Fantasy 'Life,' 'Railroad Tigers'

By Tom Von Malder | Jun 18, 2017
Photo by: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Jake Gyllenhaal stars in the space terror, "Life."

Owls Head — Life (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 103 min.). The lesson of "Life" is if you find it elsewhere, do not mess with it. Six astronaut-scientists aboard the International Space Station (ISS) retrieve samples from the soil of Mars from the Pilgrim 7 probe and, after they find an inert single-cell life form, they tinker with it to awaken it. Things do not go well.

The film, written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (writers of "Deadpool" and its upcoming sequel) and directed by Daniel Espinosa ("Safe House"), starts off in terrific fashion, with its depiction of life aboard the ISS as realistic as if it were a documentary -- the zero-g movement aided by wires removed in post-production -- and the development of the alien life form, dubbed "Calvin" by school kids back on Earth, goes from cute to menacing in quick fashion. One can cut the tension with a knife. However, once Calvin proves hostile and gets loose aboard the station, the film falls into "Aliens" mode. The film is extremely well made and the constant changes in who has the upper hand maintains the viewer's interest, but the whole chase-and-contain second half has already been done more memorably in "Aliens."

The six astronauts are medical officer Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal of "Nocturnal Animals," "The Day After Tomorrow"), who early on sets a record with his 473rd straight day in space (which is affecting him physically, if not mentally); Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson of "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation"), who is from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and responsible for the containment "firewalls" (under no conditions is the life form to reach Earth); Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds of "Deadpool"), the flight engineer; Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada of "The Wolverine"), the systems engineer, whose wife gives birth back on Earth during his time in space; Commander Kat Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya of "House of Others"); and Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare of "Rogue One"), the exobiologist, who is confined to a wheelchair back on Earth. Among the film's fast action and tense situations, there is one particularly ugly death and one eventually ugly alien. The film opens and closes with ominous music, except at the end, it then becomes Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" (1969) during the closing credits. I enjoyed the film and I think a sequel might be fun.

Bonus features include six deleted scenes (5:49), the longest being some of Sho's back story; a look at life in zero-g and the film's wire work (6:54); a piece on creating the ever changing Calvin (7:07), slime mold videos were an inspiration; a look at the claustrophobic terror (7:28), which points out the creature makes no sound; and brief astronaut video diaries (3 min.). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.25 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Railroad Tigers (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray + DVD or standard DVD, NR, 124 min.). The film, based in the historical period when Japan occupied China (1941), reunites action-comedy star Jackie Chan (the "Rush Hour" franchise) with director Ding Sheng  for a third time. They previously made "Police Story: Lockdown" (2013) and "Little Big Soldier" (2010) together, with Chan writing the screenplay for the latter. This film is about some Chinese railroad workers who occasionally raid the Japanese trains to steal food for starving Chinese. It contains lots of action -- particularly late in the film -- but Sheng has also upped the comedic elements.

The film is hard to get into, but worth sticking with. As nearly a dozen characters are introduced, each has a brief freeze frame that gives their name, occupation and catch phrase (possibly the last is intended as humor, but the phrases are so briefly on screen, they are hard to catch -- pun intended). Sheng also throws in several mini-scenes that easily could have been cut out. I guess they go to character development, but they pull away from the train story. It even takes a while before the viewer realizes there is animosity between the Japanese and their Chinese workers.

The story gets rolling -- OK, another intended pun -- when Chan's Ma Yuan helps hide a wounded Chinese soldier (Darren Wang of "Our Times" as Daguo). Before Yuan leaves Daguo under fire on a train, Daguo tells him that the railroad bridge outside of town must be destroyed in four days. Needing to get explosives, Yuan and his ragtag group of freedom fighters approaches Fan Chuan (Kai Wang of "The Golden Era"), a former military marksman, for advice. Chuan now owns a noodle shop. Lots of the film's action takes place aboard various trains and there are innovative ways of boarding those trains, including bamboo poles from high up in trees and a canvas slide from above a tunnel opening. Highlights include a comic warehouse fight involving a pulley; soldiers in motorbikes chasing a train, with flour used as a weapon; an interesting rescue from a train; and the closing fight/chase sequence that includes two tanks traveling on the train. Other freedom fighters are played by Ping Sang as maintenance worker Dakui, Jackie Chan's son, Jaycee Chan, as maintenance worker Rui Ge and Zitao Huang as amateur tailor Dahai. Hiroyuki Ikeuchi plays Japanese Military Police Capt. Yamaguchi.

There are outtakes during the closing credits. One extra looks at the director (2:53), while there is a more extensive making-of feature (21:21), with each actor talking briefly about their character and a look at the three-month creation of the train station. Another featurette (2:27) looks at the dangers involved in the shooting, including filming in sub-zero weather, multiple horse rides needed to sync with the train and boarding the train, using the slide and skateboards. A look at the visual effects (3:55) reveals there are 2,400 VFX shots in the film, 70 percent of which involve trains. A 1:4 scale model of the train was used, as was a scale model of the bridge. The final extra (3:11) looks at the characters. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Altitude (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 87 min.). With Denise Richards, Dolph Lundgren and former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Chuck Liddell all holding guns on the cover, I feared another lame film, such as Jean-Claude Van Damme's recent "Kill 'em All." To my surprise, "Altitude" offers a decent script and not bad "Die Hard" in a plane action, although some of the fight scenes were a bit too dark to really know what was going on.

Richards ("Starship Troopers," "Wild Things," "The World is Not Enough") plays hardened FBI agent Gretchen Blair, a hostage negotiator, who is being kicked to a desk job in Washington, D.C. after disobeying orders and preventing a hostage taker from being killed in the prologue. (Her technique is to pretend to be a telephone sex worker.) Once aboard Flight 709, she has a brief flare up with the obese guy who has taken her window seat, and thus is shown a new seat, upgraded to the business section. There, her row mate (Kirk Barker as Terry Lenix) offers her $50 million if she will help him get off the plane safely. Barker knows a hijack is in the works because he recognizes his ex-wife, Sadie (Greer Grammer, the daughter of Kelsey Grammer of "Cheers," "Frazier"), pretending to be a flight attendant. Also, Matthew Sharpe (Lundgren), whom he also knows, has entered the business section.

It turns out Barker is a thief, who has turned on his partners, namely Sadie, Sharpe and Rawbones (Liddell, who also worked with Lundgren in "Riot" and "War Pigs"). The latter trio, along with some helpers, plans to force Barker to give up the stolen goods and then destroy the plane, with everyone else on board.  Jordi Vilasuso plays ineffectual air marshal Luke Byres. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 2.75 stars

Seven Days in May (1964, Warner Archive Blu-ray, NR, 117 min.). Only two years after he made the political thriller, "The Manchurian Candidate," director John Frankenheimer (also "Birdman of Alcatraz," "Grand Prix") was back at it again, helped by a screenplay by Rod Serling (TV's "The Twilight Zone"), based on the bestseller of the same name, written by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. (Star Kirk Douglas and Frankenheimer actually became interest in the book before it became a bestseller.).

Douglas ("Spartacus") plays Col. Morton "Jiggs" Casey, assigned to Gen. James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster of "From Here to Eternity"), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Scott is very much against President Jordan Lyman's (Fredric March of "A Star is Born," "The Sign of the Cross," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," "The Best Years of Our Lives") nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, fearing a sneak attack, such as the Japanese pulled against Pearl Harbor. It seems almost a certainty that Scott will run for president in 21 months and likely win, as Lyman's approval rating is down to 29 percent. In fact, the film opens with protestors and treaty supporters picketing the White House, which turns into a riot.

Casey is unexpectedly kept out of the loop on several matters involving Sunday (the film starts on Monday, May 12), the day Scott has scheduled a military preparedness test. There also are some messages regarding betting on a horse race that same Sunday, which Casey comes to believe is a code. In fact, the more he investigates -- and that includes a secret military training base set up outside of El Paso, Texas -- Casey begins to believe that Scott may be planning a military takeover of the government. Casey goes to the President with his suspicions Tuesday evening, and then the race is on to find hard evidence of any conspiracy. Helping investigate are Martin Balsam as Paul Girard, the President's top advisor, and Edmund O'Brien as Sen. Ray Clark. O'Brien was nominated for an Oscar for his work here. Girard is sent to get a written statement from the vice admiral (John Houseman) who refused to bet on the horse race, while Clark goes to Texas to find the hidden base.

The highlight scene is a White House showdown between Scott and Lyman. While Lancaster had the showier role, Douglas is very effective in showing the conflict between loyalty to his boss and the U.S. Constitution. The film is masterfully directed, with Frankenheimer using special filming techniques, including a lot of shots seen from down low. The only bonus feature is an audio commentary by Frankenheimer that was recorded in 1999, three years before his death. The film's other Oscar nomination was for best art direction-set decoration for a black-and-white film. Grade: film 4.5 stars; extra 2.5 stars

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italy, 1970, Arrow, Blu-ray + DVD, 18+, 96 min.). This film, the debut directorial effort of screenwriter and film critic Dario Argento, redefined the giallo genre of Italian murder-mystery thrillers with innovative camera work and storytelling. Argento would go on to make "Deep Red," "Suspiria," "Cat o' Nine Tails" and "Tenebrae," among others.

In the film, an American writer, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante of "We Own the Night," TV's "Toma"), has come to Rome due to writer's block, only to find no success in regaining his msue. He has just written a book about birds, simply to raise enough money for he and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall as Giulia) to fly back to the United States. However, while walking past an art gallery one evening, he sees a woman and a man fighting. The man runs away, but the stabbed woman (Eva Renzi of "Funeral in Berlin") crawls toward the picture window. Dalmas is unable to reach her, as he cannot get the glass open, but manages to get a passerby to call the police. However, Dalmas is haunted by his inability to help and, when he learns there have been three unexplained deaths of women in the city during the past month, he starts to investigate on his own, parallel to the official investigation by Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno), who has confiscated his passport, as Dalmas is a material witness. Dalmas soon realizes that his investigation is putting both himself and Giulia in jeopardy -- he is nearly decapitated by an ax-wielder, saved by a passerby's warning -- and later he and Giulia are followed by a gun-shooting man in a yellow jacket (Reggie Nalder), after the vehicle he came from ran over their police  protector.

In addition to aspects of the plot that were unusual for the time, Argento uses lots of point of view (POV) scenes, including the killer spying on people and a dramatic fall from a window. The cinematography is by Vittorio Storaro ("Apocalypse Now"), who was shooting his first color film. The music is by legendary composer Ennio Morricone (many a spaghetti western), who improvised the score with his fellow players. The result is very avant garde music that is atonal at times, with jazz drums and muted trumpet. Morricone, a trumpet player himself, uses a female lullaby ("la-la") theme song, and a semi-improvised, atonal "indeterminate" piece, which uses free-floating rhythms to create a sense of unpredictable tension. There also are electric guitar swells.

The mostly new bonus material rivals any Criterion Collection release. It starts with an audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of "So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films. There is a new interview (31:24) in Italian with Argento, who explains how he became fascinated with Fredric Brown's source novel, "The Screaming Mimi" (1949) and his struggles to make the film, as Goffredo Lombardo of the distribution firm wanted to replace him as director and Argento had daily arguments with actor Musante. Other new interviews are with critic Kat Ellinger, who discusses the film, its themes and Argento's career (31:54) and one in Italian with actor Gildo Di Marco, who played Garullo, one of the dead women's pimp (22:05). Also new is a scholarly visual essay by author Alexandria Heller-Nicholas (20:57). The only archival interview is with Renzi, filmed in 2005, before her death in that same year (11:19). Renzi is very critical about the film, saying her playing the role partially destroyed her career. She also is critical of Musante and, while she says nice things about Argento, she has a low opinion of the film itself. Grade: film and extras 4 stars

Power: The Complete Third Season (Anchor Bay, 3 Blu-ray, NR, 9 hours 35 min.). Right now, this is set as the middle season of the Starz series' run, as season four  starts June 25 and a fifth season already has been approved. From executive producer Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and show creator Courtney A. Kemp (TV's "The Good Wife"), the street-smart show has James "Ghost" St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), a wealthy New York night club owner, trying to leave his other life as a drug kingpin. This season, he has an opportunity to take his clubs to the next level, if his past does not trip him up. While he has a wife, Tasha (Naturi Naughton), he is drawn to his first love, Angela Valdes (Lela Loren), who is now an assistant U.S. attorney.  St. Patrick's partner in crime is Tommy Egan (Joseph Sikora), except that, early this season, Tommy leaves to go work for Lobos. For this season, Jackson's recurring role of Kanan was bumped up to main cast. Bonus features include a recap of season two and a look inside the world of "Power." Grade: season 3.25 stars

Bones: The Flesh & Bones Collection (2005-17, 20th Century Fox, 67 DVDs, NR, 10,752 min.). While the 12th and final season is also available individually, this massive box collects all 12 seasons of the show, a favorite of mine. The procedural show mixes medicine, science and FBI investigatory work. Loosely based on the life and writings of novelist and forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, the show is about forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel), who works for the Jeffersonian Institute and who also writes the occasional novel. (A fun bit is that Reichs' novels center on character Temperance Brennan, while Brennan's novels center on character Kathy Reichs.)  Involved in most of Dr. Brennan's cases is hockey-loving FBI agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz), who eventually marries Temperance and they have two children together. Ryan O'Neal plays Brennan's father, a former non-violent bank robber who is more involved in her life in the later seasons.

At the Jeffersonian, the characters include Angela Montenegro (Michaela Conlin), a forensic artist who has pioneered a 3D graphics identification system (humorously, her scary father is played by musician Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top); Dr. Jack Hodgins (T.J. Thyne), an entomologist and expert on bugs, spores and minerals, as well as a conspiracy theorist; Dr. Camille Saroyan (Tamara Taylor), head of the Forensic Division;  Dr. Lance Sweets (John Francis Daley), an FBI psychiatrist who helps Booth and Brennan for eight seasons; James Aubrey (John Boyd), a junior FBI agent assigned to Booth for the final three seasons; and Dr. Zack Addy (Eric Millegan), an anthropologist and mechanical engineer, who goes astray in season three, but guest stars in four other seasons. Over 12 years, one really comes to know all these characters and to care deeply about them. It is the familiarity with the characters that made the series enjoyable to watch; the mysteries themselves often were not that complicated.

Recurring roles are played by the laboratory "squints" or interns, who started rotating in season four, including Carla Gallo as Daisy Wick, Ryan Cartwright as Vincent Nigel-Murray, Luke Kleintank as Finn Abernathy, Michael Grant Terry as Wendell Bray, Eugene Byrd as Dr. Clark Edison, Joel David Moore as Colin Fisher, Pej Vahdat as Arastoo Vaziri, Brian Klugman as Dr. Oliver Wells, Laura Spencer as Jessica Warren and Ignacio Serricchio as Dr. Rodolfo Fuentes. Also recurring is Patricia Belcher as Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Julian. The show is noted for usually having openings in which a body is discovered in unexpected ways or positions. One episode had two main characters buried alive in a car.

The box set includes  more than six hours of bonus features, including a series retrospective, a "Bones" panel at Comic-Con, visual effects and making-of featurettes, gag reels and deleted scenes, audio commentaries and a look at Reichs' life. Note that since only five seasons of "Bones" were ever released on Blu-ray, there is no Blu-ray edition of the complete set. Grade: series 3.5 stars

The Borgias: Complete Series (2011-13, CBS/Paramount, 9 DVDs, NR, 24 hours, 53 min.). The lavish series , created, executive produced and written by Academy Award-winning director Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game," "Michael Collins"), tells the saga of one of the most powerful crime families in history. In it, we see patriarch Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) ascend to the papal throne in 1492 as Pope Alexander VI, who rules 15th century Italy with a heavy hand, seizing enormous control, wealth and influence for his family, while gaining a formidable list of enemies who conspire to bring down the Borgias. His son, Cesare (Francois Arnaud), commands armies across Renaissance Europe, while daughter, Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), seduces political friends and foes. Colm Feore plays Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who eventually becomes Pope Julius II. The set contains all 29 episodes from the three seasons, as well as interviews, behind-the-scenes looks, bloopers, biographies and a look at the world of the Borgias. Grade: series 3 stars

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