Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Just A Quick Note…

To let you know that my weekly DVD round-up has been posted over at Cinefantastique Online. For those equipped with a Bluray player, we highly, highly recommend Paramount’s Zodiac, the best film of 2007, and one we hold as a watermark that no movie has since reached. Blue Underground also reaches back into their vault for a high def release of Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried, probably not everyone’s choice for a demo disc but we applaud whenever horror obscura shows up Blu. Next week we have Paramount wheeling out the first 3 Friday the 13th shows, with the original getting the Bluray treatment in its uncut version (making America, I believe, the last country that gets to see this film intact) and the third in a 3D version complete with glasses. We heard reports from an LA screening several years ago that the 3D work on this film was superb, so we'll see what the home game offers...

R.I.P., Laserdisc

If you had asked me yesterday, I’d have told you that Laserdisc players had died out long ago, so the news that Pioneer was permanently discontinuing the players was somewhat less surprising that the fact that they had still been manufacturing them at all in the past few years. I knew firsthand exactly what DVD did to the Laserdisc industry, because at one point my laser catalog numbered well over a thousand (and that’s a conservative estimate) titles. Luckily, space considerations had forced me to sell off a large chunk of the collection about a year before the first DVD player hit the market, and the value of used laserdiscs sunk like a stone. And even while I was an eager early-adopter of DVD, I didn’t get rid of my last few lasers until about 2 years ago – long after the grumblings from the last few analog holdouts had quieted, and apartment space considerations won out over laziness and nostalgia. But that's water under the bridge, now - as Laserdisc has finally, officially gone to that white elephant graveyard according to this article at Home Theater Magazine.

I still remember the day I bought my first LD player in the early 90s. It was a floor model, on super-sale for only $499, and purchased at the now-defunct Newmark & Lewis chain. Before I even got it home, I stopped off at the also defunct RKO Video (yes, feeling old now…) and picked up 2 discs that I regarded as must-haves: Patton and Die Hard. In the years that followed, both remained ‘demo discs’ that was used to show people what 400+ hot lines of resolution could produce. Even on the 19” tube set that I had at the time, the analog, non-anamorphic image absolutely blew away the smeary blotch that was VHS; I was hooked. It’s hard to judge how much the Laserdisc format is responsible for turning a love of movies into a benign obsession. The roots must have already been in place, otherwise the cost (movies could go for anywhere from $30 to $125) would have been too prohibitive, but the concept of running audio commentaries, informative documentaries, and detailed documentation of promotional material was then unheard of, and the nuts & bolts of how films are put together had never been presented this excitingly. There was something so exciting about the big collector’s editions; the sheer size of the larger box sets told you that you were holding something special, and even the most comprehensive DVD sets have trouble holding a candle to the mammoth boxes released by Fox for Alien, Aliens, or The Abyss, featuring virtually every bit of paperwork from the productions, from artwork to studio memos. Or the massive Pioneer Special Edition of Amadeus that included a fully re-mastered soundtrack on a 2 CD set. And while the DVD picture quality far outstrips their poor analog output, I’ve never felt the attention to detail that was brought to the best Laserdisc sets.

But Laserdisc was and would always be an unapologetically “boutique” format, beloved by cineastes and utterly foreign to the majority of the American public. Though price may have been the biggest factor in keeping Laserdisc on the home video margins, it was far from the only problem.

Selection – plenty of new releases never even made it to Laserdisc, and though many releases received amazingly comprehensive treatment there was a big chance that your favorite movie might not even be available on the format.

Size – although we lament the loss of some truly wonderful bits of packaging, remember that the standard cardboard sleeve that laserdiscs came in were the same size as LP records (only with slightly thicker stock) and large collections tended to dominate the average living space.
Availability – in case you haven’t clued in yet – Laserdisc was a collector’s medium, and unless you lived in a major city – good luck renting them. The few stores that carry them were far more inclined to sell rather than rent. And Amazon may have been around back then, but back then I didn’t have a job to screw off at and the only interwebz connection at home was the 28k modem in my Dreamcast.

Laser rot – though VHS tapes were eaten with the regularity of Idi Amin’s opposition party, you never worried about popping in a favorite tape and see that the image was full of speckles and snow after just a few years. “Laser rot” was the name given to what happened when the glue that bonded the disc elements together leaked through the lacquer outer seal and attack the actual data. Not what you wanted to see only 6 months after dropping upwards of $50 on a disc.

Awkwardness – the two disc formats were called CAV and CLV; CAV allowed you to do a frame by frame step-through and was often used for presenting supplemental materials, but only gave you 30min of playtime per side. CLV offered 60min per side, but hitting pause gave you a black screen. Obviously, most companies went for CLV, but that still meant finding a point for the side break (later models offered automatic playing of both sides, but that still meant a 10 second pause while the mechanism loudly hummed – still better than having to get your ass out of the chair to flip the disc).

Before the end of the decade, DVD had already completely enveloped the market share of Laserdisc and was well on its way to doing the same for VHS. DVD was digital, easily storable, and relatively cheap. I can’t imagine who exactly was buying the last three models being manufactured (the DVL-919, DVK-900 and DVL-K88) It’s hard to say that you’ll miss a format that you haven’t so much as glanced at in nearly a decade; but for better or worse, much of my nerduocity can be credited to that shinny, clumsy, pricey disc. Go with God.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bronson Lee, Xbox Champion

The selection of videos available for download on the Xbox Live marketplace has grown steadily since the inception of the service a few years back. The number of available movies has grown steadily to nearly 800 titles, and though the choices lean heavily on more recent releases there are also a surprising number of vintage titles available – many in 720p high definition. Better still, there are several titles (like Mike Hodges' superior adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man) that never made the jump from VHS to DVD.

As a child of the early video store era, there are certain titles that have a strange, nostalgic effect on me. It isn’t necessarily because they’re great movies; it can be because they were your first rentals (which for me would have been Sudden Impact, Life of Brian, and Hardbodies, thank you very much), because of particularly memorable artwork (Withnail & I was rented solely because of the Ralph Steadman artwork), or that the packaging simply edged others off the shelves (how many fondly remember the porn-sized boxes of Monterey or Continental Home Video?) Warner Bros’s memorable giant clam shell box featured the standard pics, title, and synopsis rampant on a background graphic that resembled a Roy Lichtenstein go at grass against a night sky. While far from the only video line with major studio support behind it, Warner Bros edged out the competition with sheer size, and we remembered spying the same titles in store after store. One title that always caught our eye was Bronson Lee, Champion, given legitimacy by virtue of being one of very few Warner Bros Kung Fu titles, an intimate group which included Enter the Dragon and Black Belt Jones. Though we never rented it, we always noted its presence, and we were knocked out by its sudden appearance on the Live marketplace. Someone at Microsoft must have the same nostalgia pangs that we do about the title, because they used a hastily snapped picture of the old Warner video box for the display picture. It's even got the "Martial Arts" section sticker on it!

We also really enjoyed reading Microsoft’s little write-up.

Is the beginning really set in Ohio? Why go through that bother just to get him to Japan? We also read “farm” as “arm” on two separate occasions, a change which the makers should maybe have considered. I also enjoyed the odd line break right in the middle of “$50,000”, making it seem like the karate tournament prize was $50 – an amount that would have scarcely paid for travel to and from the airport. We watched the 30 second preview and caught the middle of a scene that looked like a skit from a Japanese version of Sabato Gigante set in Jim J Bullock’s apartment from Too Close for Comfort.

Oh, yea...we'll be chcking this out soon.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

On the Passing of Giants...

The passing of two legendary figures is just starting to make the rounds this evening – actors who each possessed not one, but two career-defining roles between them. Roles that, in the resume of lesser actors, would have sunk any further career aspirations like a stone. Imagine coming off 4 seasons playing the white suited, vaguely mystical keeper of an island paradise fulfilling the fantasies of the well heeled jet set to play a megalomaniacal superhuman intent on hijacking a starship and slaughtering anyone who gets in his way? Ricardo Montalban had maintained a very respectable career in Hollywood stretching back to a time when most Hispanic actors were lucky to appear in crowd scenes. His real breakthrough came in 1949’s Border Incident playing a Mexican government agent deep undercover alongside George Murphy’s FBI agent to stop a gang involved in the smuggling and murder of migrant farm workers. Montalban strides through the late-cycle noir with the kind of leading man confidence that only comes along once in a long while. When film roles began to dry up in the 60s, he began a stream of steady television work that showed him guest starring on nearly every show imaginable; Burke’s Law, Dr. Kildare, Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-0, and The Wild, Wild West to name a tiny fraction. It was 1967 that brought the busy actor to Desilu Studios for a quick one-shot role on a on a Sci-Fi show nearing the end of its first season. Almost immediately after airing, "Space Seed" became the perennial fan favorite episode of Star Trek and Khan Noonian Singh its greatest villain. Singh had been a product of “late 20th Century genetic engineering” possessing strength and intelligence far beyond normal levels, and Montalban is the perfect expression of masculinity, grabbing the jumpsuit-clad explorers of the future by the scruff and tossing them around like kindling (we still remember the “wow” moment when Khan crushes one of the Enterprise's desktop viewers under his fist).

Fantasy Island’s Mr. Rourke will, for better or worse, be the role for which he’s best remembered. Half devil, half angel, Rourke was all smiles when his guests deplaned and patiently explained the details of their fantasies to Tattoo (the rarely upstaged Herve Villechaize). It was usually after the second commercial break that the dark side of being the richest man in the world, or being irresistible to women, or finding your long lost parents began to show, and that’s where Montalban had some real fun. It was 1982 when he would once again take on the role of Khan for the second Star Trek feature film and jump right back into his skin as if 15 years were just the blink of an eye. His physicality (at age 62!) was stunning and he grabbed the role with a wild – yet at the same time controlled – abandon. Forget that the crew of the Botany Bay more closely resembled Billy Idol’s White Wedding backing band than anything else – nothing diminishes Montalban’s towering performance. He had been confined to a wheelchair since a 1993 operation to repair a decades-old injury but never stopped working, predominantly on voice-overs for animated shows, but also onscreen for Robert Rodriguez in the Spy Kids films. He was 88.

Patrick McGoohan was rather improbably born in Astoria, right here in New York, though he was raised in Ireland and the UK. His big break was as NATO agent John Drake in the series Danger Man, the initial permutation of which only lasted a single season. But after James Bond made the world a comfortable place for spies, the series was brought back for another run, this time with Drake clearly working for the British government, 60 minute episodes instead of 30, and most importantly - a stronger adherence to the star’s wishes that Drake use his brain over firearms and that there would be none of the amorous promiscuity of that other famous British agent, a role that McGoohan actually turned down during Danger Man’s hiatus for those same moral grounds. McGoohan left Danger Man to pursue another show with a spy milieu, about a British agent held prisoner on an island festooned with storybook Victorian flourishes where seemingly everyone works to draw out the state secrets held by the captive agent, known only as “Number 6”. We’ve nowhere the proper time to discuss the importance of The Prisoner to television history; a witty, cerebral show that was unlike anything made before or since. To this day it defines the best of what television has to offer, and nearly everything about it, from direction to script (occasionally under a pseudonym) sprung from McGoohan. Major roles followed throughout his career, including Ice Station Zebra, Scanners, a memorably droll turn as King Edward in Braveheart, and one final, animated trip to the Village. He was 80 years old.

McGoohan’s best post-Prisoner work was for friend Peter Falk in several Columbo episodes as both an actor and director. This is where we first noticed him, from the stiff-backed Col. Rumford, who kills to protect his beloved military academy from the wrecking ball in the 1974 episode "By Dawn’s Early Light" to mortician-to-the-stars Eric Prince who kills to keep a very dark secret in one of the very last episodes, 1998’s "Ashes to Ashes" which he also directed. Montalban, too, had his turn with the famous detective, in 1976’s "A Matter of Honor" where he played retired bullfighter Luis Montoya who murdered an old friend rather than have an act of cowardice exposed. It was a great part that played brilliantly off Montalban’s natural, elegant bearing. It’s somehow fitting that these two wonderful actors should be remembered together, even if their near-simultaneous passing seems too great a tragedy to bear, as a reminder of the quality of talent that the greatest detective show in history could attract.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Discs of the Year - 2008

Unlike choosing from the year’s theatrical releases, when we’re bound to new product, going for DVD and Bluray releases allows us to reach as far back as 75 years for Criterion’s Vampyr, or just a single turn of the calendar for Paramount’s Zodiac. The criteria varies from selection to selection, with some (like Criterion’s White Dog and Sony’s Icons of Horror set) chosen for their rarity and “wow, I never thought I’d live to see that come out!” factor, while others (like Warner’s How the West was Won and Fox’s Apes Evolution box) were chosen to single out for praise the efforts of major studios who do something special for catalog titles.

Zodiac – Director’s Cut (Paramount HD-DVD)
The best film of 2007 quickly became 2008’s most watched disc (at least at our house). Fincher’s blends his own ice-cool shooting style with a vintage 1970’s police procedural to create an unfailingly watchable portrait of the epic (and ongoing) search for the Zodiac killer. Although the HD-DVD format didn’t live to see the end of the year, this disc can’t be faulted; the 1080p picture presents Fincher’s vision (beautifully shot on digital video by Harris Savides, who will likely be robbed of an Oscar for Milk in much the same way as he was for Zodiac) in what amounts to a lossless hard drive transfer from the 1080p Viper digital camera. Accompanying the feature are two commentary tracks; an informative solo track with the director and a second featuring Fincher, producer Brad Fischer, writer James Vanderbilt, actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr., and author James Ellroy, clearly on board out of shear admiration for the project. Equally impressive are the supplemental features on the second disc, all presented in HD, discussing the gorgeously subtle visual effects, and the previsualization process. But the stars are the three long-form documentaries – His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen (42min) discusses the now deceased prime suspect in the case, Zodiac Deciphered (54min) that focuses on the making of the film, and the best of the bunch, This is the Zodiac Speaking (101min) an exhaustive – but not exhausting – trip through the case, featuring interviews with many surviving victims, police, and investigators. This is class ‘A’ stuff all the way, beautifully fleshing out the film, while standing tall as informative documentaries on their own. Zodiac is the disc of the year. NOTE – we’re choosing the Bluray edition for the purchasing link because it’s virtually identical in terms of quality to the HD-DVD – and because HD-DVD doesn’t exist anymore.

Icons of Horror: Hammer Films (Sony DVD)
As of this writing, there are no Hammer films available on Bluray and that’s a potent reminder of how long it took for obscure catalog titles (that’s studio-speak for ’old’) to begin appearing on this new format. Sony’s second ‘Icons’ set of Hammer product – the first featured a quartet of little-seen swashbuckling tales – features four titles not yet released domestically. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) stars Paul Massie as a cuckolded husband and frustrated scientist and Christopher Lee (in a fabulous turn) as a sleazy friend of Jekyll who finds much more in common with the rakish Mr. Hyde. Scream of Fear (1961) was made when Hammer was turning out an interesting stream of B&W psychological shockers that bore a heavy Psycho influence, and Scream runs a close second behind the superb Paranoiac (available in Universal’s Hammer set). The Gorgon (1964) reteamed director Terence Fisher with stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (in a fun, heroic turn) in a show that’s heavier on character than the typical Hammer monster tale. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) is a colorful, scope production but a bit lead-footed in terms of plotting. All the films look great, with vibrant colors that wash away the memories of the 2nd and 3rd generation bootlegs that fans have had to satisfy themselves with previously.

How the West Was Won (Warner Bluray)
Wow! It’s incredibly encouraging to see a major studio lavish this kind of attention on an older title – particularly one without the greatest reputation. HTWWW is one of a half-handful of pictures that were actually filmed in true 3-panel Cinerama (shooting essentially 3 separate frames of film with cameras physically linked together). Shown correctly, the film literally wrapped around the audience, covering – as long as you were sitting in the plum seats – your entire field of vision. Previous editions haven’t been able to convey so much as a fraction of this experience at home; presented in a normal letterbox mode, the image would have an aspect ratio of nearly 3:1 and that’s a lot of blank screen for the average home theater enthusiast to deal with. Warner Bros found a truly ingenious way around this by offering both a standard widescreen version and what they’re calling a Smilebox presentation, a more-successful-than-not attempt to have the image wrapped around you. Both versions have also had the frame marks that separate the camera negatives digitally removed. And even though the Smilebox version has trimmed some of the far sides of the image, it’s a small price to pay for the impressive effect – watching both versions (or, at least, flipping between them) makes for an interesting experience. There’s also a beautifully done long-form documentary on the process itself, Cinerama Adventure, which makes you appreciate the enormous effort that went into the few narrative features photographed in the format. The simply awesome 1080p picture on the Bluray disc showcases the staggering amount of detail captured by the oversized negatives – it’s the home theater demo disc of the year.

Vampyr (Criterion DVD)
Another masterful restoration from Criterion. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, a film that had previously existed on video only in cobbled together versions with burned-in subtitles, is one of the last notable European stabs at horror before the influence of Universal’s 1930s monster films drifted across the Atlantic. Straddling the line between the silent and sound eras, Vampyr retains a hallucinatory power to disturb more than 75 years after its release, and Criterion’s extras (which include a reproduction of both the original screenplay and the novel “Carmilla” on which the film is loosely based) help put the film into context.

Rodan/War of the Gargauntuas (Classic Media DVD)
The latest in Classic Media’s line of Toho’s Kaiju Eiga films, with Godzilla taking a powder and giving Rodan and the Gargantua brothers a turn in the spotlight. It’s amazing what a caring presentation can do to aid a film’s reputation – Toho’s monster shows (along with Toei’s Gamera series) have become commonly thought of as juvenile jokes in their cropped, dubbed US editions. Seen in its complete form, Rodan is a revelation – a serious, at times suspenseful film that even manages to wring some pathos out of a SXF bombardment of a sweaty Japanese guy sealed in a rubber bird costume. War of the Gargauntuas is another matter entirely – a batcrap crazy show featuring weirdly disturbing monster suits that resemble feral children with a Frankenstein head and a dead-eyed ‘how did I get here?’ performance from Russ Tamblyn. Classic Media’s two disc set features both pictures in their original Japanese forms (with English subs) and their dubbed American versions.

The Naked Prey (Criterion DVD)
Another Criterion save from near obscurity, this masterful adventure tale from actor/director Cornel Wilde was made at a time when ‘white man in Africa’ clichés ran wild and free, and Wilde’s film (nearly wordless in the second half) shows an unheard of respect for both the audience, and the African tribe who pursues his character. Previously available only on a bargain VHS, Criterion’s DVD features the first widescreen transfer of the film on video and their usual superb array of supplemental features.

Grindhouse (Japanese import DVD)
An expensive Japanese import that is the only way (of this writing) to get the theatrical version of Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino’s epic salute to genre programmers of the 70s and 80s. Domestic SD-DVD and Bluray editions separate the films into individual extended editions, and omit the fabulous phony trailers by Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie, and Eli Roth. The double feature aspect is integral to the Grindhouse experience, and the Japanese import features that, along with the extended cuts and all the supplemental features from the US releases.

Planet of the Apes: 40 Year Evolution (Fox Bluray)
The feeling that you get revisiting a favorite film year after year to find that it hasn’t dated a bit is nothing short of thrilling –and that’s just what happens each and every time the original Planet of the Apes gets a showing at our house. From VHS, to Laserdisc, to DVD (twice!), and now – and probably not finally – to Bluray, Apes remains that rarest of beasts – a massively entertaining Sci-Fi actioner that’s also chock-a-bloc with imagination and wit. While this Bluray set isn’t quite the comprehensive behemoth that the previous Caesar-head box was (no TV series or already forgotten Tim Burton remake here, just the original 5 features) it includes the holy grail of the franchise, the original edit of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes featuring an outrageously bloody coda unencumbered by Roddy McDowell’s conciliatory words in Caesar’s final speech, enforced by a nervous 20th Century Fox after the violent and revolutionary-friendly film had its first uneasy test screening. All previous extras are present, with several new ones to boot, including a handsome hardcover book.

White Dog (Criterion DVD)
Poor Sam Fuller really got the business end of it in his final Hollywood film. Brought aboard by a studio that wanted an exploitable horror tale about a German Sheppard trained by racists to attack black people on sight, Fuller hoped to make a meaningful statement on the nature of racism couched in familiar genre trappings. But the film was buried by Paramount after a ridiculous story was circulated that the film itself was actually racist and Sam spent the rest of his days working on television and little-seen features in Europe. Previously available only as a grey-market bootleg, Criterion shamed White Dog’s home studio by issuing a remarkably colorful and sharp transfer along with a fabulous documentary on the film’s troubled post-production period.

Dr. Syn – The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (Disney DVD)
It’s easy to boo & hiss at the creatively bankrupt, self-cannibalizing corporate behemoth that the once beloved Disney has turned into in recent years, but damn if they don’t have the ammo in their vaults to shut us right up. Filmed at Disney’s British studio, Dr. Syn took advantage of the top UK acting and production talent and the studio crafted a superb adventure tale (many boomers actually remember the film as a horror tale because of the admittedly creepy scarecrow mask worn by star Patrick McGoohan and his henchmen) that has never been available on video until now. Both the original 3-part television and theatrical versions are available on the set, and both are presented in 1.66 anamorphic widescreen (those seeing it on TV in the US had to deal with slight cropping, so this release is also the first time that the complete television version has been seen anywhere) with spectacular color for a nearly 50 year old film. Extras include a through (though a bit pie-eyed when it comes to the parent company) documentary on the production.

Dirty Harry Collection (Warner Bluray)
While it’s great to see Eastwood rightfully lauded whenever a new directorial effort arrives, it’s a shame that it’s typically at the expense of his action hits of the 70s. Don Siegel’s original is still the best police thriller ever made, mining a vein of droll humor in Eastwood and successfully bringing his screen persona into a modern context far better than the dull Coogan’s Bluff. And though the sequels exhibit the same diminishing return issues faced by all films forced into franchises, only the last – The Dead Pool – displays a bored lack of caring. No such lack was displayed in Warner’s Bluray box set, though, featuring sparkling 1080p transfers of all 5 films, and new commentaries (our favorite – writer John Milius on Magnum Force) and featurettes. A very welcome catalog release packaged with style.

James Bond Bluray sets vols. 1 & 2 (MGM/UA Bluray)
While Volume 2 is the clear winner in terms of quality, with Thunderball, From Russia with Love, and For Your Eyes Only, and volume 1 pins the series wellspring, Dr. No, beneath the layers of EFX heavy Die Another Day and the downright silly but still fun Live and Let Die, the breathtaking restoration from Lowry Digital makes even the nearly half century old Dr. No virtually pop off the screen with a vitality that borders on 3D. Though also sold separately, the 3 disc sets were priced to move on the major online retailers, prompting the beginning of a large scale double dip.

High and Low (Criterion DVD)
Criterion’s second go at Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent police procedural (based on a very American novel by Ed McBain) brings an improved anamorphic transfer and extras. One of Kurosawa’s best and most readily accessible pictures, and the prototype for nearly all kidnap dramas that followed. It also provides a textbook on the use of widescreen photography to intensify, rather than alleviate a feeling of claustrophobia.

Nixon (Warner Bluray) – JFK (Warner Bluray)
Yes, yes, we’re aware that it’s actually two separate releases, but Oliver Stone’s first two entries in his loose Presidential trilogy are the best modern examples of the sort of layered melodrama that Otto Preminger once cornered the market on. Both pictures perfectly suit Stone’s strengths as a filmmaker – each features broad political canvases populated with masculine, yet finally insecure characters. JFK’s chief weakness is in making the Garrison character such an iron willed do-gooder (a problem not aided by the casting of Costner) who’s only real fault is naiveté, but it seemed like Stone learned his lesson and left Nixon virtually devoid of heroic characters. Both discs feature the extended cuts of the films, which is a particular strength of Nixon, as it restores the brilliant, chilling scene between Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) and CIA chief Richard Helms (Sam Waterston, having a ball playing ‘the banality of evil’). Each disc also carries over the voluminous extras from previous sets.

A Passage to India (Sony Bluray)
Just being the only David Lean film available on Bluray should secure A Passage to India automatic placement on the list, even with a disappointing transfer. However, Sony eschewed the trend with certain catalog titles to over apply DNR (digital noise reduction) in order to give older films a more modern sheen – a practice that typically winds up with characters taking on a waxy appearance and leaving the entire show looking like it was shot on digital video. The Passage Bluray simply looks like film – a very, very good film.

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Criterion DVD)
Without question one of the most (purposefully) unpleasant films ever made, Pasolini’s Salo still retains its pungent power to disturb more than 3 decades after its original release – a despondent artist’s final, brutal statement on the banality of evil (making its second appearance on this year’s list!) Criterion’s second go at the title – the original was one of their big first DVD releases and traded at the $500 level for years after it went out of print – is still missing a brief scene that is present on foreign releases (see DVD Beaver for a comparison and a still from the scene) but the extras make this the most desirable North American release yet.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Criterion DVD)
On the spy-realism ladder, James Bond occupies the highest rung in the rarefied air of invisible cars and jet packs. Harry Palmer – in whose personage Michael Caine so deftly mixed charm with National Health Service glasses and crap assignments – sits comfortable in the middle. But keeping a shaky, alcohol-soaked grip on the bottom rung is John le Carre’s Alec Leamas, as played by Richard Burton in an understated, shattering performance. Director Martin Ritt crafted just about the least glamorous spy tale ever produced; a heavy, B&W actors piece that’s nearly devoid of humor and utterly devoid of the traditional escapist trappings of the genre. Criterion’s two disc set offers a superior transfer than the previous Paramount edition, in addition to the usual Criterion bells and whistles, including superb BBC archival interviews with le Carre and Burton.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Criterion Bluray)
Nic Roeg’s hallucinogenic masterpiece landed its third Criterion edition (behind two disc DVD and laserdisc editions) in 2008 in a sparkling Bluray edition that this visually sumptuous film has been crying out for. Criterion’s laserdisc of many years ago led many to rediscover the film, which had been shorn of nearly 20min and its widescreen photography cropped to near unintelligibility. Each of Criterion’s 3 editions has been a high watermark for the corresponding format, and while we’re sad to see the reprint of Walter Tevis’ book missing, it does make folks who are prone to double dipping (like us) feel a little less burned.

The Ipcress File (ITV Bluray)
Though neither the picture nor audio quality is likely to set aflame the hearts of tech savvy home theater enthusiasts, the arrival on Bluray of Sidney J Furie’s superb adaptation of Len Deighton’s first Harry Palmer novel is still cause for celebration. Palmer, as played magnificently by Michael Caine, is an unrepentant thief forced into government service and frequently finding himself caught between murderous fellow spies and agents of one uncaring bureaucracy or another. From the beautifully Dutch angled shots of 60’s London to Michael Caine at his most charismatic to John Barry’s lush, jazzy score, Ipcress is an exhilarating show that never gripped the turf in the states the way it did in the UK. Currently, this Bluray is available only as an import, but the disc is not region coded and plays normally on our PS3. Though the difference between the SD DVD and ITV’s Bluray isn’t as drastic as some of their other releases (see below) there’s a pleasurable amount of detail added.

The Boys From Brazil (ITV Bluray)
Another vintage Bluray from ITV, thoughtfully pressed without region coding to be enjoyed by those of us in the Colonies. Boys has been the victim of unfairly negative reviews that have followed the picture over the years since its release in 1978. Both Lawrence Olivier, as a Simon Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter and Gregory Peck as Josef Mengele, chew the scenery with wild abandon, while the stellar supporting cast, including James Mason, Uta Hagen, Denholm Elliott, and Bruno Ganz work quietly to keep the ship from slipping entirely off the edge. ITV’s Bluray is simply outstanding, utterly blowing away the previous, pitiful DVD issuances and demonstrating the quality that can be drawn out of a 30 year old film when proper care is taken.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ever Notice How Nobody Remakes Jess Franco?

I honestly don’t know how I feel about the trailer for Last House on the Left, the shiny remake of Wes Craven’s searing 1972 original. It’s well put-together in that smooth way that the savvier studios have learned to develop for trailers, and features an admittedly catchy rendition of "Sweet Child of Mine". I suppose that’s what nags – this story should be the opposite of what the slick trailer offers. Craven’s film, about a group of thugs who brutally torture and murder two young girls only to hide out at the very home of one of the girls’ parents, instantly became one of the touchstones of the new freedom in horror cinema that flourished after Night of the Living Dead changed the rules of what was permissible in popular film. Critics who complained about the level of violence were missing the point; the violence in Last House was itself the central theme, not merely an exploitable byproduct. Craven saw a culture being slowly desensitized by the horrors around it – a world where the Manson ‘family’ perverted the hippie idealism of the 60s and used it as trappings for their murderous antisocial rage. The audience is forced to coldly observe the atrocities of the film’s crew of killers, led by the utterly despicable and amoral Krug (a towering performance from David Hess) until the mayhem – never filmed to titillate – passes beyond the comfort zone of even the most hardened genre aficionados as if to ask “is this what you came to see?” The show falters during the second half, once Krug and Co (one of the film’s myriad alternate titles) arrive at the Collingwood home. Here the film becomes more of a traditional grindhouse revenge picture and ceases to challenge its audience.

That no official sequel was ever made (though the title was used by literally dozens of horror pictures all over the world) was always a bit of a badge of honor and supportive of the initial goals of the filmmakers. But in a time when My Bloody Valentine is getting the remake greenlight, it was folly to imagine that Last House could hide forever. We will, of course, reserve judgment until seeing the finished product, but we were very pleased to see the all-important role of Krug go to Garret Dillahunt, so utterly brilliant in HBO’s Deadwood, a show whose passing is still much lamented here. Dillahunt played two roles during the show’s run, the perpetually drunk and supremely weasely Jack McCall who famously gunned down Wild Bill Hickok, and the treacherously urbane Francis Wolcott, agent of the equally terrifying George Hearst. Whatever the fate of the film itself, we hope it means good things for an actor we need to see more of.