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9/11/07

Welcome back to the Late Show, kids! This time, we’ve got Spaghetti westerns, space westerns, giant monsters and a variety of horror and action flicks – along with another six-pack of capsule reviews. Can’t say we don’t cover all the bases here at the Show!

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Let’s start off with probably the most famous and influential Euro-Westerns ever made, the “Dollars Trilogy,” starring Clint Eastwood and directed by Sergio Leone. All three of these classic films, as well as the James Coburn-starrer, DUCK YOU SUCKER!, are now available in brand-new editions as part of MGM’s recent box set, THE SERGIO LEONE ANTHOLOGY.

Previously released a few years ago in England and Europe, but delayed here, in part, by the various changes in management and distribution suffered by MGM Home Video over the last few years, these newly-restored and remastered editions are a film buff’s dream come true.

A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (PER UN PUGNO DI DOLLARI, 1964) introduced Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone to filmgoers with a gritty, dark remake of the Akira Kurosawa samurai epic YOJIMBO. It also kicked off the Spaghetti Western genre in high style, with its stylish direction and amoral protagonist.

FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (PER QUALCHE DOLLARO IN PIÙ, 1965) added American character actor Lee Van Cleef to the recipe, along with a bigger budget and a more character-driven story.

Then came THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (IL BUONO, IL BRUTTO, IL CATTIVO, 1966), a sprawling, utterly involving tale of greed and betrayal set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. This allowed Leone to add some epic battle scenes to the formula, and he pulls them off magnificently.

For this DVD release, the TGTB&TU has had several scenes restored that were included in the International versions but never shown in the U.S., and thus, never dubbed into English. For these scenes, Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach returned to the recording studio and dubbed their new lines (another actor filled in for Lee Van Cleef). The audio was also fully redone in 5.1 Surround, with some sound effects added and some sweetened or completely changed.

DUCK, YOU SUCKER! (GIÙ LA TESTA a/k/a A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE, 1971) stars James Coburn and Rod Stieger in an overtly political story set in Revolutionary Mexico. MGM has restored the film with around 20 minutes of footage never seen in the U.S.

Each film is presented in newly restored, damn-near pristine anamorphic 2.40:1 widescreen transfers, with cleaned up, juiced up sound, and commentaries by film historian and Leone authority, Christopher Frayling. Each film is also given a second disc containing various bonus features, including trailers, outtakes, interviews with Eastwood, and rarities, like the only-seen-once network TV prologue to FISTFUL, featuring Harry Dean Stanton.

No self-respecting film fan can afford to pass this box set up. Highly recommended.

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Upon his return to the New World, Eastwood continued to tread the prairies and deserts of the cinematic West for various studios. Universal has collected the three that he did for them and packaged the films into another of their low-cost “Franchise Collection” sets. In this case, it’s the CLINT EASTWOOD WESTERN ICON COLLECTION, which includes HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973), JOE KIDD (1972) and TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA (1970).

HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, directed by Eastwood himself, is the best of the three, a macabre, downbeat Western nightmare, with Clint as a nameless stranger bent on avenging the death of a lawman by ruthless gunmen – and punishing the townspeople who made no effort to stop it. Spooky, possibly supernatural (or possibly not) DRIFTER is pretty harsh stuff, even today. A minor classic.

JOE KIDD is a routine, somewhat uninvolving oater, despite being directed by THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN’s John Sturges and being based on a solid Elmore Leonard novel. Eastwood is good as usual, and Robert Duvall and John Saxon both turn in decent performances, but somehow it never quite comes together.

TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA teams Clint with Shirley Maclaine as an unusual nun in a decent little Western adventure directed by Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY). I had avoided this one for years, ‘cause I’m not a fan of MacLaine, but it’s not bad. The leads have some decent chemistry, the plot is solid, and the climax is appropriately explosive. Not Clint’s best, but a decent time-killer.

Universal’s “Franchise Collection” 2-disc package has DRIFTER and KIDD on disc 1, and SARA on the second disc. Each film is given a decent 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and Dolby Mono sound. The only extras are the original theatrical trailers.

Once again, a bare-bones, budget release from Universal, who clearly don’t give a damn about their older library titles beyond just getting them out there with the least possible effort. DRIFTER, in particular, is really deserving of a Special Edition treatment – I’d love to get a definitive answer to Eastwood’s intentions re: the possible supernatural elements of the flick. But that’s not likely at this point, unless there’s a major shake-up over at Universal Home Video before the aging Eastwood passes away….

Worth getting, but only because this is the only way to (legally) get these particular Eastwood films on DVD in quality widescreen versions.

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Westerns aren’t always historical, though. There’s nothing new about fusing horse opera and space opera, for instance, and Heretic’s PLANETFALL (2005) is one of the more recent examples of that particular genre fusion.

Shot on hi-def on a very small budget, this sci-fi homage to Spaghetti Westerns sends a couple of competing female bounty hunters into a hostile section of the psi-war-torn planet Zita, in search of a mysterious crate called “Planetfall.”

While certainly ambitious, with its copious CGI effects and virtual backgrounds, PLANETFALL is, unfortunately, too slow-paced and chatty to really work. The pace is draggy, and the too-wordy script overwhelms the cast, most of who appear to be amateurs. Considering the limitations of its cast, the film would have benefited from a simpler, more action-driven plot and a lot less expositional backstory. The computer effects are fairly decent, considering the budget, but the extensive use of green screen also has the unfortunate side effect of making the film feel like a video game.

While inexpensive CGI has opened doors for independent filmmakers in allowing them to attempt types of stories that previously would have been prohibitive, it doesn’t make up for weak scripts or performances.

Heretic’s DVD of PLANETFALL presents the feature in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby 5.1/Dolby 2.0 Stereo. There are 3 commentary tracks, a 60 minute behind-the-scenes documentary, a production design featurette, deleted scenes, a documentary about some of the locations where the film was shot, and an interview with B-movie director Ted V. Mikels (ASTRO-ZOMBIES).

As an example of ambitious ultra-low budget fantasy filmmaking, PLANETFALL is worth a viewing. There’s a certain amount of talent and potential evident, but it’s really not a particularly good movie.

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Of course, if you’re into space westerns, you can’t ignore Joss Whedon’s cult television favorite FIREFLY, and its theatrical sequel SERENITY (2006), which has just been double-dipped by Universal in the shape of a new collector’s edition.

In this feature film follow-up to the short-lived series, the rag-tag crew of the tramp spaceship Serenity find themselves the target of a deadly government operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor, CHILDREN OF MEN) who’s after their slightly-daffy and decidedly dangerous passenger, River Tam (Summer Glau). In order to save his crew, Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, SLITHER) goes on the offensive, determined to expose a conspiracy that could potentially tear down the galactic government.

A smart, action-packed space adventure that may be just a bit inaccessible to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the TV series (although my in-laws had no trouble following it when we saw it at the theater), SERENITY is a lot of fun.

Previously released by Universal in a more-than-satisfactory single-disc edition, this new 2-disc “Collector’s” set includes a gorgeous 2:35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and Dolby 5.1 Surround sound.

But while the previous DVD release was fine, true fans (or “Browncoats”) will want to upgrade to this new version for the added extra features, which include extended Scenes, a feature commentary with Whedon and several cast members, four featurettes, and “Session 416,” a series of internet webisodes that expand upon the River character’s backstory. The two discs are packed into an attractive box that’s as big as the one containing the entire TV series.

Like I said, fans will want to trade up to this new edition, and while I’m still annoyed at the studio’s crass exploitation of fans with these double-dips, I know they’re not going to stop. In any case, it’s a good movie and a fine package. Recommended.

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Poor Eugene Lourie. A talented Art Director, he finally got his chance to helm his own motion picture with 1953‘s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, a rousing B-movie creature feature that benefited heavily from Ray Harryhausen’s innovative stop-motion effects. Unfortunately for the neophyte director, the film was so successful that Lourie was about as typecast as it is possible to get: he only directed two more features and both were virtual remakes of BEAST.

The first of these was THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1958), which takes the basic plot of BEAST – a prehistoric monster rising from the sea and rampaging through a modern metropolis – and transplants it from New York to London. In this case, it’s a radioactive bronto with a bad attitude that trashes Londontown before being taken out by a mini-sub in the Thames. Gene Evans (DONOVAN’S BRAIN) is the American scientist who leads the British into battle against the behemoth, which is brought to life on screen by pioneering stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien (KING KONG). Unfortunately, O’Brien was getting pretty old, and the budget was small, so the effects are occasionally shoddy, but the creature is still pretty impressive; nicely designed and scary.

(Lourie followed THE GIANT BEHEMOTH with 1961‘s GORGO – which is available on DVD from VCI – which had an almost identical plot.)

Recently released by Warner Brothers as part of their recent “Cult Camp Classics” line, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH has been given a solid 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer culled from a decent print. There’s a little damage and speckling, and some effects shots are grainy – but they always were. The disc includes the original theatrical trailer and a commentary track by modern day FX artists Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett. I found the commentary to be pretty awful, myself. Muren and Tippett didn’t sound like they prepared for it at all. They had virtually nothing to reveal about the making of the film or the people who made it, and I found many of their more snarky comments to be disrespectful and even insulting to O’Brien, who, after all, was one of the true pioneers of the field in which they earn their livings.

For fans of 50’s creature features, it’s worth picking up. I’d skip the commentary, though.

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I’d been looking forward to seeing the Indians Vs. Vikings epic, PATHFINDER UNRATED (2007) for some time, but after reading the almost universally negative reviews online and at the IMDB after it was released, my expectations were considerably diminished. Nonetheless, my collection includes hundreds of films that everybody else says suck, and I can usually find something to like in even the most abysmal drek, so I decided to give the film a chance anyway.

The plot is pretty straight-forward: after a raid by Vikings on an Indian tribe, a young Viking boy is left behind and is raised by native villagers. Fifteen years later, the Vikings return and kill his adoptive family and burn their village to the ground. The young man (Karl Urban, LORD OF THE RINGS, XENA) is now set on a Rambo-like spree of guerrilla warfare against his own kind.

Well, once again, I’m going to buck the tide. I liked it. Anyone who calls this the “worst movie ever” just hasn’t seen enough movies.

First off, the look of the film is exceptional. The production design and photography are amazing and nicely stylized; the film looks as if every frame was painted by Frank Frazetta. There is very little dialogue, and what there is is of the “There are two wolves in every man’s heart: love and hate,” variety, but what do you expect from a sword & moccasin saga? Criticizing it on a historical basis is kinda pointless, too – the filmmakers have made no claims as to it being a history; in fact, they clearly label it a legend in the opening titles. And those who think the movie unfairly portrays Scandinavian explorers…. Cripes.

Is it a great movie? I wouldn’t go that far, but it sure doesn’t suck. The pace is good, the action sequences are well staged, the violence is appropriately graphic (no bloodless sword wounds here), and the cast – which includes Clancy Brown (HIGHLANDER) and Rolf Mueller (TV’s CONAN, unrecognizable under the make-up and Viking beard) is perfectly adequate for this type of action-driven flick.

This Fox DVD presents the unrated version of the film in a crystal 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The clanging steel, rolling thunder and rousing score are nicely served by a robust Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound audio mix. Bonus features are plentiful: there is a commentary track by director Marcus Nispel, deleted scenes, a half-dozen production featurettes, a “Clancy Brown: Cult Hero” featurette, the theatrical trailer, and an atmospheric “concept trailer” shot by Nispel to sell the project to studio suits.

For the visuals alone, it’s worth checking out, but if you’re one of those who go into films looking for reasons to dislike them, this isn’t for you. On the other hand, you’re up for 107 minutes of bloody escapism, you might want to give PATHFINDER UNRATED a shot.

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At first, I thought that John Milius’ (CONAN THE BARBARIAN) Reagan-era exercise in Cold War paranoia was an odd choice for a “Special Edition” treatment, but then I remembered how much impact the movie had on my generation and how fondly I recalled it. Apparently someone at MGM also recognizes just how much of a generational touchstone it was, because the 2-disc RED DAWN – COLLECTOR’S EDITION (1984) is a great DVD set.

I’m not saying the movie is great, necessarily, but MGM Home Entertainment has done a hell of a job on this DVD.

The plot is simplicity itself: when the American Midwest is invaded and occupied by the combined forces of the Soviet Union and Cuba, a group of Colorado teenagers flee to the mountain wilderness, eventually becoming partisans who fight a guerilla war against the foreign invaders.

Starring a bunch of young actors who soon went on to major Hollywood stardom – Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey – as well as some veteran character actors like Harry Dean Stanton, Ben Johnson, Ron O’Neal, Powers Boothe and William Smith, RED DAWN is packed with solid performances. The script is ludicrous (much of the dialogue is corny) but the film is executed with a certain amount of conviction by the eccentric Milius, and his cast, and the audience is soon caught up in the story. The gorgeous location photography doesn’t hurt, either.

This new Collector’s Edition features, on the first disc, a new 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and Dolby Stereo sound mix. This disc also includes a somewhat tasteless – but undeniably fun – extra feature in the form of a “carnage counter,” which, if you choose to activate it, keeps a running tab of every death, explosion, and act of violence in the film.

The second disc includes a great retrospective documentary which includes candid interviews with most of the primary cast – including Swayze, Sheen, Thompson and Howell – all of whom seem pretty proud of their association with the film. Director Milius is also interviewed. This doc is one of the best I’ve seen in a while, and is really worth watching. The disc also includes three other featurettes – one on building the “Russian” tanks and vehicles for the film, one on the military training the cast was given prior to filming, and, finally, a return to the town that was used as the primary location for filming. This includes on-screen interviews with a number of residents, who seem extremely pleased with their association with RED DAWN.

If you grew up in the Eighties, chances are that RED DAWN left an impression on you, positive or negative. If your memories are good ones, I highly recommend this new edition. The film looks great, the documentary is exceptional, and the price is reasonable.

I wish more “Special Editions” were this good.

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I missed this on television, but I’ve just watched HEROES – THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (2006/07) on DVD, and I have to admit that I’m impressed and pleasantly surprised.

Essentially, the debut season of HEROES chronicles the interconnected lives of a group of people with extraordinary powers – invulnerability, flight, precognition, invisibility, etc. – as they attempt to prevent (or cause) a nuclear catastrophe in the heart of New York City.

Smartly-written scripts that give viewers credit for some intelligence, extremely good acting, and solid Hollywood production values combine in what may be the most challenging network television series since the first season of LOST – and unlike that show, HEROES actually makes a point of rewarding it’s audience with occasional answers to its many questions. Not everything is neatly resolved, however, and there are plenty of surprises and twists in the show, which gleefully bounces around within its own timeline, keeping viewers on their metaphorical toes.

The cast, which includes Ali Larter (JAY & SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK), Adrian Pasdar (NEAR DARK), Hayden Panettiere, Milo Ventimiglia (STAY ALIVE), Zachary Quinto (the new Spock) and Jack Coleman, is uniformly exceptional, and the genre-friendly guest stars include George Takei (STAR TREK), Richard Roundtree (SHAFT), Christopher Eccelston (DR. WHO), Eric Roberts (BEST OF THE BEST), and Malcolm McDowell (TIME AFTER TIME), adding considerably to the show’s geek factor. My personal favorite character is the time-bending teleporter Hiro (Masi Oka), who not only lives up to his name, but brings considerable charm and humanity to the show.

Universal’s standard DVD set presents all 23 episodes of the premiere season in razor sharp 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Each episode features deleted scenes, and many have commentary tracks by creator Tim Kring and various cast and crew members. The set also includes several behind-the-scenes featurettes, a profile of comic book artist Tim Sale (whose art is featured prominently in the show) and an extended, 73-minute “director’s cut” of the pilot episode.

HEROES manages to take the Marvel Comics-styled super-hero soap opera and bring it to television in a modern, stylish manner. While the fanboy in me wishes that at least one of them would put on some spandex (preferably Larter), I have to admit that Kring and his crew have really made the super-hero genre work for 21st Century television, and I can’t recommend this set highly enough. If you’re already a fan, you’ll want this set for the bountiful extras, and if you missed this on TV, like I did, you really need to check it out. It’s great fantasy television.

DVD LATE SHOW CAPSULE REVIEWS!

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HALLOWEEN (1978). I guess with Rob Zombie’s new remake hitting theaters, they had to do something to tie-in…. By my count, this is the seventh or eighth version of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN to be released by Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment. This one features a newly “restored” THX video transfer from a new interpositive culled from the original negative, supervised by cinematographer Dean Cundey. The disc also has an all-new Dolby 5.1 Surround audio mix. And yes, it looks and sounds terrific. But with the same DVD player, sound system and TV I’ve got, it’s not really a notably different viewing experience than the 25th Anniversary Divamax version I already had. Extras are a bit lean, too: there’s a compromised full-frame version of the film (which kinda undercuts all the new tech improvements, if you ask me), a 7-year-old documentary, trailers, TV and radio spots and a couple of still galleries. If you don’t already have it, this is a fine DVD, but I’m not sure it’s really worth upgrading. Your mileage may vary.

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BUBBA HO-TEP – HAIL TO THE KING EDITION (2003). Identical to the previous DVD release except for the new gimmicky packaging, this Bruce Campbell (EVIL DEAD) vehicle, directed by Don Coscarelli (PHANTASM) is still one of the best “cult” films of the decade. An aged Elvis Presley battles a soul-sucking mummy in a Texas rest home with the aid of a black JFK…. what else do you expect from the mind of Joe Lansdale? MGM’s “Hail To The King Edition” has the same 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, same extras (including “Elvis’” commentary track)… hell, it’s apparently the same damned disc. But now you get a stylin’ Vegas jumpsuit to put it in.

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UGLY BETTY – THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (2006-07). An odd choice for this column, perhaps, but this comedic soap opera (based on a South American “telenovella”) was one of the most addictive shows of the past TV season, with its campy cliff-hangers, outrageous plot twists and the heaving bosoms of some of the most gorgeous women on the tube – including Vanessa Williams, Rebecca Romijn, and Salma Hayek. But it’s also a surprisingly smart and occasionally touching series, with the admirable and heroic America Ferrera’s “Betty Suarez” overcoming adversity and never succumbing to fear or embarrassment. Disney’s DVD set presents the first 23 episodes in sparkling, anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfers, and Dolby 5.1 Surround sound. Extras include several behind-the-scenes featurettes, audio commentaries, a slew of deleted scenes and a blooper reel. Sure it’s a “chick show,” but if you check it out, who’s gonna know?

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VOYAGERS! – THE COMPLETE SERIES (1982). An ex-pirate (Jon-Erik Hexum) and an 80’s kid (Meeno Peluce) travel through time attempting to keep the timeline straight and teach kids history. It’s pure kid’s stuff, but fairly-well produced for the early 80’s. This series is fondly remembered by those who watched it as children, and it’s not hard to see why. The leads are appealing, the scripts are fun, and it’s wholesome family fare with imagination. Universal’s new box set includes all 20 episodes of the short-lived series in their original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio and 2.0 Dolby Stereo. Image quality is decent, sowing only a bit of age-related wear and some excess grain. Recommended for nostalgic adults and their kids.

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THE BOURNE FILES (2002/2004). The first two cinematic adventures of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) – THE BOURNE IDENTITY and THE BOURNE SUPREMACY – are double-dipped by Universal, and bound together in a cute “File Folder” package. It won’t fit on your shelf with your other DVDs, but it does contain the earlier “Special Edition” versions of the Bourne discs, with an additional bonus disc that includes a preview of the current third entry in the Trilogy, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM. If you don’t already have them, this is an inexpensive way to catch up with this superior action/spy franchise. Both films have sterling 2.35:1 anamorphic transfers, 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound, and a bunch of extra features.

Thanks for spending some time with me today. Look for my next column soon, with reviews of SPLATTER BEACH, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, SPACE AMOEBA, THE COMPLETE UNDERDOG COLLECTION, UNHOLY, VANESSA, WELCOME TO GRINDHOUSE DOUBLE FEATURE; DRAGON PRINCESS/KARATE WARRIORS, and more!

For older Late Show columns (adding up to well over 200 reviews!), visit the recently 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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