High and Low: 'Qatsi' Trilogy Is Hypnotic While Michael Caine Is Amusingly Idiotic In 'The Island'

High and Low Qatsi Trilogy

Get out your passports, kids, because we’re seeing the world. Director Godfrey Reggio’s epic Qatsi Trilogy, filmed around the world, will kick your home theater to the next level with its stunning visuals and complex soundtracks. Then it’s off to the Caribbean, where Michael Caine embarrassed himself in a Peter Benchley adaptation several years before starring in that really terrible Jaws sequel. Some people never learn.

High And Low The Qatsi TrilogyHIGH: The Qatsi Trilogy (The Criterion Collection; DVD or Blu-Ray, $79.95)

WHO’S RESPONSIBLE: Three films from screen artist and environmental activist Godfrey Reggio: The legendary Koyaanisqatsi (1983), and its equally impressive follow-ups Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). (All three titles are words from the Hopi language; respectively, they mean “life out of balance,” “life in transformation,” and “life as war,” so basically this set is “The Life Trilogy.”)

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT: All three of these films defy easy synopsis, but here goes: Reggio uses compelling imagery and the music of Philip Glass to portray the stark contrast between the natural order and man’s inflicting of industry upon the planet (and upon his fellow men). A slow pan across a desert plain or along the face of a cliff might be contrasted with sped-up footage of cars driving through cities or hot dogs and Twinkies being processed in factories. One of the signature moments of Powaqqatsi shows a small child walking along the road, only to be engulfed in the sand cloud kicked up by a passing 18-wheeler. There’s no narration or dialogue, so what you take from these film is purely up to you.

WHY IT’S SCHMANCY: This sort of non-verbal, non-narrative film generally gets relegated to museums and art installations, so for Reggio to have gotten mainstream theatrical (and DVD) distribution is something of a miracle. But even if you shy away from anything that even smacks of experimental, these movies are hypnotic and thought-provoking. (They may also play well in Washington and Colorado, if you get my drift.)

WHY YOU SHOULD BUY IT (AGAIN): Just the fact that these films are being made available in Blu-Ray for the first time would be reason enough to plunk down for this set, but it’s a Criterion Collection release, which means it comes loaded with oodles of great extras. There are new and vintage interviews, TV spots, Reggio’s short film Anima Mundi, a demo version of Koyaanisqatsi with a scratch soundtrack featuring Allen Ginsberg, a chat with musicians Glass and Yo-Yo Ma, and a booklet featuring essays by film scholar Scott MacDonald, music critic John Rockwell and environmentalist Bill McKibben of 350.org.

High and Low The IslandLOW: The Island (Scream Factory; $26.99 DVD+Blu-Ray Combo)

WHO’S RESPONSIBLE: Written by Peter Benchley, based on his novel; directed by Michael Ritchie; starring Michael Caine and David Warner.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT: Caine stars as a journalist investigating the disappearance of ships in the Bermuda Triangle. Traveling to the Caribbean with his estranged son (Jeffrey Frank), Caine discovers a hidden colony of pirates, descended from French marauders of centuries ago, raiding pleasure boats to stay alive. Caine gets raped by one of the lady pirates (they’re excited to get some non-inbred DNA into the pool) while Caine’s son is won over by the scalawags (led by Warner). Can our hero escape — and will he be able to convince his son to go with him?

WHY IT’S FUN: Something of a legendary dud upon its original release (particularly since this marked a reunion of Benchley with Jaws producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown), The Island has become a cult fave in the ensuing decades among Benchley fans and bad-movie lovers alike. I think the film’s strengths lie with director Ritchie, one of the more underrated American auteurs of the 1970s and ’80s. (His films include Fletch, Smile, The Candidate and The Bad News Bears.) While this isn’t anywhere near his best work, Ritchie does what he can with the often risible source material — don’t ask too many questions about how this cabal of hidden pirates has survived for three centuries — and keeps things moving at a brisk clip.

WHY YOU SHOULD BUY IT (AGAIN): Previously available only via Universal’s movies-on-demand label, this marks the first Blu-Ray release of the film. There’s not a single extra to be found, alas, and you you just know Caine would have some hilarious things to say about the experience if Scream Factory could have convinced him to do a commentary.

Alonso Duralde has written about film for The Wrap, Salon and MSNBC.com. He also co-hosts theLinoleum Knife podcast and regularly appears on What the Flick?! (The Young Turks Network).  He is a senior programmer for the Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles and a pre-screener for the Sundance Film Festival. He also the author of two books: Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas (Limelight Editions) and 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men (Advocate Books).

Follow Alonso Duralde on Twitter.

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