Queued Up: For The Movie Buffs

I often joke that there are too many DVDs and not enough time. That sentiment especially resonates with fans of cult, horror and sci-fi flicks; one can never seem to keep up with everything that comes out, and frankly, who really wants to? As I get older I have begun to realize more and more that my hunger for anything exotic and unusual—I suppose that’s a relative concept—gets trumped by the reality that if I’m not careful, 90 to 120 blocks of my time will get eaten away very quickly by forgetful fare that I could have avoided. Keeping that in mind, I plan to use this DVD/Blu-ray column to alert you to the digital treasures and fun curiosities coming out on home video. Whether you choose to buy, rent or stream them is your call.

So let’s check out the cool discs for March 2011.

Excalibur — John Boorman’s elegant retelling of the King Arthur legend has developed a loyal following among children of the ‘80s. Aside from the assured direction, impressive battle sequences and dazzling cinematography, this sword ‘n’ sorcery gem features a kickass cast that includes Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson well before most of them became household names. That aspect makes it even more fun to watch. The acting is occasionally over-the-top, but Nicol Williamson’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a Merlin, amused by the follies of man, gives the film the right boost of humor that throws us off-guard when things get grim in the last act. By the way, the film looks really good on Blu-ray.

The Venture Bros. Season 4 — For years the Cartoon Network has reveled in bringing us off-the-wall animated series that are both modern in approach and retro in their influences and stylistic elements. The Venture Bros. certainly fit the bill, devouring every possible aspect of pop culture, from toys to music to comic books, as fodder for the off-the-wall antics of the adventuring Venture family. Season 4 takes shows like Jonny Quest, Batman, Astro Boy and The Hardy Boys, puts them into a blender, and makes you laugh while your head spins as the rapid fire references fly at you. You’ve got to at least be amused by an animated series that tackles burning issues in life: having megalomaniacal villains on your tail, opening up to fellow boy adventurers in adult therapy and the challenges of holding a “homeschool” high school prom. (FYI, Season 4 is divided into two parts on DVD, but it is collected whole on one Blu-ray set.)

Embodiment Of Evil — Nearly a decade ago, singer Mike Patton told me I needed to check out the films of Coffin Joe, a character created by Brazilian filmmaker José Mojica Marins. Patton said his two main movies would change my life. Well, that didn’t exactly happen, but I still remember much of the imagery from the one that I did check out, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, so he at least knew Coffin Joe would worm his way into my brain. Thus, I have to mention that Synapse Films is releasing the first new Coffin Joe movie in over 40 years, the presumably last in a trilogy of films in which the sinister undertaker with the long nails and top hat seeks the perfect bride to bear him the perfect child. Coffin Joe has appeared in minor roles in other movies, but this trilogy is his legacy. At the very least it is worth a place in your horror-centric Netflix queue; assuming, of course, that you’re a horror fiend like me. British newspaper The Guardian deemed Embodiment Of Evil to be an old school delight that would appeal to modern gore hounds. I’ll trust them.

Black Swan — Natalie Portman’s devastating performance as a ballet dancer losing her sense of identity and diving into her dark side won her an Oscar for Best Actress. (Respect, but we also wonder if the lesbian scene with Mila Kunis helped push voters over the edge.) Like another recent Oscar winner, The King’s Speech, this is one of those movies that proves that you don’t need big budgets and “high concepts” to lure in audiences. (Black Swan has already raked in over $260 million internationally on a reported $13 million budget.) And if it does not sound like the type of movie you’d normally check out, give it a shot. Director Darren Aronofsky knows how to get under your skin.

The Walking Dead: Season One — Many people were surprised when this zombie series, inspired by the comic book by Robert Kirkman, drew record audiences for an AMC TV show and quickly eclipsed both the acclaimed Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It’s even more impressive when one considers that this is hardly a top-selling comic book compared with the Marvel and DC Comics superhero titles dominating retail shelf space. This is obviously good news for fans of intelligent horror, especially given the dearth of it at the Hollywood level. I caught the first couple of episodes when broadcast and plan to finish the other four on the newly released Blu-ray set (it’s also out on DVD). Whether or not The Walking Dead, which is co-produced by Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd, can sustain its creative momentum remains to be seen, but it’s nice to be by backed by a cable network concerned with quality, especially for a genre not respected enough by the mainstream.

The Twilight Zone: Season 3 — One of the advantages of the Blu-ray revolution? You get classic, well-preserved television series like this Rod Serling masterpiece delivered to you in awesome high definition. One of the disadvantages of the Blu-ray revolution? You may be one of the faithful who already completely bought said show on DVD and plunked down a decent amount of cash doing so. Luckily the folks at Image (and CBS) have unearthed new bonus features to entice you to buy this, or perhaps buy it again. Blu-ray exclusives include audio commentaries, radio dramas, the original laugh track for the episode Cavender Is Coming and isolated scores for all 37 episodes, which is actually a pretty cool idea considering many famous composers lent their talents to this awesome show. No other anthology series was as consistently good as The Twilight Zone, and that’s a fact.

Here Comes Peter Cottontail — Other than the fact that Easter is approaching and Classic Media are re-promoting this title, what the hell is this title doing here? Glad you asked. Anyone who knows Rankin/Bass and their awesomely vintage stop-motion animation undoubtedly loves characters like Rudolph, Jack Frost, Yukon Cornelius, Bumble and the Miser Brothers, while true devotees also enjoy their horror-themed Mad Monster Party movie. This particular holiday TV special is about cocky Peter Cottontail, who loses an egg-giving contest to be Chief Easter Bunny to the evil Irontail, a bitter bunny who looks like Dracula, rides a bat by a blood orange moon and is voiced by Vincent Price. In an attempt to travel back in time to win the contest, Peter inadvertently stops off at many other holidays in attempts to give people eggs and outdo his dreary nemesis. Now you know why I’ve included it. Irontail is one of the underrated villains from the Rankin/Bass canon and had his own limited edition action figure back in 2002. (Bring him back!)

SHOPPING TIPS: It’s easy to get good prices on Blu-rays and DVDs without shopping retail. For a long time I bought DVDs at Best Buy and Target, but in most cases you get better options online (although Target has had some sweet deals lately). I’m quite partial to Deep Discount and the occasional Amazon sale. At least twice a year Deep Discount has a 20-25 percent sale, and that’s a reduction on the already discounted price of everything. In some cases you can get many titles for as much as 50 percent off during that sale. One of these sale bonanzas usually occurs in November to tie in with the holidays, but we should be seeing a new one soon. Another site with a good selection and prices is ImportCDs.com, which music geeks should be visiting anyway because they are well-stocked with discounted import albums. It’s obvious that I’ve got this down to a science, huh?