Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Gift Sets: ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘Die Hard,’ W.C. Fields, and the American Avant-Garde

BackFuture30Back to the Future: 30th Anniversary Trilogy (Universal, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD) – “The future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.”

October 21, 2015, is a date foretold… in Back to the Future II! That’s right, it’s not just the 30th anniversary of the original Back to the Future, it’s the day that Marty travels to in the second installment of the time-traveling trilogy.

Of course there’s a new 30th Anniversary special edition trilogy edition on Blu-ray and DVD to mark the occasion, and for the entire month of October, Amazon Prime members can stream all three films as part of their subscription.

Michael J. Fox goes backwards, forwards, and sideways through time as Marty McFly in a souped-up DeLorean for the first time in Back to the Future (1985), where he jaunts back to 1955, meets his parents (Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson), and finds a younger (but just as crazy) Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), the genius inventor who builds the time travel device and has to concoct a way to get Marty back to 1985. The film’s hopped-up energy, action movie slapstick and tongue-in-cheek cheek social commentary spoofing helped turn it into a blockbuster hit and a pop-culture sensation so director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer / producer Bob Gale came back with two sequels.

Back to the Future Part II (1989) sends Marty ahead in time and then back to play in the margins of the first film. Glover bowed out of the sequel and Elizabeth Shue took over the role created in the first film by Claudia Wells. Back to the Future Part III (1990) takes on another era: it’s the old west of 1885 and Mary Steenburgen is a schoolmarm who is sweet on Sheriff Brown.

None of the films have been remastered for this new edition and the individual discs include the commentary tracks, featurettes, behind-the-scenes shorts, and other supplements from the previous releases, including the six-part retrospective documentary “Tales of the Future,” an exhaustive and entertaining look back at the origins, production and reception of all three films (it’s divvied up over the three discs) and “Looking Back to the Future,” a 45-minute look into the production and reception of the original film, which is on the bonus disc.

Exclusive to this release is a new introduction from Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown, who also appears in the 9-minute original short “Doc Brown Save the World” (which explains who all those inventions seen in Part II don’t exist in our reality), and the featurette “OUTATIME: Restoring the DeLorean,” plus two episodes of the Back to the Future animated series and two commercials from the movie’s version of 2015: a trailer for Jaws 19 and a hoverboard commercial.

Nakatoni Plaza Die Hard Collection (Fox, Blu-ray) is a gift set with a gimmick and this gimmick is pretty darn cool: a 16-inch tall scale model of the skyscraper featured in the original Die Hard. And in the base of this altar to the franchise is a collection of all five films.


The original Die Hard (1988) is still a touchstone for action movie fans, the film that turned wisecracking lug Bruce Willis an action hero and set the tone and attitude of adrenaline-driven crime thrillers for decades to come. The film drops New York cop John McClane in a Los Angeles skyscraper to match wits with terrorist Alan Rickman and his ruthless crew when they lock down the building on Christmas Eve. It’s another Christmas and another crisis for McClane when he battles terrorists (led by William Sadler) at a snow-bound airport in Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), the film that launched Renny Harlin’s short reign as a Hollywood action king. McTiernan is back for Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) and Samuel Jackson becomes Willis’ reluctant ally when criminal mastermind Jeremy Iron puts them through a lethal game of Simon Says. It was more than ten years before the fourth film and Willis is older, balder, and a lot more banged in Live Free or Die Hard (2007), helped by smart-ass hacker Justin Long to take on 21st century supergenius Timothy Olyphant and the biggest cyber-crime theft in history. Len Wiseman directs this one, using ever bigger set pieces to distract from the script’s shortcomings. The franchise is running out of ideas and fuel by A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), which sends Willis to Moscow to bail his estranged son out of jail. Of course he ends up in yet another mad genius criminal conspiracy. What makes them all work (well, the earlier ones anyway) is Willis as the banged up veteran held together by his scar tissue, roused to action because he’s the guy in the place to do it, and kept sane by his sardonic sense of humor. Yippee Ki Kay!

The films have not been remastered since their last Blu-ray release and the discs features all the supplements from previews disc releases—filmmaker commentary on each film (Willis joins the party on the fourth film only), featurettes, interviews, and other goodies—and a bonus disc with the terrific seven-part Decoding Die Hard, which explores the series through all five features (it was originally included in the 25th Anniversary collection). The Live Free and Good Day discs both feature original theatrical and extended unrated versions of the films. There’s also a booklet with stills and trivia and postcards featuring the villains of all five films.

But it’s really notable for its distinctive packaging. The discs themselves are held in an easy to access booklet-style case with sleeves for each disc, but the case is in the base of a startlingly large plastic model of Nakatoni Plaza, the skyscraper setting of the original Die Hard. You can pull the disc case out and put on the shelf with the rest of your collection and put that shrine to Willis and the Die Hard legacy in a place befitting a holy relic. It’s something only a fan could love, but boy, what love it will bring them.

WCFieldsW.C. Fields Comedy Essentials Collection (Universal, DVD) – W.C. Fields movies more often resemble vaudeville acts than narrative films, strings of gags held together by the loosest of plots and Fields’ own bellicose nature. He’s tyrannized victim as often as insolent bully, often in the same film, and Universal pays tribute to the merry misanthrope in this generous collection. Packed efficiently in a compact disc case, doesn’t bother with extras. It’s all about packing in the movies and there are 18 features in this five-disc set. Most (though not all) have been on disc before. I can’t begin to review them all, so here are a few highlights from the collection.

The anthology comedy If I Had a Million (1932) makes its official (aka legitimate) DVD debut in this set, practically buried in the bunch. This was a high-concept comedy from Paramount in that its made up of eight separate stories, each helmed by a different director, all connected by a single act: a dying millionaire splits his fortune between eight strangers. Fields stars in one of the tales, using his windfall to take his revenge on the frustrations of modern life in the era of the automobile. Other recipients of the windfall include Charles Ruggles, Gary Cooper, May Robson, Gene Raymond, and in the shortest, most perfectly-pitched episode (directed by Ernst Lubitsch), Charles Laughton as a clerk emboldened by his newfound freedom.

It’s A Gift (1934) is a W.C. Fields masterpiece. He’s a bumbling, long-suffering small town storekeeper, henpecked at home, tormented by nightmarish customers on the job (the disaster-prone blind man in glass ware is a classic bit), and suckered into selling it all to buy a California orange grove, sight unseen. The road trip only offers more indignities from his ever-complaining wife, narcissistic daughter, and possessed toddler son. His plodding perseverance is a victory in itself.

He’s the owner of a fleabag circus in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), where he finds a worthy sparring partner in Charlie McCarthy and eludes creditors with bravado and bluster. In every instance Fields mutters and sputters while he doggedly endures one situation after another as a hard-bitten but ultimately soft-hearted underdog. He finds another worthy screen partner in Mae West with My Little Chickadee (1940), a crazed western written by the two iconic stars in their first and only film together. Joseph Calleia, Dick Foran, Ruth Donnelly and Margaret Hamilton star. The Bank Dick (1940) was his last great film (which he scripted under the pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves), the slim story of a small town drunkard and put-upon family man enlivened by delicious situations (an inebriated Fields directs a movie and turns a car chase into a slapstick tangle) and drawled bon mots. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) stars Fields as both a caricature of himself pitching a madcap script to a long-suffering movie producer (Franklin Pangborn) and the hapless hero of his absurd globetrotting odyssey. The nonsensical farce was Fields’ final starring role and Gloria Jean, Leon Errol, and the indefatigable foil Margaret Dumont co-star.

Million Dollar Legs (1932), an unsung classic, features Fields as the genial president of a dotty European duchy that would give the Marx Bros.’ Freedonia a run for its lunacy. You’re Telling Me! (1934) gives the dog his day and Fields rises to the occasion as an eccentric inventor who doesn’t let universal rejection stop him from wreaking havoc on the lives of his family and friend with his madcap creations. The Old Fashioned Way (1934) features Fields as scheming theatrical manager The Great McGonigle and Baby LeRoy is back as his devilish infant nemesis. Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) stars with Fields in tyrannized victim mode as the henpecked husband whose one harmless rebellion brings down the vengeance of his incensed boss and his overbearing in-laws. The musical comedy Poppy (1936) is a remake of the silent film Sally of the Sawdust with Fields again playing small-time con man Professor Eustace P. McGargle, the role that originally made him a star on stage and screen.

Fields isn’t the star of Alice in Wonderland (1933), Paramount’s all-star take on Lewis Carroll’s books, but he certainly makes an impression griping and quipping as Humpty Dumpty, which is a giant costume that the actor may or may not actually be inside. He’s joined by Cary Grant (voicing the Mock Turtle), Gary Cooper (bumbling through as the White Knight) Edward Everett Horton, Edna May Oliver, Ned Sparks and a roll call of character actors whose faces and voices are more familiar than their names. And he teams up with George Burns and Gracie Allen in International House (1933), an early “television” comedy which is less a Fields film than a comedy revue, and they share the screen with Peggy Hopkins, Bela Lugosi, Rudy Vallee, and Cab Calloway.

Filling out the set are Tillie and Gus (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934), Mississippi (1935), and The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938). Also includes the vintage 1965 program Wayne & Schuster Take an Affectionate Look at W.C. Fields, originally made for Canadian TV.

Be assured that the age of the flipper disc is over. Each of the five discs is single-sided, with three to four movies squeezed onto each disc. Since so many of Fields’ comedies are around an hour long, that’s not as tight a fit as it might appear on the surface.

MasterworksAvant-gardeMasterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970 (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) presents 37 classics of avant-garde and experimental filmmaking from the 1920s through the 1970s, curated by Bruce Posner and produced by David Shepard.

They are not all American films despite the title—Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mechanique (1923) and Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1926), which both play with the graphic elements of film, are both from France—but otherwise the selection offers some of the most influential experimental films of the fifty-year period and a journey through the changing modes of expression over the decades. The early Manhatta (1920), a lovely portrait of New York City (newly restored in 2K and absolutely gorgeous on the screen), and A Bronx Morning (1931) emphasize the poetry and beauty of it images. These are like tone poems and offer an American answer to the “Symphony of a City” movies of Europe.

Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mechanique (1924) also gets a 2K restoration. It’s a film of rhythms, a succession of images edited into a kind of visual music, and features a delightful cut-out animation recreation of Charlie Chaplin. It’s accompanied by the score composed for its premiere by George Antheil for 16 player pianos and percussion.

I have a fondness for The Life and Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra (1928), a playful little black comedy from Robert Florey and editing legend Slavko Vorkapich that uses animation, inexpensive special effects, and a mix of German Expressionist and Russian Formalist techniques for thoroughly American experiment in storytelling.

Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), a landmark among landmarks, is still one of them most provocative works of avant-garde filmmaking, using symbolism and dream imagery to express anxieties and desires not seen on the screen.

Animation is used for its abstract possibilities in An Optical Poem (1937) and Tarantella (1940), while the abstractions of modern art inform Evolution (1954) and Hurry, Hurry! (1957). Also includes films from prolific avant-garde filmmakers Bruce Baillie, Jonas Mekas, Lawrence Jordan, and Stan Brakhage. Nine of the featured films are on the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

There have been many fine anthologies of experimental and avant-garde films released in the last ten years or so. The major difference that this collection offers, apart from variations in the particular titles chosen, is HD transfers of all 37 films (including two newly restored editions mastered in 2K) on both Blu-ray and DVD. Film texture is an essential element of many of these film, especially those from the later years as filmmakers played with film stocks, optical effects, mixed media techniques, and other manipulations to the photographic image and, in some cases, directly to the celluloid materials. These HD transfers get us closer to the texture of the films as seen on the screen.

This fine collection also features newly-composed and/or recorded scores to many of the silent films, plus a booklet with credits and notes on the films and filmmakers. The set features the complete collection on both two DVDs and two Blu-rays.