Water attacks: aliens, sharks, piranha
Owls Head — Battleship (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 132 min.). Director Peter Berg’s adaptation of the Hasbro game only works because of its tech; its human elements are quite mundane, but the alien invaders pack a wallop. It seems the signals we have been sending to a faraway galaxy that might have an Earth-like planet have been answered by an advanced invasion force. Five incoming space ships are spotted on radar. Four fall in the ocean near Hawaii, just where the 14 navies involved in RIMPAC have begun their military exercises. The fifth, which turns out to be mostly a communications vehicle, is knocked off course and destroyed while crashing through Hong Kong.
Taylor Kitsch, who was much better as John Carter in the film of that name (another big-budget box office disappointment), plays Lt. Alex Hopper, who is basically a clown and a screw-up, as the film’s first 25 minutes shows us again and again. However, he loves Admiral Shane’s (Liam Neeson) daughter (Brooklyn Decker as Sam Shane) and she loves him. Hopper’s brother (Alexander Skarsgard as Commander Steve Hopper) gets him into the Navy, trying to put his life on the right path. When the aliens land, they set up a force bubble, which captures three ships inside, including a Japanese one commanded by Alex’s foil and two U.S. ships, each with a Hopper aboard. Soon, there is only one ship and Alex Hopper finds himself ill-prepared but in command to battle the aliens, who have sent aloft three combat ships that use sound blasts as weapons and round things (director Berg calls them “shredders” in the extras) that create havoc. The alien fighters also can hop from one spot to another, which is the set-up for a latter “blind” battle that resembles the Battleship game board. With their communication ship destroyed, the aliens need to take over our satellite signal array, an effort that is left -- by the hugest of coincidences -- to Sam Shane and a legless veteran (he has new robot legs) to thwart, because if this E.T. calls home, it most likely will be an extinction event.
The actual U.S.S. Missouri and 40 of its former crew members play a nostalgic and important role, which is a nice touch. The alien ships and weapons are the real star of the film. Even better than the film are the extras, including the ability to watch the film with Berg hosting (it runs 8 minutes longer and is very informative; Berg calls the aliens “The Regents”). There is an alternate ending presenting mostly in pre-visualization that Berg said was too expensive to make; a VIP tour of the USS Missouri (20:10); a look at preparing for battle (11:09) in which it is explained the alien bombs were made to look like pegs from the board game; a look at the cast (11:40); shooting at sea and on ships (6:58); a look at Berg directing (5:46); and an excellent look at ILM developing the visual effects (11:30). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.5 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Starship Troopers: Invasion (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 89 min.). This is an all-animated sequel, made via motion-capture. The film opens with a battle against the alien bugs at Fort Casey, which basically is destroyed. Afterwards, Dr. Carl Jenkins (voiced by Justin Doran), head of the Paranormal Division, takes the ship Warden. When the Warden goes silent, the crew of Alesha is sent to investigate. Onboard the Alesha are Henry Varro (voiced by David Wald), who was Jenkins’ prisoner, and Capt. Carmen Ibanes (Luci Christian), whose ship was the Warden. Once they find the Warden, they discover all onboard are dead except for the hated Jenkins. When the power is reactivated and the lights go on, the bugs attack in full force -- there is a bug queen onboard. And while, Jenkins has been able to read the minds and control some of the bugs, so has the queen read his mind and she is aiming the Warden at Earth.
The film is filled with a lot of standard shoot-’em-up video game style violence, and brief nudity that is traditional with this style of animation. It can get wearying at times, but the third-act action is fine. The extras include a surprisingly in-depth, 80-minute making-of feature that gives props to original story author Robert Heinlein. The filmmakers provide an audio commentary and the Blu-ray version has an exclusive conceptual art gallery. There also are two inconsequential deleted scenes (1:36) and a gag reel. Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 3 stars
Jaws (1975, Universal Blu-ray disc, PG, 124 min.). The story of the film is well known by now, and two feature-length documentaries included here -- one old and one new --go through it again. However, “Jaws” is a classic thriller for many reasons. Among them is the fact that its beginning is downright scary -- people then were afraid to go into the ocean off beaches because of the film, and some of that still carries over -- and all the more effective in that we do not even see the shark terrorizing the area for the first hour. John Williams’ two-tone “Jaws” theme helps create the suspense, as well as a victim being jerked around in the water and. Later, a portion of a pier that suddenly turns around and chases a swimmer. Some of that, of course, was due to the mechanical shark not always functioning. However, “Jaws” also started the summer blockbuster trend (in part, due to a looming strike that forced the film to be finished by a certain date).
Thirty-seven years on, “Jaws” still holds up as a thriller -- all the more remarkable in that it was pre-digital, so all the special effects were practical. Well, practical in the sense they used props, but not so practical in the sense that filming on the ocean was really difficult. As director Steven Spielberg (then off his “Sugarland Express” success) says in one of the documentary, when he thinks of the film, “I think of courage and stupidity.” There has been a digital clean-up of the print for this edition, making the film look the best it ever has, and there is a new 7.1 audio mix. The film won Oscars for Williams’ score, Best Editing and Best Sound.
The setting is the small island town of Amity (it was filmed off Martha’s Vineyard). Roy Scheider plays new Police Chief Martin Brody, whose initial reaction is to close the beaches, after a young man’s mutilated body is found. However, Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) does not want to upset the tourist business with the 4th of July weekend coming up. The next attack, though, takes a young boy’s life, and even the chief’s son is threatened. Fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) says he will catch and kill the shark for $10,000. Along for the ride are Brody, who actually is afraid of the water, and just-arrived Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss coming off his success in “American Graffiti”) from the Oceanographic Institute. The shark turns out to be a Great White, all 25 feet and three tons of it, very capable of wrecking even a large boat with its sheer physical force. Spielberg uses a lot of over-lapping dialogue in the film and most of the acting is very naturalistic. Extras include two documentaries: the excellent “The Making of Jaws” (123 min., from the 2005 30th anniversary edition) with extensive interviews with Spielberg, book author Peter Benchley and actors Scheider and Dreyfuss; and the new “The Shark is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of Jaws” (101 min.), with unseen footage and more cast and crew interviews, including Spielberg, Dreyfuss and Scheider. Also from the 2005 edition are 13 deleted scenes and outtakes (13:33); a British Tv interview with Spielberg on set in 1974; and the Jaws Archives, with production photos, storyboards and looks at the film’s marketing and phenomenon. New is an 8:28 look at the film’s restoration. Grade: film 4.5 stars; extras 4 stars
Jersey Shore Shark Attack (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 87 min.). “Jaws” itself spawned three sequels, but it also is one of the most referenced and copied films. Reviews of three of these, all recently released, follow. This is the best of the three because of its welcome sense of humor and just plain likeableness of the cast. The action begins around July 2, when a series of shark attacks start off Seaside Heights. It seems the vibrations from the drilling for the Dolan Beach Club & Spa is attracting dozens of albino bull sharks. A very weathered William Atherton plays real estate developer Dolan. The other “old hands” onboard are Paul Sorvino as Mayor Palantine and Jack Scalia as head cop Moretti. The film starts with some Guidos vs. Preppies scenes, then moves into stopping the sharks mode. The sharks themselves are awfully cheap looking, and the final scene of a motorboat-full of Guidos shooting sharks in their fins is pretty hysterical -- but that is the point. This film is all about fun. Vinny Guadagnino of “Jersey Shore” has a cameo, as does former NSYNC band member Joey Fatone, who is eaten by a shark just after he says his few lines and starts to sing. The homage to “Jaws” comes in a scene where the wrong shark has been killed. Bonus features include audio commentary by executive producers Barry Bernholtz and Jeffrey Schenck, producer Peter Sullivan and director John Shepphird. As well as a 5-minute on-set look. Grade: film and extras 2.5 stars
Shark Week (The Asylum, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 90 min.). I must admit that when I first heard the name of this release, I thought it was a collection of documentaries from TV’s annual Shark Week. No, instead it is a mash-up of “Jaws” (without the terror), “Saw” (without the logic behind the traps) and mostly “Survivor” (where you get voted off the island by being killed by a shark). The acting is particularly wooden, so much so that you really don’t care who survives among the eight people kidnapped and brought to Tiburon’s (a jaw-droppingly bad Patrick Bergin) island. It turns out, though, that all were involved in some way with the police action against his son. For each day, Tiberon has a different species of shark for the group to combat and survive. It seems Tiberon has cameras and microphones all over the island and can even trigger an earthquake to drop the group into an underground pool with a hammerhead shark; yet he and his purpose-less companion (Yancy Butler as Elena) watch the action on laptop computer-sized screens in what almost seems a closet inside the big mansion shown in the exterior shots. Most of the shark-induced deaths are so murky and poorly edited that you can make no sense of them, and when the survivors find a broken-up boat, there is incredible flare on the camera that no one bothered to clean up. Extras include a brief gag reel and a slightly longer making-of feature. Grade: film and extras dog
Piranha 3DD (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 83 min.). The only thing this sequel has going for it is it is mercifully short; the closing credits start after only 71 minutes. Of course, the credits are stretched out another 12 minutes with outtakes. The title refers to both the fact this is a third film in a series of decreasingly quality and that it also was released in 3D, with the extra D referring to the copious, and unnecessary, female nudity. Danielle Panabaker plays Maddy, a marine biology student who is home for the summer in Merkin, Arizona. She is a 49 percent partner with her sleaze-bag step dad Chet (David Koechner) in a water park. Chet has made some alterations for this year, including an adult pool that allows nudity. Hired for opening day to serve as honorary lifeguard is David Hasselhoff. The Big H plays himself and brings the only humor to the film. Meanwhile, the thought-to-be-extinct piranha that caused the disaster at Lake Victoria in the last film have migrated to nearby Lake Victoria and the drainage system gives them access to the water park. Christopher Lloyd has a cameo as an author of a book about fish that walk among us (oh yes, that is the set-up for the next film in the series) and Matt Bush has a thankless role as Maddy’s ignored friend-with-crush Barry. Chris Zylka (“Shark Night 3D”) plays cop Kyle, Maddy’s sometimes boyfriend, and Jean-Luc Bilodeau (TV’s “Kyle XY” and the current “Baby Daddy”) has a particularly painful role (which, when you think about it, what happens to him is totally illogical, as no self-respecting piranha would just ride in a host without attacking it). Extras include audio commentary by director John Gulager, producer/co-writer Joel Soisson and co-writer Marcus Dunstan; three deleted scenes (2:34); and a look at the World of the Hoff (2:09), which actually is funnier than the film. Grade: film 1.5 stars; extras 2 stars
Airport (1970, Universal Blu-ray disc, G, 137 min.). The film adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s bestseller focused almost exclusively on the melodrama, leaving out all the behind-the-scenes stuff about how a major airport is run. Writer/director George Seaton assembled an all-star cast, with Helen Hayes winning an Oscar for her role as feisty stowaway Ada Quonsett (the tricks she used to board planes are hilariously outdated in these days of extreme airport security -- they also allow smoking on the planes, something I recall from my college days in the 1960s). Yet, that Oscar probably should have gone to Maureen Stapleton as the distraught and confused wife of potential bomber D.O. Guerroro (Van Heflin). At least Stapleton earned one of the other Oscar nominations the film got. Among the nominations were Best Picture, Best Writing, Best Costume Design for Edith Head, Best Score for Alfred Newman, Best Cinematography for Ernest Laszlo and editing, sound and art/set decoration.
Burt Lancaster plays the manager of Lincoln International Airport in Chicago. He still lives at home but is emotionally estranged from his wife and soon to return the affections of his office manager (Jean Seberg). Meanwhile, his pilot brother (Dean Martin) is cheating on his wife with a stewardess (Jacqueline Bisset), who announces she is pregnant. Their flight, bomber and all, is headed for Rome, even though the airport is being hit by the worst snowstorm in 10 years (on film, it does not look like much of a blizzard). The cast also includes Barry Nelson, Lloyd Nolan, Gary Collins, Barbara Hale and George Kennedy as airport maintenance man Joe Patroni (Kennedy brings the most acting flair to the film, as too many of the characters are bland). The film really lacks any real action for the first 90 minutes. It all looks good on Blu-ray, though, as filmed in Todd-AO widescreen. Director Seaton occasionally uses split screens, most effectively during a multi-member family telephone conversation. The two bonus features are an 11-minute look at Universal Pictures’ output in the 1970s and a 9:25 look at the Universal back lot. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2 stars
The 39 Steps (1935, Criterion, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 86 min.). Alfred Hitchcock was still working and living in Great Britain when he made this mystery, set mostly in Scotland. The film is a perfect example of the MacGuffin, something that the story’s spies are after but which is of no consequence to the audience. It is merely a story-telling device. Robert Donat plays Canadian Richard Hannay, a man who steps into a nightmare when he brings home a woman (Lucie Mannheim as the strange-acting Annabella Smith), who wants to make sure all the blinds are drawn and won’t sleep with him. She tells him it was she who fired the shots during the performance of Mr. Memory, a vaudeville memory act that had been attending separately at a nearby music hall, because two men are trying to kill her because she is an “agent” (spy). She mentions the “39 steps” to him, saying it is a secret about Britain’s air defense (these were the days when war with Germany was becoming more imminent), and adds that she is to see a man in Alt-na Shellach, Scotland. During the night, she dies with a knife in her back and Hannay heads for Scotland as a man wanted for murder. One of the highlights is the chase aboard the Flying Scotsman train. (in one of Hitchcock’s classic touches, the maid’s scream at finding the body is covered by the train whistle.)
Donat plays the role humorously. In fact, the whole film can be taken as a dry run for “North By Northwest” that Hitchcock made with Cary Grant in 1959. Hitchcock had made his first espionage film, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” the year before, but romance was the new ingredient. Madeleine Carroll plays Pamela, the budding love interest (they are handcuffed together during one escape sequence). Hitchcock often would return to the idea of a hunted innocent trying to track down the real villains.
As with most Criterion releases, there is an excellent selection of extras, including audio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane; the 24-minute British documentary “Hitchcock the Early Years” (2000); original footage from British broadcaster Mike Scott’s 1966 TV interview with Hitchcock; the complete 1937 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation with Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery; a new visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff; audio excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock; original production design drawings; and a 20-page booklet with a fine essay by film critic David Cairns. Grade: film 4 stars; extras 4.35 stars
In other Hitchcock news, MGM/Fox recently released three of his films on Blu-ray as well. “Rebecca” (1940, 131 min.) was Hitchcock’s first movie made in the United States. The romantic thriller, based on Daphne Du Maurier’s classic novel, won as Oscar for Best Picture and another for Best Cinematography. Laurence Olivier stars as the widower Maxim de Winter, who marries a young bride (Joan Fontaine) after a whirlwind courtship, but she finds the sinister, almost ghost-like influence of his late wife dominating her husband and his estate. Franz Waxman provided a haunting score, which is accessible on an isolated music and effects track. There also is audio commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, plus a making-of feature, a look at Du Maurier’s gothic world, screen tests, radio plays and an audio interview with Hitchcock.
The next two were made back-to-back, “Spellbound” in 1945 and “Notorious” in 1946. In “Spellbound” (118 min.), Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Peterson, a psychiatrist who falls in love with Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck). Soon, she realizes that Edwardes is an imposter, an amnesiac who may be a murderer. Miklos Rozsa’s score won an Oscar and the dream sequence was designed by artist Salvador Dali. The disc has audio commentary by film professors Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg, a feature on the Dali sequence, a psychoanalysis of the film, a 1948 radio play, a look at Rhonda Fleming and another audio interview with Hitchcock. Bergman also stars in “Notorious” (102 min.), playing troubled beauty Alicia Huberman, who is recruited by American agent Devlin (Cary Grant) to infiltrate a German spy ring in post-war Rio. Once there, she is ordered to seduce a Nazi kingpin (Claude Rains). The film comes with separate audio commentaries by film professors Rick Jewell and Drew Casper. There is an isolated music score (Roy Webb) and effects track, a making-of feature, a look at Hitchcock as the ultimate spymaster, the American Film Institute Award to Hitchcock, a a948 radio play with Joseph Cotton and Bergman in the roles and Hitchcock audio interviews. Grade: 4 stars for all three films; 3.5 stars for extras
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment will release the massive Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection on Blu-ray on Sept. 25. Digitally restored from high-quality film elements, the set includes 15 films, 13 of which see their first Blu-ray release. The films are “Psycho,” “The Birds,” “Vertigo,” “Rear Window,” “North by Northwest,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Marnie,” “Saboteur,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Rope,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “Torn Curtain,” “Topaz,” “Frenzy” and “Family Plot.” The stars include James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak and Sean Connery. Each film has bonus material, some with more than others.
Additionally, Universal Studios Home Entertainment will release Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection on Blu-ray on Oct. 2. Digitally restored from high resolution film elements in perfect high-definition picture and perfect high-definition sound for the first time, the collection features eight films on Blu-ray, a collectible 48-page book featuring behind-the-scenes photographs, original posters, correspondence and more. Each iconic film is accompanied by an array of bonus features that tell the fascinating story of its creation and history, including behind-the-scenes documentaries, filmmaker commentaries, interviews, storyboards, photo galleries, and trailers. Especially appealing for fans are a never-before-seen featurette about the restoration of “Dracula” and the first ever offering of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” in its original 3D version. The other films are “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” “The Invisible Man,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Wolf Man” and “Phantom of the Opera.” There are more than 12 hours of bonus features, including the Spanish version of “Dracula,” which was filmed at night using the same sets.