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Sunday, April 14, 2024

TheaterByte’s Summer (and Late Spring) 2021 Disc Roundup

Usually, Brandon graciously offers me the opportunity to revisit and update my feature stories as needed with any arrivals that don’t quite make my initial deadline. But this time, there were so many great discs that showed up so far after the cutoff for the Spring 2021 Roundup, they spilled into the summer weeks and so here we are, with a new list of exceptional releases still very much deserving of our TheaterByte love.

James Farentino Double Feature:

The Final Countdown 4K Ultra HD (Blue Underground)

The Final Countdown 4K and Dead & Buried 4K Limited Editions (both Blue Underground)

Answering a “What if…?” I’m pretty sure no one ever asked, The Final Countdown takes us on a time-hopping journey when a mysterious portal opens in the Pacific Ocean, transporting the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz (our biggest and best in 1980) to the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Owing in large part to the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy, this movie has long been a favorite with military, aviation and history buffs, and now it looks better than ever in this magnificent restoration from a native 4K, 16-bit scan of the original 35mm camera negative. The new Dolby Atmos immersive mix is an exhilarating complement, particularly in the aggressively refreshed aerial sequences, naturally. A fine assortment of extras has been ported from the 2008 Blue Underground Blu-ray, and this new Limited Edition–with its fun lenticular cover–even includes John Scott’s original score on CD.

The following year, the ruggedly handsome star James Farentino traded his fighter pilot regalia for a sheriff’s badge and top billing, investigating mysterious disappearances–and even more mysterious reappearances–of hapless tourists in an idyllic little shore town. Boasting a screenplay by Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon (Alien) and brought to “life” with some gruesome Stan Winston makeup effects, this scarer has rightly developed quite a following over the past four decades. Once again we’re given the full Blue Undergrounding, with oodles of ported bonus content from their own 2009 Blu-ray, in addition to a gaggle of new extras, among them a fourth audio commentary, this latest from a pair of experts. The movie is presented in Dolby Vision, from a DP-approved 4K 16-bit restoration off the original interpositive, with a new Atmos mix plus the original mono, as well as a soundtrack CD, this time by composer Joe Renzetti.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory 4K (Warner)

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory 4K Ultra HD Combo (Warner Bros.)

The tale of Charlie Bucket and his journey to Wonka’s candy manufacturing plant has lost none of its considerable power to captivate, and for someone like me who saw it in the theater in 1971 and can now share it with his own kids, the appeal has grown astronomically. The 4K remaster doesn’t merely yield a rich, pure image, it also corrects previous issues with aspect ratio, now at the intended 1.85:1. I can’t say for certain if the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 has been tweaked from 2009 Blu-ray audio, but it’s a fine remix. And although no new bonus material has been added, what’s been ported from past editions is sweet: a playful commentary with all five “Wonka kids” (accessible on the 4K and HD discs) and J.M. Kenny’s terrific half-hour documentary featuring an on-camera interview with the late Gene Wilder, both of these sourced from the 2001 DVD.

The Tops of Spaghetti (Unfettered by Cheese):

The Good the Bad and the Ugly 4K (KL Studio Classics)

Django 4K + Texas, Adios BD Limited Edition (Arrow)

Was there ever a bigger badass than Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name? (Rhetorical question.) “Blondie,” as he’s alternately known, is at the heart of one of the greatest Italian westerns… make that one of the best westerns… hell, one of the best damned movies ever made. Set against an epic Civil War backdrop and at times disturbingly dark, it’s the tale of a tough-as-nails trio, each out for himself and using different methods in their quest for a fortune in missing Confederate gold, leading to an incredibly tense and beautifully shot, beautifully acted climax. Everything here is also elevated by one of the late Ennio Morricone’s most memorable scores, and that’s really saying something for a man with over 1,000 film and TV credits. Although color has been dramatically regraded, no HDR of any sort is included on the disc, reportedly due to the source elements being of insufficient quality to support it, yet this is undoubtedly the best this movie has ever looked in any home format. As befits a film with such a long, storied past, copious extras have amassed over the years, and many of them are collected and re-presented here. (Both the 4K disc and the remastered HD Blu-ray carry the U.S. theatrical cut of the film.)

This spring, GBU (commas? no commas? Oxford comma?) took its place alongside arguably the best spaghetti Western not directed by Sergio Leone or starring Eastwood, namely Sergio Corbucci’s Django. Django Unchained fans definitely shouldn’t go in expecting a rougher-hewn version of Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film–really just the title, the genre and the cameo by Django star Franco Nero are the connections–rather this is its own beast with its own iconography, notably the coffin that the titular drifter drags around with its deadly surprise inside. There’s a real brutality on display beneath the clunky dialogue (in vintage English and Italian), but it’s much more than the sum of its sight and sound, as we learn in this limited edition’s many effusive extras (I could have said “a casketful” but I have a modicum of restraint), topped off by an exquisite softcover companion book. Also here is the Nero-starring Texas, Adios on HD Blu-ray. It’s 100% NOT a sequel, but don’t tell that to the cunning marketers who billed it as such in some overseas markets.

Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns Blu-ray (PBS Distribution)

I’d be remiss if I skipped PBS’ newly remastered HD documentary mini-series from the great (and thorough) Ken Burns. His definitive history of America’s pastime originally aired in 1994, in nine “innings” that spanned the questionable origins of the game in the 1840s through doin’s as recent as 1992. This edition is complete-r than ever with 2010’s two-part “The Tenth Inning” sequel of sorts, by popular demand, continuing through events of 2009 to encompass the impact of 9/11 and the long shadow cast by drugs upon MLB. In a lot of ways, the story of baseball is the story of America, fraught with racial injustice, labor disputes, money, corruption, but also an inevitable return to an undeniable part of our fabric that brings us together. Like Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams, Burns has a knack for finding the deeper nobility in the game, pulling together anecdotes from myriad sources and uncovering footage that should have no right even existing at this point. Even better, tremendous effort has clearly been made to bring the archival film and modern interviews up to HD standards, now presented almost entirely at the 16:9 aspect ratio with accompanying 5.1-channel audio.

Godzilla Vs. Kong 4K (Warner)

Godzilla vs. Kong 4K Ultra HD Combo (Warner Bros)

I was half-prepared to go into this one with a sassy “Well, it’s good demo material anyway!” (which of course it is), but you know what? If you’ve been following along with Warner’s monster renaissance of the past several years, and if you read the title on the front cover fer cryin’ out loud, you kind of know what you’re in for in this nigh-two-hour payoff, with the most royale of battles between these rebooted kaiju (plural). So, Molière it ain’t, but it’s more or less as much fun as we have a right to hope for. This is another 2021 release that premiered on HBO Max as well as in theaters, and in its sheer bigness, it also has that spring/summer blockbuster feel that we’ve been missing for a while now. The 4K disc is highly recommended for fans, there’s a director commentary plus oodles of HD Blu-ray featurettes, and if you are looking for a showoff scene, I highly recommend Chapter 9’s “Round Two” fight, in all its Dolby Vision/HDR10+ and Atmos glory as the clashing titans do a number on gleaming, glowing Hong Kong at night. In fact, KvG is a good excuse to pull the trigger on that second subwoofer, and you can even name your LFE twins “Kong” and “Godzilla.”

Honorable Mention:

King Kong (1976) Collector’s Edition Blu-ray (Shout! Factory)

Long after Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsackand’s 1933 classic and well before Peter Jackson reinterpreted the great ape with CGI, director John Guillermin took a crack at remaking the beloved King Kong, with mixed results. While perhaps not living up to its humble assurance of “The most exciting original motion picture event of all time,” the movie and its success confirmed audiences’ undying love of the beast, this time depicted by makeup whiz Rick Baker inside a suit filmed on some interesting miniature sets that would ultimately–along with Carlo Rambaldi’s large-scale props–earn a special achievement Oscar. It’s the same basic tale we all grew up watching, this time with the World Trade Center famously taking the place of the Empire State Building, and later embellished with more than 40 minutes of additional scenes for the special TV version. That three-hour cut is included as an extra, with all of its restored footage newly scanned for solid quality, and it harkens back to a bygone era of home entertainment when network events like this and Superman would lure viewers to the sofa for back-to-back nights, Jiffy Pop at the ready.

Six String Samurai 4K (Vinegar Syndrome)


Lance Mungia is the sort of balls-to-the-wall filmmaker whose ilk might well be vanishing today, and his 1998 cult classic is well worth a revisit. The trippy tale follows Buddy (co-writer Jeffrey Falcon); a Kung fu-kickin’, guitar-pickin’ warrior of the wasteland; in his journey to the seat of power in Lost Vegas following the death of Elvis Presley. (It makes more sense when you know that the Russians nuked us way back in 1957 in this alternate reality.) The final product is fun and funny and has that go-for-broke spirit of bygone movies brandishing more ambition than budget. Notoriously shot on expired film stock, Samurai has now been scanned/restored from the original 35mm camera negative, with pleasing results that still reflect its guerilla roots. Part of boutique label Vinegar Syndrome’s Ultra line of “extravagant UHD/Blu releases of ‘major’ 80s and 90s titles” outside their typical exploitation fare, Samurai returns with two new director commentary tracks (solo on one and joined by the cinematographer for the other), a brand-new feature-length “making of” documentary that goes deep, and even Mungia’s award-winning breakthrough short. VinSyn was nice enough to send the fancy limited edition deluxe box, adorned with fresh artwork and housing a 40-page photo/essay-filled book on par with any of the recent premium releases I’ve seen.

Available for purchase directly from Vinegar Syndrome

My Fair Lady 4K (Paramount)

My Fair Lady 4K Ultra HD (Paramount)

Seems like this Best Picture winner is destined to be a perennial favorite for restoration, remastering and ultimately demonstration, a must-own in whatever new format comes along. From the notes on the package, the spectacular 4K presentation is derived “from 8K scans of the original 65mm elements”: In short, George Cukor wanted his movie to look amazing, it did then and it does now, with dramatic contrast and almost painfully beautiful colors via Dolby Vision HDR. The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack, meanwhile, is a 96kHz/16-bit affair; the same track as on the 2015 “50th Anniversary” Blu-ray, which apparently had not been heard at this level of quality since the 1964 premiere; and blimey, it’s a lush, seamless complement. The supplements appear to be the same as on the 2015 BD as well, with an HD/SD extras-only platter, but a 4K digital copy of the film is included.

The Transformers (1986) 4K (Shout! Factory)

A kids’ cartoon designed to help sell toys, TV’s The Transformers was (forgive me) more than meets the eye. And no mere cash-grab, this tie-in movie is so much better than it needed to be, with some often beautiful cel-animation and occasionally brilliant casting (Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, Orson Welles) in addition to a plot with genuine consequence. Perhaps best of all, unlike later iterations of the robots in disguise, there’s not a lame joke or languorously photographed hottie in sight. Shout! Factory has topped their excellent Blu-ray from five years ago with this brand-new 4K restoration, here with Dolby Vision and a thoroughly modern Atmos remix. In a nifty twist, the 4K disc is the theatrical widescreen while the included HD Blu-ray is an era-authentic full-frame. New extras (feature-length storyboards!) are provided, alongside previous goodies.  This 35th anniversary edition is out now, arriving in a collectible steelbook housing four art cards, with a less fancy/less pricey version dropping next month.

Friday the 13th 8-Movie Collection Blu-ray (Paramount)

Only recently did I come to fully appreciate what a quintessentially ‘80s phenomenon these movies were. Released between 1980 and 1989, they not only spanned the decade but came to largely define the genre of their time, along with their cinematic brethren, led by faceless antagonists wielding lethal edge-weapons. For this new set, the first four 13ths have been remastered for HD from 4K scans of the original camera negatives and, if you were wondering, yes, these are the same remasters released last year in Shout! Factory’s more elaborate (and more expensive) Friday the 13th Collection “Deluxe Edition” box. They’re a drastic improvement from Blu-rays past, and highly recommended for fans. This Paramount F13 set slashes it old-school with all eight of the core films, including  Part 2, Part 3, The Final Chapter (umm…), A New Beginning, Jason Lives, The New Blood (see what they did there?) and Jason Takes Manhattan. Just don’t expect any of the spinoffs, crossovers, reboots or remakes, or the 3D version of III for that matter. The first four are given their own individual platters, the subsequent Fridays are paired up as double features, for a total of six discs inside the plasma-red, single-width case. The cabinful of previously released bonus content boasts at least one, sometimes two commentaries on #4 through #8, in addition to not one but two multi-part documentary series across the franchise. One undeniably juicy carrot here is the included digital copy of the entire octology, via eight individual codes. (The digital copy of the first is the Uncut edition.)

Chariots of the Gods Blu-ray (VCI Entertainment)

As much as I am loathe bringing up the subject of lower education during the summer, I confess that I must have had a pretty cool junior high history teacher if she showed us Chariots of the Gods during class time. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary (actually 51st, but which alien species is counting?), this “documentary” from Erich von Däniken’s bestselling book of science (fiction?) explores the popular, influential theory that the great civilizations of man were in fact visited and elevated by races not of this Earth. It’s wildly speculative, but it might explain seemingly impossible engineering feats of the ancient world, and some strange iconography of various cultures around the globe. Although the movie is largely comprised of stock footage, the 2K restoration from the original negative helps some. The 1976 companion film, Mysteries of the Gods, is included on the single platter.

48 Hrs. Blu-ray

Another 48 Hrs. Blu-ray (both Paramount)

Eddie Murphy’s big-screen debut is still a high-water mark, a winning take on the well-worn buddy-cop construct that deftly balances taut, high-stakes action and a level of comedy that simply no one but Mr. Murphy could have delivered. Masterfully photographed, 48 Hrs. was also long overdue for a good remaster to replace the lackluster Blu-ray disc of yore, and so this and sequel Another 48 Hrs. have landed day-and-date as “Paramount Presents” editions (#s 19 & 20) in sublime reduxes, their new 4K converted down to 1080p. Director Walter Hill looks back on each in new “Filmmaker Focus” featurettes, while the first 48 packs the full “Space Kid” cartoon (here in lovely HD) seen briefly on the TV before the hotel shootout and, although it’s not mentioned on the cover, James Horner’s isolated musical score.

When Animals Go Ape5h!+:

Grizzly Blu-ray

Day of the Animals Blu-ray

Deep Blood Blu-ray (all Severin)

Jaws remains one of the archetypal summer blockbusters, and its swimming box office performance inspired every sort of imitator in the ensuing years. Considered by many to be the classic of the natural horror or “creature feature” sub-genre, Grizzly hews every bit as close to the winning formula as you might imagine. A noble local authority figure (Christopher George) only wants to stop a deadly predator (in this case a 15-foot, one-ton grizzly bear) and protect his tourist town, but must first butt heads with a self-serving politician. We know what to expect and, but for the tacked-on romantic subplot, Grizzly delivers, right down to the gruesome maulings. In a nice touch, the disc artwork even reproduces a portion of the vintage poster imagery by my favorite comic book illustrator of all time, Neal Adams.

Not a sequel per se but seeking to cash in on the success of Griz, the strikingly similar Day of the Animals–which I’m not sure I’d ever even heard of before–dropped precisely 12 months later. Here, a wider variety of woodland critters has grown suddenly more aggressive, owing to the then-trendy depletion of the ozone layer. Yet this one is more about the personal stories of a pack of ill-fated hikers, most notably a post-Poseidon Adventure/pre-Airplane! Leslie Nielsen as an uber-alpha adman, undertaking one of the wildest character arcs I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing on film.

This bunch wouldn’t be complete without a seafaring maneater, so let’s jump (the shark) ahead to 1990 and the Italian production of Deep Blood (Sangue negli abissi), about a bunch of young friends on a mission of revenge after a mythical “water demon” kills one of their besties. This one falls into the category of so bad, it’s good… maybe? But worth checking out if you have the time and the inclination.

Grizzly and Day of the Animals even more so are fairly loaded with bonus content, most of it new for these reissues. All boast pretty snazzy remasters as well, the first two in widescreen but Deep Blood at a curious 1.33:1, despite assurances on the back cover of a best-ever home presentation.


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