John Carpenter's Starman on Blu-ray

John Carpenter's movies are always worth seeing, but perhaps his most accessible film for mainstream audiences was 1984's Starman, a gentle and smart tale about an alien marooned on earth and his challenges getting home again.

Jeff Bridges stars, and his outstanding performance was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, in this movie that's a little bit E.T., with a little bit of Star Trek the Motion Picture thrown in, but which is every bit its own movie.

Bridges' alien comes to earth in response to the invitation that was sent as a recording on the Voyage space probe. Unfortunately, the U.S. military doesn't realize that and shoots his landing pod down, where it slams into a forested area of Wisconsin. Starman manages to make his way to a local house, where he clones a human body for himself from the hair sample of a deceased man whose wife Jenny (Karen Allen) still lives there – and who still hasn't gotten over the fact that her young man has died.

Needless to say, finding her dead husband in front of her again, right out of the blue, freaks her out. But Starman manages to convince, or at least cajole, her into helping him reach a meteor impact crater in Arizona to meet his rescue ship. The catch: he only has three days or he'll die.

The other catch: The U.S. authorities are all over the case and are using a SETI scientist seconded to their section (Charles Martin Smith) to track the alien down. And it looks like, despite Smith's best intentions, the military doesn't necessarily have the alien's best interests at heart.

So we have a cross country chase movie during which Starman learns earth's ways – well humanity's ways (often in very funny or very heartwarming ways) – exorcizes Jenny Hayden's ghosts and gives her reason to live again, pisses off some rednecks, really annoys the authorities, and in the end goes home, after which all is suddenly well again.

In some ways this is a very un-Carpenter-like movie, for people who may only have a passing knowledge of the director's body of work. But Carpenter has a sure touch and gets a lot on screen. This alien adventure doesn't feature a lot of special effects, though the ones there are are very good, and instead is character and situation driven, with characters and situations you can really get your head around.

And while Carpenter has been a sci-fi movie staple for years, Starman is nearly un-sci-fi-like. Oh the situation is obviously science fiction, but the execution is gentle and loving and focuses on the building relationship between Jenny Hayden and Starman, a situation enhanced by the excellent performances of Bridges and Allen. We understand why Jenny wants to escape, yet we also understand later when she's presented with the opportunity to escape and nearly takes it – but then changes her mind and sticks with Starman to help see him safely to his rendezvous point.

And while the federal agents for the most part are basically cartoons, Carpenter and the actors imbue them with a sense of purpose that, in most cases, goes beyond simple paranoia and fear of the unknown.

It's an exquisite combination and Starman ends up being one of Carpenter's most enjoyable films – and he's made a bunch of enjoyable films.

 The Blu-ray is a tad disappointing, though, especially since we watched it nearly back to back with Sony's release of Blue Thunder, a contemporary to Starman (they came out only a year apart) that looks and sounds spectacular on Blu-ray.

Starman's presented in 1080p widescreen (2.4:1) and while overall the picture is clean and clear and colorful, it doesn't come close to leaping off the screen with that spectacular "depth" you can get from the high def format – and which you get in Blue Thunder.  There's a softness to it that may work for the film in some ways, but we're always happiest when it looks as if you can reach into the screen and pluck out a character.

Audio, which is Dolby TrueHD 5.1, is a tad bright in places but overall pretty good. Your subwoofer won't get a particularly good workout, but the five main channels get used well and the overall balance and tone is very good.

Then there are the extras. Well, actually, there aren't. This is a very Spartan disc and all you get is the movie itself, with not even a trailer offered as bonus material. This seems weird and, though we always say we'd rather have a spectacular version of the movie than a bunch of extras, this movie just isn't spectacular enough so far as its transfer is concerned not to make us feel a bit wanting – especially since there's undoubtedly a lot of fascinating material that could accompany Starman.

But it was not to be – at least until the inevitable "Special Edition."

Starman, from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
115 min. 1080p widescreen (2.4:1), Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Starring Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel
Executive producer Michael Douglas, produced by Larry J. Franco
Written by Bruce A. Evans & Raynold Gideon, directed by John Carpenter

Big Trouble in Little China

"Big Trouble in Little China" on Blu-ray Disc

By Jim Bray

If you liked the martial arts action of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," then this Blu-ray is a must see. Of course, it's a must see for many more reasons than that.

John Carpenter and Kurt Russell team up yet again in what has to be one of the funniest action films ever. Think of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" meets "Abbott and Costello."

Russell is Jack Burton, a big lunk of a semi driver/owner. Burton's a brash blowhard who thinks he can handle any situation. Then he finds himself facing the demons of hell when his friend's fiancee is kidnapped and swept away to be the bride of David Lo Pan, a 2000 year old creature who needs a green eyed beauty in order to become flesh once more and rule the world from beyond the grave.

Well, Jack and his Chinese friends obviously don't want to see that happen, and their outrageous adventure takes them below San Francisco's Chinatown and into a world of magic and mayhem that has to be seen to be believed - and even then it's pretty unbelievable.

Kurt Russell is an actor who is obviously secure in who he is, because his character is not your run of the mill action adventure guy. Rather, he's a big and brash oaf who, while brave enough, doesn't really have a lot on the ball and spends a good part of the movie either complaining about his lot in life or trying to unravel himself from situations into which he's gotten himself, while the real action stars around him go on to do most of the work.

In the end he comes though, of course, earning his place in the legends of Chinatown.

Russell is terrific as Burton. He's larger than life and smaller than life at the same time, and he allows himself to be made to look like a complete idiot - and pulls it off. Kim Cattrall, as a lawyer who has a problem with her face (in that there are some who want to push it in), is a wonderful foil to the big lunk as she delivers her lines with machine gun speed. Dennis Dun plays Burton's friend Wang Chi whose fiancee gets snatched by Lo Pan's (the ubiquitous James Hong) minions, and he is also very good.

In fact, there really isn't a bad performance in this film. Even the minor roles are beautifully cast by director Carpenter and he gets the most of out them.

Add to that a screenplay that rockets along at warp speed, a rhythmic John Carpenter-composed (with Alan Howarth) musical score that perfectly complements the action, incredible martial arts and fight choreography, and special effects by ex-ILM guru Richard Edlund, and you have an exciting, hilarious movie that you'll want to have in your collection. In fact, this just may be on my list of desert island discs, up there with such classics as Ben-Hur. It's no Ben-Hur of course, but it doesn't pretend to be. It is what it is and if you get it you'll laugh youself silly and want to see it again and again.

Heck, I only got the Blu-ray three days ago and I've been through it twice - once for the film and once for the film with its glorious commentary with Carpenter and Russell.

To sweeten the deal, 20th Century Fox, who never really understood this movie (perhaps until it started making money on home video), has come up with a reasonable package that does this cult classic justice. Some of it has been recycled from the DVD release of a few years back, but it's still good stuff nonetheless - and some of the stuff is new.

The movie itself has been transferred lovingly, with a beautiful 1080p widescreen picture and pounding dts HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack.

While it doesn't have quite the "depth" I was hoping for, the picture (2.35:1) nearly pops off the screen: you couldn't ask for a much better transfer. Just a little better. The image is razor sharp, colors are gorgeous and the movie has never looked as good as it does here. It's quite spectacular.

Audio is nearly as good. It isn't as great as you can get from today's all-digital sources, but it's still very satisfying, and uses all the channels very well. Fox has even thrown in D-BOX motion code (so says the box, anyway; we don't have D-BOX in our home theater).

The best of the extras is the aforementioned and very delicious running commentary by director John Carpenter and star Russell. These guys are old friends (who'd worked together five times when they recorded this commentary for the DVD release) and it's a delight to hear them catch up with this, one of their favorite efforts together, as well as with each other. Their commentary wanders far away from the movie at times, but it never stops being highly entertaining.

You also get a bunch of deleted and/or extended scenes and a vintage featurette on the film's genesis (and it's a decent one). Effects whiz Richard Edlund shows up for an interview culled from the DVD, but the Blu-ray adds a feature exploiting your Blu-ray player's ANGLE button that blows up the illustrations accompanying the interview to full screen. Also new for the Blu-ray is an isolated dts 5.1 isolated score track.

Add in an extended ending I think they should have left in, a music video featuring Carpenter himself on vocals and bass, a behind the scenes gallery trailers and TV spots, and you have a pretty compelling package.

I'd have been happy with having only the movie in this lovely high def version, but I'm glad Fox stuck the rest of the stuff on the disc as well, especially the commentary.

Big Trouble in Little China, from 20th Century Fox Home Video
99 minutes, 1080p widescreen (2.35:1), dts HD Master Audio 5.1
Starring Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, James Hong, Dennis Dun, Victor Wong
Produced by Larry J. Franco,
Written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, Directed by John Carpenter


Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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