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May 8, 2007

Yep, just when you were certain I was gone for good, I have returned… with plenty of DVD goodness… and badness! Obviously, I’m still nowhere near getting this column back on a weekly schedule, but I’m trying. Starting this week, I’ll be shooting for biweekly updates.

Wish me luck.

To help make up for the infrequent updates, though, I’ve got reviews here for a whopping fourteen recent DVD releases! Let’s get going…

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One of the biggest surprises of the DVDs I’ve watched recently, was Lionsgate’s high-octane action flick, CRANK (2006).

Now, I enjoy Jason Statham’s TRANSPORTER flicks, for all their faults, because the guy is pretty much the only screen action hero tough-guy right now that I actually believe is tough. For all I know, he may be a big ol’ pansy in real life, knitting doilies and playing with kittens, but in his movies, I genuinely buy him as a badass. There aren’t many guys like that around anymore. Most of today’s leading actors just don’t possess whatever it is that makes for a convincing hardcase. Eastwood, Bronson, Marvin… those guys had it… and Statham does, too.

In CRANK, Statham plays hitman Chev Chelios, who wakes up one morning to discover he’s been injected with a fatal drug that will kill him in an hour. Not one to waste time, Chev heads out to find the guy who poisoned him – and say goodbye to his girl (Amy Smart, STRANGELAND). He soon discovers that keeping his adrenaline levels maxed out slows the progress of the poison, and he starts doing everything he can to stay cranked up long enough to get his revenge.

It’s basically a video-game – an ultraviolent, hard-R cartoon that I can best describe as D.O.A. meets RUN, LOLA, RUN meets a Chuck Jones or Friz Freleng Road Runner short. It’s got tons of gratuitous violence and sex, and it’s utterly without redeeming value… except that it’s also funny as hell – intentionally so – and it was the humor more than anything else that won me over.

And the funniest thing is that the DVD comes with a “family friendly” audio option that removes all the swear words. A feature which – considering all the film’s gory violence, constant drug use, explicit public sex, on-screen blowjobs and scenes of Statham running around the city in a hospital gown, bareassed and sporting wood – just cracks me up.

The Lionsgate disc presents the movie in a gorgeous, razor-sharp 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround Sound. It looks and sounds great. Aside from the “Family friendly” audio option, the disc also offers a “Cranked Out Mode,” that basically allows you to view behind-the-scenes material while the movie runs.

For action fans who don’t require a lot of reality in their flicks, CRANK is highly recommended.

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Another Crown International Pictures comedy “classic” from BCI/Eclipse, HUNK (1987) is actually a fairly pleasant diversion, that makes up for an impoverished budget through good casting and decent direction by Lawrence Bassoff (WEEKEND PASS).

Steve Levitt (THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS) is a skinny computer nerd with a big nose, who longs to be one of the beautiful people. Taking a leave of absence from his job, he rents a California beach house and tries to fit in with the residents of the exclusive community. Rejected, he meets a beautiful woman (Deborah Shelton, SINS OF THE NIGHT), who offers to make him the hottest guy on the beach – in exchange for his soul. Yep, she’s working for the devil, portrayed here by James Coco. The nerd takes her up on the deal and is transformed into “Hunk Golden” (John Allen Nelson, DEATHSTALKER 3), a handsome, muscular guy with a sports car and plenty of dough. Of course, being a standard-issue morality tale, he soon discovers that he misses his own life and needs to find a way out of his deal.

Nothing new here – it’s basically BEDEVILED on a budget. But, while the lack of resources threatens to scuttle the flick (a “trendy” nightclub looks like somebody’s basement), it somehow manages to work. Levitt and Nelson are both appealing and likable, Shelton is hot in that distinctly 80’s sort of way, and the movie sails along at such a brisk clip that it just rolls over you both brainlessly and painlessly.

BCI’s disc presents the movie in a sharp, but non-anamorphic, 1.66:1 widescreen transfer. There’s virtually no debris or print damage. (I gotta say this about Crown: they kept their masters in good shape.) Audio is 2-channel stereo, and the only extras are trailers for other Crown drive-in comedies of the same vintage: TOMBOY (see capsule reviews below), WEEKEND PASS, MY CHAUFFEUR, and MY TUTOR.

I wouldn’t suggest buying this, but if you miss late night 80’s Cinemax (and who doesn’t, really?), it’s worth a cheap rental.

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Anchor Bay recently released the 1967 Spaghetti western, THE HELLBENDERS, with no fanfare. That’s a shame, because this gritty, dark little film by Sergio Corbucci (DJANGO, THE GREAT SILENCE) is a minor classic of the genre.

The story is basically that of the “heist gone wrong.” Joseph Cotton (THE THIRD MAN) plays the fanatical patriarch of a family of ex-Confederate soldiers who steal a million dollars or more from a military convoy, whom they massacre. They hide the cash in a coffin, and with a woman pretending to be the deceased widow, set out for their home, where they plan to use the cash to finance the reorganization of the Confederate Army and start a second Civil War.

I’m always a fan of stories where I’m forced into the position of identifying with and rooting for the bad guys. You can’t help but hope that they make it as obstacle after obstacle is thrown in their way. But as this is a Corbucci film, you know there’ll be no happy endings for anyone.

Anchor Bay’s disc is pretty bare bones, but does have a very nice 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The mono soundtrack is dubbed into English, but it’s not too bad. The only extras are a Corbucci text bio and the American theatrical trailer.

A good example of the Spaghetti western genre, nicely presented by Anchor Bay. Recommended.

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THE GHOST BUSTERS (1975) was the first live-action Saturday morning kid’s show from the famous Filmation studios. It reunited the stars of the 60’s sitcom F-TROOP – Forrest Tucker (THE CRAWLING EYE) and Larry Storch – as private eyes who hunted down ghosts and sent them back to the Great Beyond. Aiding them is a beanie-wearing, anthropomorphic gorilla (”trained” by Bob Burns), who, while unable to talk, carries a bag full of useful and useless items to help them in their efforts.

Okay, this some silly stuff. It’s probably the last gasp of old-style vaudeville humor on television, filled with juvenile puns, sight gags and exaggerated “takes.” The whole show is based on threes: you have three stars, three sets (their offfice, a graveyard, and a castle) and three plots. These are repeated over and over again for 15 episodes.

Like all of BCI/Eclipse’s Filmation sets, it’s a great package overall. You have 15 half-hour episodes on 2 discs. The full-frame transfers are pretty decent, considering that the show was shot on 1975 video tape equipment. Sound is mono, but robust, and BCI has included a handful of nice extras. There are interviews with Filmation president Lou Scheimer and Bob Burns, who played Tracy the gorilla. There are three photo galleries, the premiere episode of the 80’s animated sequel series (also available on DVD), and the usual Filmation promos. All 15 scripts are also included on DVD-ROM.

Now, I have no idea how well this would play with today’s kids. I remember liking it when I was ten, and I get a nostalgic kick out of it now, but I’d really be surprised if modern children got much out of it.

This set’s real appeal is solely for nostalgic adults who watched it in the Seventies, I think. If you’re in that group, it’s a nice package, and agreeably priced.

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From Filmation’s first live-action kids show to the last…

I just finished watching the complete JASON OF STAR COMMAND (1978-79) – Filmation’s final live-action show and probably the most expensive kid’s program of its era – and it was a lot of fun reverting to a 13-year-old mind frame and watching the show again.

A more action-oriented spin-off of the studio’s SPACE ACADEMY, using many of the same sets and models, but eschewing the previous show’s “educational” stories in favor of STAR WARS-inspired action, JASON was serialized sci-fi in the FLASH GORDON tradition. The stories basically pitted the titular hero (Craig Littler, SUPERBEAST), a Han Solo-esque soldier of fortune attached to Space Command, against the evil, would-be ruler of the universe, Dragos (the wonderful Sid Haig, GALAXY OF TERROR, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS). Other cast members include James Doohan (STAR TREK), Tamara Dobson (CLEOPATRA JONES), and Susan O’Hanlon (ALL MY CHILDREN). The stories are slight and silly, but fun; space opera for kids with really remarkable special effects.

In fact, as impressed as I was with the miniatures and effects on SPACE ACADEMY, the FX work on JASON, by the same team, shows a marked improvement, both in conception and execution. The quantity of and variety of shots is impressive, as well as the surprising number of stop-motion alien menaces that appeared on the show. Pretty amazing, considering their limited resources. For fans of old school special effects (guilty!), these discs are something of a treasure trove of pre-computerized FX work.

The first season ran as 15-minute segments of the TARZAN & THE SUPER SEVEN show, but in season 2, it graduated to it’s own half-hour berth. This three-disc set includes all the episodes from both seasons.

The full-frame transfers are on a par with the SPACE ACADEMY discs, a little soft, but light-years better than the bootlegs floating around the comic book conventions.

The new documentary includes on-screen interviews with Craig Littler and Sid Haig. They both are obviously fond of the show and seem to have had fun making it. Littler is now the Gorton’s Fisherman in TV commercials, while Haig continues to appear in horror films and other supporting roles. Three commentary tracks are included, featuring Littler, Haig, Filmation chief Lou Scheimer and various FX artists. There’s also a special effects demo reel, image galleries, original scripts and promos for BCI’s other Filmation discs.

This should be on sale soon, and if you’re another aging sci-fi fan who came of age in the Seventies, you might want to check it out. Decent price, too.

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The first release from the new “Anchor Bay Collection” of horror classics is Stuart Gordon’s (DAGON, FROM BEYOND) amazing debut film, H.P. LOVECRAFT’S RE-ANIMATOR (1985).

For the two of you who may not have seen it, the film chronicles the efforts of a slightly-demented med student named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs, STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, THE FRIGHTENERS) who discovers a glowing green fluid that can re-animate the dead. Horror and hilarity ensues. RE-ANIMATOR is one of the best films to blend horror and humor, and it’s impact on the genre cannot be underestimated. There have been two sequels (with a third forthcoming), and star Combs has become a modern horror film icon.

This 2-disc edition is essentially a repackage of the Elite Entertainment “Millennium Edition,” of a few years ago, with the addition of a new documentary and a highlighter pen shaped like a hypodermic needle.

If you already have that edition, it’s not necessarily worth an upgrade. The new documentary is lengthy, entertaining and very well produced, but there’s not a whole lot of new information there. On the other hand, if you don’t have that edition, and you’re a true horror fan, then you’ll definitely want to buy this one.

The anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is excellent. The disc includes a Dolby Surround 5.1 track, a Dolby 2.0 track and a DTS 5.1 track. There are two audio commentaries (dating back to the original laserdisc release): one with Stuart Gordon, the other with nearly the whole cast. Both are among the best audio commentaries I’ve heard; the cast track is a lot of fun.

Disc 2 contains the aforementioned new, 70-minute documentary, plus a whole crapload of other stuff. To whit: On-screen interviews with director Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, writer Dennis Paoli, composer Richard Band and Fangoria editor Tony Timpone; several extended scenes, the theatrical trailer, TV spots, A whole bunch of still galleries, and a text bio of director Stuart Gordon. DVD-ROM features include both the screenplay and the original story by H.P. Lovecraft.

As I said before, this is an astoundingly good DVD of an essential horror movie. If you don’t already own the Elite “Millennium Edition,” then you’ll absolutely want to buy this new Anchor Bay set.

Hell, if you’re a really big fan, you might just want both anyway.

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I’d heard good things about director Patrick Dinhut’s zombie comedy, DEAD AND DEADER (2006), and was eager to check it out. As it turned out, I didn’t find it to be as good as I’d heard, but it’s not a total disaster, either.

A team of U.S. Special Ops are sent into Cambodia to investigate the loss of contact with a research team. When they find the research lab, they find a terrarium filled with green scorpions, and a bunch of zombies. The whole team is quickly overwhelmed and killed. Back in the States, Lt. Quinn (Dean Cain, Superman in LOIS & CLARK) wakes up on a morgue slab just in time to prevent his own autopsy. Now dead, but able to retain his intelligence and self-control, he sets out to destroy the other re-animated members of his team before they can spread the zombie plague – in this case, in the form of those scorpions.

Okay, it’s kinda funny. The parts that fall flat, though, are the pop culture, geek-service references. One: because they’re lame (Who’s the best James Bond? Again? With the obligatory Lazenby slam?), and Two: neither Dean nor his hot love interest (Susan Ward, WILD THINGS 2) are convincing as pop culture nerds. Okay, it’s amusing that they discuss the relative merits of the two DAWN OF THE DEAD films while hunting down zombies on a military base, but it’s also kinda obvious.

That said, the pacing is brisk, and there are some decent zombie kills and gore effects. STAR TREK vets Armin Shimmerman (DS9’s Quark) and Peter Billingsly (whatever the doctor’s name was on ENTERPRISE) show up for brief cameos, and 70’s-80’s starlet Colleen Camp (GAME OF DEATH) appears in a sizeable supporting role.

Anchor Bay (or is it Starz Media, now?) presents the movie in a fairly sharp 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, with Dolby 5.1 surround sound. Extra features include a pretty entertaining audio commentary with writers Steve Kriozere and Mark Altman (FREE ENTERPRISE). There’s also a decent behind-the-scenes featurette that at least indicates the cast and crew had fun making the movie. Finally, there’s a photo gallery, the script on DVD-ROM, and trailers for other Anchor Bay/Starz horror films.

Here’s the thing: SHAUN OF THE DEAD raised the bar on “zombie comedies,” and DEAD AND DEADER just doesn’t measure up. It’s amusing, but not as funny as it wants to be. For what it is – a direct-to-DVD and SciFi Channel B-flick – it works well enough, though, and is better than most comparable efforts.

There are worst ways to spend 89 minutes. Worth a rental, anyway.

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I recently watched Fox’s first MICHAEL SHAYNE MYSTERIES box set containing the first batch of films from the popular Forties detective series. I’m guessing there will be a second set in six months or so with the remaining entries. This set contains four great, B-movie mysteries on two double-sided “flipper” discs: MICHAEL SHAYNE, PRIVATE DETECTIVE, THE MAN WHO WOULDN’T DIE, SLEEPERS WEST and BLUE, WHITE AND PERFECT.

MICHAEL SHAYNE, PRIVATE DETECTIVE (1940) introduces Lloyd Nolan as author Brett Halliday’s wiseass Irish-American private dick, who is hired by a racetrack bigwig to guard his pretty, compulsive gambler daughter. When her boyfriend is murdered, Shayne gets blamed. Fun, breezy and enjoyable stuff, with a decent mystery plot.

THE MAN WHO WOULDN’T DIE (1942) has Shayne impersonating a millionaire’s daughter’s fiance while investigating the strange events around the family mansion. Lot’s of shadowy figures, disappearing corpses, and even a mad scientist for spice. Not bad, but really felt more like a Charlie Chan flick.

SLEEPERS WEST (1941) is the most film noir of the bunch, as Shayne escorts a material witness – a hot blonde, naturally – across the country by train. The confined space of the train adds a lot of tension to the story, and the performances are especially good. Less wisecracking, more suspense, and by far my favorite of the batch.

BLUE, WHITE & PERFECT (1941) involves Shayne in a diamond smuggling plot. Fun stuff, with TV’s Superman, George Reeves, in a supporting role. Fun and engaging, with some great twists.

All four films are presented full-frame, with newly restored transfers and cleaned-up mono sound. They look great, considering the vintage. Each disc includes a “Restoration Comparison,” and either a short featurette or a trivia game.

The art on the box and the two slimcases appear to be brand new paintings by the astounding Robert McGinnis (who painted the covers of many of the Shayne paperbacks – although these new paintings feature series star Lloyd Nolan), and there’s a McGinnis featurette on Side B of the first disc.

From the fact that all four sides include the same “Restoration Comparison” feature, I have to wonder if Fox originally intended to put each movie on its own disc, as in their Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto sets, and went with this more economical package because the sales on those considerably more expensive mystery sets were less than expected. While I think I would have preferred separate discs for aesthetic reasons – we might have got another couple McGinnis covers and these discs would have matched my Chans and Motos (not to mention the one previous Shayne film that Fox released a year or so ago), I can’t really complain. After all, I’m all for saving 20 bucks.

For fans of vintage detective films, this set is highly recommended, and you can’t beat the price.


DVD LATE SHOW CAPSULE REVIEWS!

In another pathetic attempt to catch up with the mountain of notable discs that piled up during the last few months, I’m once again providing a handful of “Capsule Reviews” –short, sweet and to the point! Here’s a few more DVDs that are long overdue for some Late Show attention:

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CASINO ROYALE (2006): The twenty-first official James Bond film introduces Daniel Craig (LAYER CAKE) as a neophyte 007 on his first mission as a double-O agent. It’s a half-hour too long and I have a few quibbles with the script, but overall, it’s one of the best in the series. Fast, brutal, and surprisingly dark. Sony’s 2-disc DVD set provides an impeccable, gorgeous anamorphic 2.40:1 transfer with Dolby 5.1 sound.

The bonus features are a disgrace though, and absolutely scream that Sony intends to double-, triple- and re-dip this film over and over again forever. All you get two extremely light, superficial, EPK-styled featurettes, a music video (that relies heavily on film clips) and the BOND GIRLS ARE FOREVER documentary from several years ago, which has been updated slightly with a couple minutes of new footage featuring the CASINO ROYALE gals. There’s also a slew of unrelated Sony trailers – but no trailers, TV spots or poster/photo galleries for CASINO ROYALE itself. There’s no director’s commentary, no on-screen trivia tracks, no Daniel Craig screen tests – really nothing much of any note or extra value. Die-hard Bond fans (like me) will get it anyway, but you might want to wait and see what Sony comes up with in a few months.

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ONCE UPON A GIRL (1976). This X-rated, lowbrow, smutty take on classic fairy tales looks remarkably like a 1970’s Hanna-Barbara cartoon, and there’s a reason for that – many of the animators were moonlighting H-B staffers! The film contains pornographic retellings of “Jack & the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Cinderella,” all narrated by Mother Goose, who is played by male actor Hal Smith (”Otis the Drunk” on THE ANDY GRIFITH SHOW) in drag. Severin Films’ DVD boasts a great, clean transfer and an interview with producer William Silberkleit, along with the original theatrical trailer. A definite oddity for adults, and worth checking out.

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THE WILD WILD WEST – THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (1966-67). This is the season where TV’s best spy-fi, sci-fi, comedic western (and pretty much the only one), really came together. Robert Conrad is still doing his own stunts, Ross Martin is in his prime, the villains and their plots are more outrageous and inventive, and now it’s in color, too. Then there’s guest stars like Boris Karloff, Ida Lupino, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford – and that’s just in the first five episodes. All 28 episodes of the second season are included on 6 discs in three slimpaks. Unfortunately, unlike the first set, this one has no bonus features at all. Nonetheless, it’s one of television’s most original shows at its peak, and definitely worth picking up and enjoying.

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FLETCH: THE JANE DOE EDITION (1985). Cripes. Another lame-ass special edition from Universal. The documentary is so weak that the DVD producer has the most screen time and tries to be funny. Other “Bonus” features are “Favorite Fletch Moments” (clips from the movie) and “The Disguises” (clips from the movie). Well, the theatrical trailer is there, too. At least they provide a sharp, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film and a new 5.1 surround remix. Oh yeah. The movie is pretty good, too, with Chevy Chase turning in one of his best performances as Gregory MacDonald’s classic character, with the help of director Michael Ritchie’s sure, steady hand.

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POSITIVELY NO REFUNDS DOUBLE FEATURE: THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST/THE WHITE GORILLA (1958/1945). VCI unearths two low-budget gorilla flicks, and make no bones about their quality: they’re horrible. BRIDE chronicles the strange relationship between a big game hunter’s new wife and his pet gorilla. Under hypnosis, it is discovered that she was a gorilla in a previous life! Written by the infamous Ed Wood, Jr. and directed by Adrien Weiss, this bizarre “thriller” drags a bit, but is worth seeing for it’s sheer strangeness. The companion feature, WHITE GORILLA, is even worse. The producers took footage from a silent, 1927 serial called PERILS OF THE JUNGLE and added in some new footage of Ray “Crash” Corrigan (UNDERSEA EMPIRE) as a rare white ape and as the hunter that stalks it.

BRIDE is presented in a nice 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer, while WHITE GORILLA is presented full-frame. The disc is loaded with Advertising and photo galleries, trailers, and commentaries by film historian Tom Weaver and super fan/gorilla actor Bob Burns (see THE GHOST BUSTERS, above). For fans of really strange old movies, or someone looking to cure their insomnia, THE POSITIVELY NO REFUNDS DOUBLE FEATURE might be worth a look.

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TOMBOY (1985). Brunette 80’s B-movie starlet Betsy Russell (AVENGING ANGEL, CHEERLEADER CAMP) is the tomboy of the title, a hot auto mechanic with a crush on a racecar driver (Gerard Christopher of the 80’s SUPERBOY show, billed here as “Jerry Dinome”). It’s fun, fluffy, and low key, with plenty of synth pop music, copious female nudity and a climactic car race. Nothing to get too excited about, but it’s a palatable enough slice of 80’s cheese – and Russell does flash her assets. Like the other “Crown Classics” from BCI/Eclipse, the non-anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen transfer is in good shape, the stereo soundtrack is full of bouncy 80’s pop, and there are trailers for other Crown comedy titles.

That’s it for this time. Some of the titles I intend to review in upcoming columns include: SKIN CRAWL, KING KUNG FU, HUNDRA, DÉJÀ VU, NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF, RAPTOR ISLAND, THE HITCHER remake, THE GOLDEN AGE OF PIRATE MOVIES, PUMPKINHEAD: ASHES TO ASHES, ALTERED, JET LI’S FEARLESS, THE RETURN, STAN LEE PRESENTS MOSAIC, CHAINSAW SALLY, SLAYER, MELTDOWN: DAYS OF DESTRUCTION, and more!

For older Late Show columns (adding up to well over 200 reviews!), visit the newly updated-and-revamped DVD Late Show website and archive. For additional pop culture musings, occasional DVD previews and lots of shameless self-promotion, you might try checking out my blog.

Comments, DVD questions, review requests and offers of money can be sent to: dvdlateshow@atomicpulp.com

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