What’s with the “etc.?” Thanks to a Christmas gift from the Mrs. I’ve gone Blu, as in Blu-ray. She won’t be thanking me when yet another mountain of discs gathers around my desk, though I assure her that their packaging is smaller and thinner and they won’t injure the kids as much as when they collapse on top of them. (“Special Editions again?” the nurse asked when I checked my daughter into the ER for the fourth time.) Oh, and the DVD is dead. Did you hear?
Gotta admit I’m a little fuzzy on this whole “UltraViolet” thing, which, with its emphasis on “clouds” and files rather than players and physical media suggests that Skynet will soon be rumbling to life and sending a mercenary robot from the future to frag my aborning son. Look: I love collecting discs, not collecting streams, and I have no interest whatsoever in watching The Bridge on the River Kwai on my cellphone or wristwatch or iPad if I had one. Leave me alone, get off of my cloud.
And yet I’m enabling this to happen. My Sony Blu-ray player connects wirelessly to Netflix, Amazon on Demand, and other services via my computer. (Or it did once I paid $70 to obtain the necessary adapter.) This means I can watch movies on my TV rather than my computer, which I hate. (That is after I figured out that I first had to connect my player to a LAN line to update its firmware, which like the cost of the adapter was not in the fine print, and then had to register with various provider entities online to realize this, and it was all a pain in the ass let me tell you.) Let me also tell you that is nirvana to be able to do this, minus those red envelopes and the, umm, physical media. It’s not perfect; if you’ve forsaken DVD Netflix for Netflix Instant you’ll find that in general top Hollywood hits aren’t there, the studios, perennially behind the curve, viewing all this with suspicion. If, on the other hand, you’ve ever yearned to watch Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) or the wackadoodle rape-revenge thriller Lipstick (1976) in glorious HD, welcome to paradise. (Lipstick in hi-def! Memo to Paul Simon: these are the days of miracle and wonder.) I’ve been up until dawn flipping from flick to flick, with the invaluable InstantWatcher as my guide into this brave new world.
As for the Blu-ray player itself I’ve just begun to feed it. There’s some appetizing fare out there beyond Fat Burgers like The A-Team: Psycho looks and sounds ever more psychotic in the format, and I appreciate a definitive Apocalypse Now set that collects the theatrical version, the Redux cut, and the excellent Hearts of Darkness documentary in one package, with the films in their original aspect ratio (none of that weird Vittorio Storaro tinkering) and Redux on one disc and not split between two. But Blu-ray is for cherry-picking among those must-have titles, not for rebuying the whole orchard.
You couldn’t if you wanted to. 2010, the year we were supposed to make contact, was the year that the major studios really clamped down on their bells-and-whistles catalog releases, porting over the contents of existing packages to Blu and all but abandoning new ones on DVD. I don’t whether to laugh or cry when I read posts on the Home Theater Forum requesting favorite titles from Fox, Paramount, etc.—folks, the good old days of handsomely supplemented DVDs and box sets bursting with multiple movies and extra content are well behind us.
Which brings us to the other prevailing wind blowing in the market, though through no fault of your own you may not have felt it. The studios have gone MOD—manufacturing-on-demand, that is, turning out movies on DVD-Rs. Warner was the first to do this, as I reported way back in 2009, and I can say that I love the Warner Archive. How can I not love an initiative that last year brought us the irresistibly sleazy James Woods film Fast Walking (1982) and the gonzo Japanese monster movie The Green Slime (1969), among so many other gems hidden in the floorboards?
Well, a number of holdouts don’t, including those same people uselessly petitioning the majors for pressed (that is, “real”) DVDs of their wants. They’re suspicious of DVD-Rs, they don’t like their high prices and lack of features beyond an occasional trailer, they don’t like the lack of subtitles or captioning or that they’re only available in the United States. I don’t like some of this, either (though Warner, the gold standard, has constant sales and is responsive to customer concerns)—and I really don’t like how Universal and MGM fumbled the ball on their first attempts to explore MOD, or how poorly Sony is marketing its Screen Classics By Request line, which has all but invisibly put out stunning transfers of the poignant 1970 Oscar nominee I Never Sang for My Father and the creepy 10 Rillington Place (1971), among others. I admit the flaws and imperfections—but if you cherish “old movies” (all together now, “it’s not an old movie if you’ve never seen it before”), this is where the action is on disc.
Where does this leave the DVD? Like the middle class in this country, squeezed. Sure, by spring the latest Harry Potter will be flying off the shelves at Walmart and Target, and if you roll exclusively with new releases you’ll be OK for some time I reckon. That’s the future of DVD: A product delivery system for Walmart and Target. For those who want to go deeper, DVD is already on the critical list.
But the pulse still throbs at Criterion and a few other specialty labels. Not always strongly; I was delighted when Olive Films announced that it was bringing vintage Paramount titles to DVD, only to discover that some of the ones I purchased (like the excellent 1965 sci-fi thriller Crack in the World) and some announced for future release were already streaming on Netflix. Is that undercutting the market? Bowing to reality? Cashing in on every possible revenue stream? All three I suppose.
I do know that having put all of this into some kind of context I’ve come to celebrate notable achievements in DVD last year, not throw a shroud over the format. The lights are still on; someone’s still home; and while it looks like the house is about to be repossessed let’s throw at least a modest party. (With two ground rules: No discs of new releases that I saw last year, and no TV, though I throw some of that in, too. It’s a celebration.)
Best Criterion DVD: Who am I kidding? They’re all outstanding. If I had to pick one I’d choose The Night of the Hunter, which is pretty much a disc-sized encyclopedia of a great film. Lollygagging into 2011, however, gives me to opportunity to note two end of year arrivals that merit consideration. One is a welcome re-release of the film that put Guillermo del Toro on the map in 1993, the one-of-a-kind vampire movie Cronos (on DVD and Blu-ray), with an exclusive tour of its maker’s physical media-laden lair among its highlights. Another is an authoritative box set, America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (on DVD and Blu-ray), which collects the eclectic output of Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner, who plowed their earnings from inventing the Monkees into a slate of essential films. Three decade definers (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show) and a more eccentric quartet (the Monkees in Head, Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut, Drive, He Said, Henry Jaglom’s fantasia A Safe Place, and Rafelson’s mood piece The King of Marvin Gardens, with Nicholson and Bruce Dern as brothers) form a compelling picture of the “New Hollywood” that Criterion revives with fresh transfers and a bounty of worthwhile supplements.
Favorite Label Not Criterion: The only problem with Criterion is that, like Kathy Baker and David Hyde Pierce at the Emmys, it wins everything. So let me give a shout out to Shout! Factory, which lately has added film releases to its slate of music and TV programming, without stinting on its bread and butter–Frank Sinatra: Concert for the Americas, part of a complete collection of Sinatra TV specials, and The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series were pure gold. No less fine are its continuing series of Roger Corman and Gamera movies, highlights from a year that ranged from Kingdom of the Spiders to a solid collection of Bob Hope chestnuts. Putting Shout! over the top, though, was its December DVD premiere of Alan Rudolph’s noir-ish delight Trouble in Mind, a favorite of mine in college, and no less good a quarter-century later. With Marianne Faithfull’s rendition of the title tune setting one of its many moods do yourself a favor and take a trip to “Rain City,” which only Rudolph in his prime could have envisioned.
Best Martial Arts Movie: Fellow staffers kid me about my (mild, I think) obsession with kung fu movies and movies that take me back to my oft-remembered years in Hong Kong; to some degree or another Shinjuku Incident (Jackie Chan), The Warlords (Jet Li), Raging Phoenix (Thai hottie Jeeja Yanin) and Shaolin Mantis and The Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms (kickin’ it old school) all brought me back. None was as satisfying as Ip Man, with the terrific Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey) as the Wing Chun grandmaster whose students included Bruce Lee. Here he dukes it out with the Japanese in his native Foshan in the 30s, making for one exciting match after another. Bring on the sequel.
Best Kick Ass Action Movie: Centurion. “History is Written in Blood” indeed. Gnarly, sweaty, bloody, mean–and that’s just the women in the cast.
Best Mystery: Released theatrically in three parts, the twisty, involving Red Riding Trilogy makes more sense as a DVD. For one thing, it was produced for British television; for another, you can let one part of it sink in for a spell before digging into the next one. And you will dig into this multilayered, multifaceted investigative tale (with three different directors, in three distinct styles) that takes off from the Yorkshire Ripper case in the north of England. A great cast includes Social Network up-and-comer Andrew Garfield, Sean Bean, Rebecca Hall, and Mark Addy; special mention, too, of the fine packaging.
Best DVD Packaging: Speaking of which, graffiti artist Banksy’s “documentary” of himself and his milieu, Exit Through the Gift Shop, has a number of fun artifacts that tumble out of the sturdy casing, including those shades. Is it all worth anything? In any event it makes you feel a part of the experience of being a rogue artist on the loose through our culture, tweaking numerous sacred cows and racking up bling.
Best Theme Song from a MOD disc: Take it away!