On July 22, 2014, Mill Creek Entertainment is slated to release six budget title Blu-rays, including films from 1985 all the way to 2006. This particular wave of Blu-rays includes The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), Flatliners (1990), The Last Action Hero (1993), the theatrical cut of Donnie Brasco (1997), Anaconda (1997), and lastly, 2006’s Gridiron Gang. I was able to preemptively pore over five of this week’s six Mill Creek releases and wanted to give you, fine reader, a rundown of which titles are worth the investment here. Because that’s what I do!
For the sake of consistency, I’ve decided to cover these titles in reverse chronological order by theatrical release date. To that end, then, I would be starting with the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vehicle, Gridiron Gang… had I actually screened it. Of the aforementioned six titles I skipped only Gridiron Gang and really only did so for reasons that have far more to do with my general disinterest in football than anything else. This is not to say that I categorically avoid things involving football, though. I have, after all, previously written a glowing review of the series The League. It’s just that it takes a lot to get me to actually sit down and watch a football movie unless, that is, it has very little to do with football in the first place and stars Bruce Willis, as Tony Scott’s incredible The Last Boy Scout (1991) does. But that’s the exception to the rule. Still, given the overall quality of the other discs I’ve screened from this wave, I should think that Gridiron Gang would be worth the money if you go for that sort of thing.
That brings us to the next most recent film of the bunch: Anaconda. Released in April of 1997, Anaconda seems to have been all-but-forgotten in spite of the numerous, mostly straight-to-video sequels it spawned. That is, it was all-but-forgotten until recently when the guys over at Rifftrax announced that a stretch goal of their Kickstarter campaign was to riff on Anaconda live through Fathom Events (a stretch goal they reached). And with Anaconda fresh on all riffing fans’ minds, I can’t think of a better time to debut the film on Blu-ray.
Revisiting Anaconda for the first time since selling my VHS copy of it at a yard sale back in 2003, I find myself torn. The performances and screenplay are far more awkward than I recalled. Even Eric Stoltz and Jon Voight are every bit as cartoony as the film’s CG snakes! Still, it’s a hell of a lot of fun if all you’re looking for from a film is to see people get eaten by snakes, which is frankly enough for me from time to time. What’s more, the transfer here, while it wouldn’t win any awards or anything, is actually really solid given the title’s budget price (at this very moment, Amazon has it on sale for $5.19 in pre-order).
Donnie Brasco (1997)
Released in February 1997, the mob flick Donnie Brasco, starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, may not be on par with the likes of The Godfather (1972) or even a Goodfellas (1990), but I’ve found it to be endlessly rewatchable over the years in no small part because of the performances from Johnny Depp and Pacino, who plays an uncharacteristically screw-up of a wiseguy. Indeed, with Depp as an undercover cop who gets drawn deeper and deeper into the underworld he sought to expose, Donnie Brasco relates one hell of a compelling narrative about the conflicts that arise from living a double life as a criminal. And it’s based on a true story, in fact, though some of the dramatic embellishments are rather obvious, such as the police officer’s close friendship with the gangsters.
This release too boasts a perfectly acceptable video transfer, but it is plagued by some stodgy audio in the last reel. During and after Pacino’s final scene in the film, the audio is somewhat distant-sounding, tinny and echo-y as hell (at least on my copy). You might not notice it if you haven’t yourself spent a lot of time appraising Blu-rays or making films as I have, but it may be a deal-breaker for some. For me, though, it’s not that big a problem. After all, given that I already owned the extended cut of the film on DVD and Mill Creek’s Blu-ray features only the truncated theatrical cut, it had been my intention all along to package the two discs together on my shelf in a slap-dash two-disc edition.
The Last Action Hero (1993)
Next up is The Last Action Hero, a film that I’ve had a rather complex relationship with over the years. I saw it in the theater with my family as a youth and watched it countless times when it aired on HBO (or Cinemax or whatever premium station played it in the mid-90s). I then revisited it as an adult some four or five years back and where I used to find it clever and happily epic in scope, I suddenly found the whole thing rather gratingly repetitious and needlessly long.
Now, as a parent myself I suppose, I can find the magic in it once more. I’m now able to transport myself back into the shoes of my young adult self, wishing I too could escape the confines of my reality and venture forth into the world of cinema I so adored. Sure, maybe I still don’t laugh at it where I used to, but hell, some things are destined to fade I guess. Even still, I find I have an enormous soft spot for Last Action Hero in this aging heart of mine. (That got dark fast, didn’t it?)
The release here is on par with that of Anaconda, which is to say solid in the visual department and without any noticeable audio hiccups.
The only title apart from Donnie Brasco that does feature any technical issues of note is Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners, which also has a bit of tinny-ness in one scene, but it wasn’t noticeable for more than a shot or two. What’s more, it at least occurs in the film’s first act rather than its closing moments, making it easier to ignore/excuse. That is, of course, if you’re willing to ignore or excuse anything in the film.
To its credit, though, I actually quite like the concept of Flatliners. In it, a group of med students try to find out what awaits mankind after death by killing and reviving themselves. I even enjoy some of the performances immensely—the cast features Keifer Sutherland alongside Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, Oliver Platt and William Baldwin. Unfortunately, in the hands of Schumacher, Flatliners is a heavy-handed and thematically obvious exercise in melodramatics. Any levity in the script, much of which is placed in the hands of Oliver Platt as the pseudo-comic relief, is lost amidst the pervasive, incessant brooding that infects every element from the performances to the lighting and set design. It’s so needlessly melodramatic, in fact, that it often proves downright unintentionally hysterical, as when the characters’ hair can be seen blowing in wind indoors during the climax.
This is perhaps the third or fourth time I’ve sat through Flatliners, always hoping to like it more and feeling that somehow I should. I just can’t get over the feeling that the film should be brighter, less oppressive in its opening moments and then get progressively gloomier. Instead, it starts out gloomy and stays gloomy. The only difference between the opening scenes and the post-flatlining scenes is that it seems Schumacher and cinematographer Jan de Bont decided to use more blue gels over the lights as they went along.
The Legend of Billie Jean (1985): The Special “Fair is Fair” Edition
Billie Jean is the only one of the five films discussed here that I had no prior experience with. My immediate reaction to it is that I wasn’t sure if I should find it sweet and optimistic with regard to its positioning of teen idolatry as a potential force for good, or if it’s really just a cynical and patronizing attempt to make teenagers believe they can affect change by clinging to media darlings. Honestly, I’m still not sure which it is.
All I know is that this thing is 80s as hell! With Pat Benatar, Billy Idol and the Divinyls all over the soundtrack and Billie Jean’s awe-inspiring short hair and massively baggie pants, this picture no doubt inspires endless warm, nostalgic feelings in those who grew up with it. As someone who’s only just now discovering the joys of The Legend of Billie Jean, I do find its 80s-ness exceedingly charming, especially the soundtrack; I was incredibly happy to see actor/director Keith Gordon of John Carpenter’s Christine (1983) among the cast; and I couldn’t help but marvel over how young Christian Slater is in this picture. (Seriously, he looks like he’s 10!)
Still, I can’t help but be put off by how rape-y the film gets prior to Billie Jean (Helen Slater) earning teen idol status as an outlaw. I wondered if that was really necessary, if the filmmakers were aware that they had made physical assault a prerequisite for inspiring young girls. I was also bothered that the film depicts the financial inconveniencing of the antagonist as a just punishment for his attempted sex crimes. It’s hardly the poignant comeuppance the film would have us believe it is.
All told, I suppose I’d say I’m neither a fan nor a detractor of Billie Jean. I can certainly see the appeal, but for me, being able to rewatch the film in the future would require a nostalgic connection to it that I simply do not have. However, watching a good deal of the film with commentary after my initial viewing did aid my appreciation of it a great deal, I must say. With that in mind, I should point out that, of all the releases discussed in this article, all are bereft of special features save for Billie Jean, which boasts a commentary track featuring Helen Slater and co-star Yeardley Smith (better known for playing Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons).