UNHOLY FUN

From the book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman comes Good Omens (2019), the tale of an angel and a demon who have been enjoying their time on earth over the last 6,000 years. But when they learn that the Antichrist is coming, they will do anything to stop him from unleashing the Apocalypse. If they can find him. This end of days tale co-stars Michael Sheen and David Tennant who really enjoy playing off of each other and the whimsically executed premise. While Amazon Prime members can watch this 6-episode mini-series for free, the Blu-Ray features over 6 hours of bonus features, including a look into the world of the main characters, deleted scenes, visual effects, and audio commentaries on all episodes. It’s fun to watch and binge shows on streaming, but then we quickly move on. Sometimes it’s nice to delve more deeply into the world that you’ve been immersed in, and this BBC collection allows Good Omens fans a great opportunity to do just that.

TRUTH HOUND

The late Mike Wallace is best remembered as the tough investigative reporter who was part of the award-winning 60 Minutes news team. Through Avi Belkin’s insightful documentary, we learn about how Wallace began his career in the heartland of America, making his way through radio and television roles and cigarette commercials before finally hosting the confrontational talk shows Night Beat and then The Mike Wallace Interview in the late nineteen-fifties, both of which allowed him to intensely interrogate public figures as varied as controversial author Ayn Rand, mobster Mickey Cohen, and the Grand Imperial Wizard of the KKK. He later graduated to 60 Minutes and became known for his brash, hard-hitting style, probing everyone from entertainers like Barbra Streisand and Johnny Carson to controversial figures like Donald Trump and the Ayatollah Khomeini. The documentary starts off with a zinger: confrontational Fox News host and faux journalist Bill O’Reilly tells Wallace during an interview that he was his inspiration and that Wallace created him. That’s actually not a fair point considering Wallace never yelled at people or shut them down, but there is truth in the idea that his hard-hitting style of interviewing definitely lead to a slew of imitators who did not  gauge the nuances of his style nor his ability to listen to his subjects. Either way, Mike Wallace Is Here (2019) is a stirring portrait of a man who pushed hard to get the truth, yet who ironically did not always like being pushed back. In this era of softball journalism, there is much to be learned from him.

A BOX OF GODZILLA

Believe it or not, there have been nearly 30 Japanese live action entries in the Godzilla franchise since the Big G first decimated screens back in 1954. The Criterion Collection has assembled the first 15 of those entries in the deluxe box set Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954–1975, which is also Criterion’s 1000th release! This is the ideal gift for the die-hard Godzilla fan in your life. On top of offering HD transfers for all of the movies and including Japanese versions for two films, there are audio commentaries, numerous documentaries and interviews, new Pop Art-inspired covers for each movie, and a hardcover book featuring essays and liner notes. (One caveat: there are only English language dubs available on six of the later films, and they were the ones produced by Toho Studios not in America. Frankly, I prefer the original versions. The American dubbing was usually dicey.)

Naturally, the quality of the Godzilla movies varies. Among the highlights are the original Gojira (the Japanese version without Raymond Burr edited in), the kaiju free-for-all Destroy All Monsters, and Godzilla Vs. Hedorah (aka Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster) which is the most psychedelic entry in the series. By contrast, King Kong Vs. Godzilla and Son of Godzilla are lame. Other entries vary in quality. While these films have been around for several decades and do not benefit from the digital effects that exist today, they are still fun, with men in rubber monster suits clashing over models of cities that are repeatedly decimated. (And don’t think this is all just for Gen Xers and Boomers. I have a friend whose teenage son adores this stuff.) Like James Bond, Godzilla is a cinematic character who will never die. Sometimes he’s a hero for Japan, sometimes he’s a villain, but he’s always entertaining.

While the list price for this Godzilla box is $225, no one will be paying that price. It’s being sold on Amazon for $100 less and is available during Barnes & Noble’s 50% off Criterion sale which runs through December 1st. If you think about it, paying $125 for the set is a boon—you’re getting 15 well-transferred movies on Blu-ray and a plethora of supplemental material, which coming from Criterion is always solid.

FANGED FARE

Given all the advances in horror effects and storytelling over the last couple of decades, watching vintage vampire movies can be a tricky proposition.  Some have aged well, others have not. A trio of recent releases spotlight some superior fare, even if they do not look as slick as new millennium movies. But therein lies part of their appeal.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) represents Christopher Lee’s second turn as the famed bloodsucker, released 8 years after his first appearance in the role for Hammer Films. The plot is simple: four English tourists are stranded at a remote castle, where a sinister servant feeds and houses them for the night, secretly preparing them to become prey for his master. There are certain supernatural clichés that are avoided here—Dracula does not have the ability to turn into a bat or transform into fog—but he can move pretty fast and is a fierce predator. The ending also deviates from the classic vampire showdown. It’s no surprise that the bloodthirsty Count will be bested, but it’s not by a stake through the heart. Scream Factory’s well curated reissue is taken from a new 4K transfer and both the U.S. and U.K. Versions are included. (The former features some additional bits of violence.) There are some great bonus features, including a documentary, on-set footage, commentaries, and a vintage World of Hammer episode narrated by Oliver Reed that looks into Hammer’s portrayal of vampires over the years.

While the dashing but sinister Christopher Lee is famed for his turn as Dracula, Frank Langella reinvented the role after starring in the Edward Gorey production on Broadway in the late nineteen-seventies. Eager to turn that into a film, Universal hired director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) to helm the translation. Langella did not portray a decrepit or aging bloodsucker, but rather a dashing, charming vampire who could easily seduce any number of women. Giving this tale has a more romantic subtext, Badham’s version of Dracula (1979), which draws more from Bram Stoker’s original tale, is more dynamic and beguiling than most versions. Some people feel that Laurence Olivier was probably too old to play Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing, but I disagree. This is a very strong production. The special edition from Scream Factory not only features the original film, but a color corrected version that strips away most of the color and was released in 1991 at the behest of the director.  Thus you get two different versions of the same film, and furthermore, there are at least three hours of new interviews with the director and various crew members about the making of the film, plus photos taken from the famed Broadway show. This is the definitive Blu-ray release for this film.

Different from both of those movies is Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (Or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck), a 1967 horror-comedy co-starring Polanski as the nervous lackey to an aging vampire hunter who finally manages to find a real-life bloodsucker in Count von Krolock in Transylvania. Given that this film is over 50 years old, a lot of the humor might come off as oddball or droll and the sexual innuendo is dated, but there are still some genuinely funny moments and great set pieces here. Also featuring Polanski’s late wife Sharon Tate, the film was likely the first to feature both a gay vampire and a kvetching Jewish vampire not affected by Christian crosses. There are cultural stereotypes at work here, but it certainly was ahead of its time in that regard. Also included in this Warner Archives release is a 10-minute promotional reel called Vampires 101 which adds more humor into the mix, such as pointing out that garlic will not work on an Italian vampire. Interestingly enough, this film was adapted into the musical Dance of the Vampires, which has been staged in different parts of the world since 2000 and features a score by Meat Loaf songwriter Jim Steinman.

DEEP SPACE DIVES

Between the time that Star Trek went off the air in prime time in 1969, and Star Wars invaded theaters in 1977, the short-lived British television series Space: 1999 (1974-76) provided a gateway between the two. It featured a multiracial crew reminiscent of Star Trek meshed with the dynamic visual effects approach of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it set the stage for the battles and starship design that would be seen in George Lucas’s groundbreaking sci-fi epic.

What’s interesting about this series is that most of my Gen X friends remember Season Two because of the sexy, shapeshifting alien Maya, played by Catherine Schell. But I personally only remember the more cerebral, serious Season One which featured strange adventures and surreal scenarios. Space: 1999 focused on Moonbase Alpha, located on Earth’s moon which had been turned into a repository for atomic waste. A giant explosion led to the moon being blasted out of Earth’s orbit and into deep space. It’s an unrealistic premise, but you just have to go with it. The show co-starred Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (previously paired in the original Mission: Impossible series) as Commander John Koenig and Dr. Barbara Russell of Moonbase Alpha, aided in Season One by the brilliant Prof. Victor Bergman played by Barry Morse. That season featured strange aliens and a few starship battles but was much more about Alpha’s interstellar journey and raising philosophical questions.

Discouraged by their record-breaking budget and less than stellar ratings, the producers did a complete 180. Despite reduced overhead, they jazzed up Season Two with more colorful costumes, campy absurdity, and a new theme song, and they sexed up the female stars which rarely happened in Season One. This is one of the most jarring makeovers in television history. That said, there are plenty of fans who still like various episodes of Season Two in spite of the changes. Either way, Shout! Factory is finally allowing American viewers to see both seasons on Blu-Ray along with new and vintage bonus material featuring various cast members talking about their experiences on the show. There was a Space: 1999 convention that took place in Pennsylvania this past September, which proves that there is still fan interest today. Although it’s far from perfect, I really adore the first season of this show. This box set allows you to really delve into the entire run and go behind the scenes with a series that, had it not been the most expensive ever made at the time, likely could have been allowed to develop over many more seasons. Like the original Star Trek, its run was cut short.

By contrast, Star Trek: The Next Generation was an immediate hit when it launched in 1987 and lasted for 7 seasons, thanks in no small part to its star Patrick Stewart as the charismatic Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. In the Star Trek: Picard Movie and TV Collection, two two-part episodes from the original series along with all four of the Next Generation movies are collected on Blu-ray along with a 16-page exclusive comic and numerous bonus features. The original Star Trek series gets a crossover nod in the Generations movie when Captains Kirk and Picard cross paths, and the assimilating alien race the Borg gets a big spotlight in the well-received First Contact film. Given the fact that the new show Picard is coming soon to CBS All Access, this is an opportune time to release this set, which is a major steal at its $28 list price.

If you’re a fan of the new Star Trek: Discovery series (2019) that is also being shown on CBS All Access, Season Two has just been released on Blu-ray with over four hours of special features, including 9 featurettes, deleted scenes, and two mini-episodes. There is a clever twist to the premise: the main character is space scientist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the stories are told from her perspective rather than that of Capt. Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), the temporary commander of the U.S.S. Discovery. (Trivia note: Pike appears in the original unaired Star Trek pilot and in the first movie of the J.J. Abrams rebooted movie series.) It’s impressive that Paramount can keep coming up with new series based upon this franchise—Discovery is the seventh in the line of series that have been generated for Star Trek—but as long as they keep coming up with interesting characters and engaging stories, the fans will keep flocking to them.

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