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04/09/08

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CLOVERFIELD (2008, Paramount). Only three months or so after a short run in theaters, producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves’s post-9/11 take on the giant monster genre debuts on digital versatile disc in a nice special edition from Paramaount.

The paper-thin plot has a group of 20-somethings attempting to find and rescue a friend in a New York City that is under assault by a strange, alien-looking gargantua and its vicious, insectoid parasites. Shot in a manner intended to simulate a first-person home video documentation of events, the film is fast-paced (once it gets going), full of surprises, and entertaining. It’s about as inherently goofy as any other giant monster movie and doesn’t hold up to a lot of heavy critical analysis, but you know what? It’s a giant monster movie. It really doesn’t need to. All it needs to do is be fun, and I thought it was definitely that.

Awesome giant monster? Check. Massive and spectacular scenes of destruction? Check. Surprises? Check. Scary scenes? Oh yeah. Moderately interesting characters? Close enough.

And, for what it’s worth, I really enjoyed seeing a giant monster movie from the perspective of the civilians on the ground, rather than from the POV of yelling generals, brilliant scientists and heroic soldiers. The creature design by the Tippett studio was quite unique and unusual, as well.

Paramount’s DVD offers the film in a flawless, anamorphic widescreen presentation and 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound. Special features include a commentary track by Reeves, a handful of behind-the-scenes documentaries, a few thankfully deleted scenes, a gag reel, and two alternate endings, neither of which are particularly interesting.

It’s a decent package, but I’m guessing there will be probably be a double-dip in a few months. Nevertheless, I dug the movie and recommend picking it up.

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EVIL DEAD: THE ULTIMATE EDITION (1981, Starz/Anchor Bay). Five college students travel to an isolated cabin in the woods for a vacation, where they unwittingly release evil spirits which possess them, one by one. Carnage ensues.

The most recent DVD release of this legendary – and much-reissued – indie horror classic from director Sam Raimi (SPIDER-MAN) and star/producer Bruce Campbell (BUBBA HO-TEP) is not quite the definitive edition promised, but it’s very, very close.

The set contains two versions of the film, each on their own disc. On disc one, you have EVIL DEAD presented matted to 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, accompanied by a previously recorded commentary track by Raimi and producer Rob Tappert that dates back to the laserdisc release of the film by Elite Entertainment in the 90’s. It’s a still a great commentary, though. This disc also includes a new (?) and very well-made documentary, ONE BY ONE WE’LL TAKE YOU: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE EVIL DEAD.

Disc two features the film in its original full-frame format and is accompanied by the equally-old solo Campbell commentary. Although it was recorded about a decade ago, it holds up as one of the greatest DVD commentaries ever, and is worth listening to again and again. This disc also includes TREASURES FROM THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR, a collection of outtakes and deleted scenes.

The third disc contains the remaining extra features, including a bunch of material promoting the recent tour of the film’s leading actresses, “The Ladies of EVIL DEAD.” There are also a handful of TV Spots, make-up test footage, the original theatrical trailer, a photo gallery, a poster & memorabilia gallery, and various interviews.

If you already own one of the previous versions of THE EVIL DEAD, this so-called “Ultimate Edition” does not contain every feature previously issues with the movie, so be forwarned. If you don’t already own a version of the film on DVD and would like to, you won’t find a better-looking presentation of the movie, and the extras are pretty good.

It’s a really nice set. It’s just not “Ultimate.”

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HATCHET: UNRATED (2007, Starz/Anchor Bay). A group of college students and other born-victims are in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. For a lark, they take a late-night boat tour of the nearby bayous, and find themselves stalked and killed one at a time by a deformed, nigh-invulnerable axe murderer with a colorful legend.

Sigh. From the praise heaped on this by-the-numbers, self-parodying, routine stalk-n-slay flick, I expected something special. But instead, it plays out as an 80’s slasher film fan’s valentine to the genre… a notably uninspired valentine without a single new idea or thing to say. Yeah, okay, it’s nice that they got Kane Hodder to play their killer, “Victor Crowley.” But he plays it pretty much exactly the same way he played Jason in the countless FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels he did. Robert Englund and Tony Todd have been making a career of cameos in recent horror flicks, trading off their fright film cred, but their appearances in HATCHET are so brief and corny as to be pointless. The main cast is adequate, considering the banal, predictable script, and BUFFY/ANGEL fans will enjoy seeing actress Mercedes McNab (Harmony) flashing her boobies. But that’s about all this has goes going for it.

Okay, to be fair, it’s quite well shot, and the pace is pretty good, but it’s hardly a classic.

The Starz DVD is of their usual high quality, with a pristine 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and both 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Surround Sound. The disc includes and audio commentary by writer/director Adam Greenm cinematographer Will Barratt, and cast members Tamara Feldman, Joel Moore and Deon Richmond. Three are a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes, a gag reel, and a trailer. There’s also a weird featurette that’s nothing more than director Green’s love letter to Twisted Sister front man Dee Snider… but it’s more interesting than the feature.

Recommended only for undemanding gorehounds.

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RICCO THE MEAN MACHINE (1973, Dark Sky Films). This Italian exploitation effort stars Robert Mitchum’s son Chris as the son of a mobster who returns home after a stay in prison to discover that his father has been murdered and the family business taken over by a rival criminal. In true revenge movie form, he sets out to avenge his family honor with the help of a hot mob babe (Barbara Bouchet).

RICCO is a tedious, plodding, “inaction” film with little to recommend it aside from the bountiful charms of frequently naked Euro-vixens Barbara Bouchet and Malisa Longo. The only other point of interest in the entire movie is a surprisingly graphic shock sequence wherein a bunch of gangsters cut off a man’s genitalia and stuff them in his mouth before dumping him into a vat of acid. It looks fake as hell, but at least it’s memorable.

Dark Sky Films have put together a nice package for this rather undeserving film, with a remarkably clean 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and an on-screen interview with star Chris Mitchum, who discusses his exploitation acting career and working in the shadow of his super-star father.

Not a great movie, but Dark Sky steps up with another high quality DVD. Recommended only for fans of the film – if there are any – and aficionados of Euro-starlet skin.

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BEOWULF: UNRATED (2007, Paramount). The legendary warrior (Ray Winstone) takes on the horrific monster Grendel (Crispin Glover, WILLARD) and the creature’s seductive mother (Angelina Jolie, TOMB RAIDER) in ancient Denmark.

Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE) continues his unhealthy love affair with modern technology with this cold, mostly uninvolving computer-animated adventure based on the ancient epic poem. The script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary is fairly decent, and almost manages to invest the film with some soul. Unfortunately, the CGI animation and motion-capture performances, while technically quite remarkable, place a huge barrier between the audience and its plastic, action figure-looking characters, and it’s difficult to get emotionally involved in the story. Visually, it’s pretty amazing, but the neither live action-nor-fully animated nature of the filmmaking can be off-putting.

Paramount’s DVD is, like the film, technically astounding. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen direct digital transfer is crystal sharp, and the Dolby 5.1 audio is thunderous. The Unrated DVD is fairly loaded with special features, including deleted scenes, numerous “making of” featurettes, and trailers.

Clearly, I found BEOWULF to be disappointing, but if you’re a fan of the movie already, the DVD is definitely worth having, as the presentation is inarguably excellent.

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DRAGONLANCE (2007, Paramount). Based on a series of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS tie-in adventure novels, this PG-13 animated fantasy film revolves around a cosmic battle between good and evil, and the group of heroes who gather for a quest which will benefit the forces of good. Pretty standard stuff.

The producers have rounded up a geek-friendly cast of voice actors, including Kiefer Sutherland (THE LOST BOYS), Lucy Lawless (XENA), Michael Rosenbaum (SMALLVILLE) and Michelle Tratchenberg (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER), and the script, based on the novel by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, is fairly solid, if routine, fantasy material. Unfortunately, the animation, directed by toon vet Will Meugnot, looks like it was done in the mid-Eighties. Compared to other recent, direct-to-DVD animated features like JUSTICE LEAGUE: NEW FRONTIER, HELLBOY ANIMATED or TUROK: SON OF STONE, DRAGONLANCE looks downright prehistoric.

The character designs are bland and uninspired, the backgrounds are under-detailed, and the animation itself is stiff and awkward. The limited computer animation never blends well with the hand-drawn material, and is frequently jarring. I suppose, if you were a fan of that awful DUNGEONS & DRAGONS cartoon from the Eighties, this movie might make a decent companion piece, but really, it’s just not very good.

Parmount’s DVD is fine, with a sharp, anamorphic widescreen transfer and robust Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The skimpy extra features consist of some early test animation and the original character designs.

I love good adventure animation, but this isn’t good adventure animation. Not recommended.

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GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE: THE ORIGINAL ANIMATED SERIES (1967, Classic Media). To tie-in with a new GEORGE animated series for Cartoon Network, Classic Media has collected the entire original series from Jay Ward (ROCKY & BULLWINKLE).

George is a dim-witted Tarzan who lives in a treehouse with his girlfriend Ursula (who he often refers to as “Fella”), his “doggie,” the elephant Shep, and an erudite gorilla called Ape. Each 30-minute episode includes a roughly 7-minute GEORGE adventure, and two equal-length installments of TOM SLICK, about a race driver, and SUPER CHICKEN, the adventures of a potion-sipping, super-powered fowl. The episodes are obviously fast paced, and like other Ward productions, the humor works on several levels, making them as funny for adults as for kids.

Classic Media has packaged all 17 episodes of this 40-year-old toon in an attractive, two-disc, hardback case. The full-frame transfers are clean and fairly bright, showing only minimal dirt and some minor age-related damage. Overall, the episodes look quite good for a TV a cartoon of its vintage.

A great, funny cartoon, far funnier than those Disney live-action rip-offs. Recommended.

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GONE BABY GONE (2007, Miramax). This contemporary crime thriller from director Ben Affleck, and based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, was one of the best films of last year. As far as I’m concerned, Ben did such an assured job helming this disturbing drama, that he can give up acting and move behind the camera permanently.

The downbeat story involves two young Boston private investigators (Casey Affleck of AMERICAN PIE and Michelle Monaghan of KISS KISS BANG BANG) who are hired to find a kidnapped little girl. Rich with authentic Beantown atmosphere and filled with great supporting performances from both unknowns and veterans like Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman, GONE BABY GONE hits all the right notes for a modern noir.

The Miramax disc offers a sterling 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a robust Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound track. Director Affleck and screenwriter Aaron Stockard provide an informative and involving audio commentary track. The behind-the-scenes featurettes focus primarily on the director’s choice to shoot in his hometown, and the effort made to ensure the verisimilitude of the project. There’s a handful of deleted scenes (with commentary) and a fascinating alternate ending.

GONE BABY GONE is a strong, effective film, and the DVD is highly recommended.

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THE PHANTOM CREEPS (1939, VCI). Legendary screen villain Bela Lugosi stars in this12-chapter cliffhanger serial, as scientist Dr.Alex Zorka, a certifiable madman determined to take over the world with his inventions, which include exploding spiders, an invisibility belt, an awesome 8-foot robot with a monster’s face, and a nearly-indecipherable accent. In each chapter he is opposed by the forces of law and order, who find themselves completely overmatched by the nutty professor’s brilliance… and their own astounding incompetence.

VCI’s disc presents all 12 chapters in their original full-frame, 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Print quality is generally terrible, with tons of damage and bad contrast – but it’s more bearable than any other DVD I’ve found of this serial. The disc includes a Porky Pig cartoon, PORKY’S MIDNIGHT MATINEE, as a bonus feature.

It’s not one of the best serials, but Lugosi is a pleasure to watch, and he seems to be having fun, too. For cliffhanger fans or Lugosiphiles, I doubt you’re going to find a better version available commercially.

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THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935, VCI). Another classic serial from VCI, this one features singing cowboy star Gene Autry playing a fictionalized version of himself – a western music radio star who broadcasts daily from a dude ranch. Unfortunately, gangsters want the land the ranch is built on for its rich radium deposits, and know that if Autry misses a broadcast, he’ll lose his contract and the ranch. Oh, and there’s also the super-scientific lost city of Murania built in the caverns below the ranch, filled with ray gun-wielding Thunder Riders, robots with aluminum cowboy hats, and a sexy queen with a TV set that can allow her to see anyone and anywhere she wants (does the NSA know about that?). Both the gangsters and Muranians want Autry off the property, and will do whatever they can to stop him from making his broadcasts.

This famous cliffhanger features lots of exciting western action mixed with FLASH GORDON-styled sci-fi thrills, and plenty of country crooning. VCI’s DVD – like THE PHANTOM CREEPS, above – shows lots of age-related damage and debris, and plenty of random missing frames. Still, it looks better than most of the budget DVD versions of the serial that are commercially available.

The set also includes a bonus Gene Autry western, BOOTS & SADDLES, a couple of informative text features, a retrospective featurette, various cliffhanger trailers, and a still gallery.

This is the best version of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE I’ve seen on DVD. If you’re a serial fan, you might want to pick it up.

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THE WILD WILD WEST: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (1968-69, CBS). Television’s greatest Western, sci-fi, spy fantasy series comes to its conclusion with it’s fourth and final season. Unfortunately, while there are many fine episodes in this batch, most suffer from the absence of co-star Ross Martin, who was struck by a severe heart attack during production, and missed many episodes while he recovered. Also, Robert Conrad received a serious head injury during a botched stunt (which was used anyway!), and had to cut back on some of the more risky action scenes. Still, it’s a great season with many memorable guest stars and strong scripts, and worth checking out.

CBS’ DVD release presents all 24 episodes in crisp, clean full-frame transfers and clear mono sound. Unfortunately, there are no bonus features.

As with all three previous season box sets, THE WILD WILD WEST Season 4, is highly recommended.

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WALKER, TEXAS RANGER: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (1995-96, CBS). Although I grew up watching and enjoying Chuck Norris’ theatrical action films, I never really warmed to his WALKER television series, despite it being clearly inspired by LONE WOLF McQUADE, my favorite Norris movie. Too much talking, perhaps, or maybe it was the pedestrian TV-safe scripting that lacked the more lurid and over-the-top elements that made his movies so much fun. It’s slick and well-produced, but too wholesome and tame for my tastes.

But the show has its fans, and stands as one of the last honest-to-goodness action-adventure series to achieve any longevity and success on network television. CBS has been collecting the long-running (9 seasons!) cops & karate series in solid season sets, and the latest volume includes all 27 episodes of the 95-96 season in crystal sharp, full-frame transfers. There are no extras… unless you count hearing Norris sing the title tune, “Eyes of A Ranger,” at the open of every episode. Personally, I consider that a real treat.

Recommended only for WALKER fans, and Norris completists.

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THE EQUALIZER: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (1985-86, Universal) This was one of my favorite television shows back in the Eighties, and I was surprised to find that it still holds up quite well. Edward Woodward (THE WICKER MAN) brings considerable dramatic heft, humanity and intensity to his role as Robert McCall, a middle-aged ex-secret agent who takes out newspaper advertisements offering to help people in trouble in a menacing, pre-Guiliani New York City. Using espionage tradecraft and many of his old black ops cronies, McCall fights for the underdog against street gangs, blackmailers, assassins, white slavers, malicious businessmen, callous slumlords and industrial spies. It’s great stuff, with twisty scripts by TV veterans like Mark Frost (TWIN PEAKS) and Michael Sloane (KNIGHT RIDER). Among it’s producers was 24’s Joel Surnow, who clearly learned something about gritty espionage stories while working on this series.

Universal’s box set includes all 22 first season episodes in solid full-frame transfers that show only minimal age-related wear. The mono sound is clear and sharp. The only extras are a commentary on the pilot episode by creator Michael Sloane and a bonus episode from the second season.

THE EQUALIZER was one of the best, and most unique, crime shows of the Eighties, and it still holds up. Recommended.

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SCHOOLGIRL REPORT VOL 3 (1971, Impulse Pictures). The third entry in the notorious series of German sexploitation flicks pretends, like the first two, to be a serious documentary about the disturbing sexual liberation of 70’s Teutonic teenage girls, with authoritative narration, woman-on-the-street interviews and elaborate, softcore “re-enactments” that just coincidentally display copious amounts of attractive, nubile Euro-flesh in highly eroticized situations. Of course, the film warns that all this unbridled, uninhibited behavior leads inevitably to grim retribution in the form of unwanted pregnancy, STDs or public humiliation.

Impulse Pictures presents this latest installment of the long-running series, directed by Walter Boos and Ernst Hofbauer, in its original German, with English subtitles. The 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer is a bit worn and faded, but is presented uncut. There are no extras.

For collectors of vintage sexploitation, these campy, softcore “classics” are worth checking out.

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42ND STREET FOREVER: EXPLOITATION EXPLOSION (Synapse Films) and TRAILER TRASH (Camp Motion Pictures/Pop Cinema). Trailer compilations aren’t for everyone, but I enjoy them. It can be a kick seeing how distributors and exhibitors have tried over the years to sell their wares, and when the wares in question are sleazy exploitation films, the trailers can often be more fun than the movies they promote.

Synapse Films’ third volume of vintage grindhouse trailers, 42ND STREET FOREVER: EXPLOTATION EXPLOSION, features 101 minutes of fantastically lurid and memorable coming attractions, covering the gamut from Filipino martial arts imports to Roger Corman sexploitation and even trucker movies! Here’s some of the titles included: SUDDEN DEATH, THE ONE ARMED EXECUTIONER, JAGUAR LIVES!, ENTER THE NINJA, LIGHTNING SWORDS OF DEATH, FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, THE STRANGER & THE GUNFIGHTER, DEMONOID, DEVIL TIMES FIVE, PHASE IV, THE UNCANNY, THE PACK, ALLIGATOR, KILLER FISH, BLOOD BEACH, HOT T-SHIRTS, CHEERLEADERS’ WILD WEEKEND, SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS, KING FRAT, PRISON GIRLS, CHAIN GANG WOMEN, NIGHT CALL NURSES, THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES HOLLYWOOD, GUYANA – CULT OF THE DAMNED, SAVAGE STREETS, HIGH BALLIN’, TATTOO, and a bunch more. Picture quality and aspect ratio varies from trailer to trailer, but they’re all watchable and entertaining. This volume includes a mostly-informative audio commentary track by Fangoria Managing Editor Michael Gingold, AVManiacs editor Edwin Samuelson, and film historian Chris Poggiali. There is also a handful of great TV spots, too.

TRAILER TRASH is a two-disc collection of promos for virtually all of EI Entertainment/POP Cinema’s multitude of video releases, covering all of their many labels, from Camp Motion Pictures and Seduction Cinema, to the company’s Shock-O-Rama, and Secret Key imprints. Some of the many titles included in the set’s 5+ hour running time are: PLAY-MATE OF THE APES, SPLATTER BEACH, 2069: A SEX ODYESSY, CANNIBAL CAMPOUT, SWEDISH WILDCATS, WOMEN’S PRISON MASSACRE, INGA, BITE ME!, SIN SISTERS, WOODCHIPPER MASSACRE, RUN VIRGIN RUN, SATAN’S SCHOOL FOR LUST, DRAINIAC, PSYCHO KICKBOXER, BACTERIUM, SLIME CITY, 5 BLOODY GRAVES, CHAINSAW SALLY, SUBURBAN NIGHTMARE, SINFUL, THE HOUSE ON HOOTER HILL, CREATURE FROM THE HILLBILLY LAGOON, EROTIC GAMES, CHANTAL, ABIGAIL LESLIE’S BACK IN TOWN, THE SEXPERTS, and tons more, including the complete Misty Mundae collection. As the majority of these trailers are for home video titles, and have never been spooled through a projector, 90% of these promos are of high visual quality. Only those for the studio’s “retro” releases show any wear and tear. The 2 disc set also includes a handful of documentaries created by the studio for various DVD releases. If you’re already a die-hard fan of this company’s productions, or have never sampled their product and are curious, TRAILER TRASH is the perfect sampler, containing, as it does, the good, the bad, and the ugly of EI’s output.

COMING ATTRACTIONS:

Reviews of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, WRESTLEMANIAC, THEM, ENCHANTED, WOODY WOODPECKER & FRIENDS VOL. 2, 101 DALMATIANS PLATINUM EDITION, WAR OF THE WORLDS 2: THE NEXT WAVE, VOYEUER, LOST HIGHWAY, BIONIC WOMAN VOLUME ONE, IRON KING: THE COMPLETE SERIES, DIE AND LET LIVE, CLOAK & SHAG HER, THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE and more!

For older Late Show columns, 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 and review requests can be directed to: dvdlateshow@atomicpulp.com

 

 

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