Media | DVD Releases | Blog | Store| February 19, 2008: Welcome to this week's highlighted home video releases, focused entirely on the American market. Sorry, rest of the world.

Roundup by VsRobot | Posted February 18, 2008

Pick of the Week

Michael Clayton
Written and directed by Tony Gilory, whose screenwriting resume includes all three of the Bourne movies, this is a film that tackles well-trodden themes but does so with such excellence that even as its genre tropes are revealed, we don't mind because the journey was so compelling.

George Clooney (as the titular Michael Clayton) is a man so inured to the corruption and malfeasance he's forced to cover up in the course of his job that he's become completely hollow. Tom Wilkinson is the bi-polar lawyer who abruptly decides that he doesn't want to win the huge and damaging lawsuit for the corporation he is defending, becoming a liability to Tilda Swinton in the process. She calls in the titular character to clean up the mess, but Wilkinson's steadfast desire to do the right thing awakens Clayton's forgotten conscience. The film becomes a battle of wills between the corrupt corporation (as represented by Swinton's character) and the formerly corrupt "fix-it man" whose decision to do the right thing might have come too late to save himself from his personal demons.

Also out this week

American Gangster
Combining elements from Scarface, Goodfellas, and The Godfather, American Gangster is a rise-and-fall story centered on the leader of a criminal empire. Russell Crowe is the honest cop (too honest for his fellow cops' liking -- they distrust a man who would turn in found money rather than keeping it) and Denzel Washington is the low-key crime boss who runs his organization with lethal capitalistic instincts while resisting flashy excess or attention. The film also includes many periphery characters of note -- including Josh Brolin as perhaps the sleaziest dirty cop ever put on film -- but in the end American Gangster is about these two men and their inevitable confrontation. The film starts out predictably: it's one-half police-procedural, including the cop so dedicated to his job that his personal life is a mess, and one-half Scarface-style criminal-glorification porn. But the end of the movie surprised me by subverting genre expectations, and its unexpected denouement lent the film a gravitas that more rote crime movies lack.

In The Valley of Elah
A soldier returns from Iraq and disappears from his base. Tommy Lee Jones is the father, a Vietnam veteran, who goes to the base to find out more about his son's disappearance, and uncovers a shocking crime he won't be stopped from investigating.

Kurt Cobain: About a Son
Based on dozens of hours of audiotaped interviews Michael Azerrad conducted with Kurt Cobain, the film overlays Cobain's voice with contextual imagery and gives us perhaps our clearest picture of this troubled genius. I will always remember where I was when I heard the news of his suicide, and while I don't think anyone can ever understand Cobain's inner-self, these audio fragments help to fill out the picture of a man who had something to say but didn't want to the voice of a generation.

Lust, Caution
In Japan-occupied WWII-era China, an actress becomes part of a plot to assassinate a Shanghai-official who collaborates with the occupying Japanese. Her role is to play the coy seductress sent to lure the traitor with her wiles, and the film is notorious for the ultra-explicit sex scenes that result. The over-matched student revolutionaries aren't ready for the consequences of their plot just as the actress isn't ready for the emotional consequences of her seduction.

Margot at the Wedding
Noah Bambauch's follow-up to The Squid and The Whale. Simmering resentment and self-loathing, two familiar subjects for Bambauch, bubble up when estranged family members reunite for an ill-fitted wedding where the groom (Jack Black, playing to type) is a schlubby, unemployed loser.

Based on a real rape and a series of murders perpetrated by American soldiers on a 14-year old Iraqi girl and her family, is it any wonder that the film failed to capture a large audience? This fictionalized retelling of the events is heavily criticized for showing American troops in a negative light, but the film makers contend that the hero of the film is a soldier who stands up and does the right thing. Regardless of whether or not you think the film properly "supports the troops", the film is based on fact, and ignoring atrocities serves no one, the troops included.

Like Redacted, another film that has something to say that we don't want to hear. The government uses the phrase "redacted" as a neutral way of saying that something has been censored, and it uses the phrase "extraordinary rendition" when it detains someone who is a suspect and exports them to a foreign land to be tortured in our name by non-American proxies, thus freeing us from the moral responsibility -- theoretically, anyway. An important film that went largely unnoticed by an America more interested in a washed-up pop star's mental health than it ever will be in the fate of the anonymous men and women who disappear, sometimes forever, into forgotten cells in the name of national security.

Terror's Advocate
What kind of lawyer would represent terrorist Carlos the Jackyl and Nazi Klaus Barbie, and coat himself in the patina of righteousness while he does it? This documentary seeks to answer that question.

High-Def Alert

You might want to hold off on buying this week's HD-DVD releases; there's been a bit of news on that front recently. On the other hand, Blu-ray looks to have longer legs, and Run Lola Run should shine with crisp visuals and uncompressed audio.

Versus Mode


Since last week's column, the inevitable has come to pass. It began when Netflix announced that it would drop HD-DVD from its library. In fact, not only will Netflix decline to stock new HD-DVD titles, they also announced plans to liquidate their current HD-DVD stock and become Blu-ray exclusive. Hot on the heals of that announcement was the news that major retailer Best Buy intended to put its full support behind the Blu-ray format, recommending it to their customers and giving it major exposure in their stores. They stopped just shy of removing all HD-DVD inventory, however, probably as a courtesy to all of their customers who bought HD-DVD players from them.

Still, HD-DVD devotees claimed that HD-DVD wasn't completely finished. Many messageboard screeds and polemics advanced elaborate, untenable theories on how HD-DVD could come back from these setbacks to eventually become the dominant high-definition format. How they thought this would happen without support from movie studios or retailers is a mystery to me, but hey -- Internet. Still, while there have been so many nails in the HD-DVD coffin that it's pretty much all metal at this point, Toshiba remained stalwart in their commitment to HD-DVD as a format. But then, the unthinkable.

Wal-Mart, the most powerful retailer in the country, struck the killing blow. With their announcement that HD-DVD was going to be phased out of all stores, it was over. Toshiba is reportedly ceasing manufacture of HD-DVD players, and an official announcement of their complete withdrawal is expected early this week. Maybe even by the time you read this!

Why would Wal-Mart want to throw it's might behind Blu-ray, especially considering their machinations to get sub-$100 HD DVD players in their stores? The reason is simple: Wal-Mart understands what I and many others have been saying since day one. A format war is in the consumer's worst interests, costly for everyone, and impedes format adoption. What good are cheap HD-DVD players if everyone is paralyzed by the fear, uncertainty and doubt of a format war to invest in the players and the associated movies? A single format is good business and will help adoption rates. Once Warner Brothers switched to Blu-ray exclusive, retailers saw the writing on the wall. Rather than wait for the format war to work itself out over the course of months, they essentially ended it themselves by making HD-DVD irrelevant.

So what's next for Blu-ray? Now that HD-DVD isn't around as a threat, the Blu-ray consortium can start the monumental task of convincing consumers that their current DVD player isn't good enough. In the era of upconverting DVD players and HD downloads being offered by cable and internet companies, it's going to be a hard sale, especially when studies have shown that most people with HD sets are watching SD content on them, stretched to fill the wider screen.

Changing the subject from the format war (and how will I fill space now that it's done?!?), I want to remind you can buy all of the titles discussed in the column, as well as thousands more, from my Amazon store. Every month a portion of the proceeds will go to charity. For February, I will use a minimum of 25% of my Amazon commissions to buy something from the Oakland, California hospital's Child's Play Amazon wishlist.


DVD | Michael Clayton | American Gangster | Death Note: Vol. 3 | In The Valley of Elah | Kurt Cobain: About a Son | Lust, Caution (NC-17) | Margot at the Wedding | Redacted | Rendition | Terror's Advocate

Blu-ray | In The Valley of Elah | Michael Clayton | Run Lola Run

HD-DVD | American Gangster | Invasion

Cover art courtesy of Amazon, where you can purchase any of these titles. Rent all of the movies covered in the column online at Netflix. Blu-ray is the only choice for a true high definition optical disc format, as HD DVD has gone the way of Betamax. Who the fuck cares? I'll dig the fuckin' hole. I don't give a fuck. What is it, the first hole I dug? Not the first time I dug a hole. I'll fuckin' dig a hole. Where are the shovels? Visit the Talking Time Forum to discuss video games, movies, books, and more. Thanks for reading!