What is up with Warners today? They’ve dropped a treasure trove of compelling catalog sci-fi-thrillers on Blu Ray – inexpensively priced and looking better than any previous home video incarnations.

ALTERED STATES

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I first saw this film when I was way too little to understand it. And when I was a bit older – and I assumed my comprehension skills had improved – I gave it another try. I was wrong about my comprehension skills. William Hurt undergoes a devolving metamorphosis as he attempts to plumb the depths of the human mind in a piece of challenging sci-fi that’s well worth your time. Check it out.

BLADE II

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Guillermo Del Toro got out from under the asshat Weinsteins and proved he was ready for the big leagues with the rare sequel that proves utterly superior to the original. You want action, you’ve got it. You want creepish? Enjoy. You want gore? Go for it. You want pathos? Welcome. Del Toro does what few filmmakers on this planet are capable of – he makes ‘em for everyone. If you don’t like his flicks, well – sorry about your taste.

BRAINSTORM

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We’ve always known Douglas Trumbull as a visionary in terms of special effects, but the man also sought to revolutionize film narrative through film presentation. He believes that the future of film is the illusion of you-are-there interactivity. Trumbull’s been experimenting with film formats and camera systems his entire career, and the fruits of some of his early labors are on dazzling display in this strange, experimental film – in which presentation (via differing film formats) was meant to propel narrative. Unfortunately, the loss of star Natalie Wood wounded the film’s narrative, and the studio got cold feet with regard to Trumbull’s theatrical presentation plans. The Blu attempts to preserve the stock/format shifts for the first time at home, so this release my be of particular interest to you techies out there.

COMA

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A slightly dated but effective creeping slow-burn from Michael Crichton (adapting Robin Cook’s book, something I always thought charmingly odd), in which Young Doctor in Love (with Michael Douglas) Geneviève Bujold – channeling Mary Tyler Moore circa her eponymous TV series – stumbles onto an utterly vile medical conspiracy. Her MD BF thinks she’s jumping to conclusions, and even Kindly Old Doctor Richard Widmark (REALLY MOVIE? DIDN’T TELEGRAPH THAT ONE, DIDJA’) is dismissive – which means Bujold’s gotta’ go it alone to solve the utterly fucking disturbing mystery. And I’m telling you – I really can’t hit that hard enough. It’s a disgusting plot that I assume hospitals are engaged in right now. You know how you know? ROBIN COOK IS A DOCTOR. If Robin Cook, as a doctor, writes that doctors anesthetize you then touch your peepee while you sleep – IT’S PROBABLY THE TRUTH.

Please Note: No one touches anyone’s peepee in this movie, nor has Robin Cook ever written that doctors engage in illicit peepee touching. I’m just really terrified of hospitals. To me, every doctor is a Mengele. If my medical emergency can’t be solved with aspirin, ‘Tussin, or Krazy Glue – then I’m pretty much a dead man.

OUTLAND

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The Ladd Company (through Warner Bros) gave us more than one visionary dystopian sci-fi thriller at the dawn of the 1980s. And in a few ways…this one might be the superior film (or at least the smarter film) for those who think coherent narrative matters.

The great journeyman Peter Hyams swipes the blue-collar cosmonaut aesthetic of Sir Rid’s ALIEN and drops Sir Sean Connery’s Federal into a mining colony on one of Jupiter’s moons, where he pokes his nose into some murders and agitates the atmosphere of a place without one. It doesn’t take long for people in high (noon) places to send a batch of assassins. While there is a lot of great early use of William Mesa’s Introvision rear-projection tech to give the Io spacebase a sense of massive scale, Hyams uses his frame to create claustrophobia when the need arises. He also uses the corporate-controlled colony to say a bit about class politics that is just as valid today as it was then.

If there’s one film this week I’d beg you to buy, it’s Outland. This should be required viewing for all for you – especially now that it’s been restored to something close to watchable condition.

Of course – I’m also begging you to buy something else…

SPAWN

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I remember going to see this film on its opening weekend and being thoroughly fucking insulted. From its chintzy visuals to its alterna-pandering soundtrack, the whole thing had my blood boiling – though it did open my eyes to a very important truth (which should have been apparent to me already, as I was trying to break into comics at the time): being a brilliant artist – as Todd McFarlane once very clearly was – does not make you a brilliant creator. Spawn, as a narrative, is utterly fucking illogical schlock – and adapting it to film points out every shortcoming printed on its worthless pages.

The film, however, is not what I recall it to be. Having stumbled into viewing it about a month ago, I now see Spawn as a comedic wonder. There is no chance in hell that it was conceived as such (much of my laughter came from how confident the film is that Spawn is the absolute epitome of darque, edgy BADASS), but insomuch as comedy is tragedy plus time, fifteen years is long enough that this misguided mess has become a laugh riot. This is a film where the grand finale monster fracas (which is obviously a massive reshoot, since you can see weight and hair changes in the principals) takes place in someone’s tastefully appointed living room (in which the cozy fireplace serves as a Gateway to Hell – a plot device which, under normal circumstances, would be the sole province of some late-’80s effects-driven horror flick directed by Tibor Takaks). The CG effects in this film are so hilariously bad I was rolling on my couch (at one point, I was having actual trouble breathing) – anyone who bemoans the supposedly fakey effects of the modern blockbuster needs to see this and “STFU” (I do it for the kids), while those of us who note that early CG ages really poorly can and should use this film as Patient Zero.

If the film’s misguided visuals were its only trespass, it might be fun to laugh at – but it’s so filled with glitchy performances and shit dialogue that it might actually be a sort of Dadaist masterstroke. Much of the wordplay consists of catchphrases that are funny because they’re supposed to be “cool,” and one-liners that are funny because they’re not. There are bits of dialogue that will become inside jokes for you alone (next time someone you know is sick, you’ll chuckle to yourself as you tell them “Concentrate on your healing”). Characters share exchanges that are entirely non sequitur – one of my favorites is a bit of dialogue between a reporter and DB Sweeney that goes exactly like this:

REPORTER: Mr. Fitzgerald, do you have any further comments?

DB SWEENEY: Something I should have done a long time ago.

Whaaat?

The reporter is offscreen, so this is an instance where the voice could have been made to say anything. For Sweeney’s part, He’s clearly responding to another question – perhaps something like, “Mr. Fitzgerald – what will you do now?” So why not fix that in post – especially when the rest of the film seems to have been accomplished precisely that way? “Fix it in Post” could have been Spawn‘s fucking tagline. There’s a ton of obviously replaced dialogue (John Leguizamo’s performance suffers the most – you can clearly see him mouthing dialogue that’s nothing like what’s actually being spoken), and entire special effects sequences are slapped together from disparate elements. The film weathered destructive test screenings, and – in an attempt to ‘zazz it up – many of the set pieces were hastily altered. For example – the original Malebolgia/Satan was a pretty excellent practical effect from the genius artisans at KNB – but the puppet was poorly shot and composited, so the decision was made to redo the entire Hell sequence with Computer Generated Imagery. With nowhere near enough time to execute, the effects house tweaked a CG model used in An American Werewolf in Paris to employ as a new Malebolgia – but they didn’t light or composite their creation properly, either – so it has no real highlights or shadows. The inside of the model’s non-moving mouth is as bright as the model’s outside – a phenomena my friends and I refer to as “Sega Mouth” (if you’ve ever played a Sonic Team Sega Dreamcast title, you know exactly what I’m talking about).

Likewise, all of the fiendish minions are three or four guys comprised of a couple seconds of footage each, then looped and replicated – so it looks like they’re cheering on a low frame rate fight between Blanka and Zangief – and since it’s all stitched together in this Frankensteinian fashion, none of the light sources match, and none of it has any sort of focal depth. This film exists as a textbook example of how not to produce effects sequences. Or film.

Hilarious ham-handed religious symbolism, action sequences shot and cut with no sense of physics or geography, terrible CG, a  sullen teen’s dipshit’s worldview (and CD collection), and truly awful performances from truly talented people make Spawn a gleefully abysmal must see – if not a must own.

The 41 Year Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It
Altered States
American Reunion
The Astronaut’s Wife
Being Flynn
The Big Bang Theory: The Complete First Season – you know how I know I have awesome friends? None of them watch this. If someone ever said “Bazinga” in front of me without irony, I might slap them in the mouth.
Bitch Slap
Blade II
Brainstorm
Chariots Of Fire
Cherry Bomb
Coma
The Devil’s Needle & Other Tales of Vice & Redemption
Dragon Crusaders
Duran Duran: Diamond in the Mind
Fightville
The Flowers of War
Frequency
Mercenary for Justice
National Geographic: Untamed Americas
Outland
The Saphead
Senna
Spawn

DIRTY PROJECTORS – SWING LO MAGELLAN

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Given that the concept of “quirky indie music collective” is entering the phase where it transitions from inspiration to annoyance, parts of this album feel as though Dave Longstreth is trying to play down the quirk in favor of the pop. He hasn’t completely abandoned the guise of the musical busybody (stuff like “Offspring Are Blank” and “About To Die” continue his crazy-quilt love affair with everything from Elgar to Abbey Road, while the detuned guitar and rhythmic stutters of “Maybe That Was It” are vintage Haight-Ashbury psychedelica), but song after song (“Irresponsible Tune,” “Impregnable Question,” “Unto Caesar,” and the title song) demonstrate a deft, nearly effortless ability to focus his strengths (and those of his on-again-off-again bandmates) into affecting songcraft that loses none of its idiosyncracy: “Dance For You” sways its handclaps and vocals over a beguiling electronic beat, the tune clear and firm, but with plenty of room for bursts of synth swell and strings; Amber Coffman’s sweetly befuddled vocal brings a warmth to the observational “The Socialites” (“I’m going to try combing my hair a thousand ways / Maybe he will notice me / Maybe look my way“), and “See What She Seeing” floats its delicate melody over an electronic hurdy-gurdy. And for all the formal clunkiness of a concept like “Impregnable Question,” Longstreth’s repeated “You’re my love/ And I want you in my life” reminds us that his heart is, if not on his sleeve, at least not too far up it.

SERJ TANKIAN – HARAKIRI

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Distinguished from System Of A Down by its wider sonic palette, but every bit as fierce. “Cornucopia” is a furious blast of an opener, with Tankian’s arch delivery of “Do you believe in stormy weather?” both an invocation of pop glories past and an invitation to their warped destruction. Harakiri touches all your current events (he makes common cause with Springsteen’s latest: “Why pretend that we don’t know / That CEOs are the disease?” and does “green” in his particularly forthright way: “We fuck the earth / And don’t know why it cries“), but it’s his ability to make the political personal (“Don’t you all know / Don’t you all care / Don’t you all see / How this is unfair?“) that has always helped him push past the stridency… well, that and his undeniable gift for pulling hooks out of his metal-clad ass. If stuff like the title song and “Butterfly” and make you hunger for the next full SOAD, then left-turns like “Deafening Silence” and “Weave On” play like an intriguing warmup for his ambitious 2012 goal of releasing four new solo albums, all in different styles (including a jazz outing and an orchestral composition), making up for the occasional bit of over-obvious tripe (Come on– “Reality TV”?).

MARINA AND THE DIAMONDS – ELECTRA HEART

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I’m not entirely clear why so many people are willing to praise Diamandas’ occasional nods to Katy Perry, while chiding the influence of, say, Sparks: the self-conscious exploration of identity in a mass-culture environment is as worthy a thematic offering as most songwriters come up with, and Lene Lovich’s yelp is at least as valid a pop music exemplar as Perry’s wised-up sex kitten. The real problem is that between albums, while Diamandas was trying to figure out just what she had to say on the topic, Lana Del Rey came along and pretty much put a similar combination right across the plate (with less yelp, more kitten); whether this album would sound any less muddled without that context seems unlikely, but let’s give Marina the benefit of the doubt: not knowing what the hell you’re talking about shouldn’t necessarily be a bar to getting people to listen if the tunes are there. This time out, that’s problematic: it takes more than production help from folks like Dr Luke, Greg Kurstin, and Rick Nowels to put across self-serving bilge like “You say that I’m kinda difficult / But it’s always someone else’s fault” or “I know I’ve got a big ego / I don’t know why it’s such a big deal though.” She’s still got the love-hate relationship with the imperialism of American pop culture (“I think I want your, your American tan  / I think you’re gonna be my biggest fan“), but doesn’t seem to grasp that acknowledging the conflict it isn’t the same thing as having something to say about it, and the less said about her contributions to the feminist conversation (“Housewife / Beauty Queen / Homewrecker / Idle Teen“), or her continued fascination with heaving (“blood, guts, and angel cake / “I’m gonna puke it up anyway,” “…girls and their cosmic gourmet vomit“), the better. It would appear that her best new song, the advance single “Radioactive,” evidently didn’t contribute to the master plan, so its pop virtues get stashed on the “bonus” version of Electra Heart, in favor of obvious Gaga/Madonna aping of stuff like “Primadonna” or “Bubblegum Bitch.” Now and again, though, there actually seems like a real (sad and desperately confused) person under all the noise (“Fear and Loathing,” “Lies”).

DEBO BAND – DEBO BAND

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The shorthand version is that these folks are to Ethiopan/Western musical synthesis as Dengue Fever is to the Cambodian version of it: 60’s-70’s American musical influences that found their way to the Third World and came back as “world” music that is the property of musicians, and music fans, rather than academicians or archivists. They definitely hew closer to the jazz/funk side than to the garage pop that Dengue Fever makes their own (and vocalist Bruck Tesfaye’s brand of swooping sexiness is nearly a match for Chhom Nimol’s): the polyrhythms are insanely propulsive, guitarist Brendon Wood digs as deep as Dick Dale while flying as high as Mike Hampton, and the horn charts (by saxophonist/founder Danny Mekonnen) are only the high points of this amazingly virtuosic ensemble, making Debo Band a natural recommendation for fans of all things Fela, or Piazzola, or just dance music without boundaries. And the Afro-Celtic tune underlying “Not Just A Song,” as well as perhaps a hint of DF’s Cambodia in “Tenesh Kelbe Lay,” are nice reminders of how “world” music doesn’t have to involve geographical pigeonholes.

OTHER NOTABLE 7.10 RELEASES:

Aesop Rock – Skelethon
Zac Brown Band – Uncaged
Clare And The Reasons – KR-51
Coka Nostra – Masters of the Dark Arts
Delicate Steve – Positive Force
Diiv – Oshin
The Early November – In Currents
The English Beat – The Complete Beat (5 CDs Box set)
Connie Evingson – Sweet Happy Life
Jimi Hendrix Experience – Live at Berkeley
House of Heroes – Cold Hard Want
Husky – Forever So
Brendan James – Hope in Transition
Land – Night Within
Mission of Burma – Unsound
Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins – Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins
P.O.D. – Murdered Love
Staind – Live From Mohegan Sun
Twin Shadow – Confess
Rhonda Vincent – Sunday Mornin Singin
Hank Williams Jr. – Old School New Rules

NCAA FOOTBALL ’13 (PS3, 360)

Football is the only sport that I think doesn’t translate into a fun game for non-fans. Before high-level simulation was possible, football games were great. NFL Blitz, Tecmo Bowl, and even the first few Mega Drive Maddens were fun pick-up-and-play party games. With modern football games I can’t even figure out how to throw the ball half the time. If you like College football, I’m sure you’re all over NCAA this year. I hear they improved franchise mode and juke boxing. Whatever that means.

ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT (Wii, 3DS, DS, 360)

Video game based on a kid’s film. Probably going to be awful. But hey, this is coming out on everything but PS3. Does that mean Sony wins the console wars?

I like to think that’s exactly what it means. Though I’ve always felt it was a bit of a triumph that, as a PS3 owner, I never had to have the mediocrity of HALO forced down my throat.

FIN.