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DVD Prices ‘Stay the Course’

An interesting thing I noticed while going through this week’s DVD releases: although this last TV season was shortened by the writer’s strike, television on DVD is as expensive as it ever was. Thus you can own 10 episodes of The Shield for $59.95 or 18 episodes of the resurrected One Tree Hill for the same price. Considering the addictive nature of television, it’s not surprising that the studios would try to crank up these prices as high as they can, but $6 for one episode?

Those are crack prices.

Heroes’ abbreviated second season is also out on DVD today, as Producer Jeph Loeb continues his quest to make traditional cult material into the stuff of boring prime time soap operas. There is something about Heroes that is unappealing to the full-time nerd, or at least this one, in the same way that Loeb’s Smallville show has always been. Here’s looking forward to Joss Whedon’s return to cult television with Dollhouse, which will surely be canceled after a season and a half but will live forever in our hearts and hotel convention rooms.

If you’re not interested in television but are interested in failed romantic comedies, this week should also be a boon for you. Not content with making minimal profit on remakes of Asian horror films, Hollywood has now started adapting mediocre romantic comedy-dramas from across the Pacific with the release of My Sassy Girl. If you’re upset because you think there hasn’t been enough Ashton Kutcher on your video store shelves in recent months, you can be relieved by What Happens in Vegas, an entire movie inspired by a State of Nevada advertising campaign.

Two early-summer “arthouse” films are out on DVD today, both of which might save the prospective video-renter from referring to their constantly expanding Excel spreadsheet of films to see. Garth Jennings’s Son of Rambow is a charming British comedy about two youths who are inspired by the Stallone film First Blood and attempt to make their own sequel to it. Like the American Be Kind Rewind, Son of Rambow is a nostalgia trip celebrating the artistic merit of amateur video production. Homemade productions, the argument of these films goes, are not only funny and charming, they are worthy artistic productions because they remove the pretense and artifice of Hollywood. The poorly built sets, amateurish acting and haphazard costuming are love letters to Hollywood with which an audience can relate at the same time that they expose Hollywood productions for the irrelevant fabrications they are.

The problem into which both Son of Rambow and Be Kind Rewind run, however, is that they are Hollywood productions and are themselves irrelevant fabrications. The amateur, bootleg art created in the film is not truly amateur or bootleg: instead, paid professionals act in licensed recreations of studio films. Furthermore, the film must please a wide audience. Constructing a compelling story around low budget films-on-video is challenging, so the truly interesting elements of Be Kind Rewind were written into a trite “preserve the values of yesteryear” plot. Son of Rambow runs into similar problems, tripping over its own sentimentality and nostalgia on its way to the end.

Almost more interesting than the film itself is the short on which it is based, Jennings’s own childhood action film. Getting a grasp on what exactly is going on in the film is rather difficult, but his editing skills notwithstanding, Jennings was a very talented eleven-year-old filmmaker. He works around his small budget (consisting of one match and a can of gas) with a flare of brilliance and daring children often show without second thought or pretense. If Jennings had seized on this idea of a pure, prepubescent art in making Son of Rambow instead of filtering his childhood memories through a nostalgic remembrance, it might have been a much better film.

The best film out on DVD this week is David Mamet’s Redbelt . Once America’s foremost playwright, over the past twenty years Mamet has turned himself into one of our foremost filmmakers, quietly reinvigorating genres like the spy thriller with Spartan or noir with films like House of Games. His films often concern themself with that traditional film noir set-up of the individual besieged by a convoluted conspiracy or maelstrom of unfortunate events, and Redbelt is no exception. Mark Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a ju jitsu teacher and Army veteran finds himself caught up in the tangled web of Hollywood and professional mixed martial arts fighting, and while this may sound like one of those “high concept” pitches for a new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, remember that Mamet’s excellent Spartan was an international spy thriller starring Val Kilmer.

The reinvigorated genre this time around is what Mamet calls “the fight film,” comparing it to classic films in which one virtuous man (often Humphrey Bogart) amongst a sea of the corrupted must fight to restore morality. In this way it is also related to the classic samurai film, but Redbelt is neither a straightforward noir nor an Asian-philiac martial arts film a la Bloodsport. Its morals are familiar and even derived from these genres, but its characters are not. Each of Mamet’s characters have motivations that are only hinted at in his films, through snippets of dialogue, facial expressions on his well-chosen actors, and even body language. He avoids the kind of expository dialogue that can drive a critic crazy, insisting that his viewers get to know his characters and the story instead of simply the plot. Mamet’s writing is aided by Ejiofor, an excellent actor with, as Mamet observes, an evocative stillness comparable to that of Henry Fonda. Redbelt is not necessarily a great film, but it is a significant contribution to the genre of “the fight film,” and may someday be considered a classic of sorts, as I expect several of Mamet’s films to be.

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