Welcome back for another week of “On The Shelf,” our weekly dissection of what, exactly, is worth your attention in terms of DVD and BluRay. With such an avalanche of titles hitting shelves seemingly every single week, it can be daunting just remembering what’s coming out. This isn’t meant to be a simple list of title, though, but instead my overall reaction to what I’ve seen, what I’d like to see, and what I simply covet.
From time to time, we’ll also premiere clips here or trailers or other media, and we’ll break news from time to time about upcoming releases as well. But for the most part, this is our discussion of the particular blend that makes up a week.
For example, Warner Bros. is releasing “Body Of Lies” (which looks spectacular on the BluRay transfer) today, and we’ve got an exclusive video clip of Ridley Scott discussing the making of the film, so let’s take a look at that right after the jump:
I went by Amoeba last week to catch up on a few things I missed, like “Inside Moves” and the “Raging Bull” BluRay, and I’ve got to say… the real litmus test for me is how people handle their catalog titles. There’s a brewing controversy between people who want all film grain eliminated from every print (aka crazy people) and people who want to see as accurate a representation of the original image as possible. Yes, I love it when a film is cleaned up, but only as long as it still looks like the actual film. When you try to eliminate all grain from something, you’re screwing with the actual chemical process that was part of creating that film in the first place. Both “Raging Bull” and “Amadeus” are beautiful on BluRay, but if you’re thrown by film grain, you might balk at first. I think it’s an interesting moment, because HD allows us to reproduce film imagery in a way we never have before, and so transfers are different than they’ve ever been. With VHS and laserdisc and even DVD, good transfers were all about hiding things, disguising the limitations of the technology. We’re on the other side of that now, so we’re having to redefine what a “good” transfer is, which makes conversations about home video interesting again in a way they haven’t been before.
So what can you expect to find when you go shopping for titles this week? Let’s see…
If you read my list of my ten favorite films of 2008, probably the most obscure title on that list was #7, a Belgian film called “Ex-Drummer.” At that point, I wasn’t sure what they were planning to do with the film as far as a US release was concerned. Guess I’ve got my answer now. I have no idea who 101Distribution is, but they’re putting out a Region 1 DVD of the film today, and I highly recommend it for those of you who like transgression. Here’s what I wrote about it on that year-end list:
[Director] Koen Mortier is currently working on an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted, and that may turn out to be the best marriage of source material and filmmaker in quite some time. They share a similar jet-black sensibility, gallows humor mixed with a skeptical attitude towards basic human nature. EX-DRUMMER is about a famous writer who is approached by a bunch of semi-retarded thugs who want to start a punk band. He agrees to join so that he can wallow in the misery of their lives for a while, constantly provoking them the entire time. When the inevitable explosion comes, it’s not what you think it’s going to be, and it’s impossible to shake. I was repulsed by “Ex-Drummer”, offended by it on a profound level, and not a day’s gone by since I saw it at Fantastic Fest that I haven’t thought about it in some context. It reminds me of the way I felt after seeing Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” the first time. It’s a major announcement from an important new voice in film, and I hope you have a chance to see it in 2009.
And speaking of Chuck Palahniuk adaptations, “Choke” finds its way to DVD today. I haven’t seen it, but I’m eager to see Sam Rockwell’s performance. I think it’s one of Palahniuk’s weakest novels, but I’ve heard enough about this one to be interested in giving it a try. The story of a guy who works at a tourist spot that reproduces life in colonial times, the film deals with sex addiction, con artists, and possible divine virgin birth. If the film manages to match the black comic tone of the book’s best moments, it might be wicked fun.
Horror fans have a few choices today. Although I’d recommend checking out the original Spanish-language film “[REC]” first, I would say that “Quarantine” is worth your time if you want to take a stroll through a well-calibrated haunted house. In particular, the BluRay release is startlingly good looking. Meanwhile, Lionsgate is releasing the much-maligned “The Midnight Meat Train” today, unrated and available on both DVD and BluRay. It’s a nasty bit of business adapted from a Clive Barker story about a mysterious killer (Vinnie Jones) who eviscerates whole subway cars full of people late at night, and the photographer (Bradley Cooper) who begins to unravel the mystery. It’s stylishly directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (“Versus,” “Godzilla: Final War”), and even if it doesn’t really add up to a satisfying whole, there are plenty of worthwhile moments in it. Dimension Extreme is putting out the third in a series today with “Feast III: The Happy Finish.” I sat through the second one, and while I admire the sense of abandon, I don’t think the film really worked, and since this one was basically shot as part of one big piece, I’m not sure I expect it to be any better. Still, I’ll give it a try. I’m the eternal optimist when it comes to my favorite genre. I’ve had several people recommend “Alien Raiders” to me, and I missed it at Fantastic Fest because of a scheduling issue. It’s an ultra-low-budget film from the Warner Bros. Raw Feed label, and there have been a few titles in the series now that have actually been decent, like “Otis.” Ben Rock’s aliens-attacking-a-grocery-store movie was made for pocket change and sandwiches, evidently, but I always love a film like that with really great energy, and I’m looking forward to picking this one up.
Wait… would you consider “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” and “High School Musical: Remix”, both out today on DVD and BluRay, to be horror films? I know they have fans. I’m sure they are clean, wholesome fun. But just the covers give me the heebie-jeebies.
Are you ready to drink yourself into an alcoholic coma? Then you might be ready for “Changeling,” the new Clint Eastwood movie, and the drinking game that goes with it. All you have to do is take a drink every time Angelina Jolie says “I want my son” or “That’s not my son.” If your liver hasn’t exploded by 45 minutes into the film, you may not be doing it right. Universal’s putting out both regular DVD and BluRay editions today, but either one will get you completely s-faced if you play along. I’ll have a review for this one later, and a comparison of the much-lauded script to the final release, which I find an interesting case study.
I can’t say I was a raving fan of “Dead Like Me” while it was on the air, but I always found it amiable and weird and enjoyable. And now, as they release a new direct-to-video film called “Dead Like Me: Life After Death,” they’re also releasing “Dead Like Me: The Complete Collection.” Sounds like the way to go. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a girl named Georgie (the very strange and funny Ellen Muth) who dies and ends up working for Death as a collector. She learns that Death is basically a civil service position, and she’s just one of many collectors. I am a little surprised that Bryan Fuller wasn’t involved in this reunion… the show was his baby, before he moved on to “Wonderfalls” and “Pushing Daisies.” I think Fuller’s work is very good, but he seems to have a real problem keeping something on the air for more than a couple of seasons. At least we get cool DVD box sets at the end of each show’s run.
I think Bill Maher’s “Religulous,” also from Lionsgate today, is a mixed bag. There are some genuine moments in the film, some sequences that work, where Maher lets his own guard down enough to actually listen to the people he’s talking to. That’s the real trick in a film like this, and it’s why Michael Moore stopped being interesting to me… his films stopped being about the people in them and starting being about him. Maher’s film walks the line, and ultimately, I think it’s a sincere attempt that’s worth seeing, a film that tries not to smirk at its subjects, only occasionally failing.
Haven’t seen the infamous “Hounddog”. The Dakota Fanning Rape Movie. Southern-fried Sundance fodder that crashed and burned when it got some festival play. At this point, though, it can’t possibly be as bad as I’ve heard. If I get a rental account again, I’ll probably catch up with it then.
I did, however, finally catch up with “Flash of Genius,” the Greg Kinnear movie about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper, only to have it stolen by the Big Three. It’s got some kinship to a personal favorite, Coppola’s “Tucker,” although it’s not the same sort of exercise in style. “Flash” is a solid, well-acted film about a man whose sense of justice is pushed to a breaking point, to the point where he’s willing to give up everything up to and including his own health and happiness to pursue what he believes is right. He is a man possessed. He just chases this dream, long after the monolith has rolled across him, and for most of the movie, it’s a punishing role for Kinnear to play. You feel for the guy, but he’s also way past the far end of crazy in terms of what he’s willing to burn down. By the time Kinnear gets to play something else again, another side of the character, we’re almost out of movie. That’s sort of a shame. But that’s a minor complaint. Overall, Lauren Graham, Alan Alda, Dermot Mulroney, Mitch Pileggi, and the rest of the sizeable supporting cast (in particular, all of Kinnear’s kids) do solid, emotional work. It’s oe of those films that just plain deserved better, but it was a next-to-impossible sell. No one wants to see this movie, even if they might like it once they actually do.
I am a staunch supporter of the work of Simon Pegg. That is why I would urge you not to watch “How To Lose Friends And Alienate People.” Not even for the nuclear hotness of Megan Fox. It’s really that unpleasant a misfire. There’s a good idea somewhere in the mix here, a potential potent portrait of venal success. But it just doesn’t gel as a movie. At. All.
As with almost every week, it seems, there’s a Criterion title today. “Hobson’s Choice” is one I’m pretty rabid about picking up the next time I’m at the store. David Lean’s film version of a play that was actually filmed twice before is a spectacular showcase for the performances of John Mills and Charles Laughton, butting heads for the full running time. This is that particular dreamy David Lean black-and-white London, like his Dickens films, and it’s impeccably crafted. Can’t wait to see it again.
I’m curious about the ’70s honkey-tonk drinking-and-fucking epic “Hard Country,” with Jan-Michael Vincent and Kim Basinger in her film debut, and about the roller-derby documentary titled, fittingly, “Derby.” Jiri Menzel’s “Closely Watched Trains” is a classic of ’60s international cinema, and today, his 2006 film “I Served The King Of England” is being released on DVD. This story of a hotel waiter who scams his way into buying his hotel before being arrested for not knowing how to game the system properly was one I missed completely in theaters, and I want to catch up. There’s a documentary about James Toback, cantankerous writer/director, called “The Outsider,” as well as a Christopher Titus concert film called “Love Is Evol.”
It’s a weird random week of catalog releases on BluRay, but I’ve accepted that there’s no rhyme or reason to what they’re putting out or when. There are come obvious tie-in decisions, like last week’s release of the original “Friday the 13th” (with a whole ten seconds of extra footage), but for the most part, it’s sort of scattershot.
The 25th anniversary of “Gandhi” would have been in 2007, and that’s when the DVD version was released. The BluRay being released today is still called that, but it’s a nice visual update to the DVD. I have both, so I compared them on the same TV, both of them played on the PS3. And there’s really no comparison. The BluRay is the superior presentation, very close to looking like actual film. It’s sort of amazing to me how suddenly, once you start watching a lot of BluRay, regular resolution DVD looks sort of like VHS. You notice the ways that DVD compensates for not being able to handle certain textures and surfaces and the way BluRay suddenly allows things that extra layer of reality. I want to pick up both “The Constant Gardener” and “21 Grams”, since both are so beautifully composed. And “The Passion Of The Christ,” which I have a ton of issues with, is a film that requires a deft touch in terms of transfer. I don’t think the DVD really did the photography by the great Caleb Deschanel justice, so I’m hoping the BluRay rectifies that. I like the notion of a themed double-feature on BluRay, and “Capote” on the same disc as “In Cold Blood” makes perfect sense. Taken as a whole, they’re interesting reflections of the same events, two very different voices telling the same story. And although I would never think of “Kramer Vs. Kramer” as the sort of movie that demands a high-def transfer, revisiting it for the first time in about 20 years revealed it as an entirely different film than I remembered. Obviously, for me, parenthood has cast the film is a new light, and suddenly, I find the entire thing just unbearably painful and wrenching. Dustin Hoffman is great here, and Meryl Streep plays a really difficult role with absolute fearlessness.
Finally, the last title worth mentioning today is actually a batch of titles, a small run of what’s been labeled “The Paul Newman Film Series.” One of the titles is actually the film that made Newman wince more than any other in his filmography, “The Silver Chalice,” a sandal and toga movie that is as stiff and phony as can be. “When Time Ran Out,” “Rachel Rachel,” “The Helen Morgan Story,” and “The Outrage” are all minor key Newman at best. I get the feeling this is just Warner digging deep into the vault on a recently parted movie icon, and whether I love these particular titles or not, I’m glad to see studios still reaching deeper and deeper into their catalogs.
So that’s it for this week. Dense and diverse, just the way I like it. Next week, there are some really cool releases like Argento’s “Four Flies On Grey Velvet” and “Sex Drive” as well as a controversial BluRay remaster of “The French Connection.”
But me? I’m all about “Akira” next week. I will hug it and feed it and call it George. I will love it and pet it. BluRay “Akira.” God, I love being a movie junkie.
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