When Wells met Pal and Welles

By Tom Von Malder | Jul 12, 2020
Photo by: Criterion Collection The Martian war machines are on the attack in "The War of the Worlds."

Owls Head — The War of the Worlds (1953, Criterion Collection, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 85 min.). The granddaddy of all alien invasion movies, based on H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel, is presented in a beautiful new 4K digital restoration, with not-to-be-missed bonus material, both new and old. George Pal (“When Worlds Collide,” “The Time Machine”) produced the Cold War fear-infused film and Byron Haskin (“Tarzan’s Peril,” “Treasure Island”) directed.

After a tour of the solar system, narrated by Sir Cedric Hardwicke (“The Ten Commandments,” “Rope,” “Suspicion”), who says Mars is in “the last stages of exhaustion,” the action starts when a mysterious meteor lands outside a small California town. Seen by everyone, most of the town rushes out to investigate, with many thinking it will become a new tourist attraction. One of three scientists on a fishing trip nearby also decides to investigate. He is nuclear physicist Dr. Clayton Forrester, played by Gene Barry (“The 27th Day,” TV’s “Bat Masterson,” “Burke’s Law”) in his first feature film, after three years of TV work.

The film has a very lowkey start, but it ends with a destructive invasion of Los Angeles. Through paintings, we eventually see the destruction caused by the aliens as they land in other parts of the globe, with much of the information coming via radio reports. The classic first unveiling has a port on the alien craft unscrew open and then a cobra-like tentacle pokes through and vaporizes three men who were watching during the night. Meanwhile, Forrester and most of the town had been having a square dance, but everything suddenly goes dark and all clocks and watches stop.

The military is called in, but proves helpless against the alien flying machines, which the great Al Nozaki (also “The Ten Commandments”) designed as green manta ray shapes, with wing tips that fire skeleton rays and the cobra-like tentacle at the top that fire the heat ray. The film won an Academy Award for its special effects, while the sound and editing also were nominated for Oscars.

The film does not often feel dated, but one of the times is when everyone watches, with either no protection or rather flimsy “radiation” suits, as the army drops an atomic bomb on the alien craft. The aliens, however, are protected by energy bubbles or what the film calls a “protective blister.”

While most of the action stays local, the film broadens its scope 40 minutes in. Meanwhile, Forrester has become protective of Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson of “Imitation of Life,” the 2005 remake “War of the Worlds”). Robinson basically serves as a scream queen here. In one segment, the pair’s plane crash lands and they seek refuge in a farmhouse, only to have an alien craft crash into it. The sequences reveal the first looks at the aliens’ tri-colored elongated eye stalks and an alien itself.

When the Martians attack Los Angeles, they destroy many iconic buildings, including City Hall. The miniature recreations of city blocks are marvelous too, as are all the special effects in the film. What happens in the end is a classic of storytelling and familiar from the seven film versions, a famous radio broadcast, Jeff Wayne’s musical version, two TV series, a TV mini-series and other radio adaptations.

Part of the film’s beauty comes in that it was filmed in three-strip Technicolor. Helping with the restoration were sound designer Ben Burtt, who helped raise the sound from mono to 5.1 surround, and visual effects supervisor Craig Barron. The two talk about how the film was made in the very informative “Movie Archaeologists” bonus feature (29:28). They point out how the film was made at a time when there was fear of an atomic war and growing interest in UFOs and space travel. Their interviews are accompanied by publicity stills from 1953. The pair also appear, along with Andrea Kalas, Paramount Pictures archivist, to discuss the new restoration (20:28).

From the film’s 2005 Paramount release come audio commentary by filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns and author Bill Warren, and the making-of documentary “The Sky Is Falling,” which includes interviews with Barry, Robinson and Nozaki (29:49).

And what would a release of “The War of the Worlds” be without the inclusion of the Oct. 28, 1938 Mercury Theatre on the Air radio play broadcast, adapted by Howard Koch and directed and narrated by Orson Welles (57:28). The broadcast caused somewhat of a panic as the first two-thirds of the show were presented as a news bulletin. Additionally, there is an audio of Wells meeting Welles for the first time two years later at KTSA radio in San Antonio (23:57). Another audio extra is excerpts of Pal’s 1970 lectures. The booklet includes an essay by film critic J. Hoberman. Grade: film 5 stars; extras 4 stars

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

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Great Britain, 1961, Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, NR, 99 min.). Produced, directed and co-written by Val Guest (writer-director of “Casino Royale,” “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth,” the two “Quatermass” films), this literate British film is another of my science fiction favorites. Wolf Mankoowitz, who also co-wrote “Casino Royale,” was the other writer. I believe this is its first Blu-ray release in the United States.

While it might not be scientifically true, the film has the Russians and the United States setting off massive nuclear bomb tests at the same time, which knock the Earth off its axis and, even worse, changes its orbit so that it will pass closer to the sun and that will be an extinction event. Government secrecy hides the danger for weeks – now that is realistic – despite the efforts of London Daily Express reporter Pete Stenning (Edward Judd of “First Men in the Moon,” “Island of Terror”), a very jaded, alcoholic newsman, who is separated from his wife and does not have custody of their young son.

While the initial science may not hold up, the effects of a change in axis on the planet and of the planet getting warmer are very realistic. An eclipse of the sun is 10 fays early, a big fog rises four stories and a huge wind storm hits London. The film starts with a tinted yellow sequence; the time is 30 minutes after corrective bombs have been set off in hopes of getting the Earth back on track, as it were. There then is an extended black-and-white flashback, starting 90 days earlier.

Another big plus for me is the film’s depiction of the newspaper business, from the newsroom – the actual Daily Express newsroom was used – to the vast printing presses that churn out each edition of the paper. It recalls my early days in the business, back in the late 1960s at the Brockton (Mass.) Enterprise.

The acting is a bit more problematic, as Judd comes across as a poor man’s Richard Burton and far less believable. Also a bit unbelievable is his quick romance with Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro of “The Crawling Eye,” “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”), a switchboard operator for the government, who eventually gets arrested for giving Stenning “classified” information about the looming disaster. Thankfully, Leo McKern (“A Man For All Seasons,” “The Shoes of the Fisherman”) plays a more seasoned reporter, Bill Maguire, who covers for Stenning at work. McKern just about steals every scene he is in. Real-life newspaper editor Arthur Christiansen plays a newspaper editor, lending authenticity. Look for a young, uncredited Michael Caine as a policeman directing traffic in one scene.

This edition features a new 4K master and new audio commentary by film historian Richard Harlan Smith. It also has Guest’s audio commentary from the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD release, as well as carried over TV and radio spots. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Enter the Fat Dragon (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 96 min.). This is a really fun martial arts film, starring Donnie Yen (the 4 “Ip Man” films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” the upcoming “Mulan”). Yen spends most of the film in a fat suit and padded cheeks, as his character has gone up to 250 pounds after being dumped by his actress girlfriend (Niki Chow as Chloe Song) and being demoted from Hong Kong police detective to records clerk after nearly killing his superior with a runaway van. The film, directed by Kenji Tanigaki (“Legend of Seven Monks”), is a parody of Bruce Lee’s “Way of the Dragon” (1972) and a reimagining of the popular martial arts comedy film of the same name from 1978 that starred the portlier Sammo Hung.

On the day “super-cop” Fallon Zhu (Yen) is to have his wedding photos taken with bride-to-be Chloe – they have been dating for 10 years and the wedding is to be within a month – Fallon gets involved in a robbery which leads to some wild action, including his jumping on top of an escaping van, a battle with several bad guys within the van and the van almost eventually killing his boss – not to mention, he misses the photo session and Chloe breaks up with him, after he says she really is not that good an actress. An amusing part of the action piece has two news camera crews in their own vans interviewing Fallon and one robber as they fight and actually handling each combatant a weapon.

While on records department duty, the bored Fallon hits the snack machine far too often and gains weight, thus the fat cheeks and big stomach, although future events will prove he can still fight very well. Events bring Fallon and Chloe both to Tokyo – on the same plane. Chloe has been hired by a gangster (Joey Tee as Shimakura) to perform for his Grandfather (Tesu Watanabe of “Fireworks”), while Fallon has to transport a prisoner back to Tokyo. It turns out, the prisoner is wanted by the Yakuza because he filmed evidence of their drug smuggling in fish. With the Tokyo police depicted as being in the pockets of the Yakuza, I’m not sure the evidence would really matter.

While in Tokyo, Fallon connects with an old fried (Jing Wong as Thor), who is having his own love problems with girlfriend Charisma (Teresa Mo of “Hard Boiled”), who runs a restaurant, owes money to the Yakuza and is the guardian of nephew Tiger (Qiunan Lin), who is a pretty good young fighter who emulates Fallon.

The action sequences make the film highly enjoyable. They include Fallon in a big street battle that has him up crossing roofs and a fight against Shimakura high up on the Tokyo Tower. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3.25 stars

Strike Up the Band (1940, Warner Archive Collection, Blu-ray, NR, 120 min.). This was the second in a series of four musicals directed by Busby Berkeley that starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. The first was “Babes in Arms.” The title song was written by the Gershwins and formed the basis on a 1927 musical theater production. In general, the film is likable, with the music numbers much better than the weak plot. One problem is that most of the musicians seem too old to be believable as high school students.

Rooney plays Jimmy Connors, a drummer in the Riverwood High School brass band who strongly wants a career as a dance band drummer, even though his mother is still set on him becoming a doctor like his late father. Jimmy comes up with the idea of forming a modern dance orchestra, instead of the stuffy brass band, and sells Principal Judd on the idea, if they can host a profitable dance. Jimmy is helped in his pitch by pal Mary Holden (Garland), whom he treats as a pal although she would rather be his girlfriend. After the dance is a success, Jimmy has the idea of taking the band to Chicago to audition for Paul Whiteman’s show that will feature a trio of high school bands. Whiteman and his orchestra appear in the film and perform a couple of numbers.

Musical highlights include the “Our Love Affair” duet at the piano by Rooney and Garland; the over-the-top music number to huge dance number of “La Conga”; and Garland singing “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” The closing number that includes “Strike Up the Band” is pure excess in the Berkeley style. Rooney, a drummer in real life, gets to do a couple of brief solos on the skins. One amusing animated bit has fruit performing as an orchestra in Jimmy’s imagination. There also is a fairly amusing production put on by Jimmy and Mary for the Elks club that makes fun of earlier, exaggerated stage shows.

A subplot features Larry Nunn (“Men of Boys Town”) as 13-year-old Willie Brewster, who has a big crush on Mary and often helps her out when Jimmy lets her down.

Extras include an introduction by Rooney from 2007 (3:16); a stereo version of “Do the La Conga” (6:01); an Oct. 28, 1940 Lux Radio Theater broadcast of “Strike Up the Band” with Rooney and Garland (59:06, audio only); and a Rooney and Garland audio excerpt from the July 2, 1941 “Millions for Defense” radio show (15:15). Non-related bonus features are the cartoon “Romeo in Rhythm” (8:17); the Pete Smith specialty “Wedding Bills” (9:42); and “Leo in the Air” radio promo (14:15). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Burden (2018, Universal DVD, R, 117 min.). In this film, based on a real life real estate transfer, Garrett Hedlund (“Mudbound”) plays Mike Burden, raised to be in the Ku Klux Klan in the deeply racially-divided Laurens, South Carolina, but who decides to give up the Klan when he falls in love with Judy (Andrea Riseborough of “Waco”) and her young son (Taylor Gregory as Franklin).

When Mike makes that choice, he is disowned by Klan leader Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson of “The Full Monty” and “In the Bedroom” at his nastiest), which loses him his repo job with Griffin’s rent-to-own business, as well as the home Judy was renting and his truck. Down on their luck, Mike takes to begging on the street until he encounters the Rev. Kennedy (Forest Whitaker of “Black Panther), who, in an act of love, takes the trio into his own home. This is despite the fact that the Rev. Kennedy has been leading daily picket lines and protests against the Klan turning an old movie theater in town into The Redneck KKK Museum, a museum Mike helped set up.

Mike is no saint. In fact, we see him brutally beat up a young African-American in a bit of road rage. Another fit of rage costs him a job that the Reverend finds for him. However, he does bond with young Franklin, showing his better nature. It is an unlikely but true story about a people and setting that is absolutely foreign to me. Even Mike’s favorite pastime, helping out with Griffin’s auto racing team, is something I see as utterly pointless.

The film is written and directed by Andrew Heckler, who gets a good physical performance out of Hedlund. However, the writing too often takes the easy route and most of the African-Americans in the film seem only there to support Mike’s transference into a good person. What should have been developed more is the anger the Reverend’s son has at his father’s bringing Mike into their home and even giving Mike his room. The only extra is a very brief making-of (1:58). Grade: film 2.25 stars; extra ½ star

Evil: Season One (CBS/Paramount, 3 DVDs, NR, 9 hours 13 min.). This set contains all 13 episodes of the first season of the at-times very creepy supernatural drama from executive producers Robert and Michelle King. The psychological mystery series centers around a new team of three, hired by the Catholic Church to investigate and debunk reported occult phenomenon. The trio are priest-in-training David Acosta (Mike Colter of “Luke Cage,” “Jessica Jones”), skeptical psychologist and agnostic Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers of “Westworld,” “The Leftovers,” “The Americans”) and atheist contractor Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi of “The Last Airbender”). This allows for all kinds of discussions of science versus religion among the three as they investigate whether a serial killer is possessed by a demon, how a soccer player comes back to life after being dead for two hours, a psychopathic 9-year-old boy and whether an immigrant woman’s prophecies really do come true, among other cases.

Kristen, who leaves her job as expert witness in the District Attorney’s office in the opening episode, is raising her four daughters by herself, as their father is off leading mountain-climbing expeditions. Kristen herself is a former mountain climber. David believes he has spoken to God once and he takes drugs in an effort to speak with Him again.

Michael Emerson (TV’s “Lost,” “Person of Interest”) is delightfully wicked as Leland Townsend, who takes over Kristen’s role with the DA’s office, spends time training a young killer and may just be a devil, in not the devil. To wreak his havoc, he starts dating Kristen’s mother (Christine Lahti of TV’s “Chicago Hope,” “Hawaii Five-0”) to get close to Kristen and her daughters.

The show is slated to return for a second season, which is good because there is quite the cliffhanger. Extras include a look at creating the show and casting with the Kings (201:16) and those involved discuss whether they believe evil really exists (3:52). There are supposed to be seven extended or deleted scenes, but no link shows up on the disc menus. Grade: season 3.5 stars

South Park: The Complete Twenty-Third Season (Paramount, 2 Blu-rays or DVDs, NR, 220 min.). The long-running series, created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had renewed vigor this season, which had Stan, Kyle, Cartman, Kenny and Randy tackle the consequences of immigration and get banned in China. The 10 episodes include the series’ 300th. The rather vulgar season also hits on video games, trans topics, drugs and Disney+. Extras include the ability to view concept art in various styles and levels of completion, about 25 pages of illustrations; and on-screen tweets/social commentary for every episode. Grade: season 3.75 stars; extras 1 star

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