Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ratio Ruckus

Okay, I understand giving director/cinematographers plenty of latitude in preparing the home video presentations of their films. But this is the second time that Vittorio Storaro has clipped his own wings and recomposed a film for DVD. Apocalypse Now has never been available in its proper ratio; and now, it looks like we’ll never see a correct Region 1 presentation of The Last Emperor, either. The just-released (and eagerly awaited) 4 disc set of The Last Emperor comes in at a 2.00x1 aspect ratio, far short of the 2.35x1 that the film was originally shot in.

Mine is still bound in plastic, but check out DVDBeaver for screen grabs that compare this version to previous editions

The DVD transfer was "supervised and approved by cinematographer by Storaro". Why does he feel the need to do this? Why do directors like Coppola and Bertolucci allow this to happen? I’m sure others will disagree, but I’d much rather have a so-so color transfer of this film than lose a not-insignificant portion of the image. And boo to Criterion for not stating this fact on the packaging – they used to be justly proud of presenting films in their original theatrical format, now they’re just hoping nobody will notice. They ought to be honest and run the same disclaimer prior to the feature that TNT and TBS run – “This film has been formatted to fit your screen”

Monday, February 18, 2008

If I Picked The Oscars...

...you probably wouldn't watch.

Put plainly, February sucks for genre fans. Besides being the universally accepted dumping ground for riotously bad horror films, the two major Valentine’s Day themed movies are awful, and no one has had the skills to exploit the true horror of President’s Day. Adding to the indignity, February also brings the Academy Awards – a black tie event for which genre films are rarely even asked to park cars. It’s been nearly 2 decades since Silence of the Lambs’ unheard of clean sweep of the major award categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Creepy Van, and Adapted Screenplay), and before that you would have to go back to The Exorcist’s 10 nominations and 2 wins (for Sound and Blatty’s script) to find another film taken even halfway seriously by the Academy.

Now, before we get all weepy at the thought of another years shut-out, were there any truly worthy pictures from our manor this year? Yes, I believe there was.

Though only a serial killer film if you believe the Paramount marketing staff, Zodiac has at least enough of one foot in the house to qualify as horror. It is also the best film of 2007. It could have been its March 3rd release date that saw it shut-out of the Oscars (because we all know that the best films don’t come out until September, right?) or the fact that, aside from a few welcome comic flourishes from Robert Downey Jr., none of the performances carry the stench of a desperate award grab that plague would-be worthy films like Atonement. From the vintage studio logos that open the film to the canny use of one of the most sinister pop songs ever recorded at its conclusion, Zodiac confounds the expectations that Fincher himself established with Se7en over a decade ago.

Anyone who grew up in the 70’s knows how well the decade’s details were nailed, but what surprised many was how restrained Fincher was in his storytelling. The killings, though graphically depicted and harrowing to watch, were front-loaded in the beginning of the film; informing the audience of how violent the crimes were without wallowing in their excesses in the way that nearly all other serial killer films that followed in Se7en’s wake have done. Fincher crafts a story built around not catching a killer; we feel the frustrations of Inspector Toschi (Mark Ruffalo, whose nuanced, low key performance is a stunner), for whom the Zodiac represented professional disgrace, and cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), for whom the case became an obsession that became increasingly difficult to explain.

The Academy also ignored a stunning performance by Drew Carey show alumni John Carroll Lynch as lead suspect Arthur Leigh Allen and the expert cinematography by Harris Savides, whose work with the Viper camera shows the potential of digital filmmaking far better than a film like Beowulf.

Perhaps Juno could see its way clear to step aside and make room? It’s not that we have anything against you, you plucky little indy darling, you. But Little Miss Sunshine’s job was to show us how the members of the Academy weren’t a bunch of fossilized grumps. This is 2008, now, and this isn’t the Independent Spirit Awards. So, Juno out and Zodiac in, and we're all happy.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Dead Wrong

I was frantically surfing both the web and the net this morning, looking to see if any bloggers had uploaded any e-formation on George A. Romero newest film, Diary of the Dead. I looked on MySpace and YouTube; I scanned through postings on message boards, and Googled myself purple trying to find anyone out there willing to tell the truth. What I found were lies – people were already trying to cover things up and make believe everything was okay. But things may never be okay again, because George’s newest zombie movie is a catastrophic failure.

It’s no secret that Romero, a longtime Godfather figure to horror fans and independent filmmakers alike, has always struggled to get his movies made. He’s lost dream projects at the 11th hour when funding had fallen through, he’s had films sit on the shelf, unseen for years while studios negotiate legal and marketing minefields, he’s even seen his first, and arguably most famous film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead forced to exist in a public domain vacuum where even he had no legal control over it’s distribution. As a result, George has a special place in the hearts of genre fans. That love has us turning a blind eye to the disappointments (The Dark Half and Monkey Shines amble into view…) and perhaps over-praising efforts like his previous film, Land of the Dead (2005). Land had been his first zombie film since 1985’s Day of the Dead – a film whose initial, beautifully ambitious screenplay had to be scuttled at the last minute due to a savage budget cut – and if its slick photography and CGI splatter placed it aesthetically apart from the original trilogy of Night, Dawn and Day, Land was a reasonably entertaining ride. Romero’s secret has been having not just the ability to scare, but also to back up those scares with some pretty astute socio-political commentary. Dawn’s mall walking zombies were a perfect visual metaphor (and later, the protagonists’ life or death struggle to retain said mall was a beautifully prescient swipe at the ‘me’ generation) and if Land’s take on 80’s era greed was 20 years lost in the mail, it was still a pretty exciting ride.

The central conceit of Diary of the Dead, which begins at square one of the zombie plague, is that what we are watching consists of “found” camcorder footage. We are told this at the very beginning by Debra (Michelle Morgan), who has not only taken the trouble to edit this footage together, but also added music where applicable. “Because it should be scary” she adds, wearily. Unfortunately, Debra, like many misguided filmmakers before her, has chosen to add narration – a crushing blow from which Diary never recovers. Whereas Romero had previously trusted his audience to “get” his message in past films, he has decided here that the youthful audience that he shamelessly pines for is too thick-headed to pick up on subtlety. Leaden narration punches home nearly every action and pulls dramatic tension like marrow being sucked from a bone. Our protagonists, a group of University of Pittsburgh film students shooting a horror picture in the middle of the night (why their flask-tippling professor, who behaves as though he just emerged from six months at a Richard Burton re-education camp is with them isn’t touched upon) begin to hear report that “the bodies of the recently dead are returning to life and attacking the living”. What follows is a road trip through Canada posing as Pennsylvania – for shame, George! – as our group of utterly nondescript ciphers (save for professor Brian Cox as Ciaran Hinds in The Terence Stamp Story) meet up with potentially interesting characters that aren’t given enough screen time (silly as it may have been, I wanted more of the deaf, dynamite throwing Amish guy) and scare set pieces that that never seem fully realized.

Romero seems fixated on what he imagines the internet generation to be, and has made their handling of the zombie menace his focal point. In fact, Romero becomes so pre-occupied with getting his message across that he commits the cardinal sin of not being scary. Perhaps most irritatingly, characters endlessly toss around internet buzz words – “I’ve got to upload this!” – while the ever present narrator lectures the rest of us on our lack of humanity – “Now, it's us vs. them. But they are us”.

Oh, drop dead.

Part of the blame can be shared by the amateurish acting and vacuous screenplay, but Diary’s ultimate trouble is the premise itself. The recent Cloverfield (and the much less recent Blair Witch Project) at least had the courage of their convictions and presented us with believable ‘raw’ footage. But Romero decided to hedge his bets and have a survivor present the footage to us in movie form, losing nearly all the you-are-there terror that worked so well for the aforementioned pictures. Neither can Romero work up a decent suspense scene under the limitations that he has set for himself. An early encounter with zombies in a deserted hospital shows promise but then quickly peters out when the limited camerawork gets the better of him. There are potent images to be sure, but the majority – such as the “uploaded” footage of rednecks taking target practice at a zombie tied helplessly to a tree, or a “gut dump” onto a hospital floor, are cribbed from earlier Dead films. This never feels like a film he was passionate about making – just one he was offered money for.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Be Mine

Most shot-in-Canada pictures do everything they can to fool you into thinking that they were filmed in the states, but My Bloody Valentine is a proud maple leaf production through and through. Every facet of production, from cast to costume screams CANADA with a zeal that only true patriots could muster. Unfortunately, the film’s reputation is built on what was removed rather than what’s actually there. The MPAA was dealing with a big media backlash against ‘slasher’ horror in 1981; led, not just by misinformed feminist groups, whose notion of the Pavlovian response of horror fans to violence was none too complimentary, but by mega-influential critics Siskel & Ebert, who devoted an entire program to their derision. My Bloody Valentine was famously cut by 9 minutes in order to secure an ‘R’ rating, and the restoration of the missing gore has since become a cause celeb among fans. Laudatory web notices can be found here and here, and they are far from alone in their praise for the film.

It would be a fun bandwagon to jump on, but the picture just isn’t that good. The cast consists entirely of that early 80s variant of the hot comb and down coat crowd – as if culled by random lot from the cheap seats at the Toronto curling finals. Some of the murder set-pieces are well done, and you can lament their edits to your heart's content, but gore alone does not a horror classic make.

But, to celebrate the holiday in style, our choices are limited. It’s either this, or the appallingly incompetent Valentine. Can’t blame Canada for everything.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Catch Ya Later...

About 20 years ago, I was at a local diner with several other recent High School graduates. I wasn’t the first to notice the movie star at the corner table, having dinner with a group of friends; but when someone at our table caught on, it was immediately brought to my attention – in much the same way that an errant dinosaur might be pointed out to a nearby paleontologist. Being a smallish town, the appearance of an actual celebrity in the decidedly low-key eatery didn’t go unnoticed for long, and he was soon set upon by both patrons and staff for autographs and pictures – for which he was all too happy to comply. Understand that I really hate pestering actors in public; I imagine coming off like Rupert Pupkin at worst, and a necessary evil that comes with celebrity stature at best. This time, however, I was going to make an exception. I waited for him to finish dinner and walk outside into the parking lot before sheepishly approaching him. I didn’t want to mention that movie – everyone mentions that one – so I told him that I thought he should have won the Oscar for All That Jazz.

“Hey, thanks! So did I!”

He asked for my name and we chatted for a few minutes, and to this day I can’t think of another actor as gracious as Roy Scheider.

Roy lost his fight with cancer last night at the age of 75. The expected tone of the obits will surely point out his most prominent role as a peak reached too soon – mentioning later parts out of kindness, but always with the caveat that “he could never escape the shadow of…”. Sixty years ago, his tough, chiseled features would have placed him in a radio car alongside Aldo Ray, chasing down a falsely accused Dana Andrews, or helping Richard Widmark to shove that lady down the stairs. In the 70s, however, there was room at the top for more interesting faces (remember please that Elliot Gould and George Segal were top stars). Early roles in Klute and The French Connection made his name, and though The Seven-Ups suffered from director Philip D’Antoni’s inexperience, it gave Roy his first leading role, and probably allowed him to get on Universal’s ‘Approved’ list for the role of Chief Martin Brody in Jaws. Though co-stars Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw stole scenes wantonly, Scheider’s Brody is the film’s heart; it’s his ‘What the Christ was that?!?’ expression that sold the concept of a 25ft shark. Beyond the hundreds of millions that Jaws has made, it’s a perfect film in both tone and execution, and Scheider deserves of a huge share of the credit.

When critics use terms like “everyman”, it’s usually a backhanded compliment. Let him play cops and crooks and assorted blue collar types, but leave the intellectuals to classically trained actors, not former boxers from New Jersey. But Scheider had a natural, earthy elegance that allowed him to move effortlessly from the driver of a dynamite truck in Sorcerer, to a shady government operative in Marathon Man, to a psychiatrist in the otherwise overripe Still of the Night. But his finest hour as an actor was probably All That Jazz, where Scheider played Joe Gideon, the self-destructive alter ego of the film’s writer-director-choreographer Bob Fosse. For most actors, the prospect of playing a very thinly veiled version of your own director would be a losing proposition – couldn’t he direct anyone to play himself? – but Scheider brought a terrific physicality to the role. We feel the toll that every pill and cigarette takes on Gideon’s system – Scheider makes us feel Gideon’s heart attacks in a visceral way that you just don’t often see.

As Roy got older, decent leading roles became scarce. The 80s had their highlights, though; Blue Thunder was his farewell to blockbusters (it’s tremendous fun watching him spar with co-stars Malcolm McDowell and Warren Oates) and 52 Pick-Up is a splendidly nasty take on the Elmore Leonard story. Roy eased comfortably into character roles, enlivening even the most obtuse pictures (Wild Justice, anyone?) with his dependable mug.

I saw him again a few years ago in a coffee shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was going to say hello, but he looked very tired, and was probably already suffering from the multiple myeloma that took his life yesterday. I’m glad now that I didn’t bother him – instead I just did what any good New Yorker would and pretended not to notice the movie star in the room.

Wherever you are now, Roy, I hope you’re on the biggest boat of all.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Cat Peeps

Check out my review of the (semi) recent HD-DVD release of Paul Schrader’s Cat People on Cinefantastique. They've also posted the review of the theatrical release as it appeared in the magazine in back in 1982.

Monday, February 4, 2008

"Honest, It's Work - I Don't Like Going To Stuff Like This"

Later this month, the Scribe will be dragging his laptop, self respect, and semi-pro golfer’s body down to Dallas for the Texas Frightmare Weekend (Feb 21st- 24th), and we intend to return with no fewer than two of those items intact. Subsequent musings will be posted on the Cinefantastique site, as well as right here.

While we’re certainly no stranger to the modern horror convention, our experience is limited to the Chiller and Fango cons in the New York Metropolitan area. This will be our first convention west of Pennsylvania, and our first trip to Texas. Special thanks to Cinefantastique’s Steve Biodrowski and Frightmare’s Loyd Cryer for helping to pull everything together.
See you there!