8/3/10 Edition Twitter: THEAISLESEATCOM
August Arrival Edition
Shout! Brings Corman Classics in HD
Plus: KICK-ASS and More!
One of this year’s happiest occurrences to date on Blu-Ray has been Shout! Factory’s new line of releases from the Roger Corman vaults. Offering fully remastered transfers with loads of new extras, B-movie fans have had reason to celebrate thanks to a slew of titles that made Corman’s “economical” production values appear spiffier than ever, with more to come in the month of August. I briefly wrote up the July titles a couple of weeks ago -- here’s a more in-depth examination of those, along with a sneak peek at Shout’s August Corman line-up.

And, whether you go with DVD or Blu-Ray (though I would heartily recommend the crisp, noise-reduction free High-Definition transfers the label has produced), Shout’s engaging quartet of late ‘70s/early ‘80s sci-fi/horrors offer amusing genre thrills plus early work from behind-the-scenes talent James Cameron (production design on “Galaxy of Terror”), composer James Horner, editor Mark Goldblatt, and effects masters Chris Walas and Rob Bottin (“Humanoids of the Deep”), visual effects artists Robert and Dennis Skotak, Tony Randel and John Carl Buechler (“Forbidden World”), and F/X artist Phil Tippet, writer John Sayles and director Joe Dante (“Piranha”) among others.

GALAXY OF TERROR (81 mins., 1981, R) offers the one-of-a-kind cast of Edward Albert (sporting a nefarious ‘stache), Erin Moran (Joanie from “Happy Days”), Ray Walston and Robert Englund, starring as the crew of a spaceship that locks onto a lost vessel’s distress signal, only to find they’ve been brought there for other, more sinister purposes. “Galaxy of Terror,” which boasts one of Corman’s more sizable cult followings and was released (like “Humanoids From the Deep” and “Piranha”) internationally by UA, is partially an “Alien” ripoff and is mostly horrendous from a dramatic standpoint, yet a crisp pace and some solid visuals considering the budget (kudos to Cameron and his crew) ought to make it palatable for genre buffs. Shout!’s superlative collection of supplements includes commentary with cast and crew members, Making Of featurettes, remembrances of working with Cameron, trailers, the screenplay in PDF format and a trivia track; the DVD’s 16:9 transfer is good, but the Blu-Ray presentation is even better, with 2.0 DTS Master Audio sound enhancing the visuals.

FORBIDDEN WORLD (77/82 mins., 1982, R), which was released theatrically as “Mutant” (but not the same 1983 “Mutant” with Wings Hauser that Richard Band scored), followed shortly thereafter and is even more entertaining (particularly from an unintended comedy angle) with bounty hunter Jessie Vint investigating a series of deaths on a far-off planet.

Both the movie’s original theatrical cut and a 82-minute Director’s Edition (boasting five minutes of mostly intentionally-comedic material) are on-hand here (though only the theatrical version is in newly remastered 16:9 widescreen), plus commentary with director Allan Holzman, a Corman interview, other conversations with crew members including composer Susan Justin, special effects profiles with the Skotak and Buechler brothers, trailers and other extras. The Blu-Ray package again sports a crisp AVC-encoded transfer, 2.0 DTS Master stereo audio, plus the “Mutant” Director’s Cut only on DVD in 4:3 full-screen.

Both of these Corman sci-fi efforts were presaged in the late ‘70s by a pair of aquatic horrors, each produced in the wake of “Jaws” I and II.

PIRANHA (92 mins., 1978, R) may be the best-loved of all of Corman’s productions, particularly since director Joe Dante’s penchant for mixing thrills with black comedy and the occasional offbeat flourish (such as Phil Tippett’s stop-motion creatures, briefly glimpsed at the beginning) makes the film more durable than its fellow “Jaws” imitators’ straight-faced efforts from the same period (i.e. junk like “Orca” and “Tentacles”). With an engaging cast (Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Barbara Steele, Keenan Wynn, Paul Bartel plus Dante regulars Dick Miller and Belinda Balaski), Pino Donaggio’s score and Dante’s endlessly entertaining shots of the piranhas swimming about, frantically searching for unsuspecting swimmers, “Piranha” is as good as it gets for late ‘70s B-moviemaking; here’s hoping the upcoming “Piranha 3-D” mines similar pleasures, though I’m not holding my breath (at least it does star Richard Dreyfuss, Christopher Lloyd and Elisabeth Shue).

Shout’s remastered DVD includes a good array of extras both new and carried over from New Horizon’s late ‘90s DVD release. The latter include commentary from Dante and producer Jon Davison, plus bloopers and outtakes; new additions include scenes that were added to NBC’s network TV showings of the picture, a fresh retrospective documentary boasting interviews with Dante, Miller, Corman, Balaski and others; trailers, radio and TV spots; behind-the-scenes footage and still galleries; and a particularly nice 3-D lenticular cover gracing the disc itself. (The Blu-Ray was not sent for review but I’ll update this space should it come in prior to street date).

Following on the heels of “Piranha” was the highly entertaining HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (82 mins., 1980, Unrated), a film that was initially shot by director Barbara Peeters, then re-edited by Corman, Jimmy T. Murakami and editor Mark Goldblatt after it was completed, adding copious amounts of nudity and gore to a film that apparently had been fairly low-key during its initial production.

It’s certainly an odd marriage since the scenes involving local fishermen Doug McClure and Vic Morrow feel like they’re out of a different film than sequences wherein salmon-mutated monsters run amok, raping local women who are all too eager to rip their tops off prior to the fact.

Nevertheless, that disparity is, at least for me, part of the charm of this atmospheric monster shlock-fest, which boasts a fairly nondescript James Horner score (there’s hardly any music over the film’s climactic “dock destruction” finale) and a few undeniably gory sequences -- even bloodier now that Shout has released the film on Blu-Ray and DVD in its unexpurgated international cut, with the on-screen title “Monster” reflecting its brief (but noticeable) alterations.

“Humanoids”’ supplemental section is, comparatively speaking, the most lightweight of these four Shout Corman offerings, though a new, 20-minute documentary offers fresh recollections about the film – including comments from James Horner, who recalls scrambling to find a recording studio late in the day so his union musicians could be paid at non-union rates.

Nearly 10 minutes of deleted scenes (with a couple lacking their soundtrack), discovered in the MGM vaults (due to UA having released the film overseas), offer a few amusing extra jolts, while a full range of trailers and a vintage Corman-Leonard Maltin interview complete the release.

The AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is quite pleasing, offering a big-time upgrade in its transfer from prior, full-screen only DVD and VHS releases. Even better, Shout included a note about the transfer, specifically stating that the label “chose not to use any noise reduction since it would end up softening the picture,” noting that they “didn’t want to lose any of the detail or improved color.” If only every studio took this approach with their HD transfers (are you listening, guys at Fox who just ruined “Predator”?).

It should be noted that all of the Corman-Shout DVD and Blu-Ray releases offer reversible covers, often incorporating alternate or international production artwork (or, in the case of “Forbidden World,” its theatrical release title “Mutant”), adding further value to a set of discs that simply shouldn’t be missed for nostalgic genre fans.

Also new on DVD only this month is the first Corman-Shout Double Feature release, pairing the terrible 1978 David Carradine futuristic actioner DEATHSPORT (82 mins., R), a feeble follow-up to “Death Race 2000,” with the more entertaining BATTLE TRUCK (91 mins., 1982, PG), a typical “Mad Max”-inspired rip-off with Michael Beck taking Mel Gibson’s role in a film some may remember under its alternate (on-screen) title, “Warlords of the 21st Century.”

“Deathsport” is here presented in 16:9 (1.85) widescreen with extras including commentary from co-director Allan Arkush and editor Larry Bock, plus trailers and TV spots, while “Battle Truck” also sports commentary by director Harley Cokliss and a stills gallery, but is only offered in 4:3 full-screen. Shout also offers a disclaimer that “Deathsport”’s best available source was the movie’s TV version, which meant they had to splice back in R-rated footage from an inferior print (with a noticeable shift in those sequences apparent in the transfer).

Finally, Shout brings G.I. JOE THE MOVIE (93 mins., 1987) to Blu-Ray this month as well.

Fans mostly enjoyed this feature-length conclusion (kind of) to Marvel’s classic ‘80s “G.I. Joe” cartoon, boasting a few celebrity voices (including Burgess Meredith and Don Johnson’s Lt. Falcon) and PG-level violence that’s a bit more intense than its small-screen predecessor. The story feels a bit stretched-out considering the film’s 93 minute length, but it’s nevertheless an enjoyably nostalgic affair for those of us who grew up with the toys and the cartoon, complete with a marvelously tuneful soundtrack.

Shout’s remastered Blu-Ray disc looks as vibrant and detailed as this Marvel/Sunbow Productions affair ever could appear, with an PCM soundtrack offering a fair amount of stereophonic separation. Extras include commentary with writer Buzz Dixon plus more of those classic Public Service Announcements, a printable script and art gallery; the standard DVD (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago) is also on-hand here sporting the same extras as well as a printable screenplay.

New on Blu-Ray

CLASH OF THE TITANS Blu-Ray (**½, 106 mins., 2010, PG-13; Warner): Call me old-fashioned but there’s just something undeniably romantic about the original “Clash of the Titans,” which Warner released on Blu-Ray in a package I reviewed last winter. Even if the Ray Harryhausen-MGM production came across as a “throwback” fantasy when it was first released in 1981, there’s no denying the picture’s strong sense of romance and heartfelt emotion – elements which, predictably, are the ones stripped out of the movie’s recent big-budget remake, which generated solid grosses (with the help of a reportedly poor 3-D post-production “conversion”) last spring.

Louis Leterrier, who did a respectable job helming “The Incredible Hulk,” here puts in a similarly workmanlike performance with this effects-laden production, which once again follows the noble Perseus (Sam Worthington) on a journey to preserve the balance of good and evil both on earth and in the heavens above, where Perseus’ father (Liam Neeson) battles the vile Hades (Ralph Fiennes) for control of the universe. En route our hero encounters all of the memorable fantastic creatures from the original film -- from the Kraken to Medusa, the Stygian Witches and Pegasus -- while trying to save the life of princess Andromeda (a thankless role for Alexa Davalos) and prevent the destruction of Argos, all the while receiving help from the mysterious Io (Gemma Arterton).

Perhaps if there wasn’t any prior “Clash of the Titans” it might have been easier to forgive this picture for its lack of emotion and dramatic interest, but having seen its predecessor it’s all too obvious what’s lacking in this new version.

It’s a staple of modern studio moviemaking that films tend to be cut too close, with no time for elements to breathe or, consequently, sink in with viewers. The 2010 “Clash” follows this model – the movie is all business, all effects, with little time for romance or poignant moments. It’s very much a machine that “delivers the goods” for genre viewers but fades quickly from memory after it’s over, and because there’s no connection between Perseus and Andromeda – the very core of the original film’s quest – this “Titans” ultimately feels hollow, a great-looking modern film lacking the emotional aspects its dated but more satisfying predecessor offered.

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc does serve up a marvelous VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer with an active DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Ramin Djawadi, whose work has yet to really enhance a film I’ve seen, composed a forgettable score that’s a far cry from the orchestral grandeur of Laurence Rosenthal’s original, and his music runs endlessly under a barrage of sound effects. Extras include a BD exclusive alternate ending while a number of alternate scenes, picture-in-picture “Maximum Movie Mode” vignettes and a featurette on Worthington round out the package, which also comes with a digital copy/standard DVD combo disc.

COP OUT Blu-Ray (*½, 107 mins., 2010, R; Warner): Stale buddy-cop comedy from director Kevin Smith, who strikes out in his “studio” film directorial debut.

Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan essay the mismatched cops dealing with criminals both large and small, while Seann William Scott and Kevin Pollak try (but mostly fail) to provide much in the way of support to this winter-time box-office underachiever.

Smith can be forgiven only in that he didn’t write this dismal affair; instead, blame writers Robb and Mark Cullen for crafting a limp script that comes across as simply tired on-screen. Even the amusing decision to bring on Harold Faltermeyer to write the film’s “retro” ‘80s score comes up short in a film that ultimately ranks with Willis’ worst films (and that says something!).

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc offers a generous group of extras, including over an hour of extended scenes and outtakes, plus a picture-in-picture mode sporting numerous vignettes and additional featurettes. The BD is technically graced by a fine VC-1 encoded transfer with DTS Master sound and a digital copy/DVD combo disc bundled within.

KICK-ASS Blu-Ray (***½, 117 mins., 2010, R; Lionsgate):
One of the most cinematically vibrant, purely entertaining “comic book movies” since the genre was essentially restarted nearly a decade ago with the release of the first “Spider-Man,” “Kick-Ass” is a blast of colorful action, violence, outlandish characters and comedy -- a mix that comes together splendidly under the direction of director Matthew Vaughn (“Stardust”), who has already parlayed this film’s success into a job helming next year’s “X-Men: First Class.”

In its own alternate universe where super-heroes can take just a “reasonable” amount of physical damage, Aaron Johnson plays a high schooler who decides to take up the cause of being a “real” costumed crusader. Little does Johnson know that his efforts to curtail crime in the community are being matched by even tougher justice served up by former cop Nicolas Cage and his street-wise young daughter Chloe Moretz, who dispatch criminals in more of a vigilante style. Together the group eventually team up to take down a local mobster whose son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has his own designs on helping out dear old dad.

Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman adapted Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.’s cult comic book, and their blend of humor and hard-edged action makes for a thrilling ride – at least for adult viewers old enough not to take the film literally (that said, even certain critics including Roger Ebert reacted vehemently to the film’s portrayal of Moretz’s young heroine getting punched and thrown). It’s an R-rated environment, to be sure, but for those who understand that they’re still watching a comic book film in spite of its own genre self-awareness, “Kick-Ass” is pure and unadulterated fun -- Vaughn’s staging of the picture’s action sequences is gleefully gory and packed with more energy than most of his genre contemporaries, while the performances, special effects, and even its hodge-podge of a soundtrack (incorporating everything from original score, to temp-tracked cues, to Morricone and a punk rendition of the “Banana Splits” theme song) breathe new life into what could have been just another “brooding” comic book film where the hero spends half of the time moping about, contemplating his existence. “Kick-Ass” has no such pretensions, and Vaughn gets nearly everything right in terms of style and tone -- while not a work of art, “Kick-Ass” is still one of the year’s most entertaining films to date.

Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray package is a winner. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is spectacular, while DTS Master Audio sound is active at every turn. Surprisingly the set isn’t as packed with extras as you might anticipate (perhaps they’re being saved for a double-dip Special Edition), but does offer commentary from Vaughn, a BD-exclusive two-hour documentary, a 20-minute profile of the comic book’s history, artwork galleries, a promotional archive, and both a digital copy and the standard-def DVD bundled in the three-disc set.

JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH Blu-Ray (**½, 79 mins., 1996, G; Disney): I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of this underwhelming 1996 Disney stop-motion fantasy, a box-office disappointment that reunited most of the creative team behind “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” including producers Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi, along with director Henry Selick.

An uneven adaptation of Rolad Dahl’s children’s book, “James” is a part live-action/mostly-animated fantasy following a young boy who takes to the skies along with a group of colorful insects to escape his unhappy childhood. Even though the film runs a scant 79 minutes, “James and the Giant Peach” takes what feels like forever to get going and then offers only fleeting pleasures during its protagonist’s skyward journey. Chief among the latter is Selick’s lovingly crafted stop-motion, which ought to enchant animation buffs now that the picture is presented in HD, but the film’s weaknesses remain, particularly its pedestrian screenplay (credited to Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts and Steve Bloom) which is never as heartwarming, funny or captivating as it ought to be. Randy Newman’s forgettable songs stop the film dead in its tracks, while the live-action bookending sequences (with over-the-top performances from Joanna Lumly and Miriam Margolyes as James’ aunts) don’t quite work either.

That said, for those who enjoyed the film, Disney’s Blu-Ray edition does offer a pleasingly crisp rendition of the picture’s visuals in a new AVC encoded 1080p transfer. DTS Master Audio sound and an interactive game round out the BD portion, while a standard DVD boasts a behind-the-scenes look at the film, the trailer, and a music video of Newman’s unmemorable “Good News.”

TO SAVE A LIFE Blu-Ray (**, 120 mins., 2009, PG-13; Sony): Well-intentioned yet static “inspirational” movie about a high school jock who struggles to deal with the death of his childhood friend, who instigates a tragic school shooting because of his banishment from certain social cliques. In response, Jake Taylor (Randy Wayne) reaches out to other outcasts at his school, but soon finds his life equally spiraling out of control.

Jim Britts wrote and Brian Baugh directed this “faith-based” film which falls short in the acting department, as well as its over-the-top script, which pales in comparison to superior Christian cinematic fare like “Fireproof.”

Sony’s Blu-Ray at least presents a colorful AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound and numerous extras, including deleted scenes, music videos, a gag reel, and behind-the-scenes content.

STARGATE SG-U 1.5 Blu-Ray (438 mins., 2010; MGM/Fox): Robert Carlyle, Ming Na and Lou Diamond Phillips are back in this second batch of episodes from the most recent continuation of the “Stargate” franchise, which has so far been met with mostly derisive reaction from fans, most of whom have criticized the series for its weak story lines and lack of resemblance to prior “Stargate” entries. That said, this back-end of the series’ first season wraps up the show’s story lines more satisfyingly than it began at least (or so my avid-episode viewing friend tells me), with cameos from Richard Dean Anderson, Michael Shanks and Julia Benson around for good measure. Fox’s Blu-Ray package of “SG-U 1.5" includes terrific AVC encoded 1080p transfers with DTS Master Audio sound and a number of extras. Among the supplements are featurettes, commentaries on each episode, a BD exclusive interactive game, video diaries and more.

A PROPHET Blu-Ray (***, 155 mins., 2009, R; Sony): Exciting, lengthy but engrossing drama from Jacques Audiard follows an illiterate 19-year-old named Malik who’s coerced into murdering a witness about to testify against a Corsican gang. After carrying out the hit, and following through on a number of other tasks, Malik emerges as a cunning killer who ultimately plays off all sides with a vested interest in him. Well over two hours long, “A Prophet” does feel like something that might’ve been cut down even further in the editing room, yet it’s a well-crafted, compelling picture with excellent performances and direction from Audiard that keeps you hooked. Sony’s Blu-Ray of this 2009 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film features deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, other behind-the-scenes content, a 1080p (1.85) transfer and DTS Master Audio sound.

ACCIDENTS HAPPEN Blu-Ray (**, 92 mins., 2009, R; Image): Ever wondered where Geena Davis went? OK, maybe the thought hasn’t crossed your mind, but the one-time A-lister who became an action heroine for a time back in the ‘90s is back in this tepid Australian film, which goes to great lengths to pretend that it’s set in New England...but will fail to convince anyone living here that it’s not Down Under. Davis plays the matriarch of a family that endures a succession of tragic circumstances in this would-be black comedy from director Andrew Lancaster, which tries to coast along on Davis’ name since the supporting cast is a group of unknowns (at least on this side of the pond). The end result is pretty lousy, recommended only for Davis completists, who are likely still holding out hope for “Cutthroat Island 2: The Search for Matthew Modine.” Image’s Blu-Ray does offer a nice 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound and extras comprised of two featurettes, cast/crew interviews, and trailers.

MULTIPLE SARCASMS Blu-Ray (*½, 97 mins., 2007, R; Image): Borderline-painful tale of a guy who’s “got it all,” yet is perpetually unhappy, forms the basis of this tedious, self-indulgent indie drama from director/co-writer Brooks Branch. Timothy Hutton plays an architect searching for meaning in late ‘70s NYC – a setting that seems to have been employed solely so that co-star Mario Van Peebles can sport an afro. Mira Sorvino, Dana Delany, and Stockard Channing are a few of the talented actresses who should’ve known better than to topline this barely-seen 2007 drama, which Image brings to Blu-Ray in a perfectly acceptable 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio and extras including director/cast interviews, the trailer, and one Making Of featurette.

AFTER. LIFE Blu-Ray (**, 103 mins., 2009, R; Anchor Bay): Slow-moving, unsatisfying thriller flames out under the direction of Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, who (along with fellow writers Paul Vosloo and Jakub Korolczuk) fails to mix ersatz supernatural thrills with a Shyamalan-like succession of “twists.” Christina Ricci (looking unhealthily thin these days) plays a young woman who wakes up after an accident and is informed by funeral home director Liam Neeson that she’s dead; “After.Life” spends the next 100 minutes or so trying to get viewers to believe Neeson’s story one way or the other, but some may want to bail out on the picture long before it reaches its final resolution. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray includes an acceptable 1080p transfer with uncompressed PCM audio and extras including director commentary, a Making Of featurette, and the trailer.

New on DVD

HENSON’S PLACE DVD (52 mins., 1984; Lionsgate): Engaging 1984 behind-the-scenes documentary profiling Jim Henson’s past and then-current film projects finally lands a domestic DVD release. “Henson’s Place” sports ample backstage footage of the “Man Behind the Muppets” at work, with interviews featuring Henson, his wife, Frank Oz and others; chronicling Henson’s work on “Sesame Street” as well as “The Muppets,” leading up to “Labyrinth” (then in production), this is a short but insightful profile of the late, great artist. Lionsgate’s DVD includes one bonus feature, “The Amphibian 1985/86,” a “Jim Henson Comany Yearbook” with an introduction from Michael Frith, plus a full-screen transfer and mono sound.

KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS DVD Season 3 (264 mins., 2009; Lionsgate): More craziness with Khloe, Kim and Kourtney in this third season of E!’s hit reality show. Lionsgate’s two-disc DVD set offers non-anamorphic 1.78 transfers, stereo soundtracks, and extras including deleted scenes and even a few audio commentaries.

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