Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 10/1/23;
Paramount;
Sci-Fi;
Box Office $140 million;
$25.99 DVD, $31.99 Blu-ray, $37.99 UHD BD, $44.99 UHD/BD Steelbook;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and language.
Stars Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback. Voices of Peter Cullen, Ron Perlman, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Yeoh, Pete Davidson, John DiMaggio, Liza Koshy, David Sobolov, Colman Domingo.

Despite being released in theaters backed by a massive promotional campaign, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts has the feel of one of those direct-to-video sequels studios like to pump out in an effort to extend the life of a well-worn franchise.

That’s not to say the film isn’t competently made or entertaining for what it is, for it’s certainly a serviceable diversion if someone has a couple hours to kill. But Rise of the Beasts definitely feels formulaic in the way it pares down the essence of the Michael Bay “Transformers” films — both in setting up action sequences and introducing new toys Hasbro can sell.

This is the seventh live-action movie based on Hasbro’s “Transformers” toys, and by now it’s pretty clear that the deeper mythology that sustains the various cartoons and comics based on the property is more of a lark for the film versions. In lieu of sustained storylines, the films pick and choose a handful of characters to introduce alongside stalwarts such as Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, who end up teaming up with some unassuming humans to fight a handful of bad guys for some object that usually turns out to be crucial to the survival of the Transformers race.

For Rise of the Beasts, the filmmakers turned to inspiration from the 1990s “Beast Wars” line, which featured robots transforming into wild animals rather than cars and trucks and planes. The Maximals, which are basically a race of animal Autobots (ie the good guys) are being hunted by the minions of the planet-chomping Unicron, who needs something called a “transwarp key” to have access to the entire universe so he can eat anything he wants. In the battle that starts the film, set thousands of years ago, the Maximals escape with the key and hide it on Earth, trapping Unicron in a secluded section of the galaxy. Naturally, Unicron’s hunters find the key on Earth, leaving the Autobots to team with the Maximals to stop them from summoning the planet-killer.

The main action of Rise of the Beasts takes place in 1994, making it a sequel to the 1980s-set Bumblebee, and a prequel to Bay’s five films that seemed to become more bloated and mind-numbing as they went on. In terms of continuity between the films, however, the “Transformers” movies are about as consistent as the “X-Men” films, so trying to connect all the dots is mostly going to be a wasted effort.

The 1990s setting serves mostly as an excuse for director Steven Caple Jr. to indulge in the music and fashion of the period setting. Otherwise, the setting is rather superfluous to the storyline.

The primary humans helping the Autobots are Noah (Anthony Ramos), an unemployed former soldier, and Elena (Dominique Fishback), a museum intern who studies ancient artifacts. After being recruited to the Autobot cause through happenstance, they learn the missing key and the Maximals are in Peru, setting the stage for the final battle to prevent Unicron from destroying Earth. Lessons of teamwork abound, while Prime (voiced once again by Peter Cullen) learns he can trust humans.

Since most of the “Transformers” movies have involved Bumblebee’s friendship with the primary human characters, he gets sidelined this time around while Noah is paired with Mirage, a wisecracking Porsche voiced by Pete Davidson. The basic character dynamics are the same, though.

Fans of the franchise should get a tickle from various easter eggs and sly references, but shouldn’t expect more than surface-level nostalgia from seeing a handful robots that bear the names of characters they grew up with. From a technical standpoint, the visual effects are pretty good, and the film looks great in 4K, particularly when the setting shifts to the luscious green mountains and forest of South America.

Home video extras include more than 73 minutes of behind-the-scenes material spread across nine featurettes. It’s not groundbreaking stuff but it’s interesting to see how some of the visual effects were done.  

Also included are seven deleted and extended scenes running nearly 14 minutes in total, including alternate opening and ending scenes, and extended action sequences with unfinished visual effects.

On disc, both the 4K and Blu-ray discs contain the extras. However, the 4K and Blu-ray versions are offered as standalones with digital copies, not combo packs, except for the limited-edition Steelbook that has both 4K and Blu-ray discs in it.

Justice League: Warworld

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 7/25/23;
Warner;
Animated;
$24.99 Blu-ray, $29.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for some bloody violence.
Voices of Jensen Ackles, Darren Criss, Stana Katic, Ike Amadi, Troy Baker, Matt Bomer, Roger R. Cross, Brett Dalton, John DiMaggio, Robin Atkin Downes, Frank Grillo, Rachel Kimsey, Damian O’Hare, Teddy Sears.

The latest DC animated movie strays a bit from the typical superhero formula but should please fans of the classic trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

The film begins with a bit of an Elseworlds vibe, thrusting audiences into a Wild West adventure with Wonder Woman as a mysterious stranger riding into town to take on the unscrupulous Jonah Hex (which at first blush raises the question of if the filmmakers were doing “Warworld” or “Westworld”). Then, we are presented with Batman transformed into a Conan the Barbarian-type of character in the middle of a power struggle in a swords-and-sorcery setting. From there, the story shifts to a black-and-white 1950s-style ‘B’ movie about an alien invasion, with Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Diana cast as government agents sent to stop it.

The movie seems more invested in these vignettes than whatever story might be suggested by the film’s title. In the comics, War World is an intergalactic gladiatorial arena, a concept that has become something of a cliché in superhero movies by now. The film reimagines War World to suit its needs, but it still takes about an hour before letting the audience in on what might be going on with regards to why these heroes are in the situation they’re in. At nearly 90 minutes, Warworld is still one of the longest standalone movies in the DC animated canon, and it puts that extended time to good use with an action-packed climactic battle. On the other hand, as fun as it is to see many of the characters put into the situations they are in, the film ultimately feels more like a mashup of various ideas the filmmakers were interested in seeing on screen that weren’t a good fit anywhere else, strung together with a plot developed just enough to justify its existence before setting up the next movie with an abrupt cliffhanger ending that literally flies in out of nowhere.

The Blu-ray includes two featurettes that run just under eight minutes each. “Illusions on Warworld” explores the alternate reality scenarios presented in the film, while “The Heroic, the Horrible and the Hideous” focuses on the characters involved.

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Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 3/28/23;
Warner;
Animated;
$29.98 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief partial nudity.
Voices of David Giuntoli, Tati Gabrielle, Christopher Gorham, Patrick Fabian, John DiMaggio, David Dastmalchian, Gideon Adlon, Karan Brar, Jeffrey Combs, Darin De Paul, Brian George, Jason Marsden, Navid Negahban, Emily O’Brien, Tim Russ, William Salyers, Matthew Waterson.

Comic book superheroes meet Lovecraftian horror in this Elseworlds tale that reimagines Batman as having to fight monsters in the late 1920s.

Based on a comic book miniseries published from 2000 to 2001 co-written by “Hellboy” creator Mike Mignola, the story involves Bruce Wayne as an international explorer who accidentally unleashes an ancient evil while investigating a lost expedition in the arctic. Upon his return to Gotham City after a decades-long absence, he assumes the mantle of Batman to fight the dark forces that infest the city, uncovering a supernatural conspiracy that redefines everything he thought he knew about his family’s origins.

The premise offers a fun way to reshape the Batman mythology while allowing the filmmakers to indulge in their fascination for big scary monsters with a bold, vivid animation style. Among the most interesting elements is the re-imagining of the Green Arrow as a rich, eccentric drunk who bears the weight of his family’s sins for a centuries old pact that is tied to the evil now plaguing Gotham.

The Blu-ray includes a good commentary track with producer/co-director Sam Liu, screenwriter Jase Ricci, DC creative director Mike Carlin, and producer Jim Krieg, in which they discuss the merits and challenges of bringing this particular story to life.

There’s also a 13-minute featurette called “Batman: Shadows of Gotham” that explores the psychological overtones of the story.

Also included is the two-part “The Demon’s Quest” episode from “Batman: The Animated Series” that focuses on Ra’s al Ghul, a character with a crucial role in Doom That Came to Gotham.

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Batman: Death in the Family

BLU-RAY REVIEW:  

Street Date 10/13/20;
Warner;
Animated;
$24.98 Blu-ray;
Not Rated;
Voices of Bruce Greenwood, Vincent Martella, John DiMaggio, Gary Cole, Zehra Fazal. 

For this fun experiment in interactive storytelling, the Warner Bros. Animation team has taken a cue from one of the most seminal stories in DC Comics history, as well as revisited one of the more popular movies inspired by the same source.

The short film Batman: Death in the Family, based on the infamous 1988 “A Death in the Family” storyline from the Batman comics, serves as a companion to 2010’s Batman: Under the Red Hood, featuring most of the same voice cast as well as director Brandon Vietti at the helm.

The most notable aspect about “Death in the Family” in the comics was that the editors held a phone poll to determine whether Batman’s sidekick, Robin, would die at the hands of the Joker. This, however, wasn’t the original Robin, Dick Grayson, who had moved on to become Nightwing in the comics, but his replacement, Jason Todd, a streetwise but hotheaded kid who had grown unpopular with fans. So, by a slim margin, they voted to kill him off, and the writers of the comic obliged.

And since hardly anyone stays dead in comic books, Jason Todd eventually returned in a 2005 storyline that served as the basis for Under the Red Hood, a movie that began by briefly touching upon his death in the earlier storyline, when Joker abandons him in a warehouse filled with explosives.

The Death in the Family short, however, is not so much an adaptation of the precursor storyline to Red Hood as it is an expansion upon the death of Robin elements already used by that movie. In fact, after a striking opening title sequence, the first scenes of Death in the Family offer reused footage from the opening of Red Hood, interspliced with some newly created flashbacks to show how Jason Todd ended up being tortured by the Joker, with Batman speeding to try to save him.

So, for about five minutes, Death in the Family serves as the prequel to Under the Red Hood a lot of fans might have been expecting. Then, however, it gets to the point where, just like the comics, fans can choose to see whether Jason lives or dies.

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The movie is only interactive on the Blu-ray, and through various branching points can arrive at seven different possible endings. The digital presentation of the short offers four pre-assembled versions of the story. And here’s where things get tricky.

The primary version of the Death in the Family short would seem to be based on the version where viewers allow Jason to die, just as he did in Under the Red Hood. This version is dubbed Under the Red Hood: Reloaded, and is basically just a half hour of Bruce Wayne narrating the events that unfold in Under the Red Hood, with a nice surprise at the end involving who he’s telling the story to.

In the interactive version, the other options viewers have at the first decision point are to have Jason merely survive the explosion, or to have Batman save him at the last moment. The more interesting “what if” scenarios come with having Batman save him, as that leads to more alternate possibilities down the pike, and take advantage of a lot of references to various developments in the comics that happened in the wake of Jason’s death. This is the aspect of the short that comic book fans are likely to derive the most enjoyment from, rather than just the rehash of Under the Red Hood.

In its digital presentation, these alternate realities are represented by pre-edited shorts called Jason Todd’s Rebellion, Robin’s Revenge and Red Hood’s Reckoning.

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To round out the presentation, the Blu-ray includes four additional DC Showcase animated shorts that were originally released as extras with other recent DC animated movies.

These include Sgt. Rock, an Army hero battling Nazi zombies story that came with 2019’s Batman: Hush; Death, which came with 2019’s Wonder Woman: Bloodlines and is based on the character from Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman”; the 1970s mystery The Phantom Stranger that came with 2020’s Superman: Red Sun; and Adam Strange, a tale of a space adventurer remembering his heroic past, which came with 2020’s Justice League Dark: Apokolips War.

Interestingly, while a plot thread of the comic book version of “Hush” inspired the “Under the Hood” story to resurrect Jason Todd, the movie versions of each are not related and are set in separate continuities.

The only extras on the Blu-ray are enthusiastic commentaries on all five shorts by a pair of former hosts of the DC Daily talk show that used to be presented by the DC Universe streaming service. They’re essentially fans reacting to seeing the adaptations of the source material and providing a bit of comic book history for the benefit of viewers. For their Death in the Family commentary, the Blu-ray plays it with the Under the Red Hood: Reloaded version of the short.

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Warner;
Animated;
$19.98 DVD, $24.98 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for some violence.
Voices of Bruce Greenwood, Jennifer Carpenter, John DiMaggio, Grey DeLisle, Scott Patterson, William Salyers, Yuri Lowenthal, Anthony Head, Tara Strong, Kari Wuhrer.

The idea of exploring familiar characters in alternate realities has become a staple of storytelling. This is especially true in comic books, where characters must constantly be updated and often re-defined for new eras and generations.

The medium of comics naturally lends itself to presenting “what if” stories that shed new light on the characters without subjecting them to situations that would hinder or alter their ongoing storylines. Decades ago, they were called “imaginary stories.” In 1989, DC Comics started calling them “Elseworlds.”

The first of the Elseworlds brand was that year’s Gotham by Gaslight, which re-imagined Batman as a vigilante detective at the turn of the 19th century confronting Jack the Ripper. That was the conceit of Elseworlds: to put superheroes and their supporting cast in alternate timelines, either by exploring them in different eras, or changing something in their own personal history to create a ripple effect (a later story that often gets mentioned for potential adaptation found Superman raised as a hero of the Soviet Union).

The latest entry of the animated DC Universe is loosely based on the Gotham by Gaslight on-shot graphic novel, while also drawing heavily upon its sequel, 1991’s Master of the Future. In deconstructing the original story, the filmmakers have given the concept a new life, presenting a satisfying mystery that plays out quite differently from the book. This lets the film stand quite well as its own thing while honoring the spirit of the books, allowing longtime fans to watch without any fear of spoilers.

The animation is distinctive and beautiful, and the screenplay is filled with fun nods to Batman lore that fans should appreciate.

The Blu-ray includes a 20-minute featurette about the original graphic novel, as well as a nice audio commentary from the filmmakers. Both delve into just why Gotham by Gaslight has become an iconic Batman story.

The Blu-ray also includes an eight-and-a-half-minute preview of the next DC Universe animated movie, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, plus some bonus cartoons from animated Batman TV shows.