Review: The Last Blockbuster — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

In his documentary, Taylor Morden create an homage to an institution that is unmistakably a creature of the past — yet whose disappearance has left an undeniable hole in our present.

Photo of a Blockbuster Video store

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The Last Blockbuster

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes

Writer: Zeke Kamm

Director: Taylor Morden

Now Streaming

It’s easy to consider household names like Walmart, Amazon, and Netflix and say, “Those companies are going to be around, like, forever.”

Allow me to introduce you to Blockbuster Video.

In its home video-fueled 2004 heyday, Blockbuster ran more than 9,000 stores (Walmart, by comparison, now has about 5,000). Some 83,000 people worked for the company stacking shelves with thousands of tapes and DVDs, checking out rentals, and — best of all — helping customers curate their home movie watching experience.

Today, there is one — count it, one — Blockbuster video store left, sitting at a lonely end of a strip mall in Bend, Oregon. The last Blockbuster does business the same way Blockbuster always did, its walls still painted in that garish, Cub Scout-like blue/yellow color scheme that at first lured you in and eventually chased you back out to the street.

Bend is a long way from most of us. Luckily, in his documentary The Last Blockbuster, director Taylor Morden has made the trip in our place, creating this homage to an institution that is unmistakably a creature of the past — yet whose disappearance has left an undeniable hole in our present.

Bend businesswoman Sandi Harding was already running a mom-and-pop video store when Blockbuster came calling in the early 2000s. The video giant made her an offer she could not refuse: Either become a Blockbuster franchisee or see a brand-new Blockbuster open just down the street. The wise choice was also surprisingly easy: All Harding had to do was pull down her old sign, put up a new one, and let the folks from Blockbuster Corporate redesign her shop.

Entertainment pickings are apparently slim in Bend; Harding recalls lines to the back of the store all week long as locals browsed her shelves, made their choices, and then waited to be checked out with Blockbuster’s then-state-of-the-art computer inventory system. Harding still uses the old program, salvaging computer parts from other companies’ obsolete cast-offs (Morden films her prying a stubborn circuit board from a dust-choked Clinton-era PC).

Business is, naturally, not what it used to be. But Harding, who gets positively dewy-eyed speaking of the generations of Bend teenagers who have worked for her, plugs on. She plans to renew her annual Blockbuster franchise with DISH Network — current owners of the trademark — for as long as they’ll let her.

Of course, the story of Blockbuster’s rise and fall occurred outside the friendly confines of Bend, and Morden tracks down the company’s former executives, plus sundry other interested parties, to piece together the company’s tragic trajectory. The easy answer is “Netflix killed Blockbuster” — but that’s not entirely true. At one time, both companies were on equal footing as they made the transition from offering DVD discs to streaming services. But it sure didn’t help that Blockbuster’s then-owner Sumner Redstone used all the company’s cash reserves to finance his purchase of Viacom/Paramount — and neither did the Blockbuster board’s haughty refusal to buy then-struggling Netflix when they had the chance (the boardroom scene is whimsically re-enacted with a cast of felt puppets).

Throughout the film, Morden enlists testimonies from a handful of celebrities — few of them household names, but all aglow with a genuine sense of nostalgia for Blockbuster days gone by. Most prominent is actor/director Kevin Smith, whose seminal 1994 film Clerks threw its black-and-white focus on two dudes who talked movies all day while running the video rental corner of a downmarket convenience store. Also a lot of fun is legendary slasher film producer Lloyd Kaufman (The Toxic Avenger) who could never get family-friendly Blockbuster to stock even one of his infamous Troma Entertainment blood fests. His profanity-laced takedown of Blockbuster is one for the ages.

Morden seems at times a bit overly enamored of his talking heads, letting the film run a tad too long as they gaze off into space and say unhelpful things like, “Yeah — Blockbuster. That place was really something…” But he’s surprisingly brave when it comes to revealing the unvarnished truth about filmed interviews: At one point, when actor Doug Benson isn’t framing a comment clearly, the director can be heard off-camera saying, in effect, “Here’s an idea; why don’t you say…?” And then he does. Every documentary director does it; Morden is the first I know of to let us see the sausage being made.

The commenters spend a lot of time recalling the Blockbuster experience: The look, the sound, even the smell. And there is one point, near the end of the film, that is nearly transcendent: When each speaker is handed an old plastic Blockbuster VHS cassette box—heavy, thick as a brick and wrapped in the iconic white, blue, and yellow paper sleeve. Each one weighs the box in their hand, like Indiana Jones holding that stone idol at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then, instinctively, they start opening and closing it; that distinctive, hollow snap of the two plastic clips bringing a nostalgic smile to their faces. More than any moment in the film, this is the one that evokes the muscle memory of renting a Blockbuster movie.

The best movie rental store film of all time remains Michel Gondry’s Be Kind, Rewind, a dreamy fantasy about a community that bonds around a struggling tape rental shop. But The Last Blockbuster is a worthy follow-up; a fond tribute to a place that never got the memo when the rest of the world hit the fast-forward button.

Featured image: courtesy 1091 Pictures

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Comments

  1. This sounds like a really good documentary on an “institution” that became a victim of changing times. Even 2004 is a much simpler time compared to the present. I’d like to see this in the near future. Although it doesn’t seem possible now, the time may also come when Walmart, Amazon, Netflix and yes, even Starbucks, will be gone too.

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