Movies Till Dawn: SF & F

Black Widow” (2021, Marvel Studios) Setting aside the legal hullaballoo between Disney and star Scarlett Johansson, this long-gestating solo adventure for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s perennial bridesmaid has a wealth of aesthetic high points but ultimately underserves the character. As Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Johanssen has been a refreshing wild card in the MCU’s hero parade, bound to do right by her own conscience than by nation-building or call of duty. This flashback adventure, poised somewhere between “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” gives her a chance to set right the secret society machinations that made her a world-class killer, but gives the showy material to Florence Pugh as flippant little sister Yelena and David Harbour as ersatz dad Red Guardian. Handing over the best lines and set pieces to the new players leaves Johansson in time-to-make-the-donuts mode, leaping and swinging to each shoot-out and blow-up with dutiful vigor, which is the opposite of her barnstorming presence in the previous MCU titles. She does have some amusing bits of sibling banter with Pugh, who as the de rigueur post-credits scene shows, is already slated to assume a dominant role in future Marvel media; Harbour and Rachel Weisz, as Romanoff’s steely mother figure, also deserve second showcases. Marvel’s region-free Blu-ray offers deleted scenes, a gag reel and featurettes on the film’s cast and impressive action sequences.

Dune” (1984, Arrow Video) Completely bonkers dream-logic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel by David Lynch, who appears to capitulate that the source material is unfilmable (a status which the upcoming adaptation of Denis Villeneuve may support) but still manages some extraordinary visuals and performances all the same. Facing opposition on multiple fronts- a Messiah parable with multiple psychic characters, complex political machinations, and giant sandworms, post-production editing and reshooting by producer Dino De Laurentiis, and an untenable request to issue a two-hour edit of a film that was initially envisioned by Alejandro Jodorowsky as 14 hours in length – Lynch delivers a static and distracted adventure with flashes of his unique style, drop-dead gorgeous set design and cinematography (by Freddie Francis) and a incredible if baffled  cast that includes Kyle McLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Sting, Patrick Stewart, Richard Jordan, Max von Sydow, Dean Stockwell, Silvana Mangano and seemingly possessed turns by Kenneth McMillan, Sian Phillips, and Brad Dourif. “Dune” completists and obsessives will note that Arrow’s Limited Edition two-disc (UHD and Blu-ray) 4 restoration includes only the theatrical cut and not the extended or other alternate versions; commentaries by Mike White of the Projection Booth and Paul Sammon, new and vintage making-of docs and multiple interviews with cast and crew, and featurettes on the film’s doomed merchandise and score by members of Toto round out this set.

The Final Countdown” (1980, Blue Underground) The crew of the US Navy aircraft carrier “Nimitz” – including captain Kirk Douglas (seething as usual) and civilian observer Martin Sheen – are catapulted back in time to Pearl Harbor in the days before the Japanese attack, and debate the implications of stopping the attack with their modern weaponry. Well-made time travel adventure, produced in part by Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman (who also appears in the film), but largely ignored at the time of its release due to what were considered subpar special effects in the wake of “Star Wars” and a well-worn premise. The passage of time has improved neither, but “Countdown” offers a callback to a more thoughtful brand of science fiction that might have played better a decade or so prior to release. Blue Underground’s Limited Edition three-disc set offers both 4K UHD (with superior image and sound) and Blu-ray presentations of the film, as well as a CD of John Scott’s score; commentary by Victor Kemper, and interviews with Kaufman and the Navy pilots who operated the jets in the film, as well as trailers and TV spots, are ported over from a previous Blu-ray release.

Skullduggery” (1970, Kino Lorber) A scientific team led by Susan Clark and two ne’er-do-well adventurers (Burt Reynolds and Roger. C. Carmel) discovers the Tropi, a tribe of humanoids in Papua New Guineau, and do what civilized folks do best – exploit them. A curious mix of pulp jungle thrills and scientific/sociological discourse on what constitutes a human, “Skullduggery” is hazy on both subjects, but remains watchable thanks to the cusp-of-stardom presence of Reynolds (who looks uncomfortable in many scenes) and the ghastly fate of one humanoid (played by Pat Suzuki of “Flower Drum Song”), who becomes the trophy for various causes. Possibly the only missing link movie with costumes by Edith Head; Kino’s Blu-ray offers a 2K master and commentary by Howard W. Berger and C. Courtney Joyner.

Beauty and the Beast” (1978, Second Run) Czech version of the oft-filmed fairy tale by director Juraj Herz (“The Cremator“) hews closer to Jean Cocteau’s moody, dream-like adaptation than any recent fairy-tale takes. The premise hits the well-known plot posts – to save her father, a young woman (Zdena Studenkova) agrees to live with a monstrous creature (Vlastimil Harapes) – but Herz steeps his “Beast” in Gothic darkness: the Beast is more bird of prey than the traditional melancholy lion-man, and rules over a nightmare castle staffed by tiny, wizened goblins. The world outside the Beast’s home is no better – our first introduction to Studenkova’s village features the slaughter of several animals – and the Beast’s anger is truly frightening, egged on by a voice in his head that urges him to kill. The unsettling elements eventually give way to romance, but you first need to scale a very dark path to reach that point. Second Run’s all-region Special Edition Blu-ray offers thoughtful commentary by the hosts of the Projection Booth podcast and a short film by Herz about poet Fransitek Hrubin, who also served as co-writer of “Beast.”

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch” (1968, Arrow Video) Orphan Yachi Matsui is reunited with her birth parents, but their home has taken a strange turn in the years since she was away: a car accident has wiped away her mother’s memory, her scientist father keeps reptiles (and a vat of acid) in the basement, the maid has died under mysterious circumstances, and a forgotten sister lurks in the attic, wearing a mask that his her shocking true identity. And if that’s not enough to dump on a kid who’s fresh from the orphanage, there’s also a snaggle-toothed witch to contend with. Hallucinatory mix of children’s fantasy and children’s nightmare fuel from director Noriaki Yuasa, who directed the majority of the Gamera films; any resemblance between those kid-friendly adventures and this film starts and ends with Gamera and the Snake Girl’s shared reptilian heritage. Yuasa’s film, which is adapted from two shoujo manga (comics for teenage girls) by Kazuo Umezu, is steeped in deep shadows and dream logic (enhanced by sizable gaps in plotting) that give way to startling surreal images; the limited special effects blunt some of their impact, but “Snake Girl” leaves a lasting bite mark. Arrow Video’s subtitled Blu-ray features commentary by Japanese film expert David Kalat and an interview with historian Zack Davisson, who explains the history of snake women in folklore and manga.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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