Message Board (open 24 hours!)
Twitter - @andredursin (for everything else!)
In 1964, Sam Peckinpah – fresh off the success of his Randolph Scott western “Ride the High Country” – was hired by producer Jerry Bresler to shoot his first big-budget studio picture. “Major Dundee” starred Charlton Heston as a tough, uncompromising Union officer guarding a jail full of Confederate soldiers and other deviants in New Mexico. After a renegade Apache warrior ransacks a ranch – killing nearly everyone in its path, from Union soldiers to young children – Heston takes charge of tracking him down by any means necessary, including the recruitment of Confederate prisoners to join the cavalry.
Among the latter is Richard Harris as one of Heston’s former rivals, who joins The Major, scout James Coburn, and bugler Michael Anderson, Jr. (who also narrates Dundee’s tale) as the troops venture into Mexico to dispatch the Apaches, avoiding French interference along the way.
Originally intended to be a full-blown, three-hour Columbia epic – a la “Lawrence of Arabia” – Peckinpah, Heston and Bresler watched helplessly during production as the studio cut the budget back on the movie. The director and producer sparred over all kinds of problems, and according to Heston, Peckinpah’s off-set vices resulted in the star taking over the direction of the film for a time.
In the editing room “Major Dundee” became even more of a jumbled mess. Bresler and Columbia each removed sections of Peckinpah’s original cut, but according to most experts (notably “DVD Savant” Glenn Erickson), the movie was never satisfactorily completed or even fully formed on the printed page to begin with. Adding insult to injury was the addition of an occasionally inane musical score by Daniele Amfitheatrof, utilizing a Colonel Bogey-esque theme song by Mitch Miller & His Sing-Along-Gang that couldn’t have been more out of place.
Over the years “Major Dundee” has gained a sizable cult reputation (mainly among Peckinpah aficionados), with fans long hoping for a restoration that would finally bring all elements of Peckinpah’s “lost masterpiece” together for the first time.
Though initially billed by Sony as “an authentic American classic, at last presented as its legendary director intended!,” the 2006 Extended Edition (actually producer Bresler’s “Preview Cut”) of MAJOR DUNDEE (122/136 mins., PG-13; Arrow) was still – in spite of considerable restoration efforts – a flawed film with only intermittent flashes of brilliance. Nevertheless, its revival here in a terrific Arrow Special Limited Edition Blu-Ray – a superior release to Twilight Time’s 2013 effort – is cause for celebration for Heston and Peckinpah devotees as it offers superb 4K/2K presentations of both cuts of the film, along with ample extras, a 60-page booklet and foldout poster, all housed in a hardbound case.
Far from a classic, even of its genre, the movie nevertheless offers some spectacular moments and superb widescreen imagery, along with strong performances from an excellent cast — most of whom are poorly utilized in a script that never seems sure where it’s going or what precisely it’s trying to say. Is it a profile of American’s adventurous spirit in the dwindling days of the Civil War? A commentary on the futility of warfare in general? Even the experts seem divided on what the movie’s point is. Meanwhile, though some of the supporting characters have more of a place here (one of the chief criticisms of Columbia’s original theatrical cut), several still appear and then disappear with no rhyme or reason (and what exactly is the deal with Senta Berger’s love interest?).
Still, “Dundee” devotees will find much to rejoice about in the extended cut thanks to some 14 minutes of additional footage. I’ve grown conflicted over the years by Christopher Caliendo’s 2005 re-score that debuted with this cut, which offers a much different listening experience to Amfitheatrof’s original soundtrack. Caliendo’s music is appropriately dense and bombastic enough that it doesn’t sound entirely out of place for a mid ‘60s film, whilst retaining a modern sensibility that makes it, on balance, arguably more satisfying than Amfitheatrof’s work, which is marred by the Mitch Miller march and a laughably bad synthesizer “stab” whenever the Apaches appear on-screen. There are other times, however, when Amfitheatrof’s score seems more in-sync with the film and certainly the era in which it was produced.
Either way, purists can find comfort that Amfitheatrof’s music is offered here on both versions (the Twilight Time disc omitted Amfitheatrof’s score from the Extended Version), though the 5.1 DTS MA track (with Caliendo’s soundtrack) is unquestionably more satisfying in terms of sonic fidelity than the comparatively pinched 1.0 LPCM mono mix of the original soundtrack.
Arrow’s Blu-Ray presentations (a 4K scan of the extended version; 2K scan of the theatrical cut) are noticeable enhancements on Twilight Time’s previous disc, and both transfers (2.35) are far more robust than the 2005 DVD release, particularly when you consider the myriad quality of elements Sony had to work with. High bit-rates – typical for Arrow – add to the uptick in the transfer, though the shortcomings of the source elements do crop up here and there.
Supplemental features are also in abundance, many of which have been reprieved from Sony’s initial DVD, and several of which are exclusive to this release, as well as a deluxe box from the Australian label Imprint that was released a year ago.
That includes two commentaries by historian and “Major Dundee” expert Glenn Erickson. The Extended Cut chat with Erickson and Alan K. Rode is a reprisal of their Imprint track (recorded last year), while there’s also a 2019 Erickson solo commentary for the theatrical cut that’s been carried over from a German release. Both are enormously insightful, covering all aspects of the troubled production and editorial tinkering that occurred behind-the-scenes.
Also on-hand is the 2005 DVD group commentary with Peckinpah experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, who join moderator Nick Redman on a chat discussing the genesis of the film and how it fits in the Peckinpah canon. It’s a fascinating talk that’s well-balanced and surprisingly critical of the finished work throughout (most are even dismissive of the restored introduction of Richard Harris’ character in the longer version).
Also on the “Extended Version” (Disc 1) are three segments from video producer Mike Siegel that include the feature-length documentary “Passion & Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey,” sporting conversations with stars James Coburn, Senta Berger, Mario Adorf, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong and Gordon Dawson; “Passion & Poetry: Peckinpah Anecdotes,” rich with separate interviews from stars like Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Borgnine, Ali McGraw and Isela Vega among others; and “About the Passion & Poetry Project,” which includes Siegel talking about his Peckinpah retrospectives.
Siegel’s segments were produced for a German release and also offered on the Imprint Blu-Ray. What’s exclusive to Arrow’s release here is a video essay, “Moby Dick on Horseback,” that offers critic David Cairns discussing the picture, its production and themes.
The “Limited Edition Exclusive” is the Arrow set's 2nd disc, which includes the theatrical cut and additional extras. Among the latter is the vintage stunt featurette “Riding For a Fall” while additional deleted footage can be found in extended/excised scenes that feature outtakes and trims with Glenn Erickson's explanation of where they would've fallen in the completed film.
Note this Theatrical Cut disc is, again, exclusive to the Limited Edition, meaning Arrow may well offer a single-disc “Major Dundee” down the line only featuring the Extended Version, so this box-set comes highly recommended. Despite the movie’s shortcomings, Arrow’s Blu-Ray offers enhanced transfers, tons of fine extras debuting in North America and – flaws and all – is certainly worth a viewing for its brisk action scenes and excellent performances from Heston and Harris.
Also new from Arrow this month is Yasuzo Masumura’s compelling IREZUMI (THE SPIDER TATOO) (86 mins., 1966), a fascinating period story from writer Junichiro Tanizaki about a young woman (Ayako Wakao) who’s separated from her at-times hapless lover and kidnapped by a master tattooist. After marking a giant spider-creature on her back, the girl is trained to become a geisha and develops a borderline manic personality to match.
Despite being made in the mid ’60s – and being a little hampered in its explicitness – there are still a great deal of adult themes lurking about in this good-looking film, one that embraces both its period setting as well as a contemporary female component from its era. The movie is erotic and surprising as it moves briskly through its sub-90 minute running time, and Arrow’s terrific transfer (2.35) from a 4K scan is peerless. English subs are included with the Japanese PCM mono sound while supplements include a new commentary by writer David Desser; an introduction from Japanese cinema authority Tony Rayns; a new visual essay from historian Daisuke Miyao; and the trailer.
Coming July 20th from Blue Underground is yet another marvelous 4K UHD release: this one a reworking of the label’s DEAD & BURIED (94 mins., 1981, R), director Gary Sherman’s strange tale of a town where the dead return to life. Sheriff James Farentino is on the case but struggles to find a satisfying resolution to his problem (to put it mildly) in a screenplay from “Alien” scribes Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon that offers an attractive cast of cult faves: “Flash Gordon”’s Melody Anderson, “Willy Wonka”’s Jack Albertson, plus future Freddy Kruger himself, Robert Englund among them. Stan Winston provided the make-up effects and Steven Poster not only shot the film but approved this spectacular 4K 16-bit (1.85) restoration from the 35mm Interpositive – capped with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos sound (a 5.1 DTS MA track and the original mono mix are also included for good measure).
As with Blue Underground’s prior 4K UHD forays, you get your money’s worth – and then some – in terms of the transfer and sound quality, with the label’s Limited Edition packaging also housing a copy of Joe Renzetti’s soundtrack CD plus the remastered Blu-Ray. Even better, most of the supplements are all-new. These include a commentary with historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson (three previous commentaries are also included); featurettes “Behind the Scenes of Dead & Buried” and “Dead & Buried Locations: Now & Then”; brand new interviews with Gary Sherman and Joe Renzetti; a talk with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, who wrote the novelization of the film; and a collectible booklet with Michael Gingold’s liner notes. Reprieved from the label’s earlier disc from over a decade ago are trailers, still galleries, interviews with Englund and O’Bannon, and featurette “Stan Winston’s Dead & Buried EFX.”
The “Dark Castle” remake of HOUSE OF WAX (113 mins., 2005, R; Shout Factory) from producers Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis is a notch better than the company’s “Ghost Ship” and “House on Haunted Hill,” but roughly not as good as “13 Ghosts”…which doesn’t say a whole lot for this in-name-only update of the Vincent Price ‘50s favorite.
Elisha Cuthbert ditched her blonde “24″ locks for her role in the ‘05 “House of Wax,” which feels more like a variant on “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as a group of helpless teens (including Cuthbert, brother Chad Michael Murray, boyfriend Jared Padalecki, and pal Paris Hilton) find themselves stranded in a shady small town (is there any other kind in these films?). There, the group encounter a pair of maniacal brothers who reside in the “House of Wax” along with what appear to be too-lifelike human recreations…..and can you guess what happens next?
Obvious from the get-go, “House of Wax” has the same problems as its Dark Castle predecessors: namely, a bland, tedious story, cardboard heroes, and a distinct lack of surprises. Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s film is polished technically, I suppose, but there’s little of interest here from either a suspense or gore standpoint. It’s all routine from start until end, and maybe just a bit more mean-spirited than the norm — which is hardly an accolade.
Joining other Dark Castle properties at Scream Factory this week, “House of Wax” becomes a Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray with a new 2K scan of the interpositive (1.85) and a 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack. Fresh extras include new interviews with Paris Hilton, composer John Ottman, co-star Robert Ri’Chard, and makeup artist Jason Baird; ample extras resurrected from Warner’s original DVD release include an amusing half-hour “Video Commentary” with Cuthbert, Hilton, Murray and Padalecki watching various sequences and bloopers from the movie (it’s more fun than sitting through the film, at least). A discarded opening sequence and Making Of featurettes are also included along with the theatrical trailer, though ultimately, the 2005 “House of Wax” is best left for undemanding, hard-core horror fans only.
ALMOST FAMOUS 4K UHD (123/161 mins., 2000, R/Unrated; Paramount): Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” is one of his best movies. Certainly he’s made nothing since this film that came close to this picture’s blend of smart writing, fine performances and memorable scenes – attributes that colored both Crowe’s 161-minute “Bootleg Cut” as well as the acclaimed, 123-minute theatrical version that preceded it.
Based on Crowe’s own experiences as a teenage journalist covering the Allman Brothers Band (here dubbed a group named “Stillwater”), this is a wonderful coming-of-age picture and backstage pop music chronicle as youthful “William Miller” watches the drinking, drug-abusing, and woman-swapping hard-rockers from the ’70s go at it at a time when radio listeners were genuinely enthusiastic about the music on the airwaves. Frances McDormand is, as always, superb as Miller’s mom, with excellent turns from Billy Crudup (as Stillwater’s lead guitarist), Kate Hudson (as a groupie), and Patrick Fugit as Crowe’s youthful alter-ego making “Almost Famous” a kaleidoscope of memories and moments that you needn’t have lived through to appreciate.
Paramount’s 4K UHD of “Almost Famous” debuts this week in a collectible Steelbook package featuring two UHD discs – one for each cut of the film. The Dolby Vision HDR is sensational and so is the overall transfer here, appearing more colorful and robust than its previous 2011 Bootleg Cut Blu-Ray (the theatrical version never even made it to Blu-Ray in the U.S.), while the 7.1 DTS MA sound is more or less in line with previous releases. New extras include a recent Crowe interview, extended scenes, “odds and ends” and two featurettes, plus a veritable cornucopia of goodies from the 2011 Blu-Ray (Crowe’s commentary on the Booleg Cut, Making Of, numerous featurettes, etc.) and a Digital HD copy. Warmly recommended!
Also new this week from Paramount is THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE ON THE RUN (91 mins., 2020, PG). This time out, Spongebob and friends set to out to recover pet snail Gary, who’s gone missing — and, in actuality, is being held captive by King Poseidon in the Lost City of Atlantic City. Tim Hill’s effort boasts pleasing old-school animation and lots of pop culture references (perhaps too many), though the material is so locked into its own universe at this point that it’s best left for fans only. Paramount’s Blu-Ray/DVD includes DTS MA audio, an all-new mini-movie, deleted storyboard scenes, music videos and other goodies.