Star Trek Motion Picture Trilogy – Blu-ray Review

With Paramount turning their STAR TREK vaults upside down and shaking out everything having to do with the original cast in preparation for the release of the (spectacular) J J Abrams film, there has been an embarrassment of riches for fans, bringing us Blu-Ray releases of the ’66-’67 series and the first 6 films, available as a complete set or a smaller, 3-picture ser featuring THE WRATH OF KHAN, THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK, and THE VOYAGE HOME, which is the version sent out for review. When revisiting these films, it’s fun to look back at the occasionally rough road that the original cast had in their voyage to the silver screen. The series’ cancellation should have put an Amen to the whole venture, but buoyed by popular syndicated reruns, the first fan convention occurred in January of ’72 and was followed the next year by a well-written but very cheaply produced animated series featuring the entire cast reprising their roles.
Paramount smelled money, and talks with creator Gene Roddenberry began to bring the show back to television. Star Trek: Phase II was weeks from the start of production when the studio pulled the plug because of poor advertising pre-sales. But once Star Wars vacuumed up the entire nation’s disposable income, Paramount moved the property from their television deptartment to the feature film deptartment, expanded the Phase II pilot episode to feature length and brought in Oscar-winning director Robert Wise (of The Day the Earth Stood Still, among others) to helm Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. The ambitious special effects ballooned the budget to $46 million (in 1979 dollars), and the rush to make a December release date compromised Wise’s final edit, but the film grossed huge numbers in spite of its lukewarm critical reception. Wise could be a brilliant director (and was more often than not), but he was probably a poor choice – particularly at the end of his career ; it’s undeniably fun to see the show’s severely limited television production scale expanded to the scope of an expensive feature film, but the meager plotting strains to sustain the inflated running time, and the pace lagged terribly in the second half.
A sequel was certain, but Roddenberry was locked out, and producer Harve Bennett and acclaimed writer-director Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time) were tasked to start from scratch for the second film, in addition to working with significantly less money. Meyer and Bennett decided to sequeilize a story from the show’s first season about a 20th century tyrant, born via genetic engineering designed to make him both intellectually and physically superior to other men. Marooned with his closest followers following a world war and drifting for 200 years before being thawed from hyper sleep by the Enterprise crew, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) narrowly missed taking over the ship from Captain Kirk, who left Khan and his party on a nearby class-M planet. The episode title, “Space Seed,” came from a question raised by Spock at the show’s end where he ruminates how interesting it would be to return to Khan’s planet in later years and see what became of the seed planted by Kirk. In the summer of 1982, we found out.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Not just the best Star Trek film, but easily one of the best sci-fi films ever made, The Wrath of Khan only gets better with age. Director (and uncredited writer) Nicholas Meyer added (much to Roddenberry’s chagrin) a more militaristic, naval feel to the costumes, language, and shipboard routine, essentially creating a Horatio Hornblower space opera. Meyer is a lover of literature, and he pumped The Wrath of Khan with all manner of classical references, from Spock’s birthday gift to Kirk of an antique volume of A Tale of Two Cities to Khan’s last line, spitting out one of the closing passages of Moby Dick (“From Hell’s heart I stab at the…”) that actually allude to the plot rather than existing as high toned window dressing.
Meyer and producer Harve Bennett take the crew off the antiseptic Enterprise of the previous film and junked the Logan’s Run-inspired costume design in favor of the familiar tunics that were used in the subsequent films featuring the original cast. And instead of the warp-speed science lab of the previous film, the The Wrath of Khan Enterprise is very much a ‘ship of the line’, as Kirk is greeted with the 23rd century equivalent of a Navy Bosun’s whistle. James Horner’s music is also ferociously good, and could easily be re-used for a submarine thriller without alteration.
The films featuring the original cast got cheaper and cheaper (Many sets, like Dr. Carol Marcus’ Regula 1 science station, could have been taken straight from the original series) until the producers finally dealt with the problem by filming the Next Generation pictures like extended television shows rather than theatrical epics. But under Meyer’s direction, the sets are artfully lit and in many cases the lighting was darkened significantly – particularly in the bridge sequences (so tight was the budget, that many exterior space shots were actually re-used from The Motion Picture.)
Another new arrival to the Star Trek universe was the idea that space combat was more than just the pitching the bridge crew back and forth; the ship takes awful, scarring damage to the hull when Khan first attacks, and the young training crew are battered, mangled, and killed before our eyes – we remember being shocked by seeing the young engineer with horrific radiation burns. This gets us used to the notion that loss of life is actually a possibility in the universe. Little did we know…
The real surprise that Meyer and company had in store was the killing off of a major, beloved character at the climax. Spock’s death – brilliantly set up with Kirk’s line (“Aren’t you dead?”) immediately after the Kobayashi Maru test – was the film’s masterstroke. A tearful farewell with Spock trapped in a radiation-poisoned engine room, after giving his life to repair the warp engine, gave both Shatner and Nimoy their best on-screen moments in or out of their Starfleet uniforms. This upset many dedicated Trekkers at first, but the weight that it gave to the proceedings was undeniable; there wasn’t a dry eye in the house back in 1982, and even now it difficult to not be moved.
All of the original cast were spot-on their game here, inhabiting their roles under Meyer’s direction in ways that were subtle, but not skipping on the bombast (“KHAN!!!!! KHAN!!!!!!”) Even the supporting players had the type of moments that were typically denied them in future installments, like Walter Koenig’s palpable fear upon discovering the name of Khan’s ship, James Doohan’s reaction to a dead crewman (only in the director’s cut do we learn that this was his nephew – more on that later).
However, this show belongs to Ricardo Montalban; there must have been some hesitation in casting him as the villain while Fantasy Island was still in its prime, but from the moment he steps onscreen and slowly peels off his mask, we’re his. His command of the screen was then, and still is now, awesome to watch, and we have no doubt that a large number of men and women did indeed swear to live and die at his command. Paramount must have realized this towards the end of post-production as well, as evidenced by the theatrical trailer included here that focuses almost entirely on Montalban, making Shatner and Nimoy look like guest stars in their own film.
Our anticipation in finally seeing this classic on Blu-Ray was muted when we learned that it would not be the director’s cut, which was released on the previous DVD incarnation. Running just 3 minutes longer, the biggest single addition is a scene extension that identifies the soon-to-be-departed crewman as Scotty’s nephew. It’s just a beat, but it robs Doohan later on when we wonder why this one man’s death has affected him so. All the extras from the previous 2-disc edition have been ported over (in SD) with a couple of new HD additions, including a group of interviews with memorabilia collectors and a mock Starfleet informational film. We were cheered by the addition of a second commentary track with director Meyer, this time with former Enterprise showrunner Manny Coto. Meyer is expert at these, and is fantastically literate when discussing the production (and offering a very good explanation for Shatner’s performance level.)
But the real star is the sumptuous 1080p video, which was revelatory for this nearly 30 year old film. Khan always seemed a bit dark and dingy in its VHS and laserdisc incarnations, and even the image on the 2-disc DVD was a bit of a disappointment. This is, apparently, a new HD master as colors seem somewhat more muted than before, but with a staggering level of detail ( like the sweat dripping off Paul Winfield’s face in the Botany Bay’s cargo hold) leaving no doubt that this is how the film should look. We had never even noticed the broken Starfleet insignia that Khan wears as a necklace (that likely belonged to the Enterprise crewman who fell in love with Khan and went into exile with him), which now stands out clearly.  This is a first-rate transfer of one of the great space epics ever filmed and reason enough to buy the set.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

At Paramount’s behest, an insert was shot and edited into the film during McCoy’s encounter with Spock just before entering the radiation chamber: Leonard Nimoy reaches his hand to DeForest Kelley’s face and says, “Remember” – just in case The Wrath of Khan proved popular enough to warrant another Star Trek sequel. Director Nicolas Meyer was a bit aghast at the studio pulling a bait and switch on fans, so the director’s chair was filled by Leonard Nimoy himself (a non-negotiable condition for his return) and the Enterprise cleared her moorings once more.
The Search for Spock picked up just hours after The Wrath of Khan ended, with the battered ship and exhausted crew returning to Earth. Kirk is soon met by Spock’s father, Sarek, who assumes that Kirk was in possession of his son’s Katra – Spock’s spiritual and intellectual essence that is traditionally passed on through a mind meld prior to death. The audience knows that it’s really McCoy who carries Spock’s Katra around, much to the doctor’s annoyance (“It’s his revenge for all those arguments he lost”). Kirk risks his career to save the minds of his two closest friends by going back to the now-quarantined Genesis planet where Spock’s body was laid to rest, not knowing that the Genesis device has rejuvenated more than just a dead planet…
The Search for Spock is a perfectly enjoyable film, which shouldn’t be lumped in with the “odd-numbered Trek movies suck” theory. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t feel like a cheat while you’re watching it, but it’s difficult to avoid the notion that that for the sake of a sequel, all the well-earned pathos of The Wrath of Khan’s conclusion was simply tossed out a window.
Leonard Nimoy’s direction is fine when concentrating on the original characters, and his stabs at humor mostly work (unlike Shatner’s The Final Frontier, with “humorous” scenes that will send you running for the hills). Unfortuantely, Nimoy is less adept at focusing on the wider Star Trek universe. The Genesis planet sequences where Kirk’s wimpy son, David, and Lt. Saavik find and protect Spock as he ages rapidly from small child to adult are photographed in a very dull style on unconvincing sets propped up by sketchy matte paintings. The film’s big surprise was, of course, the destruction of the beloved Enterprise (ruined by ads that actually showed her burning hull and claimed that the film was “The final voyage of the USS Enterprise”), but it’s treated a little more matter-of-factly than this fan would have liked.
The Search for Spock is a film that’s really for hardcore trekkers only, as it lacks the action and story strength of The Wrath of Khan. But cheat or not, the film’s final moments after Spock’s body and soul are reunited on Vulcan pack an emotional punch for people who grew up with this cast, and we’d be lying if we said that the raised eyebrow that closes the film didn’t always bring a tear.
Though not quite the image revelation that The Wrath of Khan was, The Search for Spock is made all the more watchable by the excellent HD transfer. Once again, the image appears to be somewhat darker over all, but not unpleasantly so. The key here is detail, which is a sword that cuts both ways; facial details are remarkable good, but other things – like Christopher Lloyd’s Klingon makeup, some of the ship models, and the aforementioned Genesis planet effects – are revealed to be likely victims of cost-cutting.
As with The Wrath of Khan, all the extras from the previous 2 disc DVD set are present in SD, with a handful of new features added in HD, including a lengthy talk with producer Harve Bennett conducted at Seattle’s Science Fiction Museum, and another Federation film clip. We also have the previous commentary track from director Nimoy (who track-manner is very pleasant, thank you very much) intercut with producer-writer Bennett and Robin Curtis (Lt. Saavik) and also a new track featuring Ronald D Moore and Michael Taylor, both of whom worked on the later Star Trek series but have no connection with this film – resulting in an entertaining fan track from a pair of insiders.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

The second best –remembered of the film series, Star Trek IV might have easily been titled “Star Trek: The Funny One with the Whales,” but is actually called The Voyage Home. Long considered the completion of the II – III – IV trilogy, the film is actually far more of a self contained story than The Voyage Home.

We pick up the story on Vulcan, where the crew has just voted to return to Earth and face court martial for violating orders and stealing and destroying the Enterprise. Meanwhile, Spock’s spirit has been reunited with his Genesis-revitalized body, and he’s slowly re-educating his mind in the Vulcan way and back-burnering his human half. On the way home, the crew discovers that an alien probe orbiting Earth has disrupted all power and communications and targeting its signal at Earth’s oceans. After filtering the sounds to hear how they would sound underwater, it’s discovered that the probe is actually the whale-song of Humpbacks. But the Romulan in the pantry is that the whales have been extinct for over a century and without an answer, the probe’s signal will soon destroy all life on Earth, so the crew decide, quite reasonably, to slingshot around the sun and generate enough speed to travel back in time, pick up a few whales, and then hop back. No problem.

Why 20th century Earth seems a better selection than, say, a few thousand years ago, isn’t elaborated upon, nor are the myriad difficulties, unlikelihoods, impossibilities and just plain coincidences that pepper this lighthearted story, and none of it matters the slightest. After two heavily dramatic pictures in a row, Nimoy (returning to the director’s chair) and producer Harve Bennett (who co-wrote the script with Nicolas Meyers) made a conscious decision to give the fourth film a much lighter tone, without any heavy themes, deaths, or even villains (the closest this film gets to a “bad guy” is a punk playing his radio too loud on the bus to Sausalito.)
Humor is the order of the day here, and anyone unsure of what a perfectly formed comic creation The Voyage Home is need only to look to the embarrassing pantomime that Star Trek V almost immediately deteriorated into. The humor is blessedly character-based, drawing on the history of the characters rather than mugging and pratfalls. Characters that too often fall into the background each have moments here, like Scotty’s Prime Directive-defying negotiations with a plastics company (“How do we know he didn’t invent the thing?”) or Chekhov’s interrogation after being captured aboard an aircraft carrier.
However, Nimoy and Shatner really carry the show here; their banter is the carefully cultivated result of more than 20 years playing their respective characters. Simple exchanges, like the scene when the two are picked up near the Golden Gate bridge by whale expert Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks, quite good, incidentally) are absolute gems of comic timing. Even better is the The Voyage Home’s handling of the “message” of conservation; in each of its incarnations, Star Trek, could occasionally have given a master class in the heavy-handed delivery of socio-political messages woven into the sci-fi material. If the black & white cookie aliens of “Let that Be Your Last Battlefield” represent the nadir of un-subtle delivery, then The Voyage Home would easily be among the best.
We loved seeing Mark Lenard getting a juicer-that-usual role as Spock’s father, and we especially loved seeing him go toe to toe with the Klingon Ambassador played by Robert Altman-favorite John Schuck. Other standouts include Brock Peters, adding considerable class as a Starfleet Admiral, and Jane Wyatt, returning to the role of Spock’s human mother for the first time since the second season of the original series (also look for series semi-regulars Grace Lee Whitney and Majel Barrett at Starfleet HQ.)
As the newest film of this particular troika, The Voyage Home possesses the least demonstrable change in image quality from DVD to Blu-Ray. This isn’t to say that the new Blu-Ray is unappealing – quite the contrary;  it just looked better than the other two films did to start with (the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.) Paramount’s 1080p picture is lovely, showing the years on the weathered faces of the cast (or at least the makeup that covers it), and the image has a real sense of depth to it. Though it doesn’t directly relate to image quality, it’s interesting to see Nimoy get so much more comfortable with widescreen framing than he had been in The Search for Spock.
As with the other two discs in this box set, all previous extras have been ported over, including the commentary track featuring Nimoy and Shatner (which is unfortunately subdued.) The bonus track this time around features Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the writers of the JJ Abrams film, and it’s a shame that it’s the much more interesting of the two tracks. There are also a few new HD extras, the best of which features Walter Koenig reminiscing on Chekhov’s big moments.


This set represents a nice way for the more budget conscious get a taste of HD Star Trek. Of the missing three ‘original cast’ films, we don’t miss Star Trek V: The Final Frontier one bit; each time we’ve tried to convince ourselves that it can’t be as bad as we remember, it turns out to be even worse. We have a soft spot for the first film, but we don’t know which version has been released (there are at least 3 distinct cuts of Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and we’re happy to wait and see whether Paramount has fixed the hysterically bad framing job that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country suffered in previous home video incarnations (though it too was slightly re-edited by director Meyer, and it looks like only the theatrical version is on the Blu-Ray).
Very highly recommended.

Moonraker (1979) – Blu-ray Review

For most people, their favorite Bond films (and Bond actor for that matter) depend largely on where (or more precisely, when) in a person’s life they happen to fall. MOONRAKER, released in 1979, was our first Bond film seen in a theater – an experience that burned both the film and its star, Roger Moore, into the mind as a perennial, albeit sentimental, favorite. At the conclusion of the previous Bond installment, 1977’s The Spy who Loved Me, the end credits announced that James Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only; but that same year, a little thing called Star Wars changed the business forever, and even James Bond would have to find his way in a new climate. Eyes was postponed until 1981, and work quickly began shaping Ian Fleming’s 3rd Bond novel into an outer space adventure. The novel Moonraker was a decidedly Earth-bound tale about a former Nazi posing as a wealthy industrialist, Hugo Drax, who attempts to begin the Blitz anew by obliterating London with a nuclear missile. As with most adaptations of Fleming’s books, the producers retained the major character names, a handful of incidents, and little else for the film version. In the film, Hugo Drax was still a wealthy industrialist, but the jewel in his crown was a space shuttle manufacturing plant in California, where Drax himself resides in a rebuilt French chateau, and personally funds and trains his own suspiciously young and attractive group of astronauts. Bond is placed on his trail after the Drax-built Moonraker shuttle is hijacked in mid-air off the back of a 747, and soon uncovers a plot to exterminate all human life while Drax waits with his Noah’s Ark of perfect physical specimens on a space station orbiting secretly above the Earth.
In the 30 years since its original release, MOONRAKER has found itself in the ignominious position of representing ground that even the most fervent Bond apologist is willing to surrender. The earliest films (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger) had fanciful moments, but were rooted in a very traditional (read – conventional) espionage film format. Thunderball was the first Bond on a truly epic scale; it was the first to be filmed in widescreen; the first to have a running time over 2hrs; and the first to emphasize spectacle over more mundane concerns like plot mechanics, with a lengthy underwater finale that slows the 1965 film down to a deadly crawl. From that point onward, each successive film in the series was then tasked with outdoing what came before. Live and Let Die was an inauspicious debut for Roger Moore, as he was force-marched through a clumsy effort to contemporize the series with an “urban” edge, and fared little better with The Man with the Golden Gun, a cheap looking affair enlivened only by the casting of Christopher Lee as his nemesis. Not helping the cause was the producer’s decision to abandon scope photography and return to a more TV-safe aspect ratio, resulting, not surprisingly, in two films which appeared to be made for television. That all changed with the next outing, The Spy Who Loved Me, which featured much more than just a return to widescreen photography. Unlike the prior efforts, the picture plays as though it were tailored specifically to Moore – looser and more comfortable now – allowing the actor’s estimable charm to shine through. Say what you will about Connery and Craig, only Roger Moore could retain his dignity while converting a Lotus Esprit into a submarine and flinging a fish from the driver’s seat as it rides up out of the surf. No less important was the addition of Curt Jurgens as baddie Karl Stromberg (a last minute stand-in for Blofeld, as the rights to both the character and SPECTRE itself were involved in a lawsuit) – marking a welcome return to the heady days of global conquest seeking super-villains. Everything about Spy seamed big, from the famous opening ski-fall stunt to Stromberg’s undersea lair, and Moore perfectly inhabited this larger than life world. Now he owned the role.
So, what’s so great about MOONRAKER?
Roger Moore is in top form here, sandwiched between Spy and Eyes – which form his perfect Bond trifecta. Moore was always a capable actor, but suffered from the inability to stop being Roger Moore long enough to invest a character with real emotions. (On this side of the Atlantic, Robert Wagner had the same difficulty, and a promising career quickly degenerated to the stature of professional raconteur.) It was easy to see Moore’s growing disinterest with the role in subsequent installments, but here he keeps both hands on the reigns, keenly maintaining the humor of the piece without allowing it to degenerating into farce, which is exactly how most people regard the outer space aspect of the story. Words like “ridiculous” are typically applied to the film’s final act, in which a shuttle filled with American Marines engage Drax’s satellite security force in a pitched laser battle in outer space. It’s odd that people would wait nearly 20 years to be bothered by the lack of realism in a James Bond film. In truth, there’s little technology present in the film that isn’t already achievable today, where shuttles routinely dock with orbiting space stations (though our astronauts don’t have nearly the sense of style as Drax’s do).
Audiences are cleverly eased into the notion of space travel by the stunning set designs of the great Ken Adams, who evokes a futuristic yet practical aesthetic for Drax’s shuttle assembly plant and the absolutely breathtaking underground mission control deep in the Brazilian jungle. One of those very designs made it onto the cover of Ken Adam Designs the Movies: James Bond and Beyond . Another behind-the-camera collaborator that must be singled out for praise is special effects artist Derek Meddings, who was charged with creating and photographing the picture’s amazingly detailed model work. The impressive special effects during the final reels hasn’t dated the film in the way that other Sci-Fi extravaganzas of the era have (you, The Black Hole, stand up!), and they give the space scenes an elegance and austerity that more than offset any “What’s Bond doing in space?” incredulity.
The Bond films enjoyed more than one good streak in the ’70s, with turns from a group of terrific actors taking their Bond baddie bows: there’s Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga (a perfect example of a great villain in a pants movie) and his henchman Nick Nack (the inimitable Herve Villechaize), Curt Jurgens turn as the aforementioned Stromberg, but MOONRAKER offered the best of all. The bilingual Michael Lonsdale was born to a French mother and a British father, and moves freely between English and French language productions. At the time of MOONRAKER’s release, he was probably best known for his role as the lead detective on the trail of assassin Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal, and his services as a character actor are still in high demand today (watch him steal Munich right out from under every other actor onscreen – including future Bond Daniel Craig and future Bond nemesis Mathieu Amalric). His deadpan delivery of lines like “Take care of Mr. Bond – see that some harm comes to him” strike the perfect balance between sinister and camp, and only Donald Pleasence before him seemed to have as much pure fun going up against 007.
Appearing alongside Drax is Jaws, a monstrous henchman with steel teeth (Richard Kiel) brought back from an uncertain death at the end of Spy after proving popular with audiences, particularly children (a fact that this reviewer can personally attest). Another sticking point with this film seems to be the overly comic handling of the character – most likely done because of his popularity with kids like myself – as opposed to his decidedly deadlier turn in Spy. You can practically hear a muted-horn “wah-waaaaa” whenever he emerges from a pile of rubble, or rips off the steering apparatus on the vehicle that he’s in. If this really bothers you, then the final character revelation on board Drax’s space station will leave you in a fit of apoplexy.
From the moment the Union Jack popped out of Bond’s parachute pack in the opening of Spy, the bar for the pre-credit gag has been set immeasurably high – and MOONRAKER doesn’t disappoint. Following the thrilling (again thanks to Derek Meddings’ model work) mid-air shuttle theft, we’re treated to Bond being pushed out of a plane in midair by Jaws, and having to propel himself toward the pilot and his parachute. After wrestling it off the pilot’s back, Bond is attacked by Jaws, moving towards him in freefall with arms outstretched like a bird of prey. It’s a crackerjack opening; a genuine adrenalin rush with the feeling of real danger that’s capped by a terrific theme sung by Shirley Bassey. With MOONRAKER‘s eponymous title tune, Bassey returned to perform a Bond theme song for the third and final time after Diamonds are Forever and Goldfinger. It’s a return to the dreamy pop stylings of the ’60s era pictures that tends to get lost among the more FM-friendly themes by Carly Simon (“Nobody Does it Better”) or Paul McCartney (“Live and Let Die”). There may be catchier themes, but Bassey’s vocals represent the class and elegance of the era in which the series began like no others.
MGM’s new Blu-Ray offers a near-flawless presentation of Lowry Digital’s restoration, showing off levels of color and detail that are nothing less than stunning. The later-period Bond films didn’t get the same comprehensive digital overhaul that the early Connery films got (being older, and somewhat more popular, the negatives were re-printed much more often, which caused much more damage). Consequently, the upgrade in quality from previous DVDs of this title isn’t quite as obvious as that of Goldfinger. The DTS Master audio is suitable punchy but we really appreciate the inclusion of the original 1979 surround mix – this should be a non-negotiable item for any catalog release. As for bonus features, the new disc seems to have picked up most (if not all) the extras from the previous collector’s editions. The major items:

  • Audio Commentary from Roger Moore
  • Audio Commentary from director Lewis Gilbert and members of the cast and crew
  • Vintage featurette – Bond ‘79
  • Ken Adam’s production films
  • Featurette – Learning to Freefall
  • Featurette – Inside Moonraker
  • Featurette – The Men Behind the Mayhem
  • Plus the usual array of storyboards and trailers

The above was rewritten from an earlier review, here.

Castle of Cagliostro (1979) – Anime Review

Anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki’s amsuing feature film debut is a fun-filled romp

In CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, superb director and future auteur Hayao Miyazaki made a fine film using established characters. Lupin III is a master thief, created as a manga character in 1967, as by the artist Monkey Punch (Kazuhiko Kata), who was inspired by French author Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin. Lupin III has two loyal sidekicks, a beautiful rival, and he is pursued by the hopelessly frustrated cop Zenigata.
CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, the second Lupin anime feature, is widely regarded as the thief’s best outing, though his exploits continue to this day. CAGLIOSTRO was the first movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke), who had worked on television animation for several years, including an early TV version of Lupin, made in 1971-2.
The Lupin in CAGLIOSTRO is more heroic and, despite first appearances, more responsible than Punch’s ruthless bad-boy. Even if you’re not a fan of the Lupin character in particular or of anime in general, you will have a wonderful time with this rousing, tongue-in-cheek adventure. One of the few smart things the Academy of Science Fiction Fantasy and Horror Films (located in Los Angeles) ever did, was to run CAGLIOSTRO when a print of the Roger Moore opus FOR YOUR EYES ONLY failed to show up for a pre-release screening in 1981. Suffice to say, the assembled crowd of Bond fans were far from disappointed by the last-minute substitution. The tone is light, but the film is fast-paced and filled with enough action to match any good live-action movie, veering into cartoon territory with physically impossible antics that go right over the top in a delightfully absurd way.
Some of the animation looks a bit dated today, but it is more than serviceable in the context of the story, and the backgrounds are all beautifully rendered. Some of the character design, along with the overall look, may raise your hackles if you’re not an anime aficionado (in particular, the princess is a blandly rendered, almost generic character), once the story sucks you in, you won’t care anymore.


Manga’s DVD is a perfect introduction to the character. The print is in beautiful shape, letterboxed into approximately a 1.85 ratio. The soundtrack offers Dolby stereo, with a clear mix that makes the dialogue audible over the music and sound effects (which is not always the case with DVD mixes, especially if you’re not careful with your sound system setup). You have three options for the dialogue: Japanese, Japanese with English subtitles, or dubbed English.
The English dubbing is not terrible, but there is far more zest to the performances in the original soundtrack. Also, the English dub adds unnecessary lines. On some occasions, this apparently was done to clarify story points for younger viewers who might not figure them out on their own (e.g. Lupin mumbles some speculation about his whereabouts when he finds himself in a dungeon beneath the castle). In other cases, the additions are simply inexplicable: a formerly silent scene of Lupin and pal Jigen, getting past a routine check by some border patrol officers, now has Lupin introduce his partner as his relative, as if that somehow convinces the officers to accept the disguises they are wearing.
Another oddity: The film retains the Japanese language credits of the original, although the title is given in English. With the Japanese language soundtrack, the closing credits roll in silence; in the English-language dub, the credits are accompanied by the film’s theme song — which is sun in Japanese! Fortunately, a quick finger on your DVD player’s remote control will enable you to switch soundtracks at the crucial moment and thus avoid the awkward silence.
Unfortunately, the disc is short on extras and supplemental materials; there are none specifically related to the film, to the Lupin character, to Monkey Punch, or to Miyazaki. All the disc has to offer are some trailers and music video-type montages of other Manga video and DVD releases (the same ones available on the Perfect Blue disc). It would have been nice to include at least a little background information on the character, for the benefit of uninitiated viewers.
A subsequent “Special Edition” DVD includes a previously unreleased trailer for the film, plus the entire movie seen as storyboards set to the Japanese soundtrack and an interview with the animation director Yasuo Otsuka.
CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO (Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no shiro, 1979). Directed by Hayao Miyzaki. Written by Miyazaki and Tadashi Yamazaki, based on the graphic novels by Monkey Punch, inspired by the character created by Maurice Leblanc. Japanese Voices: Yasuo Yamada, Eiko Masuyama, Kiyoshi Kobayashi, Mako Inoue, Goro Naya, Sumi Shimamoto, Taro Ishida. English Voices: David Hayter, Dorothy Elias-Fahn, Ivan Buckley, Bridget Hoffman, Kirk Thornton.

Dawn of the Dead (1979) – A Retrospective

[EDITOR’S NOTE: DAWN OF THE DEAD makes another appearance on home video today, this time in the Blu-ray format, so we took this opportunity to post a retrospective-review of the film, including an interview with writer-director George Romero.]
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) billed itself as “the most intensely shocking motion picture experience for all times,” and this was a rare instance of a film that lived up to its advertising hyperbole. This sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) abandoned the shadowy black-and-white creepiness of its progenitor in favor of a brightly lit color canvas that was bigger, broader, and bloodier. The film established a new record for explicit on-screen carnage, but it also extended the scope of the original film, taking the living dead phenomenon out of the farmhouse and unleashing it upon the world at large. This time out, the production values are superior; the acting performances are uniformly strong; and the script develops its themes more explicitly, with obvious satirical jabs at modern consumer society, as epitomized by the indoor shopping mall where a small band of human survivors take shelter from the zombie plague sweeping the country.
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