'Transformers' DVD storms stores

Terry Lawson
Detroit Free Press (MCT)

Transformers (Two-Disc Special Edition)

The week's DVD blockbuster will, to the surprise of no one, be Michael Bay's live-action "Transformers" (3 stars, Paramount), in single-disc form ($29.99), as a two-disc "Special Edition" ($36.99) and on HD-DVD ($39.99). Along with all the extras included on the two-disc edition, the HD disc contains Web-enabled features that, according, to the distributor, will continue to expand and evolve "for months, even years" into the future.

"Transformers" is far more entertaining than any movie based on a revived 1980s toy fad has any right to be. It's also far more engaging than any film masterminded by special-effects and action-movie maestro Bay has any right to be.

"The Transformers" DVD provides further proof, as if we needed it, of the allure of high-definition reproduction and home theater capability. Remasters of "Lawrence of Arabia" and Kurosawa movies aside, this technology is at its most impressive in the reproduction of loud and elaborately conceived and produced spectacles.

Very quietly, be it as a result of choice or audience demand, Richard Gere has changed himself from an `80s movie star to a superior actor with a preference for offbeat character roles. In the unjustly ignored "Hoax," (3 stars, Miramax, $29.99), Gere gives an Oscar-caliber performance as the talented but marginal writer Clifford Irving.

Irving was a charming hustler who, in the 1970s, was somehow able to convince the publishing world that mysterious zillionaire Howard Hughes had chosen him to tell his fascinatingly secretive story to the world.

That task accomplished, Irving then had the nerve-jangling job of actually writing Hughes' phony memoirs with the help of a researcher pal (Alfred Molina), making various forgeries authentic enough to pass multiple challenges and tests and getting away with it all while dealing with the skepticism of his employers, his wife and his mistress.


Also new this week:

On the heels of the extended version of Quentin Tarantino's "Grindhouse" segment "Death Proof" comes director Robert Rodriguez's less ambitious but more successful half of that feature's faux, Z-movie double bill, "Planet Terror" (3 stars, Genius, $29.95), an action-horror zombie movie spoof starring Rose McGowan as go-go dancer Cherry Darling and Freddy Rodriguez as her former boyfriend. They find themselves leading an unlikely resistance band of a barbecue-loving Texans against flesh-eating zombies.

Making "Planet Terror" longer than it was in the commercially disappointing "Grindhouse" does not make it better, but it doesn't make it worse, either. It's strictly for fans of indefensibly entertaining bad movies that offer more gore and goofiness.

Anyone fond of documentaries that take us to places unexpected will be left with mouth hung open by director Dan Klores' "Crazy Love" (3 stars, Magnolia, $26.98). It's about the twisted relationship of a beautiful young New Yorker and her ardent, duplicitous suitor that didn't end when he was convicted of a heinous crime.

The long-unavailable, soul-restorative 1989 art-house hit "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?" (4 stars, Milestone, $29.95) has itself been meticulously digitally restored, appended by 10 minutes of new footage and outfitted with improved subtitles.


TV on DVD:

If ever there was a series whose potential was painfully obvious but painfully unrealized, it was last season's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (2 stars, Warner, $59.98), Aaron Sorkin's attempt to make backstage crises at a "Saturday Night Live"-type TV show seem as eventful as the corridor decisions of the White House-set "West Wing."

Despite good performances from the ensemble cast and the best of intentions, this was a noble failure.

Also boxed this week: "That `70s Show - Season 7" (Fox, $49.98); "Absolutely Fabulous: The White Box" (BBC, $14,98), a 2004 Christmas special that reunited Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders yet again; "Medium - The Third Season" (Paramount, $59.98); and "Ironside - Season 2" (Shout! Factory), further adventures of Raymond Burr's police detective.


Family pick of the week:

Early shoppers can get a superior holiday bargain with "MGM Holiday Classics Collection" (MGM, $29.98), a bargain-priced, three-disc collection offering something for everybody in the family. Grown-ups and teens will undoubtedly warm to 1947's "The Bishop's Wife" (4 stars) with David Niven as the Episcopalian whose stressful task of overseeing the completion of a new cathedral threatens both his faith and his marriage until a helpful angel (Cary Grant) brings him back down to earth. Meanwhile, the tots (and their parents) should find much to laugh about in 1934's "March of the Wooden Soldiers" (3 stars) with Laurel and Hardy. It has been previously released in public domain and colorized editions, but was digitally restored by Turner Classic Movies for the version included here. Everybody save Grump will have a soft spot for 1961's "Pocketful of Miracles" (3 stars), Frank Capra's sentimental but enduring remake of his own "Lady for Day" with Bette Davis as the apple seller who is turned into a lady by Glenn Ford.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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