Blu-Ray Theatre Vol. Deux
Welcome to another round up of that new fancy digital format. Amid all the controversies over this remaster or that cropping, at least we’re getting a new wave of title releases that appeals to the cultist or connoisseur, such as PIRANHA (1979) and THE HUSTLER (1963). So far my biggest gripe is the horrible packaging (outside Criterion) that eschews the perfectly fine original posters for badly photo-shopped slap-jobs (the Paul Newman on the cover of THE HUSTLER is from a different film!) that look like cheap GoodTimes leftovers. And now, on with the show…
FLASH GORDON (1980) – Certain films are perfectly enhanced by Blu-Ray such as this beloved and maligned superproduction from Dino DeLaurentis in his attempt to wrest box-office from the STAR WARS audience (on which FLASH GORDON was the obvious inspiration). Directed by Mike Hodges (GET CARTER), written by Lorenzo Semple Jr (THE PARALLAX VIEW; KING KONG), the film instantly stumbles by placing Sam Jones as the title icon, a model with no acting experience outside of THE DATING GAME and whose voice was ultimately dubbed. Jones looks great but the script gives him little in the way of character outside of his NFL background and All-American outlook. Melody Anderson is a more vivacious Dale Arden and Topol is the enthusiastic Dr. Zarkov. The casting triumphs here include Timothy Dalton as the conflicted Prince Barin, Brian Blessed as Prince Vultun of the flying Hawkmen, and of course, Max Von Sydow’s Ming The Merciless, who nails the outre nature of his role (it’s nice to Richard O’Brien in there too). Ultimately, Semple’s glib contempt for the material damns the film from emotional engagement (which doesn’t take away from his better credits, but his condescension is one of the reasons FLASH GORDON didn’t work for big audiences). The Queen theme is ridiculous but Howard Blake’s score within is quite lovely and effective. Hodges was an unusual choice to direct, his tough, laconic features betraying no talent for widescreen action fantasy and so scenes lack the pulp poetry required — exactly what George Lucas did with STAR WARS. As for the Blu-Ray, this is a spectacular eye-popping print, highlighting Gil Taylor’s 70mm comic book sheen and the most successful element of the film: Fellini art director Danilo Donati’s glorious sets and costumes that deserved a much better film. Flash!
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) – This is easily the most incredible Blu-Ray release I’ve yet seen, remastered in 8K 1080p for a stunning transfer, justifying everything proclaimed about the advantages of the format — the image is gorgeous and you can even see the wood grain on the phone booths. This is the first Alfred Hitchcock film released on Blu-Ray, and my second favorite by the Master, the modern version of his revisited “Innocent Man On The Run” theme, and a paragon of cinematic wit, class and adventure. Ernest Lehman’s script is masterful, packed with great lines, particularly the best in the film: “What is this, some kind of joke?” “Yes – we will laugh in the car.” Hitchcock was firing on all cylinders, such as his beautiful crane shot as James Mason suggests that his ex-lover will have to be disposed of at “great height.” Cary Grant’s last great film and performance; him and Eve Marie-Saint also make a sexy couple on the run. And I love Grant’s outrageous bids at the auction. Martin Landau’s fey, creepy sidekick adds to the brew while Hitchcock pulls out all the VistaVision stops, his cinematic skill at their height. Of course, Bernard Hermann’s stirring music over Saul Bass’s awesome vertical titles sound exactly like a compass-spanning theme as befits this stylish, wonderful, film escapade. This is why you would want a Blu-Ray player.
THE OMEGA MAN (1971) – The second of Charles Heston’s Sci-Fi Dystopia Trilogy that includes PLANET OF THE APES (1967) and SOYLENT GREEN (1973) makes a nifty, remastered Blu-Ray, crisp and clean only minor grain as could be expected from a film with TV level production values directed by TV veteran Boris Sagal. Based on Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” novella about a lone survivor versus plague zombies, this 70’s version gives us Heston watching WOODSTOCK repeatedly in a theater (how he perceives its dystopic cultural value is open to post-modernist debate) and playing chess with a military-adorned headbust in the ultimate survivalist lovepad. Throw in the obligatory blaxploitation element in the form of Rosalind Cash — and her rag-tag tea of ethnic flower children, replete with Heston and Cash in a semi-nude love scene that caused some press at the time, sealing Heston’s ironic run as tragic progressive hero of the early 70’s. Anthony Zerbe is not well-used as the plague leader Mathhias, but the situational tension between him and Heston is effective. Ron Grainer’s funky soundtrack is a major plus, if you accept the film for the genre time capsule that it is. Plus, Charlton Heston rides a motorcycle through fire. Blu-Ray extras include a fascinating “Making Of” featurette from 1971 with Heston pontificating to a social scientist among the studio sets. I’ve seen THE OMEGA MAN enough times to know just how the last man on Earth feels watching WOODSTOCK over and over…
THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009) – My second favorite film of 2009 after INGLORIOUS BASTERDS was this wonderful ode to a more simple and innocent era of stop-motion puppetry, reminiscent of the Rankin-Bass specials but with more loving concern for detail and character. Based on Roald Dahl’s children story about a wayward Fox and his family as they try to survive living on the edge of a farmer’s paradise, Wes Anderson directs the film imminently suited to his gentle, eccentric and big-hearted diorama style. The Fox family is expertly voiced by George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman — all who deserved some kind of award for animated acting — and William Dafoe is awesome as the wicked rat foil to the foxes. The Blu-Ray looks as lovely as the warm summer hues of Mr. Fox’s countryside and comes with a few production features. I hope Criterion gets on this one at some point. THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX is in my top list of Wes Anderson’s films and I was sold on this the second “Heroes & Villains” came on over the credits. You cussin’ me? Don’t cuss with me!
HOUSE (1977) – I’ve been wanting to see this surrealist comedy-horror since reading about in the pages of Greg Shoemaker’s essential “Japanese Fantasy Film Journal” fanzine from the 1970’s. Thanks to Janus Films, who rescued and released this to US arthouse exclaim in 2009, and Criterion, that day has come and I’m pleased to say that HOUSE is one of the wildest, strangest movies I’ve ever seen, making SKIDOO look like Ozu. Even for extreme Japanese pop cinema, the film defies genre antecedents. All I can say that if Mario Bava and Federico Fellini had sex orchestrated by Sam Raimi and Baz Lurhmann, the film baby would be HOUSE. I was expecting an outre ghost story but instead watched a gaggle of archetypal schoolgirls named “Gorgeous,” Fantasy,” “Melody,” “Prof” and “Mac” (for stomach) ride an animated train to a fairy-tale landscape and the titular structure, wherein a mysterious Aunt is quite hungry to see them… That’s all you’ll get from me on the plot, more an excuse for experimental ad director Nobuhio Obayashi to unleash every cinematic trick or effect in a metaphoric dream/nightmare of filial separation amid menstrual anxiety in live-action manga format. The film was so strange yet popular with youth that Toho pulled it from release, fearing it would damage Japanese cinema (!), but it must have had a big influence on Hong Kong filmmakers as it sometimes stylistically looks like a Tsui Hark ghost martial arts tale (I particularly love the theme music for the “Kung Fu” character who leaps into action whenever required). The wall-to-wall score is quite engaging, threatening to turn the film into a musical at any point – which it kinda is. And isn’t. I don’t know what the hell HOUSE is except my favorite film of the year.
SIN CITY (2005) – Robert Rodriguez’s best feature film dares what few studios have done by adapting Frank Miller’s graphic noir novel to the screen by simply transcribing the style, panels and dialogue to the motion picture format. This Blu-Ray release (with an extended cut) is a must have, the contrasting colors surreal and sparkling in all their gory, gritty glory. There’s a bounty of extras including terrific commentary with a few special guests and the green-screen scenes minus their CG overlay. As for the film, the three twining stories feature one of the coolest casts of the aughts, with Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke born to their roles. Clive Owen and Benecio Del Toro are just dandy; there’s even one scene directed by Tarantino (won’t tell you which if you haven’t seen it. Once you do, you’ll go Ah!) and a bevy of Miller-esque dames and damsels. This is what Warren Beatty’s admirable, similarly designed DICK TRACY (1990) strived for but didn’t quite achieve, that synthesis between the kinetics of sequential art and the rhythm of motion pictures. Fortunately, Robert Rodriguez’s staccato style perfectly matches Frank Miller’s cinematic technique, with quick cuts and iconic posing amid serious violence and depravity. This is an engrossing film and I love its sheer visual audacity, a testament to Rodriguez’s lone Texas wolf vision and his generous insistence that Miller share directing credit. Again, SIN CITY belongs to Willis at his noble, hard-boiled best and Rourke, a gentle savage in a cold, cruel, sometimes beautiful world gone bad.
COMMANDO (1985) – Shitty governor. Great movie. Good as can be transfer with great sound. Doesn’t deserve to look too good. Slice of extra greasy 80’s terminator porn. Points for director’s Mark Lester’s drive-in theatrics on a studio budget. Much cartoon violence. Rae Dawn Chong a cute and unusual reluctant sidekick. David Patrick Kelly gets it good. Dan Hedaya is a Cuban dictator something and gets it good. Vernon Wells has best underrated line of the film (“I love it when your men talk tough,” he sneers) and gets it ridiculous with a pipe. Never come back, Arnold.
FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) – This seminal 1950’s science fiction Cinemascope epic from MGM remains the cornerstone for the pulp future genre, and while I’ve never loved the film the way some do (or are supposed to), this glorious Blu-Ray release raises my affection. Based oh so loosely on Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST (earlier drafts do feature a talking wind-up robot and a giant invisible monster but were deleted when the Bard awoke from his opium reverie), the story has loftier thematics than the usual bug-eyed monster fare of the era, with a button-down Earth team arriving on Altair IV to rescue Dr. Morbius and his sexy daughter, Alta (Anne Francis to you RHPS fans). The space crew are the archetypal movie 40’s/50’s officers and soldiers, replete with a hillbilly cook (Earl Holliman) and stiff, square Commander (Leslie Nielsen before he could parody that style). The script has a unique, creepy implication for Morbius’s manifestion of the ID monster that reflects the 50’s Freudian bent, and Walter Pidgeon is the most interesting actor here — next to Robby The Robot. Of course, the coolest thing about FORBIDDEN PLANET is the state of the art effects for the decade, and the shots of the C-57D Cruiser spinning through the space are still awesome. The Josh Meador animated “invisible” creature and the labyrinthic labs of the long-dead Krell aliens are the film’s visual highlights, sci-fi cinematic poetry at its best while the first electronic soundtrack is still a dynamic, audacious component. The Blu-Ray has a galaxy of cool extras, such as three documentaries, deleted footage/spfx outtakes and even THE INVISIBLE KID, the 1957 “sequel” featuring Robby The Robot. Watching FORBIDDEN PLANET in such a colorful, spectacular format gives the film a new life that a squished television image failed to illuminate for my childhood ID.