comes a new visual gimmick - 3D - to threat its format opportunities. Granted, the new dimensional take on titles will require the help of high definition to make its bid, but it seems unfair for another upstart to ride piggyback on something that’s yet to establish its own commercial credentials. The studios are really no help either. They hinder expansion by focusing on frivolous concepts like sell-through date, theatrical to digital turnaround times, and that everyman clash between rental and retail. As a result, films that should get the best preservationist treatment are taken for granted, while the most recent box office bomb is fleshed out with more added content than a box of Criterion classics. When trying to sell your elitist approach to your standard cinephile, such a strategy is, more or less, a non-starter.
Even worse, the geek freak patrol are clamoring for their own lost treasures to be transferred over in the best possible remastered manner. They will not settle for shoddy visuals or a less than completist approach to bonus features. Even when a company can’t condescend to all of their demands, their sense of entertainment entitlements tends to stunt any significant growth. As we wander into the next decade of this new millennium, as 2011 promises a staggering 28 films in the trumped up 3D style, it looks like the battle will continue to wage. In one corner will be the cash kowtowing of a business model desperate to stay relevant in a realm of easy instant media access. In the other are those who want the artform given the historical respect it so richly deserves. Looking over the five titles featured in this third installment of our semi-regular Blu-ray overview, you can see that some distributors are trying to conform to the latter. On the other hand, they have to deal with the often uneventful needs as part of the former. Let’s begin with:
Robin Hood (Score: 5)
This is not the best way to “reinvent” a fabled folklore icon. No matter the truth to his actual reality, Robin Hood represents something very strong to storytelling, a mass moral compass thrown completely out of whack by this otherwise pointless prequel. Clearly believing that they are making Gladiator, the Dark Ages Version, director Ridley Scott and his A-list doppelganger Russell Crowe take everything noble about the “rob from the rich, give to the poor” conceit which marks the myths make-up and turns it into a combination of frilly freedom fighter and revolutionary. Gone are the elements of the legend we’ve all grown up with. In their place are pointed political grandstanding and a waste of available talent. While Cate Blanchett makes a decent independent Maid Marian, overused UK thesp Mark Strong is uninvolving as our supposedly viable villain, Sir Godfrey. He chews so much scenery and is so specious in his sovereign double dealing that we don’t care if he wins or loses - we just want all the faux pageantry and pomp to stop. Not even the action is engaging.
The disc offers both the original and the “unrated” version of the film (read: more scenes added which did not get a pass from the MPAA), along with a look inside the “Director’s Notebook” and a discussion on the Art of Nottingham.
Letters to Juliet (Score: 4)
A Romantic Comedy is only as viable as the potential paramours we have to root for. That’s a cinematic given. In the case of this limp love story, the side story outshines the dull duo at the center. Amanda Seyfried has made some excellent films. She’s also positioning herself as a commodity beyond the standard Tinseltown ingénue roles. But paired with a pathetic excuse for British dash named Chris Egan, she’s like an affection antidote. Our UK pretty boy is no better, generating about as much chemistry with his costar as a decaying dead mullet. What does work here is the ancillary subplot, a tale involving real life couple Frank Nero and Vanessa Redgrave and long lost chances. You can feel their passion for each other permeating every facet of this otherwise hackneyed hokum. Thanks to their old school skill as performers meshed with their own unique story of love, we suffer through the rest of this tired twaddle. Not even a glib premise (the Shakespeare/Italy connection is interesting…for about a minute) can save an otherwise lifeless affair.
The Blu-ray blesses us with an unnecessary commentary from Ms. Seyfried and her self-congratulatory director Gary Winick, a behind the scenes look at the production, more information on Verona, and some deleted/extended scenes.
Loose Screws: Screwballs II (Score: 7)
Sequels never live up to the greatness of their source. Rare is the follow-up that fulfills the promise presented originally. In the case of this randy revisit of the famed Canadian sex comedy form the mid ‘80s, lewd lightning can again be captured in the same bawdy bottle. Bringing back a couple of former cast members and following the same skin and sin formula as the first film, the goal may not be as gratuitous (scoring with the sultry French teacher), but the titillating T&A method to this movie’s madness works every time. It helps a lot that director Rafal Zielinski is back behind the lens, since he understands this miscreant material implicitly. Even better, we are dealing with a pre-plastic surgery ideal regarding attractiveness, with most of our willing blou droppers possessing the naughty natural gifts God saw fit to give them. Sure, it’s sexist, gauche, repellent, and unrelentingly non-PC. But as an example of good clean craven fun, you won’t find a crazier collection of mock carnality anywhere.
Bonus features on the format update include a 1.33:1 VHS version of the film almost 10 minutes longer in running time, along with a commentary track from Zielinski and interviews with producer Maurice Smith and production manager Ken Gord.
Babies (Score: 2)
The basic premise of this so-called ‘documentary’ is fairly obvious - pick four infants from diverse cultures around the world and illustrate how radically different (if emotionally same) said situations truly are. Make sure your choices are acceptably varied, never once question the quaint customs or unusual parenting approaches on display, and make sure to include lots of shots of cooing, cutesy wee ones to shuttle attention away from anything remotely critical or concerning. Babies bristles with the kind of “biology as a balm” bullspit that the mainstream shoves down our entertainment throats with unholy regularity. We can’t complain about the maudlin images on display because…well, because it’s about progeny, silly. Unless you want the equivalent of instant motion picture diabetes the minute the first scene unfolds, steer clear of this cloying, corrupt mess. The tagline may argue that “everybody loves” them, but as the subject of a 79 minute film, they are insufferable.
We receive a “three years later” update on the subjects as well as an overview of the winners in the “Everyone Loves…You Babies” sweepstakes as part of the disc’ added content.
Vigilante (Score: 8)
In 1974, Charles Bronson redefined his career with his turn as angry father and grieving husband Paul Kersey in the infamous Death Wish. Gun in hand, he took to the streets to right the wrongs he saw. Nine years later, exploitation expert William Lustig decided to revisit the notion of the one man judge/jury with his take on such urban justice. The results are so drive-in driven than they should come with a car window speaker and a Smithfield BBQ sandwich. Gathering together a terrific cast including Robert Forester, Fred Williamson, Joe Spinell, and Woody Strode and putting significant punch into the plague of a corrupt criminal system, the man behind Maniac serves up a nice amount of splatter with his simplistic social commentary. There is never a question of our hero’s motives - he is a man aggrieved and must take the law into his own underserved mitts. As for the baddies - they are moustache twisting in their evil intentions, and it’s more than satisfying to watch them buy the big one. Bronson may have jumpstarted the genre (and his lagging fortunes) with his film, but Vigilante is a much stronger, more severe - and satisfying - statement.
The package here presents a commentary with Lustig and co-producer Andrew Garroni, a second track with the director and co-stars Forester, Williamson, and Frank Pearce, along with a promotional reel, radio spots, trailers, and a still gallery.