Blu-Ray Round Up: 7/1/13

Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg, 1987) – Everyone points to the slapstick World War 2 comedy 1941 as the biggest bomb of Steven Spielberg’s career, but from a dollars and cents standpoint it’s probably his other Japanese World War II epic, Empire of the Sun. That my friends is a crime. Empire of the Sun is a masterpiece and undoubtedly the most underrated film in the great bearded populist’s career. It was handled with rough hands by critics in the 80s who were so irritated by Spielberg’s sudden desire to be taken seriously that they seemed to ignore what he had accomplished. Likewise, audiences stayed away in droves, deciding that they disapproved of Spielberg not plastering smiles on their faces and planting doughy emotions in their hearts. The filmmaker eventually won back everyone with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (sigh, if only it was his last crusade) two years later, but sadly Empire remains a forgotten and dismissed entry in Spielberg’s career when it should be cherished amongst his best. In it’s own strange way, Empire is every bit as moving and powerful a depiction of WW2 tragedy as either Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, it just requires a little more effort from audiences to appreciate why and I suppose viewers aren’t used to putting in a little subtextual analysis when it comes to a Steven Spielberg joint.

The film boasts on of the most impressive writer combos of any Spielberg movie with a script by British quick wit specialist Tom Stoppard based on a childhood memoir by J.G. Ballard (who would grow up from this childhood trauma to be the perverse mind behind the David Cronenberg adapted Crash, and there’s no way that’s a coincidence). Ballard was always very open about the fact that his book has half remembered and exaggerated through childhood memory and imagination. That’s never stated outright in the movie, but it’s important to understand it overall. The film is told from the perspective of a young Christian Bale (just as strong an actor as a youngster) who lived in opulent wealth with his British parents in Shanghai, before war broke out between China and Japan during WW2. The family was caught in the middle and shuffled off the refugee camps and exportation. The only trouble was that Bale was left behind in Shanghai to fend for himself during those war years.

The opening sequences and siege of Shanghai are presented through Spielberg’s lovingly cinematic lens, but feel very real and matter of fact. Once Bale is left on his own, the tone and style changes to suit a child with an overactive imaginations view of the world. Everything seems to become bigger and more surreal. Adults behave in a nightmarish way that we never quite understand. Bale hooks up with conman played by John Malkovich, who seems like an all-knowing almost superhero figure when we first meet him, but by the end is a sad little man (Malkovich sweetly let his baldness be exploited to pull off this transition). Bale has a silent relationship with a Japanese boy outside of his camp who grows to be a pilot in an unlikely fashion that most likely took place entirely in Bale’s imagination. Most controversially amongst the film’s critics, the Japanese containment camp for British and American refugees is depicted as a functional society filled with wonderful hidden secrets amongst all the psychological torture and physical turmoil. Take the movie literally and that feels like white-washing horror. But view it as Bale’s childish idealization of his horrifying circumstances as a coping mechanism and it’s a fascinating fantasy.

Throughout, Spielberg fills the film with so many visual metaphors that it practically feels like he’s telling his story exclusively through them. Characters morph along with Bale’s inner psyche, huge graveyards of abandoned mansions and furniture signal how things have changed, and Bale slowly develops a deranged and damaged character that no child actor should be talented enough to pull off. In a weird way, Empire is a dark flipside to E.T. (bear with me here). While E.T. is pure bubblegum fantasy, a big part of its emotional resonance comes from the subtext that E.T. could just be a figment of Elliot’s imagination, a magical healing friend for a lonely boy struggling to cope with his parents’ divorce. That theme is buried in E.T., but shoved upfront and centre in Empire Of The Sun with similar techniques used to explore it (cameras set exclusively at a child’s eye level, the most fantastic sequences played from a privileged POV of a child that only the pint-sized protagonist can see, a subtle bending of reality from a rigidly real starting point, etc). Spielberg’s mistake was assuming enough people picked up on that subtle aspect of his cute-boy-meets-cuter-alien masterpiece to run with it in Empire. Sadly, he was wrong, but if you consider that concept now, the two movies make for a hell of a double bill for the coffee shop deep analysis sect.

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Even though it’s never been a major hit for the studio, Warner Brothers’ has lavished Empire of the Sun with a pretty new Blu-ray that treats the film like the masterpiece it is. The HD transfer is a thing of beauty adding layers of color and detail never possible in the crammed DVD or LD releases. The movie suits it too, with massive sets filled with extras that require every pixel in a 1080p transfer to convey the attention to detail. Plus, since Spielberg’s aesthetic is that of wide-eyed childish wonderment, the film was shot almost exclusively with wide angle lenses a grand splashes of color designed to pop off the screen. Simply put, if you’ve only ever seen the movie on DVD or VHS, you’re required to get a copy of the Blu-ray because you haven’t really seen it at all.

Sadly the Blu-ray budget was eaten up entirely by the transfer and there are no new special features. On the plus side Spielberg/Warners did commission an hour long Making-Of piece for the Laser Disc in 1987 that’s been ported over and is absolutely excellent, filled with fascinating behind-the-scenes footage and insightful interview with the filmmakers. Then you get a trailer, an awkward Spielberg-narrated doc on WB’s wartime propaganda movies and that’s absolutely it. So, it’s not a stacked set, but it is a great one for a movie that deserves it. If you’re a fan of vintage Spielberg, but have somehow never seen Empire of the Sun, then you’re in for a treat. It just might be one of his finest movies and along with the massive slapstick orgy that is 1941, it’s certainly his most misunderstood. (Phil Brown)

 Stoker

Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013) – Stoker is exactly the kind of movie that a critic and audiences would probably hail as a masterpiece if it was in a foreign language. It’s still an exceptional movie overall with excellent performances and some of the best direction of the decade courtesy of Korean auteur Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) making his English language debut, but that doesn’t change that this is a film with five star technical credits and a three star script.

18 year old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has barely had time to grieve over the loss of her beloved father before the arrival of her mysterious and previously unmentioned Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Her mother (Nicole Kidman) could give a crap less if India were to live or die, but the normally quiet, standoffish, and reserved young woman begins to take a creepy shine to her equally off-kilter relative, driving a bit of a wedge between mother and daughter.

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Stoker isn’t a film necessarily built around a plot that builds to much of anything – for the first two-thirds of it, anyway – or even necessarily around a series of twists, but more crafted around individual moments or happenings. That makes it a bit hard to talk about without spoiling anything since the story from actor Wentworth Miller manages to be threadbare, but devilishly campy and playful at the same time.

Miller’s script could have used a few further rewrites or at least a bit more depth since it plays like it would have been a trainwreck in lesser hands than this director and this cast. It’s purposefully ambiguous almost to a fault. The leads aren’t given any actual characters and are instead given frameworks to do whatever Chan-wook requires of them. Wasikowska makes a wonderful heroine who manages to be sympathetic because we know so very little about her aside from broadly sketched out details, many of which don’t even emerge until late in the film but still don’t change the direction of the character all that much. Goode has perfected the thousand yard stare and his creepy uncle overcomes the obvious connotation that he’s essentially playing the same Uncle Charlie from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (albeit in a much more ambiguous fashion). Kidman has the fewest scenes of the three, but she brings a real cutting sense of aloof, understated meanness to a character that’s so lazy she can barely be bothered to leave her room unless she has a damn good reason.

The best things that can be said about the film outside of the performances all belong to Park Chan Wook and his cinematographer Chung Hoon-Chung. Whereas Miller’s screenplay leaves almost too much to the imagination, Chan-Wook goes for surrealism over obvious symbolism and a purposefully anachronistic feeling whenever the dysfunctional family units have to come together within the Stoker household. There isn’t a single shot in the film that isn’t anything less than stunning to look at, which might suggest that Stoker is a whole lot of strangeness and style over substance, but the sheer amount of effort and thought that went into every frame of this film is incredible. It’s positively hypnotic to look at in the best possible ways.

What ultimately drags the film down slightly in the final act is Miller’s desire to finally tack on a “logical explanation” as to who Charlie is and why he’s intrigued by the burgeoning sexuality of India. A couple of superfluous and barely there side characters introduced early on (played by recent Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver and Phyllis Somerville) hint at the film’s ultimate end game, but it’s not that satisfying once the film finally gets around to its biggest reveal if the viewer has a full understanding of the movie Miller wants to really try to imitate. This part of the film actually gets saved more so by the cast than Chan-Wook because the material gets so dry (just before an appropriately rousing climax) that the film slows to a crawl just as it should be ramping up. There’s nothing he can really do to make it all that exciting visually or thematically.

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Aside from that misstep that still only amounts to about 10 dull minutes of an otherwise engaging, unnerving, and exciting 98 minute whole, Stoker still manages to be quite unlike any other film that’s come to theatres in quite some time and one that literally needs to be seen to be believed. We just got done with Oscar season, but Park Chan-wook just might be heard from again early next year for his efforts. He really does do that good of a job.

The Blu-Ray boasts a stunning transfer of both sound and picture, but special features are a bit more scant. There’s a decent, but basic 30 minute making of documentary, ten minutes of deleted scenes, and various galleries dealing with the photography of the film, it’s premiere, and the music used. (Andrew Parker)

 Lifeforce

Lifeforce (Tobe Hooper, 1985) – In the limited imagination of some folks, Tobe Hooper was a one hit wonder who never managed to top the searing intensity of his remarkable debut The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other than the Spielberg-assisted Poltergeist never made anything of interest again. These people are ridiculously, outrageously, and even stupidly wrong. Nope, Hooper actually had a damn impressive run of 7 movies and one groundbreaking mini-series that were all compulsively watchable before things fell apart. I’m talking the classic Chainsaw 1&2, the magical Poltergeist, the self-conscious Funhouse, the creepy Salem’s Lot, the gross Eaten Alive, the ridonkulous Invaders From Mars, and the reason I have gathered you all here today: Lifeforce.

Made at the peak of Hooper’s box office powers following the success of Poltergeist, Lifeforce is a massive R-rated horror/sci-fi blockbuster. It would be nice to say that was a whole genre that could be compared to Lifeforce, but other than the Alien and Predator franchises horror/sci-fi blockbusters don’t really exists exist. Lifeforce is a completely unique and massive summer popcorn movie drenched in blood and featuring an iconically perky pair of boobs that helped usher a generation through puberty. It also came out of Hooper’s tongue-in-cheek period and is absolutely hilarious for all the right and wrong reasons. If you’ve never seen it before, you’re in for a treat with Shout Factory’s stunning new Blu-ray presentation. You can’t even say “they don’t make ‘em like these anymore” because they really only made this sucker once.

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Armed with a boatload of cash from Cannon Films (RIP), Hooper weaved a tail about a collection of astronauts who find a bizarre alien ship behind Haily’s commit. Inside is a strange biomechanical craft filled with giant frozen space bats (I wish there was a less silly way to say that, but this isn’t that kind of movie). Amongst the giant floating bat corpses is also a collection of beautiful naked models who the astronauts unsurprisingly decide to save. One deliciously naked woman on the ship seems to intoxicate everyone on the crew, then she rises from the dead and sucks the life out of every man who comes near her. Soon London is overrun by space vampires in a massive spectacle that peaks with a cinematic orgy of city wide battles, naked flesh, rubber monster mayhem, and Patrick Stewart vomiting up a gallon of blood that transforms into a nude woman (actual scene). Yep, it’s a wild ride.

The original title to the movie was Space Vampires, which Cannon changed at the last minute to try and trick audiences into thinking they were signing up for a sub-Star Wars space blockbuster. That was a mistake because Space Vampires better suits the tone that Hooper and his screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead) whipped up. Though never overtly slapstick, the film is very much a horror/comedy. The B-movie cheese is laid on so thick that you can’t help but laugh at this loving homage to Hammer horror.

Hooper has all his actors pitch their performances to the rafters and the screenplay makes no attempt to justify or qualify its ludicrous twists and turns. Instead audiences are invited to sit back and giggle at a movie in which the main monster is a beautiful (and beautifully naked) French model and the not-so-subtle subtext is a satire of the male fear, fascination, and obsession with the very female form it flaunts gratuitously. Adding to the sly joke’s punch is the fact that the movie is executed on a scale above and beyond most works in the genre, with stunning practical effects executed by Star Wars veteran John Dykstra that still hold up today. Lifeforce is a “cake and eat it too” kind of movie that mixes genuine blockbuster thrills with pounds of delicious camp comedy. It could only have come out of 80s Hollywood and thank god that decade existed just so that we could have Lifeforce.

The film hits Blu-Ray courtesy of Shout Factory in what might be their finest horror disc to date. Most titles cranked out through the label are low budget affairs that look nice in HD, but only offered the restoration team so much to work with. Lifeforce on the other hand is a massive 70mm spectacle that depends on scale to succeed and has never looked close to this gorgeous before. Hooper has always been an underrated visual stylist since most of his work was discovered on poorly panned and scanned VHS tapes, but watching Lifeforce on this beautiful Blu-ray proves that he was a master of spectacle equal to any of his contemporaries. It’s enough to make you lament the fact that Lifeforce’s box office failure prevented him from ever helming another blockbuster.

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Special features are also ladled on thick starting with a fantastic commentary track and interview from Hooper who vividly recalls the massive production with fondness and reverence. It’s clear from hearing him talk that all the camp humor was intended as a reference to his favorite 50s B-movies and it’s a shame no one noticed at the time. In addition to that is an interview with Mathilda May, a real charmer who has nothing but fond memories of her time working entirely naked on set. Lead actor Steve Railsback (The Stunt Man) also pops up and is clearly a massive fan of the film and thrilled that it is getting long overdue respect. Finally there are a collection of misleading trailers that help explain how ill-prepared audiences misunderstood it in 1985 and a vintage 21-minute making-of documentary delving into how all the effects were created with some impressive behind the scenes footage and a hilariously dated voiceover. Overall, it’s one hell of an HD package for one hell of a forgotten classic that deserves it. Run, don’t walk to pick this sucker up, watch it twice, and call me in the morning. You’ll be singing plenty of praises by then.  (Phil Brown)

 Phantasm II

Phantasm II (Don Coscarelli, 1988)Of all the horror franchises that clogged up VHS shelves in the horror rental peak, Phantasm can easily be labeled the strangest. Conceived by Don Coscarelli as a low budget drive-in career-launcher in 1979, the series defined his career for decades and is a bizarre stream-of-conscious franchise as indebted as much to nightmares and surrealism as something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The movie was a minor hit upon release, but built up a cult audience on video substantial enough that Coscarelli was able to talk Universal Studios into funding a sequel during the 80s horror boom. Though made for a fairly low budget of $3 million, it is the blockbuster of the Phantasm franchise and a milestone in the series that made the camp comedy of the original movie a deliberate component and turned it into an action franchise as much as a horror franchise. All that would make it sound more mainstream than the original, but make no mistake, it’s as oddball an effort as Coscarelli ever created and one of the finest entries in the series.

Describing the plot of a Phantasm movie is useless because the series doesn’t really make much sense when you put it on paper. Essentially it involves the adventures of a kid named Mike (played by James Le Gros in this movie and this movie only) and a bald ex-ice cream vendor named Reggie (Reggie Bannister) who fight an evil super-powered undertaker called The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) and his gang of evil dwarves. Got it? Good. If not, don’t worry. These movies aren’t about finely crafted plots, but compelling atmosphere and insane set pieces. Armed with the biggest budget of any Phantasm movie, Coscarelli whips up some incredible sequences here, staging shotgun battles with evil dwarves and showing some of the nastiest murders from the series’ iconic floating metal balls of death. The tone is over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek, very much influenced by how Coscarelli’s buddy Sam Raimi comedy-ed up his own sequel Evil Dead 2. Phantasm II is an explosion of goofy entertainment filled with disturbing images you’ll never forget and camp comedy that will have you giggling long after the flick abruptly ends. Plus it proves once and for all that bald, middle-aged, ex-hippies can be just as deadly as action heroes as any Austrian bodybuilder. That message alone practically qualifies Phantasm II as a public service in addition to a thrilling genre flick.

The film emerges on Blu-Ray from Shout Factory in easily its prettiest presentation in any format. It’s still a low budget genre movie executed on a small scale, so don’t expect too much. But the movie is filled with gooey effects, creepy sets, grand explosions, and bizarre compositions that shine on Blu-ray like never before.

Then since Phantasm is a series made by a group of friends who love their accomplishments as much of the fans, it should come as no surprise that the disc is loaded with extras. First up is a 45-minute documentary featuring Don Coscarelli, Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister, and Paula Irvine and a few crew members discussing the joyful and troubled production with good humor and refreshing honestly. Coscarelli, Scrimm, and Bannister also pop up for a commentary that has a few more info nuggets, but is mostly a breezy chat between friends about one of their finest achievements. An excellent 22-minute interview with Greg Nicotero explains how all of the glorious rubber monster effects were pulled off, filled with behind-the-scenes video footage from Nicotero’s private archives. 7 minutes of 35mm deleted scenes and 20 minutes of deleted/alternate scenes from the infamous VHS bootleg workprint are also included for completists as well as the usual trailers collection. Finally, the disc also features a vintage Encyclopedia Britanica funded B&W short starring Angus Scrimm as Abraham Lincoln.

It’s not exactly a work of art, but after seeing Scrimm as The Tall Man, it’s an oddly creepy curiosity well worth a look for fans. Overall, it’s an outstanding disc and hopefully not the last Phantasm movie that Shout Factory will get their hands on. This is one of the most creative and intriguing horror franchises around and one that richly deserves a proper HD treatment that only Shout could provide. This disc is a great start, now let’s hope there are three more that are just as good to follow. (Phil Brown)

 Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012) – Bound to be misunderstood in many circles and open to almost boundless analysis about its motives, Spring Breakers definitely feels every bit the brainchild of out-there auteurist Harmony Korine (Gummo, Trash Humpers), but this time it comes with a name cast and a lip glossy, candy coated, beer bong boated sheen. It’s hard to describe and impossible to compare it to anything except for maybe it’s like Terence Malick directing John McNaughton’s Wild Things or Lars von Trier directing an episode of Miami Vice. Even that’s disingenuous shorthand that describes the visual style of the film just fine, but no one aside from Korine could have ever made a coal black satire of debauched behaviour and hip-hop lifestyles this oddly affecting and engaging without seeming like a misogynist jerk about it.

Four friends look for an instant out of their humdrum university lives by travelling down to St. Petersburg, Florida after three of them (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) come into some cash by ill gotten means. The other, Faith (Selena Gomez), finds herself tone between friends and a desire to have fun and things like family and Jesus. They get into a spot of trouble with the law on their booze and drug filled break from reality, and find themselves bailed out by a cornrowed white boy hustler named Alien (James Franco). As Alien brings the girls into his world of dollar sign rims, TVs that play Scarface on repeat, and more cash and guns than some third world governments have, some of the girls find themselves seduced, while others repulsed and scared.

Korine is obviously going for the jugular when it comes to skewering what some people would believe is “the American dream” – and it definitely accounts for the oddly pastoral style that even extends to the illustrative early on T&A moments – but there’s far more going on here that just surface gloss and the obvious. There’s an examination of how hip-hop culture factors into skewing what the already mobile, privileged, and predominantly white world can get perfectly wrong about it. Through Gomez’s character, it’s a tender examination of how one person can hold a group of friends together simply by being the understated voice of reason. It’s even an outrageous lampooning of current Hollywood party movies through just how ugly and sleazy a concept like spring break could actually be rather than an all around fun time. It’s sleaze that’s purposeful and carrying a loaded message that would easily be misinterpreted by an unknowing and unsuspecting audience.

And on top of that, Korine’s story is actually convincing and unexpectedly moving as it goes on. A lot of this comes when the film starts taking Alien seriously instead of as the punchline to all of the film’s jokes. Franco, who is already absolutely killing it here with a spot on comedic performance as a dirty south, affluent white trash, scumbag, gets an added layer of depth when showing that this goof actually takes his work seriously. He’s earned that money to live that inane lifestyle, and it oddly becomes less worthy of scorn and derision. He also seems to genuinely care about those around him, unlike his mentor and current chief rival (played by rapper Gucci Mane). As a result, the story gets darker, but oddly more profound and even more accessible.

There’s no mistaking that a great deal of Spring Breakers is intended to be an in-your-face provocation meant to hold up a mirror to the prejudices and vices of those in the audience. For those looking for empty calories or to see an A-list cast behaving badly, there’s little to be offered. For those willing to push themselves and actually think about what they’re seeing, it will stick around in the mind days after the credits have rolled. Unlike an actual spring break that most young people just take for the sake of going out and partying for an extended period of time, Korine’s film is one that you have to want to take. (Andrew Parker)

Skull World

Skull World (Justin McConnell, 2013) – Skull World is the inspirational and totally badass story of Box Wars impresario and jean jacket enthusiast Greg Sommer from filmmaker (and apparent lawn gnome enthusiast) Justin McConnell. It’s a tale of the friendship between the filmmaker and his subject, metal, and just generally going out and fucking shit up in the name of fun. It wears its heart on its sleeve and never hits a false note, making for an equally heartwarming and mosh-worthy experience.

Following around one of his best buddies, Sommer (a man in his early 30s who splits his day job time between graveyard ditch digging and film production), McConell takes a look at the labour of love that is Box Wars: an all out LARPing styled battle where people make elaborate armour, weapons, and costumes out of cardboard and battle it out in something that looks like a war breaking out at a GWAR mosh pit.

Not only is a great and nerdy look at something that brings its main subject a lot of happiness, but it’s also a love letter to never growing up while having to deal with unexpectedly grown up responsibilities. Some of the film’s most interesting moments aren’t in the carnage, but in simple scenes where this metal dude has to look into getting liability insurance or when he gets bummed over how school kids gravitate more towards using the weapons than getting creative with their costumes. Box Wars might not be for everyone, but the film is definitely a crowd pleaser. It rocks hard as fuck, which Sommer would undoubtedly appreciate.

Much like he did with his last film, the horror flick The Collapsed, McConnell has put together a stellar extras package for the Blu-Ray of his latest documentary. There are two commentary tracks, one from Sommer in character as Skull Man, which is pretty great, but one with both Sommer and McConnell together is wildly endearing and like watching the movie all over again with the two of them in the room telling totally different stories and expanding on things the film never got a chance to cover. There’s a wealth of deleted scenes and extended scenes (and some hidden goodies while perusing them). There are a pair of music videos, one of which is Greg in the middle of a mosh pit. There are several trailers and galleries and footage of the film’s world premiere at the Canadian Film Festival. Perhaps most exciting aside from the joint commentary track, though, is a pilot for Skull Man’s Box Wars, a ragtag side project created by Sommer to sell his story and work as a TV series. (Andrew Parker)

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