Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bruno - Blu-Ray Review

After re-watching Bruno this past weekend, the same problem began cropping up that had occurred after seeing it theatrically – I was calling it Borat. Not just because they were both based on characters created by Sacha Baron Cohen for Da Ali G Show (they were) and not just because their formats are closely related (they are) but because the memory of the sublimely hysterical Borat looms so large over poor Bruno that it feels like an also-ran before the Universal logo is even off the screen. Interestingly, Cohen’s third character from that show – Ali G himself – had his own feature long before even Borat back in 2002; a misbegotten, unfunny flop called Ali G Indahouse that should have clued Cohen to the fact that traditional narrative storytelling was a mistake for these improvisational characters. It was easy for Borat to follow a film that most people outside the UK had never even heard of, but the decision to launch Bruno’s eponymous feature film behind one of the most surprisingly successful comedies of the decade was a poor one, as borne out by the tepid box office receipts (things got so desperate in Cohen’s native UK that the film was voluntarily edited after its release to secure a more audience-friendly 15 certificate from the BBFC). Universal, hoping that Bruno – debuting on Blu-Ray and DVD on the 17th – will make up some lost financial ground on home video, have packed the film with nearly an hour of deleted and extended scenes with a very interesting feature that appears to be exclusive to the BD release. But the question remains, is there enough bigotry and hatred in Middle America for both Bruno and Borat?

The structure of the film is astonishingly similar to that of Bruno’s Kazakhstani cousin; flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista, having suffered the indignity of a breakup with boyfriend Diesel and the loss of his show, Funkyzeit, treks to America to regain his lost stardom. With adoring assistant Lutz in tow, Bruno travels to the ground zero of meaningless fame – Hollywood – where he interviews a remarkably nonplused Paula Abdul while sitting (literally) on the backs of immigrant laborers, attends a focus group for a celebrity interview show that’s about 5% interview and 40% flailing penis, and getting instructed on hooking up with only the most fashionable charities. Bruno also goes international, attempting to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians (focusing on the terror group, Hummus) before returning to the states – including Washington, D.C., where he attempts to make a celebrity sex tape with Presidential candidate Ron Paul, and finally Texas, where, in the realization that his homosexuality might be what’s holding him back, reinvents himself as the straightest wrestler alive, ‘Straight Dave’.

Right out front, we need to mention that Bruno contains a solid number of hysterical gags; an overnight hunting trip with a stereotypically “Texas” quartet is brilliantly funny (“That is such a Samantha thing to say”) but an early scene where Bruno visits a psychic to get in touch with the spirit of ex-lover and Milli Vanilli frontman Rob Pilatus may possibly have been the hardest that we’ve ever laughed inside a theater. But the nagging concern that many had with this film holds true for us as well; on Cohen’s television show, the Bruno segment was typically the least funny of the three, mostly because spoofing the vapidity of the fashion industry is as soft as targets come. Like the feature, the TV show had its share of funny moments (like his interview of a bunch of frat boys on a beach during spring break who were clueless to Funkyzeit’s gay overtones until the very end) but the mock interview format had already been better covered by Ali G and Borat, and Bruno just felt the tiniest bit stale bringing up the rear (pun unplanned but enjoyed). After the enormous success of Borat, it just feels like Cohen is retreading the same tire, here, and one gets the feeling that even he knows that this will be the last time he’s going to get away with enough material to craft a feature (during the commentary track, Cohen and director Larry Charles mention just how many times Cohen was recognized and a skit had to be abandoned).

It’s also worth noting that Borat’s innocence in regard to the world around him was actually kind of sweet (even while he throws cash at two cockroaches he believes to be the transmogrification of the sweet Jewish couple who own the bed & breakfast he’s staying in) and helped negate the baseline of cruelty that this sort of humor plays off of. As due-paying members of the intelligentsia, we love to mock people that are dumber, poorer, and smellier than ourselves; laughing at a bunch of narrow minded hicks wearing confederate caps and shirts confirming that their anus is used for defecation only makes us feel wonderful – mostly. One could say that we reached a minor breaking point with ambush-based humor while watching Bruno, and began to feel for the mockees rather than simply laughing with the mocker. When Bruno and Lutz are bound together in an array of dildos and sexual appliances and dumped on a city bus in a mid-sized southern town, we actually caught ourselves hoping that one of these people might pick them up and toss them right off into the middle of the street. Our other issue might have more to do with necessity than intent; after Borat, there are simply too many people who will recognize Cohen, leading to far more bits that had been prepared and scripted in advance (what was our reaction to Bruno and Lutz’s fight and breakup outside of a police station supposed to be?) and Bruno simply isn’t as likeable as Borat. Is sounds silly to pit fictional characters against each other in this way, but it might well explain the low box office receipts.

Universal’s Blu-Ray release of Bruno will be making fans of Cohen very happy this week, as it marks one of the few times that Cohen discusses his work out-of-character. He and Charles appear in a PIP window discussing the film and, at certain points, literally pause the film to discuss one aspect or another (we assume that this is the feature that’s exclusive to BD). Both men are quite funny and have great stories about the shoot (like the fact that only time that Cohen was so afraid for his life that he broke camera was while being chased by orthodox Jews) and the frankly disappointing number of people who were already in on the gags. There’s also at least an hour of deleted/extended scenes, including footage of a few of the other would-be sex tape participants (again, some very big Washington names turn up here) some disturbing footage of Bruno at a gun show, and the not-nearly-as-infamous LaToya Jackson sequence that was removed when Michael died (like Paula, she happily sits on the Mexican gardener’s back and takes waaaaay too long to be freaked out by Bruno’s questions (maybe better to get someone less well acquainted with crazy next time). It’s hard to judge the 1080p image; due to the nature of the shoot, many different cameras with different resolution levels were apparently used, but this perfectly matches the look that we saw in theaters earlier this year. We did love the menu layout, featuring German-ish phrasing for each menu option, but working off the familiar Universal BD functionality.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Edward Woodward

Another sad passing to report. This morning, the superbly talented Edward Woodward, who spent a long career comfortably straddling the fence between character actor and leading man, died in a British hospital at the age of 79. Most of my fellow Americans remember him from The Equalizer (talk about an actor absolutely making a show) but to us he will forever be the doomed Sergeant Howie in 1973’s The Wicker Man.

On paper, Howie must have read like a near unlikeable stiff – an almost unbearably pious and humorless Christian who travels to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle in search of a missing girl – and it must have been a concern for director Robin Hardy and writer Anthony Shaffer that no one would care what happens to this jerk one way or another. But Woodward, with his tough, unforgiving countenance and soft heart breathed humanity into the role, making his ultimate fate all the more tragic. In fact, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that the conclusion of the film represents one of modern horror’s most truly disturbing sequences, and Woodward’s cries of “Oh, God – Oh, Jesus Christ!” will echo in memory long after the film has ended.

Another fine remembrance would be to revisit the fine Breaker Morant, Bruce Beresford’s absorbing courtroom drama about two Australian officers being court-martialed for the murder of prisoners during the Second Boer War. The film arrived on US shores in 1980 as part of a wave of extraordinary Australian films of the late 70s and early 80s that included Mad Max and Gallipoli and announced the extraordinary careers of directors like Beresford, George Miller, and Peter Weir. Morant is an actor’s showcase all the way, making international stars of Woodward and Bryan Brown, who arguably give career-best performances. Woodward would always excel at the tough-as-nails military type, but never let you forget that they were real, three dimensional men. Morant probably led to his acceptability for CBS as the lead in The Equalizer, and throughout 4 seasons of thug-busting his way through mediocre scripts, there was never even the slightest hint that he considered the material to be beneath him. For a more satisfying dose of Woodward in a weekly series, check out the little seen (at least in the US)series, Callan, an espionage drama set during the height of the cold war; he’s disarmingly young, but looks at the world around him with the same weary suspicion and droll humor that Woodward brought to nearly everything he did.

Though it wasn’t his final appearance, we’ll regard his appearance in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz as Woodward’s true career capper. It’s a film lover’s delight to watch him along with contemporaries like Jim Broadbent, Billie Whitelaw and Paul Freeman having a grand time as members of the Sandford Neighbourhood Watch Alliance, keeping the city safe from absolutely everyone.

Summer is Icumen in
Loudly sing cuckoo
Grows the seed and blows the mead
And springs the wood anew
Sing cuckoo
Ewe bleats harshly after lamb
Cows after calves make moo
Bullock stamps and deer champs
Now shrilly sing cuckoo
Cuckoo, cuckoo
Wild bird are you
Be never still cuckoo

Thursday, November 5, 2009

DVD Review - Zorro, The Complete First & Second Seasons (Walt Disney Treasures)

Once again, Disney has dipped into its seemingly bottomless vault of television productions for another gem, the complete series run of Zorro, including all 78 half-hour episodes from both seasons, plus the 4 hour-long specials. It’s been difficult to see the series since its initial run, lasting from October 1957 through June 1959; shot in crisp black and white, the series suffered a grotesque colorization for reruns on the Disney channel in the early 90s (though some episodes were shown in their original versions to please us nitpicking purists). Disney had released small groups of shows in 3-4 episode spurts through the Disney Movie Club (which for us is a nice way of saying “out of print”) making this large scale release all the more tantalizing.

Upon the return of Don Diego de la Vega (Guy Williams) to the southern California (still under Spanish rule) estate of his father, Don Alejandro (George J Lewis) a wealthy and respected rancher, he learns that the region has fallen under the control of the villainous Capt. Enrique Sanchez Monasterio (Britt Lomond). Don Diego vows immediately to use his newly acquired swordsmanship and riding skills to resist Monasterio, but decides to do so behind a black cape and mask in order to protect his family. He christens himself ‘Zorro’ (Spanish for ‘The Fox’) and becomes a thorn in the side of the Captain and his men, particularly the oafish Sergeant Garcia (Henry Calvin). But when not protecting the innocent as Zorro, Don Diego adopts the personae of a foppish intellectual, incapable of even defending himself with a sword, while his faithful manservant, Bernardo (Gene Sheldon) pretends to be ‘deaf and dumb’ allowing him to eavesdrop with impunity. But Don Diego’s lifestyle of leisure deeply disturbs his father, Don Alejandro (George J Lewis) who whishes that is guitar-strumming son were more like the heroic Zorro.

New York City born Guy Williams worked as a fashion model before a string of bit parts in the 50s brought him to the attention of Walt Disney. Italian by birth, Williams slid easily into Zorro’s cowl, and the actor’s 6’3” frame and matinee-idol looks made him an instant sensation. Missing the original airing of these episodes (and though we enjoyed the Antonio Banderas retooling, Zorro-mania has heretofore been lost on us) we were startled by Williams’ effortlessly charming performance. The actor’s natural athleticism (he apparently did quite a bit of his own sword fighting) made a formidable match with his easygoing charm. But we also found ourselves falling for the comic buffoonery of Henry Calvin’s Sergeant Garcia (think of Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes in the Spanish army and you won’t be far off). In keeping with the Disney tradition of largely non-threatening villains, Garcia barely makes a move on-camera that isn’t accompanied by a muted trumpet refrain, but Calvin always made it work, and helped the show strike that elusive balance of comedy and drama that keeps it in the radar of both adults and children (we were incredibly relieved that the show was largely devoid of Apple Dumpling Gang-style hijinks.)

The first season is neatly divided into 3 separate 13 episode story arcs, making for an astonishing 39 total episodes (compare this to any modern network series, which typically top out at 26 episodes per season, or cable, at 13). Some episodes, like the first season’s Monasterio Sets a Trap and Zorro’s Ride Into Terror even flow together, cliffhanger-style. The above description accounts for the first storyline of the first season, but the core cast (minus Lomond’s Monasterio) remained through both seasons, with a rotating cast of villains against whom Zorro battled. The remaining two storylines of the first season involve a criminal conspiracy led by the mysterious Eagle (who was more of a presence once his identity was revealed and played thereafter by Charles Korvin). The second season played a bit looser with the story arcs, allowing for more flexible storyline lengths and even the occasional one-shot (Spark of Revenge, featuring an incredibly young Robert Vaughn) though our favorite features an extended guest appearance by Cesar Romero as Diego’s scheming uncle, Estavan. Sadly, the series came to an abrupt end after the second season due to an ownership dispute between Disney and the ABC network (which also extended to the Mickey Mouse Club). During that time, four hour-long episodes were produced (all of which are included in the new sets) Williams was paid full salary during the 2 years or legal rumblings that followed, but even after a courtroom victory, Walt decided that the Zorro fad had peaked, and did not bring the series back for a third season.

Each of Disney’s new Zorro sets feature an entire season spread across 6 discs, all kept in amazingly good order within a standard-size case (something Sony can’t seem to figure out how to do without resorting to disc stacking). The image is amazingly rich for a half-century old show, with the original black and white episodes looking wonderful – much better than most other shows of this era that we’ve seen recently and easily on par with Image’s Twilight Zone sets. Disney’s historical shows of the period were generally quite sumptuously produced, with lavish attention paid to period detail and production authenticity (see 1963’s Dr. Syn for our own favorite example). The first season set leads off with Leonard Maltin’s typically good-natured intro, and also features the exhaustive The Life and Legend of Zorro, a well-produced documentary on the production of the show, along with a Zorro-related clip from The Mickey Mouse Show (the second season set features the Behind the Mask documentary). In a striking – and pleasing – packaging change from previous Walt Disney Treasures collections, the outer boxes are black-lacquer in color, but feature the usual artwork and photo reproductions along with the ubiquitous Disney ‘certificate of authenticity’. And even though they never fit comfortably back into the outer tin once opened, we enjoyed the collector’s pins enclosed in each and will be wearing the crossed swords emblem fare more often than we should.

It’s impossible to say what children today might think of the Disney variant of Zorro, but we hope that the appeal of these wonderful sets isn’t limited to the adult collector. It would be interesting to get these shows into the hands of kids who haven’t yet developed an aversion to black and white programming, as it’s far more engaging than most current kids fare (including much of Disney’s own output) and, frankly, at least as smart as a good chunk of our present prime time programming.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

Been Cruising the Newsstands for Video Watchdog, Lately?

Greetings, readers. Those of you who’ve been following this blog from the beginning may remember our first post back on Sept 14th, 2007. Since William Friedkin’s Cruising was due for its digital premiere in the 18th, we thought it appropriate that the blog’s maiden voyage should be a brief chat about our long, curious history with the film.

From the days when it was first available on the CBS/Fox video label, we felt a strange kinship with this seemingly unwanted 1980 party favor, a film that its Oscar winning star pretends didn’t exist. We were fascinated by the picture’s view of the shadowy world of the meatpacking district’s gay leather bars painted on an unfashionably nihilistic canvas. Over the years, we realized that few (if any) people cared about the show, as routine investigations brought about precious little information on the film, almost as if it slipped into a black hole. Cruising was the subject of our first foray into long-form essay writing for a friend’s online magazine (though it’s still possible to search out the article, we beg you not to as we find to be just this side of unreadable now) and we were thrilled to find it quoted from in Warner Bros. press release for the film’s 2007 DVD release - apparently, more people care about the film than we thought!

So it’s fitting that the film should mark our doorway into the hallowed halls of Video Watchdog, long considered the Bible for serious writing on the cinema of fantasy and the fantastic. When its publisher, Tim Lucas, announced earlier this year that he would accept submission proposals for the first time, we immediately sent off our proposal for an all-new article on a film which we feel – with all humility – we know better than almost anyone else. The extraordinary news that the article was accepted has been eclipsed only by the arrival last night of our own copy of Video Watchdog #152, in which the DVD spotlight bears a familiar name.

As someone who has enjoyed the opportunity for writing on genre cinema for nearly a decade, VW is a height to which we dared not aspire. It’s the height of the form and we’re still having difficulty believing that we have been welcomed into the kennel. The magazine is not available online, and can only be had at better newsstands or from their website. Enjoy!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Paranormal Psychology

We badly wanted to see horror indy Paranormal Activity before the expected backlash had time to take effect, though we did hear from lots of interwebz folks that that the film was unworthy of the massive hype machine put in place by Paramount (who picked up the $10K budgeted flick after some positive festival appearances over the last 2 years.) The Blair Witch Project introduced audiences to the 'found footage' concept nearly a decade ago (in short, footage consisting of the film/video footage shot by the characters themselves) even though Ruggero Deodato's infamous exploitation gem, Cannibal Holocaust, had used the technique rather brilliantly back in 1980 (though there was a narrative framework surrounding the use of the footage.) We were lucky to have seen BWP in its opening weekend – too early for it to become hip to hate the film – and marveled at how directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez stayed true to the '3 kids with cameras' framework and made it feel real enough to send genuine chills down our spine when the characters on screen were sure that they heard something out there. It was years before thinking back on the film's much parodied final shot lost the power to utterly spook us out. Only the Spanish REC managed to improve on the method, by taking the cameras out of the hands of inexperienced kids and into the hands a professional camera crew working for a Barcelona news station following a reporter as she films a fluff piece on a local fire department, where a routine call to an apartment building turns into the requisite night of terror. REC is an extremely polished, professional bit of filmmaking, with the presence of a professional cameraman and equipment allowing for a less nausea-inducing theater experience (and probably also holds true for its Hollywood remake, Quarantine.)

Paramount's unusual ad campaign for Paranormal Activity has focused on the terrified reaction shots of preview audiences rather than film footage itself, almost as if the studio is bashful about the film being called out as a BWP knock-off. But having finally seen the film as part of Lincoln Center's Scary Movies 3 festival , I can attest to the veracity of all those jumps, gasps, and screams (okay, we didn't actually scream – honest.) Leaving the theater, we were trying to remember the last time that genuine fear had been felt inside a movie theater, aside from the feeling that car keys had been lost at the New Roc City multiplex. Paranormal Activity centers around the videotaped nocturnal activity of a spirit that Katie (Katie Featherston) feels is invading the modern San Diego home she shares with boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat.) Micah's attitude is far more blasé, assuming that the culprit ultimately responsible for the noises in the night will turn out to be a neighborhood peeping tom rather than anything supernatural. Micah does most of the filming, playfully taping Katie as they cook meals and lay about on their couch, but also sets the camera up on their bedroom dresser when they go to bed, affording a view of the bedroom and the upstairs hallway through the open door. Time coded footage allows us to hear the odd creak and rattle – most of which happens in the middle of the night and go unnoticed until they play the footage back the next night – which quickly turns to loud bangs and door slamming. They enlist the aid of a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) who explains the difference between the spirit of a dead human being and a demon, the latter of which he suspects may well have followed Katie from childhood. Soon, even Micah becomes a believer, even to the point of bringing home a Ouija board to communicate with it – something the psychic explicitly warned them against. Attempts to communicate, he says, will only make their presence stronger (it also won't help to move or go to a hotel as the entity will simply follow Katie.)

This isn't a film that depends all that much on plot twists and turns, but it would be criminal to spoil any of what transpires during the tenser haunting sequences. Director Oren Peli has spent two nervous years dueling with a studio that first wanted merely to buy the rights to the film and remake it with big stars and effects to match (an act that would have shown such hysterically poor judgment we almost whished that they had gone ahead so that Paranormal Activity starring Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale would be appearing on Blu-Ray just about now) only to relent once Steven Spielberg – among others – had seen the film and spotted its potential. Nevertheless, Paramount sat on the film for what must have seemed like an eternity to Peli (particularly after the red hot reception which greeted the film at almost every festival it played at.) Peli expertly exploits the terror of lying in your bed in the middle of the night, having been awakened by mysterious noises and too petrified to leave the sheets to investigate the darkness. The usual 'cat jumps through open window' to the strain of a screeching musical cue type of scare is largely absent from the film, giving it an unusual rhythm that slowly but surely fills the viewer with an sense of escalating dread; once Peli and the actors convince us of the reality of the setup (within 10 minutes we stopped thinking things like "Oh, please, why would he be filming now") even the smallest shadow or unexplained noise had the power to turn our blood frigid. Now, we can't say that this psychology will work on everyone and we can hear the complaints that it was boring and that "nothing happened". Effects in the film are smartly limited (though we have strong suspicions where the studio mandated reshoots began at the film's conclusion) and most of the what occurs is left to the imagination of the viewer.

Paranormal Activity frightened us in a way we haven't felt for years in a theater; a window into the deep, spine-chilling creepiness that sneaks into our bedrooms in the middle of the night, taking our knowledge that the supernatural doesn't actually exist and throwing it out the window.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Wolfen in Werewolf's Clothing

Wolfen, to use a grotesque yet appropriate pun, is an unusual beast. The only post-Woodstock directorial credit for director Michael Wadleigh (and his only narrative effort) was released in the summer of 1981, wedged between two high profile werewolf pictures, Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London. Audiences thinking that the film made up the third horse in the lycanthropic trifecta left this decidedly odd effort left feeling cheated, as the filmmakers had something more profound in mind than a simple ‘monster movie’.

After breaking ground on his sprawling South Bronx real estate project, super-wealthy businessman Christopher van de Veer and wife Pauline slip down to Manhattan’s Battery Park, where the happy couple enjoys a cocaine-fuelled frolic around a replica of a windmill erected there by van de Veer’s ancestor, all under the watchful eye of his mountainous armed bodyguard. But the trio isn’t alone in the park – something silent and swift is stalking them in the darkness, something with acute night-vision that registers even the most subtle changes in the human body’s temperature. After a few moments, the creatures strike; ripping off the bodyguard’s hand before he can get a shot off with his gun, and tearing apart the wealthy scion and his wife. The odd circumstances of the crime bring one of the NYPD’s more odd detectives onto the case, the sarcastic and possibly alcoholic Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney, marking the actor’s first lead role since 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express) who is aided in his investigation by the equally unorthodox medical examiner Whittington (Gregory Hines) and criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) who is put on the case at the behest of a shadowy international security service that provides security for executives all over the world, and are anxious to see the van de Veer case closed quickly.

The investigation leads them to several terrorist organizations that might have a bone to pick with van de Veer (who was not, as Det. Wilson points out, exactly a friend of the third world) until the body of a derelict found in a particularly desolate area of the South Bronx turns up in Whittington’s morgue. Like the van de Veer case, the skin was torn with some incredibly sharp, non-metallic blade and numerous internal organs were missing, but the body from the Bronx contained several diseased organs that were left untouched – almost as if whatever killed him was somehow able to sense this and leave them behind. A few strands of non-human hair lead them to zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan; for the first time billed under an actual character name and not simply as ‘Man’) who confirms that the hair is, in fact, canis lupus – a wolf hair. Dewey’s investigations also lead him to Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos) a former radical in an AIM-like Native American movement just released from prison and with one political assassination already under his belt. Speaking to Eddie requires Dewey to scale the Manhattan Bridge where Eddie works with other members of his tribe who possess uncommon skill at working Manhattan’s high steel jobs (based on the amazing story of several generations of Mohawks who came down from their reservation in Canada to work NYC’s skyline for over a century) Eddie eludes to an ability shared by some Native Americans to “shape shift” into certain animals – including wolves. With his investigation dead-ended by the supernatural, Dewey and Whittington set out for the ruins of a massive church in the south Bronx where the bodies of several derelicts have been found with their (non diseased) organs removed, armed with automatic weapons and high-sensitivity microphones.

Wolfen avoids the same trap that other ecologically themed horror films of the era fell into by managing to balance the potentially over preachy ecological agenda with effective storytelling and expertly filmed suspense sequences. Not only was this Wadleigh’s first (and, to date, only) narrative film, it was also his first time shooting with 35mm cameras and considering his inexperience the end result is startling. His Panavision cameras run, swoop and climb all over the city, making superb use of Battery Park and the financial district of downtown Manhattan, and the final sequence featuring several real wolves stalking the steps of Federal Hall says more in a few shots than 20 pages of “You have your technology, but you lost” soliloquies ever could. Much was made in 1981 of the film’s wolf POV shots, which were basically a re-jiggered thermographic image, but just as Terminator 2 overused the new-in-1991 morphing effect, so did Wadleigh (or his producers) lean on this trick a little too hard. Luckily, the non-POV location photography always gives us something interesting to look at; in addition to the sleek skyscrapers and ornately columned government and financial buildings of Wall Street, Wolfen also affords us a view of the desolate Charlotte Street area of the Bronx – an area of the borough that resembled a bombed-out European city just after the second World War throughout much of the 70s through the mid 80s. A wasteland of abandoned tenements and rubble strewn lots provide the setting for the long abandoned, cavernous, cathedral that the Wolfen use as a den (the only artificial set used during these sequences, incidentally.) The notion that a race of wolves with God-like hunting instincts living in and feeding off the garbage of our inner cities comes directly from Whitley Strieber’s novel, but the Native American mythology that serves as the creatures’ motivation comes directly from Wadleigh and co-writer David Eyre. Wadleigh’s portrayal of Native Americans is certainly meant to be respectful – even reverential – but he falls into the trap that caught many other liberal, well-meaning filmmakers by elevating them to a level of near deification. Wolfen wasn’t the first – or the last – film to imbue them with mythic qualities as a cinematic reparation for genocide, but we can’t help but groan at hearing how in touch Native Americans are over and over again. It would be quite a few years before they would be allowed to behave like normal people on screen (beautifully done in the little seen Powwow Highway) instead of a symbol of our lost connection to nature and a fashionable emblem of white guilt (we’re looking at you, Oliver Stone.)

The mere presence of Albert Finney classes up the proceedings immeasurably, though occasionally his performance seems to wander – the actor badly stumbles over a line in his very first scene – and we wonder if the inexperienced filmmaker was too intimidated to offer much in the way of precise direction. Finney’s appearances had been limited in the years prior to Wolfen, and his shaggy, disheveled appearance must have been jolting to those who remembered him as the essence of youthful exuberance in Tom Jones some two decades earlier (Finney did look a bit better rested in Michael Crichton’s Looker, out later that same year.) A bigger surprise is how handily Gregory Hines steals each of his scenes from his significantly more experienced co-star; this was the only the second major role for the world class hoofer and he lends the stock character a genuine, unforced humor that aids the film immeasurably. We re-watched The Cotton Club just a few weeks before checking out Wolfen for this review and suddenly found ourselves missing Hines in a powerful way. The almost always underused Diane Venora – a theater actress whose best film role to date is probably as Al Pacino’s unstable wife in Michael Mann’s Heat – is fine in a mostly underwritten role. Noonan, another Mann veteran, is almost too quirky as an eco-minded zoologist (though we loved the very inside NYC reference of having his character report a fire rather than calling the police – a jaded New Yorker in 1981 would have certainly known which call would generate a quicker response) but Olmos give a nice, unmannered performance as a not-quite-so-former radical (compared to some of his later performances that, frankly, you could slice with a knife.)

Wolfen turned out to be the filling of a wish sandwich when it was released in 1981 – the werewolf picture without werewolves. We’ve heard that Wadleigh wasn’t completely happy with the film’s final cut, as may be evidenced by the theatrical trailer included on Warner Bros’ DVD, which contains glimpses of several scenes not included in the film proper. Whatever the reason, Wadleigh never made another film in spite of the real promise shown here, and spends much of his time being interviewed about Woodstock and forgetting that Wolfen even existed. Warner’s DVD looks fine during the on-location daylight scenes, but nighttime and dark interiors can look quite pale. On the plus side, the Dolby Surround track is quite muscular, nicely supporting James Horner’s terrific score (so good that he used much of it the next year for The Wrath of Khan.) Sadly, no informative extras are included.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Blu-Ray Review - The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

On Tuesday, Sept 15th, Miramax and Buena Vista will be releasing a welcome, if oddly grouped, selection of martial arts films, all making their Blu-ray disc debut. Called the “Ultimate Force of Four” set, which actually makes it sound like a poorly translated Japanese cartoon from the 80s, the set features four popular films starring Hong Kong sensations Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and even Takeshi Kitano for the sake of cultural diversity. Although some of the films share similar elements, other than being elaborately costumed period shows they have little in common save having been snatched up for American distribution by Miramax Pictures.

Takeshi Kitano has worn many hats in the Japanese entertainment industry over the last few decades; from wacky game show personality, half of a stand-up comedy act, master of ceremonies, not to mention writing, producing and directing a series of films that run the gamut from lowbrow humor to hyper-violent and deadly serious police/yakuza dramas. Like fellow countryman Takashi Miike, some of Kitano’s films have managed to break through the seemingly insurmountable cultural barrier that sadly keeps most Americans ignorant to the wealth of Japanese films that exist outside the limited realms of Akira Kurosawa and Godzilla. Kitano was first seen on this side of the Pacific in a major supporting role opposite David Bowie and Tom Conti in Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 POW camp drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but Kitano’s fortunes were assured while filming Violent Cop for director Kinji Fukasaku (who would go on to direct him in arguably his most widely seen film, Battle Royale.) The aging master fell ill during filming and Kitano took over the directing chores, re-fitting the script and fashioning a tough guy screen persona similar to that of Ken Takakura, whose steely gaze often said more than whole pages of dialog. This contrasted sharply with the heavily comedic work that he had come to be known for on shows like the utterly mad Takeshi’s Castle (immortalized stateside as MXC on Spike TV.) Kitano fine-tuned this gangster persona several years later, creating one of his finest films, Sonatine, a festival favorite that won the actor a considerable international following.

Kitano had some initial trepidation in taking on the role of the blind swordsman (and masseur!) as it was so heavily identified in Japan with Shintaro Katsu, who owned the role thanks to a 26 films and a TV series that stretched from 1962 to 1989. But Kitano, who directed and starred, as usual, under the Beat Takeshi moniker, changed the more traditional good against evil tone of the early films, mostly by giving the villain of the piece, a Ronin bodyguard (Tadanobu Asano) a tragic backstory that allows for empathy. The plot of the film, which finds Zatoichi working with a group of poor farmers who are caught between two warring groups of Yakuza, is as old as the hills, with roots back to Italian westerns of the 60s, which were, in turn, inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s jidaigeki films of the 50s, Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. But Kitano adds a few new twists, like buckets of stylistically-rendered CGI blood (Kitano seems to be the only filmmaker that knows how to apply this technique properly) and a large-scale celebratory tap dance sequence that will strike many as unusual to say the least, but as a director, Kitano isn’t known for emotional pandering and the scene makes for a joyous and touching way to cap the proceedings.

If Zatoichi was given a US theatrical release, we missed it, but Miramax has obtained the US home video rights, which usually means a regimen of cutting and dubbing, but the news isn’t all dire. We do get the uncut feature with an original language audio track, but (as with the other 3 films from the box set) only the English dub track is accorded a lossless DTS audio track while the original Japanese audio rates only a DD 5.1 mix. the transfer, however, is a mixed bag; initially the picture appears bright and clear, but closer inspection reveals some distractingly noticeable edge enhancement, as if the sharpness was turned up too high, which gives the illusion of fine detail when the actual effect is just the opposite. The brightness also appears to have been artificially boosted, giving the film the over-lit feel of television product. It’s by no means unwatchable, but we also feel that a little more care should have been accorded to Zatoichi – a box office and critical smash in Japan that could have made Miramax some major coin in the US had it been handled better. An excellent 40min making-of docu is included, along with a collection of short, individual interviews.

Blu-Ray Review - The Legend of Drunken Master

On Tuesday, Sept 15th, Miramax and Buena Vista will be releasing a welcome, if oddly grouped, selection of martial arts films, all making their Blu-ray disc debut. Called the “Ultimate Force of Four” set, which actually makes it sound like a poorly translated Japanese cartoon from the 80s, the set features four popular films starring Hong Kong sensations Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and even Takeshi Kitano for the sake of cultural diversity. Although some of the films share similar elements, other than being elaborately costumed period shows they have little in common save having been snatched up for American distribution by Miramax Pictures.

The next film, chronologically speaking, is 1994’s The Legend of Drunken Master starring Jackie Chan in another film inspired by the Wong Fei Hung legend – although this time with a far more humorous take. The Wikipedia page on the revered martial artist and doctor says nothing about his ability to drink large amounts of accelerant and fight off Imperial interests “drunken monkey” style, but then again, this is Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei Hung story (actually his second, counting 1978’s The Drunken Master, one of the star’s earliest successes.)

The film was released in Hong Kong in 1994 – the same year that Jackie Chan celebrated his 40th birthday and the last film of Jackie’s “golden era”. The previous 10 years had yielded a stupefying array of breathtakingly choreographed martial arts mayhem in films like the Police Story series, Armor of God, Operation Condor, and Project A; all serving to elevate the Peking Opera-trained star’s reputation as the preeminent performer in the post-Bruce Lee era. Chan’s early career actually overlapped with Lee’s, as the stars can clearly be seen trading blows during the climactic fight in Lee’s swan song, Enter the Dragon (1973). Lee’s template of the stern-faced hero cast a shadow over Hong Kong cinema for years after his death, with many young stars being shoehorned into increasingly formulaic roles. Though Chan’s more successful early pictures, like Snake in Eagle’s Shadow and The Young Master, flirted with a more comic tone, Chan’s early pictures haven’t aged all that well. Early forays into the coveted American action film market yielded the disappointing Battle Creek Brawl in 1980 (seriously, did Robert Clouse really direct Enter the Dragon?) and the unwatchable Golden Harvest-Warner Bros co-production The Protector in 1985. Ironically, Chan seemed far more ‘at home’ in his extended cameo in The Cannonball Run, which reportedly inspired him to use outtakes during his closing credits (“I want you to take these bleeds…”) But once Chan set aside plans for American conquest and concentrated on his Hong Kong films, he quickly blossomed into the most innovative martial arts performer of his – or, frankly, anyone’s – era; comparisons to Buster Keaton aren’t used lightly, and Jackie’s comic inventiveness and creativity was seemingly boundless. Age finally began to catch up with Jackie just as his star was finally ascending in the States; a re-edited and dubbed Rumble in the Bronx served as his official breakthrough American film in 1995, but the film was severely weakened by New Line Cinema’s editing of nearly 15min, loosing most of the show’s more comic moments (some of which can still be glimpsed in the film’s end credit outtakes) and the fact that an injury to Chan’s foot hampered the star’s usual kung-fu theatrics. But Chan’s success in America was assured, and the Shanghai Knights and Rush Hour franchise became world-wide smashes, even if his physical prowess was on a slow, but steady, decline.

The Legend of Drunken Master is the 2000 Miramax retiling of 1994’s Drunken Master II, easily one of Jackie’s best films, and one of the last made during his physical peak. At 40, Chan might seem a bit too young to play the seemingly teenage Fei Hung that we see here, but accuracy has never been the strong suit of the Wong Fei Hung films (a Hong Kong tradition going back to the Second World War) and this is easily the most entertaining that we’ve ever seen. The film begins as more or less a domestic comedy, with Fei Hung caught between his stern father (Ti Lung) and mahjong-playing mother (the late and much missed Anita Mui). Fei Hung’s keen ability at drunken boxing (actually a legitimate form of Wushu called Zui Quan, incorporating movements that make the practitioner appear intoxicated) is frowned upon by his father, even when he uses it to protect his mother against a group of street thugs. But soon Fei Hung runs afoul of a group of smugglers working with a “foreign power” to spirit historically important Chinese art treasures out of the country, culminating in some of the greatest fights in the star’s career.

While watching any of Jackie’s golden era films, we’re always struck by his incredible sense of the proper pacing of the action sequences. While a large scale opening sequence was becoming standard in most HK films of the era, Drunken Master II builds its rhythm slowly; the first one-on-one fight around a stopped train and the aforementioned engagement between Jackie and several street thugs seem to be the equivalent of a martial arts warm-up lap, allowing Jackie (and us) to get used to the drunken boxing style (and no one has ever done this to better effect) so that each subsequent sequence trumps the scene before it. We first saw the film at NYC’s Cinema Village in the mid 90s, and I’m sure that I thought that there would be no way to top Jackie’s encounter with the ‘ax gang’ – a hypnotic sequence involving a two story restaurant and what seems like about 300 ax-armed assassins – until the final fight in the foundry. Jackie’s fight with Ken Lo (a member of Jackie’s lauded stunt team and his personal bodyguard) who amazingly stepped in at the last minute when an injury sidelined the actor slated to appear. Lo’s character, Jon, is a perfect example of the classic martial arts villain, sitting back throughout most of the film wearing a suitably smug expression, just waiting for that perfect moment to show you what an utter badass he is. The sequence is one of Jackie’s very best two-man fights ever filmed. But another supporting actor deserving special mention is the fabulous Anita Mui, playing Jackie’s mother while the actress was almost a full decade his junior. Her scenes with Jackie absolutely sparkle, and the two would be reunited in Rumble in the Bronx. Mui’s comic timing is flawless, taking what could have easily been a forgettable role and making it into something special. Mui had an equally successful career as a pop singer as well, and remained one of Hong Kong’s most beloved entertainment figures until her death from cervical cancer in 2003.

Blu-Ray Review - Iron Monkey

On Tuesday, Sept 15th, Miramax and Buena Vista will be releasing a welcome, if oddly grouped, selection of martial arts films, all making their Blu-ray disc debut. Called the “Ultimate Force of Four” set, which actually makes it sound like a poorly translated Japanese cartoon from the 80s, the set features four popular films starring Hong Kong sensations Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and even Takeshi Kitano for the sake of cultural diversity. Although some of the films share similar elements, other than being elaborately costumed period shows they have little in common save having been snatched up for American distribution by Miramax Pictures.

The oldest film of the set, 1993’s Iron Monkey, was directed and choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping several years before being set up as Hollywood’s official HK fight choreographer, giving films like The Matrix and Kill Bill films instant street cred. Slightly more historically accurate than Drunken Master II, the film nonetheless plays fast and loose with elements of the life of Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei Hung. The story of Iron Monkey centers on a Robin Hood-like figure, Yang Tianchun (Ru Rongguang) who serves the poor of his community by day as a doctor, but by night he dons a black outfit and robs the rich to pay for his clinic. The “Iron Monkey” even steals gold directly from the governor’s mansion, inciting a manhunt that ensnares innocent physician Wong Kei Ying (Donnie Yen) who just arrived in town with his young son, Fei Hung (Angie Tsang). After watching him fight off several members of a gang, the local police believe him to be the Iron Monkey, arresting him on the spot. During the trial, the real Iron Monkey arrives to attempt to rescue the innocent Kei Wing, but the innocent doctor is so intent on proving his innocence that he fights the Iron Monkey to a virtual draw. Sensing a nerve, the governor decides to send Kei Ying out to hunt down the masked avenger, keeping his son hostage as insurance.

As an action choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping is a name that is recognizable to even the kung-fu layman. His first major assignment was alongside Jackie Chan on Snake in Eagle’s Shadow in 1978, and since then has gone on to work with virtually every major action star in Hong Kong. Yuen was a major force in shifting HK martial arts films out of the over-rehearsed looking, missed-by-a-mile programmers that dominated the scene in the 70s, into a more elegant, fluid style that retained a street-level feel. Star Donnie Yen never quite broke through to Western audiences in the way that that Jackie Chan and Jet Li have (though, ironically, Yen spent part of his adolescence with his family in Boston) but he’s maintained a high profile career in Hong Kong since getting his start as a stuntman in the early 80s. He rose to prominence as a performer after facing off against Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China II; a scene that proved so popular with fans that Li personally intervened on Yen’s behalf and cast him in Hero. There’s also more of an adherence to the laws of physics on the part of the fight sequence participants, which might displease those who are either devotees of that particular school of martial arts storytelling, or who hadn’t seen a martial arts film before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And because the film was made in 1993, there are no attempts made at digital trickery. Iron Monkey is a fun throwback to a simpler era of martial arts film, and one that appeals greatly to those who feel that the tone of self-importance that has formed around the genre in the last decade – yours truly included.
Unfortunately, Iron Monkey has been brutally Americanized by Miramax in an attempt to make it more palatable to the average consumer (the very consumer that will be too busy renting Wesley Snipes movies to give a 25yr old foreign film called Iron Monkey more than 2 seconds of thought.) Good news first – the Blu-Ray picture is quite nice given the limitations of the source material. Colors and detail are quite strong, with deep, inky blacks and good contrast. The bad news is that only the English dub track has been graced with a lossless DTS audio track – purists will have to content themselves with a DD 5.1 Cantonese track. Now the worse news; Miramax have given us the edited US version, shorn of roughly 5 minutes from its original HK running time of 90min. as is usually the case with Hong Kong films, comedic sequences are first on the chopping block, as it’s widely thought that the humor doesn’t travel well (we’ve never seen the longer cut – this is pure conjecture.) Worst still is that the film’s original score and much of the familiar Hong Kong foley effects used during the fight scenes have been replaced – apparently the same people that don’t like Chinese humor don’t care for Chinese sound effects either.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Saga of Roger Corman and His Voyage to the Waters of Oscar Gold

It was great to find out from our own beloved Cinefantastique that Roger Corman is slated to finally receive an honorary Oscar for being the most important producer in Hollywood history.

And I’m totally serious.

Monday, August 24, 2009

John Landis - Keeping His Head in the Game

Sorry to be away for a while – we’ve been keeping busy over at Cinefantastique and the all-important (yet still dreaded) day job. But we just came across a bit of news that was just too delicious not to pass on. According to Dread Central, John Landis is about to start work on his first narrative feature (discounting his recent, and excellent documentaries and television work) in 10 years. Can the news get better? The subject matter is going to be a pair of gentlemen by the name of William Burke and William Hare, who kindly supplied the Edinburgh Medial College’s need for fresh bodies for dissection in the early 19th Century; first by simply stealing bodies from the grave, and later by cutting out the middle man and murdering the subjects on their own. There have already been several films dealing with the pair, including the excellent The Flesh and the Fiends from 1960, featuring Donald Pleasence as Hare and Peter Cushing as the tragic Dr. Knox – a brilliant surgeon whose dealings with the pair cost him his reputation, the forgettable 1972 Burke &Hare, and the odd 1985 entry, The Doctor and the Devils, a Hammer-inspired work from Mel Brooks’ production company that used an unproduced script by Dylan Thomas as a launching pad for a fictionalized take on the case and featuring a smashing cast including Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea as “Fallon and Broom” (the renamed Burke and Hare) and Timothy Dalton as “Dr. Rock”.


Even Landis’ most strident supporters (a group that we proudly belong to) would acknowledge that the second half of his directorial career has generated an awful lot of garbage (of which The Stupids isn’t even the worst) but the man’s footpath is littered with more diamonds than can be easily be counted. Approached as coal-black comedy, Landis could do wonders with the material – particularly if Simon Pegg remains attached.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

William Lustig Presents: The Seventies - Buried Treasures

We’re somehow not on NYC’s Anthology Film Archives email distribution list, but luckily we found out this amazing event anyway. Both as a filmmaker (Maniac, Vigilante, Maniac Cop) and a DVD entrepreneur with his Blue Underground label, William Lustig has been one of the most important figures in the exploitation world. in just the last few years, Blue Underground has been responsible for bringing some of the best Grindhouse epics from America (whoever thought Fight for Your Life would ever be on DVD, much less uncut and looking luminous) and Europe (releasing Emanuelle in America uncut in spite of the number of stores that would refuse to stock a disc with hardcore material) to domestic DVD for the first time.

A mainstay of the NYC repertory scene, we first met Bill at the much lamented The Screening Room off Canal St for a rare screening of Billion Dollar Brain well over a decade ago. We recognized his voice from the Laserdisc commentary tracks he participated in and enjoyed a long talk with this amazingly gracious man (You want stories? He’s got stories.) Since then we’ve ran into Bill several more times at various screenings and conventions (where he was nice enough to introduce us to Luigi Cozzi!) and never miss the chance to say hello. Anyway, enough fawning – here’s Anthology’s into to the festival:

August 7-13 Ever since William Lustig came to Anthology last summer to present his MANIAC COP films as part of our New York City Vigilantes series, we�ve been hoping to bring him back in the guise of guest-curator. Undersung filmmaker and founder of the indispensable Home Media label Blue Underground, Lustig is a veritable fountain of wisdom on the subject of the cinema�s unsavory margins. This summer, Lustig will be turning his attention to the subversive genre films of 1970s Hollywood, unearthing a handful of treasures that have been languishing in studio vaults for decades. Unavailable on DVD, and very rarely shown, these films are itching to explode back onto the screen. Homicidal Vietnam vets, escaped convicts, crime syndicates, and a treasure-trove of seventies character actors �Joe Don Baker, Timothy Carey, Karen Black, Rip Torn, Stacy Keach, Angie Dickinson, James Caan, and many more � will be storming Anthology come August. Prepare yourself! Very special thanks to William Lustig; and to Caitlin Robertson (20th Century Fox), Ross Klein (MGM), Jared Sapolin & Grover Crisp (Sony), Marilee Womack (Warner Brothers), and Adam Lounsbery.

For those to lazy to clicky - here's the impressive rundown:

by Richard Rush
1974, 113 minutes, 35mm. With James Caan and Alan Arkin.
“In retrospect [FREEBIE AND THE BEAN] seems like the missing – and absolutely essential – link between the gritty potboilers of the 1970s, such as THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and the glib, profane thrillers of the 80s and 90s…. [Starring] Alan Arkin as a Hispanic detective (i.e., ‘The Bean’), and James Caan as his determined-to-be-corrupted partner (hence ‘Freebie’)…it’s an amazing, explosive, almost self-destructive exercise in action, comedy, racism, and property damage, not necessarily in that order.” –Todd Gilchrist, CINEMATICAL
–Sunday, August 9 at 6:15 and Wednesday, August 12 at 9:00.

by Richard Compton
1972, 91 minutes, 35mm. Archival print courtesy of 20th Century Fox. With Joe Don Baker.
Four battle-fatigued and well-armed Vietnam vets, driving cross-country, accidentally kill a woman before heading to their hometown. Disillusioned with their homecoming, the four vets unleash their fury in a blood-crazed rampage that has to be seen to be believed. In its down-and-dirty way, this film lays bare the uncomfortable truth of the damaged psyches left in the wake of the Vietnam war.
–Saturday, August 8 at 9:30 and Tuesday, August 11 at 7:00.

by John Flynn
1977, 95 minutes, 35mm. With William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, and Dabney Coleman.
Among the very greatest – and most disturbing – revenge flicks, ROLLING THUNDER stars Devane as a Vietnam vet determined to track down the men who killed his wife and child. Written by a young Paul Schrader, it’s a classic of its kind.
“Working from another intelligent script from Schrader, Flynn spins his yarn…with an impossibly steady hand, turning what could have been yet another DEATH WISH knock-off into an authentically understated work of gritty 70s cinema.” –THE FILM FIEND
–Saturday, August 8 at 7:00 and Tuesday, August 11 at 9:00.

by Jacques Deray
1972, 104 minutes, 35mm. With Jean-Louis Trintignant, Ann-Margret, Roy Scheider, and Angie Dickinson.
This Melville-inspired thriller stars Trintignant as a French hit man sent to Los Angeles to whack a mob kingpin. Once the job is finished, though, he finds himself trapped in an early-1970s nightmare of strip clubs, Jesus freaks and Star Trek re-runs, chased by muscle-car driving assassin Roy Scheider and helped by friendly go-go girl, Ann-Margret.
–Saturday, August 8 at 2:45 and Monday, August 10 at 7:00.

by John Flynn
1973, 105 minutes, 35mm. With Robert Duvall, Karen Black, Joe Don Baker, Robert Ryan, Elisha Cook Jr., and Timothy Carey.
“Excellent adaptation of a novel by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), who also provided the source material for POINT BLANK…and Godard’s MADE IN USA. A taut, grim thriller, it sees Duvall, just out of prison and with revenge burning in his heart for the murder of his brother, taking on the Syndicate with the help of heavy, Joe Don Baker. [I]t’s a cool, exciting thriller in the Siegel tradition, paying more than passing reference to classic film noir with its host of character actors [including the great Timothy Carey], a cruel performance from Ryan as the mob leader, and its vision of people caught up in a chaotic, confused and treacherous world.” –Geoff Andrew
–Friday, August 7 at 9:30, Sunday, August 9 at 4:00, and Thursday, August 13 at 7:00.

by Michael Winner
1973, 95 minutes, 35mm. With Charles Bronson and Martin Balsam.
In this pre-DEATH WISH collaboration between Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner, Bronson is a pitiless cop who uncovers an unlikely plot by a Mafia don (Balsam) to avenge a decades-old attack by using Vietnam veterans to eliminate the heads of the major mob families. This is Bronson in his prime, and features one of Hollywood’s finest uses of a free-falling dummy (for more information, consult the November 7, 2007 post at
–Friday, August 7 at 7:00 and Thursday, August 13 at 9:15.

by Douglas Hickox
1972, 93 minutes, 35mm. With Oliver Reed, Jill St. John, and Ian McShane.
Though it wasn’t meant as high praise, the NEW YORK TIMES description of this film pretty much sums it up: “This is brutal, garish pulp stuff, with a repulsively sadistic Oliver Reed busting out of prison and snaking into London for the sole purpose of killing his unfaithful wife, played by a bug-eyed Jill St. John.” Brutal, garish, pulp, Oliver Reed? What’s not to like?
–Saturday, August 8 at 5:00 and Monday, August 10 at 9:15.

Oh, we will see you there.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Buzz Aldrin's Punch-Out

What better way is there to celebrate the anniversary of what may be mankind’s single greatest achievement then by watching one of those intrepid explorers (who will turn 80 next year) giving one of those irritating conspiracy nuts a paste up the snoot? Now, we like conspiracies as much as the next black helicopter-watching fella, but the smug way these people have about them is simply cringe inducing. And just listen to the way this dude confronts Aldrin – you want to see him get socked so badly you can taste it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

It's A Disaster!

Brilliant, brilliant fan-made trailer for 2012. Major disaster kudos to creator Garrison Dean!

Monday, July 6, 2009

More Giallo News...

Thanks to the folks at Bloody Disgusting for posting what’s being called an “official” trailer for Dario Argento’s newest, though it bears a strong resemblance to the promotional trailer that has been around for months now. Many are commenting on the fact that Giallo doesn’t exactly look like a Giallo, at least in the traditional sense. This is likely due to the title referencing not the genre, but the unusual skin pigment of the film’s killer (though we’d be willing to bet that there will be numerous hat tips to films from Argento’s salad says of the 70s.

We’re really, really pulling for this one; with a bigger name cast than he’s had in a while, this film has a real shot at finding a wide audience. Unfortunately, we’ve heard some disquieting stories about the American financiers freezing Argento out of the editing and scoring process and the iffy reaction that the film received during its debut screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Next stop will be the UK Fright Fest in August.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

You Say You Want a Revolution?

While it doesn’t have the name recognition of a Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar, 1985’s Revolution was one of the most notable flops of the decade. The careers of nearly all major players were derailed to varying degrees; major studios quickly stopped knocking on Nastassja Kinski door and director Hugh Hudson, a hot property after Chariots of Fire and Greystoke, was unable to get work for years afterwards, and only then in low profile, barely-released projects. Even Pacino found himself out of work until Harold Becker’s ugly Sea of Love in 1989. It was actually Pacino who bore the brunt of the film’s negative notices, with his mumbled dialog filtered through an odd, supposedly historically accurate accent. After 23 years, Warner Bros has decided to give Hudson the chance to recut the film to his initial specifications before being rushed to meet a studio mandated release date. Having recently viewed the new DVD, here are our off-the-cuff impressions, presented in the Scribe’s famously disjointed style.

Perhaps the real secret to Revolution’s 1985 failure is the seeming lack of sympathy for any of the film’s characters. Hudson and writer Robert Dillon see Colonists as a filthy, uneducated rabble and the British as little more than lisping, pedophilic sadists. It’s certainly true that many more “volunteers” in the war were acquired like Tom (Pacino) and his son Ned (played as a child by Sid Owen and as a teenager by Dexter Fletcher) forced at bayonet point to fight for one side or the other when the outcome would have little effect on their lives, but in the patriotic wave that was just starting to crest in 1985 it’s easy to imagine that the film-going public weren’t interested in a revision of that particular history. Tom feels nothing for either side of the struggle for Independence, but understandably has little but distain for the Colonialists, who conscript his only son and confiscate his possessions. As a result, he is always attempting to run away from battle (again, understandably so) but it doesn’t exactly inspire to see them moping through history; we want desperately to see this amazingly recreated period of history through their eyes, only to have them retreat from the action onscreen time and time again. And what a recreation; the film’s 1776 Manhattan is a stunning creation, realistically brought to life in a ‘warts and all’ fashion that runs starkly against popular shows like the popular musical 177 (though we wished the film had spent more time in the wealthy homes of New York’s Royalist families, as the photography of their candlelit rooms are gorgeous to behold.)

Another major issue – and one that the film will carry into any time period – is the jarring British location photography. We could care less if a film about the American Revolution was shot on the dark side of the moon as long as an area that resembled New York State circa 1776 was found there. But once the film leaves the immensely impressive Manhattan sets, the terrain becomes so distinctly British that it’s almost laughable. Tom and his son seem more likely to run into Withnail and Marwood on their way to Monty’s cabin, or Jack and David backpacking through the moors than the Hudson River or Brooklyn Heights. The costumes, like the sets, look authentic and expensive, though Pacino’s hair seems about 210 years too late, making him look more like a keyboardist for The Tubes than an 18th century fur trader.

Donald Sutherland’s performance makes one yearn for the subtitles of one of Tim Curry’s villainous turns (his character could easily be an ancestor to his Attila from 1900.) It’s remarkable to think that Pacino’s accent caused even a ripple in the same movie as Sutherland’s linguistic chaos. Though it’s also possible that his weak character is a victim of the editing; his Sergeant Major is set up early on as the main antagonist, only to be completely forgotten about for the majority of the film until an anticlimactic finale on a beach. Kinski is fine, but she trapped in a role driven by narrative contrivance. Her revolutionary fervor seems born of little more than a few leaflets being tossed in her carriage during the opening scenes. Perhaps sensing the lack of chemistry between the two stars, no attempt is made by Hudson to foster any romantic entanglements – making her underwritten role that much more of a mystery

Warner’s new DVD finally allows us to see the film in its original 2.40x1 ratio for the first time since the film’s theatrical release. The film’s naturalistic, hand-held photography are wonderfully preserved, making us wish the film had been released on Blu-Ray as well. We can’t be sure about Hudson’s changes to this version, but one major change discussed in the 23min featurette is the removal of a moment at the end of the film in which Pacino finds Kinski once again amidst a crowded New York street (a moment that can be glimpsed in the theatrical trailer on the disc.) Minor reservations aside, we strongly recommend that people give the new DVD a spin.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Just Released Artwork...On The Left!!!

Universal just sent out a press release with the DVD and Blu-Ray artwork for their superior Last House on the Left remake, which we are happy to pass on to you. The film has several particularly strong performances, especially Garret Dillahunt coming off two memorable seasons on HBO’s late, lamented Deadwood and a great supporting turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Extras listed include deleted scenes, a production featurette and a digital copy of the film (no word on how much longer the "unrated" version is)

The artwork for the DVD and Blu-Ray are below, and both are set to street on August 18th.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Importance of Being Titled

Christopher Lee has had many fictional titles through the years, but a very real one was added to that list today as Lee's name was on the Queen's birthday honors list announced today.

It’s a dazzlingly impressive achievement for anyone who has dwelled in the ghetto of horror as long as Lee has to be knighted, and we’re hard pressed to think of many more artists from that world to be so honored. I think that Lee will wear Knighthood with tremendous style (not like those long-haired Beatles.)

He's been a Prime Minister...

A King...

A Captain...

A Lord...

A Count...

A Doctor...

And a Professor...

...has anyone carried a title with more style?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On Killing Jason...

While we work our way through next week's crop of Friday the 13th films (check out the first review - for Part II - here) we thought that we should pass on a little treat from the folks at Paramount...

This would be, of course, from the documentary on the new Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter DVD. We've always been a fan of director Joseph Zito's rough hewn style, and it's nice to see him get the chance to record a commentary track and get his say in a docu. Though we haven't yet written the review for the disc, we have watched it and were very pleased with both the image quality and extras (though the film did deserve a Blu-Ray release of its own)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Friday the 13th - The Video Game

We just received our review copies of a large chunk of Paramount’s Friday the 13th series yesterday; Blu-Ray copies of parts II and III, and new DVD special editions of IV, V, and VI. Reviews will begin to be posted to Cinefantastique soon, but in researching the series we came across a fun little tidbit that screams to be passed on. We had vague memories of a F13 video game for an older system and a Google search yielded the mother lode – a comprehensively written, screenshot rich write up of the game at SydLexia. The game was designed for the original Nintendo system and is a perfect example of the games of the bridge years between the stone-age graphics of the 2600 and the more advanced SNES and Dreamcast era.

We also love this final title card, and will be using it as a desktop background

Friday, May 29, 2009

"Shoot Him Again - His Soul Is Still Dancing"

Thanks to Ain’t It Cool News for breaking this story, and apologies for taking so long to pass it along. You can read their story here, but I think the trailer works better when the director’s credit is left for the end. Now, the title is admittedly terrible, and the very idea of a Bad Lieutenant sequel sounds like the worst sort of DTV dreck. I’d have to imagine that it was the involvement of the director that attracted the cast – but how the hell did he get involved? Who sent this script to WH thinking that he would be perfect for it? As a lifelong fan of WH, I’d like to think that he brought in the great Val Kilmer, tired of seeing his talents squandered (and I never would have thought that Nicholas Cage could be forgiven so quickly for the last few years of fire-breathing crap)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Enemy at the Gates – Blu-Ray review

A few years after Saving Private Ryan provided a blueprint for the modern era World War II film, French director Jean-Jacques Annaud followed up his large scale Brad Pitt vehicle, Seven Years in Tibet, with a large-scale story from a side of the conflict that Americans hadn’t had much exposure to – the dreaded Eastern Front. Details regarding the Battle of Stalingrad – which took place between July 1942 and February 1943 – can quickly dispel any notion of WWII being a clean war, with some 2 million causalities suffered among the German and Soviet armies, and the civilian population of the city. The Soviet army emerged triumphant when Field Marshal Paulus (promoted by Hitler with the tacit understanding that he would either continuing to uselessly waste the starving 6th Army in fruitless fighting or take his own life) defied orders and surrendered. Director Annaud brings these desperate days to life on a massive scale utilizing the purportedly true (yet decidedly sketchy) story of a Russian sniper’s duel to the death with his German counterpart in the burnt-out husk of Stalin’s namesake city.

After a flashback where we see young Vassili Zaitsev as a child being taught how to silently hunt wolves with a scoped rifle, but when we first see the adult Vassili (now played by Jude Law) he’s being ferried across the Volga a roiling cauldron of death – the Battle of Stalingrad. As Germans forces threaten to encircle the city, the Soviet Union is throwing into battle the one natural resource still at their disposal – men. In this spectacular opening sequence, we follow Vassili across the river while German planes relentlessly strafe the helpless men, mercilessly crowded onto slow moving boats that may as well have targets painted on their roofs. After being in one of the “lucky” boats that actually make it across, Vassili is greeted with the further good news that only every other man is to be given a rifle – and instructed that “when the one with the rifle is killed, the other man picks it up!” Within moments after his arrival, he is thrown into a hopeless battle where the majority of the men that he crossed with are cut down by German machine gun fire. The handful of man that survive attempt to limp back to their own line are shot down by political officers as cowards and traitors. Vassili manages to hide amidst the film’s recreation of the Barmaley Fountain where he is found sometime later by Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) who Vassili saves by scoring headshots on several nearby Germans. Pushed by the newly arrived commanding General Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) for a new way of inspiring fear into the men, Danilov instead suggests inspiring the men with tales of a hero, a hero he happens to know. Following Vassili’s example Soviet snipers begin taking out large numbers of enemy officers, so the Germans send in the head of their sniper school, Major Konig (Ed Harris) to hunt down Vassili while one of the bloodiest battles in history rages around them.

Annaud certainly seemed like an unusual choice for the material, but his specialty in films like The Lover, Quest for Fire, and Seven Years in Tibet all presented intimate stores against vast canvases. His last film before Enemy was Wings of Courage, the first narrative film shot in IMAX 3D, so Annaud’s visual senses were certainly keyed up for the production. Enemy at the Gates creates one of the most vivid, believable recreations of a major battle that we’ve ever seen; the burnt, blasted out husk of Stalingrad was painstakingly built from the ground up and gave Annaud an appropriately grim palate from which to bring the story to life. It’s almost impossible now to decipher how much of the famous sniper duel between Zaitsev and Konig was real and how much is surviving Soviet propaganda. Vassili certainly existed, but wasn’t quite the stammering youth portrayed here (the real Zaitsev actually ran the Soviet Sniper school in Stalingrad) but there are significant doubts as to Konig’s role in the battle.

As with many films dealing with war, acute characterizations aren’t always on the menu. Law and Fiennes are both quite good, and were both blessedly allowed to merely flatten their native British accents, rather than adopt Russian ones. Law plays Zaitsev as a wide-eyed country boy who is dazzled by Danilov’s promise of fame, and is quite good in later scenes when fear of Konig begins to get the better of him. Fiennes gets the more interesting role, though, as his Danilov is torn between his growing friendship with Zaitsev and his feelings towards a young woman, Tania (Rachel Weisz) who just happens to have eyes for Vassili. Weisz is fine but the role, but the love triangle that she represents the fulcrum of feels terribly out of place; 50s-era war movie melodrama that severely contradicts the ultra-realistic surroundings. Harris may have seemed like an unusually odd casting choice as a German master sniper, but with accents largely off the menu, he comes off very well. His duels with Law form the engine of the picture and are exceedingly well-handled by Annaud. Both men acquire as much intelligence about the other’s position as possible, pick their hiding places, and wait for the other man to make a mistake; Annaud imbues these sequences with almost unbearable suspense using little more than the concentration on Law and Harris’ faces and their POV through the scope. There’s also great supporting work by Bob Hoskins, menacing and clever in turn as Khrushchev and Ron Perlman as one of Vassili’s fellow Russian snipers.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray appears to be from the same master as their previous DVD edition, though this time with the added detail that the 1080p format allows. By necessity, the picture uses a dour, grey color palette which made the picture on the previous DVD look a bit on the dull side. The Blu-Ray offers a definite improvement and accurately represents the film’s unusually bleak photography. All extras from the SD-DVD have been ported over, but only the theatrical trailer is in HD

Through the Crosshairs – 19:36: Standard EPK fare which is narrated like a 20min trailer, featuring on-set interviews with the director and cast.

Inside Enemy at the Gates – 15:01: A shortened version of the first documentary, replacing on-set interviews with footage taken from the films press junket.

Deleted Scenes – 10:13: A selection of deleted and extended scenes, featuring some that would have better fleshed out the main characters. Taken from a video source and in rough shape.

Theatrical Trailer – 2:28