Monday, August 12, 2013

SUPERBOY - THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON

The fine folks at Warner Archive have recently released the third season of the 1989-1992 syndicated (THE ADVENTURES OF) SUPERBOY television series, as  3-disc manufactured-on-demand DVD set.

This third season was superior to the previous two, with a major change in the premise (and setting) as Shuster College students Clark Kent (Gerard Christopher) and Lana Lang (Stacy Haiduk, SEAQUEST DSV) going to work as interns for a government agency known as the Bureau For Extranormal Matters, which investigated strange and unexplainable occurrences and creatures... including a certain caped Kryptonian.

The tone (and cinematography) of the series got a lot darker (probably influenced, like the prime-time FLASH series of the same vintage, by the success of Tim Burton's BATMAN the year before), and the stories were a lot more interesting, including a couple of imaginative two-parters where Superboy travels to alternate Earths and discovers different paths he could have taken - in one, he's killed Lex Luthor (Sherman Howard, DAY OF THE DEAD) and in another, he rules the Earth as the tyrannical "Sovereign." He also encounters an adult version of himself, played by Ron Ely (TV's Tarzan and the big screen's Doc Savage)!  Another memorable episode has a Kryptonite-weakened Superboy and Lex Luthor trapped together in a mine cave-in, forced to work together to survive. The episode was written by actor Sherman Howard, and is a surprisingly effective character piece.

I admit it - I'm a fan of the show. While not every episode is a gem, I dig it's Silver Age-styled stories (the writers understood the character a lot better than his current corporate and creative custodians, that's for sure) - honestly, I'd rather watch this show over SMALLVILLE any day. Several of the better episodes are directed by David Nutter, who would go on to be a regular director on THE X-FILES.

The Warner Archive 3-disc set includes all 26 episodes of the third season, presented in their original 4x3, 1.37.1 television aspect ratio. The picture quality is pretty good, but suffers from the late-80s production method of shooting on film, but then transferring the footage to video for editing and post-production special effects. This results in an unavoidably soft image overall. Audio is a satisfactory Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. There are no extras included.

SUPERBOY is a product of its time, written and produced for a presumed adolescent audience. The stories are unabashedly "comic booky," but I find that refreshing. It's also just great to be able see these shows again, since, due to a bunch of legal wranglings in the 90s, these shows never aired in U.S. after their original run. If you're a fan of the Superman/boy character, and especially if you're a fan of this series, this is the season you've been waiting for. Recommended.

BUYSuperboy: The Complete Third Season

Thursday, August 8, 2013

BOMBA THE JUNGLE BOY: VOL. 1

When he was just eight years old, the ebullient Johnny Sheffield was chosen to portray the adopted son "Boy," of the legendary Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) in MGM's jungle adventure TARZAN FINDS A SON (1939). Seven years and eight Tarzan films later, the character of Boy was written out of the series, but Sheffield wasn't done with the jungle quite yet. In order to pay for college, the strapping young actor quickly signed on with Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures to headline a dozen of his own vine-swinging capers as the heroic BOMBA THE JUNGLE BOY, loosely based on a children's book series by "Roy Rockwood."

The first six of these - BOMBA THE JUNGLE BOY (1949), BOMBA ON PANTHER ISLAND (1949), THE LOST VOLCANO (1950), THE HIDDEN CITY (1950), THE LION HUNTERS (1951) and ELEPHANT STAMPEDE (1951) - all directed by Ford Beebe, have recently been released on manufactured-to-order DVD by the fine folks at Warner Archive.

The plots of these low budget, backlot epics are all pretty similar: orphan jungle boy Bomba, who was raised by a misanthropic old naturalist (now deceased) beyond "The Great Rift," deep in the heart of the African jungle, encounters various groups of explorers or hunters hoping to exploit some native resource, be it diamonds, gold, or wild animals. These groups usually include one young, unattached female about Bomba's age as a romantic interest. The "civilized" intruders get greedy, and Bomba fights to maintain peace in his wilderness home.

Although made quickly and on a shoestring, these short (average running time of 70 minutes) B-movie adventures move briskly and are reasonably entertaining, if formulaic and predictable. Monogram's production values were admittedly low, with lots of stock animal footage of varying quality and plenty of fake foliage, but not much worse than some of the RKO Tarzan films produced around the same time.The earnest Sheffield is appealing and athletic, even if the writers tend to make him a little dim, and the supporting casts are filled out with an array of talented character actors of the time.

The Warner Archive set is quite decent, with the six movies spread out across three discs. All are presented in their original, 4x3, 1.33:7 aspect ratio, and are sourced from very decent prints. There are some specks and scratches, and a little age-related wear/damage, but overall, they're quite watchable. Audio is a satisfactory 2.0 Dolby Mono. There are no bonus features in this set.

Though not as slick as the Tarzan films he appeared in for MGM (and RKO), Johnny Sheffield's tenure as jungle boy Bomba is still a lot of undemanding fun, perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon or insomniac late show. If you enjoy old B-movie jungle capers, this set comes highly recommended.

BUYBomba The Jungle Boy Volume 1

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

SOLOMON KANE (Blu-ray)

"He was . . . a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the ancient philosopher, and more than a touch of the pagan. . . . A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things. . . . Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect—he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.”

Created in the late 1920s by pulp magazine scribe Robert E. Howard (a talented, if troubled, author best known for another of his sword-wielding protagonists, Conan The Barbarian), the dour Puritan monster hunter SOLOMON KANE finally made his way to the motion picture screen in 2009... in Europe, anyway. Unfortunately, Michael J. Bassett's dark fantasy failed to garner a U.S. theatrical distribution deal, finally getting a belated Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray release from Anchor Bay Entertainment only about a month ago.

The film is an "origin story," that chronicles events that took place before those related in Howard's original pulp tales. Solomon Kane (James Purefoy, ROME, JOHN CARTER) is a savage mercenary and pirate who renounces his life of violence after discovering that his eternal soul is forfeit and he is doomed to eternity in Hell. When a young Puritan girl is kidnapped and her family murdered by the followers of the sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng, PRIMEVAL), he once again takes up arms and seeks redemption by battling evil.

Although not strictly faithful to the Word, SOLOMON KANE nonetheless captures the spirit of the Bob Howard pulp adventures in a way that no other REH adaptation has yet approached. The screenplay is a bit too Hollywood boilerplate - and, thus, predictable - but the film as a whole rises above its script's over-familiar conventions and is, ultimately, a superior entertainment. Production design, casting, photography and musical score are well above par.

James Purefoy is note-perfect as the grim swordsman, and writer/director Michael Bassett keeps the film moving at a fair clip while still allowing the characters time to earn the audience's sympathy/empathy. Also notable is the terrific musical score by Klaus Badelt and the gorgeous cinematography by Dan Lausten.

As for the special effects, yeah, there are a few dodgy CGI bits in the beginning and some cartoon demons in the mix, but it is a sword & sorcery saga, after all. I've heard more than a few complaints about the end of the film, too, but it mostly worked for me. Compared to every big budget Hollywood fantasy film I've seen in the last 5+ years, the climactic scene of SOLOMON KANE was positively restrained in its use of CGI; it was hardly the sort of pixelated overkill/cartoon orgy that's become de rigueur these days.

Anchor Bay's Blu-ray presentation is technically excellent, with a stunning 2.35:1 1080p HD widescreen transfer. SOLOMON KANE is a very dark film visually, as well as in tone, and Anchor Bay's high-definition transfer handles the copious blacks and subdued color palette with aplomb, and still provides remarkable detail and texture. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is equally excellent; clear and rich. Extras include an audio commentary by Bassett and Purefoy, a "Making Of" featurette, a special effects featurette, seperate interviews with Bassett and Purefoy, original concept art, and a deleted action scene.

In the end, though SOLOMON KANE is not a perfect film, nor a literal adaptation of Howard's prose, I loved the movie. It is the best sword & sorcery flick I've seen in ages, and far better than the most recent CONAN film. And though some fans would disagree, I suspect that Kane's creator, the two-fisted pulp author from Cross Plains, Texas, would have gotten a kick out of it, too. Recommended.

BUYSolomon Kane [Blu-ray]

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION

It's been about three years since the last DVD release, but four more late-period Charlie Chan mysteries from Monogram Studios are coming to DVD today, courtesy of Warner Home Entertainment's latest CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION

I had never seen any of these four particular crime capers - SHADOWS OVER CHINATOWN, DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS, SHANGHAI CHEST and THE GOLDEN EYE - which were produced on a shoestring by the legendary Poverty Row studio, before receiving this attractively-boxed four disc set, but as an unrepentant B-mystery & Chan fan, I enjoyed them all.

SHADOWS OVER CHINATOWN (1946) is the best of  this particular lot, and marks the last of the Sidney Toler Chan films to make it to DVD. Directed by Terry Morse, it's a nicely convoluted tale of missing persons, multiple identities and murder, set in San Francisco. Toler is his usual sly self, and with the help of #2 son, Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), and chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland), the famed Asian-American sleuth soon has the web of deception untangled.

DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS (1948), like the remainder of the films in this collection, stars Roland Winters as Chan. In this one, directed by Derwin Abrahams, Chan and his aides attempt to solve the murder of the head of a chemical syndicate. The script for this movie is recycled from Monogram Studios' earlier "Mr. Wong" film series, and doesn't quite feel like a proper Charlie Chan mystery. 

SHANGHAI CHEST (1948) is a slight improvement, as Chan attempts to solve a series of murders that, according to the fingerprints found at the scenes of the crimes, appears to have been committed by a dead man. Directed by the notoriously quick William "One Take" Beaudine.

THE GOLDEN EYE (1948) is better still, with Chan and company heading to Arizona to investigate strange happenings in and around a gold mine, the titular "Golden Eye." This Beaudine-helmed entry actually has some outdoor location shooting and slightly less-formulaic plot, and makes a nice change from the other, often claustrophobic, set-bound entries.

All of these flicks are from the final days of the franchise and were shot on very low budgets, with limited sets, very few exteriors, and hastily composed scripts. The pacing in most of them is too leisurely for their brief running times, and they generally lack the snappy dialogue and challenging puzzles of the earlier, Fox-produced Chan films. 

I also don't care much for Roland Winters' portrayal of the detective. It's not that he's notably taller & younger than his predecessors, although both factors hinder my acceptance of him in the role. It's more that while Warner Oland and Sidney Toler each played the Honolulu detective differently, they were both playing Charlie Chan. Winters acts like he's doing a Chan "impression" rather than creating a character of his own. (It also irks me that, for some unknown reason, in Winters' films, Victor Sen Yung's #2 son character is called "Tommy," rather than "Jimmy." Everyone knows that Tommy is #3 son!)

Warners' CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION features all four movies in their own Amray cases, tucked into a sturdy, colorful, cardboard box. Each movie is presented in their original 4x3, 1.33:7 Academy aspect ratio, and are transferred from astoundingly clean prints. Picture quality is generally excellent, with good contrast, solid blacks, and virtually no distracting scratches, specks or other print damage. Audio is equally satisfactory, presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono with nary a pop or hiss to be heard. There are no supplements or bonus material provided.

For Charlie Chan completists, the set is an essential purchase, and fans of Forties B-movie mysteries should enjoy it too. As I said, these are from the late period of the long-running series and do not measure up to many of the earlier installments in terms of production value or story. But they're still entertaining, and the impoversished productions do have their own simple charms. Recommended.

BUYCharlie Chan: Collection

Friday, May 3, 2013

CREEPY CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE VOL 2 - THE CRAWLING HAND / THE SLIME PEOPLE

VCI Entertainment strikes again with the CREEPY CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE VOL 2, an enjoyably awful Z-movie double bill consisting of a couple of drive-in classics from 1963: THE CRAWLING HAND and THE SLIME PEOPLE!

In THE CRAWLING HAND, an American astronaut is possessed by a malevolent alien force while returning from a moon mission, and ground controllers are forced to destroy his ship on re-entry. But one of the spaceman's arms (and hand, 'natch) survives the blast and washes up on a beach, where it is found by a young medical student  named Paul (Rod Lauren). He stashes the dismembered appendage in his landlady's pantry, only to discover too late that it has an evil will of its own! Soon, his landlady's dead, and the local sheriff (Alan Hale, GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) wants to hang Paul for it. Can a couple of investigating NASA scientists find the creepy Crawling Hand and clear poor Paul of the crime?

Directed by Herbert L. Strock (I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, GOG), THE CRAWLING HAND is a surprisingly entertaining 88 minutes of cinematic schlock. The special effects are ludicrous, the script is banal and there's nary a thrill or chill to be had - but it's somehow compelling. Maybe it's the earnest performances of its cast, or maybe its the sweetshop jukebox constantly playing the Rivington's hit, "The Bird." Who knows? But I enjoyed it.

In THE SLIME PEOPLE, Los Angeles is overrun and conquered (before the movie starts) by the titular subterranean reptile men, who have enclosed the city in a bubble of impenetrable "hard fog." The film chronicles the harrowing adventures of a small group of survivors as they attempt to evade the slow-moving, spear-carrying invaders from beneath the Earth's crust, and somehow make their escape from the City of Angels.

While the plot makes little sense - it's never really satisfactorily explained just how the awkward Slime People defeated the city's better-armed U.S. military defenders, for example - and the shoestring budget is always evident, the movie somehow manages to work... if just barely. There's a palpable sense of dread and menace throughout the film (aided, in no small part, by the omnipresent fog), the Slime People suits are surprisingly well-designed and executed, and there are some excellent stunts during the film's infrequent action scenes. The cast is pretty good, too.

VCI presents both of these exploitation favorites in 1.78: 1/16x9 anamorphic widescreen, with solid transfers culled from remarkably nice prints. There's a little bit of speckling and other minor defects in evidence throughout, but nothing particularly distracting. Contrast and detail is very good, too - both films were previously released on VHS and DVD by Rhino Home Video, and VCI's transfers are much superior. As with the first CREEPY CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE volume, VCI has secured the participation of genre film historian Tom Weaver, who provides an interesting audio interview with SLIME CREATURES star Susan Hart. The original theatrical trailers of both films are also included.

As with Volume 1, the CREEPY CREATURES DOUBLE FEATURE VOL. 2 is a terrific addition to any monster movie fan's DVD library. Both movies are nostalgic gems and are presented in fine form by VCI Entertainment. Highly recommended.

BUYVol. 2-Crawling Hand/Slime People

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

THE BOWERY BOYS - VOLUME TWO

The comedy team known as THE BOWERY BOYS began their long film career as the "Dead End Kids" in 1937's eponymous DEAD END, famed producer Samuel Goldwyn's hard look at how poverty, social neglect, and the mythologizing of gangsters could turn urban kids into delinquents hellbent down a sordid path of desperation, crime and inevitably violent ends. The "Kids" would eventually star in a handful of very serious, socially conscious Warner Brothers crime films.

Over the next decade, the Kids evolved into the comic "Little Tough Guys" and the "East Side Kids," before finally settling into the "Bowery Boys" identity at Poverty Row studio Monogram in 1946. By this time, the serious social commentary had been replaced by purely lowbrow, slapstick comedy.
Anchored by two of the original stars from DEAD END - Leo Gorcey as bossy "Slip" Mahoney, and Huntz Hall as his  idiotic sidekick "Satch" - the Bowery Boys parlayed their juvenile antics into a successful comic formula that packed the kids in for Saturday matinees for twelve years and a record 48 feature films!

Warner Archive has recently released a dozen of the team's films in the BOWERY BOYS VOLUME 2 collection. This 4-disc set includes the titles SPOOK BUSTERS, HARD BOILED MAHONEY, BOWERY BUCKAROOS, SMUGGLER'S COVE, GHOST CHASERS, LET'S GO NAVY!, HOLD THAT LINE, LOOSE IN LONDON, CLIPPED WINGS, PRIVATE EYES, THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS and HIGH SOCIETY. The titles alone give you pretty much all you need to know about the respective plots.

Directed by efficient, low-budget veterans like William "One-Shot" Beaudine (BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA, BILLY THE KID VS DRACULA) and Three Stooges ringmaster Edward Bernds (HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS, THE QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE), these brief comedies (averaging about 70 minutes apiece), are briskly-paced romps, packed with slapstick humor, unrelenting sight gags, and goofy verbal byplay between the two stars (spiced up by Gorcey's trademark malapropisms, uttered in exaggerated Brooklynese). It's formula stuff, but it's also reliably entertaining.

The 4-disc, Manufactured-On-Demand set from Warner Archive is surprisingly nice, with solid, good-looking B&W transfers from very well-preserved source prints, presented in their original, 1.37:1/4x3 aspect ratio (except for MEET THE MONSTERS and HIGH SOCIETY, which are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen). Audio is a clear and robust Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. There are no bonus features.

If you grew up watching these movies on television in the Sixties and Seventies (as many of my friends did), and you're a fan of the team, then these DVDs are well worth adding to your home video library. The technical presentation is excellent, and the nostalgia value is high. Recommended.

BUYThe Bowery Boys: Volume Two

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

CREEPY CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE VOL 1 - MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR / SERPENT ISLAND

VCI Entertainment has recently released two volumes of CREEPY CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURES, containing vintage drive-in era monster movies. Volume One contains Roger Corman's first film as producer, MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR (1954) and the never-before-on-home video SERPENT ISLAND (also 1954).

MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR is a talky, shoestring effort, chronicling a young woman's (Anne Kimbell) search for an amorphous sea creature lurking beneath the waves off the Mexican coast (although actually shot at Catalina Island, California). Aiding her in her search is a smitten and skeptical marine biologist (Stuart Wade, TEENAGE MONSTER) with a nifty, one-man mini submarine.

Directed by Wyatt Ordung (TARGET EARTH, ROBOT MONSTER), MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR is an hour and five minutes' worth of  undemanding entertainment. It's a bit slow, but occasionally suspenseful, and if the final reveal of the titular sea beast is a bit underwhelming, it does have its 50s, Z-movie charms.

The companion feature, SERPENT ISLAND, is a nearly unwatchable "adventure" film starring Sonny Tufts (CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON) as a alcholic bum, pretty Rosalind Hayes as a secretary, and Tom Munro as a cranky sea captain, all searching for a lost treasure in the Carribbean. This ultra-low budget color film, shot on 16mm Kodachrome for a reported $18,000, is padded with nearly endless stock footage of island flora and fauna, including Haitian voodoo ceremonies. It plods to its anticlimax so slowly that its brief 63 minute running time is a truly trying endurance test.

SERPENT ISLAND was the first feature of writer/director Tom Gries, who went on to much bigger and better things, directing tons of television in the 60s & 70s (and creating THE RAT PATROL), before helming a number of fine films, including the Charles Bronson vehicle BREAKHEART PASS and the Raquel Welch/Jim Brown Western, 100 RIFLES. The movie was shot by cinematographer Bert I. Gordon, who went on to be a prolific B-movie filmmaker (BEGINNING OF THE END, FOOD OF THE GODS, etc.)

VCI presents both films on one disc, presented in their original 4x3, 1.37:1 aspect ratios. MONSTER looks a bit faded but otherwise clean and sharp. SERPENT ISLAND has faded colors and some minor print damage, but, bearing in mind that it was shot on the cheap and incorporates so much stock footage of varying quality, it looks okay. Both films feature somewhat tinny mono audio.

The disc includes a handful of extras, including a terrific phone interview with Roger Corman conducted by genre film historian Tom Weaver, who also supplies an audio film trivia featurette. The disc is rounded out with a handful of deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer for MONSTER.

Fans of vintage trash filmmaking should enjoy this fun and nostalgic trip back to the 50s. Recommended.

BUYVol. 1-Monster from the Ocean Floor/Serpent Island

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

MESSAGE FROM SPACE

In the wake of the unprecedented box office bounty of George Lucas' seminal STAR WARS in 1977, filmmakers around the world raced to unveil their own epic space operas, all hoping to strike gold mining the same cosmic vein.  Among the most prominent of these international productions was Toei Studios' MESSAGE FROM SPACE (UCHU KARA NO MESSEJI), distributed in the United States in the Autumn of 1978 by United Artists... and which has now received a new Region 1 DVD release from Shout! Factory.

The planet Jillucia has been conquered by the Gavanas Empire, its natural beauty devastated after years of war. The few survivors call upon their gods and are given eight magic seeds (that look like walnuts), which they send out into the universe to find eight champions to help Jillucia overthrow its conquerors. The seeds end up in the hands of a motley crew - including a disgraced Earth general Garuda (Vic Morrow, COMBAT!) and his robot, a couple of young "space hot rodders" (Philip Casnoff, DOLLHOUSE, and Hiroyuki Sanada, LOST), a thrill-seeking heiress (Peggy Lee Brennan), and an exiled Gavanas prince (Sonny Chiba, STREETFIGHTER, KILL BILL). Ultimately, these individuals embrace their destiny and unite to face the evil Empire and save Earth from destruction.

Fast-paced, absurd and fun, director Kinji Fukasaku's (BATTLE ROYALE, THE GREEN SLIME) MESSAGE FROM SPACE is a giddily insane interplanetary samurai fantasy, loaded with space dogfights, laser battles, swordplay and explosions. The miniature effects are extraordinarily well-crafted, and the production design is lavish. The cast is pretty good, too; I really like Morrow as the noble, drunken Garuda, and, of course, Sonny Chiba rocks as the ronin-like Prince Hans.  Etsuko Shihomi - better known to cult film fans as "Sue Shiomi" of the SISTER STREETFIGHTER films - makes a lovely space princess, even if her character is sadly under-used and she never gets to demonstrate any of her legendary ass-kicking skills.

 The story owes as much to traditional Japanese chambara (samurai cinema) as it does to George Lucas' space opera, and while Western audiences might find it both convoluted and juvenile (especially the magic, glowing walnuts!), I actually find it to be a rather charming outer space fairy tale.

Previously available in the United States on a region-free import disc from Eastern Star (reviewed HERE), MESSAGE FROM SPACE has just garnered its first authorized Region 1 home video release from Shout! Factory. Shout's disc sports a 2.00:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from the United Artist's U.S. version. Content-wise, this is nigh-identical to the Japanese cut on the Eastern Star DVD; the only apparent difference being the English titles and a very slightly wider image. Overall, the source material is in good shape, if a bit soft and grainy; only a very few errant specks and spots mar the image. It does appear a bit fuzzier and darker than the Eastern Star DVD, though.

Unlike the Eastern Star disc, Shout offers only the English language audio track, in Dolby Digital Mono. Supplemental material includes the English and Japanese trailers, a still gallery containing production art and photos. Finally, there is a text feature on the cast of the film and an 8-page booklet with liner notes, both provided by the always-knowledgeable Asian film expert, August Ragone.

If you enjoy Asian fantasy films or 70s space opera, you owe it to yourself to check out MESSAGE FROM SPACE.

BUYMessage From Space

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

FLASH GORDON - THE COMPLETE SERIES

I'm a big fan of the character of Flash Gordon, created in 1934 by cartoonist Alex Raymond. I love (and collect) the original comic strip, the comic books, novels, 30s movie serials, cartoons and even the 1980 feature film. The basic premise of an ordinary man from Earth rocketing to an exotic, alien world and uniting its oppressed inhabitants against a merciless tyrant - well, it's classic fantasy adventure. When the SciFi Channel announced in 2007 that they were going to air a "fresh, new" FLASH GORDON television series, I was cautiously optimistic... until I saw the first few press releases and photos. I didn't have cable at the time (I still don't, actually), so I never got to see if the show lived down to my low expectations, or actually turned out okay... until now. This week, Mill Creek Entertainment released the complete 22 episode series on DVD for the first time (in the U.S.).

In this re-imagined FLASH, the titular character, Steven "Flash" Gordon (Eric Johnson), is a small-town auto mechanic and marathon runner who lives at home with his mother. His father, a scientist working on something called the "The Portage Project," supposedly died in a laboratory fire several years ago. In the course of one very eventful day, his old high school girlfriend, Dale Arden (Gina Holden) returns to town as a local TV reporter, an eccentric scientist named Hans Zarkov (Jody Raciot) shows up, claiming to have been his father's colleague, and a ray gun-wielding armored alien appears out of a "rift" in the air (remember SLIDERS?). The alien is from an extradimensional planet called Mongo, which is ruled over by a blond-haired, perpetually constipated-looking despot named Ming (John Ralston). Over the next 22 episodes, Flash and his friends (which include a sexy renegade female bounty hunter from Mongo named Baylin) attempt to foil Ming's efforts to use the "rift" technology to conquer Earth, and seek the truth about he fate of Flash's dad.

Based on the evidence at hand, it appears that the producers' mandate was to take everything that made the property interesting and popular for 70 years and... discard all of it. The planet Mongo has had almost every fantastic element removed - no more varied nonhuman races, no more floating cities or rocketships, no winged hawkmen (now they're "dactyls," with glider capes) or water breathing sharkmen. No, this Mongo is portrayed simply as red-tinted Canadian woodland locations, cramped sets, and one under-detailed CGI cityscape. Flash and company spend more screen time in exotic, far-off suburban Maryland (actually British Columbia) than Mongo, and there are no rocketships or space travel. (In fact, Mongo doesn't even appear to have vehicles of any sort - everyone walks. Must be a small planet.) In other words, the show is a very cheap production, and every aspect has been downscaled to match that shoestring budget.

The casting is a mixed bag. Eric Johnson is an amiable, charismatic Flash, and even somewhat resembles actor Steve Holland, who played the character in a 1950s TV series. Gina Holden is an equally likable Dale Arden, smart, attractive, and admirably strong-minded. John Ralston, however, makes a very unimposing Ming - he's the shortest member of the cast and underplays the role to the point of somnambulism. Unlike the comic strip version of the character, he controls the populace of Mongo not through fear and terror, but by controlling the planet's only water supply, which reduces him to basically a 90s-styled Eurotrash gangster. (Mongo looks remarkably lush for a supposedly water-poor world, but I digress.) Anna Van Hooft, as Ming's bratty daughter Aura, is very pretty, but wooden, a description which also applies to most of the other supporting players as well.

Notable guest stars include Steve Bacic (ANDROMEDA, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: RAZOR), and movie Flash, Sam J. Jones, who shows up for one episode as a prisoner of Ming's dungeons.

Mill Creek's new DVD set includes all 22 episodes on four discs, formatted to a 16x9, 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio. picture quality is basically flawless, and the audio is crisp and clear. There are no extras included.

So, what if you're not already a fan of the classic Flash Gordon? Does the series work on its own as a science fiction adventure show? Yes, but it's still not particularly good. Change the names, and you'd still have an underachiever of a genre show, with a likable cast, but a derivative, uninspired storyline realized in the cheapest possible manner. Fans of the show - and I'm sure there are some - will appreciate having it available on DVD for their home collections (especially as it retails for only about $10), but it's hard to recommend FLASH GORDON to anyone else.

BUYFlash Gordon - The Complete Series

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

GORGO (Blu-ray)

Very few motion picture directors have been quite as narrowly typecast as Eugène Lourié. An accomplished film Art Director/Designer, he made only four features as a director and three of them were giant monster movies. (One can argue that his fourth, THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, fit into that genre as well, but it didn't have a rampaging prehistoric beast like the other three.) His final directorial effort was 1961's GORGO, now on Blu-ray disc from VCI Entertainment.

A pair of maritime salvage experts (Bill Travers & William Sylvester) discover a 30-foot tall prehistoric reptile off the Scottish coast. They capture the critter and bring it to London, where they exhibit it in a circus. Soon, however, scientists discover that the beastie - nicknamed Gorgo - is only an infant, and that its parent is ten times bigger.... and on her way to London to rescue her baby. Not even the British Navy can deter the gargantuan lizard from her mission, and soon she's wading up the Thames toward the heart of the city....

Famous for its "happy ending" (for the monsters, anyway), it's said that after making two dinosaur movies where the creatures had ultimately been killed by man (THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH), Lourié wanted to make one where the monsters triumphed for a change. Produced by independent American producers, the King Brothers, and filmed at MGM's British Studios, GORGO is a terrific entertainment with solid performances, a smart script, and - for the time - state of the art special effects. Gorgo himself is realized through Godzilla-like "man-in-suit" techniques, but the costume is unique and marvelously convincing. Some of the bluescreen and optically generated "fog" effects don't hold up quite as well, but overall, the flick delivers plenty of spectacle and monstrous destruction.

VCI has previously released GORGO twice on DVD, with a quality upgrade between releases. This new, high definition edition offers even more improvement in picture and audio, with a brand new, digitally restored, 1080p HD, 1.78:1 widescreen transfer from a recently unearthed print. Compared to previous editions, there is a significant improvement in both color and detail. It looks really good, but it still doesn't - and can't - look like a modern film. The movie is full of Old School optical effects, which, due to the nature of how they were executed, inevitably degrade image quality. Thus, much of the movie still looks a bit soft, and the extensive stock footage sequences still look battered, with lots of damage & "dirt." A vintage special effects movie like this needs to be graded on a curve, and when judged fairly, this is a very fine presentation of a technically troublesome, 50 year-old motion picture.

Supplemental material on this HD edition includes THE NINTH WONDER OF THE WORLD, a new retrospective documentary; "video comic" presentations of the Charlton Comics comic book adaptation from 1961 and a European "photonovel" edition; several still galleries; an eye-opening restoration comparison; and an optional music/effects-only audio track.

Fans of classic giant monster movies should really appreciate this new HD release. While the image quality isn't perfect, it is the best that GORGO has ever looked on home video. Between that significant technical upgrade and the terrific new documentary, the GORGO Blu-ray should be considered an essential purchase.

Recommended.

BUYGorgo [Blu-ray]

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

WONDER WOMAN

For fans of comic book superheroine Wonder Woman, there's pretty much only one live-action Amazon Princess, and that's the statuesque, raven-tressed Lynda Carter, who played the role on television between 1975 and 1979.

But before Carter inherited the golden tiara and star-spangled swimsuit, blonde ex-tennis star Cathy Lee Crosby portrayed a very different incarnation of the character in a failed 1974 TV pilot film. That unsuccessful attempt, simply called WONDER WOMAN, aired as a TV movie and showed up occasionally in syndication during the 70s and 80s, but never garnered a home video release until just recently, as a Warner Archive manufactured-on-demand DVD.

Diana Prince (Crosby, COACH) is secretary to U.S. government spymaster Steve Trevor (Kaz Garas). But she is also - secretly - super agent Wonder Woman, an Amazon princess from the mysterious, females only, Paradise Island. When top secret books containing lists of American undercover agents are stolen from several U.S. embassies, Wonder Woman goes into action, tracking the mastermind responsible, a suave International criminal named Abner Smith (Ricardo Montalban, STAR TREK II). In the course of her mission, she comes into conflict with Smith's henchman Calvin (Andrew Prine, GRIZZLY) and a renegade Amazon named Ahnjayla (Anitra Ford, INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS). Can WW, in her star-spangled track suit, retrieve the secrets before they can be auctioned off to America's enemies?

Written and developed by John D.F. Black (STAR TREK, SHAFT, TROUBLE MAN) and directed by TV veteran Vincent McEveety, this WONDER WOMAN appears to be inspired by a then-recent run in the comics where the heroine had lost her powers and costume, and was portrayed as a Diana Rigg-inspired adventurer. The familiar, red, white & blue cleavage-baring costume, magic lasso and tiara are nowhere to be seen, although the famous bullet-deflecting bracelets do appear, tricked out with a variety of superspy gadgets. The pace of the film is relatively brisk, but the script is far too talky and coincidence-riddled, and the resolution of the case is an anticlimactic fizzle. The action - what little there is - is underwhelming as well, with the anticipated battle between WW and her Amazon "sister" ultimately consisting of a poorly-choreographed stick fight between obvious stunt doubles.

Despite its commercial & creative failure, the movie has long been desired by comic book buffs and superhero movie completists (and I count myself as both). The burned-to-order DVD from Warner Archive features a very bright and colorful transfer from a reasonably clean print, presented in its original 4x3 television aspect ratio. Audio is a clear Dolby Digital Mono. There are no extras or bonus features provided.

The Cathy Lee Crosby WONDER WOMAN is an amusing 70s curio, of interest really only to diehard fans of the character and the genre. That said, those fans should be quite satisfied with Warner Archive's disc.

BUYWonder Woman TV Movie Pilot (1974)

WESTWORLD (Blu-ray)

In his lifetime, best-selling author Michael Crichton saw many of his popular novels turned into movies, including THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, CONGO and JURASSIC PARK. But not content to simply turn his stories over to others to interpret cinematically, Crichton also directed several movies himself, and turned out to be a rather fine filmmaker. His first feature, WESTWORLD (1973), has recently received the HD Blu-ray treatment from Warner Home Entertainment.

Set in the then-near future, WESTWORLD tells of a high-priced amusement park/resort called Delos. Divided into three worlds - Western World, Medieval World and Roman World - the proprietors of Delos offer perfect recreations of their themed environments with remarkably lifelike androids that allow their guests the opportunity to indulge almost any whim. The androids are programmed to serve, are unable to harm a human being, and according to Delos' army of technicians, are utterly infallible. Of course, something goes wrong, as Western World guests Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin) discover when their Wild West fantasy is transformed into a nightmare by a homicidal, black-clad robot gunslinger (Yul Brynner).

WESTWORLD is a corker of a science fiction thriller, with a simple, straightforward plot (a variation of which Crichton later used for his novel, Jurassic Park), plenty of imagination, great performances, and an appropriately paranoid view of technology. The movie was a relatively low-budget effort - the three "worlds" were picked because of the easy availability of pre-existing costumes, props and sets - but it never looks especially cheap, thanks to Gene Polito's cinematography and Crichton's ingenuity. Benjamin and Brolin make engaging protagonists, and the charismatic Brynner - wearing his iconic MAGNIFICENT SEVEN cowboy costume - makes an effective, impressive killing machine.

The new Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment presents WESTWORLD in fine form, with a lovely 1080p, 2.4:1 widescreen transfer from a near-pristine source and crystal clear DTS-HD Master Audio. The film's 70s color palette looks accurate, and fine detail is very good. It won't be mistaken for a 2013 sci-fi opus, but for a 40 year-old catalog title, it looks exceptional and is a marked improvement over the previous DVD editions.

Warner has also included a couple of bonus features - and one of them is a real gem. In 1980 the CBS television network aired a very short-lived TV series spin-off called BEYOND WESTWORLD. Only five episodes were made, and the show was cancelled after just three of those five had aired. The premise was that a rogue Delos scientist was using the android technology to replace real people in positions of power in a bid to take over the world (a continuation of plot threads developed in the 1976 theatrical sequel, FUTUREWORLD). A Delos security agent (Jim McMullen) was assigned to hunt down the imposter androids and foil the evil robot master's plot. In a surprise move, Warners has included the complete 90-minute pilot episode on the disc. BEYOND WESTWORLD is presented in standard definition at its original television 4x3 aspect ratio. It's not great, but it is fun to see this all but forgotten program unearthed.

The only other extra is the original WESTWORLD theatrical trailer.

WESTWORLD is a classic 70s science fiction film, imaginatively conceived and directed by Crichton. The Warner Blu-ray is beautiful to look at and the inclusion of the BEYOND WESTWORLD pilot is a treat for fans. Highly recommended.

BUYWestworld [Blu-ray]

Monday, April 8, 2013

FROM BEYOND (Blu-ray & DVD)

"He used to bring beautiful women here... eat fine meals, drink fine wine, listen to music... but it always ended with screaming."

When Stuart Gordon made his directorial debut with 1985‘s gory adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's RE-ANIMATOR, he hit it out of the park with one of the smartest, most memorable horror films of the Eighties, and it seemed a hard act to follow. Surprisingly, his follow-up film, 1986's FROM BEYOND, was as good - if not better - than its predecessor. Now Shout! Factory brings Gordon's second stab at Lovecraft to Blu-ray as part of their new Scream Factory line.

Mad scientist Dr, Pretorius (Ted Sorel) and his assistant, Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs, RE-ANIMATOR)  create a machine that enables them, by stimulation of the pineal gland, to perceive a parallel reality populated by grotesque, monstrous beings. When their first experiment apparently leads to the death of Pretorius, a beautiful psychiatrist (Barbara Crampton, RE-ANIMATOR) and a police officer (Ken Foree, the original DAWN OF THE DEAD) escort the twitchy Tillinghast back to the isolated laboratory to re-create the experiment and prove that he didn't murder his colleague.

Loosely based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft, and filled with fantastic, pre-CGI "practical" effects, plenty of gore and slime, kinky sex and sheer, unbridled depravity, FROM BEYOND was pretty heady stuff for ’86, and suffered heavily at the hands of the MPAA, who demanded multiple trims before they’d grant it an "R" rating.In 2007, MGM released the film on DVD in an unrated "Director's Cut," which restored much of that trimmed footage.

That 2007 MGM DVD release was exceptional for its time, with a very nice transfer and a generous selection of supplemental materials. The new Scream Factory Blu-ray improves on that stellar release with a glorious 1080p HD transfer (cropped to a slightly tighter 1.78:1 aspect ratio), DTS Master Audio, and all of the DVD supplements, along with a slew of new extras.

To begin with, there are two terrific audio commentaries: one with Gordon and select members of the cast (ported over from the DVD), and the other with screenwriter Dennis Paoli (new). There are multiple "behind-the-scenes" featurettes, including a look at the film's special effects, and video interviews with Gordon, Crampton, Combs, composer Richard Band, and producer Charles Band. There are storyboards and still galleries, the original trailer, and a look at the 2007 restoration.

The enclosed DVD version includes all of the above with a standard-definition 1.78: anamorphic transfer and Dolby Digital Stereo audio.

With a talented cast that understands the genre, a unique visual look (courtesy of ace cinematographer Mac Ahlberg), and sharp direction by Gordon, FROM BEYOND stands as one of the most ambitious and original horror films of its era, and still has the power to shock and surprise today. Scream Factory's exquisite new edition, with its superb audio and visual presentation, comes highly recommended.

BUY:  From Beyond (Collector's Edition) [BluRay/DVD Combo] [Blu-ray]

THE GRAND DUEL

Thanks to Quentin Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED, interest in the Spaghetti Western genre is on the rise, and cult video label Blue Underground has responded to the demand with this new DVD edition of  1972's THE GRAND DUEL, starring genre icon Lee Van Cleef

THE GRAND DUEL is a fairly straight-forward revenge tale, with EuroWestern staple Van Cleef (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, SABATA) portraying a black-clad former lawman helping an unjustly accused fugitive (Alberto Dentice) exact justice from the wealthy family that framed him for the murder of their Patriarch.

Competently directed by Giancarlo Santi, who had worked as a second unit director for Sergio Leone on THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, from a screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi, DUEL is a briskly-paced, traditional Euro-Western with a fair amount of well-executed gunplay and some nicely scenic vistas, dramatically anchored by a typically professional performance by the always reliable Van Cleef. The film also benefits from a memorable musical score by Luis Bacalov and Sergio Bardotti.

 Blue Underground's new DVD of THE GRAND DUEL sports a very nice 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from a nearly flawless print. The English-dub audio track is a serviceable Dolby digital Mono. Extras include an informative and entertaining audio commentary by film historians C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke, the original theatrical trailer, and a selection of trailers for other Spaghetti Western titles offered by Blue Underground (including A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, DJANGO, COMPANEROS and TEXAS ADIOS, among others).

I should note that THE GRAND DUEL was also recently released as part of a Blu-ray double feature from Mill Creek Entertainment. That budget-priced disc sported a very satisfying high-def transfer, but included no bonus material whatsoever (unless you count its companion feature, KEOMA as a bonus). The print on Blue Underground's standard-definition DVD is virtually identical to that on the Mill Creek disc, although it does lack the "pop" and detail of high-definition video.

It's difficult to recommend the Blue Underground DVD of THE GRAND DUEL over Mill Creek's less expensive, HD Blu-ray edition, but it does have the inclusion of the excellent Joyner/Parke commentary in its favor. True genre aficionados may opt to pick up both.

BUY:  Grand Duel

Monday, January 14, 2013

GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (Blu-ray)

"Godzilla and Biollante aren't monsters. It's the unscrupulous scientists who create them that are monsters!"

Budget label Echo Bridge Entertainment, continuing to exploit their acquisition of the Miramax film library, has recently brought the 1989 kaiju clash, GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE, to DVD and Blu-ray. This eagerly-awaited video event not only marks the first domestic digital release of the film, but also brings U.S. fans of Toho Studios' titanic saurian one step closer to being able to own all of the Big G's cinematic output on disc.

Geneticist Dr. Shiragami (Kôji Takahashi) has created a new hybrid life form, combining the genetic material of his deceased daughter, a rose bush and Godzilla. The resulting creation, Biollante, begins to mutate, growing to gargantuan proportions. Although a young, government-employed telepath, Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka) insists that the creature is peaceful, the monstrous plant seems to be summoning Godzilla, who had been last seen (in GODZILLA 1985), tumbling into an active volcano. Soon, the legendary lizard is crawling out of his volcanic tomb and trudging across Japan, heading for Osaka and the thorny rose monster. While the titans move toward their inevitable clash, various factions - including the Japanese government, Middle Eastern spies and organized crime - battle over Dr. Shiragami's discoveries...

Following the Big G's resurrection in 1985, the densely-plotted GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE established the franchise's creative direction for the Nineties, with a new continuity (including recurring human characters, like Ms. Odaka's "Miki," who would return in the next five installments), vastly improved special effects, and a more adult sensibility. While the centerpiece of the film (and its sequels) is still guys in monster suits slugging it out and exchanging animated ray blasts, the human characters are more carefully delineated, and the screenplay at least attempts to present deeper themes. In the case of BIOLLANTE, the story harkens back to the original, 1954 GODZILLA's discomfort with the rapid escalation of science and technology, substituting genetic engineering for nuclear power.

The special effects are extraordinarily well-done, especially for the late 80s. Though still primarily practical, relying upon stuntmen in rubber suits and detailed miniatures, the monster scenes are exceptionally well-lit and shot, resulting in considerable dramatic effect. The film also employs some limited, early CGI. The only thing in the film that isn't above average is Kôichi Sugiyama's odd musical score, which never really meshes with the tone of the movie.

Originally release in the U.S. on VHS and laserdisc by HBO Video (under license from Miramax, who acquired U.S. distribution rights from Toho) in 1992, in nice (for the time), letterboxed, English-dubbed editions, the new Blu-ray from Echo Bridge is a notable improvement in both visual and audio departments. GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE sports a very satisfactory, 1.85:1 1080p HD widescreen transfer from a pristine print. Picture quality is good, if not exactly stunning, with a slightly dim image and muted color palette. Still, it looks a lot better than previous editions, and the HD transfer does bring out some previously unseen details and textures. Surprisingly, Echo Bridge offers both 5.1 DTS and 2.0 DTS Japanese language tracks, and a solid, 1.0 Dolby Digital Mono English audio option. Subtitles are available in two varieties: English translation of the original Japanese dialogue and a SDH English transcription of the English dub. Also unexpected on a budget release, Echo Bridge includes a couple of supplemental features: a "Making Of" featurette and a look at the film's creature design. The DVD edition contains identical features, in standard-def.

Now, only the 1984 GODZILLA (known in the U.S. as GODZILLA 1985) remains unavailable on domestic DVD.

Echo Bridge's GODZILLA VS BIOLLANTE Blu-ray is highly recommended. It's an important film in the franchise, and has been rarely seen in the U.S. With a suggested retail of less than $10, there's no excuse for kaiju fans not to pick it up.

BUYGodzilla vs. Biollante [Blu-ray]

Monday, January 7, 2013

A CAT IN PARIS (DVD & Blu-ray)

I love animated films. Hand-drawn, stop-motion, computer-generated - no matter how they're animated, I enjoy the fantasy of a 'toon, the way in which an entirely new world is created for the viewer. All fiction requires suspension of disbelief on the part of an audience, but animation - when it's done well - instead encourages you to believe. To believe that those obviously unnatural images on the screen are real, that those stylized characters are alive... and have feelings. It's really quite remarkable, really.

Of the many worthy cartoon offerings in 2012, probably the most enjoyable animated film I saw last year was A CAT IN PARIS (a/k/a UNE VIE DE CHAT), an International Euro-caper film from directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol.

A CAT IN PARIS tells the story of Dino, a, well, cat in Paris, that lives something of a double life. By day, he is the pampered pet of Zoe, a silent little girl whose mother is a police detective. Zoe hasn't spoken since her father's murder at the orders of a mob boss named Costa, and her mother is determined to nail the gangster and send him to prison. By night, Dino prowls the city with a cat burglar named Nico, a thief with a heart of gold. When Zoe decides to follow her wayward feline one evening, she finds herself in the hands of Costa's gang, and Dino (with Nico's help) may be her only hope of rescue...

With a gorgeous, stylized animation style that resembles pastel children's illustrations, A CAT IN PARIS is a surprisingly dark tale, with a number of frightening situations and some adult themes. While it would probably be okay for older children, it's not a sanitized Disney or Dreamworks kind of 'toon, and parents should probably check it out first. It's an excellent film, though, with compelling characters (including Dino, the cat), humor, drama, and heart. The English dub is pretty good, too, with voicework by Marcia Gay Harden (THE MIST), Anjelica Huston (THE DARJEELING LIMITED) and Matthew Modine (WEEDS).

The Blu-ray/DVD Combo Special Edition  from NewVideo/GKIDS is a beauty, with a flawless, 1.85:1 1080p widescreen transfer. The colors are bright, details are sharp, and it looks terrific. (The enclosed DVD includes a fine, standard-def, anamorphic transfer from the same source). The Blu-ray offers both the original French language track and audio dub in Dolby 2.0 and DTS-HD 5.1 audio. Extra features include a bonus short film, EXTINCTION OF THE SABER-TOOTHED HOUSECAT, a "Video Flipbook," the U.S. theatrical trailer, and a trailer for another animated film, THE SECRET OF THE KELLS.

As I mentioned above, A CAT IN PARIS isn't your typical animated kid's fare, but it's a terrific PG family film, well worth seeking out. Highly recommended.

BUYA Cat in Paris