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.
Interstellar (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD) – Christopher Nolan used his clout as the director of the hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy and cerebral caper film Inception to get this big-budget science fiction epic made on a scale that otherwise would be out of reach. It’s set in a near future where overpopulation and global climate change has been catastrophic for the food supply and the culture has become hostile to science, as if it’s the cause of the problems rather than the only hope to solve them.
Matthew McConaughey is a widower father and former astronaut turned Midwest farmer who is essentially drafted into a covert project to send a ship across the galaxy to find a planet suitable for human habitation. That means abandoning his children, one of whom grows up into a physics genius (played by Jessica Chastain) who holds onto her grudge for decades. This is a film where complex concepts of quantum physics and powerful human emotions are inextricably intertwined and ghost the haunts the farmhouse has both a scientific explanation and a sense of supernatural power.
The family drama at the center is contrived and often unconvincing but Nolan’s visualization of amazing alien worlds, black holes, quantum physics, and the echoes of time and relativity in regards to travel through deep space and gravity distortions is engaging and thrilling. He imagines what a water planet near a black hole might be like and it’s like nothing you’ve ever imagined. The design of the robot helpers is something else. Neil deGrasse Tyson gave the film top marks for its science, which is pretty impressive. Yes, love conquers physics and the smartest people in the world do stupid, thoughtless things to give the plot its complications, but there simply aren’t many science fiction films that dare to be this brainy and visionary. Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, and Topher Grace co-star.
Christopher Nolan shot Interstellar on film rather than digital cameras with a mix of CinemaScope widescreen (about 2.4:1) and IMAX full frame (the 1.78:1 of widescreen TV) aspect ratios. The Blu-ray preserves the shifting ratios and presents a strong, warm image. Paramount goes all out on the disc to make it something special and Nolan, a creator with a great track record for documenting his productions every step of the way, participates in the supplements, which are limited to the Blu-ray release, all collected on a separate Blu-ray disc. The 50-minute “The Science of Interstellar,” an expanded version of a program originally shown in TV, is the centerpiece of the bonus disc, which includes fourteen “Inside Interstellar” featurettes. The shorter pieces, which take on various aspects of the film, the story, production and special effects details (like the use of miniatures, which has become a rarity in the CGI age), range from under two minutes to just over twelve minutes. The Blu-ray set also includes bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.
It’s also on digital VOD and Cable On Demand, but those formats won’t look as good as Blu-ray and do not include the Blu-ray supplements, if that’s something that’s important you.
Predestination (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) is kind of a generic title for a perversely clever time travel tale, but you can understand why The Spierig Brothers, the screen credit for filmmaking team Michael and Peter Spierig who adapted Robert Heinlein’s short story to the screen, didn’t go with Heinlein’s title. “—All You Zombies—” would give audiences the wrong idea. There are no zombies in the story. What we get is much weirder, the story of an agent (Ethan Hawke) for the Bureau of Time Travel on the trail of a deadly bomber and a sad young man who calls himself “The Unwed Mother” and offers a life story of tragic, soul-crushing loss, betrayal, and loneliness. Australian actress Sarah Snook plays the young man, who was born and raised a girl and underwent a change of sex because… well, unless you’ve already read the story, the revelation of each dramatic turn is best experienced. Meanwhile, as his / her story unfolds in linear fashion at first, the film starts looping back to reveal a complicated patter of a life lived in overlapping eras, crossing paths in ways that send our tragic figure down that path as if fated.
For a faithful adaptation of a short story, the film is packed with plot twists and narrative surprises and the challenge faced by the Spierig Brothers is obscuring details that would give away the twists without making it obvious. On that front they are fairly successful—it can be a little distracting when a face is purposely hidden from view, but the story is so strange and the personal ordeal so emotionally crushing that it kept my focus. While one side of my brain worked at sifting through clues and trying to pieces together the grand design, the other side was caught up in the personal odyssey. It could have become something of a sideshow gimmick but Snook makes it work with an affecting portrait of torment and isolation. Sure, the young man who first enters the bar seems a little “off” in our first meeting (something the film is able to leverage into initial tension), but as the film unfolds, what seems weird simply becomes sad. It’s terribly clever with a densely-woven plot (all of it there in the blueprint of the story), but the human drama and the slow revelation of kinship shared by these two strangers in the bar gives the film its bruised heart and its lost, isolated figure of tragedy a sense of purpose and reason to go on.
Blu-ray and DVD with a featurette and bloopers. The Blu-ray includes an exclusive 75-minute documentary “All You Zombies: Bringing Predestination to Life.” Also available on Digital HD and VOD.
Britain’s audacious answer to The Twilight Zone for our plugged-in world of social media and screen culture, Black Mirror seemed to come out of nowhere. The anthology show debuted on Netflix in December with “The National Anthem,” which caused a viral sensation. That first episode addressed hacking, cybercrime, political protest, and extortion with a savagely satirical story about the kidnapping of a royal family member. To save her, the Prime Minister was instructed—in the form of a video ransom demand streamed for the world to watch—to fuck a pig on live television, and he did. “The National Anthem” was the most transgressive thing I’ve ever seen on TV, and I see a lot of TV.
Written by English journalist-turned-satirist Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator, that episode was wickedly, nastily funny. Unlike most premium American television, however, its shock value has a real point. The YouTube terrorism of “The National Anthem” is but an nth-degree exaggeration of our own cyber-bullying, celebrity phone hacking, and North Korean cyber-attacks.
Lucy (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Luc Besson and his EuropaCorp studio is the salvation of the unpretentious, mid-budget, hyper-charged action movie. Usually Besson is content to write and produce the films, which have launched careers of such protégés as Louis Letterier (The Transporter), Pierre Morel (Taken), and Olivier Megaton (Colombiana), but he takes charge of this marvelously ridiculous action fantasy starring Scarlett Johansson. She plays Lucy, an American girl in South Korea who becomes the unwitting recipient of an overdose of an experimental designer drug that supercharges her brain and her consciousness along with it.
The premise is built a science cliché that is a misrepresentation at best and outright falsehood at worst—that we only use 10% of our brain, or the potential of our higher brain functions, as the sage professor and narrator played by Morgan Freeman puts it—and the script goes batshit crazy with it. Her growing abilities (measured with regular updates on the percentage of her brain now utilized) are a mix of superhero powers and telekinetic powers indistinguishable from magic and explained with science mumbo jumbo. It’s basically a fantasy wrapped in the guise of science and used as an excuse for an action thriller, but what a thriller. This is a kinetic explosion at its best with Johansson striding through it with a sense of drive and assuredness that is a super power all its own. Weaving through her journey is a revenge tale involving a Korean drug lord (played by Choi Min-sik—Oldboy himself!) and part of the pleasure of the film is how, after such a build-up, unimportant that whole subplot is to Lucy. The way she handles that annoyance is far more effective at explaining Lucy’s transformation than all the exposition spouted by Freeman. Besson’s attempts to frame it in some kind of evolutionary context would be laughable if it wasn’t so damnably fun.
On Blu-ray and DVD. The Blu-ray includes two featurettes and bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film. Also on cable and digital VOD.
Stingray: The Complete Series – 50th Anniversary Edition (Timeless, DVD) “Stand by for adventure!” After two successful sci-fi Supermarionation shows for British TV, producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson turned to undersea action in Stingray. The heroes are the World Aquanaut Security Patrol (WASP), deep sea agents whose mission of exploration is transformed into one of defense when the Aquaphibians attack from the underwater city of Titanica. Supermarionation refers to the Anderson’s brand of marionette puppets and the shows are completely performed by the inexpressive but engaging puppets (with strings in full view). Captain Troy Tempest is the stalwart human hero, supported by his co-pilot Phones and Princess Marina, a mute underwater dweller he rescues from the villainous Aquaphibians in the first episode. Lois Maxwell, the definitive Miss Moneypenny herself, is the voice of Lt. Atlanta Shore, daughter of Troy’s boss and Marina’s rival for Troy’s affections.
The scripts are awkward (as is much of the puppet action) but the Andersons love their gadgets and their vehicles and, as silly as some of this science fantasy show is, it is a blast for its in souped-up submersibles, led by the state-of-the-art Stingray, and for the colorful design and creative science of the show. The blue-skinned Aquaphibian spy on the surface is played a Peter Lorre clone, right down to the sniveling dialogue. It’s odd and kitschy enough but still a warm-up to the more accomplished Anderson programs that followed, specifically Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. “Anything can happen in the next half hour!”
39 episodes plus commentary on select episodes and a featurette among the supplements.