Tim Robbins’ searing, Oscar-winning account of crime, compassion, forgiveness and redemption, 1995’s “Dead Man Walking”, arrives on Blu-ray for the first time, reaffirming Susan Sarandon’s brilliance, and again showcasing a moral complexity that few Hollywood studio films these days even attempt, much less get right. Inspired by a true story, the movie centers on a nun, Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon), who gets a letter from a convicted killer on Louisiana death row, Matthew Poncelot (Sean Penn), asking for her assistance on his final appeal before execution. She has no real experience in such matters, but relents, and finds herself sucked into Poncelot’s story, feeling empathy for both the alleged killer and his victims.
Once one gets past Penn’s ridiculous bouffant-hairdo-and-goatee combo, there’s some gut-churning acting on display here on both sides. Still, this is no agitprop. Robbins’ framing of the death penalty issue is deft, and at times almost subliminal — always subjugated to the human entertainment value (a strange phrase to deploy, yes) of Prejean and Poncelot’s wrenching, at times downright antagonistic interactions. The Blu-ray comes on a 50gb dual layer disc, and is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, with a crisp 5.1 DTS-HD master audio track, as well as French and Spanish Dolby surround tracks. Apart from the movie’s trailer, an audio commentary track from Robbins is the only supplemental feature, and given the real-world split of Robbins and Sarandon, one doesn’t surmise that a special edition with reunion interviews is on the short-porch horizon. Still, Robbins is an erudite guy, and his shared thoughts on everything from the movie’s on-location production and performances to, especially, its themes, are welcome, and deeply interesting.
A distinct lack of nuance or quality special effects mark “Mega Python Vs. Gatoroid”, the latest SyFy Channel offering to make its way to home video. A rather purposefully schlocky tale of reptiles run amok, the movie is also otherwise notable for its blast-from-the-past headliners — erstwhile pop singer “rivals” Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, each expanding their IMDb resumes by snagging producing credits — and the fact that, since it’s written by Naomi Selfman and directed by Mary Lambert (“Pet Sematary”), it’s a uniquely estrogenized genre effort. None of these qualities save or outweigh what unfolds on screen, however. The story finds animal activist Nikki Riley (Gibson) accidentally unleashing a python into the Everglades, which fells, among others, the boyfriend of Dr. Terry O’Hara (Tiffany). O’Hara then helps create genetically enlarged gators to stop the slithering menace. Reptilian teeth-gnashing, over-the-top bloodletting and human hair-pulling ensues, building to a gloriously ridiculous finale involving a nuclear power plant.
The aim is low here, to be sure, and the dialogue (which is peppered with references to the stars’ pop pasts, including some of their lyrics) is knowingly cheesy, which makes for a small bit of amusement. But Lambert’s film still miscalculates its mission, loading up on special effects battles and other bits that are nothing more than risible. Less would have been more, really. (Think “Anaconda”, which had Jon Voight as the biggest ace up its sleeve.) Fun-time campiness can be achieved via narrative construction alone, even given as puffed-up a genre conceit as “Mega Python Vs. Gatoroid” possesses. Unfortunately, no one involved seems to believe in the inherent interest level of their story, and so amidst all the clutter and clamor, that basic lack of confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The movie arrives on Blu-ray in a so-so 1080p high-definition 1.78:1 widescreen transfer, with a robust DTS-HD master audio 5.1 sound track. Special features consist of only an 11-minute making-of featurette and the movie’s trailer.
On the other end of the cultural spectrum, meanwhile, is “Living in Emergency”, a gripping documentary and jury prize winner at Cinequest, from director Mark Hopkins. Running a lean but still devastating 93 minutes, the film interweaves the stories of four Doctors Without Borders volunteers as they struggle to provide medical care under some of the most extreme and dangerous conditions imaginable. While the endless litany of medical shows on the small screen have given American viewers a glimpse behind-the-scenes of trauma treatment, the fact remains the series like “ER”, “Grey’s Anatomy” and the shortlived “Off the Map” are first and foremost soap operas, driven by the characters’ sexual interests and exploits. No such fluffiness or sugar-coated entertainment here. Still, Hopkins manages to get into the personalities and character traits of these amazing individuals — including a 26-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears Aussie and a war veteran ground down by all the horror he’s seen — in an edifying way, while also not sacrificing the natural drama of the Doctors Without Borders story.
Presented in 16:9 widescreen, “Living in Emergency” comes to DVD with a 5.1 audio track and a small but powerful clutch of bonus features, inclusive of an interview with Hopkins and a town hall discussion with author Sebastian Junger and Doctors Without Borders executive director Sophie Delaunay, moderated by ABC News’ Elizabeth Vargas.
Finally, for music fans, there’s hardly a more iconoclastic figure out there than Neil Young, whose wide-ranging tastes and headstrong attitude, as much as his any innate talent, have helped him chart a unique career that’s lasted almost five decades. Interesting if a bit repetitious, the two-hour talking-head documentary “We Are Here in the Years: Neil Young’s Music Box” delves into the legend’s influences and influence, in a crazy amount of detail. From Young’s love of Elvis Presley and Little Richard and other trailblazers who basically created rock ‘n’ roll when Young was, well, young, up through his admiration of Kraftwerk and Devo, and embrace of grunge, this title makes a compelling case for Young as the ultimate young-at-heart rocker. If, owing to its unauthorized status, it’s frustratingly short of the sort of performance clips that underscore its points, this movie still is a great catch for those interested in the man and his lifelong musical mission. Extended footage and digital biographies of interviewees rounds out the DVD presentation here, which comes on a region-free disc in full-screen, with a simple stereo mix.
Written by: Brent Simon