The martial arts film genre underwent a series of changes in the 1980s, from the introduction of ninjas as a focal point in Cannon’s long-running, cult-favorite series to both low-budget knockoffs and major studio productions alike embracing the current fads in the post-Bruce Lee era. Two very different films – one a studio production from a veteran director, another a low-budget labor of love that was both unreleased and thought lost to the ravages of time – come to Blu-Ray this month, offering genre fans a pair of contrasting viewing experiences that are each entertaining in their own respective ways.
John Frankenheimer’s 1982 East/West samurai adventure THE CHALLENGE (**½, 108 mins., R) never made it onto DVD and was last seen in the form of a CBS/Fox VHS release. Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray, boasting a crisp new 1080p transfer, finally gets this long out-of-print film back in circulation at last, offering for many their first chance at ever seeing the film.
Scott Glenn stars in the picture as a California boxer visited by a Japanese businessman, who wants him to escort a prized sword back to the Far East. Glenn reluctantly takes the cash and soon finds himself embroiled in the midst of a family squabble over the sword’s possession – in particular, a pair of brothers, one of whom is played by Toshiro Mifune as a samurai still teaching the old methods of combat and honor. Ultimately, Glenn’s American plays both sides but comes to appreciate Mifune’s samurai methods, leading to a bloody action climax that’s both outlandish and enjoyable, with a particularly (unintentionally) funny dismemberment included in the mix.
Frankenheimer shot “The Challenge” for CBS Films on-location in Japan, working from a Richard Maxwell-John Sayles script and a mostly Japanese crew, including cinematographer Kozo Okazaki (“The Yakuza”). The film is clunky at times and one can imagine any number of other actors bringing more charm than Glenn to his role of an American scoundrel whose motivations are conflicted, but the film is solidly made and fun to watch. Jerry Goldsmith’s score offers a mix of Japanese instrumentation and “Poltergeist”-like motifs (no surprise seeing as that score was also written for the summer of ‘82), and Donna Kei Benz is an attractive female lead who “does it” with Glenn in a patently gratuitous bit of ‘80s lovemaking.
Coming to both Blu-Ray and DVD on February 16th from Kino Lorber, “The Challenge” offers a superb 1.85 image on the HD front with clear DTS MA mono sound. Like many of CBS’ high-def transfers, details are sharp and the source materials are in good condition as well.
A movie that nobody ever saw – at all – is one of this month’s highlights from Garagehouse Pictures.
NINJA BUSTERS (90 mins.) is an unreleased 1984 low-budget comedy – shot in scope! – about a pair of guys (Eric Lee and Sid Campbell, karate grandmasters with limited acting experience) who become immersed in martial arts as a means of meeting girls and self-defense. Eventually they take their (mostly comical) training and apply it to take down weapon smugglers whom the boys were unknowingly working for.
Uncovered from an abandoned film depot in the California desert, “Ninja Busters” was a lost movie for several decades. The film went out to various distributors, all of whom turned it down, leaving the movie to become a literal “lost” film. Fortunately, a 2013 discovery produced a pristine copy – which Garagehouse has released on Blu-Ray in a 4K-derived transfer with several special features.
The movie was obviously a labor of love from director Paul Kyriazi, who shot the film in anamorphic widescreen. It’s also, unsurprisingly, awkwardly performed at times, with the mostly no-name cast playing the material fast and light, and the later stages of the film producing some decent action. “Ninja Busters” is obviously going to be mostly of interest for bad movie fans and cult aficionados, with the plot stalling out about halfway through, leading to a number of montages set to Frank Navarro’s electronic score, which can be best described as “John Carpenter Meets ‘The Cosby Show’.”
Garagehouse’s Blu-Ray boasts a commentary and introduction from Kyriazi, along with his first feature, “The Tournament” (49 mins.), derived from a rough looking video tape. A couple of minutes of fan comments from an Alamo Drafthouse screening, liner notes and a poster card round out the release.
Also well worth checking out from Garagehouse is TRAILER TRAUMA, a Blu-Ray compilation which houses over two hours of vintage exploitation and horror trailers, and should come as a must watch for buffs.
Housing 65 cult trailers in all, “Trailer Trauma” sports trailers from a variety of genres. On tap here are a slew of horror trailers (Dawn of the Mummy, Death Bed, Food of the Gods II), plus assorted exploitation (Paranoia, the U.S. release of Mighty Peking Man aka Goliathon), comedy (“Wacko” and “Hysterical”), and oddball studio fare like “The Farmer” (a Columbia-released, WWII-era “Death Wish” rip-off that hasn’t been seen since ‘77) and New World’s “Knights of the City” (with “special guest” Smokey Robinson) and “No Retreat, No Surrender.” Like the best trailer compilations, there’s a constant excitement over what’s coming up next as you watch them unfold, as well as the inclusion of certain titles that will encourage viewers to track them down.
If you enjoyed Synapse’s“42nd Street Forever” and Drafthouse Films’ “Trailer War,” you’ll love Garagehouse’s“Trailer Trauma,” which has been mastered from a variety of elements – some more battered than others, though this only adds to the vintage charm. Highly recommended, and here’s hoping a second volume hits this spring!
Both Garagehouse discs are available to order at DiabolikDVD.com and price at $24.99.
New & Noteworthy
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS: Signature Edition Blu-Ray and DVD (****, 84 mins., 1937, G; Disney): Walt Disney’s landmark 1937 production was the first full-length animated feature film, giving birth to an entire genre onto itself and a multimedia empire in the process.
This new Blu-Ray/DVD package of “Snow White” marks the second release of the movie on Blu-Ray, and while the previous “Diamond” edition Blu was missing some content from its DVD release, this new Blu-Ray finds even more supplemental content having been removed in comparison with its predecessor.
“Snow White” was previously restored in 1987, 1993 and 2001 (for its Platinum DVD edition), but the gorgeous high-definition transfer on Disney’s new Blu-Ray (a reprise of the Diamond Blu-Ray edition) really sings: colors are vibrant, the movie looks crisp and well-composed in its original full-screen 1.33 aspect ratio, while both DTS Master Audio sound and the film’s original soundtrack comprise a robust pair of audio options.
When I say this transfer is a knockout, make no mistake: it’s almost hard to believe this is a film from 1937. The colors, contrasts, and general condition of the elements are simply amazing. For the Blu-Ray disc, Disney allows you to watch the film in its pure 1.33 full-frame format, or in 1.33 with sidebars that fill the frame to 16:9. The sidebars (red curtains simulating an old-time movie theater) are unobtrusive and are certainly preferable to having the movie cropped for 16:9 (an inexplicable practice we’ve seen other studios employ since the advent of HD).
Almost as impressive is the DTS Master Audio mix, which sounds similar to the 5.1 Dolby Digital remix from 2001 — a track that expanded the sound stage for full discrete surround but did so in such a way that it never became overbearing or detrimental to the movie. It’s simply terrific, and purists still have the opportunity to hear the original mono soundtrack as well.
Extras are solid, but fans of the movie will want to hang onto their prior Platinum DVD and Diamond Blu-Ray editions for ample content that didn’t make the cut here. It’s a shame all he extras weren’t retained here, particularly with all that added space that Blu-Ray offers. There are some new extras, plus a DVD and Digital HD copy included for the first time, but those who own the previous Diamond release are likely to be unmoved to purchase it.
Despite the disappointment over the supplements, if you’re a Disney fan or a true lover of film animation, “Snow White” is still an absolute must-have Blu-Ray/DVD combo package – provided you haven’t purchased it already.
BRIDGE OF SPIES Blu-Ray Combo Pack (***½, 141 mins., 2015, PG-13; Touchstone): Steven Spielberg’s latest is the true story of a Brooklyn insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) who found himself defending a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) and, later, flying to Berlin in order to negotiate a prisoner exchange during the height of the Cold War. Backed with a taut script by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, “Bridge of Spies” is one of Spielberg’s best in many years – a compelling, absorbing film that paints a balanced portrait of Cold War intrigue, especially in how it depicts the harrowing outcome of Communism in its second half. Rylance is terrific as the Russian intelligence officer representing one half of the swap, with Hanks sure and steady in his fourth collaboration with Spielberg. The end result is one of the director’s most satisfying recent films, well scored by Thomas Newman (substituting for a “Star Wars”-conflicted John Williams) and enormously entertaining from start to end. Touchstone’s Blu-Ray includes a DVD, digital copy, and four featurettes, along with a 1080p (2.40) transfer and 7.1 DTS MA sound.
TRUTH Blu-Ray (**½, 125 mins., 2015, R; Sony): Or, at least the “Truth” according to Mary Mapes, a “60 Minutes” producer who finds herself – and CBS’ lead anchor, Dan Rather – in the crosshairs after a story involving President George W. Bush’s military service with the Texas National Guard comes into question. James Vanderbilt wrote and directed this behind-the-scenes journalism tale, which is compelling and well acted on its own terms (with a terrific ensemble cast including Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace, Stacy Keach and Dennis Quaid), but it’s the lead performance of Cate Blanchett as Mapes that sells the film. As Dan Rather, Robert Redford isn’t nearly as convincing, though the bigger problem is how much truth is involved in the story itself, seeing as the picture was adapted from Mapes’ own, decidedly subjective point of view. Sony’s Blu-Ray includes format-exclusive deleted scenes, a featurette, commentary, Q&A, a 1080p (2.40) transfer and 5.1 DTS MA sound.
Warner Animation Releases
When Batman goes missing, it’s up to Batwoman, Nightwing and Robin to take on the fight for Gotham in BATMAN: BAD BLOOD (74 mins., 2015), the latest DC Universe animated movie that’s new to Blu-Ray and DVD this week from Warner. The collective efforts of our heroes leads them to a new villain known as Heretic in this good-looking, brooding affair that’s worthy of its PG-13 rating. Warner’s combo pack includes two format-exclusive featurettes (Putting the Fight in Gotham; Expanding the Batman Family) and a pair of bonus cartoons, plus a look at the next DC movie, “Justice League Vs. Teen Titans.” The 1080p AVC encoded transfer and 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack are both excellent.
Also new this week from Warner is LEGO FRIENDS: GIRLZ 4 LIFE (80 mins., 2015), a title with upbeat messages and bouncy music for young girls. The plot finds the girls’ friendship tested when a pop star comes to Heartlake City and their song stolen by the singer’s manager! Bonus materials include dance routines and music videos performed by L2M, karaoke, a digital copy, DVD, and 1080p Blu-Ray transfer (1.78) with DTS MA sound.
PBS New Releases
Sure to be one of the hottest selling discs of the month, Season 6 of DOWNTON ABBEY (9 hours, 2016) presents the finale to one of the most beloved series of recent years, not to mention one of the most-watched programs in PBS history. Winner of 12 Emmys and countless other accolades, the sixth season of “Downton” is set in 1925 as societal changes sweep through the house and the Crawley family, culminating in the series finale that’s sure to leave many a watery eye among series devotees.
Currently airing on PBS in the U.S., “Downton Abbey”’s sixth season is available this week on Blu-Ray featuring over 30 minutes of bonus videos (Changing Times; The Cars of Downton Abbey; Farewell to Highclere), 1080i high-def (1.85) transfers, and 2.0 stereo soundtracks. PBS’ multi-disc set includes a slipcover as well as uncut UK length episodes.
Season 1 of MERCY STREET (360 mins., 2016) is also new on Blu-Ray this week from PBS. Ridley Scott is one of the producers of this PBS series starring Josh Radnor and the incomparable Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the chronicle of a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia circa 1862. Over 30 minutes of extras include deleted scenes in PBS’ two-disc set, featuring “Mercy Street”’s complete first season in 1080i transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Season 2 DVD (1507 mins., 1965-66; Warner): Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin took on saboteurs, spies, imposters, assassins and other crazies in the name of saving the world for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement in this legendary ‘60s TV series. While the adventures of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum have been released a handful of times on home video over the years, never have they been presented in clear, remastered transfers from Warner, courtesy of the Turner Entertainment library. Warner’s Season 2 DVD includes crisp 4:3 color transfers of all 30 second-season episodes from the classic series, presented here on 10 DVDs with guest stars including Vincent Price, Rip Torn and others. Recommended for those who didn’t purchase any of the earlier discs.
FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: Season Two Blu-Ray (448 mins., 2015; E One): TV series adaptation of the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino cult favorite (though not a particular favorite of mine) finds Santanico and Richie on the lam; Seth and Kate trying to get by south of the border; and Freddie Gonzalez protecting his suburban abode. Plenty of extras in E One’s Season 2 set include commentaries with Rodriguez, cast and crew members; Inside the Episode featurettes; a 2015 NYC Comic Con panel; and a slew of featurettes. The 1080p transfers and DTS MA soundtracks for this El Rey series are all top notch.
THE LIZZIE BORDEN CHRONICLES DVD (337 mins., 2015; Sony): One of Lifetime’s highest-rated mini-series from the 2014 season returned in the form of an eight-episode weekly series, probing the life and times of Lizzie Borden (Christina Ricci) following her acquittal of the murder of her father and stepmother in 1892. Clea Duvall and John Heard co-starred in the Canadian lensed production which didn’t meet with the same audience response, leading Lifetime to cancel the program and put an axe in any future Lizzie adventures. Sony’s DVD contains 16:9 transfers, 5.1 sound, deleted scenes and a gag reel.
HOME INVASION DVD (88 mins., 2016, PG-13; Sony): It’s “Panic Room Lite” after Natasha Henstridge and her stepson are targeted by expert thieves and only a security systems specialist can help out. No big surprises in this watchable programmer, likely intended to land as a cable TV premiere. Sony’s DVD of “Home Invasion,” which co-stars Jason Patric and Scott Adkins, includes a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 sound.
MARTYRS Blu-Ray (86 mins., 2016, Not Rated; Anchor Bay): Disgusting remake of the 2008 French film “Martyrs” follows a young woman who, ten years after being abducted, tracks down the family who took her prisoner as a young girl. It’s a journey she’ll wish she never embarked upon in this pointless, violent film that received scant distribution. A First Look featurette is included in Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray along with a 1080p transfer and 5.1 Dolby TrueHD sound.
MEET THE PATELS DVD (88 mins., 2015, PG; Alchemy): Funny documentary looks at the life of a 30-year-old Indian-American and his relationships with both his girlfriend and his old-fashioned parents. A good natured and consistently entertaining film now on DVD from Alchemy offering a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.
New From Shout Factory
New on Blu-Ray, TAKE ME TO THE RIVER (95 mins., 2014, PG) is a super new documentary from director Martin Shore, chronicling the indelible legacy of Memphis and Mississippi Delta musicians on American pop-culture and music. Terrence Howard narrates with an endless array of musical talents – as varied as Mavis Staples to Snoop Dogg and William Bell – on-hand, offering terrific musical performances and a compelling documentary profile of the Memphis area. Extras include an interview between Snoop Dogg and Stax Records’ William Bell; additional musical outtakes; a 1080p transfer and 2.0 and 5.1 DTS MA sound….Also new on Blu-Ray is SLASH: RAISED ON THE SUNSET STRIP (90 mins., 2014), a documentary presented by DirecTV and Guitar Center that mixes new interviews and archival footage in compiling a look at the guitarist and his music. Shout’s Blu boasts a 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS MA audio.
New Releases from Scream Factory this week include ZOMBIE FIGHT CLUB (95 mins., 2014), which pits Jessica C’s heroine with a police officer (Andy On) as they try and battle their way past zombie hordes and an evil organization that pits humans against the undead. An unholy marriage of martial arts and horrific gore on Blu-Ray from Shout sporting a stunt featurette, trailer, 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack…the IFC Midnight presentation HELLIONS (82 mins., 2015) is a forgettable outing with teen angst overtones. Chloe Rose plays a young woman fighting to stave off possession by “Hellions” on Halloween; Robert Patrick co-stars in this Canadian production on Blu-Ray this week from Shout. The disc offers a 1080p (1.85) transfer and 5.1 DTS MA sound.
Lionsgate New Releases: Vin Diesel experienced a big 2015 thanks to the runaway success of the seventh “Fast and the Furious.” Soon he’ll forget that THE LAST WITCH HUNTER (106 mins., 2015, PG-13) ever happened – if audiences haven’t already. This loud, noisy effects spectacle finds Diesel drowning in a would-be franchise starter as “Kaulder,” an immortal witch hunter taking down the supernatural with the help of Elijah Wood and Michael Caine. The cast, then, is willing, but the material is weak, as the Cory Goodman-Matt Sazama-Burk Sharpless script is awash in cliches and the entire enterprise lacking in humor and heart. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray includes a Making Of, deleted scenes, commentary, animated shorts and a “sizzle reel,” plus a DVD and Digital HD copy. The 1080p (2.40) transfer houses a stylishly shot film, if nothing else, by veteran Dean Semler, with DTS:X audio for those with the latest receivers.
Also new on Blu-Ray from Lionsgate, FREEHELD (103 mins., 2015, PG-13) tells the true story of lesbian couple Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and Stacie Andree (Ellen Page); the former a police detective who fought to have her pension left to Andree in the event of her impending death. Steve Carell and Michael Shannon co-star in Peter Solett’s film, which was based on Cynthia Wade’s documentary short – itself included here in Lionsgate’s Bu-Ray supplements, along with two featurettes, a commentary, Digital HD copy, a 1080p (1.85) and 5.1 DTS MA sound…Lake Bell stars as a woman who pretends to be the blind date of single guy Simon Pegg in MAN UP (89 mins., 2015, R), a Studiocanal/BBC production co-starring Rory Kinnear, Ken Stott, Olivia Williams and Harriet Walter. This UK rom-com includes a gag reel, interview clips and a featurette in Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray, plus a digital copy, 1080p (2.40) transfer and 5.1 DTS MA audio.
New this week from Lionsgate on DVD: Simon Cotton plays the twin roles in THE RISE OF THE KRAYS (115 mins., 2015, R), a low-budget look at London’s notorious gangster siblings. Produced almost certainly to cash in on the Tom Hardy starrer “Legend,” Lionsgate brings this independent offering to DVD sporting deleted scenes, a 16:9 (1.85) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and a digital copy…LADRONES (97 mins., 2015, PG-13) is a Mexican comedy starring Fernando Colunga and Eduardo Yanez as former thieves who spring into action in order to steal back land deeds that have been taken from Mexican families. A sequel to the hit “Ladrone Que Roba a Ladron,” Lionsgate’s DVD includes 5.1 Spanish audio with English subtitles, a 16:9 (2.40) transfer and a digital copy…A young fighter comes between his nextdoor neighbor and her abusive ex boyfriend in FIGHT TO THE FINISH (94 mins., 2014, PG-13), an independent urban action film from writer-director Warren Sheppard. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a digital copy, 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 sound…The faith-based drama BORN TO WIN (105 mins., 2015) stars Greg Kriek in the true story of Leon Terblanche, a teacher who embarks upon a search for God in this Frans Cronje film co-starring Leone Pineaar. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a digital copy, 16:9 transfer and 5.1 sound.
From Cinedigm: A fascinating animated anthology for horror fans, EXTRAORDINARY TALES (73 mins., 2014) adapts several of Edgar Allen Poe’s classics in a variety of visual styles with voices including Christopher Lee, horror director Guillermo Del Toro, and Bela Lugosi as well! We typically don’t see animated horror anthologies, making this genre effort from director-writer Raul Garcia one to treasure for buffs. Cinedigm’s Blu-Ray includes two featurettes, the U.S. trailer, a commentary by Garcia, 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS MA sound, plus a DVD copy.
Coming from Cinedigm, HATCHED (71 mins., 2015) is a Hong Kong animated film for little kids that’s been Americanized with the voices of Jeff Foxworthy and Sean Astin, both of whom appear in behind-the-scenes featurettes. The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 sound are both excellent on Cinedigm’s DVD… A BRAVE HEART: THE LIZZIE VELASQUEZ STORY (78 mins., 2015) is a documentary on the woman who’s unable to gain weight and has become an advocate for anti-bullying laws around the world. Cinedigm’s DVD includes deleted scenes and interviews, a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 sound.
NEXT TIME: COMIN’ AT YA in 3D, plus Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics for February and more! Until then, don’t forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!