Blu-ray Reviews: “Soul Power,” “Black Dynamite,” and More

Written by Blu-ray Reviews, Film

The screen is still dark when James Brown’s disembodied voice comes barreling out of the speakers, letting you know he’s ready to get up and do his thing. It’s startling — and it sets the tone perfectly for Soul Power, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s stellar documentary about the Zaire ’74 music festival. Running over three nights and featuring the talents of Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz, Miriam Makeba, and others, Zaire ’74 was dreamed up as an accompaniment to the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” title fight; in fact, Power was culled from some of the same footage that yielded Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings. But even if you don’t give a damn about boxing, don’t let that deter you from watching this film, which is fascinating both as a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of how the festival came together and as a powerful portrayal of several soul and R&B heavyweights at their peak.

There is, in fact, precious little to do with the fight in this film — partly because Foreman’s last-minute postponement of the bout meant the concerts took place well before he and Ali stepped in the ring, but mostly because Zaire ’74 was amazing in its own right. Watching Soul Power, it’s hard not to be annoyed that this was an arthouse flick during its limited theatrical run. How was the festival itself not a global phenomenon? Why did it take 35 years for someone to make use of all this footage? Why wasn’t it a blockbuster when it finally came out? And finally, why the hell hasn’t someone released a soundtrack? This isn’t obscure stuff — it’s vibrant and essential, and these songs hum with an energy that’s just as fresh today as it was when the performances were recorded. Rarely has a movie been more worthy of its title.

The Soul Power Blu-ray looks and sounds wonderful — though the footage’s age necessitates a fair amount of grain, the colors are rich and vibrant, and the soundtrack, which announces itself so powerfully early on, is magnificent. The special features are somewhat skimpy — deleted scenes, a commentary track with Levy-Hinte and festival producer Stewart Levine, and movieIQ content that gives you added information about the artists and the film, as well as the ability to arrange a playlist of your favorite performances — but when the main feature is this good, it really doesn’t matter much, does it?

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Filmed decades after Soul Power, but looking like it was made the following week, is Michael Jai White’s blaxploitation homage Black Dynamite, which takes what should have been a five-minute gag — ghetto badass takes on The Man in a deliberately flawed satire — and turns it into a brilliant comedy that’s good for a few dozen belly laughs even if you’ve never seen a single one of the movies it’s meant to spoof.

Though I thought Dynamite occasionally strayed too far into parody (such as the scene where a boom mike wanders so far into the shot that White glares at it), those moments are so few and far between that they’re hardly worth mentioning; more often, Dynamite‘s torrents of casual profanity and poorly choreographed violence will keep you laughing too hard to nitpick. White is perfect as Black Dynamite, the ex-CIA officer who’s roped back onto the force after his undercover brother is slain in a drug bust gone wrong. Is The Man turning ‘hood orphans into junkies? Is malt liquor involved somehow? Will you revel in the endless parade of familiar faces — including Mykelti Williamson, Bokeem Woodbine, Tommy Davidson, Arsenio Hall, and Obba Babatundé — that pop up in supporting roles? You bet you will. Dynamite!

For film buffs, Dynamite is something of a minor visual marvel, because it accurately replicates the oversaturated colors and high contrasts of the era without resorting to fake grime on the print. The result is a movie that takes you back to the ’70s without overdoing the gimmick, and one that looks great on Blu-ray in the bargain. The soundtrack is in 5.1 DTS-HD, but it didn’t need to be; everything is mashed toward the center, just as it would have been in Dolemite’s day. Bonus features include a wonderfully entertaining commentary track, behind-the-scenes featurettes, footage from Black Dynamite‘s Comic-Con panel, deleted and alternate scenes, and movieIQ content.

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Press releases that promise their product “revolutionizes” something are almost always bullshit, and so it is with Universal’s new “flipper discs,” which offer Blu-ray and DVD versions of the same movie on a single disc. It’s definitely handy technology, at least for those of us who still own more DVD players than Blu-ray players, and there’s nothing wrong with their $30 price points, either — but they’re liable to cause excitement mainly among shelf space-starved Disney consumers who find themselves running out of room after buying one too many of the studio’s Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy packages.

Publicist puffery aside, film buffs have no reason to argue with the flipper discs — or with the movies chosen to mark their debut: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum. All three come equipped with “U-Control” interactive features which, when enabled, give the viewer the option to view everything from background information on a scene (particularly helpful later in the series) to visual commentary tracks. It’s nothing you want switched on while you’re watching a movie for the first time, but if you’re a longtime Bourne fan, the U-Control content is fairly worthwhile, and in some cases, it actually adds some solid entertainment value.

The films themselves are all less than 10 years old, so they make the HD leap with a minimum of fuss and bother, with the added benefit that now you can slow the fight scenes down enough to be able to figure out what the hell is going on (or stave off the motion sickness induced by Supremacy director Paul Greengrass’ love of woozy handheld camera angles). As cross-platform technologies go, “flipper discs” are a step or two down from Disney’s recently announced Keychest, but the Bourne films are terrific entertainment no matter how you watch them, and if you don’t own any of these titles yet, this is the way to own them.

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Don’t look now, but Alan Parker’s Fame turns 30 this year — and you probably knew this already, but it’s still five times the movie that last year’s senseless remake will ever be. Taking a cast of film novices and unknowns and using them to condense the entire high school experience of a single class into a two-hour quasi-musical should never have worked — and that goes double for trying it in the ’80s — but the puppyish charm of this movie is undeniable, mostly because it’s so true to the spirit it claims to represent. Like the kids in the picture, Fame just wants to entertain, and it’s that eagerness to please — along with a dark honesty that’s often forgotten — that makes it so easy to forgive its flaws.

Easy to forgive, but hard not to notice — especially during the often painfully pasted-on musical sequences, like the spontaneous lunchroom dance-off and the title song show-stopper, which finds the kids spilling into the street and wreaking all sorts of adorable havoc (as well as inspiring whichever hack directed the video for Billy Joel’s “A Matter of Trust”). The characters’ various storyline arcs are all pretty vanilla, too, but Parker and screenwriter Christopher Gore did the best they could with what they had; after all, how in depth can you get when you’re trying to tell this much story about this many characters in such a short amount of time — especially when all your camera really wants to do is rest on Irene Cara (Coco) and Gene Anthony Ray (Leroy)?

Given its age, Fame looks fairly decent on Blu-ray, boasting a transfer that’s neither as soft nor as grainy as you might expect, and the soundtrack is appropriately big and punchy. Though it clearly isn’t one of Warner Bros.’ prestige reissues, the studio did include a number of bonus features, including an entertaining commentary track from Parker, a featurette taking you inside the real-life school that inspired the film, and interviews with members of the cast (which were clearly taped well after the film was made, but still have to be pretty dated, because Gene Anthony Ray died in 2003).

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Early in its run, Weeds enjoyed reams of positive press thanks to creator Jenji Kohan’s delightfully twisted premise (widowed suburban mom turns to dealing weed in order to pay the bills), a stack of scripts dripping acid humor, and one of the best, funniest casts on television — but since the Season Three cliffhanger, which found the show’s fictional California suburb in flames and Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) speeding away from the ruins on a Segway, the series has wobbled between Kohan’s apparent creative boredom and the cast’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of chemistry.

I wish I could tell you that Season Five was a U-turn for the show, but if you were frustrated with Weeds in Season Four, this batch of episodes won’t fix what ails you. Now that Kohan has plucked the characters out of Agrestic and deposited them near the Mexican border, and placed Nancy and her family in the increasingly dark orbit of a gangster (Demián Bichir), the show has lost a lot of the tension that made it so interesting — rather than morally ambiguous suburbanites shining a comedic light on the dark side of middle-class conformity, now it’s just about a gang of loonies and their wacky illegal hijinx. It still has its moments, but it’s just not as much fun.

If you haven’t been bothered by recent events, Weeds still has plenty going for it — namely, that incredible cast. No matter how lame Kohan’s storylines get, her stars are game, from Parker’s lovely Cheshire cat act to Kevin Nealon and Andy Milder as Doug Wilson and Dean Hodes, the scheming nudniks who fuel the show’s goofier subplots. Elizabeth Perkins is always hell on heels as the bitchy Celia Hodes, and Justin Kirk is better than ever — and he was already pretty terrific to begin with — as Nancy’s slowly maturing ne’er-do-well of a brother-in-law, Andy.

Season Five upholds the show’s tradition of supplying doozy cliffhangers, and this one provides at least a glimmer of hope that big changes are coming again for the Botwin clan, but it’s hard not to feel like Nancy jumped the shark on that Segway, even if she hasn’t entered freefall yet.

The good news, at least on Blu-ray, is that everything looks and sounds great; with a crisp, bright 1080p transfer and a 7.1 DTS-HD soundtrack, you can count the hairs on Parker’s head while waiting to see how she twists herself out of whichever jam she’s gotten herself into. The Season Five package also comes with plenty of bonus features, including bloopers, a series retrospective, five behind-the-scenes featurettes, and cast and crew commentaries.

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