Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Twilight Time - THUNDERBIRDS and ROLLERBALL on Blu-ray ""

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Twilight Time - THUNDERBIRDS and ROLLERBALL on Blu-ray

Gerry Anderson's much beloved cult creation got a much deserved bump in attention circa 2004 when Trey Parker and Matt Stone put out their film TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE. The South Park creators are certainly no strangers to showing love to cult classics that are outside the mainstream. They even did a whole episode of their show dedicated to the animated favorite HEAVY METAL. I must say though, as a THUNDERBIRDS fan (of both the TV Show & the films), I couldn't have been more tickled to see a throwback marionette movie hit the multiplexes ten years ago. And though it's a bit of a different animal, upon a recent rewatch of THE INCREDIBLES, I couldn't help but think that THE THUNDERBIRDS might have crept in as an influence there as well. I think that the first time I ever came across the movies was in the "cult" section of a local rental store called Video Station. I have always been fascinated by video store cult sections and this particular one was rather inspiring and turned me onto a lot of new stuff if I recall. I was absolutely drawn to the VHS covers for both THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO and THUBDERBIRD 6. My first reaction was one of "this has got to be a joke right?". But in examining them and looking further into the movies I was immediately fascinated. I watched the films and liked them very much. Then, years later when the THUNDERBIRDS TV show debuted on DVD in the states, I couldn't snap them up fast enough. I was absolutely on board with this particular "cult".
THUNDERBIRDS was smash hit TV show in the UK from 1965-66 and something of a global sensation (though it was not as widely sold to American television). Shot in "Supermarionation", all the famous, elaborate vehicle launch/takeoff sequences that were used in and a staple of the show were reshot in widescreen. It's easy to see the appeal of the show even now, especially as it would have been great for younger viewers. In watching these adventures of The Tracy clan, we see a quasi-futuristic version of a family of James Bond types (one of the brothers is even modeled on Sean Connery) played out with puppets and what are basically enormous playsets. The Tracys are a remarkable family of great resources and their more of an international rescue team than spies. They have their own little island/home base where they live and keep many of their fantastic vehicles and aircraft. They're kind of like The Brady Bunch meets S.H.I.E.L.D. or something and it still a hoot to watch them take to all of their special planes, rockets and other craft. They even have a "Q"-like scientist guy called "Brains" that has designed their vehicles and so forth. The THUNDERBIRDS really tapped into the Jonny Quest part of my brain when I first saw them and they carried a nostalgic weight to them somehow even thing is never seen them as a child. And speaking of children, I was very pleased to introduce my little girl to the Tracy Family and even though they were forty-five years before her time she still was still engaged and intrigued by them.

This Blu-ray is another of those Twilight Time discs that rivals any Criterion release out there as far as depth of extras (though some of them have been ported over from the MGM DVDs). Let me break it down per film:
-Two Audio commentary tracks - one with Producer Sylvia Anderson and Director David Lane plus another with Twilight Time's Nick Redman and Jeff Bond (of Geek Magazine). Both tracks are great and informative. The Anderson/Lane track is a very jovial, screen specific affair where they both affectionately discuss how a lot of the sequences were filmed and the challenges their in. The Redman/Bond commentary is solid too and gives more background and cultural context.
-"Excitement is Go! - Making Thunderbirds" (23 mins) A new retrospective featurette featuring interviews with Gerry Anderson and his son Jamie. They both talk about the origins of the show and mention a real-life mining disaster that Anderson was inspired by. They go on to talk about Anderson's AP Films team and how they evolved in developing the puppets and worked their way up to the final designs used on THUNDERBIRDS.
-'Cliff Richard & The Shadows - Unseen Test Footage' (17 mins). Down & dirty B&W test footage that was most likely shot for and used as reference for a musical sequence in the film.
-"History And Appeal" (11 mins) Along the lines of the Making Of, covering the background to and story behind the film. Sylvia Anderson, David Lane and a film historian are the primaries here.
-"Factory of Dolls and Rockets" (9 mins) Sylvia Anderson, David Lane & Mary Turner discuss the puppets and the Supermarionation process.
-"Epics in Miniature" (8 mins) Lane and others talk about the decision to shoot the film in Techniscope to give it a more cinematic look and how they designed the special effects to work in that format.
-"Come With Me To the Rushes" (:30) Short anecdote from Sylvia Anderson.
-"What Does F.A.B. Mean?" (:30) Sylvia Anderson answers this much asked question.
-Isolated Score Track
--One other neat little bonus is that the folks at Twilight Time were able to put the long missing credit sequence back at the front of THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO (which had apparently not been seen on home video since an old Pan and Scan UK VHS release).
-Audio commentary track with Producer Sylvia Anderson and Director David Lane.
-"Lady Penelope" (10 mins) - Sylvia Anderson talks about writing for and developing the character of Lady Penelope.
-"Building Better Puppets" (8 mins)
Sylvia Anderson and Puppet Coordinator Mary Turner talk about designing the puppets for film.
-"Tiger Moth" (6 mins) Film Historian Richard Holliss talks about THUNDERBIRD 6 being more character and dialogue driven than THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO. David Lane also talks about the Tiger Moth bi-plane being introduced in this film and how the did live-action flying sequences.
-"A Call from Stanley Kubrick" (1 min) Sylvia Anderson tells a short anecdote about being approached by Kubrick to potentially do special effects for him.
-Isolated Score Track.

ROLLERBALL (1975; Norman Jewison)
I've always found this film to be rather interesting in that it is a big budget Hollywood production of a dystopian sci-fi story. And, I might add, from the director of a lot of prestige films for MGM.  Norman Jewison had done FIDDLER ON THE ROOF just four years prior and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT four years before that. James Caan was hot on the heels of GODFATHER II, but had already made some very interesting project choices in the midst of that his involvement with that franchise. SLITHER, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN and even THE GAMBLER are all pretty great in one way or another. That being said, he too had never really delved into sci-fi. Did I mention that John Houseman is on this movie too? He was coming off of THE PAPER CHASE, which is about as far a cry from dystopian science fiction as you can get. Oh and I can't forget Maude Adams. Though I can't nevessarily talk about this movie being a departure for her (because she just didn't make enough movies in general) she's simply gorgeous whenever I see her I wish she'd been cast more often.
I think that one of the things I find most memorable about ROLLERBALL is that that the futuristic setting is done in a subtle way. From the opening notes of Toccata & Fugue as they play over our first glimpse of the futuristic arena as a match of Rollerball is about to take place. The arena itself, the players, their uniforms and vehicles all show both a futurist vibe and also carry with them a sense of Roman gladiatorial combat. The game itself and how it is played feels like something that would have been played in the postapocalyptic world of something like THE ROAD WARRIOR but in this case it has been co-opted by corporate America and made into an epic television spectacle. In his commentary, Jewison says that even back in 1975 he was already starting to feel the escalation of frenzied sports fanaticism and was a bit disturbed by where things seemed to be headed. Not to take a run as sports in general here, but it is an odd thing to think about how focused we as a society have become on sports and sporting events and just how much money is paid to professional athletes these days. This is not a new thing by any stretch, but I feel like things have never stopped escalating even to this day and the rise of the internet and social media have only allowed us to focus on these things even more. Jewison's commentary was recorded in 1997 and has been ported onto this good-looking new Blu-ray. That's more than 17 years ago now, so Jewison isn't able to take into account how much more has happened since then. There wasn't even any fantasy sports leagues then either. All of this makes ROLLERBALL even more intriguingly prophetic in retrospect. Beyond that, the film's underlying message of corporatization couldn't be much more dead-on and I'd love to hear Jewison's thoughts on where we are now on that front (and how frightenly close we've come to the world of ROLLERBALL) as well as economically with the even steeper divide between the very rich and everyone else. I myself hadn't even seen the film since about 2000 so it was a very interesting and thought-provoking rewatch to say the least.
Anyway, all that aside, another neat thing about the film is its production design. The stadium design is one thing, but there's so much more to dig into begin that. The clothing, vehicles, office and home design are all wonderful to my mind. That is to say that I have always had a soft spot for this sort of interpretation of the future from a point of view in the past (1975 in this case) and how it looks so many years later. Of course things look antiquated and odd to us now, but that's always been quite charming to me. I've often felt that ROLLERBALL had a certain kinship with LOGAN'S RUN. They were released only a year apart, and I've always connected the two films in my head. I'm excited for folks to give this one another look as I feel like it hasn't had a decent looking release (or even a 16x9 transfer that I know of) to date. Since it was one if the earliest films to get a DVD release, it kind of slipped through the cracks as far as any kind of upgrade. This Blu-ray looks great and couldn't be a bigger step up from the last time I saw the film. Absolutely worth picking up.

Special Features:
-Two Audio commentaries: one with director Norman Jewison and a second with writer William Harrison. 
Both good tracks. Jewison is an engaging speaker and has lots of great recollections of the film, its conception, sets and production design as well as story and thematic elements. Harrison in his track talks about his original short story and how he came to adapt it for the screen.
-"From Rome to ROLLERBALL: The Full Circle(8 mins) Vintage press featurette from the time of the film's release.
-"Return to the Arena: The Making of ROLLERBALL" (25 mins) Retrospective featurette including interviews with director Norman Jewison and the cast and crew as they recall the production and why they became involved with it. Jewison and others have a lot to say about the political subtext and potentially prophetic nature of the story and violence on television and corporatization. 

1 comment:

Andrew Wickliffe said...

Your mention of ROAD WARRIOR in the ROLLERBALL write-up sort of points out how that film--along with Logan's Run and Death Race 2000--never really figure into discussions of how dystopian movies progressed through the 70s. It was an interesting period where sci-fi became mainstream but apparently not memorable. Or memorable for the wrong reasons. Even though I don't like it, ZARDOZ is another mainstream 70s sci-fi.

Also--glad to hear they kept the audio commentaries. At least the Jewison was on the laserdisc (I had that one).