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The Shelf: Pleasant Blu-ray Surprises of 2014

I get a whole lot of Blu-rays to review for this here Shelf. A lot of them are titles I’ve never heard of, or never had the chance to watch when they were in theaters or on television. Some of these were just oversights on my part, and some of them were titles that didn’t look like they’d be anything but ended up being fantastic. So, friends, below you’ll find the movies or TV shows that I discovered on Blu-ray this year and wish I’d gotten to much earlier. (Last year’s big winner was Orphan Black.)

Rick and Morty: Season 1
Adult Swim produces a lot of television and not all of it is for me. One show I kept hearing about from people was the Dan Harmon co-created Rick and Morty. Being the big Community fan that I am, I kept the cartoon series on my radar but never actually got around to watching it until it came time to review the Season One Blu-ray for this column you’re reading. I don’t say this lightly, but Rick and Morty is one of the best science fiction series on television right now, and also one of the most twisted and hilarious comedies. It does both perfectly, straddling the line between conceptual adventurousness and complete bonkers zaniness. Harmon and co-creator Justin Roiland have made a show that isn’t just throwaway gags. Each episode also leads into the next one, with emotional resonance carrying over week to week. Some episodes even end on a very somber character moment. It’s amazing how good it is. It’s like Doctor Who and Douglas Adams at their best, mixed with puerile (but undeniably funny) humor.

For the uninitiated, Rick and Morty centers on a mad scientist/dimension jumper/evil good guy Rick Sanchez (voiced by Roiland) who has reunited with his adult daughter Beth (Sarah Chalke) and her family after a number of years and has been invited to stay. Rick is an alcoholic madman who invents crazy gadgets and travels time and space for the betterment of….something or other. His son-in-law Jerry (Chris Parnell) is a well-meaning dolt who gets annoyed at Rick’s sci-fi-ness. His granddaughter Summer (Spencer Grammer) doesn’t care much about what’s going on unless it impacts her tenuous social standing. Rick’s forced partner in crime and the one with whom he has the closest bond (despite his hiding it) is his 14-year-old grandson Morty (also Roiland), a shy and nervous boy who gets thrown into weird and dangerous situations on the regular to appease Rick’s whims. Throughout the series, the friendship between the two gets tested and strengthened and it’s pretty amazing that a show like this, in which aliens and monsters and evil mind-altered dogs exist, can have such a strong emotional core.

Of the eleven episodes comprising the first season, almost all of them are winners, but the real standouts for me are “Anatomy Park,” a mash-up of Fantastic Voyage and Jurassic Park, “Rick Potion #9,” in which Morty’s desire to make a pretty girl love him turns everyone into hideous monster people and only the family aren’t infected, “Rixty Minutes,” where Rick hooks up the family’s cable so they can watch television from every alternate dimension (with some of the most belly-hurting laughter of the whole show), and “Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind” where the Ricks and Morties of many different dimensions arrest our universe’s Rick and Morty for murdering 27 other Ricks and Morties.

The Blu-ray contains deleted scenes, a small (and very bizarre) making-of featurette, and commentaries on every episode by Harmon, Roiland, and a rotating mixture of crew members. There are also guest commentaries by Robert Kirkman, Matt Groening, Pendleton Ward, and more. I don’t think I can say enough good things about this show, which I hope goes on for many more years to come.

Nightbreed Director’s Cut
Clive Barker only directed three feature films, despite his enormous literary and filmic influence on the horror genre. His first film, 1987’s Hellraiser, is still hailed as a masterpiece of ’80s S&M nastiness and gave birth to a series of sequels each starring Pinhead, known at the time simply as “Lead Cenobite.” His second film, however, was not met with the same plaudits, but that was largely not Barker’s fault. He wanted to adapt his novel Cabal into a film and, off the back of Hellraiser, was backed by a nice, though still modest, budget to do so. However, when any kind of money gets involved, producers and studio execs get to have their say, and even remove people from the project. The film, 1990’s Nightbreed was all but taken away from Barker and given to a new editor, veteran Mark Goldblatt, to stitch together into something shorter, and “easier” to ingest, according to the brass. The theatrical cut of the film was a bomb both critically and at the box office and was forgotten in fairly short order.

However, a small cult following for the film grew and eventually from that following came a fan edit of the film, called “The Cabal Cut,” which put in some video elements of footage that was thought lost to time. This ran a full 40 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, but was still not what Barker’s original vision was. Leave it to Scream Factory to come through, though. This release of Nightbreed features a brand new edited restoration of the film using film that Barker himself thought was lost to time and the result is the definitive edition of the movie, as close as possible to what Barker’s initial cut of the movie was.

The film follows Boone (Craig Sheffer), a troubled young man who has recurring nightmares about demons and things. He also blacks out and wakes up random places. This, naturally, scares his singer girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby), but she nevertheless stands by her man. Boone is in therapy with Dr. Decker (director David Cronenberg) who convinces Boone that he must be committing the various heinous and bloody murders taking place in town, except it’s actually Decker himself doing the killing in possibly one of the creepiest masks ever put to celluloid. Boone keeps dreaming of a place called Midian and wants to go there, which he does (Midian is located inside a cemetery) and is met by two demonic people, one of whom bites Boone in the chest. Boone is then gunned down by the police, who believe he’s the murderer, at Decker’s insisting, but his body sinks into the ground and he becomes a “Nightbreed,” one of the ancient race of outcasts who live underneath the cemetery of Midian.

Boone is destined to be Midian’s savior, but his ties to the human world are still strong, in the form of Lori who continues to investigate his disappearance. Decker, also, finds out about Midian and believes Boone’s existence, and the existence of the Nightbreed, will endanger his rampant killing and he enlists the help of a racist, gun-toting local sheriff to lay siege to Midian. The end of the film is equal parts horror film and western, and is mightily entertaining.

There’s something incredibly imaginative about all the demon people in Midian, and of Midian itself. In the theatrical cut, lingering shots of the underground kingdom are few, but in the director’s cut they’re back to their original glory. The makeup on the various, distinctive “monsters” is exceedingly well done and manages to make them all gnarly and strange without losing the actor’s ability to emote and use their eyes. The music is done by the great Danny Elfman and its pounding brass and percussion really do help give the film a style and pace. Overall, Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut is a damn fine 2 hours of horror and a love letter to Barker and his overlooked classic.

The Blu-ray special edition features both the new cut and the theatrical cut, but all the best special features are on the solo Director’s Cut release. These include a new making-of documentary, a look at the makeup effects, and a commentary featuring Barker and director’s cut producer Mark Alan Miller. A great set, highly recommended.

Under the Skin
In a strange mixture of The Man Who Fell to Earth and Taxi Driver (kind of), Jonathan Glazer’s sparse and moody Under the Skin plays like several layers of a weird fever dream. Scarlett Johansson plays an extraterrestrial wearing the suit of an attractive human woman who drives around Scotland picking up various blokes and taking them back to her “flat” which is really some insane black void wherein the unsuspecting and entranced men are submerged in water and their innards are summarily yanked out of their body to be used as fuel(?) or food(?). Throughout, the alien observes humanity with the disaffected curiosity of a cat looking at a bug but eventually she begins to wonder (quietly, in her head) about what her form actually means.

Read my full review of Under the Skin here!

Tom Hardy stars as the titular character in this surprisingly tense and compelling film where he is the only character seen onscreen. We follow the lonely drive of Ivan Locke, a family man and build-site foreman, as he leaves his responsibilities in order to correct a mistake he made the year before. The film plays out with Locke in his car trying to make sure his family doesn’t fall apart by phone and that his work commitments are met by someone else in his stead. It’s a lot tougher than you’d think. Hardy is masterful in a surprisingly quiet and calm role, but nevertheless he boils with intensity below the surface as things begin to unravel around him. He utterly proves he can carry a movie.

To read my full review of Locke, click here!

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