The ABCs of Death--Twenty-six up-and-coming genre directors from across the planet team up for this massive, ambitious horror anthology in which each story centers on a particularly terrible fate.
The Movie: Any fan of anthology horror will tell you that the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts. This is certainly true of ABCs of Death. The overall spectacle of this grand genre experiment, coupled with a few categorically outstanding vignettes, more than compensates for a multitude of flubbed segments ranging from lackluster to aggravatingly lazy. In this writer's estimation success is best spelled: A,D,J,Q,U,Y.
Sight & Sound: Though each filmmaker approaches their segment with varying degrees of concern for artistic presentation, there is never a point at which the overall quality of the Blu-ray transfer feels lacking. The ghastly Foley work of some of the juicier kills is also alive and well in the audio mix.
The Goodies: The wonderful thing about The ABCs of Death being such a labor of love is that we are treated to a commentary on every single vignette. Not only that, but the Magnet Blu-ray also includes behind-the-scenes peeks at more than half of the twenty-six segments. Additionally included is a quick featurette about the overall making of the film as well as the its trailer.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: If you happen to be a fan of the great legacy of horror anthologies or you feel you've become a bit numb to depictions of the depraved and grotesque in studio horror, pick up The ABCs of Death on Blu. It certainly provide a jolt to your desensitized sensibilities.
Captain America (1990)--Long before proved himself as The First Avenger, , son of novelist J.D. Salinger, took on the mantle in this notorious b-movie oddity directed by .
The Movie: I'm not even sure where to begin. It isn't simply a matter of budgetary constraints, nearly every person hired to work on or appear in 1990's Captain America is either wrong for their respective positions or utterly wasted. Matt Salinger's casting still baffles me. This is a staggering reminder of the dearth of quality in pre-millennial Marvel film adaptations. Still, something about this unapologetic, over-the-top nosedive is irresistibly charming. I don't know, maybe it's the plastic ears glued to the outside of Cap's cowl.
Sight & Sound: While there are some instances in which the picture is so clear as to belie both the film's age and meager finances, the overall picture quality is less than superlative. There is plenty of noise and flickering, and one can even see the appearance of an artifact or two from the original print. It's not a terrible transfer, and it is in fact a wonder that any care was taken whatsoever to polish this turd, but I was hoping for a little more. The sound quality on the other hand is quite, well, sound.
The Goodies: The release bears only one bonus feature: a twenty-minute featurette on the making of the film. While Pyun does offer some interesting insights into what went wrong, Salinger seems a totally deluded as to the type of film he was headlining. I was really hoping for the inclusion of the director's cut of the film, which, if such a thing is possible, is actually worse than the theatrical cut. It's unclear who even owns the rights to that cut so I can't blame Shout Factory too much. But if you thought rubber ears and post-plastic-surgery Red Skull with no red skull were weird, try to imagine an entire sequence in which Cap gets a job at Gold's Gym.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: If you happen to be a superhero movie completionist, or if you simply want to be a hero at your next bad movie night celebration, I'm afraid I must insist that you pick up this Blu-ray.
Howl's Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro--A pair of anime classics from hit Blu-ray for the first time courtesy of Walt Disney.
The Movie(s): It saddens me that I have never been able to fall under the spell of Hayao Miazaki. There is a sense of wonder to his films that is so pure and the visuals are dazzling, and these two are certainly among his very best. However, at the risk of sounding incurably hardhearted, I've never been able to find a personal foothold with his overly-fantastical plotlines. That's not to say that there isn't merit to the heart at the core of these stories, they just don't enthrall me.
Sight & Sound: Luckily, one doesn't have to be head-over-heels in love with Howl's Moving Castle or My Neighbor Totoro to appreciate the phenomenal Blu-ray transfer Disney has put forth. The colors so rich and bright, and Miyazaki's distinctive textured animation really stands out in this high-def transfer. As to the audio, Disney makes the wise call to include both the Japanese and English dub audio tracks, though the default to English is bothersome, if totally expected. With either movie, no matter which auditory experience you choose, the mix is remarkable.
The Goodies: Totoro is definitely the more bonus-endowed release, though many of Totoro's "extra" bonus features are underwhelmingly brief. There are a couple of features that overlap between the two releases. Among them are original Japanese storyboards for each, and a feature on the voice work of the respective American versions. One fun thing during this segment on Howl's is that we hear growl in such a way as to seem to provide the genesis of the gravely Batman voice. If I have one complaint supplement-wise, it's that Disney commits the awkward sin of including the "opinions in commentaries don't necessarily represent those of the company" legalese as a bonus feature. Really?
Optimal Purchase Conditions: These two releases are definitely must-haves for Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli fans. However I also feel these are perfect buys for parents of children just getting into animated movies in general. Though they may not appeal to me personally, I definitely think Howl's Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro are Miyazaki's most accessible titles and would appeal to a wide range of young audiences.
The Last Stand--An escaped cartel kingpin has only one obstacle standing between him and the Mexican border: Sheriff Ray Owens of the small town of Sommerton Junction.
The Movie: Ah yes, 's grand return to solo action vehicles after his long political sabbatical. I think my biggest problem with the film is how boring it is. The action sequences, which could have been the one saving grace for the one-dimensional characters and subpar dialogue, are woefully lacking in excitement. I don't fault Arnie for aging, we are all subject to the ravages of time, but I was expecting a bit more action hero involvement from him than briskly walking from one place to another. When considering also gave us The Good, the Bad, the Weird, the ho-hum nature of these sequences is all the more frustrating.
Sight & Sound: The picture here is sharp and crisp, and really shines on even the most basic high-def television. The one issue this clarity causes is a slight overemphasis of Arnold's unnatural orange hue; somebody likes his spray-tan. The 7.1 audio mix for The Last Stand is quite possibly the best aspect of this release. You can really feel the roar of the Corvette ZR1's engine.
The Goodies: The Last Stand features plenty of special features, including a nearly half-hour-long "making of" featurette, a breakdown of the cornfield scene, and a glimpse inside the prop weapon armory. Also included is a series of candid on-set cast videos and deleted/extended scenes. Of those, the one that most intrigues me is the deleted scene in which the villain's car skids across the guardrail of a bridge like a skateboard. This shot was featured in the trailer in finished form, but the deleted scene on the Blu is far from complete.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: The Last Stand will find easy purchase on the shelf of any hardcore Schwarzenegger fan. Beyond that, I fear it may be too forgettable a studio actioner.
Rolling Thunder--When recently-released POW Major Charles Rane's family is murdered, those responsible had no idea of the hellish fury they were inviting upon themselves.
The Movie: One of the premier, and sadly overlooked revenge films of the 1970s, Rolling Thunder is an utterly fantastic movie. The dialogue and story construction are simple and elegantly reflect its salt-of-the-earth antiheroes. is staggeringly good as Rane, but it's a young and taciturn who steals the show. He may not say much, but when push comes to shove, he is precisely the type of Army buddy you hope to have.
Sight & Sound: Make no mistake about it, some of the footage is incredibly rough. Ample amounts of grain and flickering are as present and glaring as the hook on Rane's arm. However, given the length of this film's undue obscurity, it is likely the original 35mm elements used for the transfer are not in the best of shape to begin with. Despite this setback, the Shout Factory Blu manages to be largely sharp, clear, and rich in its contrast to the point that "the best this film has ever looked" is selling the transfer quite short.
The Goodies: Shout Factory seems as reverent to this 70s gem as I am. This is an exceptional release. The first thing you'll notice is that, as they have done on releases in the past, Shout has included reversible cover artwork for the Blu-ray. The reverse artwork is a wonderful Japanese poster for the movie. As to the supplementals, the best by far is a recently produced featurette on the making of Rolling Thunder featuring interviews from writer Paul Schrader, Devane, and hilariously bizarre soundbites from an almost completely befuddled Tommy Lee Jones. Also included are original trailers, radio and TV spots, and a photo gallery.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: Fans of gritty 70s cinema, especially the work of the legendary , will love this movie. Also, those interested in absorbing as many of 's influences as possible will definitely want to add this to their collection.
Stand-up Guys--Two aging gangsters, and long-time friends, decide to reunite their old crew for one last night of wild fun before one must take on his final assignment: killing the other.
The Movie: Actor-turned-director crafts a competent character piece heavily influenced by 70s noir. and turn in thoughtful, disciplined performances and is a hysterical addition. However, the film suffers from some poor cinematography choices, clunky pacing, and an ending that feels more like a cheap attempt to sell a crowd-pleaser than it does the logical conclusion to the story.
Sight & Sound: The picture quality on Stand Up Guys does in fact stand up to most scrutiny, except for in those moments in which Stevens' DP lets his stylistic choices obfuscate the clarity of the images. The sound mix is great; alive with gun blasts, screeching tires, and the satisfying crack of baseball bat on flesh in surround sound.
The Goodies: Included with the Blu-ray are a fairly by-the-numbers "making of" featurette, a feature on the soundtrack by (which really only serves as a pat on the back for the rocker), and a commentary by Stevens. Additionally, there are a couple of deleted scenes and a featurette on the driving stunts in the film...which honestly aren't terribly memorable.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: If you're a big fan of mafia comedies (The Crew, Mickey Blue Eyes, Analyze This), but wish the characters weren't played for such broad laughs, Stand Up Guys was made for you.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown--Based on a true story, The Town That Dreaded Sundown centers on a hooded serial killer terrorizing the town of Texarkana, Arkansas in the late 1940s.
The Movie: The Town That Dreaded Sundown obviously owes its existence to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but is far more founded upon actual Texas crime history. is the pinnacle of regional directors, in that the history and lore of his local community fascinates him. Though suffering from the occasional breakneck tonal shifts, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a quirky, enjoyable thriller. Ben Johnson shines as the lawman brought in to apprehend the killer.
Sight & Sound: The transfer is impressive in its elevated resolution, but speckled with artifacts from the source print. However, it does little to detract from the picture quality. In fact, considering the historical nature of the story, the imperfections lends a certain faux-documentary enhancement to the experience.
The Goodies: A number of miniature features (interviews with various persons involved in the film) dot the supplement list here, which also includes trailers, a still gallery, and an on-screen text essay that gives a full background on the true story of the Texarkana killer. Most impressive of all however is that this Blu-ray also includes a DVD copy of Pierce's The Evictors. The movie further illustrates Pierce’s fascination with crime lore. It’s not overly scary, but the audio cues used to signal the arrival of the killer are quite unsettling. The transfer is underwhelming, and the sound mix seems to rise and fall at random, but the fact that we get an entire separate movie as a supplement is further testament to Shout’s commitment to smaller genre fare.
Optimal Purchase Conditions: True crime fanatics are sure to love this largely fact-based thriller.
Keep an eye out for our next list of Blu-ray releases later this week.