Deluge (1933) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the original end-of-the-world thriller, is a curious and often fascinating artifact. Produced in 1933, before the production code came down on Hollywood, on a relatively modest budget, it imagines not just the destruction of civilization in (unexplained) earthquakes and cataclysmic storms but life after the flood, so to speak. It’s based on a popular 1920s science fiction novel by the now forgotten Sydney Fowler Wright and can claim the title as the first disaster movie.
Scientists are in a panic as barometers plunge and reports of cities flooded in tidal waves and hurricanes are breathlessly reported in radio broadcasts. In these opening scenes, however, the only destruction we witness is the lavish house in the woods of Martin and Helen (Sidney Blackmer and Lois Wilson), crushed under trees blown over by high winds while Martin carries them off to safety. Then the real spectacle begins: New York collapses in primitive yet evocative miniatures that are more expressionistic than realistic, like an avant-garde short dropped into a science fiction thriller. Crude travelling mattes put people amidst the destruction, fleeing collapsing buildings or getting crushed by the debris, and a magnificent miniature gives us a God’s eye view of New York City swamped in a tsunami. By modern standards it’s not all “realistic” but it’s mesmerizing in part because it’s a cinematic imagining of something no filmmaker had attempted on screen before. It’s a first pass at the kind of disaster spectacle we now take for granted and these technicians create it all from scratch, not just the technical matter of the physical special effects but the very visualization of the end of the world.
Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla film in twelve years, stomped into the record books as Japan’s top moneymaking live-action film of 2016, and the highest grossing Godzilla film ever, but it practically snuck into American theaters last week, staking out one or two showings a day in urban multiplexes with practically no advertising and no advance screenings. American audiences sought it out and sold out showings nonetheless, inspiring stateside distributor Funimation to expand its release to more screens and showtimes.
What makes this all the more surprising is that it’s counter to everything we associate with a classic Godzilla movie. And I don’t mean the inevitable shift from suitmation (the man in a suit stomping through elaborate miniature cityscapes) to motion capture and CGI. The third Japanese reboot of the series opens with an echo of the original 1954 Godzilla, on the mystery of an abandoned boat in open water, but otherwise it wipes the slate clean and treats this as the first ever encounter with a giant creature on a tear through Tokyo. Not what you expect from a film whose title translates roughly to New Godzilla—according to the film’s executive producer Akihiro Yamauchi, “Shin” can stand for “new,” “true,” and “god”—and alternately has been called Godzilla Resurgence by Toho. As far as this film is concerned, it isn’t a return. This is first contact.
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (Sony, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, 4K Ultra HD, DVD), originally released as simply Ghostbusters (2016), is the reboot / remake / revival of the 1984 frat boy comedy starring Bill Murray as a sardonic con man in academia turned nuclear powered paranormal investigator and the most controversial film of the year, at least if you measure such things by Facebook rants and Twitter burns from arrested adolescents. Why? Because it stars four women in the roles originally played by four men. Which is apparently is blasphemy in the fanatical fringe of the church of popular culture.
It’s a hard case to make when you actually see the film, a playful romp through a haunted New York City by four extremely funny women improvising banter through a half-baked script. Falling somewhere between remake and reinvention, it takes the basic premise, tosses in a new bad guy, adds lots of CGI phantoms and the usual apocalyptic assault on NYC, and… well, that’s pretty it. Which is enjoyable enough as these things go but a little disappointing from a film that reunites filmmaker Paul Feig with collaborators Kristen Wiig (of Bridesmaids) and Melissa McCarthy (The Heat and Spy), tag-team leads who generously share the laughs in a genuine ensemble comedy. Wiig is a physicist whose tenure track is derailed when her buried ghost-obsessed past comes back to haunt her thanks to her former high school BFF McCarthy, still struggling to give her paranormal research an academic stamp of approval. Kate McKinnon is the team’s secret weapon, a maverick nuclear engineer who whips up proton packs, atomic-powered ghost traps, and other cool inventions. She’s not so much a mad scientist as a gleeful eccentric with a manic energy that comes out in sideways glances, wicked grins, and spontaneous moves that suggests she’s dancing to her own private soundtrack. Completing the team is Leslie Jones as a subway worker and amateur New York historian who provides the blue collar practicality.
There are plenty of cameos from the original film, from cast members Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts, Ernie Hudson, and Sigourney Weaver to the grinning green Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and precious few surprises. But there is one unexpected delight: Chris Hemsworth, taking a break from the regal authority of Thor, plays their bubble-headed hunk of a receptionist (aka “stripogram Clark Kent”) with the glassy-eyed abandon of a born improv comic. The big special effects set pieces lack the whimsical invention and twisted absurdity of the original film and the running jokes are tired before they hit their stride but these women have chemistry and quickly build a compelling sense of solidarity. They are a fun group to spend time with. If only they had a movie worthy of their comic potential.
The film has been rebranded Ghostbusters: Answer the Call for home video but it’s the same film, at least in the PG-13 theatrical version. An extended version with over 15 minutes of additional and extended scenes is also available on both VOD and disc.
The disc features the IMAX presentation, with the film letterboxed in the 2.39:1 widescreen format with some scenes reverting to IMAX full frame and special effects spilling out of the frame and into the black bars.
On Blu-ray and DVD with two commentary tracks (one from director Paul Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold, the other featuring editor Brent White, producer Jessie Henderson, production designer Jeff Sage, visual effects supervisor Pete Travers, and special effects supervisor Mark Hawker), the featurettes “Meet the Team,” “Visual Effects: 30 Years Later,” and “Slime Time,” and “Jokes a Plenty: Free For All,” and a collection of alternate improvisational takes (what was called “Line-o-rama” in Judd Apatow disc releases).
The Blu-ray editions add two additional featurettes (including a spotlight on Chris Hemsworth’s improvisations as Kevin), collections of deleted scenes and extended and alternate scenes, and the obligatory gag reel, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (which also includes extended and alternate scenes).
The smartest thing about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, Ultra HD Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD) is its revisionist take on the destruction that concluded Man of Steel, Zach Snyder’s reboot of Superman as a harder, more troubled hero in a darker big screen superhero universe than previous incarnations. After an unnecessary (but at least relatively brief) recap of the origin of Batman laid under the opening credits, we are plunged back into the battle and this time Superman (Henry Cavill) is not the protagonist. This perspective comes from the ground. He’s simply an agent of destruction in the sky as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck with a hint of stubble and gray in the temples) roars through the street in what is surely, at least under the hood, the civilian answer to the Batmobile. Man of Steel quite rightly was slammed for its insensitive portrait of epic destruction in an urban center without a thought for the victims below and Snyder, in all his heavyhanded Olympian grandeur, seemed just as oblivious as Superman. Both were so caught up in the personal fight with the demons of Krypton that neither could be bothered to notice civilians crushed like ants in a battle of the titans.
So while there is a feeling of Snyder’s oversight being retconned into legitimacy, Batman v Superman does something I’ve not seen before in the big screen comic book movie universe, at least not for more than a few seconds at a time. It offers the perspective of the mortal bystander to a battle between the modern gods and finds our hero at best distracted from and at worst oblivious to consequences of a clash of the titans over urban Metropolis. In contrast to the abstracted spectacle of Man of Steel, this destruction is more present, more weighted, more real, with the evocation of 9/11 imagery—respectful and suggestive, a matter of texture and perspective with a sense of helplessness on the ground seeing disaster above our heads—fueling the anxiety and giving it an immediacy beyond the superhero mythos. Batman / Bruce Wayne (let’s just call him BatWayne, as there is no distinction between the two apart from the growling delivery behind the cowl), ever the pragmatist, realizes that with great power comes great danger to the rest of us. And so he begins hatching his plan to take down the man from another planet.
That sounds like the beginning of a film I’d like to see. I wish it was the film that Snyder and his screenwriters, Chris Terrio (Argo) and superhero screenplay vet David S. Goyer (Blade, Batman Begins, Man of Steel), had made. Instead, we get BatWayne obsessively pursuing his Krypton bomb, SuperKent in righteous dudgeon over the vigilantism of Gotham City’s Batman, and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), reconceived as a twitchy, hyperactive young genius driven by daddy issues and corporate arrogance, playing the two off one another as he plots their mutual destruction. The plotting is a little foggy and motivations dubious and the film almost laughably takes pains to assure us that, this time, the battles wind up in deserted waterfront ruins or an abandoned island off Metropolis (because it’s not as if prime real estate in the biggest city of the DCU has any value).
This is film that offers provocative contradictions—that same Superman who fails to pull General Zod from Metropolis ground zero for their new gods smackdown breaks the sound barrier to get to Brazil to rescue a single girl from a burning building and then watches stonefaced as the grateful poor peasants bow to him as if he were the second coming—and then fails to even acknowledge the God complex it reveals. Behind the earnest benevolence and stony, ever-serious expression, Superman is an arrogant, self-righteous creature who can’t even control his own temper when fighting the Bat. “You don’t understand,” Supes impotently protests, and then refuses to explain, content to simply pummel him into obedience.
There’s also romance with globehopping journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), warrior queen Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) shoehorned in the margins of the story and the finale, a thoroughly forgettable Golem creature called forth from an interstellar genetic cocktail like a Kyptonian Frankenstein’s monster, and lo-fi teases of additional iconic DC comics heroes in anticipation of the upcoming team movie “Justice League.” Because what BvS really, really, really wants to be the DC comic book universe (or DCU) equivalent of Captain America: Civil War by way of Iron Man 2, the world-building film that starts to pull the individual superheroes of the sprawling fictional universe. Their desperation to catch up with Marvel’s year-in-the-making MCU is nakedly obvious as Snyder attempts to launch a DCU out of nowhere. Even his BatWayne is a reboot, with Affleck channeling the graying, embittered, battle-scarred Batman of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight” mini-series into a cinematic incarnation that apparently exists a decade or so on from Christopher Nolan’s trilogy.
I always saw Metropolis and Gotham City of the comic books as two sides of New York City: Metropolis the daylight version of the city of steel and glass and commerce and Gotham the nighttime urban jungle of crime and corruption in a crumbling city of old brick and industrial blight. Snyder’s Gotham is almost always seen at night, to be sure, while the steel gray and industrial blue of his Metropolis seems bled dry of its colorful energy, but he weirdly situates them across the bay from one another, essentially next door, like San Francisco and Oakland relocated to the East Coast. Which brings up a blindly obvious question in this newly-revealed geography: why has Superman never bothered to be a hero to a city mere seconds away flying at top speed? And how is it, 18 months after the events of Man of Steel, he’s just now realizing that there’s a vigilante in Gotham who is summoned by his own beacon? It’s just another lazy contrivance that shows the sloppy world building under the stewardship of Zach Snyder. Complain all you want about the overstuffedAvengers movies from Joss Whedon, those films have been thought through to provide not only a sturdy narrative framework but the very foundation of an entire ecosystem of heroes, villains, and government agencies, and the moral issues that go with the playing masked superhero.
Batman v Superman was neither an unqualified success nor a flop. Its high price tag (it cost over $250M) and enormous promotional budget means that it needed to pull in north of $1 billion (worldwide) to come close to the profits of the Marvel movies. It fell far short of that. Snyder’s humorless, self-serious approach, dark and dreary palette, and numbing spectacle bludgeoning viewers with ever bigger portraits of destruction seems out of step with the spry, fleet, witty, and often giddy heroics of the Marvel movies. There clearly is an appetite for this brand of comic book movie, but I’ve lost the taste for Snyder’s recipe.
The Blu-ray looks superb, as a digital production of this magnitude should, and presents the R-rated “Ultimate Edition” features 30 minutes of additional footage not included in the original theatrical version and the extra scenes fill in subplots and supporting characters cut from the two-and-a-half hour theatrical version. They add scope to the film, though additional scenes of Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) calling out Clark Kent for failing to meet his deadlines actually weaken any pretense of The Daily Planet as a professional organization. The theatrical version is included on a separate disc.
Blu-ray and DVD, with over two hours of featurettes stuffed with cast and crew interviews and some behind-the-scenes footage. “Gods and Men: A Meeting of Giants” discusses the planning of the first onscreen pairing in the new DCU, the heroes get their own character spotlights in “Superman: Complexity & Truth,” “Batman: Austerity & Rage,” and “Wonder Woman: Grace & Power,” with a little extra on the history Wonder Woman (because she has a solo movie in the works) in “The Warrior, The Myth, The Wonder,” and villain gets his due in “The Empire of Luthor.” “Accelerating Design: The New Batmobile,” “Batcave: Legacy of the Lair,” and “The Might and the Power of a Punch” focus on specific aspects of production design and execution, and “Uniting the World’s Finest” looks forward to the “Justice League” movie, with interviews with actors barely even seen onscreen. Finally, “Save the Bats” forgets the mythology altogether to bring attention to an endangered species of bats. There is no commentary track, which is unusual for Zach Snyder.
Deadpool (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD, VOD) – Irreverent, outrageous, and strewn with self-aware commentary and dark humor, Deadpool is the polar opposite of the self-serious Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is raunchy and gory and features a hero with no compunctions about killing the henchmen sent after him. In fact, he relishes it.
It’s based on a Marvel comics character but it’s not a Marvel movie per se. Technically an offshoot of the X-Menmovies developed by 20th Century Fox, it both embraces and spoofs the Marvel movie formula. The opening faux credits set the whole tone, trashing the entire superhero industry and the film’s own star, Ryan Reynolds. His first superhero outing, Green Lantern, was one of the biggest disasters of the genre. Deadpool isn’t about to let him live it down and Reynolds plays along with it, making him perfect casting. He has the attitude necessary to pull off the balance of self-aware joking, sardonic commentary, and tormented anti-hero hiding behind humor.
He plays Special Forces veteran turned soldier-for-hire Wade Wilson, a cynic who emerges from a sadistic experiment with an indestructible body, a face like ground beef, and a penchant for turning to the camera to crack jokes about the absurdity of it all. By which I mean everything from the creatively violent mayhem of the moment to the superhero genre as a whole. He’s out for revenge against the mad scientist (Ed Skrein in generic British baddie mode) who made the transformation as painful as possible and then tried to leash him as an attack dog for an international assassination business. Not so successful in the last part. Wade escapes, takes the name Deadpool, dons a red spandex costume that covers him from head to toe, and tracks down his sweetie (Morena Baccarin), a hard-bitten hooker with whom he found true love and great sex. A lot of sex. Among the surprises of this R-rated superhero lark is its sex-positive attitude toward adult play and kinky games between consenting adults.
The rest is an unconventional treatment of a conventional superhero story. Allies will be recruited (auxiliary X-Men players Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, a true believer and a sneering teenager, respectively), comic relief applied (T.J. Miller), and battles engaged, which will lay waste to property and extras with tremendous outlays of CGI. No end of the world stuff here, which is a little refreshing in the increasingly epic showdowns in bigger and bigger movies. It doesn’t reinvent the genre but it has fun with it, delivering the spectacle that fans appreciate while winking at them, as if we are all in on the joke. And it turns out we are. Deadpool came in at under $60 million, a bargain in the age of superhero bloat, and may outgrossBatman v Superman, which came in at more than four times the budget and even more in worldwide promotion. Not too bad for a hero unknown outside of die-hard comic book collectors, a first time director (Tim Miller came out of music videos and commercials), the star of one of the biggest comic book movie flops in the rocky history of the genre, and an R rating for blood, sex, and bad attitude.
Fox knows that this is going to be one of its biggest sellers of the year on disc and they load up the Blu-ray accordingly, beginning with not one but two commentary tracks, one by Ryan Reynolds with screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the other by director Tim Miller and Deadpool co-creator Rob Liefeld. “From Comics to Screen… to Screen” is a collection of five production featurettes that runs 80 minutes all together and “Deadpool’s Fun Sack” a collection of short, jokey promotional videos running about 24 minutes. There are also and extended scenes, galleries of art and storyboards, and bonus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.
The Witch (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), subtitled “A New England Folktale,” is a primal horror film rooted in fear and superstition, and there is plenty of both in early 17thcentury New England, where a devoted British Puritan family has started a new life. Adding to the general hardship of carving a new colony out of a frontier of deep forests an ocean away from their urban birthplace, this family is banished from the protected village. The religious devotion of pious father William (Ralph Ineson) is so absolute that he challenges the elders and refuses to repent. The irony that this sect left England to escape religious persecution is lost on them all, but then it’s not really what the film is about.
“We will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us,” William proclaims as they march away from the last outpost of European civilization in their world. He is pious, yes, but he’s also devoted to his family, protective and even loving in his emotionally restrained way, and he creates a home at the edge of a forest that seems to grow darker and more ominous with each calamity. The crops don’t just fail, they turn black as if cursed. The adorable goats turn aggressive and their bleets and baas begin to sound ominous. And an infant disappears in an innocent game of peekaboo played by apple-cheeked Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s eldest daughter. It’s simply gone with no natural explanation, at least not as experienced through their perspective. The isolation takes its toll on the homesick mother (Kate Dickie), who becomes increasingly drawn and disconnected as she pines for her English life, and failing crops and dying livestock send Father and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) deeper and deeper into the forest for food. It turns a tough, trying existence into the trials of Job as reimagined as a horror movie.
Thomasin is coming of age, as they say, becoming a young woman and given more family responsibility without accompanying respect. Sexuality is very much a presence here, though it is never talked about or acted upon, which makes even thinking about it something shameful to be repressed. Clearly these kids won’t be getting the sex talk.
Filmmaker Robert Eggers drew upon journals and other records of the era for his screenplay, which gives the archaic language a quality both alien and organic, and painstaking recreates the texture of their world, from the heavy, rough clothing to the Spartan home. He shoots with natural light, which makes the shadowy interiors of the rough-hewn cabin of a home gloomy even in daylight and reduced to pools of visibility at night with only candles and lamps to light the rooms. Set against that realism are visions of a forest witch preying upon the vulnerable family (real or simply the nightmares of a family clutching for explanations?) and the creepy games of the young children, who taunt Thomason with nursery rhyme curses and name the goat Black William and proclaim it a demon. In a world where the devil is every bit as real as God, it gets under the skin of the characters. And the audience too.
The horrors are very real, just not necessarily literal, and the film suffered a backlash from a contingency of horror fans reacting to rave reviews with complaints that it wasn’t scary. And if you’re looking for more traditional shocks or scares, this isn’t going to deliver. This is more ambiguous and all the more compelling for it. It’s not easily dismissed after the credits roll. It’s dark and spooky and suggestive and at times genuinely terrifying, and it leaves you wondering just how much belief guides our perceptions.
Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director Robert Eggers, the eight-minute featurette “The Witch: A Primal Folktale, and a panel Q&A on the Salem Witch trials featuring Eggers and actress Anya Taylor-Joy. The Blu-ray also features a bonus Ultraviolent Digital HD copy of the film. The Witch [DVD + Digital] The Witch [Blu-ray + Digital HD]
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – J.J. Abrams takes over the reins of the Star Wars franchise with what is technically a sequel (“Chapter VII: The Force Awakens”) but is just as much a course correction, a reboot, and a return to the source. It’s been called a shameless remake of the original Star Wars and refreshing return to the innocence and energy and pulpy fun that first entranced a generation of fans. I lean toward the latter, but even for those who find it rehash, I would point out that The Force Awakens is not aimed at the adult fans who grew up on the original trilogy all those decades ago. I’m one of those who saw the film on its first run and was thrilled by it. I think that Abrams is trying to recreate that experience for a whole new generation eager to be captured by the charge and action and exotic Amazing Stories covers come to life in a fairy tale space fantasy that takes place long ago and a galaxy far, far away…
To that end, this installment (set 30 years after Return of the Jedi) picks up with another scrappy kid from a desert planet who finds a runaway robot with secret plans and escapes from the resurgence of the Republic with a hunk of junk ship that just happens to be the Millennium Falcon, teams up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are still smuggling and scamming through way through the galaxy well past retirement age, and joins the resistance under the command of Leia (Carrie Fisher). This time, however, the kid with the essence of the force within is a spunky, inventive young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her running buddy is a former Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) who goes AWOL after his first mission, which turns into a pitiless massacre of innocents.
The echoes with the original Star Wars are unmistakable to any fan; there’s a bar filled with mercenary alien types (which Abrams creates largely with old-school make-up and masks), an even bigger and badder Death Star, a masked Darth Vader acolyte (Adam Driver as Kylo Ren) who leads the new Imperial army with the help of the dark side of the force, and yes, those plans reveal the weakness in the new planet-killing weapon. Abrams is clearly devoted to recapturing not just the mythology and style of Lucas’ original trilogy but the innocence and energy and fun. After trying to steer the Star Trek prequels into the Star Wars universe, he’s found the right vehicle for his instincts. But while he honors the original, he adds (with the help of co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan, who scripted Empire and Return of the Jedi for Lucas, and Michael Arndt, who scripted Toy Story 3) some terrific touches and colors of his own.
The cast is far more inclusive than Lucas’ films, starting with our next generation heroes Rey, a capable and fearless young woman, and Finn, a young black man whose conscience pushes him to find courage he didn’t know he had. Oscar Isaac charges in as smart-talking flyboy and charismatic rebel hero Poe Dameron and leaves you wanting more (we’re sure to see more of him in future films). The roly-poly BB-8 is a delightful creation that rethinks the robot paradigm with both practical innovation and creative playfulness. And all those fabulous planetary landscapes and alien skies recall the wonder of Lucas’ visions without simply rehashing them.
So yes, there is a familiarity to it. This isn’t a rethinking of the space opera and Abrams doesn’t try to take the Star Wars universe into a more mature direction. But perhaps that is as it should be. We’ve already got comic book movies trying to rework the superhero mythos for adult audiences. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is aimed at the child within us all.
On Blu-ray and DVD with a superb transfer. The three-disc Blu-ray edition features the 69-minute “Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey,” which chronicles the production from the development of the story through filming, and a collection of shorter featurettes, all under ten minutes apiece. “Crafting Creatures,” “Building BB-8,” “Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight,” and “ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force” are production pieces that take the viewers into the creation of key scenes and special effects. “John Williams: The Seventh Symphony” looks at the composer who defined the music of the series from the first film. “The Story Awakens: The Table Read” features only brief excerpts from the first table read with the entire cast in a four-minute piece and there are six deleted scenes.
Jellyfish Eyes (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from visual artist Takashi Murakami, is a fantasy of childhood innocence and fantastical creatures come to life as Pokemon-like playmates. It’s also a strange conspiracy involving a cult of young researchers in a post-Fukushima world applying an alchemy of science and magic to a transporter device linked to an alternate reality.
Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), the young son of a widowed mother (still trapped in her mourning), moves to the idyllic little town next to an ominous, secretive research lab. He’s practically adopted by a flying creature that looks like a mushroom crossed with a jellyfish and turned into a rubber doll you might win from a carnival game, right around the time he starts having nightmares of his father, the tsunami that took his life, and jellyfish. Then Masashi discovers that every kid in town has their own creature, which they explain are called F.R.I.E.N.D.s and controled with the help of a handheld device. The boys send their F.R.I.E.N.D.s into battle in arena-like matches, much to the outrage of a shy girl (Himeka Asami) with giant sheepdog of a F.R.I.E.N.D. who hates the bullying culture that this violence inspires.
It’s an odd choice for a feature debut by an internationally renowned visual artist, a commercial science fiction adventure fantasy about a child who, after the loss of his father, finds comfort in the friendship with a fantastical creature with unconditional love and protective loyalty. It channels E.T., Pokemon culture, Godzilla, secret societies, imaginary playmates, and H.P. Lovecraft, and Murakami maintains a goofy innocence throughout, even as the cute little creature comedy becomes a giant monster movie as the cabal of wizard-like scientists use the kids as guinea pigs to siphon “negative energy” (anger, sadness, and especially aggression) to power their master plan. In a sense, they are scientists as vampires, feeding off the children they have hooked on their tiny monster mash culture, while the gadget-addicted kids ignore the endless possibilities in front of them to obsessively replay those battles.
There is plenty of gentle satire here—from game culture to merchandising to high school cliques and bullying to religion (there’s a particularly unnerving cult that believes the lab to be evil incarnate and tries to pray it away)—but no real teeth to the message or edge to the presentation. That lightness makes it fine for children but doesn’t serve the drama, which has the depth and dimension of a video game. The kids are a flavorless bunch, the adults have even less personality, and conflicts are resolved in a flash of generosity and a rousing call to unity. It’s as if it can’t decide if it is a parody of juvenile anime and game fantasy or simply a knowing, idealistically upbeat pop-art incarnation of it. Which makes this warped reflection of Japanese pop culture a strangely fascinating artifact but not a particularly compelling piece of storytelling.
In Japanese with English subtitles on Blu-ray and DVD with two original featurettes, created for Criterion from behind-the-scenes and production footage shot for the Japanese release, explore the making of the film: “Takashi Murakami: The Art of Film,” a 39-minute documentary that follows the production from the announcement of Murakami tackling his first feature through shooting to release, and “Making F.R.I.E.N.D.S.,” a 15-minute piece on the design and creation of the film’s creatures. Also features a new interview with Murakami and a trailer for the upcoming sequel. All supplements in Japanese with English subtitles. The accompanying foldout insert features an essay by critic and film professor Glen Helfand.
Tokyo Tribe (XLrator, Blu-ray, DVD) – Sion Sono, now emerging as Japan’s new cinema wildman rebel, seems determined to become the new Miike Takashi. His films are increasingly outrageous, unhinged, extreme, and unpredictable, pushing expectations as well as boundaries, and trying anything and everything in a wildly creative (if unfocused) attempt to refresh familiar genres.
Tokyo Tribe, adapted from a graphic novel series, is a comic book gang war thriller in an alternate future, part Blade Runner, part Escape From New York, part The Warriors, part Miike Takashi gangland freak show, part all hip-hopera musical on a studio soundstage like a golden age Hollywood musical. It opens with a long take and a traveling camera that follows our narrator up and down a long studio street as he raps the exposition—the Tokyo of the near future is divided into districts run by different gangs in a wary state of détente—the film never leaves the insular atmosphere or the perpetual night of the studio-created city, and it never stops moving or rapping.
We jump through the main gangs with a quick introduction and get a thumbnail idea of the style of each fashion statement (each gang has its own, often elaborate tribal look, sort of like sports uniforms in the glam league). Then we come to Lord Buppa, the insatiable, possibly cannibalistic leader (he keeps severed human fingers in his cigar box) of a Yakuza-like organization who decides to wipe out the rest of the gangs and take over all of Tokyo for himself. He’s played by Riki Takeuchi, star of Miike’s Dead or Alive films, so we know he’s absolutely committed to extreme bloodshed, though instead of Miike’s trademark sadism and creatively explicit gore, Sono indulges in purely gratuitous nudity, foul language, schoolgirls in underwear, Takeuchi engaged in (non-explicit but still disgusting) masturbation, and constant sexual threats to young women. You know, like an adult manga with a juvenile attitude.
Among the victims is a giggly group of teenage girls scooped up Lord Buppa’s henchmen to fill in his ranks of sex workers (at least those who are not handed over to Buppa’s son to serve as his living furniture). There’s also a beat-boxing personal servant, a pair of kung-fu siblings, references to Scarface, Bruce Lee, and Kill Bill, and the most literal use of penis envy as motivation I’ve ever seen in a film. Packed with incident and movement and color, it’s a big, busy mess that is more overwhelming than thrilling or engaging, but you’ll see things you’ve never seen in American gang war movies and you won’t have a moment to catch your breath.
In Japanese with English subtitles, no supplements.
Ant-Man (Marvel, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) takes a slightly different approach for a movie in the Marvel superhero universe. It’s more playful and comic, with a reluctant hero who has a motley crew of buddies and a mentor with a sly sense of humor as well as justice, and while the stakes a big (stopping a tech giant from weaponizing experimental technology and it to the bad guys), it’s not the world-shaking battleground of The Avengers or Thor or Iron Man movies. It’s a movie that wants to have a little more fun with the genre, and it succeeds, even if it never really veers far from an increasingly familiar conventions of the superhero movie.
Paul Rudd, an actor with a guy-next-door quality and easygoing amiability, takes the lead as Scott Lang, a self-described cat burglar as a whistle-blowing Robin Hood who steps out of prison with nothing more on his mind than to go straight and become a part of his little girl’s life. Then he’s drafted by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a scientist and former tech tycoon, to inherit his unique shrinking suit, which also enables him to communicate with ants. Hank was a covert hero for decades, we discover, and he uses subterfuge like a con game to reel in Scott as his successor, a decision that his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) isn’t too keen on, but she helps him train nonetheless. Corey Stoll is the calculating CEO and former protégé who bounced Hank out of the company he founded and wants to use his tech for next-generation weapons. Their plan to stop him is part comic book fantasy, part elaborate heist, featuring an oddball gang of conspirators (Michael Peña, T.I. and David Dastmalchian) and a small army of ants, who prove to be team players and quite personable once you get up close and personal.
And that’s where the film is most fun. All the Marvel movies revel in spectacle but Ant-Man shifts the perspective when Scott goes all incredible shrinking man. The film was developed by filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), who left the film over disagreements with Marvel, and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), with additional contributions from Adam McKay and Rudd. Director Peyton Reed, who takes a more whimsical attitude than the usual superhero flick, straddles the line between cartoon comedy and underdog wonder in those colorful forays into the world underfoot. It gives the adventure a whole new perspective, and the energy and invention of the climactic battle, as hero and villain (and other objects) shrink and sprout at will, is a refreshingly different take on the obligatory showdown set piece. It’s a minor film but that’s part of the charm, the lack of bombast and epic scale in a genre that keeps trying to top itself. Rudd is an everyman as hero, Douglas is clearly having fun as the mentor with a sense of humor, and Lilly mostly bides her time. Marvel is better than DC in sharing the screen with women heroes but it’s still mostly a boys club. According to the post-credits clip, that club will get just slightly more estrogen in the next installment.
I assume the Blu-ray looks and sound superb—I received a digital copy to stream via DisneyMoviesAnywhere rather than a physical disc, which looks fine—as Disney has gone all with great transfers for their previous Marvel movies. The digital copy does, however, have most the Blu-ray supplements. I watched the two featurettes “Making of an Ant-Sized Heist: A How-To Guide” (14 minutes) and “Let’s Go to the Macroverse” (8 minutes), which are light and fun with lots of terrific production and special effects footage, and the “WHIH NewsFront” clips of the fake newscasts, but it only features one deleted scene (the Blu-ray lists eight deleted scenes) and no commentary (the Blu-ray has director Peyton Reed and actor Paul Rudd, who I imagine would be entertaining).
Blind (Icarus, DVD), the story of a woman (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) who has recently lost her sight, is a refreshingly inventive and perceptive take on genre that rarely explores the experience from a subjective perspective. Neither uplifting tale of triumph nor blind-woman-in-peril thriller, it is a playful, intimate story of a person who keeps unseen world alive in her mind’s eye. It’s the directorial debut of screenwriter Eskil Vogt, who co-wrote the films Reprise (2006), Oslo, August 31st (2011) and Louder Than Bombs (2015) with friend and fellow filmmaker Joachim Trier, and it has a similar sensibility.
Ingrid (Petersen) is adjusting to her new life after becoming blind. She prefers to remain in the apartment she shares with her husband (Henrik Rafaelsen), an architect, learning to process sounds and learn to do daily tasks without sight. While she can no longer see, she continues to exercise her ability to visualize, and Vogt shapes the film around her perspective. Not just her visualization of what she hears, but her imagination as she turns author and tells the story of a single mother (Vera Vitali) and a porn-obsessed shut-in (Marius Kolbenstvedt) whose fictional odyssey starts to overlap with Ingrid’s real life. Vogt’s play with perspective extends to the creative, as she rewrites and the image transforms with it. It’s a film that demands close attention and rewards it with playful storytelling and inventive associations that reverberate between the real and the imagined.
In Norwegian with English subtitles. The DVD also features an interview with filmmaker Eskil Vogt from the 2014 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Also new and notable:
Minions (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) gives the goofy little yellow pill-bug henchmen of the Despicable Me movies their own animated feature as they search for a new villain to serve. Features three new animated mini-movies and a featurette.
Jellyfish Eyes (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from visual artist Takashi Murakami, is a fantasy of childhood innocence and fantastical creatures come to life as playmates in a post-Fukushima world. Criterion offers a filmmaker interview and two featurettes on the film’s stateside disc debut. Full review later.
Larry Fessenden isn’t the most well-known of indie-horror filmmakers but he should be. As a writer / director, he’s taken the classic horror genres and turned them inside out, and he’s produced or co-produced dozens of films, including Kelly Reichert’s Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves, Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, and Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, through Glass Eye Pix, his own production shingle. He’s been a cheerleader, in his own words, for other independent filmmakers with a passion for horror, and his encouragement has made the genre much richer in the past couple of decades.
Scream Factory, the horror imprint of the Shout! Factory label, collects Fessenden’s first four directorial features and releases them on Blu-ray for the first time in The Larry Fessenden Collection (Scream Factory, Blu-ray). All four films are all newly mastered in HD transfers approved by the director and presented in separate discs with new and archival supplements.
No Telling (1991), Fessenden’s first feature as a director, takes on Frankenstein through the story of a research scientist who starts poaching animals from the nearby forest to experiment on while ostensibly on a summer vacation with his wife. Meanwhile a proponent of organic farming tries to get the local farmers to give up pesticides for the good of the land. It’s eco-horror in the modern age. The disc includes new commentary by Fessenden, a featurette, the short film White Trash (1997), and deleted scenes.
Fessenden’s breakthrough film was Habit (1997), in which he also starred as an alcoholic confronted with evidence that his new, insatiable lover is a bloodsucker: Is she a vampire or is he delusional? While the question remains in the air the film is compelling (if overlong), a neat little study in urban alienation. Shaggy and shabby with his broken tooth smile, Fessenden is oddly a charming lead as a pathetic drunk who is no rush to change his life, making him the perfect victim. He again provides a new commentary track and the disc includes a making of featurette, the original short film version of Habit (1982), his short film N is for Nexus from The ABCs of Death 2, and two music videos.
“Just because people don’t believe in them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there” says an Indian mystic in Wendigo (2002), Fessenden’s thoughtful attempt to pull myth and legend into the real world through the eyes of a young boy. A little murky and overly obsessed with righteous vengeance, it’s also moving and mysterious, with solid performances by Jake Weber (as the dad) and Erik Per Sullivan (Malcolm in the Middle) as the wide-eyed boy whose belief just may bring the beast to life. This one has two new commentary tracks—one by Fessenden, the other by actors Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber, and John Speredakos—plus the half-hour featurette “Searching For the Wendigo,” an archival interview with Fessenden, and the short film Santa Claws (2008).
The Last Winter (2007), an eco-twist on the ghost story set in the isolation of an Arctic oil company outpost, is Fessenden’s most accomplished and evocative film to date. The atmosphere evokes John Carpenter’s The Thing, a team surrounded by a frozen desert where storms whip up out of nowhere and something seemingly alien is out there trying to get to them. “The corpses of animals and plants from millions of years ago,” is how environmental scientist James LeGros describes oil. He may also have pegged the source of the angry spirits of the Earth rising to stop the destruction.
Ron Perlman is excellent as the company man who is both invested in the culture of oil and dedicated to protecting all the people on his team as they come under assault or simply drift into madness. It’s Fessenden’s biggest and most visually evocative production and the marriage of environmentalist and animist themes that makes for a resonant – and still timely – horror film. Connie Britton, Zach Gilford and Kevin Corrigan co-star.
The commentary by Fessenden and the feature-length “The Making of The Last Winter,” a rather impressionistic survey of the production, are carried over from the earlier DVD release. This release also includes archival footage, an interview with journalist Adam Nayman, and promo films that Fessenden made for Stake Land, which he produced.
Fessenden contributes new introductions to many of the supplements on all four discs, there are “sizzle reels” from Glass Eye, and the set is accompanied by a booklet with liner notes, stills, storyboards, and sketches.
Special Effects Collection (Warner, Blu-ray), a generic title for a pretty impressive set, presents the Blu-ray debuts of four vintage giant monster movies: Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Them!
Son of Kong (1933), the sequel to the original King Kong, was rushed into production to cash in on Kong-mania. Made by the same team (director Ernest B. Schoedsack, producer Merian C. Cooper, stop motion effects by Willis O’Brien) but on a much smaller scale, it takes showman Robert Armstrong back to Kong Island in search of treasure, where he finds Kong’s offspring, a sweet-tempered white ape. It has none of the sweep and grandeur of the original, but as a miniature it has undeniable charms, due largely to the work of O’Brien. He makes Junior a delightful, playful character and creates even more inventive prehistoric creatures for the heroes to battle. Helen Mack takes damsel in distress duties this time around. It’s a fine restoration by Warner of a film that was not well preserved by RKO and there are no supplements apart from a trailer.
Willis O’Brien won finally won his much deserved Oscar for Mighty Joe Young (1949), creating yet another ape, this one the humongous playmate of a young woman Terry Moore who was raised in Africa. Robert Armstrong is once again a showman entrepreneur who brings the ape to civilization (as a nightclub attraction this time) with disastrous consequences, but this time he pitches in with his right-hand man (Ben Johnson) to rescue the ape from his concrete prison and get him back to the jungle. Joe is a marvelous creation and the climax, where he risks his own safety to rescue children trapped in an orphanage fire, is a magnificent set piece that is as touching as it is thrilling. Ernest B. Schoedsack directs and Cooper produces with partner John Ford.
This disc, like all in the set, carries over the extras from the earlier DVD release. This has commentary by stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen, special effects veteran Kan Ralston, and actress Terry Moore, the featurettes “Ray Harryhausen and Mighty Joe Young” and “A Conversation with Ray Harryhausen and the Chiodo Brothers” (contemporary special effects artists inspired by Harryhausen who kept the art of physical effects alive in their films), and the trailer
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) is not only one of the essentials of the giant monster on the rampage genre of the nuclear 1950s, it’s perhaps the only one of the decade that isn’t actually an atomic mutation. This one is a slumbering prehistoric giant (a Rhedosauras to be specific) awakened from its icy suspended animation by nuclear tests. Apparently cranky about its wake-up call, it stumbles through New York and lays waste to Coney Island before meeting its inevitable end. The first solo creature feature work by the legendary Ray Harryhausen (he was an assistant on Mighty Joe Young) highlights this clunky but endearing piece of B-movie pulp, directed by Eugene Lourie (formerly the production designer for Jean Renoir – what a transition!). The script was “inspired” by Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Foghorn” and familiar genre stalwarts Kenneth Tobey and Lee Van Cleef co-star. The film was an inspiration for Japan’s Godzilla.
It includes the two featurettes originally produced for the DVD release, “The Rhedosaurus and the Rollercoaster: Making the Beast” with Ray Harryhausen and “Harryhausen and Bradbury: An Unfathomable Friendship,” which presents Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury in conversation from 2003, when they were interviewed for the film’s 50th Anniversary. Also includes Harryhausen on “Armatures” and the trailer.
Them! (1954) is arguably the most famous giant insect movie of the classic era and certainly the most serious of the 1950s atomic creature features. Ants the size of tanks swarm the desert and it takes an alliance of cops (James Whitmore), scientists (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon), the armed forces (Onslow Stevens), and the FBI (James Arness) to beat back the hungry hordes. This inspired dozens of similar giant insect and atomic mutation films, but most of the imitators were cheap knock-offs. This one is intelligently scripted, with adult characters and at least a modicum of research into ant sociology, a budget to match its ambition, and a director (Gordon Douglas) game enough to really stoke up the drama. And in contrast to the three previous films in the set, these ants aren’t miniatures but full-sized constructs created via puppetry, allowing the actors to interact directly with them. It’s no more or less convincing than the beautiful work of O’Brien and Harryhausen, simply different, and it gives the ants an indelible presence on the screen.
This is the restoration that has the home video boards abuzz. The original DVD, released over a decade ago, was presented in 1.33:1 Academy Ratio, the same format most people who originally saw it on TV in the pre-flat screen era are familiar with. But it was made during the transition to widescreen and was, according to documents of the era, produced to be shown in the 1.75:1 aspect ratio (protected for both 1.85:1 and 1.33:1). This is presented in 1.77:1, with the top and bottom masked off and slightly more information on the sides. It took me some getting used to but it always looked well-framed, and for a film with scenes in tunnels and giant honeycombed hives, appropriately claustrophobic in those sequences. Some reviewers claim that the image is stretched compared to the old DVD, but it’s more likely that the old DVD was a little squeezed. If you look at the circles in the film, they are not stretched but round. The other issue is that this HD master looks softer than the DVD edition in direct comparison, which is true, but that may be a matter of digital sharpening that was more common in the early days of DVD restorations. Today the studios are much more conscious to be accurate to both the source material and to the original presentation and there is less artificial sweetening. All in all, I give the nod to the Blu-ray, which presents a more accurate edition of the original film.
Also features “Ants,” which is a three-minute collection of outtakes showing the ant puppets in shots that didn’t pass muster, and the trailer.
Army of Darkness: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), Sam Raimi’s campy sequel to Evil Dead 2, is more of a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen than a horror film. Bruce Campbell’s Ash lands in some medieval land with a chainsaw strapped on one hand, a shotgun in the other (“This is my boomstick!”), and a ’73 Oldmobile for a chariot, and he organizes the peasants to battle with the Deadites: an army of animated skeletons that could have walked out of a Harryhausen Sinbad movie (albeit one with an absurdist sensibility). Sure the mix of Three Stooges slapstick, anachronistic glibness (“Gimme some sugar, baby!” he croaks out to Dark Ages beauty Embeth Davidtz), and cult film homages in a medieval adventure wears a little thin, but it’s always clever and the shaggy special effects are a funky treat for all their inconsistencies. Note that Bridget Fonda has a cameo, recreating scenes from Evil Dead 2 as Ash’s girlfriend, in the opening sequence with Ash as an S-Mart clerk relating his adventures to his fellow employees. Shop smart. Shop S-Mart.
This is one of those cult films that gets a new edition every few years. This is not the first time on Blu-ray but it is the first Blu-ray special edition and Shout! Factory packs this three-disc set with goodies, including four different cuts of the film: the original theatrical version (81 minutes), which is an improvement over Universal’s earlier bare-bones Blu-ray; the longer director’s cut (96 min) which features Raimi’s original ending; the international cut (88 min), which is from a new 4K scan from the interpositive; and the 90-minute TV cut, which is presented in the lo-fi glory of standard definition fullscreen 1.33:1.
New to this edition is the feature-length documentary “Medieval Times: The Making of Army of Darkness” featuring Bruce Campbell and more than 20 members of the cast and crew but not Raimi, who apparently is now a little too big for this kind of thing. Raimi is, however, in the terrific commentary track to the Director’s Cut that he recorded years ago with Campbell and co-writer Ivan Raimi, a real party track that is a lot of fun. Everything else is vintage: 50 minutes of behind the scenes footage from KNB Effects, the featurettes “Creating the Deadites” and “The Men Behind the Army,” plus deleted scenes, additional behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, galleries of stills, TV spots and trailers. The only significant vintage supplement that’s missing, as far as I can tell, is the storyboard video track.
Vincent Price starred in all of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations but one. Ray Milland took the lead in The Premature Burial (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), playing Guy Carrell, an aristocrat with crippling fear that he will be buried alive due to a family history of catalepsy. Corman brings the fear home in the opening scene: an exhumation of an ancestor who shows every sign of having awoken in his casket. The obsession overtakes his life until the rather elderly newlywed moves into the family crypt, which he outfits as a Batcave of escape hatches, much to the horror of his neglected bride (Hazel Court), who observes that he has already “buried himself alive” and makes him chose the crypt or life with her.
Like most of Corman’s Poe films, the script (this one by Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell) borrows little more than the central idea and the title from Poe. This one owes as debt to Gaslight and Diabolique, and of course leans on the art direction of Daniel Haller (who created a sense of grandeur on a budget) and the widescreen color cinematography of the great Floyd Crosby, who photographed Tabu (1931) and High Noon (1952) and here gives Corman his atmosphere. While Hammer was reviving the classic movies monsters as gothic horrors with lurid edges and color, Corman was creating his own Gothic horror revival with ideas influenced by Freud and Jung. Corman creates his world completely in the studio, including the grounds outside the manor, a veritable haunted forest of dead trees, ever-present mist hugging the boggy ground, and a pair of creepy gravediggers (John Dierkes and Dick Miller) constantly lurking and whistling the folk song “Molly Malone” as a dirge-like threat.
Though Carrell is supposed to be older than his lovely young wife, Milland is aged beyond the role, though he quite valiantly attempts to appear younger while also playing the haunted, sequestered, tortured soul. His bearing and deep, authoritative voice holds the center of every, whether he’s the romantic husband swept up in the promise of a happily ever after or the tormented obsessive spiraling into the madness of obsession. Alan Napier, best known in genre circles for playing Alfred in the sixties TV Batman, has a small but delicious role as the arrogant father of the bride, a medical doctor with little affection and even less sentimentality for his son-in-law.
The colors are good if not quite as strong as some of the previous Corman Poe Blu-rays. Joe Dante discusses the film in the new 9-minute featurette “Buried Alive!” and a video interview with Corman from the 2002 DVD release (where he explains how Milland ended up in the role rather than Price) is included, along with the “Trailers From Hell” presentation with Corman’s commentary.
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) reunites Corman and Milland for a science fiction thriller by way of a Greek tragedy. Milland is Dr. James Xavier, who experiments with a formula that will the human eye to see beyond the wavelength of visible light. “Only the Gods see everything,” cautions a fellow scientist. “I am closing in on the Gods,” responds Xavier with the hubris that is doomed to destroy his over-reaching ambition. Peeping through the clothes of comely women is all good adolescent fun until the gift becomes a nightmare as his sight rages out of control.
Charles Beaumont once again scripts this twist on the tale of a scientist who risks everything to explore the unknown and is finally driven mad by, literally, seeing too much. The possibilities suggested in the hints of addiction and inconsistent bouts of megalomania remain tantalizingly unexplored in the unfocussed script and Corman’s cut-rate special effects are often more hokey than haunting (the “city dissolved in an acid of light” he poetically describes becomes fuzzy photography through a series of color filters). But there is an edge to the B-movie machinations. Don Rickles offers a venal turn as a scheming carnival barker turned blackmailing con man and Diane Van Der Vlis is understanding as a sympathetic scientist who tries to rescue Xavier from his spiral into tortured madness, but in the tradition of Greek tragedy he is doomed to be destroyed by the very gifts he desires.
This release features two commentary tracks—filmmaker Roger Corman’s commentary from the original 2002 DVD release and new commentary by film historian Tim Lucas—plus “Terror Vision!,” an interview featurette with Joe Dante and the “Trailers From Hell” take on the film with Mick Garris providing the commentary.
Zardoz (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of the most fascinatingly misguided sci-fantasies of the seventies, a truly strange social satire with counterculture echoes: think of Brave New World by way of The Wizard of Oz (which is where the film gets its title). Sean Connery stars as Zed, a savage barbarian of the polluted plain who wears an animal skin kilt and a bandoleer and sneaks into the city of immortals courtesy of a giant flying stone head that disgorges weapons from its mouth. Zed thinks he’s headed to heaven or Valhalla but ends up in a decadent, decaying society of bored, senile, impotent aesthetes, and he’s kept around as a kind of pet.
It’s the kind of weird, pretentious, not uninteresting mess you get when ambitious directors create original sci-fi works, with not-so-subtle references to class warfare, social insularity, and big brother-like government manipulation. Religion is the opiate of the masses, war a form of population control, and reading and education is the key to salvation. You know, exactly what the radical revolutionaries of the sixties were telling us all along. But, coming from Boorman, it is gorgeous and strange, shot on the lush hills of Ireland (some of the same locations were used in Excalibur). Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestelman, John Alderton, and Sally Anne Newton co-star.
John Boorman recorded a commentary track for its DVD debut and it’s included in this Blu-ray debut. It’s a bit spotty, but he still has a fondness for the film (“I was trying all kinds of things. Perhaps too much.”) and is happy to reminisce. Among the tidbits: Connery’s part was written for Burt Reynolds, and the Communist paper gave the film a rave review only after Boorman signed a note swearing the giant head was not modeled on Lenin.
New to this disc is a commentary track by film historians Jeff Bond, Joe Fordham, and Nick Redman. Also includes radio spots and the original theatrical trailer.
It also features, like all Twilight Time releases, an isolated audio track featuring the musical score and an accompanying booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.
Most Twilight Time releases are limited edition of 3,000 copies. Zardoz is an exception: it is a limited edition of 5,000 copes. Unless otherwise notes, every release reviewed here is limited to 3,000.
Escape from New York: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) – “Plissken? I heard you were dead.” “Call me Snake.” Maybe it’s not John Carpenter’s best film, but it’s one of his most fun and the premise is irresistible: in the future, Manhattan has been turned into a high security island prison and Liberty Island is the guard station. When Air Force One is hijacked by an American revolutionary outfit (this may be what the future looks like from 1981, but these yahoos look more like holdovers from the early seventies), the American President (Donald Pleasance) crash lands in the middle of no man’s land and becomes a bargaining chip for the reigning king of the outlaws (Isaac Hayes), who runs the place like a gangland Godfather.
Kurt Russell hisses out a B-movie Clint Eastwood impression as Snake Plissken, a one-time war hero turned notorious criminal and his arrival at Liberty Island in cuffs makes him the only hope they have of rescuing POTUS before very bad things start to happen. What exactly isn’t important. It’s a deadline that Plissken has to meet if he wants out alive, which is how head of security Lee Van Cleef, Plissken’s nemesis turned wary ally by circumstance, guarantees his cooperation. As he navigates the feral streets to rescue the President, he picks up a motley, not completely trustworthy crew (including Harry Dean Stanton as the weaselly Brain, Adrienne Barbeau as his pistol-packing lover, and Ernest Borgnine as a big-band loving cabbie). But Russell is the revelation. He was best known for Disney comedies at the time and Carpenter had to push the studio to accept him in the lead. He delivers.
Carpenter’s dark, garbage-strewn streets lit by bonfires and headlights makes for inspired art direction and his synthesizer score is suitably minimalist and moody. Shot for a song in the rougher parts of St. Louis (doubling for the Big Apple) with simple but bold model work (some of it created by James Cameron in his Roger Corman days) and striking computer graphics, it’s a hoot, yet behind the colorful personalities of the prison yard gang is a sardonic crack about the state of modern urban America lost to poverty, runaway crime, and gangs that rule the inner city. This really was a product of its time.
Escape from New York is both a marvelously scruffy film and a well-produced piece of dystopian cinema superbly shot by Dean Cundey in Carpenter’s beloved Panavision widescreen. The new 2k digital master, scanned from the inter-positive struck from the original negative, doesn’t take anything away from that. It gives shows the squalor in much greater detail, and the clarity helps give definition to the nocturnal imagery. This is, after all, a film that takes place mostly on the streets at night.
MGM released the film on Blu-ray a couple of year ago but it was a bare-bones affair with none of the extras from the terrific DVD special editions. This two-disc edition features the two previously available commentary tracks—a thoroughly entertaining track with director John Carpenter and Kurt Russell chatting away like old (“By the way, both of our ex-wives are in the movie”) and a second track by producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves covering more technical material—plus a third newly-recorded commentary track with co-star Adrienne Barbeau and cinematographer Dean Cundey, looking back with over thirty years’ hindsight. Barbeau has a lot of affection for the film and for Carpenter, to whom she was married at the time.
There are also five new interview featurettes on the second disc. “Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York” featuring interviews with visual effect DP Dennis Skotak and matte artist Robert Skotak, “Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Alan Howarth” (who collaborated with Carpenter on the score), “On Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York” with still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, “I Am Taylor: An Interview with Actor Joe Unger,” and “My Night on Set: An Interview with Filmmaker David DeCoteau.”
Carried over from the previous DVD release are the complete ten-minute robbery sequence that Carpenter cut from the film (it was meant to be the opening scene) with optional commentary by Carpenter and Russell, the vintage promotion featurette “Return to Escape From New York,” trailers, and a gallery of stills, posters, and promotional art.