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A Bunch of Blu 5

On the high-def agenda this time around: The Last Airbender, Salon Kitty, The Wiz, Charlie St. Cloud, and The Kids Are All Right.

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 with the first undeniable flop featured:

The Last Airbender (Score: 1)

Fans of this kid vid favorite from Nickelodeon are still complaining about how rapidly declining director M. Night Shyamalan crapped all over their beloved series. From the questionable casting (Caucasians as Asians?) to the decision to take a somber, serious tone with what is, in general, an action packed boy's adventure tale, the former future Spielberg once again stumbled and fell...HARD. Even worse, the studio decided, at the last minute, to transfer the title over to its latest get richer quicker scheme - 3D, destroying most of the visuals in the process. While the updated home video format restores much of the movie's optical wonder, there is still the deadly dull (and quite dumb) screenplay to contend with, as well as Shyamalan's consistently questionable directorial choices to lament. While it made enough money to (perhaps) warrant a sequel, here's hoping a certain Happening hack is kept clear of the follow-up. He may not be box office poison, but his aesthetic has proven more than lethal as of late.

(The new high definition release features an hour long documentary on the making of the film, three featurettes on different aspects of the production, a gag reel, a collection of deleted scenes, and a picture in picture added content play-along element)

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Salon Kitty (Score: 6)

Cinema's fascination with pre-World War II Germany has always been a bit strained. It seems that, wherever the Nazis go, seedy sexploitation and abhorrent behavior - including horrific violence - follow. More than any other film wanting to explore the now formulaic relationship between the Third Reich and outright perversion, Brass's bawdy epic moves beyond its prurient intrigues to function as a strong statement of political outrage. It shows, very clearly, that a nation and its people are most corruptible when their every wish and desire is fulfilled, from law and order to the fruits of forbidden passion - and the results are shocking indeed. This is a movie about sexual filth and defilement. It does contain sickening scenes of disgusting unpleasantness. In some ways, it's like a calmer, more clear-headed version of Pierre Palo Pasolini's much maligned (and therefore misunderstood) Salo: or the 120 Days of Sodom. Only by exploring the extremes within this officially evil empire can we begin to determine their true purpose - and our continuing fixation with finding a celluloid depiction of same.

(Fans of the film will have to settle for a pair of interviews - one with director Tinto Brass, the other with production designer Ken Adams, as well as a pair of trailers and a some radio spots)

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The Wiz (Score: 7)

By the end of the '60s, the big budget Hollywood musical was more or less DOA. No one really cared for the post-modern interpretation of same (Lost Horizon? Hello?) and Broadway shows (the Cineplex's main source of new material) were changing direction and dynamic as well. So when one of the Great White Way's biggest hits was fashioned into a film, nothing was left to chance. Sadly, many of the "surefire" choices completely undermined the rollicking original. After all, did we really need an urbanized take on the Wizard of Oz featuring a non-singing, non-dancing Richard Pryor? Was crackpot game show contestant/comedian Nipsey Russell as wise choice for the Tin Man? Did a matronly Diana Ross have to be cast as a timid twenty-something Dorothy, and did a director who never made a musical in his life (Sidney Lumet) have to stand behind the camera? Granted, some of the choices were inspired (Manhattan as a sullied Emerald City...Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow) but for the most part, this Wiz is a misfire. It's got great music and even better production design, but this is a clear case when something potentially great was rendered merely acceptable.

(The Blu-ray release a behind the scenes featurette entitled "Wiz on Down the Road" and a theatrical trailer)

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Charlie St. Cloud (Score: 5)

As he continues to struggle for a cinematic persona outside of his hailed High School Musical efforts, Zac Efron appears to be making some interesting choices. Of course, there is Hairspray, but he was actually quite good in the basic body switching comedy 17 Again, and his co-starring role alongside Christian Mackay in Me and Orson Welles was truly wonderful. Unfortunately, the twenty-something seems to have fallen into the Nicholas Sparks trap, thinking that some manner of sappy, saccharine tearjerker will push him to the next level. In the case this adaptation of Ben Sherwood's bestselling novel, the manipulation didn't fool very many. Complicating things was a last act twist that even attentive members of the audience were hard pressed to truly figure out and a lack of chemistry between the star and his female lead. Still, there is something solid about Efron's work overall. It's appreciable and worth paying attention to. While he may not have found the right vehicle for his proposed tween-less future, Charlie St. Cloud proves that everyone's favorite singing/dancing basketball stud is a decent actor at his core.

(As for bonus features, we are give insight into the production from director Burr Stears as part of a commentary track, a selection of deleted scenes, two EPKs focusing on star Zac Ephron, and a featurette looking at the spirit world)

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The Kids Are All Right (Score: 8)

With same sex marriages and gay adoption hot button political topics, it's nice to see a movie that treats alternative lifestyles and parenting with calm and comic consideration. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are excellent as the couple whose teenage children seek out the sperm donor who is their biological father. Turns out its good guy bohemian Mark Ruffalo and he soon starts spending time with his accidental family. Trouble, naturally, follows. With its brilliant performances and sensible tone, director Lisa Cholodenko does her best to keep all sides of the situation sympathetic. We never question these women's love for each other, though the sudden arrival of a sensitive and sympathetic man makes the "marriage" even that much more difficult to maintain. More importantly, the homosexuality aspect of the narrative is never forced or overstressed. Instead, it's treated naturally, like the common everyday occurrence it truly is. Though some may feel it's a bit too pat considering the current cultural climate, The Kids Are All Right is one of the year's better efforts. It's deep, direct...and delightful.

(As part of the package, we get three rather lightweight EPKs centering on the creative process behind the film, as well as a full length audio commentary from director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko)

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