Blu-ray Reviews: Twilight Time Goes Around the World (and Then Some)

Six globetrotting adventures and dramas make their HD home video debuts, including a Sonny Chiba disaster flick and that missing title from you Ray Harryhausen collection.
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Although statistics and insurance companies tend to inform us most accidents occur within only a few miles of our own places of residence ‒ sometimes mostly within their very confines themselves ‒ storytellers and filmmaking industries prefer to place protagonists into plights far from home. And there is perhaps no greater assortment of variable cinematic journeys than this particular lot from Twilight Time, which range from being perfectly cordial to posing downright perilous situations for their passengers. You know, the very sort of tales that keep audiences glued to cinema seats ‒ be it from euphoric glee or sheer suspense. But for me personally, nothing was quite as surprising than seeing the Toei Company logo on a Twilight Time cover.

Indeed, Twilight Time's first live-action offering (the animated Harlock: Space Pirate being the official first Toei release from Twilight Time) from the famous Japanese studio shoots its way up to the top of the list for this article. Quite appropriate, really, considering the title in question is the 1975 all-star thrill ride, The Bullet Train (or, Shinkansen daibakuha, as it is known as in Japan). A far-East contribution to the far-out disaster movie genre of yesteryear, Junya Satō's focuses on the multifaceted dramatics of what happens when a couple of desperate men (or, "terrorists," as they are usually called in America these days) place a bomb on a high-speed passenger train with approximately 1,500 people aboard.

With a hefty ransom and an even heftier explosive set firmly in place, our pitying antagonists alert authorities and officials the bomb will go off should the public transportation vessel drop under 80 km/h. Yes, that's right, kids: The Bullet Train was the unofficial foreign precursor to the 1994 surprise hit Speed. But whereas that uncredited American remake was fairly frugal with its big-name actors (Dennis Hopper is all you need, really), this ode to the very sort of big-budgeted U.S action-dramas it would later inspire (how's that for a little slice of irony?), The Bullet Train managed to stick to the original formula by wrangling in just about every top actor in Japan, even if it's just to pop up for a quick cameo (and there are plenty).

Stripped of a good 40 minutes worth of backstory for its limited U.S. release in '76, The Bullet Train has primarily been seen in its eviscerated, English-dubbed form since then (when it actually has been seen, that is; I have yet to lay eyes on the U.S. theatrical one-sheet from its domestic release, thus warranting a completely unfounded suspicion on my part alleging said American release was nothing but a big fat Commie lie), usually cropped down to 1.33:1 for home video. Fortunately, that situation has been rectified with this Twilight Time release, which gives us the original uncut Japanese-language version of the film (in DTS-HD MA Mono 2.0) with optional English subtitles, as presented in its proper widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

While I think it would have been kind of cool to hear the dubbed U.S. audio (what there was of it, I should say), its absence is not missed here. In its stead is composer Hachirô Aoyama's original score, which is included along with sound effects as a bonus DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. Also included as a special feature for this international disaster flick is a newly-produced 25-minute featurette entitled Big Movie, Big Panic: Junya Sato on the Bullet Train. Director Junya Satō (who looks pretty darn good for being in his early 80s) has much to say about his film, from its humble origins to how well the movie did in Europe. (Americans only watch Japanese movies when Raymond Burr, Glenn Ford, or Lorne Greene are awkwardly spliced in.)

Set in another Eastern county, just a few miles past where the Sea of Japan meets the neighboring continent, lies a magical country known as China. Prior to being internationally renown for cheaply manufactured lead-based goods and air force training drill videos which look an awful lot like stock footage from Top Gun, China was once home to The Keys of the Kingdom, as you can clearly see for yourself in this superb 1944 drama from director John M. Stahl. Here, the great Gregory Peck puts forth a fine performance as Father Francis Chisholm, a Catholic priest who is far too honest and kind with his parishioners, which results in him being sent to fend for himself (oh, and God, too) way off to that paganistic China place.

But that's just the beginning of a moving motion picture which should serve to remind the truly faithful (religiously or otherwise) that mankind is in this together, for better or for worse. Sir Cedric Hardwicke narrates the tale (as told from Chisholm's diary), which extends back to our protagonist priest's childhood (and honestly, who doesn't want to see Roddy McDowell play a young Gregory Peck?) and throughout the many trials and tribulations he endures in the East. Benson Fong ‒ aka Charlie Chan's Number Three Son ‒ delivers one of his meatiest (as well as most tender) roles as Chisholm's faithful worshipper (the only one in China, in fact). Another Charlie Chan alumnus, Kung Fu's Philip Ahn appears as an influential local ambassador.

A venerable who's who of character actors further blesses The Keys to the Kingdom, including Thomas Mitchell as Chisholm's cynical physician friend; the masterful Vincent Price as our hero's seminary-era pal who turned into a pompous ass; Rose Stradner as the headstrong nun who decides Chisholm's methods are much too lax. Edmund Gwenn and Jane Ball also appear, while James Gleason and Anne Revere earn a special mention as a married Methodist couple whom our kindly priest befriends because he's not a jerk. Another honorable shout-out goes to Dennis Hoey, who played Inspector Lestrade in the classic Sherlock Holmes series, who has an uncredited, barely recognizable part as Peck's father in the film's flashback.

Alfred Newman provides the score to this this uplifting drama from screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who also produced) and Nunnally Johnson (from the original novel by A.J. Cronin) Twilight Time gives us The Keys via a beautiful transfer that presents cinematographer Arthur C. Miller's impressive work most effectively. The Keys of the Kingdom in its intended 1.33:1 aspect ratio with DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono sound with English (SDH) subtitles. Special features for this four-time Oscar nominated classic include an audio commentary with movie historians Kenneth Geist and Chris Mankiewicz, the isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 score we have all come to expect from Twilight Time, and the original theatrical trailer in glorious HD.

Heading in a slightly north by northwest direction (which is all the more amusing considering Alfred Hitchcock had briefly considered directing The Keys of the Kingdom), we find ourselves in Europe, where the bulk of 1954's melodrama The Barefoot Contessa takes place. Ten years after The Keys of the Kingdom, Joseph L. Mankiewicz ‒ who had brought us A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve, and Julius Caesar during that time ‒ returned to write, produce, and direct this jet-setting tale of a has-been Hollywood director (brilliantly played by Humphrey Bogart) and a carefree dancer named Maria (Ava Gardner) who catches the eye of every male in the room no matter where she goes (usually much to her chagrin, but I guess that's how it goes for some people).

And the first male to spot her in The Barefoot Contessa is a foul-tempered business mogul Kirk Edwards ‒ brought to nerve-wracking life by Mr. Warren Stevens ‒ who, like so many people afflicted with millions, doesn't know what to do with it. So, Edwards decides to produce a movie, forming an unholy trio with the out-of-work Harry Dawes (Bogart) and a sleazy alcoholic publicist (or, "publicist," if you prefer) named Oscar Muldoon (the great Edmond O'Brien, looking very much like a Dennis Quaid prototype in a role that would nab him another kind of Oscar for his efforts). Naturally, Edwards tries to land Maria in more than just his movie when he sees her in Madrid for the first time, because we all know how polite and considerate rich slobs are with women.

With Harry's good-natured guidance, Maria does indeed succeed in becoming a star. Alas, her gypsy soul ‒ particularly when it comes to the arena of amore ‒ only makes things more troublesome (well, to the jerks, that is), especially once she starts to woo an assortment of high-profile men such as a Latin playboy (UK-born Marius Goring) and a mysterious Italian count (Rossano Brazzi, who had made his American film debut earlier that same year in Three Coins in the Fountain). Elizabeth Sellars (as Bogie's wise and mild-mannered wife) and Valentina Cortese (as Brazzi's sister) also appear in this award-winner filmed entirely in Italy (back when filmmakers weren't too lazy to travel and produced many a film at Cinecittà studios in Rome).

The Barefoot Contessa waltzes her way into the lives of cinephiles once more courtesy Twilight Time and the MGM/UA library. Presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this title from Twilight Time features a rare DTS-HD MA 3.0 audio track (the film was originally released in such as a fashion, which was advertised as Perspecta sound) in addition to 5.1 and 2.0 selections (also in DTS-HD MA) with English (SDH) subtitles. Mario Nascimbene's score appears as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 selection, and there's also an audio commentary with historians Julie Kirgo and David Del Valle. Mr. Del Valle also shares his collection of related stills for this release (galleries are something which Twilight Time titles seldom feature) and the original theatrical trailer.

Horace Greeley once advised us to "Go west." But then, so did the Pet Shop Boys, so before we move into the land best known for its crazed gunmen, we'll hang out in Merry Old England for a tad, where your inflight movie is Nicholas Nickleby. Based on The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens, this 2002 charmer from American director Douglas McGrath finds Channing Tatum and Chris Hemsworth hybrid Charlie "I Only Starred in One Good Movie and This Is It" Hunnam in the titular role. Looking very much akin to an undertaker in the Old West (wait, is that a connection?), Hunnam is, fortunately, a supporting actor in his own starring vehicle, given his fellow performers a chance to shine in the process.

And what a cast, too! First, there's Hunnam's heartless on-screen uncle, Christopher Plummer (The Night of the Generals), who sends the young lad off to a squalid, brutal home for impoverished youth run by an utterly evil Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson. There, Nicholas meets and befriends Billy Elliot himself, Jamie Bell (it's OK, he doesn't dance in this one), whom he takes with him when they decide to hit the road, wherein they make the acquaintance of not only Nathan Lane and Barry Humphries (as Mr. and Mrs. Crummles, naturally), but Alan Cumming too. From there, Nickleby goes to work for twin brothers Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan, before setting his eyes on a beautiful young Anne Hathaway (seriously, how did the casting director not win an award?).

Denied of an honest chance to be seen in the U.S. when first released (duds such as Death to Smoochy and Kung Pao! Enter the Fist both received better advertising than this one did!), Nicholas Nickleby returns to claim his rightful place in your home video collection courtesy Twilight Time. Looking better than he ever has, Nicholas sports a crisp transfer from the MGM/UA library, with DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 audio selections and English (SDH) subtitles. Special features for this contemporary classic include an isolated score, commentary with writer/director Douglas McGrath, several behind-the-scenes featurettes (which are presented in Standard-Def and have been ported over from the earlier U.S. DVD nobody bought) and a theatrical trailer.

Meanwhile, back in the States, our journey of discovery lands us in the waters of one Woody Allen. Stardust Memories ‒ Allen's loving nod to Federico Fellini's 1963 classic 8 ½ ‒ didn't exactly break any box-office records when it was first released in 1980 (although it did manage to break even, albeit barely), but has since managed to find itself a proper fanbase. The story here finds the neurotic comedian filmmaker extraordinaire as ‒ wait for it ‒ a neurotic comedian filmmaker extraordinaire. Times have been good for Sandy Bates' career, enabling him to crank out a number of successful comedies. But that was yesterday; Sandy has been trying to ditch his image so that he may make more serious directorial endeavors.

Alas, studio heads are trying to re-cut his latest artistic effort, which is nothing to laugh about for poor Sandy. And neither is the barrage of fans who continuously hound him at the small town festival he is attending (in his honor, of course), all of whom seem to share the same opinion of his attempts at serious work. So, with not many places to turn to on the outside, Sandy begins to reflect a bit too much on the inside, engaging in a delicate, difficult balancing act between two entirely different women. On one side of Sandy's desires is a slightly domesticated French housewife and mother of two named Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault). On the other hand (so to speak), there's a free-spirited, open-minded admirer named Daisy (Jessica Harper, Inserts).

Of course, when it rains, it pours: even as Sandy debates over his romantic prospects in the present, his mind keeps wandering off to the distant, haunting memory of an emotionally unstable actress (Zardoz's Charlotte Rampling, in a dynamic supporting role) whom he used to date. A number of familiar faces (or at least names) also pop up in this enjoyable slice of life imitating art imitating life, including Sharon Stone, Daniel Stern, Brent Spiner, Tony Roberts, famed film critic Judith Crist, and the late great Irwin Keyes. Twilight Time's beautiful Blu-ray release includes a DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack with optional (SDH) subtitles. The limited selection of bonus features for this release includes an isolated score in DTS-HD MA 2.0 and the film's original theatrical trailer.

Now then, as we have essentially traveled the span of the entire globe for this article, there are only a few places we could go from here. We could go up into the unexplored reaches of space, or possibly venture beneath the planet itself. But we won't. Not this time, kiddies. Rather, since this journey has brought us all the way from the Far East to the (Mid)west, it is only fitting we set forth into the same land most Americans seem to live in this day and age: a weird world of fantasy where just about anything can happen. That's where the imaginative mind and work of the late great Ray Harryhausen comes into play, delivering laughs, thrills, and good times aplenty in Jack Sher's 1960 adventure classic for Columbia Pictures, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver.

The fifth Harryhausen title to make its North American Blu-ray debut from Twilight Time, this release of The 3 Worlds of Gulliver also fills in a certain gap in the collections of fans, as it is the final feature film to have been crafted by the late animation pioneer to receive an HD home video release (unless you count Irwin Allen's documentary The Animal World). Here, Kerwin Matthews, fresh from appearing in Harryhausen's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad two years before, once again takes the lead, albeit this time as Jonathan Swift's immortal traveler, Gulliver. Co-starring with him on this adventure are Jo Morrow, June Thorburn, Lee Patterson, Martin Benson, and, in her final film role, former stage legend Mary Ellis.

The trouble starts when Gulliver's fiancée Elizabeth (Thorburn) stows away on a voyage around the globe to make sure her beloved doesn't get into any shenanigans. After all, he might meet a little woman or two. In fact, he meets an entire land of little people ‒ women and men folk alike ‒ after they are shipwrecked on an island of tiny human beings. The "Super-Dynamation" outing from Harryhausen continues with a polar opposite once our hero (and heroine) wind up on another, neighboring island inhabited by giants. Expect the usual social, political, and religious commentaries, which are further enhanced (or concealed, depending on what you're looking for) by Bernard Herrmann's score, which is included here as an isolated track in DTS-HD MA 2.0.

Additional special features for Twilight Time's The 3 Worlds of Gulliver include an audio commentary with Randall Cook, C. Courtney Joyner, and Steven C. Smith participating. Several archival goodies from the old Columbia SD-DVD include a handful of featurettes (presented here in Standard Definition) and the original theatrical trailer (which is in HD). Most interesting of all, however ‒ and I believe this may be a first for Twilight Time ‒ is the option of viewing The 3 Worlds of Gulliver in 1.66:1 or 1.77:1 widescreen. With many indie distributors starting to offer "open matte" versions of their releases (or even a "mostly open matte" release), I consider this to be quite a nice extra, especially if you grew up watching old full frame VHS copies like I did.

All six movies from this globetrotting batch of Twilight Time titles also include lovingly penned liner notes and thoughts from Julie Kirgo. Each release is limited to only 3,000 copies, which are available while supplies last from the official Twilight Time Movies website and/or Screen Archives). So hop on your couch and get ready to take the journey of several lifetimes.

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