Seasons 1 of Star Trek: The Original Series beaming to Blu-ray

The first season of the original STAR TREK television series is scheduled to arrive in a seven-disc Blu-ray set on April 28. Previously available on HD-DVD, in its new incarnation the first season episodes will be available in their original versions and in the enhanced versions from a few years ago (which updated the special effects with relatively unobtrusive computer-generated imagery). The discs will be filled with bonus material, much of it ported over from the HD-DVD, plus some new features, including an option to hear the soundtracks in the original mono or in 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. There will also be pop-up trivia and picture-in-picture commentary, an interactive tour, and home movie footage filmed on set.

In the Electric Mist – Borderland Film & Blu-ray Review

Foreign filmmakers have often had an interesting take on American life, particularly our more rural areas that are far from the internationally known (and too frequently photographed) cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. European directors like Wim Wenders and Paul Verhoeven have been moving freely across the Atlantic for decades, comfortably filming on either continent and able to offer fresh-feeling insights into the American character. One name I didn’t expect to be adding to that list was art-house icon Bernard Tavernier, a lesser known but formidable French filmmaker whose best work, including the delicate treatise on death, Daddy Nostalgie (which gave us the last performance of the great Dirk Bogarde) show an almost painterly eye toward capturing genuine human emotion. Tavernier’s films have always seemed very European in outlook, subject, and pacing, and apart from the murderous protagonist of Coup de Torchon (1981) we can’t imagine what in his resume made him seem like an appropriate choice to helm a modern American detective movie. The resulting mystery-thriller might come up short on raw, serial killer thrills, but IN THE ELECTRIC MIST features a string of terrific performances that make for a very pleasant 102 minutes.
Based on the novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, part of a series of books by author James Lee Burke, the film is centered on detective Dave Robicheau (Tommy Lee Jones) who works the parish around New Orleans. While on the trail of a suspected serial killer, Dave crosses paths with walking DWI Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard) a movie star who’s in town filming a civil war drama and manages to almost literally stumble over a long-buried corpse of a prisoner who had been murdered in cold blood – a murder witnessed by a young Robicheau who never reported it to the police. Thrown into this narrative gumbo are John Goodman as local “respectable citizen” Baby Feet Balboni, Mary Steenburgen as Robicheau’s splendidly age-appropriate wife, Bootsie, and The Band’s Levon Helm as the ghost of General John Bell Hood, who appears as part of either a vision or a dream to offer the occasional nugget of advice to the detective.

Tommy Lee Jones as Detetive Dave Robicheaux
Tommy Lee Jones as Detetive Dave Robicheaux

More a character piece than action thriller, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST’s superb cast is certainly its chief asset. Aside from the impressive list above, you’ll also find Ned Beatty (reunited with Big Easy co-star Goodman), James Gammon;  even blues legend Buddy Guy turns up in a small role – and performs! Tavernier has always had a way with actors, and he brings out fine performances from the eclectic cast; Jones somehow manages to create yet another weathered law enforcement character that is shaded with enough nuance to feel utterly different from No Country for Old Men’s Tom Bell or The Fugitive’sSam Gerard. Tavernier’s name gets added to a short list – along with Jim McBride and the Cohen brothers – of directors who know exactly how to handle John Goodman, who seems convincingly able to turn from a colorful Bayou stereotype into a very dangerous killer at the drop of the hat. Goodman’s Balboni operates a stolen goods warehouse in a church abandoned since hurricane Katrina, offering a sobering view of the wasteland that much of the area surrounding New Orleans remains today. And while the film wisely steers clear of politics, you also feel like the grim picture painted of life in southern Louisiana is sadly accurate.
IN THE ELECTRIC MIST’s most unusual moment arrives when Jones, whose drink had been spiked with LSD, crashes his car in a ditch and staggers into what appears to be an actual Civil War-era encampment. This is the first of several scenes between Jones and Levon Helm, who is surprisingly strong in a part that’s more than a little tricky to pull off. This is exactly the sort of narrative device that can work well in the context of a book but can easily appear forced and awkward onscreen; fortunately, it is handled amazingly well here. It is in these scenes that the film feels most at ease, as the mood piece that might have been.
What doesn’t work as well is Jones’ narration, which smacks as a classic last-minute fix for a troubled post production. Though we don’t know what was cut or by whom, the version of IN THE ELECTRIC MIST available on home video is significantly shorter than the version that played the festival circuit. This certainly accounts for the jumpy nature of the narrative and some of the rushed-feeling transitions. There are also characters, like Ned Beatty’s sinister businessman and Jones’ unwanted FBI partner, who come off short changed and under-nourished as a result of the too brief running time.
Ironically, editorial fine tuning turned out to be moot as IN THE ELECTRIC MIST was denied the theatrical release that it deserved and went straight to video. The good news is that Image’s Blu-Ray release looks absolutely stunning, with bright, bold bayou colors that pop off the screen and a pleasing level of detail. Unfortunately, that is all there is; apart from the theatrical trailer there are no other extras on the disc.
A vision of the ghost of a Confederate Soldier
A vision of the ghost of a Confederate Soldier

IN THE ELECTRIC MIST (2009). Directed by Bertrand Tavenier. Screenplay by Kerzy Kronolowski & Mary Olson-Kronolowsky, based on the novel In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Deadby James Lee Burke. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, John Goodman, Kelly Macdonald, Mary Steenburgen, Peter Sarsgaard, Ned Beatty, Justina Machado, James Gammon, Levon Helm, John Sayles, Gary Grubbs, Alana Locke, Louis Herthum, Buddy Guy.

Two Evil Eyes (1990) – Blu-ray Review

This is strange entry in the careers of George A Romero and Dario Argento, as fans expecting an anthology along the lines of Creepshow were instead given essentially 2 almost completely unrelated hour-long features based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe. Romero’s episode is about a wealthy patriarch who dies while under hypnosis; his gold-digging wife (Adrienne Barbeau giving one of her best performances) hides the body in the cellar until the estate can be settled. You needn’t have read Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” to guess what happens next. We actually think this is one of Romero’s better films from this period, without the amateurish acting that occasionally plagues his efforts.
Argento’s effort is based on Poe’s “The Black Cat” and stars Harvey Keitel as Rod Usher , a crime scene photographer who kills his girlfriend’s black cat, photographing it at the point of death. Once she discovers the nightmarish photos in Rod’s just-published book, she confronts him, they struggle, and he kills her – but this is still a Poe story, and walling up a dead body isn’t always the best method of disposal. Unfortunately, this film falls in line with Argento’s other weak efforts from the period, including the Pittsburgh-filmed Trauma from 1993. Even with Argento’s trademark visual flair, the film seems much more slowly paced than Romero’s segment when the opposite ought to be true; even with the limited running time the film drags as we are left too long in the company of Keitel’s Usher character, an utterly unlikeable bastard who illicit zero sympathy. The heavy-handed gore (courtesy of Tom Savini) also seems forced – more like a contractual obligation than artistic method.
Like Blue Underground’s previous HD efforts, this Blu-Ray disc is gorgeous, bringing out excellent color and detail (though still limited by the occasionally rough source material – this wasn’t a lushly budgeted film). The extras replicate BU’s previous edition, including the documentary “Two Masters’ Eyes,” featuring interviews with both filmmakers.
http://astore.amazon.com/cinefantastiqueonline-20/detail/B001NDH4K2

Never Say Never Again (1983) – Blu-ray Review

Much was made in 1983 of the return of Sean Connery to the role of James Bond, in spite of the fact that Roger Moore’s most recent outings had been spectacular financial successes. But the outer space extravagance of Moonraker in 1979 had set many Bond fans pining for the simpler days of the Connery era, and television showings of the older films proved increasingly popular. Eon (the official Bond production company) responded, and the next film, 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, was a noticeably scaled-back effort; even so, the nostalgia for Connery’s films continued to grow. The demand was there – but not just anyone can make a James Bond film, right?
In the late ’50s (before the Bond films were even a gleam in Eon’s eyes), producer Kevin McClory and writer Jack Whittingham worked with Ian Fleming on a series of story treatments for a proposed film series based on the Bond charcter but not on the Bond books. The films never materialzed, but Fleming later published as Thunderball. The problem was that the author apparently used numerous story elements (including Blofeld and Spectre) from the treatments developed with McClory-Whittingham, who were understandably peeved. Years of legal battles followed with the end result not only that the aggrieved parties received their due credit on future editions of the book (“based on a screen treatment by K. McClory, J. Whittingham and the author”), but also that McClory held onto theatrical rights to the story – which is why McClory is credited as producer of 1964’s THUNDERBALL, which is “presented by” the usual Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry J. Saltzman. Almost two decades later, American producer Jack Schwartzman acquired those rights and made Connery – in the midst of a pre-Untouchables career slump – a handsome offer, and a new title was taken from a remark made by Connery’s wife after he pledged never to play Bond again.
The biggest problem with NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN proved to be a tough hurdle – the fact that it had already been made. Even though Thunderball is lauded as part of the ‘classic Connery package’, it’s always been one of the more problematic Bond films. NEVER SAY NEVER AGAINdoesn’t so much fix them as swap them out – the ridiculous plastic surgery gambit is replaced by the equally silly ‘implant a duplicate of the President’s cornea’ routine, and underwater action is just as dull as it had been 20 years ago. Fortunately, the remake manages to come through with an absolutely first rate supporting cast, including Klaus Maria Brandauer as Largo, Max von Sydow as Blofeld, Bernie Casey as Felix Leiter, and the Jackal himself, Edward Fox as ‘M’. On the feminine side, a fabulously young Kim Basinger makes an early appearance alongside one of our favorite ’80s vixens, Barbara Carrera (still looking great in the accompanying featurette).
This cast would be a treat in any film, but they brighten up the Bond universe considerably. Austrian-born Brandauer was fresh from his art house triumph in Mephisto and contributes what is likely the most deeply layered performance in the entire Bond series and presents more than a match for Connery, then in his early 50s and in enviable physical shape. NEVER SAY NEVER AGAINis solidly directed by Irvin Kershner – a hot ticket after The Empire Strikes Back, though best remembered by this reviewer for his superb 1977 television docudrama Raid on Entebbe. He allows the cast room to breathe and inhabit their roles (something that many “official” Bond films have forgotten) but also has a tendency towards flat lighting and stiff staging that can occasionally feel like an expensive TV film (the SPECTRE board meeting is a particularly haphazard affair, almost as if the set hadn’t been finished in time and they were forced to make do at the last minute). Kershner also manages to unobtrusively cater the film to Connery’s advanced age, keeping the actor’s action sequences grounded in the realm of the physically conceivable. Other aspects, however, like the grating disco-jazz Michel Legrand score and some regrettable fashion choices have dated the film badly. We remember the way films in the Eon series used Ken Adam’s sets and Derek Meddings’ miniatures to create a sense of the spectacular, while NSNA is content to be Remo Williams in a tuxedo.
The vagaries of corporate library acquisition have brought the home video rights for NEVER SAY NEVER AGAINback to MGM (the longtime home of Eon Productions) who are releasing the title on Blu-Ray in a cross promotion with Quantum of Solace , and the 3rd volume of “official series” HD releases. The image itself is quite nice after a shaky opening credit sequence (likely because of the opticals used to add the titles to the screen). The picture looks good, with Douglas Slocombe’s unaffected lighting turning out rather crisply and without any obvious filtering.
We were also surprised by the number of extras present, including “The Big Gamble,” a refreshingly honest documentary on the film’s difficult production history. In this regard, it’s a pleasant respite from the docus on the “official” Bond films that only feature stories that utilize keywords like “honored”, “thrilled”, and “professional”. The late producer Jack Schwartzman (father of Jason and husband of Talia Shire) was really just an attorney who spotted the legal loophole that allowed for a remake of Thunderball outside of Eon’s auspices, and was unprepared for the complexities of shooting a film on this scale. We especially enjoyed listening to the un-credited writers bemoan the addition of the execrable theme song to the otherwise well done opening gag.
There is also a commentary track featuring Kershner and Bond expert (and former Cinefantastique contributor) Steven Jay Rubin who has his hands full keeping the director from lapsing into describe-what’s-onscreen mode. Other featurettes include “Bond is Back,” focusing on Connery’s return to the role and “The Girls of Never Say Never Again, “which is self-explanatory. But our favorite extra has got to be the theatrical trailer – it’s a howler, reeking of Cannon Films ballyhoo at best and high-rent early ’80s porn at worst.

Cybersurfing: 7th Voyage on Blu-ray

While surfing around the Internet, I stumbled upon DVD Beaver’s comparison of the various discs of 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. The fantasy classic, featuring stop-motion monsters by Ray Harryhausen, is available in three different versions: Columbia Tri-Star’s DVD (from 1999), Sony’s 50th anniversary DVD, and Sony’s 50th anniversary Blu-ray (both of which were released last year. Author Gary W. Tooze offers a slew of screen grabs so that you can see the difference in color and framing among the three versions, and he earns extra points for linking approvingly to our article by Lawrence French on the subject of the 50th anniversary release. French’s article contains comments from Harryhausen regarding his preference for working in the standard frame aspect ratio, rather than in widescreen formats – which explains why the 50th anniversary discs have been transferred in a a 1.66 aspect ratio instead of the wider 1.85 ratio of the previous disc (and theatrical presentation.

Princess Bride – Blu-ray Review

Rob Reiner’s career has been in a bit of a slump of late, with nearly every project following his 1994 mega-flop North being cursed with utter forgetability. We seriously doubt that anyone, including the actors and key production personnel, could recall anything from 1999’s The Story of Us or 2003’s Alex & Emma (leaving Reiner’s most recent film, the odious The Bucket List alone for now). But flush or bust, all Reiner’s films share at least a marketing commonality, the use of the phrase “From the Director of …” and insertion of any one of a half dozen titles that could lure anyone to see almost anything. For a romantic comedy, use “…When Harry Met Sally”, for a comedy, use “…This is Spinal Tap”, for a horror show, use “…Misery”, and for a drama, use “…A Few Good Men”. But the one film on Reiner’s CV that can be used under almost any circumstances, barring perhaps a snuff film, is The Princess Bride.
From its release more than 30 years ago, The Princess Bride has made it into that rarified air of films suitable for all people, regardless of age, at any time, and for any occasion – from small children to those who were already adults when William Goldman’s novel was published in 1973. The book purported to be a “Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure” by S. Morgenstern, and abridged by Goldman, who had, of course, written the entire tale himself. The book took familiar fairy tale elements and added a humorous, softly sarcastic edge. It’s Goldman’s near-erfect balance between these disparate elements that made an effective film version difficult to mount, but the author’s screenplay for director Reiner added a framing device: a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading the book to his grandson (Fred Savage) who impatiently interrupts the story during the “kissing parts.” This allowed the film to retain the tone of the book while giving the main story room to breathe. Before the halfway point, we’re no longer laughing at names like Buttercup and Humperdinck, and the sweetly romantic fable has us as rapt as the young boy hearing it for the first time, and like him, we’re ready to hear it again tomorrow.
MGM’s new Blu-Ray, released under parent company Fox, is an absolute beauty, far surpassing the previous DVD editions. The film was shot on location in Ireland and England, but its gorgeous visuals have long been slave to iffy transfers on home video, and MGM’s recent track record (the old, substandard encode used for the Silence of the Lambs Blu-Ray leaps to mind) hasn’t generated high expectations. But the news is very good indeed; the transfer retains a distinctly film-like look and hasn’t been over-processed with digital noise reductions. The Blu-Ray carries over the featurettes and the Reiner-Goldman commentary track from previous editions. We were also interested to see MGM adding an extra we haven’t seen from them on a Blu-Ray yet, a separate disc featuring the standard definition version of the film. This is a fine idea and a good way for people who haven’t yet taken the HD plunge to make a future-proof purchase – but a $34.95 list price for a catalog title isn’t exactly conducive to sales.
THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987). Directed by Rob Reiner. Screenplay by William Goldman, based on his novel. Cast: Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Andre the Giant, Fred Savage, Robin Wright Penn, Peter Falk, Peter Cook, Mel Smith, Carol Kane, Billy Crystal.

Pinocchio: 70th Anniversary Edition DVD & Blu-Ray

Disney has issued what few could argue is the definitive presentation of the film, along with a pleasing collection of supporting materials.

For older generations, the deal that merged Disney with Pixar – granting the latter’s John Lasseter creative control over Disney’s animation output – was a bittersweet moment. After experiencing an inarguably good run beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and running through 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney’s animated films developed a distressing proclivity towards pandering. Features like Lilo & Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove felt slight, and seemed to exist only as a vehicle for merchandising tie-ins with soda companies and fast food restaurants. Meanwhile, the runaway success of Pixar’s computer animated films (of which Disney was the contracted distributor) would only serve to rub Disney’s nose in its own mounting mediocrity. There’s little argument that the creative merger with Pixar will benefit Disney in the long run, but it’s still a shame that they needed the help in the first place. The company’s first 5 animated features constitute an awesome artistic feat; the films from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, through Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi in 1942 would constitute the beating heart of American feature-length animation for that era. In the ’50s, Disney became more television-oriented, concentrating on marketing its stable of characters to young children and letting Warner Bros surpass their achievement with sharper writing and sarcastic characters (Bugs and Daffy were just plain cooler than Mickey and Donald, period). And though the decade did have its share of memorable films, the studio ended the practice of using hand-inked cells with the visually opulent Sleeping Beauty in 1959, and began using the cheaper xerography method going forward. The golden age of hand-drawn animation had passed.
In 2009, the story of Pinocchio is so familiar that it almost feels like children emerge from the womb already knowing the major movements. Even if you haven’t seen the film since early childhood, there are perhaps more individual sequences that are indelible from memory in Pinocchio than any other Disney film: the Blue Fairy’s first visit with Pinocchio and Jiminy (along with Geppetto’s reaction the next morning); meeting ‘Honest’ John and Gideon (the Burke & Hare of the cartoon world) and being taken to perform for Stromboli; Pinocchio’s Rumspringa period on Pleasure Island (the fertile ground from which many a childhood nightmare grew) along with the terrifying price paid for behaving like a ‘jackass’;* and of course, the search for Geppetto and the encounter with Monstro the whale.
Watching the film for the first time in decades, we were absolutely shocked by the adult nature of many of Pinocchio’s adventures; from the moment the Blue Fairy breathes life into him, he seems to become a lightning rod for trouble, from simple grifters, to outright transmogrification, slave labor, being eaten alive by a whale, and even death! Certainly there were other Disney films of the period that addressed adult issues; the loss of a parent (both on a permanent and temporary level) was central to Bambi and Dumbo, and as a result, both feature moments that pack a ferocious emotional response (we still cannot watch Dumbo’s mother cradling him through the bars in the window). But it’s Pinocchio’s constant brushes with very real threats keep the film from being just a 90-minute lesson in responsibility. Instead of merely getting a finger wag from Jiminy for his transgressions on Pleasure Island, this poor little guy gets the little bit of humanity he had ripped away and turned into an animal! Pinocchio’s road to being a “real little boy” is paved with far more than figurative life lessons – he literally goes to Hell and back again.
After the success of Disney’s Blu-Ray version of Sleeping Beauty last year, the company has much to live up to. That film had used the ultra-high resolution process Super Technirama, which allowed for an unprecedented amount of detail in the animation. And while the Blu-Ray of Pinocchio, a film produced almost 20 years earlier, might not have the nearly 3D-like “pop” that Sleeping Beauty did, the 1080p image allows for the range of subtle splendors to be seen for the first time outside of its initial theatrical engagements. This is, quite simply, the best example of the classic style of animation available on home video.
Each frame is painterly in both design and rendering; whereas Beauty’s style was ultra-modern, recalling both the fashion and architecture of the time (in fact, the cocktail party-cool style of the artist Josh Agle, better known as Shag, shares numerous style points with this unlikely source), Pinocchio’s style feels almost European by comparison. It’s hard to imagine now, but Disney took a bath on both this film and the next year’s Fantasia, so when production began on Dumbo, the standing order from Walt was “inexpensive” and the designs of both characters and backgrounds were greatly scaled back. A quick glance at the difference in the human characters in Pinocchio and Dumbo spells this out clearly, and the Blu-Ray reveals detail in every inch of the frame that isn’t likely to ever have been noticed before. The colors are also bright and vibrant without seeming artificially enhanced(something Disney has been accused of in the past). It’s hard to imagine this film ever looking better.
For its 70th Anniversary (69th, actually, but for a film that features both an unmarried old man whishing for a little boy of his own and an island where young boys are enticed to live out all their most prurient adolescent fantasies, it was probably best to stick with 70 for the box art), Disney has issued what few could argue is the definitive presentation of the film, along with a pleasing collection of supporting materials.
Disc One features audio commentary with Disney’s master of ceremonies, Leonard Maltin, along with animation authorities Eric Goldberg and J.B. Kaufman, a pop-up trivia track that plays along with the film, and Disney Song Selection which plays the songs from the film in a karaoke format.
The second disc features a feature length documentary “No Strings Attached: The Making of Pinocchio,” two deleted scenes and an alternate ending rendered in storyboards, and “The Sweat Box,” which tells the story of the eponymous room at the studio where Walt would critique rough animation, story reels and dailies. Also included are reference footage used to give the animators a handle to begin rough character concepts, some deleted background music, and Pinocchio’s Puzzles, game which should be self-explanatory.
There are several Blu-Ray exclusive features which utilizing BD Live, which allow you to chat with other users while watching the film, send personalized clips, etc. The Blu-Ray package also comes with one unexpected surprise – a standard definition copy (sans extras) of the film on a separate DVD. It’s a pretty shrewd way to get people without players to buy now, and not double dip later, especially when the disc inevitably moves to ‘out of print’ status. We’d also like to mention that the menus, called the Cine-Explore Experience, are far easier to navigate than previous Disney sets (the curtain-pulling effect on Dr. Syn got real old, real fast).
Early on in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy Neary (Richard Dryfuss) asks his children to choose the family activity for the night, and offers a choice between Goofy Golf  – “which means a lot of pushing and shoving and probably getting a ‘zero’” – or Pinocchio – “which means furry animals and magic and a wonderful time.” The children want no part of the ‘stupid G-rated cartoon’ and choose golf; the payoff for what seemed like a good natured jab (or a comment on how horrible children were in the ’70s – and that’s from one who knows) comes at the end of the film: as the spaceship carrying Roy off to the future that he’s given up his Earthly life to see lifts off, we clearly hear the strains of “When You Wish Upon a Star” in John Williams’ music. It’s subtle, yet clear, and for Spielberg, the most immediate and evocative expression of the belief that anything is possible, be it visitors from space, or a wooden puppet who wants to be a real boy.
FOOTNOTE:

  • We have no doubt that somewhere down the line, Disney will issue a version of this film with a very different sojourn on Pleasure Island. Pinocchio’s status in the canon of world cinema has thus far allowed it to keep its scenes of adolescent smoking and drinking (maybe the 100th anniversary edition will replace the offending material with walkie-talkies)

Akira (1989) – Blu-ray Review

Japanese Anime was the one video store section that never failed to leave us dizzy. It’s a world that we’re totally unfamiliar with and the hundreds upon hundreds of titles make us sympathize with the people that never leave the safety of the ‘New Release’ wall. Anime always looked cheap and unattractive to us and even the occasional show that did grab our attention – such as the horror-infused Vampire Hunter D – had to be dripping with familiar genre elements to get us past the unappealing visuals. But one picture that did managed to break through our wall of indifference to Anime was Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, based on the director’s own series of comics (or Manga, if you’re nasty).
The story is set in Neo-Tokyo in the year 2019, roughly 3 decades after it was destroyed by a nuclear blast at the beginning of World War III. The city that rose in its place is a neon nightmare, resembling a more rabid, dangerous version of the Los Angeles seen in Blade Runner (a film which takes place, not coincidentally, in the very same year). We encourage readers to seek out more information on the plot and the background of the production on their own, as even the film itself has difficulties jamming Otomo’s massive 2,000+ page Manga into a film running just over two hours.
Newcomers to the film (or to Anime itself) will find that Akira pleasingly breaks from the typical cost-cutting practices, with incredibly detailed animation (even going so far as to sync lip-movements to dialog, a rare practice in Japan at the time).
If, like me, you owned Criterion’s towering (and pricey) laserdisc of the film and yearned to see its myriad extras duplicated on Bandai’s new Blu-Ray, you’ll likely be disappointed. Aside from a collection of trailers there’s little else in the way of extras – a real shame given the rich production history of the film and a real lost opportunity to introduce new viewers (for whom Akira may well be the only Anime title in their collection) to the genre with supplemental materials. But the important thing is the presentation, and the Blu-Ray looks fabulous, bringing unprecedented detail to the title (enough even to expose the limits of the source materials, an increasingly common problem).

Bird with the Crystal Plumage – Blu-ray Review

Though its antecedents stretch back to the early ’60s output of Mario Bava, Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is almost universally acknowledged as ground zero for both the Italian “Giallo” thriller (so named for the yellow coloring used on the wonderfully lurid covers of the Italian crime novels that inspired them) and the stylistically indifferent ‘body count’ horror films that soon followed. Argento’s debut film caused a bit of a sensation when first released in 1970, perfectly capturing a Roman dolce vita for a new, younger generation, infusing it with traditional Hitchcockian thriller trappings, and spiking the mix with moments of strong violence.
Writer Sam (Tony Musante, most recently wasted standing behind and to the right of Robert Duvall for most of We Own the Night’s running time) is an American living in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall, who also worked for Umberto Lenzi in Spasmo and Sergio Martino in Torso before retiring from the screen in the late ’70s). While walking past an art gallery one night, Sam witnesses a black-clad figure attacking the wife of the gallery owner inside (Eve Renzi). Sam tries to help, but winds up caught between the outer and inner doors of the gallery and can only watch the attack through the glass. The woman survives the attack, but the assailant escapes and after being interviewed by the police, Sam is convinced that he saw something else in the gallery that night – a detail that he can’t quite pin down – and unwisely begins an investigation of his own, putting himself and Julia in the killer’s sights.
It’s hard to remember a time when a POV shot of a knife-wielding, black-gloved killer stalking through a European cityscape wasn’t considered cliché, but Blue Underground’s gorgeous Blu-Ray edition of Argento’s classic goes a long way towards transporting the viewer back four decades to experience what made this movie such a sensation. It’s important that Bird played the arthouse as well as the grindhouse; with its high fashion-inspired photography and memorable Ennio Morricone score, the film broke through to audiences that likely wouldn’t be as open to Jess Franco’s work (and rightly so). Argento’s visuals are clean, sleek, and decidedly modern – an amazing achievement for a first time director – raising the film above the more “puerile” confines of horror cinema and creating a genre all its own: the explicit, adult thriller.
It’s a shame that a film which relies so heavily on its visual punch has had to suffer so many years of lackluster presentations. Previous editions have been beset with both image and sound issues, and it wasn’t until Blue Underground’s DVD presentation in 2005 that we finally had an edition that could be called definitive. Their stunning new Blu-Ray transfer, however, trumps all contenders with a stunning 1080p image that squeezes out an amazing amount of detail and clarity without the (apparent) application of excessive digital noise reduction. Also present are a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 7.1 Dolby TrueHD English tracks, either of which works fine even without 17 speakers. The Italian language track is available as well, but since the lip movements for most actors are clearly in English (and Musante and Kendall dubbed their own voices on the English track), there’s no need to get sniffy about watching the show in its “original” language. All extras from the previous edition are ported over as well, including a terrific commentary track featuring journalists-authors Alan Jones and Kim Newman, and featurettes on Argento (“Out of the Shadows”), cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Painting with Darkness,”) and thank God that neither Argento nor Blue Underground have let him get his hands on the transfer and pimp-smack it into his beloved universal aspect ratio of 2:1), composer Morricone (“The Music of Murder”), and the late Eva Renzi (“Eva’s Talking”).
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Midnight Meat Train pulls into the home video station : Blu-ray Review

Based on a story from the revered Books of Blood series by Clive Barker – actually the first story from the first volume – Midnight Meat Train was supposed to have been given a much more ‘red carpet’ theatrical release than it wound up with. A regime change at Lionsgate knocked MMT out of a wide theatrical release and into what amounts to little more than a handful of contractually obligated screens prior to a dump on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. It would be great to be able to champion the film without reservation, but it has a host of problems all its own that threaten to upturn several very effective moments.
Freelance photographer Leon (Bradley Cooper, resembling the love child of Josh Lucas and Ralph Finnes) attempts to “really capture the city” with a series of artistic photographs in order to impress gallery owner Susan (Brooke Shields in a truly dazzling bit of WTF casting) into a showing of his work. He ventures down into the Metro system of an unnamed American city and shoots the near sexual assault of a young model before chasing the attackers away. Later he learns that the young woman has been reported missing and that he was the last person to see her boarding a train. Intrigued, Leon begins hanging around the station and spots a large, formally dressed man carrying a leather bag (Vinnie Jones) who he begins to suspect may be responsible for not just the model’s disappearance, but many others going back almost a century. In spite of the warnings of girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb), Leon becomes obsessed with the man, following him to work at a slaughterhouse, and finally witnessing him brutally murdering passengers on a late night train – butchering them, almost as if for food…
Barker’s original short story was exemplary in its brevity, like much of the work in the Books of Blood volumes – short, sharp, visceral horror tales that blew the cobwebs off much that passed for literary horror in the ’80s. “Midnight Meat Train” would have made for a perfect episode of Masters of Horror, but the story can’t quite bear being stretched to 102 minutes and nearly collapses under its own length.
The film wants to create the atmosphere of a city in the grips of a fearful serial killer, yet Leon seems to be the only one noticing the staggering death toll associated with the subway system.  It’s a shame that director Ryuhei Kitamura didn’t think to better exploit the claustrophobic atmosphere of a subway car; the limited locations (Leon’s apartment, Maya’s diner, and Susan’s gallery) don’t offer much in the way of a comparative reality – just a fashionably dreary world of which the meat train is yet another, more deadly element. At least Barker’s story had a somewhat interesting “why” to end the story with, one that owes a small debt to Gary Sherman’s superb subway thriller Deathline, though Midnight Meat Train’s monsters were smart enough to have their meals catered.
It’s also more than a little depressing to see the energy exerted in setting up Mahogany (the killer’s name, which I didn’t learn until the supplemental section) as a next-gen Pinhead or Candyman, a new horror avatar with a signature weapon to sprout DTV sequels for the next decade. However, the silver-metallic sheen of the subway sequences are visually striking (and a welcome respite from the underlit stalking that populate most horror shows), and Jones makes for a physically imposing figure, visually striking in a wonderfully out-of-fashion suit. Watching him calmly walk up behind his victims and brutally pound them with a massive meat hammer creates a horrifically indelible image. We were also pleased to see Roger Bart (memorable in Eli Roth’s Hostel 2) and genre favorite Ted Raimi in supporting roles.
Lionsgate offers up the “unrated” version for Blu-Ray and DVD, adding some outlandish bits of gore, most of which is, unfortunately, rendered in unconvincing CGI – a crutch that too many horror films have been leaning on of late. The Blu-Ray image offers a very pleasing amount of clarity and detail, while some of the drearier locations can appear murky on SD DVD. The image can also appear excessively grainy during indoor scenes, of which this movie is nothing but. Both feature an identical set of special features, including a commentary track featuring Barker and Kitamura, the usual EPK-style featurettes, and a slightly longer docu on Barker himself, focusing mostly on his passion for painting (and for those wondering about the author’s health, his raspy voice has apparently been the result of polyps in his throat, a condition the he discusses in brief here). Midnight Meat Train is certainly worth a rental, and is a good shade more interesting than most of the derivative junk that washes up week after week on home video, but beware the tendency to rally support around pictures merely because they were ill-treated by their studio.