Monday, January 3, 2011

Blu-ray Releases: The Week of Jan. 3rd, 2011 - Robert Rodriguez Extravaganza

The first week of 2011 (boy, I need to get used to writing the new year) brings us glad tidings, Robert Rodriguez style. If you like your action films violent, campy and flavored with some Tex-Mex seasoning, you are going to love what's coming out on Blu-ray this week. Also on tap are five so-so new releases plus a ton of catalog titles, either re-released or getting their first high-def treatment. All told, not a blockbuster release week but there is definitely something for everyone. OK, so let's get 2011 started, shall we?

Machete [Blu-ray]El Mariachi / Desperado (Two-Pack) [Blu-ray]Once Upon a Time in Mexico [Blu-ray]Dinner for Schmucks [Blu-ray]Case 39 [Blu-ray]The Last Exorcism [Blu-ray]Howl [Blu-ray]Catfish [Blu-ray]



Born out of a short faux trailer in the film Planet Terror (one part of the double-feature Grindhouse experience), Machete plays to all of its director, Robert Rodriguez's strengths--that is if you are into his throwback B-movie 70's exploitation style of filmmaking. In Machete, Danny Trejo finally gets his first major starring role, a role that he was simply born to play. Trejo's weather-worn face and ex-convict background gives him straight up credentials to play the title character, Machete, a renegade former Mexican Federale who is double-crossed and almost killed but rises from the ashes to bring the pain to those who have wronged him. A prolific actor, Trejo has starred in many of Rodriguez's films including DesperadoOnce Upon a Time in MexicoFrom Dusk Till DawnSpy Kids and Predators. Machete also boasts a host of movie stars like Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, Jeff Fahey, Jessica Alba, Don Johnson and Robert DeNiro.

Interestingly, Trejo's characters in Rodriguez's films have all been named after sharp instruments. For example, Trejo was Razor Eddie in From Dusk Till Dawn, Navajas (traditional Spanish folding knife) in Desperado, Cuchillo (knife in Spanish) in Predators and of course, Machete in Machete. Without a doubt, Machete is catered towards a specific audience as not everyone will appreciate Rodriguez's violent campy sensibilities. If you liked El MariachiDesperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, then Machete is essentially more of the same, with just a tad more story sophistication hiding beneath its campy exterior. Machete comes in a 2-disc Blu-ray and Digital Copy release with 1080p video and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio. And to accompany Machete's release this week are the other three Robert Rodriguez "Mariachi" films, El Mariachi / Desperado (in a Blu-ray 2-pack) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Recommendation: Buy it when the price drops to below $15.

There is a fine line between being funny and just being cruel. Jay Roach's (Austin Powers: International Man of MysteryMeet the ParentsDinner for Schmucks tries to do both and somehow manages to generate very little laughs and even less taste. Based loosely on an obscure French comedy, The Dinner GameDinner for Schmucks is a class-oriented comedy whose premise is as outrageous as Steve Carell's fake buckteeth and tepid hairpiece. To help him climb the corporate ladder, ambitious financial analyst, Tim (Paul Rudd) must take part in a cruel dinner ritual hatched by his boss (Bruce Greenwood) for the amusement of his fellow fat cats. Each guest invited to the party must bring with them an "idiot," someone who is just plain clueless, and the person with the biggest "idiot" wins the boss' favor. Barry (Carrel) is Tim's so-called "idiot" but he is so much more obnoxious and unlikeable than the "lovable idiot" character we might have imagined, effectively erasing the whole point of the film. Someone once said, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." How true. Dinner for Schmucks comes in a single disc release with 1080p video and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Recommendation: At most, a rental.

What happens when a psychological horror film breaks very little ground and turns in a formulaic story with very little suprises? In the case of Case 39, it becomes merely a late-night movie rental when there is nothing else to watch on TV. Ever since Cinderella ManBridget Jones Diary and Cold Mountain, Oscar winner Renée Zellweger has not had much luck in landing good roles in good films. Case 39 is her latest in a series of missteps. Although there is truly nothing to complain about in her acting abilities, Ms. Zellweger should hire a new agent. Case 39 is the latest in the demon-child horror sub-genre (Village of the DamnedChildren of the CornThe Omen are notable entries) but is simply lacking in any imagination or chills. From the get-go, it doesn't take long for any decent person to deduce what is really going on with 10-year old Lilith (Jodelle Ferland), with the exception of the clueless characters around her. On Blu-ray, Case 39, as usual, comes in 1080p video and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio and is a barebones single-disc release. Recommendation: Rental if you have time to kill.

Directed by newcomer Daniel Stamm, The Last Exorcism is another entry in the faux documentary, jittery camera genre (see CloverfieldParanormal ActivityThe Blair Witch Project) and it actually comes across as a decent horror film albeit with a been-there-done-that vibe. The film starts off well with charismatic preacher, Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), setting out with a documentary crew to expose the exorcism ritual as a playground for disingenuous practitioners who prey on woeful believers. However, you just know that the rug would eventually be pulled from under the good Reverend and that going into the second half of the movie, we're about to witness a real demonic possession. The Last Exorcism is being released on Blu-ray with a Digital Copy and DVD copy as well and it sports the usual 1080p video and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio. Recommendation: A good rental if you are looking for a scare.

James Franco has come a long way since working on the acclaimed but short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks. Franco has steadily raised his game with each subsequent film that he has starred in. Witness Spider-ManJames DeanMilk and 127 Hours. Now he has topped himself again in Howl, the autobiographical story of the late poet Allen Ginsberg. As the icon of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg's epic poem, "Howl," when it was first written, helped transcend and shape American culture in a way that championed personal freedoms and bring to light the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity on the country. Howl is part biopic and also part-interpretation of the title poem. Written in the free verse style of 19th century poet Walt Whitman, "Howl" became the subject of an obscenity trial in 1957 as it was termed filthy, vulgar and obscene because of its depiction of homosexuality. Howl (the movie) is very hard to pin down as it tries to reproduce a sense of what the poem might have sounded and felt like at the moment of its creation. Is it a biopic? Is it a documentary? Is it a loose adaptation of the writings in "Howl"? The movie is in fact all of the above; very hard to pinpoint exactly which category or genre it falls into. I guess you would have to watch it to make up your own mind. Howl come to Blu-ray in a 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD set and offers 1080p video and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio. Recommendation: Rent it first but James Franco's performance definitely deserves a closer look.

Finally, we come to our last new release of the week. From directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost comes the "reality documentary" film, Catfish. It is a film that benefits greatly from the audience not knowing anything about it going in. But I'll just give you a brief, spoiler-free synopsis: Areil's brother Nev, a photographer, is the main subject of this film as the filmmakers start documenting his friendship with Abby, an 8-year old girl from Michigan who is a prodigious painter and has reproduced his photographs with her talented brush strokes. Soon, Nev also forges a relationship with Abby's mother and her older sister Megan. The relationship centers around the effects of social networking and living one's life on the internet. While the filmmakers have "sworn" that the events that unraveled in the film are totally "real," it is hard not to doubt their statement a little. Bottom line is, you should go into this film with as little information as you can and experience it with an open mind. Then you can make up your own mind. Recommendation: Rent it!

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