By Greg Carlson
21 March 2021
Memories of 1980s and 1990s video store culture will draw viewers of a certain age to “The Last Blockbuster,” Taylor Morden’s breezy, goofy documentary on the king of the corporate movie renting business. Long since destroyed by on-demand ease and streaming subscriptions, there was a time when millions “made it a Blockbuster night” before the harsh reality check of technology and a handful of bad decisions relegated the brand to punchline status. Accordingly, the film’s home on Netflix provides a level of irony partially addressed in the movie’s overview of Blockbuster’s spectacular decline.
Alongside the historical bullet points, Morden relies heavily on talking head interviews with an odd assortment of industry professionals including Kevin Smith, Ione Skye, Jamie Kennedy, Brian Posehn, and several others. Many of the comments are the kind of earnest and heartfelt personal observations that will remind viewers of their own trips to pick out movies. Too often, however, the tongue-in-cheek tone veers into the empty calorie territory of VH1’s cable television time-filler “I Love the ‘80s,” as subjects like Doug Benson and Ron Funches can’t resist using their screen time to test what feels like standup material.
Morden has much better luck with central subject Sandi Harding, the manager of the world’s only surviving Blockbuster store, located in Bend, Oregon. Affable, smart, practical and positive, Harding is as dynamic as any of the on-camera “celebrities” rounded up by Morden and writer Zeke Kamm. In the hands of a different filmmaking team, one imagines that Harding’s story alone would have been enough to carry a feature-length story. It’s fascinating to follow Harding as she fills her Target shopping basket with new DVD and Blu-ray releases that will soon be made available on her rental shelves.
Blockbuster’s business plan, which used database software that helped streamline store-franchising replicability, buried thousands of unique mom-and-pop video rental shops during the peak of the company’s mid-2000s brick-and-mortar dominance. Morden doesn’t entirely ignore this foul stain, but he fails in any meaningful or sustained way to fully explore and engage the dark side of Blockbuster’s monopoly. A brief but welcome appearance by salty Troma Entertainment curmudgeon Lloyd Kaufman at least calls out the chilling effect of Blockbuster’s sanitized and family-friendly product policy on independents and boutique labels.
As the latest addition to the growing subgenre of documentaries about home video’s tumultuous and exciting journey, “The Last Blockbuster” fleshes out one more chapter in the saga that includes recent takes like “The Last Video Store” and “At the Video Store,” as well as “Rewind This!” and “Adjust Your Tracking.” Despite frequent and persistent predictions that physical media will eventually disappear -- an idea reiterated at least once in “The Last Blockbuster” -- the strength and popularity of collecting and the will to find and see movies that would never have been carried by a Blockbuster in the first place is reflected in the ongoing work of the Criterion Collection, Vinegar Syndrome, Arrow Video, Shout! Factory, Kino Lorber, Olive Films, the American Genre Film Archive, Anchor Bay, Blue Underground, Severin Films, and many other keepers of the flame.
Will we ever see a widespread return to video rental spaces where people interact face-to-face as they discover new cinematic adventures, make connections, and invite chance recommendations that cannot be replicated by algorithms? Time will tell.
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