Movies Till Dawn: Future Shock

Neptune Frost” (2021, Kino Lorber) Adventurous U.S.-Rwanda production taps deeply into an appealing Afrofuturist vibe to explore the perils and opportunities created by technology through striking visuals and music. A joint effort between Saul Williams and Rwandan filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman, “Neptune” is in part a story about two lost souls – intersex fugitive Neptune (Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo) and miner Matalusa (Bertrand “Kaya Free” Ninteretse), who works in virtual slavery digging up coltan (which fuels our cell phones) – whose romantic/spiritual/technological connection fuels a hacker collective’s efforts to free the general population from a repressive regime known as the Authority. The characters’ fluid identities, which transcend notions of gender, sexuality, and even physical boundaries, is echoed in Williams and Uzeyman’s aesthetic, which flows freely from rough-hewn punk musical to freeform experimental narrative. It’s a unique and liberating concept of the future, one in which the notion of freedom extends beyond concept to become a palpable and desirable physical and emotional state; having issued “Neptune” through a Stateside theatrical release, Kino brings the film to Blu-ray with informative commentary by the filmmakers and six minutes of deleted scenes.

The Sacred Spirit” (2021, Arrow Video) Hypnotic and ultimately unsettling Spanish feature from director Chema Garcia Ibarra which concerns turmoil in a UFO-Egyptology group with cult-like leanings and its connection to the disappearance of a young girl related to its newly appointed leader. Most viewers will not need much convincing to believe that woo-woo groups like this have skeletons in their closet, but Ibarra keeps expectations off balance by shifting his focus between the banal (the day-to-day lives of the group and those in their orbit, so to speak) and the otherworldly, both of which are shot through with offbeat humor and some unique musical choices (a take on the Cranberries’ “Zombie”). The sleight-of-hand extends to such a degree that it ultimately serves as a blind for the audience, obscuring some terrible realities; in doing so, Ibarra delivers a succinct timely depiction of the pitfalls of unwavering faith in illogical ideas. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray includes an interview with the director, video essays on recurring themes and Ibarra’s previous works (several of which are included in the set), short making-of featurettes and a barrage of extended sequences and character details.

Beyond the Time Barrier” (1961, Kino Lorber) Air force pilot Robert Clarke breaks the time barrier with a high-speed experimental plane and finds himself in the far-off world of 2024, where the deaf-mute survivors of our ruined civilization (destruction of the ozone layer is the culprit) live underground with a mob of hostile mutants. Clarke also produced this unusual black-and-white science fiction thriller and hired eclectic auteur Edgar G. Ulmer (“The Black Cat“), with whom he worked on “The Man from Planet X” – see below – to helm the film. Ulmer invests the threadbare production with considerable energy and production style, thanks to Oscar-winning production designer Ernest Fegte, who assembled the unique triangular set designs on the grounds of the Texas Centennial Fairgrounds in Dallas. Not everything works – the seams show in the acting and talky script and the mutants’ bald cap makeup – but the finale has a satisfying sting that compares favorable to an episode of “The Outer Limits.” Kino’s presentation – part of its three-movie “Edgar G. Ulmer Sci-Fi Collection” – features vastly improved audio and video and commentary by Tom Weaver, who’s joined by music historian David Schecter and Gary D. Rhodes.

Dead Pigs” (2018, Film Movement) A river choked with the bodies of dead swine is a harbinger for the challenges that China appears unready to face as it modernizes ancient cities like Shanghai. As director Cathy Yan (“Birds of Prey”) rightly notes, disasters don’t emerge from a single source, but rather from years of neglect and cut corner, and the tide of dead pigs (based on a real incident in 2013) springs from an array of sources which Yan embodies through interlocking vignettes: a pig farmer nearly loses his livelihood due to his inept son’s (Mason Lee, son of Ang Lee) machinations, the farmer’s sister (Vivian Wu) owns a splendid house but actually lives in squalor, an American architect struggles to complete an invasive project but finds greater success as a sort of token “foreigner” on display for influencer Zazie Beetz. Yan takes impressive chances in stitching these elements together to form a sort of bitterly humorous and surreal net on which to capture China’s ills (which apparently continue to this day), and if some (Wu’s living arrangement) work better than others (the musical conclusion), “Dead Pigs” is still an original approach to selling a cautionary tale. Film Movement’s DVD include the 2013 short “Limitation of Life,” which addresses similar issues of social/political marginization.

The Man from Planet X” (1951, Kino Lorber) A spaceship from the titular planet touches down on the moors of Scotland (played by the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City) and sets off a panic among the locals while also attracting the attention of the military and scientific types (Robert Clarke, William Schallert) on both sides of the moral fence. Reportedly one of the first science fiction features to depict a visitor from outer space, “Planet X” is also a well-loved title among late-night and Saturday afternoon creature feature devotees, as well as an impressive testimony to director Edgar G. Ulmer’s ability to create suspense and palpable atmosphere out of very little: Ulmer’s use of matte paintings, rear projection, and studio fog to obscure the budgetary limits is on par with Mario Bava’s similar efforts with the threadbare budget of the more celebrated “Planet of the Vampires.” The fan favorite status afforded to “Planet X” is reflected in Kino’s presentation – part of its “Edgar G. Ulmer Sci-Fi Collection” – which offers not only a new HD transfer but also three commentary tracks: two vintage recordings (an overview by Tom Weaver with Joe Dante, David Schecter, and Dr. Robert J. Kiss, and a second detailed track by Ulmer biographer Gary D. Rhodes with clips from an interview with Ulmer’s daughter and tireless champion, Arianna Ulmer Cipes) and a new recording by historial/author Richard Harland Smith, who presents (typically) thoughtful and well-researched observations on both the production and its many participants, whose histories are detailed in full.

The Amazing Transparent Man” (1961, Kino Lorber) Crooked military man James Griffith wants to create an invisible army for his world-domination plans, and blackmails scientist Ivan Triesault for the formula and thief Douglas Kennedy to steal a necessary radioactive element. Low-wattage science fiction from Edgar G. Ulmer, filmed back-to-back in Dallas with “Beyond the Time Barrier,” plays more like a B crime picture with a heavy streak of postwar pulp tech fantasy; the tiny budget reduces the invisibility elements to a few fleeting process shots, but Ulmer’s talent for mining atmosphere and suspense from limited sets and camera set-ups (Ulmer directed one of the greatest B-noir title, “Detour,” on a similarly impoverished budget) makes up for any technical or plot deficiencies. Kino Lorber bundles a HD transfer of “Transparent Man” in its Ulmer sci-set with commentary by David Del Valle, who details the production challenges and elements of Ulmer’s off-screen life.

The Brain from Planet Arous” (1957, The Film Detective) Gor, a giant brain from outer space (and hiding in the Bronson Caves), transforms scientist John Agar into a aggressively horny, power-mad vessel for its world-domination plans; opposing Agar is a second, more benevolent brain, which chooses to operate from inside the dog owned by Agar’s confused fiancée (Joyce Meadows). Director Nathan Juran’s budget black-and-white fantasy/horror benefits greatly from a script (by Ray Buffum) that veers wildly from by-the-books ’50s sci-fi to overheated pulp fantasy; the accidentally surreal imagery is also a plus, especially Gor itself, which with its hooded eyes and gentle buoyancy resembles a malevolent party balloon; the sight of Agar, gurning wildly behind saucer-sized black contact lenses (which he uses to blast a plane out of the skies), is sure to disorient vintage creature feature fans familiar with his staid screen presence. Film Detective’s Special Edition Blu-ray offers full-screen and widescreen presentations of the film, along with a new introduction by Meadows (back on location at Bronson Caves); Meadows also joins Tom Weaver, Larry Blamire, and David Schecter on the commentary track, while Juran (“Attack of the 50-Foot Woman”) and producer/cinematographer Jacques R. Marquette are profiled in featurettes and the disc’s liner notes.

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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