A Bunch of Blu

The high definition home video technology known as Blu-ray is in an unusual place in 2010. Unlike laserdisc, which failed to fulfill the promise of its expanded aesthetic discussion and preservationist intent (cost kept it from dethroning crappier, more commercial king VHS), it has held steady with its digital sidekick, DVD. There have even been cases when specific titles (The Dark Knight, Avatar) clearly outsell – and outclass – their non-Blu brethren and with 3D advancements looking to make their mark, the format is in a very strange holding pattern. Almost all swear by its improved sound and vision, but some studios aren’t willing to invest in the labor-intensive remastering of their movies (which kind of defeats the purpose). So they simply toss out the previous incarnation of a film and hope that the majority of the buyers pay little or no attention to the lack of an update. Most don’t.

There are some studios who are trying to keep everyone happy. Disney regularly releases its latest animated efforts in complex combination packages that give both Blu-ray and DVD aficionados something to crow about, and Warner Brothers began a program where you can take your old out of date discs and port them over to the new technology. Universal is even testing the double format idea, releasing a bunch of notable efforts via an intriguing two-side ideal. Again, if the image is not improved and the extras aren’t plentiful, there’s really no reason for the re-release. Still, looking over the five titles featured in this initial installment of our semi-regular Blu-ray overview, you can see that some distributors are trying their best to buoy sales and maintain a level of consumer confidence. On the other hand, they have to deal with the often uneventful movies as part of the presentation. Let’s begin with:

It’s Complicated (Score: 4)

Poor Meryl Streep. She seemed prime to pick up a third Oscar for her brilliant take on TV French Chef legend Julia Child (for Julie and Julia) when this clunky, RomCom oddity landed at the end of the year. Like Norbit for Dreamgirls‘ Eddie Murphy, voters probably had a hard time justifying the industry’s highest honor to someone who would drown her dignity in Nancy Meyer’s perimenopausal twaddle. Trying to turn divorce and the middle-aged rekindling of lost love (and lust) into laughs might have worked, but adding the novelty of actors who some consider “over the hill” gives it an icky, inferior patina. Meyers, who’s made some decent movies on her own (What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give) seems to be believing in her own hype, hunkering down to celebrate physical shtick and clichéd interpersonal conceits that would never survive in real life. Even worse, she marginalizes the men here, turning them into lechs or likeable losers, but never strong, secure males. In fact, most people would be smarter than the comic strip stooges she offers. While it may seem silly to suggest Ms. Meryl lost her little gold statue because of this mess, such a stumble clearly didn’t help.

(The Blu-ray offers a commentary track with the filmmakers and a Making-of featurette).

The Jackal (Score: 5)

When you mess with Fredrick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, you’re messing with classic film (and pulp literary thriller) history. Fred Zimmerman’s 1973 take on the novel featured a star-making turn by British actor Edward Fox, and remains one of the era’s premier examples of intense political cat and mouse. Jerryrigging the narrative to turn Bruce Willis into the title hitman and Richard Gere into the Irish Republican Army sniper (yes, you read right) who can ID him seems more than foolish. The relatively inert results bear this out. Director Michael Caton-Jones, who did brilliant work with Scandal, Doc Hollywood, and This Boys Life, fails to full comprehend the ins and outs of the genre, relying on his stars’ stupid accents and attempted disguises as a means of manufacturing some cloak and mystery. It doesn’t work, nor does the preposterous plot that keeps jumping from country to concern like a criminal avoiding extradition. Thanks to such “suggest by” facets, the original Forsyth story (and subsequent adaptation) remain safe. This version, however, deserves to be quickly and quietly forgotten.

(The Blu-ray adds a commentary track with Caton-Jones, and a Behind the Scenes featurette. On the flip side of the disc is the standard DVD version of the film)

Leap Year (Score: 3)

Amy Adams deserves better. Having started off staying in the background of such memorable movies as Drop Dead Gorgeous and Catch Me If You Can, she exploded onto the scene with 2005’s Junebug and then earned her own significant star power in Disney’s delightful Enchanted. So why, after such strong work in solid dramas like Doubt and Sunshine Cleaning would you cash in your commercial credits for such a sloppy, superficial romantic comedy? Being paired up with Watchmen‘s Matthew Goode may have made sense when everyone was picking the Zack Snyder superhero epic as one of 2009’s blockbusters (it barely was). Now it seems like slumming for the perky, pleasant actress. Maybe it’s a rotten rite of passage that every up and coming starlet has to suffer through. Perhaps Adams actually liked this scattered superficial script. It could be she was eager to work with director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie, Red Riding: 1983). Whatever the case, no one survives this piecemeal entertainment. They are all lost in a morass of bad ideas, poor execution and limited chemistry.

(The Blu-Ray throws in some deleted scenes – that’s all)

Traffic (Score: 8)

Steven Soderbergh emerged from the media-imposed exile of independent “stardom” to secure his first mainstream Academy Award recognition when he directed this intense, explosive war on drugs drama. Based on the UK mini-series of the same name, it used three intersecting stories to explain how decades of dedicated concentration of the criminal (and personal) elements that come with addiction and illegal trafficking lead to death and destruction. With an amazing cast and a deliberate storyline sprawl, little details would come to define bigger – and more meaningful – conclusions. The cast here is first rate, including Oscar winner Benecio Del Toro, former Academy fave Michael Douglas, Don, Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, and a tolerable Catherine Zeta-Jones. Ten years removed from the material has left it a little dated – not to mention the fact that filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro González Iñárritu have adopted the multiple narrative thread conceit and run with it. Still, Soderbergh’s take on the subject is sensational – very compelling and quite inventive.

(The Blu-Ray gives us 24 deleted scenes and something called “Inside Traffic”. Clearly not the equivalent of the Criterion Collection DVD. On the flip side of the disc is the standard DVD version of the film)

Out of Africa (Score: 7)

There is something about Out of Africa that seems stale and stodgy some 25 years after it walked away with Tinseltown’s highest honors. It could be the then meaningful pairing of Meryl Streep and aging hunk Robert Redford. It could be the old school swagger inherent in the late Sydney Pollack direction. The film does follow a formula famous for leading to multiple Oscar nominations (and wins) and it did pick up 11 of the former and seven of the latter. With its timeless travelogue elements and deep emotional core, the movie still succeeds. The bigger problem lies in how full and overinflated everything feels. Nothing is really small or insular. Each and every plotpoint feels like it’s destined to determine the fate of the entire world. Still, you have to celebrate the way in which Pollack commits to this material (it was often his filmmaking fault, as something like Havana would indicate) and his stars shine, often putting the pristine African backdrops to shame. While it wouldn’t wholly hold up today, Out of Africa is an excellent example of how Hollywood treated cinema three decades ago – and how manufactured and mega-marketed it is now.

(The Blu-ray, which goes out of its way to call itself a “25th Anniversary Special Edition” does pour on the added content. There is a commentary from Pollack, deleted scenes, an original documentary on the making of the movie, and a trailer. On the flip side of the disc is the standard DVD version of the film)