March 18, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: THE BLACK SCORPION (1957)

Starring Richard Denning, Mara Corday (mee-ow!), Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Carlos Muzquiz, Pascual Garcia Pena, Pedro Galvan. Directed by Edward Ludwig. (1957/88 min).

There's an early scene in The Black Scorpion when our heroes search a mysteriously abandoned house after hearing suspicious noises. Guns drawn, they get to the last room and discover it's just a baby cooing in his cradle. Relieved, Dr. Hank Scott (Richard Denning) smiles, chuckles to his partner and repeatedly points at the little bambino...with his pistol. This doesn't have anything to do with the plot, but remind me never to hire Dr. Scott as a babysitter.

Elsewhere, The Black Scorpion sees an angry nest of enormous arachnids unleashed in Mexico after a massive earthquake creates a new volcano. Dr. Scott is an American geologist sent down to study the eruption, but spends more time flirting with cattle rancher Teresa Alvarez (played by beautiful B queen Mara Corday, so who can blame him?). When these supersized scorpions begin attacking a nearby village, Scott and colleague Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas) put their research on hold to become epic exterminators.

Best. Halftime show. Ever.
The scorpions only come out at night, so after blowing up the cave where they hang-out during daylight, Scott & friends think they're in the clear. They're gravely mistaken, of course, because what's the point of a giant bug movie if the title creature isn't allowed to attack a major city? In this case, its Mexico City, and the last remaining scorpion is the biggest mother of them all.

For the most part, The Black Scorpion is your garden variety low budget, big-bug flick, complete with recycled action footage and actors accustomed to dealing with nature run-amok. However, the film is noteworthy for featuring some of the last stop-motion creature work by Willis O'Brien, who once brought Kong to life and taught Ray Harryhausen everything he knows. Despite working with obviously limited resources, his monsters are creepy creations, though the misguided decision to give the title creatures human-like faces makes them all look like Edward G. Robinson.

"Listen, you crummy, flat-footed copper!"
Additionally, the movie is a lot of fun. It's got a decent story that moves along nicely and the special effects are pretty neat (though repeated...a lot). Considering its budget, a sequence where the title creatures attack a passenger train (train wreck...YEAH!!!) is particularly impressive. The plot even includes the obligatory, cute child character who only exists to put himself in peril by being stupid. Though not among the best of its genre, The Black Scorpion is a nifty little nugget from the golden age of monster movies. 
"STOP-MOTION MASTERS" - Special effects legend Ray Harryhausen talks about learning from and working with his mentor, Willis O'Brien.
FOOTAGE FROM "LAS VEGAS MONSTERS" and "BEETLEMEN" - FX test footage from two unproduced films O'Brien worked on.
DINOSAUR SEQUENCE FROM THE ANIMAL WORLD - This was an Irwin Allen 'documentary' Harryhausen worked on.


News: STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI Score-Only Edition Now Available on Movies Anywhere

The score-only version of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is available exclusively on Movies Anywhere for a limited time. Simply sign-up for Movies Anywhere and link your digital retailer account where you purchased your digital copy in order to unlock it!

Lucasfilm’s worldwide phenomenon, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is now available on digital and arrives on Blu-ray & 4K on Tuesday, March 27th.

March 17, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: A TRIP TO THE MOON

Starring Georges Melies, Bleuette Bernon. Directed by Georges Melies. (1902/15 min).

In nothing else, you aren't likely to find a more lovingly-assembled Blu-Ray release dedicated to a single 15 minute film.

Of course, this isn't just any 15 minute film. A Trip to the Moon is arguably the most important 15 minute film in history. Universally acknowledged as the very first science fiction movie (heavily inspired by Jules Verne), it was the brainchild Georges Melies. In addition to being a technical pioneer, he explored the narrative possibilities of film before it was even an industry.

More than just the film, this set is also a celebration of Melies himself. In fact, the uninitiated might want to check out the accompanying 65 minute documentary beforehand. The Extraordinary Voyage is a wonderful retrospective of Melies' groundbreaking achievements, featuring interviews and commentary by various filmmakers & historians, along with clips from many of the 500+ films he made during his relatively short career. The film also documents the painstaking efforts to restore a long-thought-lost colorized version of A Trip to the Moon - each frame was originally hand-painted! - to its former glory.

Inside Gary Busey's head.
Watching the documentary first, one can't help but view A Trip to the Moon as much more than just whimsical entertainment (thought it's still quite charming). It's impossible not to appreciate the film's impact and influence on both audiences and filmmaking. This disc features both the restored color print, which looks remarkable, and the commonly-available (but more intact) black & white version. There are also several music options, including orchestral, improvised piano and a surprisingly effective synthesized score. Other audio options offer narration and/or actors voicing some of the characters.

This Blu-Ray edition of A Trip to the Moon from Flicker Alley is must-own for anyone who considers themself a cinephile. The film's lasting influence is immeasurable and the chance to finally experience it as audiences first did in 1902 is too good to pass up.

THE EXTRAORDINARY VOYAGE - A feature-length 2011 documentary about Melies' life and career, with a special emphasis on "A Trip to the Moon." One of the best film history docs I've ever seen.
"THE ECLIPSE" (1904) & "THE ASTRONOMER'S DREAM" (1898) - Two other Melies films.
SUPLEMENTARY BOOKLET - Contains screenshots, vintage photos and a detailed essay by Gilles Duval & Severine Wemaere, which is an excerpt from the book, A Trip to the Moon Back in Color.

March 16, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: DOWNSIZING

Starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Udo Kier, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Rolf Lassgard, Maribeth Monroe, Ingjerd Egeberg, Neal Patrick Harris, Laura Dern. Directed by Alexander Payne. (2017/135 min).

Here's another strong reason why people should probably pay more attention to who's creatively responsible for a film rather than its pandering trailer. Writer/director Alexander Payne isn't known for gimmicky, high-concept movies and he sure as hell didn't start with Downsizing.

Yet ads and trailers offered it up as a big, fun, FX-driven sci-fi comedy with Matt Damon experiencing the joy of tapping a giant vodka bottle (a scene which didn't actually show up in the final cut). It wasn't really fair to audiences or Payne, who wrote and directed a more somber and thought-provoking film than that.

As a solution to overpopulation, climate change and Earth's depleting resources, a brilliant Norwegian scientist develops a technology which reduces people to five inches. At that size, not only do they consume less of everything, even those with relatively few assets can suddenly afford lives of luxury. Years later, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), an occupational therapist who once had bigger dreams, sees this as a chance to do something important. His wife, however, backs out at the last second. Since the procedure is irreversible, Paul's stuck living on his own in Leisureland (the community where everyone who's been "downsized" live).

"Yeah, I was expecting Steve Martin to be here, too."
For a time, Paul is lonely and bored, working as a telemarketer and befriending Dusan (Christoph Waltz), an aging Serbian playboy who hosts wild parties every night. Then he meets one of Dusan's housekeepers, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese political prisoner who was shrunk against her will and shipped to America. Through her, he discovers Leisureland isn't quite the utopia he was led to believe and that downsizing has done little to change the social injustices plaguing the rest of the world. The story takes an even darker turn after Paul accompanies Dusan to Norway to the village where the very first downsizers have been living - in relative isolation - for decades.

While it's not exactly Honey, I Shrunk Matt Damon, Downsizing is sometimes very funny for reasons we're led to expect. But Payne also has something important to say about humankind's inherent short-sightedness, apathy and egocentrism. Infusing some biting satire, he doesn't paint an optimistic picture of the world or its future. In fact, there are moments when the story is kind-of depressing, especially when Leisureland is depicted as a little more than microcosm of the world its inhabitants supposedly wanted to save.

"Sorry...I ate all the crackers."
The film is a bit overlong. The first hour, in particular, is pretty meandering - almost aimless - until the real story kicks in, which is full of surprises and as engaging as it is intelligent. Aside from a boatload of gratuitous cameos (mainly during the first act), the characters are interesting, as are most of the performances. Damon is...well, Matt Damon, but Waltz & Udo Kier are wonderful in roles which seem tailor-made for them. The best performance, though, belongs to Chau, whose character becomes emotional crux of the film.

Downsizing is smart, enjoyable and poignant, not at-all like the film we were sold. That's arguably the biggest reason it undeservedly came-and-went in theaters within a few weeks. But perhaps it'll enjoy a second life on home video, being a very rewarding experience once the viewer knows what to expect.

PROMOTIONAL FEATURETTES: "Working with Alexander"; "The Cast"; "A Visual Journey"; "A Matter of Perspective"; "That Smile"; "A Global Concern"

March 14, 2018


Starring Tadanobu Asano, Nao Omori, Alien Sun, Susumo Terajima, Shun Sugata, Toru Tezuka, Yoshiki Arizono. Directed by Takashi Miike. (2001/128 min).

Here's something that'll never happen... an American remake of Ichi the Killer, promoted with a gloriously misleading poster featuring Mark Wahlberg & Jeremy Renner, arms crossed and standing back-to-back beneath the tagline: These two give new meaning to Here Comes the Pain!

Anybody who's ever seen Ichi the Killer knows it's too bonkers to ever be effectively remade. For better or worse, this is a one-of-a-kind film. To make even minor narrative, stylistic or tonal changes renders any notion of a remake ridiculous (just ask Spike Lee). In that respect, I suppose it puts Ichi the Killer in the same company as Jaws.

Not that the film is a similar exercise in cinematic artistry. I think many Takashi Miike fans would concur that much of the director's appeal lies in his gung-ho audacity. Along with the equally-insane Audition, Ichi the Killer remains his magnum opus, a whacked-out assault on good taste that has earned a notorious level of international infamy that few other Asian cult films have achieved (even all these years later, it is arguably the Gone with the Wind of WTF?).

"Stop it! That tickles!"
Cult classic credentials notwithstanding, Ichi the Killer's bipolar attitude and approach to its unflinching violence remains a bone of contention (for this writer, anyway). On one hand, the most graphic scenes of violence are so extreme and over-the-top that they border on surreal. That, along with some amusing performances (especially by Tadanocu Asano as the pain-addicted Kakihara), has the film approaching a level of black comedy that's a lot of brutal fun. The voyeuristic sexual violence, on the other hand, is depicted far more realistically and really tough to take.

Not that my reservations should dissuade anybody reading this, most of whom are probably already well-aware of the story and sick thrills in-store. This isn't Ichi the Killer's first Blu-Ray rodeo, either. It was first released in 2010 by Tokyo Shock. I've never seen that edition, but by most accounts, the video & audio quality was pretty shitty. That's no longer an issue with this nicely-restored transfer from Well Go USA. However, the new disc much lighter on bonus features...just an audio commentary, still gallery and trailer. Looks like some of you sick puppies planning to double-dip will have to hang onto both discs.

AUDIO COMMENTARY - By Miike and original Ichi the Killer manga creator Hideo Yamamoto.

March 12, 2018


Starring Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Ida Lupino, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Sally Forrest, John Drew Barrymore. Directed by Fritz Lang. (1956/99 min).

So what does happen while the city sleeps? Plenty, and none of it good...

There's a serial thrill-killer (John Drew Barrymore) who preys on young women in their apartments. At the scene of his latest kill, he scrawls a cryptic message, "Ask mother," on the wall with lipstick, prompting the press to dub him the Lipstick Killer.

Meanwhile, Kyne Inc., one of the city's media empires, is thrown into turmoil after its owner suddenly dies. Kyne's son and heir, Walter (Vincent Price), is an arrogant douchebag who uses the Lipstick Killer story to manipulate three of his greedy underlings into competing for second in command. One newsman who wants no part of this is Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), who seems more concerned with catching the killer than getting a promotion and keeps abreast of the investigation through a friend on the force, Lt. Kaufman (Howard Duff).

Guess who just had six cups of coffee.
Not much sleeping gets done in this city (though there's some sleeping around) as everyone undermines each other's attempts to be promoted, to the point where the film sometimes plays more like a soap opera than hardcore film noir. Still, the story and its various subplots are just interesting enough to keep our attention until this perpetually perspiring perve strikes again. Good performances help, of course. Andrews' no-frills acting style serves his character well, while Rhonda Fleming & Ida Lupino make terrific temptresses who are as conniving as they are easy on the eyes. Sally Forrest, on the other hand, is duller than dishwater as Mobley's fiancée, (no wonder Lupino is able to lead him astray).

A relatively minor late-career directorial effort from the great Fritz Lang, While the City Sleeps is nevertheless an engaging potboiler. Though not particularly memorable, it's efficiently-made, fast-paced and sometimes quite humorous. Calling the film a timeless classic is a stretch, but it's entertaining in-the-moment and looks great on Blu-Ray.


News: STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI /­ Images from SXSW Screening and New Clips

“The Director and the Jedi” premiered today at the Paramount Theatre at SXSW Film Festival today with Mark Hamill, Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson and producer Ram Bergman, and “The Director and the Jedi” director Anthony Wonke and producer Tylie Cox in attendance.  The feature-length documentary is an in-depth bonus feature on the upcoming Digital and Blu-ray release.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is coming home digitally in HD and 4K Ultra HD and via Movies Anywhere tomorrow, March 13 and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and Blu-ray disc on March 27.

March 10, 2018


Directed by Antonio D'Ambrosio. (2017/98 min).

When we hear the name, Serpico, the first image that always comes to mind is Al Pacino. The 1973 film had such a lasting impact on popular culture that it's easy to forget Frank Serpico is a real guy.

He's in his 80s now, and lives a relatively quiet life compared to his tumultuous police career. But when asked, he still has a lot to say about it, personal insights that no dramatic depiction - no matter how well made - can possibly convey. The documentary, Frank Serpico, catches up with the former cop, as well as ex-partners, friends and the prosecuting attorney who worked closely with him when he blew the whistle on the massively corrupt NYPD.

Though much of the film focuses on those years when he risked his life for a principle, this is also a biography of Frank himself. We learn about his childhood and upbringing, as well as the years after his retirement (he remains an activist and speaks out in support of various causes). Still, Serpico's historic clash with the NYPD remains the most interesting part of the film and hearing it from the horse's mouth is nearly as fascinating as the classic movie that made him a household name. We also get the impression that, decades later, Frank Serpico still feels lucky to be alive.

Sitting at Starbucks, Frank spots another Starbucks.
Ultimately, Frank Serpico tells a story we've heard before, but getting it directly from the man who lived it - and those he was close to - provides a unique perspective (he's also quick to refute some creative liberties taken by director Sidney Lumet). This is a documentary well worth checking out and would make a great double feature with the 1973 film.

March 9, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: BLACK EAGLE

Starring Sho Kosugi, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Doran Clarke, Bruce French, William Bassett, Vladimir Skomarovsky, Kane & Shane Kosugi (Sho's kids). Directed by Eric Karson. (1988/93 min).

A plane carrying an experimental laser device crashes off-screen (shaving the special effects budget) in the Mediterranean Sea. The Americans need their best operative, Ken Tani (a.k.a. Black Eagle, played by Sho Kosugi) to retrieve it before the Russians do. He initially refuses because he wants to spend time with his family. But his superiors got his back: They send his two young boys to Malta with him, so now Ken's dangerous, deadly mission into hostile territory can be a work vacation!

Other than this hilariously lazy plot contrivance (the kids only exist to be put in peril), there's nothing particularly remarkable about Black Eagle. It was just one of countless generic, B-movie action-fests you used to find on any Blockbuster shelf. Respected martial artist Sho Kosugi lacked the on-screen charisma to stand out among his peers, and it probably goes without saying there's never been an Eric Karson career retrospective film festival.

"Black Eagle, huh? More like Mr. Shrinky-Dink."
Still, Black Eagle earns a footnote in action history for featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme in one of his first substantial roles. Made before Bloodsport turned him into an international star, he's one of the Russian baddies, a stone-faced enforcer who kicks, punches and performs his patented splits more often than he speaks. Practically shoehorned into the movie, his character is a constant presence but inconsequential to the actual plot. Van Damme's really only here to scowl and square-off against Kosugi a few times, but he's admittedly the best part of the movie.

Jean-Claude's friends need hobbies of their own.
The film itself is a by-the-numbers thriller with rote performances, a generic plot and low-wattage action. But if one's aware of this going in, Black Eagle isn't without some entertainment value, though sometimes at its own expense. It helps if you have an affinity for the plethora of budget-conscious action epics being cranked out in the 80s. A lot of 'em were unintentionally funny even then and this one's no exception, especially during scenes which take place on and under the sea, such as a toy boat being used to depict the destruction of a massive cargo ship.

It's really the perfect choice for another Blu-Ray release in MVD's wonderfully-kitschy "Rewind Collection" series. Like their recent release of the equally-dubious Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, MVD has pulled out all the stops to give Black Eagle a remastered Blu-Ray that's loaded with substantial new bonus material, including four lengthy featurettes and two versions of the film (theatrical & extended cut, running 10 minutes longer). Even the cover art and slipcase are affectionate throwbacks to the glory days of VHS, complete with tattered stickers politely reminding viewers to "Be Kind...Rewind." Whether or not you care for the movie itself, these extras are a lot of fun.

FEATURETTES: "The Making of Black Eagle"; "Sho Kosugi: Martial Arts Legend"; "Tales of Jean-Claude Van Damme"; "The Script and the Screenwriters"

March 8, 2018

News: JUMANJI Gag Reel


JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE debuted on digital March 6 and is available on 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD March 20 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The physical skus will also include digital versions of the movie, redeemable via the all-new Movies Anywhere App. The family fun adventure stars Dwayne Johnson (Fast and the Furious franchise), Jack Black (Goosebumps), Kevin Hart (Ride Along) and Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy franchise).

Check out the partial gag reel (one of the bonus features):