DVD Review: The Wicker Man (1973)


The Wicker Man

Anchor Bay





Police sergeant Neil Howie is equally devout to Christianity and British law, as we see in an early scene in which he orders pro-Jesus graffiti be cleaned off.  He is middle aged and engaged, though he is committed to remaining a virgin until married, much to the delight of his co-workers who mock him behind his back.

Howie is in a constant state of moral outrage, punctuated with moments of deep shame at his occasional lustful thoughts.  Howie describes England as a ‘Christian nation,’ and he is angry that it doesn’t live up to his ideals, that god’s watchful eye has done nothing to curb evil.  As lord Summerisle said, the Christian god ‘blew it.’

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DVD Review: Adieu Galaxy Express 999

Adieu Galaxy Express 999

Eastern Star






The first Galaxy Express film was a classic quest tale; more about the journey than the destination, with each stop along the way preparing the hero, Tetsuro, to face his destiny.  It was an adventure movie taking place in a populous and varied galaxy.  Adieu Galaxy Express 999 flips that around.  It has no specific goal when it sets off, and the universe feels dead and empty.

The movie is based on the manga by Leiji Matsumoto, one of the all time masters of the medium.  He creates space operas of epic proportions, and this entry doesn’t disappoint in that regard.

Its been a few years since the first film.  The mechanization movement, which has people trading their living bodies for immortal, mechanical ones has turned into an outright war with a human resistance fighting for the value of a ‘limited life.’  It’s kind of a simplification from the original movie, in which mechanization was a complex issue with pros and cons, and a class struggle element.  In this movie, it’s just good vs. evil.

The journey aboard the 999 is relatively uneventful.  It’s no longer exploration, it’s just transportation.  The movie even teases the audience about his by having the train pass over the planets it visited in the first movie, showing fleeting shots of the setting and characters we met there.  It seems like the mechanization forces are winning.  One of the planets they visited in the first movie, Hevay Melder, we’re told has been decimated by the war.

The few stops they do make are less varied and adventurous than in the first movie.    The one real planet Tetsuro visits is La Metal, the ‘home world’ of the mechanization movement.  There he meets a band of human resistance fighters, including a cat-man named Meowder, and learns a little more about Maetel.

Maetel is not the ‘mother’ figure she was in the first movie.  She’s now a cause for suspicion.  Perhaps this shows growth for Tesuro, who isn’t projecting his memory of his mother on to her, and is now seeing her as a woman with a questionable past.

The movie has a very lackadaisical pace.  There are scenes of the train approaching a planet which last literally minutes, which is actually reminiscent of what it’s like to travel on a train in real life.  This, paired with the general lack of humanity makes the universe feel very quiet and empty.  Contrasted with the first movie, it’s a creepy depiction of what the fully mechanized universe would be.

The 999 eventually sets a course for Great Andromeda, a planet in the center of the Andromeda galaxy which acts as the headquarters of mechanization.  While it wasn’t his intent when he boarded the train, Tetsuro decides to make the most of the destination by striking a blow against the mechanization planet.

The premise of the people of the universe making themselves immortal at the expense of true life is really interesting, and well explored in the movies.  This second film takes the premise up to a logical next level.  While the journey is not as colorful or adventurous as the first time around, it still manages to feel epic.  Mastusmoto just has a knack for making everything feel profound and legendary.

The DVD from Eastern Star features a very clean video transfer with 2.0 audio.  The video is totally unaltered, with the Japanese credits and titles.

Bonus fact:  The ending theme song was written and performed by Mary MacGregor, who was famous for the song, “Torn Between Two Lovers.”

DVD Review: Giant Robot Action Pack

Giant Robot Action Pack

Robot Wars and Crash and Burn


Shout Factory




Robot Wars and Crash and Burn are two cheap sci-fi movies that were made for the direct to video market.  It’s hard to find something to say about either of them, they’re just kind of… there.

I guess Crash and Burn is the better of the two.  It takes place in the near future.  After an economic collapse, an evil mega corporation called Unicom takes over.  They’ve banned the use of computers and robots, but that doesn’t stop a resistance movement from fighting back.

Most of the story takes place inside a TV studio (which I guess is one way to save on set design costs).  The hero is a delivery boy from Unicom, joining him are the station manager, his teen daughter/computer expert, a fat, lewd talk show host, a teacher, a maintenance man, and two hookers.

They all get trapped in the building as a ‘thermal’ approaches, which is some weather phenomenon that makes it too hot to go outside.  Apparently, Unicom knows that the station manager is sympathetic to the resistance, and has placed a humaniod synthetic robot mole in their midst, but who?

It’s kind of like the Terminator, except that the person playing the robot acts and sounds like a 90’s era Jim Carrey.

The movie’s kind of like a murder mystery.  It’s not that complex, but it gives what would otherwise be a low-budget action movie some direction.

Robot Wars feels a lot like an episode of a mediocre television show.  It runs 71 minutes, seven of which are taken up with credits.  It’s about the last mega-robot, the MRAS-2, which is now used to ferry tourists to a 1990’s ghost town.  A Chinese dignitary shows up, wanting to buy one for his country, or so he says.

The Chinese guy hijacks the robot, so the robots old pilot, his mechanic, and an archeologist (who thinks there’s more to that ghost town then they’re letting on) have to track down another mega robot, the MEGA-1, to fight off the MRAS-2.

The movie is competent, but not long enough to really develop a world or its characters.  It does have a lot more robot action than Crash and Burn, though.

The robot effects in both movies are done with stop motion animation, which actually works out quite well.  The inherent jerkiness of the method lends itself to mechanical movement.

Both films are presented on the same disc, in 4:3, which is likely the original aspect ration, as they both look like they were shot on video.  There are no extras at all.



DVD Review: Xena: Warrior Princess Season Two

Xena: Warrior Princess Season Two

Universal Pictures






At first glance, one would assume that Xana is a copy of its sister show, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but with more breasts.  That’s a part of it, to be sure, but if you look closer, you will find that Xena has somewhat more interesting than its predecessor.

Xena was once a warlord.  She and the army she lead killed countless people in her quest for power.  That ended when she ran in to Hercules, and decided to change her ways.  Thus, she now travels the world doing good, and seeking redemption.

That’s not to say that it’s a complex character study; but compared to the faultless do-gooder Hercules, Xena has far more depth as a person.  She has a reason to fight, she gets discouraged, she falls back into her old ways, etc.

Xena, played by Lucy Lawless, is joined by her companion Gabrielle, played by Renee O’Connor.  This too is departure from Hercules’ rotating stable of companions.  Also, unlike Iolaus (Hercules’ normal partner, who is essentially a weaker version of him), Gabrielle is the opposite of what Xena used to be, and the finish line of what she longs to be.

Xena seems to have a little more variance in story lines than Hercules.  Season Two included A Solstice Carol, a version of a Christmas Carol; The Xena Scrolls, about the reincarnated Xena and Gabrielle in 1940; and various run-ins with gods, amazons, and other heroes of Greek mythology.  Comedy still plays a large roll in the series, but there is a slightly stronger dramatic edge to Xena.  This is increased by the fact that Xena has an actual stake in the fight.  She isn’t nigh-invulnerable, like Hercules, and she has something real to fight for, not just goodness in itself.

Despite the slightly more serious tone, and a more complicated protagonist, Xena does not lose the fun factor that made Hercules enjoyable.  It’s still a Saturday afternoon adventure show; and a good one at that.

The DVD set from Universal contains 22 episodes on 5 discs.  This was a low budget show, and the video reflects that; but this is probably as good as it will ever get, and at least as good as it was when it first aired.  Unlike the previous release from Anchor Bay, this one is completely devoid of extras.



DVD Review: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys Season Two

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys Season Two







Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, much like the mythology that spawned it, is a series of  simple good versus evil stories tied up with a moral at the end.  They generally go something like this: Hercules and his friend Iolaus are walking through the forest when a desperate person stops them, asking for help.  They go to the needy persons town, where they find a monster (or evil army) threatening the innocents.  Hercules uses his super strength to defeat the threat, and teaches the townspeople a valuable lesson along the way.

The series was a syndicated adventure show created by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, who at the time were most famous for the Evil Dead Trilogy; though Sam Raimi has since directed the Spider-Man movies.  It stars Kevin Sorbo, as Hercules  His primary companion, Iolaus, is played by Michael Hurst.

In season two, Hercules invents the Olympic Games, battles the ‘mother of all monsters,’ Echidna, travels to Hades and sees his dead wife, and reunites with Jason and the Argonauts.

It’s just like Greek Mythology come to life; which is neither high-praise nor insult.  These are archetypal stories about archetypal people: frightened townspeople, monsters, selfish gods, greedy kings, fallen heroes in need of redemption and young heroes discovering their power.  And yet, these stories persevere for a reasons. They’re entertaining and relate-able. While these may be stripped-down versions; the same themes and character arcs are repeated in every award-winning modern TV series and movie.

The mythological setting and lighthearted tone keep the series keep fun and re-watchable.  When Hercules originally aired, most networks showed it on weekend afternoons, and if you go into it expecting a Saturday matinee adventure, you will be pleased with the result.

The fighting is cartoonish.  Hercules throws people around like rag-dolls, and Iolaus uses random objects as weapons.

The humor in the series is mostly of the slapstick, three-stooges variety, so it’s not hilarious, but it keeps the tone of the show light.

The DVDs are a re-release from Universal.  A long time ago, the series was released by Anchor Bay in big box sets with lots of extras.  This new version is stripped of extras; with just the 24 episodes on 5 discs.  That said, it’s about $20, so it’s still a nice deal.

The video quality is fine.  It looks like it was shot on video, rather than film, so it lacks a sharpness but it looks about as good as it ever will.


DVD Review: Rifftrax – Maniac

Rifftrax: Maniac

Legend Films






Following the cancellation of Mystery Science Theater 3000, its three primary riffers, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett moved to the internet.

Their main business is producing downloadable audio commentaries that you listen to on an ipod while watching a DVD. Rifftrax tended to focus on bigger, mainstream movies (of course, if you want to sell a commentary, it’s nice if a lot of people have the DVD).  They certainly captured the comedy of MST3K, but one of the things I loved most about Mystery Science was seeing  movie that I would otherwise never get a chance to.

Eventually, Rifftrax branched out a little, and started doing complete products with video and audio together, with  classic educational shorts, and some terrible classic movies, which are then sold on DVD.

This brings us to 1934’s Maniac.  I’m not sure if it was meant to be a horror movie, or cautionary tale (like Reefer Madness).  It’s a story of a mentally ill man who gave up his dream to be a vaudeville impressionist to take a job as a lab assistant to a mad scientist who was working to resurrect the dead.  Periodically through out the film, there are text rolls that describe a particular mental illness, then movie then proceeds to show the effects of said illness on our vaudevillian protagonist.

There is murder, rape, and animal mutilation, but the movie never seems dark, or foreboding.  There’s even nudity, which as the commentary points out, is odd for a 1934 film.  It is a  genuinely bad movie; more a disparate collection of scene than a focused narrative.  The acting is overly enthusiastic (even one of the characters describes another’s speech as hammy).  And despite the horrific elements and inner turmoil of the protagonist, it never really illicits emotions from the audience.

The riffing is good, about in line with what MST3K was doing by the end of its run.  You can see a sample here.

The DVD from Legend Films is utilitarian.  The menu is simple, but functional.  The video on the movie (which is only 51 minutes, by the way) is old and scratchy, but suitable for its purpose.  Extras include the movie without the rifftrax, and a 47 minute video of the Rifftax panal from Comic-Con 2010.  The Rifftrax DVDs are also cheap, under $10.  Anyone wanting to see new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will find a lot to like about these.