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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DVD Review ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIV’: RIP AIP

November 29, 2015


Two trailers, two Frank Conniff intros running three minutes total and one Ballyhoo featurette? That’s all the extras for Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIV, new Tuesday from Shout! Factory?

Yes, that’s all. But it turns out that’s a lot.

The four-disc set’s sole featurette — on the history of American International Pictures — runs 92 minutes, or longer than many of AIP’s own movies. That makes it the most ambitious documentary of Ballyhoo’s many look-backs at films, filmmakers and film studios for MST’s box sets, and given its many films used on MST, AIP was well worth it.

Playing off the absurdly long title of one of the four AIP films in this set (The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent), the retrospective is named It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine: The AIP Story.

Laced with vintage clips and recent interviews of film historians and filmmakers — including Roger Corman — the story is classic Hollywood stuff, putting AIP’s birth and growth in historical perspective: Baby Boom teens with wheels and rock music wanted rebellious film fare made for them. You could say AIP pandered, but didn’t any studio trying to make a buck?

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‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ Book Review: Short ‘n’ Sweet

November 18, 2015


Ask many people to name Stephen King’s occupation and they’d say “novelist.” And they’d be wrong.

Yes, King has written a library’s worth of novels, some of them topping 1,000 pages. But he’s also written hundreds of short stories — enough to make The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, new from Scribner, his 10th such collection. And short stories, I’d argue, are clearly among his narrative strengths, especially in his beloved horror genre.

As King himself says in the book, “There’s something to be said for a shorter, more intense experience.”

I agree. The Stand may be a page-turner, but that’s too many pages to turn in one riveting experience. “A Death,” on the other hand, which is one of Bazaar’s most compelling reads, clocks in at 14 pages.

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