Editor’s Notes: The Mummy, Seven Beauties, The Prison, Swept Away, Mamaboy, The Big Knife, Drone Wars, The Ghoul, It Comes at Night, Soul on a String, Erik the Conqueror, and Citizen Jane: Battle for the City are all out on their respective home video format September 12th.
The Mummy (Universal Home Entertainment) stars Tom Cruise as Nick Morton, a soldier stationed in Iraq. Though he’s in the country to fight, he seems more concerned with finding ancient treasures and selling them on the black market. During a heavy firefight, Nick and pal Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), discover tomb that contains the mummy of evil Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Egyptologist Jenny Haisey (Annabelle Wallis) recognizes the significance of the find, and the mummy is transported to London. There’s little doubt that the 5,000-year-old mummy of Ahmanet will come to life to wreak havoc on the modern world.
Without a major superhero franchise, Universal has attempted to revive the genre that kept it in business — the horror film — in its Dark Universe series. The Mummy kicks off what is hoped will be a lucrative franchise. Universal is the studio that produced the original Dracula and Frankenstein, as well as the first version of The Mummy, a genuine classic that starred Boris Karloff. It’s a pity that the studio has done such a disservice to its stable of monsters with the jumble of nonsense that comprises the new movie.
Clearly not a re-make, the film is what Hollywood likes to call a “re-imagining,” meaning a bunch of writers have joined forces to gear the script to what they believe contemporary audiences will want. The result is a combination of action flick, zombie mayhem, and endless exposition.
An attempt to balance the scary moments with comedy doesn’t work, with Cruise not very good at dropping snappy one-liners.
Cruise hardly gives a performance and appears to be coasting throughout. Maybe he realized that he got himself stuck in this turkey, and was just trying to get it over as quickly as possible. His role seems studio insurance that the franchise will begin with great flourish.
Ms. Boutella, on the other hand, is a frightening presence. Her Ahmanet is able to reanimate the dead at will, and can raise armies of the walking dead to protect her. Whenever she’s on screen, the movie comes alive and she emerges as a truly terrifying monster.
The movie is filled with computer-generated special effects, which come across as underwhelming and excessive. The film is rated PG-13 for violence, action, scary images, and partial nudity.
Bonus materials on the 2-disc widescreen Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include deleted and extended scenes; commentary by director/producer Alex Kurtzman and cast members; and 9 behind-the-scenes featurettes dealing with casting, special effects, and script development.
Seven Beauties (Kino Lorber), a black comedy directed by Lina Wertmuller, stars Giancarlo Giannini (Swept Away) as Pasqualino Frafuso, known in Naples as Pasqualino Seven Beauties. A petty thief who lives off the profits of his seven ugly sisters while claiming to protect their honor at any cost, Pasqualino is arrested for murder and later sent to fight in the army after committing sexual assault. He is captured by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp, where he plots to make his escape by seducing a German officer, Ilse Koch (Shirley Stoler), known as the “Bitch of Buchenwald.
The film is told in two separate stories, one in the present and one in flashback. The most famous scene is the seduction of the concentration camp officer, a large woman with an emotionless face, who has the power to snuff out Pasqualino’s life. Yet he perseveres with his desperate attempt at seducing her, figuring it is his one chance to get away.
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards and Ms. Wertmuller became the first woman in history to receive a Best Director nomination. The movie is briskly paced, and Giannini’s performance is reminiscent of the young Marcello Mastroianni. He has the same mischievous twinkle in his eye and believably portrays a man who regards himself as a gift to womankind. He successfully balances the dramatic requirements of the role with the lighter moments.
Bonus features on the R-rated Blu-ray release include a booklet of essays; excerpt from Behind the White Glasses, a documentary on Lina Wertmuller; interview with director Amy Heckerling; and trailers.
The Prison (Well Go USA) is an action drama about violence and machinations within a Korean maximum security penitentiary. After a fatal accident, former police inspector Yu-gon is sentenced to hard time in a prison filled with those he helped put away. Once inside, he discovers the entire facility is no longer controlled by the guards but by a vicious crime syndicate headed by Ik-ho that breaks out at night, using their prison sentences as the perfect alibi to commit complex heists. Looking for revenge against the system that placed him inside, Yu-gon joins the syndicate, but with every man for himself, the alliance is shaky at best.
The movie focuses on the dynamic between Yu-gon and Ik-ho, and there’s plenty of action mayhem, consisting of martial arts fights, shoot-outs, and explosions. Unfortunately, the movie draws on many men-in-prison cliches and is based on a highly unlikely premise. Structurally, there are problems. Some information about Yu-gon is withheld too long, making his arrogance and sense of entitlement off-putting. It is explained later. On the other hand, many details about the plot are revealed too early rather than allowing them to emerge through action.
Though there’s considerable action, no single scene is particularly memorable. Every fight, every confrontation, every explosion looks generic. A film such as this should have at least one or two stand-out action sequences. As far as casting goes, with the exception of Suk-kyu, who plays Ik-ho, everyone looks too handsome and refined to be hardened criminals. They look more like accountants than tough career criminals.
There are no bonus features on the unrated, widescreen Blu-ray release. The film is in Korean, with English subtitles.
Swept Away (Kino Lorber), set against a Mediterranean backdrop, is Lina Wertmuller’s most famous and controversial film about sex, love and politics. On an elegant yacht cruising off the coast of Sardinia, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), a rich and beautiful capitalist, enjoys tormenting Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), a Communist sailor. When the two find themselves stranded together on a deserted island, Raffaella must submit to Gennarino in order to survive.
Gennarino is able to provide food and shelter and, borrowing from The Taming of the Shrew, he determines to transform Raffaella into a submissive dependent. The film shows how the roles of the two stranded people are reversed, with Gennarino clearly possessing the upper hand. When money and material possessions are not in the equation, Raffaella’s sense of entitlement erodes.
Wertmuller presents a socio-political statement in the trappings of a deliberately unsettling romantic comedy. In the process of telling her story, the director actually upends the genre to make a larger point. She manages this without abandoning humor. The film is very funny, with Gennnarino lording it over Raffaella as revenge on her whole class, one he views as parasitic. She’s not only condescending and over-privileged, she’s downright nasty. Some of his treatment of Raffaella is sadistic; he hits her and slaps her around, which registers as strongly today as it probably did in 1974. At the end of the film, it’s interesting to ponder who is manipulating whom.
Bonus materials on the unrated, widescreen Blu-ray release include audio commentary; booklet essays; excerpts from Behind the White Glasses, a documentary on Lina Wertmuller; interview with director Amy Heckerling; and trailers.
Mamaboy (MVD Visual), directed by Aaron Leong, stars Sean O’Donnell as teenager Kelly Hankins, who decides to undergo an experimental procedure enabling him to carry his girlfriend’s baby to term. Kelly is the heartthrob of Butterhill High. He has a secret love affair with Lisa Weld (Alexandria DeBerry), which is strictly forbidden by her father, Reverend Weld (Stephen Tobolowsky). Their secret becomes apparent when Lisa becomes pregnant and looks to Kelly to rescue her.
While visiting his eccentric uncle, Kelly discovers that his uncle’s latest experiment has resulted in a male monkey, Adam, receiving an embryo transfer and carrying a baby. Kelly decides to become the first human experiment. High school life becomes increasingly difficult over the next several months as Kelly attempts to hide his metamorphosis.
Though the movie begins as a typical teen sex comedy, it presents food for thought. How would a guy feel about carrying a baby out of wedlock? Teen pregnancy is no laughing matter, with girls leaving school to avoid embarrassment, interrupting their education, and entering the world of motherhood unprepared to deal with the responsibility. Transferring these problems to the male involved in the pregnancy is a novel twist.
Though the premise is far-fetched, it serves as a convenient plot device to depict pregnancy from a different perspective. There are jokes about morning sickness, stretch marks, Kelly’s growing belly, and mood swings, which are funny only because Kelly is learning that being pregnant is no picnic, despite the question he puts to Lisa, “How hard can it be?” Watching a guy trying to keep a secret, being shunned by his peers, dealing with thoughtless comments, and doing badly at things he loves — in this case, baseball — drives home the problems unwed mothers-to-be face.
In his first lead role, Sean O’Connell displays lots of charm and plays both the comedic scenes and emotional scenes effectively. This is an unconventional role, and Mr. O’Connell dives in fearlessly.
Bonus features on the PG-13 rated DVD release include a Hollywood Red Carpet (Behind the Scenes) featurette, and teaser trailer.
The Big Knife
The Big Knife (Arrow Academy) is a nourish melodrama based on a play by Clifford Odets. A look at the darker side of the Hollywood studio system, the movie features Jack Palance as Charles Castle, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He seems to have it all. A former Broadway actor, he lives in opulence in Bel-Air, a suburb of Hollywood, but he’s had to sell out his ideals to rise to the top. His marriage to Marion (Ida Lupino) is on thin ice and his wife is threatening to leave him if he signs a new seven-year contract. Studio boss Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger) isn’t taking the news too well, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get Castle to sign, even it means blackmail. Charles has sold his soul by succumbing to the pressures of men with power in exchange for wealth and fame. Now he’s lost his way, and has turned to women and alcohol.
The Big Knife is a searing indictment of Hollywood, and no studio would make it. It was produced by independent United Artists and has a terrific cast, including Shelley Winters, Wendell Corey, and Jean Hagen.
The casting of Palance is odd. Lacking traditional leading man looks, he is hard to believe as a movie star in an era when looks were often valued over talent. His performance is excellent, but this is clearly casting against type.
Shelley Winters has some scene-stealing moments as Dixie Evans, a loud-mouthed actress who witnessed a tragedy involving Castle and could ruin his reputation, his popularity, and his earning power for the studio.
Few films portray so blatantly how actors during the days of the studio system were treated as cash cows first, human beings second. This film shows in unfiltered severity the shadowy machinations of the studios and the men who run them.
Bonus materials on the unrated Blu-ray release include Bass on Titles, a 1972 documentary in which Saul Bass, who designed the credit sequence in The Big Knife, discusses his classic work; critical commentary; rare television promo hosted by Jack Palance, Shelley Winters and others; theatrical trailer; and reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork.
Drone Wars (Lionsgate) is a science-fiction action flick about a small group of scientists hiding in Los Angeles tasked with finding a means of stopping an invasion of drones bent on wiping out mankind. The drones have arrived without warning, slaughtering humans and stealing the Earth’s resources.
The film incorporates elements of previous sci-fi films, particularly War of the Worlds, Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, and Independence Day. The characters are generic, and the plot hinges on a race against time to find a way to destroy the invaders.
Special effects vary from effective to poor. Fiery blasts from special weapons and explosions are obviously overlayed onto other footage to give the impression of mass mayhem. The drones themselves are imposing and mysterious, but there’s so much human-against-human fighting that it distracts needlessly from the main plot. Characters are types rather than actual people you believe, and are familiar action pic caricatures.
Pace is brisk, and exposition is kept to a minimum, which is good. When a movie works too hard at explaining fantastical occurrences, it tends to lose the viewer who is, after all, mainly concerned with how and when the good guys will develop the means to fight back against the invasion. The use of drones in the wars the United States is waging in Iraq and Afghanistan gives the film a contemporary feel.
There are no bonus features on the unrated, widescreen DVD release.
The Ghoul (Arrow Video) is a psychological thriller that begins as a traditional police/crime drama. When homicide detective Chris (Tom Meeten) arrives at a crime scene, his partner Jim (Dan Renton Skinner) tells him that a couple continued to advance on the shooter after each had been shot with a volley of bullets. Convinced that the landlord (Rufus Jones) is somehow involved, Chris concocts a plan with a profiler (Alice Lowe) to feign mental illness in order to gain access to the suspect’s psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Fisher (Niamh Cusack).
Though not a traditional horror film despite its title, The Ghoul builds suspense as Chris investigates the weird circumstances of the double murder. The British-made film is structured in a way that combines the grittiness of a police investigation with the often surreal world of mental illness. It bases its scares on creating a nightmarish world from the ordinary. Meeten plays Chris as a low-key guy doing his job as he’s been trained, not expecting to confront what may be the occult.
For hardcore horror fans, The Ghoul might disappoint, since it doesn’t dwell on overt “Boo!”-type frights, graphic images or monsters. But those who enjoy a solid tale woven with craft will appreciate how The Ghoul avoids cliches, assumes its viewers are intelligent, and establishes a mystery that sustains attention until the revealing climax.
Bonus materials on the unrated widescreen Blu-ray release include commentary by writer-director Gareth Tunley, actor Tom Meeten and producer Jack Healy Gutmann; In the Loop, a brand new documentary on the conception and making of The Ghoul; The Baron, a 2013 short film with optional commentary by writer-director Tunley and writer-actor Meeten; and theatrical trailer.
It Comes at Night
It Comes at Night (Lionsgate) poses the question, “How far should a person go to protect his family?” Paul (Joel Edgerton, Loving) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo, Alien: Covenant), their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) and their dog live in a boarded-up house in the woods. They are armed and ready to defend their modest home against anyone who invades their space. A virus has infected the population. There’s no explanation as to how it started or where it emanated from, but it is highly infectious. It kills its victims within 48 hours. Power is out and communication is impossible. Basic resources are scarce, and life has been transformed into a world of terrifyingly silent disorder.
Early in the film, a stranger breaks into the house. His name is Will (Christopher Abbott, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) and he claims he didn’t know anyone alive was in the house. He just wants food for his wife and young son. Suspicious of Will’s motives and not knowing if he’s telling the truth, Paul and Sarah must decide what to do with Will.
The film reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode titled “The Fear,” in which a cop and a woman recovering from a nervous breakdown are trapped in a cabin as mysterious things occur. It Comes at Night has the same mood of paranoia and fear, though the movie provides more of a basis for the inhabitants’ fear.
Fear comes in the person of Will and later on when a dog is lost. It also comes in the form of nightmares, which are depicted graphically. Director Trey Edward Shults presents a study of people beset by terror while trying to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. The title suggests a horror film, but it doesn’t comfortably fall into that category. It’s more a psychological thriller. There appears to be a promise of a big climax, which never really occurs, and might disappoint some viewers. The performances are all first-rate, and the pervasive feeling of dread is effectively conveyed throughout.
Bonus materials on the R-rated widescreen Blu-ray release include audio commentary with writer-director Trey Edward Shults and actor Kelvin Harrison, Jr., and the featurette Human Nature: Creating It Comes at Night. A digital HD copy is enclosed.
Soul on a String
Soul on a String (Film Movement) is an action drama about a young Tibetan wanderer who confronts a series of mystical events and earthly adversity. After discovering a sacred stone in the mouth of a slain deer, vagrant renegade Taibei embarks on a mission of redemption in order to bring the divine artifact back to its rightful home, the holy mountain of Buddha. Danger and treachery await at every step, as black market traders and two brothers in search of vengeance stand in his path. Along the way, however, Taibei encounters a colorful band of followers who help him on his strange, mystical journey.
Filmed on expansive, wide open landscapes, Soul on a String has the look of an American Western in which characters must struggle against the elements as well as other human beings. Broadsword confrontations are reminiscent of gunfight stand-offs and take the place of traditional Chinese martial arts duels. Guo Daming’s widescreen cinematography captures Tibet’s varied terrain of lakes, deserts and mountains with dynamic aerial shots. The electric rock score is based on Tibetan folk melodies.
At close to two and a half hours, the film is epic in scope, providing a thoughtful adventure that balances Eastern philosophies with Western conventions. The cast is large, and it’s often difficult to keep track of characters, but as an ensemble piece, the movie provides an overview of the country and its people.
Bonus materials on the unrated, widescreen DVD release include the short film The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf, and the Boy. The film is in Tibetan, with English subtitles.
Erik the Conqueror
Erik the Conqueror (Arrow Video) is set in 786 AD. The invading Viking forces are repelled from the shores of England, leaving behind a young boy, Erik, son of the slain Viking king. Years later, Erik (George Ardisson, Juliet of the Spirits), raised by the English queen as her own, becomes Duke of Helford, while across the sea, his brother Eron (Cameron Mitchell, Blood and Black Lace) assumes leadership of the Viking horde and sets his sights on conquering England once again, setting the two estranged brothers on a course that will determine the fates of their respective kingdoms.
The film is directed by Mario Bava, who is best known for his horror movies. Made in 1961 to capitalize on the American film The Vikings (1958), starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, Erik the Conqueror uses the same theme of sibling rivalry and confrontation. Erik… was made when Italian action sword-and-sandal epics inundated American movie screens. With more violence than was then typical in American films, Erik… uses its theme as a basis for lots of action and swordplay.
Color on the Arrow release is far more vivid than in previous releases. Bonus materials on the 2-disc widescreen Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include new audio commentary by Tim Lucas, author of Mario Bava - All the Colors of the Dark; audio interview with star Cameron Mitchell, conducted by Tim Lucas; a comparison between Erik the Conqueror and The Vikings; original ending; and reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork.
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (IFC Films) is a documentary about what can happen when engaged citizens fight the establishment. Jane Jacobs was a visionary activist and writer who argued that urban communities need to be protected from destructive development projects. Her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, became a call for the preservation of livable urban centers.
Director Matt Tyrnauer highlights Jacobs’ 1960s’ dramatic showdown with New York City’s construction kingpin Robert Moses over his plan to raze a wide swath of Lower Manhattan to make way for a highway that in theory would rush commuters out of the city to their homes in the outer boroughs and suburbs. For decades, Moses had succeeded in transforming the New York metropolitan area with bridges and tunnels. He also uprooted residents of poorer sections to make way for housing projects and multi-lane highways.
But Moses came up against a formidable opponent in Jane Jacobs, who fought Moses’ plans to destroy Washington Square Park and the historic brownstones of Greenwich Village in order to make way for an expressway. She recognized that these neighborhoods with their street life and unique characteristics represented community. She was appalled to see them give way to impersonal apartment buildings, and believed that Moses’ earlier construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway had been instrumental in the deterioration of the South Bronx.
David-and-Goliath tales are always compelling, but “Citizen Jane…” isn’t exactly that. Jacobs was an articulate, intelligent woman who wasn’t afraid to buck the power of Moses. So Jacobs used statistics and the court of public opinion to make her case. The documentary’s theme is that no adversary is too mighty if a cause is important enough.
There are no bonus features on the unrated, widescreen DVD release.