The high definition home video technology known as Blu-ray is in an unusual place in 2010. Unlike laserdisc, which failed to fulfill the promise of its expanded aesthetic discussion and preservationist intent (cost kept it from dethroning crappier, more commercial king VHS), it has held steady with its digital sidekick, DVD. There have even been cases when specific titles (The Dark Knight, Avatar) clearly outsell - and outclass - their non-Blu brethren and with 3D advancements looking to make their mark, the format is in a very strange holding pattern. Almost all swear by its improved sound and vision, but some studios aren’t willing to invest in the labor-intensive remastering of their movies (which kind of defeats the purpose). So they simply toss out the previous incarnation of a film and hope that the majority of the buyers pay little or no attention to the lack of an update. Most don’t.
There are some studios who are trying to keep everyone happy. Disney regularly releases its latest animated efforts in complex combination packages that give both Blu-ray and DVD aficionados something to crow about, and Warner Brothers began a program where you can take your old out of date discs and port them over to the new technology. Universal is even testing the double format idea, releasing a bunch of notable efforts via an intriguing two-side ideal. Again, if the image is not improved and the extras aren’t plentiful, there’s really no reason for the re-release. Still, looking over the five titles featured in this second installment of our semi-regular Blu-ray overview, you can see that some distributors are trying their best to buoy sales and maintain a level of consumer confidence. On the other hand, they have to deal with the often uneventful movies as part of the presentation. Let’s begin with:
For many, the spaghetti western is singularly defined by Sergio Leone. All others are pretenders to the so-called revisionist throne. Such a sentiment, however, negates brilliant offshoots of said subgenre, including Alejandro Jodorowski’s El Topo and Sergio Corbucci’s Django. The latter was so influential that it is still frequently name checked by post-modern movie mavericks like Takeshi Miike and Quentin Tarantino. Starring an enigmatic Franco Nero as the title character, we are introduced to the gunrunner chasing bad guys who killed his wife. Totting around a coffin which contains a Gatling gun, he rescues a young woman, murders most of the men he is after, and joins up with a corrupt General to steal some gold. Naturally, it all ends in a stand-off in a cemetery. The power of this violent, wonderfully effective film is everywhere. Reservoir Dogs is noted for lifting its ear slicing scene from this remarkable movie while several video games and anime titles make massive reference to this atmospheric film. The only downside here is Corbucci’s rather dull direction. He’s just not in the same league as Leone, unable to translate the operatic elements of the oater into anything other than a Wild Bunch style slaughterhouse. But like Peckinpah , he knows where his emotional beats are. Django is fine as a firefight. As a full blown film, it has some minor weaknesses.
(The Blu-ray release from Blue Underground contains an amazing new remaster of the print, interviews with star Nero and assistant director Ruggero Deodato, a 1968 documentary on the spaghetti gener, and a short film The Last Pistolero)
Dark Nature (Score: 4)
When Troma announced it was stepping into the high definition arena, few could fathom how the updated format would conform to the company’s decided low (or sometimees, no) budget leanings. The answer has been complicated, to say the least. The first couple of releases - The Class of Nuke ‘Em High and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead - have been decent, if not definitive. Their latest, the lame slasher wannabe Dark Nature, doesn’t suffer from the same quality control issues. It looks pristine, practically popping off the screen in its shot of digital dynamic. Where it is weak is in the content department. Director Marc de Launay and writer Eddie Harrison are trying to redefine the category, taking much of the mystery out of your standard slice and dice (we meet the killer 30 minutes in) and instead countermand convention by toying with - and tripping up - the typical fright fan expectations. The results aren’t worth it. The pace is somnambulistic, the suspense nonexistent, and the overall feeling is that of a home movie bloated with failed theatrical ambitions. While one cannot deny its mood and atmosphere (there are some great found locations here), Dark Nature just drags. Here’s hoping the next title given the proto-polish by Lloyd Kaufman and the gang deserves the technical tweaks it’s given. This one doesn’t.
(The disc contains a commentary from de Launay, a Behind the scenes featurette, an interview with star Vanya Eddie, and a short film entitled The Last Noel)
Flash Gordon (Score: 6)
With Star Wars still mopping up massive box office receipts toward the end of the ‘70s, every studio was looking for its own cosmic cash cow to milk. For megalomaniacal producer Dino De Laurentiis, the answer was an update of the ‘30s comic strip by Alex Raymond. Though already tackled by TV (both in live action and animated forms) and a familiar movie serialization starring Olympian Buster Crabbe, the Italian maverick thought he had the perfect approach. So he hired English director Mike Hodges, tapped hot music act Queen to compose the score, and cast former Playgirl centerfold Sam Jones as his titular man of space. With a kitschy Max Von Sydow as Flash’s arch-nemesis Ming the Merciless and an overall approach of unadulterated camp, the results are a mixed bag. On the one hand, the movie is a marvel to look at, stunning in its costume and set design as well as its tongue in cheek take on the material. On the other hand, it’s obvious why Jones excelled in an one dimensional print medium…with his clothes off. He’s so wooden and heroically inert that the scenery consistently upstages him. With dialogue so dopey is stays with you, and an pervasive sense of fun and purposeful cheek, this is a clear “love it or hate it” effort. Sync up to its weird wavelength and you’ll have an amusing time.
(This release ports over most of the content from a previous DVD edition, including interviews with comic book artist Alex Ross and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. There is also a chance to see Episode One of the original Crabbe serial)
Darkman (Score: 8)
Long before he gave Spider-man his cinematic web-slinging skills, Sam Raimi wanted to create his own motion picture comic book hero. Using a short story he wrote in homage to the old Universal monsters of the ‘30s, he came up with the origins of ‘Darkman’, a scientist (Liam Neeson’s Peyton Westlake) who is accidentally caught up in his lawyer girlfriend’s (Frances McDormand) whistle-blowing against a upcoming land development deal. The mobster behind the money destroys our hero’s lab, leaving him and his synthetic skin technology for dead. With brain damaged rage and revenge on his mind, the newly dubbed criminal crusader perfects his formula, covers his rampant scars with the new flesh, and goes out looking for the ones who wronged him. The only down side? His manmade epidermis can only last one hour. Brilliant in its use of Raimi’s signature flash and fury style, as well as anchored by excellent performances from Neeson, McDormand, and Larry Drake as a vile villain, it proved that the former genre genius could manage and maintain a big budget action film. A decade later, Peter Parker and company would benefit from this masterful test run.
(Sadly, Universal’s Blu-ray is bereft of added content - meaning there is not a single bonus feature offered)
Carlito’s Way (Score: 7)
With the success of - and the scandal surrounding - Scarface, Brian DePalma was reluctant to reenter the realm of Hispanic crime and punishment. But when Al Pacino brought him the story of a Puerto Rican hustler in ‘70s New York City, the lure of familiarity was just too great for the director. It didn’t hurt that he was coming off the greatest critical drubbing of his entire professional career with the high profile flop, The Bonfire of the Vanities. So he hired Sean Penn for a pivotal role, refitted the material as a kind of contemporary noir, and author Judge Irwin Torres’ criminal with a conscious made his motion picture debut. Sprawling and epic without completely revisiting the cocaine and Coconut Grove elements of his previous gonzo gangster pic, DePalma lets Pacino settle into his accent, maneuvering the familiar Big Apple backdrops with ease. There is still slickness and style o’plenty, and as a sleazeball lawyer, Penn frequently threatens to steal the movie away from his then higher profile partners. While ultimately not as timeless or satisfying as Tony Montana’s journey into drug-addled desperation, this would remain one of the few high points in DePalma’s later oeuvre, which is quite sad considering his status as an early ‘70s Hitchcock riffing wonder.
(As part of the package, Universal offers deleted scenes, a Making-of featurette, and an interview with DePalma)