Short Ends and Leader

A Bunch of Blu 4

In this edition, we focus on Robin Hood (2010), Letters to Juliet, Loose Screws: Screwballs II, Babies, and Vigilante

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller

18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr

17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr

16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

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Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

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There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

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