Blu-ray Review: ‘Flight of the Butterflies’

July 13, 2016


Again, movies made for IMAX theaters are arriving on home video from Shout! Factory, this week with Flight of the Butterflies and Rocky Mountain Express.

The former is an absorbing saga which shows how a researcher and his wife traced the mysterious annual migratory patterns of millions of Monarch butterflies over the course of decades — and finally found their secret winter home on a Mexican mountaintop.

That story is told with a mix of wondrous documentary footage of the colorful insects and well-played re-enactments of the researchers, who also included a collaborating Indiana Jones-style young couple roaming Mexico on a motorbike to find the missing Monarchs.

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Book review: Stephen King’s ‘End of Watch’

June 3, 2016


Stephen King’s End of Watch (Scribner, 431 pages, due June 7) is the kind of book for which the term “page-turner” was invented. (Note: It’s not to be confused with a 2012 cop movie of the same title.)

A riveting read from start to finish, End of Watch rousingly concludes the saga of retired-cop-turned-private-detective Bill Hodges who, along with sympathetic cohorts, confronts a final appalling plot by the deranged killer of Mr. Mercedes, who spent follow-up book Finders Keepers in a vegetative state.

Or did he?

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Blu-ray Review: ‘Journey to Space’

May 31, 2016

Journey to Space

As a longtime resident of Houston — aka Space City — I’m a huge space exploration fan. As such,  I want to support Journey to Space, a Giant Screen film from 2015 arriving  June 7 on home video, with a single-disc Blu-ray and 4K UHD + 3D Blu-ay + Blu-ray two-disc combo, both from Shout!Factory.

But as a reviewer I must be honest, and honestly, the material here feels overly familiar for anyone who’s paid cursory attention to NASA’s doings from the Shuttle program onward.

Yes, space is awesome, so it feels funny saying “been there, done that.” But we’re not talking space — we’re talking filmmaking.

Besides, the wow-factor of a theatrical presentation with an enormous screen, ear-blasting sound and audience involvement is understandably muted when the program is brought home. And at just over 40 minutes, along with minor extras, Journey to Space barely has time to reach orbit before it’s over.

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Blu-ray review: ‘The Terror’

May 30, 2016

The Terror

If 1963’s The Terror had been on Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show’s movie-mockers would have wryly chimed “The terror!” during its many slow, meandering stretches punctuated by slight frights at best.

But though misnamed and mismanaged (the script is a mess), this nostalgic cheapie from Roger Corman and American International Pictures is satisfying in many ways — especially now, with a beautiful restoration by The Film Detective for reissue May 31 on Blu-ray.

For one thing, it shows where the great Boris Karloff’s career wound down and where the great Jack Nicholson’s career started out.

Horror great Karloff was 76 and ailing, yet gave a robust performance as Baron Von Leppe, a recluse wearing Hugh Hefner-worthy house robes while living in a huge seaside castle with only his servant (Roger Corman stalwart Dick Miller) in early 18th century France. Enter wandering soldier Andre (Nicholson — looking so young!), who seeks an elusive, mysterious, cleavage-brandishing woman he briefly encountered on the craggy, cliff-ringed beach over which the castle looms.

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Blu-ray review: ‘Bad Influence’

May 18, 2016

Bad Influence

The clunky computers. The overwrought synth-rock. The shoulder pads and big hair. The fiercely photogenic Brat Pack.

Gotta love the ’80s, which Bad Influence represents, though the indie film was released in early 1990.

As a suspense-thriller, the film is darkly entertaining and not without humor — starting with its absurdly simplistic and understated title.

Bad Influence? That’s like calling Saving Private Ryan “Unpleasantness at the Beach.”

Making its Blu-ray debut May 24, Bad Influence top-bills Rob Lowe as Alex, a strange stranger who insinuates himself into the life of bookish, meek and up-tight L.A. financial whiz Michael (James Spader). Alex does this as sort of a Robin Hood for hell-raising, giving Michael’s life jolts via reckless good times.

The sudden friends soon become enemies, as sociopath Lowe’s cruelly twisted intentions become apparent.

You don’t wreck a guy’s engagement to an overly controlling woman by surprisingly showing video of him having sex with another chick at the big anniversary party of his henpecking fiancee’s parents. You just don’t — unless you are a Troublemaker with a capital T, right here in River City.

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DVD Review ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume Two’

May 17, 2016

I’m not sure if out-of-print copies of Rhino’s original Mystery Science Theater 3000 sets “cost as much as a used car,” as box notes said on Shout! Factory’s reissue of Volume One. But it’s still good to see Volume Two also back in print as of May 24, even with far fewer extras than Shout delivered the first time.

Jack Perkins

Mike Nelson as Jack Perkins, host of the “Mystery Science Theater Hour.”

“Take that, third party sellers!” the box notes say this time, as four MST3K programs get new digital life: Cave Dwellers, Pod People, Angels Revenge and Shorts Vol. 1.

While I love shorts compilations (which I often buy from the MST crew now at RiffTrax), Pod People is my twisted favorite of these discs.

Our friends at Satellite News found the flick sleep-inducing, but this low-rent E.T. rip-off (sorry: homage) is oh-so-’80s, my favorite decade to revisit with wry amusement. And what better time to brandish an absurd hatched alien called “Trumpy”?

As for bonus features, the discs for Cave Dwellers and Pod People add Mystery Science Theater Hour “wraps” (intros and outros) for those episodes, running a grand total of 10 1/2 minutes. And that’s it. (The new menus are bare-bones.)

Though that’s not a lot, I’ll take it — especially since these wraps feature MST Hour host Mike Nelson as goofy, toothy, weirdly enthusiastic Jack Perkins (a parody of a real-life TV journalist), a regular in Deep 13.

Here, he fondles electric guitars and giant snakes while he sets up and rehashes episodes, then dazedly roams the set in near-darkness as the credits roll.

By the way, has anyone catalogued how many such wraps have been featured so far on DVD? Thirty MST3K episodes — thus, 60 two-part shows — were made for the reissue series, all from seasons three-five.

These were done to appease TV stations reluctant to air a two-hour episode but open to showing them divided in half as two-part, one-hour episodes.

Hey, anything that gets MST shown is fine with me — along with reissuing OOP  episodes ASAP (welcome to Acronym Theater).

As Lawgiver would say, “Keep ’em coming.”

— Bruce Westbrook

Book Review ‘Into the Black’: Glorious Liftoff

April 13, 2016


Rowland White

Author Rowland White of the new space history book ‘Into the Black.’

As a longtime resident of Houston, I’m subject to a chicken-or-the-egg question: Is my love of space why I live in Houston, or has living in Houston sparked my love of space?

Actually, it’s a bit of both, because I’ve been space-fascinated since, as a boy of 6, Sputnik 1 became the first satellite to reach Earth orbit (though I was watching Leave It to Beaver‘s premiere in Waco at the time.)

But I also moved to Houston — just two years after the first Space Shuttle flight in 1981 –and I’ve been here ever since, sharing my adopted community’s grief over the wrenching tragedies of losing two Shuttle crews, but also the triumphs of our continued space endeavors.

As a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, I also had the honor of interviewing such space pioneers as Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan, Alan Bean, Buzz Aldrin and Gene Kranz, and I cheered from the sidewalk as John Glenn rode down Texas Avenue in a parade after his return from a 1998 Discovery mission.

Now I’m faced with the most detailed history I’ve ever read spanning both eras — from the first space missions of my childhood to the soon-routine flights of the Shuttle while I lived in Space City. That history is Rowland White’s Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her.

Due April 19 from Touchstone, the hardcover, 464-page book is a compelling read. Based on White’s extensive research, interviews and newly declassified documents, it details how a parallel military space program evolved during NASA’s early years, then spun off into alignment with the space agency for development of the incredible space plane known simply (thanks to President Nixon) as the Space Shuttle.

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Blu-ray Review ‘Rue Morgue/Dunwich Horror’: Poe Meets Lovecraft

March 27, 2016

Rue Morgue

I love the double-feature concept of March 29’s Scream Factory (from Shout! Factory) Blu-ray disc with 1970’s The Dunwich Horror and 1971’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. What’s not to love about pairing dark, twisted authors H.P. Lovecraft (Dunwich) and Edgar Allan Poe (Rue Morgue)?

But in execution, the two films, which weren’t related in their original releases, fall short.

In part that’s because both were based on short stories expanded into movies, for which 1841’s Rue Morgue was wildly changed, morphing into less of a detective story and more of a Phantom of the Opera yarn, with a masked murderer haunting a Paris theater. As for 1928’s Dunwich, it loses Lovecraft’s brooding ’20s tableau in favor of a sunny setting in then-current day 1970.

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DVD Review ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXV’-To the Moon

March 16, 2016


By this time, Shout! Factory and adept extras-maker Ballyhoo have spoiled us, which is why a combined 40 minutes of special features on Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXV, a four-disc set due March 29, seem slim.

But that’s not counting inclusion of an 86-minute, non-riffed version of Time Walker (aka Being From Another Planet). And the four featurettes are good, so let’s take a look.

Best of the bunch for me is the nine-minute You Are There: Launching ’12 to the Moon‘. Its interviewee is relative newcomer to these things Jeff Burr, a filmmaker/historian with loads of exploitation flicks (pardon me: horror genre productions) to his credit. Read the rest of this entry »

DVD Review: ‘McHale’s Navy’ Double Feature

February 14, 2016

McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force

It’s one thing to turn TV series into movies long after the fact (Get Smart, Bewitched, George of the Jungle, 1997’s McHale’s Navy), but in the ’60s, some such spinoffs were made and released while the series still aired.

Take 1964-68’s The Man From UNCLE, which added footage to existing episodes for two feature films, and 1962-1966’s McHale’s Navy, which shot two all-new features.

Both of the latter are on a single-disc DVD due Tuesday from Shout! Factory, which also has released the zany WWII naval comedy’s four seasons and 138 episodes.

The first film, 1964’s McHale’s Navy, show the pros and cons of splashing small-screen shows onto big-screen canvases. Though production values are higher — starting with using color, unlike the b&w series — they aren’t that high.

The film clearly is a backlot So Cal production, using obvious process shots to show ships at sea. Yet it’s still nice seeing Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine’s PT-boat commander, McHale, and his rascally boys amid more expansive on-land locations and in wider views.

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