The weird array of home video releases in any given week is stunning. Those few mainstream titles that cycle through Redbox and Blockbuster are just the tip of the iceberg. Every Tuesday brings a flood of material on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download — foreign films, classic reissues, independent movies, TV collections, concert films, documentaries, kids' programming, sports packages, cartoons, stand-up comedy specials and a surprising number of obscure educational titles.
And that's not even counting the hundreds of, um, specialty films you can order from boutique distributors. My tastes run to a certain subset of Gothic S&M you have to mail order from Berlin. But, you know, to each his own.
Two new releases this week suggest the variety of choices out there, even just within the mainstream end of the spectrum.
By most metrics the biggest movie ever made, TITANIC is out in the marketplace yet again, this time in a DVD/Blu-ray/digital package with another helping of previously unreleased extras. Director James Cameron has pioneered a new model of distribution in which his movies are rolled out in iterations, among various platforms, over a period of years. He knows what he's doing — this summer's theatrical re-release of Titanic in 3D grossed nearly $60 million.
Still, Titanic is an undeniably great movie, a sweeping love story and epic tragedy in the old Hollywood tradition. The new retail package is very generous. The four-disc set includes high-def and standard (DVD) copies of the film plus (deep breath …) two new documentaries, 30 deleted scenes, 60 behind-the-scenes features, three different commentary tracks, photos, storyboards, schematics and random goodies like SNL's Titanic skit and the handy time-saver Titanic in 30 Seconds. The re-release is also available in a four-disc Blu-ray 3D set, or two-disc DVD-only set.
The package marks the first time Titanic is available on high-definition Blu-ray and digital download. I watched it again — well, the second half — and it really does look and sound terrific. It's certainly possible that I cried a little at the end. Amazing. I know exactly what that movie is doing, and how it's doing it, and it still gets me every time.
On the other send of the release scale this week is the (relatively) microbudget documentary MY TRIP TO AL-QAEDA, a festival favorite broadcast by HBO last year.
Adapted from the one-man show by journalist Lawrence Wright, the film explores Wright's six-year investigation into Al-Qaeda and the cultural and historical background of the 9/11 attacks. Wright wrote a book on that, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, and won the Pulitzer for it. The 2007 off-Broadway show was his first-hand account of that investigation.
Wright comes to some uncomfortable conclusions on the roots of Islamic terror, and also the effect of terrorist attacks on American public policy in the last 11 years. Wright also co-wrote the underrated 1998 terrorism thriller The Siege and some of the most compelling passages in My Trip to Al-Qaeda deal with the spooky prescience of that script.
My Trip to Al-Qaeda is directed by Alex Gibney, who won the 2007 documentary Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side. While it's structured around Wright's stage show, the film incorporates new interviews and archival footage, and uses all the tools of the documentary trade to tell its story.
I've become convinced in recent years that the artfully-made documentary film is our single most efficient conduit for imparting information. Gibney and Wright drill through layer after layer of an enormously complex topic, and deliver the story with clarity and drama. My Trip to Al-Qaeda might be hard to track down — you can get it digitally at Amazon, or purchase direct from Docudrama Films. Highly recommended.
Double Secret Bonus Tip: Wright also wrote the last year's famous Church of Scientology takedown in The New Yorker. Don't miss it.
Also New This Week:
The film that broke Robert Pattinson's heart, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN stars Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth in an update of the Grimm boys' fantasy tale.
The lovely Greta Gerwig headlines the indie comedy LOLA VERSUS, with Joel Kinnaman, Zoe Lister Jones, Bill Pullman and Debra Winger.
Eva Mendes and Cierra Ramirez navigate the troubled waters of mother-daughter relationships with GIRL IN PROGRESS
Plus: David Duchovney in the indie comedy Goats, Ray Liotta in the crime thriller Bad Karma, Sean Bean in the UK spy thriller Cleanskin and TV-on-DVD season collections from Castle, Private Practice, Spartacus, The Vampire Diaries and TV's most consistently funny show, 30 Rock.