They say that, within a decade, all practical digital mediums will be dead, or at the very least, commercially obsolete. We will no longer shop for DVDs or fret over what added content will be provided on the next Special Edition Blu-ray release of our favorite film. Instead, small boxes will stream content directly into our TVs, with laptop portability and IPad watchability taking the place of a tricked out home theater system. In essence, there will no longer be an aluminum disc middle man preventing you from seeing your beloved blockbuster beamed directly to the smallest screen from the big. For those of us who still enjoy breaking out a slip case and firing up an actual ‘player’, such a suggestion seems shocking. After all, it was just 30 years ago when the VCR promised the motion picture purist a chance to own and ‘forever’ enjoy their favorite films in the privacy of their own residence. Now, we want to move away from some sense of permanency and rely on items like hard drives and memory sticks to secure our favorite films? Last time anyone checked, a DVD doesn’t ‘crash’ or get accidentally wiped clean.
Still, it’s an intriguing idea, one that the makers of movies keep pushing if only because of the definite dollar signs involved. As long as they can sell the aging baby boomers on the whole “live feed” ideal, they may have another reconfigured format hit on their hands. But there is still the nagging notion that collectors will not give back their wall space so readily. After all, what’s more impressive to your fellow film geeks - a living room overloaded with carefully arranged and alphabetized selections, or a single set-top devices with everything you own downloaded and susceptible to sudden disappearance? In the end, of course, it’s all about the product. If Hollywood makes disposable movies, a similarly throwaway means of experiencing them seems sensible. But would you really want something like the new three hour cut of Avatar only accessible via a web connection? It’s an interesting thought to consider, not that the five selections here will warrant any kind of preservationist complaints. As Blu-ray tries to build its audience, even in spite of such future shock suggests, it remains a question of content, as this oddball “action” film from a famous superstar would suggest:
The American (Score: 7)
When you hear that the new George Clooney thriller features the favored actor as a slick, smart hitman roaming the Italian countryside, certain expectations are created in the cinematic mind’s eye. Oddly enough, the superstar and his directorial accomplish, filmmaker Anton Corbijn decide to avoid each and every one of those filmic truisms. This is a calm, almost passive shoot-em-up, with Clooney’s character going through a kind of karmic midlife crisis while bedding the kind of drop dead gorgeous prostitute that only the movies can provide. The results are often a tad too experimental, too outside the norm to draw in the casual or the just curious. Instead, it feels slightly snobbish and a tad elitist. Perhaps we’ve been so brainwashed by the micromanaged nature of modern Hollywood entertainment that it’s almost impossible to appreciate a project looking to purposefully avoid such by the numbers simplicity. But what The American forgets is that, sometimes, the stereotyping is needed. You can only push a filmgoer so far outside their known creative comfort zone before they retaliate and tune out. For their part, Clooney and Corbijn have crafted a beautiful tone poem to a life unbalance and fraught with danger. Unfortunately, it may be too unusual for those it hopes to speak to and satisfy.
(The new high definition release features deleted scenes, a basic Making-of featurette, and an engaging commentary track from director Anton Corbijn)
Devil (Score: 6)
First, you’ve got to get past the production credit. The name “M. Night Shyamalan” is like creative kryptonite in 2010, synonymous with unadulterated crap like The Happening, Lady in the Water, and his latest motion picture affront, The Last Airbender. So, rest assured that all he had to do with this otherwise intriguing thriller was craft the story and pay the bills. He left the actual scriptwriting and directing to others… and it shows. As a simple tale of four people trapped in an elevator—and the suicide/crime scene surrounding their involvement—the narrative is a tad too pat… Signs pat. But John Erick Dowdle does such a good job of setting up suspense and delivering payoffs that we ignore the cosmic coincidences and settle in for some decent scares. The acting, for the most part, is uniformly good. No one goes overboard during their obvious red herring moments (the narrative comes down to figuring out who is the Devil, after all) and we do see the simmering paranoia percolating behind their otherwise frightening eyes. Yes, there are things here that will rub you the wrong way, far too convenient elements and irritating characters that add up to a small smattering of Shyamalan silliness. Luckily, the rest of this Devil delivers.
(This particular Blu-ray package offers deleted scenes and three featurettes on the making of the movie)
Quiet Days in Clichy(Score: 6)
Quiet Days in Clichy is the kind of film that many would consider “arty” or “experimental.” It’s a movie that would probably only show up only as part of a college class or a chic snobbish festival - and that’s too bad, since it is actually a very down to earth and quite philosophical cautionary tale about sex and its addictive, destructive power. Based on an infamous 1956 Henry Miller novel, it takes a frank, fresh, and fetish-like look at free love and its consequences. In Joey and Carl, our voracious omni-whores, we see the unloved dead; men doomed to walk the streets penniless and hungry, destined to be (proudly) infected with numerous cases of venereal disease and slave to the loneliness of physical love without emotional connection. There is a definite misogynistic, anti-feminism playing throughout the sordid vignettes. Women are viewed (and considered) stupid, juvenile, sluttish, brash, vulgar, and more often than not, willing to trade their virtue for a few hundred francs. Quiet Days in Clichy is not an exploitation movie, per se. It is more an exploration of the sexual liberation movement and the battered, beaten victims left in its wake.
(There are only three interview featurettes offered on this Blue Underground release: one featuring an expert on Henry Miller, another focusing on Barney Rossett, and a final one with theme song composer Country Joe McDonald)
Catfish (Score: 7)
Along with Exit Through the Gift Shop, English graffiti maverick Banksy’s quasi-mock-documentary about street art, this supposedly real look at how the current social media manipulates (and sometimes, manufactures) lives has come under fire recently for (perhaps) being a little less than 100% true. While the story of a man seduced by a female friend he met on Facebook does offer the standard cliched cautionary tale, the way in which directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman tell the story of the latter’s brother Nev offers an edge of authenticity that’s hard to deny. It can be argued that certain moments are “staged”, but no more so than the interviews the standard fact film offers to support their story. What we get in the end is an often intriguing, sometimes frustrating portrait of a pathetic post-millennial society, a place where people no longer want to be themselves, but instead, get lost in fictionalized worlds of their own Internet making. All pat, possible theatrics aside, the resulting 86 minutes zing by like the best kind of campfire tale. No matter the manner of its telling, this Catfish remains a weird, mostly wonderful whale of a tale.
(Universal’s only contribution to this otherwise intriguing high definition release is something called “Secrets Revealed”, which promises insightful interviews with the filmmakers)
Death Race 2 (Score: 5)
First, this is a direct to DVD production so don’t expect the same level of ludicrous, over the top action as the Paul W. S. Anderson ‘original’ (itself a take on the Roger Corman “classic”). There’s no Jason Statham here, no Lovejoy, or cold hearted big screen villainous witchcraft from a jeer-worthy Joan Allen. Second, this is a prequel, so we are avoiding the entire narrative of the first film and are, instead, getting the ‘origin’ story of the Frankenstein character as well as the preliminaries for the title contest out of the way. Finally, this is a film by Jack-of-All-Unnecessary-Genre-Film Trades Roel Reiné, a producer/director responsible for such cinematic shoulder shrugs as The Lost Tribe, Adrenaline, and Black Ops. With all those potential negatives in place, one could easily dismiss this tacky tie-in as a cash grab, nothing more. Oddly enough, this is a pretty decent little flick, a guilty pleasure Saturday night with nothing to do kind of entertainment that locks into a specific lunatic fringe groove and never lets up. Sure, the presence of Friend of RobRod/Machete Danny Trejo and Ving Rhames is a welcome treat and lead Luke Goss makes a decent Statham substitute. Don’t expect much - and truthfully, how could you - and you’ll be rewarded handsomely.
(The high definition release of this direct to DVD title is tricked out, featuring both rated and unrated versions of the film, deleted scenes, a director’s montage, three featurettes on the movie’s making, and a commentary track from director Reine)