Saturday, December 31, 2005

"It's The End of the Year!"

So says Karl Swenson in Alfred Hitchcock's THE BIRDS... or something like that. Here's hoping that your New Year's Eve plans come off tonight without a hitch. Enjoy yourselves; celebrate safely and responsibly.

See you next year!

Friday, December 30, 2005

Impressions of a Nyquil Eater

Though my year-end head cold continues to linger, I thought I would keep my promise and blog a little about some of the extra-curricular stuff from the attic I've been re-viewing, as opposed to reviewing.

SOULS FOR SALE aka CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER: I taped this 1962 Albert Zugsmith film off of a local television station maybe fifteen years ago, and if ever a film was made to watch on Nyquil, this is it. With Vincent Price starring in eerie films based on the public domain literary writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Zugsmith cast him in this loosey-goosey adaptation of Thomas De Quincey's fever dream writings.

Narrating as De Quincey and playing a descendant of the writer, Price is a merchant seaman -- at least he's dressed that way -- who becomes involved in liberating some Asian women who have been abducted by slave traders aiming to sell them for opium. There are scenes where the tall, lanky Price is required to participate in action scenes better suited for Indiana Jones, and his undercover work requires him to take an opium pipe, which leads to dreams of imagery from various AIP films like INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN and VOODOO WOMAN! The De Quincey narration is enticing, and the dialogue contributed by Robert Hill (SHE GODS OF SHARK REEF) is equally steeped in philosophy and hard-boiled crime clichés, granting the film the verbal character of a William S. Burroughs novel, at times.

Zugsmith's direction, given hazy and byzantine setting by slumming art director Eugene Lourie and cameraman Joe Biroc, is appropriately druggy, off-kilter and mysterious. There is also a delightful supporting performance by Yvonne Moray (a Lullaby League dancer from THE WIZARD OF OZ) as a teasing Chinese midget who develops a maternal attachment for Price. Genuinely strange and worth seeing, but its slippery quality resists lodging in the memory.

THE COUCH and THE PSYCHOPATH: Two Robert Bloch-scripted films, recorded in the old days off of WOR-TV and the USA Network, respectively.

The only fright flick of forgotten director Owen Crump, and sporting a creepy Vic Mizzy-like score by Frank Perkins, THE COUCH holds up better than any other Bloch-sourced film, short of PSYCHO. Grant Williams stars as a serial killer who times his murders to coincide with his psychiatric appointments, and who forms a dangerous attachment for his psychiatrist's receptionist (Shirley Knight -- when is someone going to pay this outstanding, overlooked actress her due in an essay?). I saw this movie several times as a child (probably not a good idea!) and it still works for me now as it did then; there is a disturbing moment when Williams fantasizes giving his belligerent father some comeuppance, portrayed with apparent stop-motion work of a fist slamming repeatedly into the man's increasingly blood-spattered mouth. There is also a scene of a maniac infiltrating a hospital operating theater more than ten years before RABID. This excellent thriller is owned by Warner Bros., and considering that it's in B&W and has no big names in the cast, there probably isn't much chance of an official release.

THE PSYCHOPATH, an Amicus production from about four years later, is very slow going about the investigation of a series of murders in which the corpses are found in the company of dolls in the deceased's own likeness. Patrick Wymark makes a surly protagonist and the murders are filmed elliptically by director Freddie Francis. It might work somewhat better when viewed in its proper screen ratio, but not enough to save it. It builds to a very nice final reel, though, with Margaret Johnston (BURN WITCH BURN) -- cast as a wheelchair-ridden biddy who lives with her adult son (John Standing) in a Bavian house of dolls -- belatedly rising to the occasion by going completely off the rails.

CHARLOTTE - LA JEUNE FILLE ASSASSINÉE: This is an obscure 1974 film directed by, and starring, Roger Vadim, which I first saw in theatrical release in its native French with English subtitles. I was completely taken with it and saw it two or three times in one week. Those viewings magically coincided with my discovery of the French writer André Gide, who is not only mentioned/quoted in the dialogue, but the film itself follows the same general pattern as Gide's great novel THE COUNTERFEITERS (being about the writing of a novel that shares the same title of the work at hand) and is dedicated to Gide's close friend Marc Allegrét.

Vadim plays a bourgeois, prize-winning author who sets aside his current work-in-progress to research a book about the murder of a young girl (Sirpa Lane) whose virginity he took some years earlier. He soon interviews a wealthy young decadent (Matthiew Carriére) who claims to have been the murderer, and who entices him into a web of mystery, mind games, and gambles with life and death. Antonio de Teffé appears briefly in a bit part. Made in the wake of EMMANUELLE, CHARLOTTE was released to US theaters with an X rating and features, among other things, scenes of masturbation, incest, necrophilia, and glimpses of male and female genitalia.

This film is very hard to see; the only source I've ever found is Video Search of Miami, whose overly dark, English-dubbed VHS release I reviewed in VIDEO WATCHDOG #29, page 8. The English version plays significantly worse than the French one, whose sybilline dialogue becomes more concretely, unbearably pretentious when Anglicized. The young characters in the film are meant to be pretentious, hellbound in a sense, in their determination to make works of art out of their lives, ultimately confusing destruction with creation, rather than complement normal and happy lives with the creation of art. There is a wonderfully surreal sequence in which Vadim tests an experimental machine that visualizes/projects people's dreams, and Michel Duchaussoy (who bears a strong resemblance to the young Curtis Harrington) gives a moving performance as a gay film critic who recounts his brief marriage to the object of Vadim's reawakened obsession. All of the film's music was taken from Mike Oldfield's still-new TUBULAR BELLS album (Vadim carefully avoids the passage made famous by THE EXORCIST) and I've heard it was shot in 16mm, which -- coupled with the fact that Vadim plays the lead himself -- indicates an unusually personal dedication to the material. I remain very fond of this movie, and would love to find a better copy of it -- can anyone out there help?

I also saw a couple of interesting films recently for the first time.

A friendly reader of this blog, knowing of my enthusiasm for the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, wrote to suggest that I track down Tom Tykwer's films THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR and HEAVEN, the latter of which was based on Kieslowski's final script (co-written with his longtime collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz). I was able to find affordable used copies of these DVDs on eBay, and found both to be very worthwhile. PRINCESS is a beautifully sustained piece of magic realism about a sanitorium worker (Franka Potente) who becomes obsessed with the strange and dangerous man (Benno Fürmann) who saved her life after she was hit by a truck with an on-the-spot tracheotomy... and HEAVEN stars Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi (pictured above) in the story of a terrorist bomber who is helped to escape her Italian prison by a young carabiniere who falls in love with her. Blanchett, one of the most exceptional actresses of her generation, gives an impressive performance even by her usual standards, while Ribisi, whom I've always found to be something of a lightweight (hard to tell otherwise given his mostly lightweight roles), gives a well-shaded, fully nuanced, mature portrayal; their mutual success is made all the more remarkable by the fact that both speak most of their lines in Italian.

Seeing Tom Tykwer direct a Kieslowski script is not the same as seeing Kieslowski do the same thing; Kieslowski was known to impose a lot of creative changes on his original scripts in the cutting room, and Tykwer was likely obliged to follow the HEAVEN script with respectful deference. I liked both of these movies, HEAVEN somewhat more than PRINCESS, but neither of them spoke to me on the same level as the better Kieslowski films.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Short and Sweet

Since posting my thoughts on Disc One of Universal's KING KONG - PETER JACKSON'S PRODUCTION DIARIES yesterday, I have finished watching the entire set. Rather than post a separate report on Disc Two, I decided to use the new information to revise my initial posting into a more fully-rounded review. So, if you're interested -- and you probably are, since yesterday was one of this blog's all-time busiest days (close to 850 visits!) -- please scroll down for a more complete accounting.

I've come down with a bad cold, my first in several years, so I'm taking it easy, seeing out the year by drinking a lot of liquids, using a lot of tissues, and watching a lot of movies. When I start getting my energy back, I'll tell you more about them.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Ape of Things to Come? (revised)

Last night I used my Claw to crack the shrink-wrap on my newly delivered copy of KING KONG - PETER JACKSON'S PRODUCTION DIARIES (Universal, $39.98). As with Jackson's four-disc LORD OF THE RINGS Expanded Director's Cuts, this two-disc release shows a unique and extraordinary understanding of the DVD marketplace and heralds the arrival of something distinctly new to video stores.

A couple of items like the documentary THE ALIEN SAGA come close, but there's really never been anything quite like the PRODUCTION DIARIES before. This isn't a documentary feature. What we have here is the clever marketing of the sort of publicity material heretofore given away free, via television or internet, to promote a new feature film -- in other words, traditional DVD supplements packaged separately to generate additional profits for a very costly picture. The contents of this set, "making of" vignettes originally offered as fodder for the www.kongisking.net website to generate interest while KONG was in production, are here collected to give the public something they can purchase while the film is still in theaters, when their interest in the picture is keenest.

The vignettes, averaging six minutes in length, cover all technical aspects of production like cinematography, set design (live and miniature), makeup, wardrobe, even set visits by the press and exhibitors -- with less attention paid to the creation of the creature effects than most buyers might think. The camera crew run out of ideas about what to document (based on what they were free to document) fairly early, and beg website visitors to make suggestions, which are entertained. There are also a few segments that indulge in self-spoofery, such as a vignette about someone calling himself Gandalf who is supposedly posting unauthorized set photos online, whom the crew spots and pursues (he's in Hobbit clothes with a long white beard and a staff), and another in which Jackson outlines his three-picture KONG franchise plan, which is played with such a straight face it still has me wondering.

The packaging is very attractive, replicating a leather "Denham Productions" briefcase whose top slips off to reveal an inner pocket containing four production art prints suitable for framing, a numbered letter of authenticity (signed by Jackson but not individually so), and cardboard housing for a kind of clamped writing tablet that holds a 52-page illustrated booklet and the two discs. Disc One runs about 113 minutes when you press "Play All," in addition to a get-acquainted intro from Jackson. (It's also possible to jump directly to specific diary entries, or those pertaining to specific parts of the film.) Disc Two runs about 124 minutes. There's very little Naomi Watts (and no Kong) on the first disc, though we do see her visit the real Empire State Building with Jackson and entourage, and she wishes us a Merry Christmas at the end -- and promises to figure more in subsequent diary entries when the film resumes production after Christmas break in early 2005. She keeps her promise by participating more fully in Disc Two, which most people will find more interesting anyway, as it shows more of the faux New York and Skull Island shooting, and green-screen work; it also includes a chunk of completed footage from the movie's Kong vs. T. rex family sequence. (It seemed to me that not all of the sound effects here were quite finalized, which may add to its collectability.) Most viewers, I think, will be surprised to discover how much of the film's scenery was computer-generated, and thus how little of the film's spectacle is evident from the on-set footage.

We may feel a bit resentful about being asked to shell out for promotional materials traditionally accessed freely on television, as we do when we're forced to watch commercials in a theater before the movie starts, but this is a hard item to resist. If you love the movie, you'll want it; if you like the movie, you'll probably want it because it's unlikely to show on television; and even if you don't think Jackson's film is comparable to the original, if you have any love for fantasy films at all, this set will still fairly scream "Collectible!" It's not the sort of item one imagines will have a long shelf life, at least not in stores, nor does one imagine it will turn up anywhere as cable programming -- at least in this form. Let's just hope that Universal doesn't try double-dipping this material when the feature itself comes to DVD.

Of course, by its very nature, PRODUCTION DIARIES has limited viewability. Entertaining and informative as it is, it's not something most people will want or need to see more than once or twice. Watching the programming straight through is a little tiring because the segments unfold in self-contained, six-minute arcs, and the serial interruptions make the discs seem longer than they really are. This isn't to say that the material itself is dull, just that it carries no ongoing narrative momentum. (There is no big pay-off at the end either, as neither Jack Black or Adrien Brody were still in harness on the day of the wrap party.) These diaries were created to be viewed in small, irregular doses and might best be viewed in half-hour installments over a series of evenings, unless you're absolutely obsessed.

What's interesting to me, as a long-time writer and journalist who has specialized in this sort of reporting, is that what was once the exclusive province of niche publications like CINEFANTASTIQUE -- detailed reportage about fantasy films in production -- has now become the entire substance of a stand-alone DVD release from a major Hollywood studio. I would imagine that the bulk of this material might be a bit too technical or boring or sound-bytey for the average filmgoer, but it does scratch an otherwise hard-to-reach itch for the people who are most excited by the movie right now, who are eager to know more about it and to own a piece of it. If you visited the KONG website regularly to see these reports as they were posted, you'll likely want this set as a memento... and, as Jackson notes upfront, the picture quality of these anamorphically-enhanced discs is much superior to the finest broadband internet reception.

Of course, not every film warrants this sort of supplemental release -- no more than Sandra Bullock or Billy Crystal movies really need audio commentaries or "making of" featurettes. But, of course, those very things have come to pass, which makes me worry a little that an idea like this might catch on and lead the DVD industry to places where most DVD collectors don't want to go. Dark harbinger or not, KING KONG - PETER JACKSON'S PRODUCTION DIARIES is an idea whose time has come, and in this particular application, it's a good idea made better.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

WHITE CHRISTMAS Revisited

One of the gifts I received this holiday season was a DVD of Michael Curtiz' WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954), once a holiday perennial with me, which I hadn't seen in several Christmases. I was revved up to see it last year, at which time I dug out of my attic a sale-priced VHS copy I'd acquired from a local Blockbuster some years before, which turned out to be unplayable.

Such disappointment seems to be part and parcel of my relationship with this movie. I grew up seeing WHITE CHRISTMAS on television at Christmas time and I always remember liking it more than I actually do. This is tied-up with it being more of a musical than I remember it being -- kind of a THREE LITTLE WORDS about a songwriting duo that didn't really exist, because all of its songs were actually written by Irving Berlin. Consequently, the movie doesn't show its composers (Wallace & Davis, played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) actually writing songs together, working out choreography, or doing anything but hitting on their co-stars, pining for their war years, and spontaneously generating dance and music. The duo also has the uncanny ability to flawlessly lipsync and lampoon the Haynes Sisters' (Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen) signature performance piece "Sisters" act after seeing it performed only once.

While I can admire Vera-Ellen as a dancer, her anorexic figure is a distraction; her waist puts Vampira to shame and her thighs look like a boy's upper arms. Bing is sullen and bossy and Danny is annoying, despite their character's good, soft-hearted intentions. Rosemary Clooney I much prefer as a vocalist than as an actress. Furthermore, I don't buy either romance the movie has to offer, anymore than I buy that so many ex-servicemen would leave their wives and kids on Christmas Eve, on short notice, to prop up their former commanding officer no matter how much affection they have for him. And what's his dilemma? He owns a magnificent if empty Vermont hotel, and the only obstacle between him and a full house is that it isn't snowing -- which it ultimately does, as though God Himself finally breaks down and decides to add to Wallace & Davis' collection plate.

I don't really buy WHITE CHRISTMAS as a Christmas movie, either. It's more of a patched-together musical that capitalizes on Christmas. "Peace on Earth, good will toward men" I can appreciate as a Christmas sentiment, but not "Gee, I miss being behind enemy lines in World War II under the Old Man's command." (Of course, it was Irving Berlin whose "Alexander's Ragtime Band" celebrated bugle calls "so natural that you want to go to war...") But, as I say, I always forget how much I'm at odds with this movie until I work up a need to see it again, and get around to seeing it again. It's not unlike when I convince myself that McDonalds can't be as bad as it was the last time I ate there, because it's tied-up with nice memories from my childhood or the less discerning tastes I had as a teenager.

There are, nevertheless, some things which I continue to like about WHITE CHRISTMAS. They boil down to Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes (who gets to kiss both leading men -- a rarity in her screen career), a few of the songs, and a sometimes surprising cast of supporting actors like Percy Helton and I. Stanford Jolley. I also love that little bit on the train, during the song "Snow," where the principals conjure the image of a snow-covered slope with a couple of table napkins, and the bit where they open the barn door during their performance's finale to reveal the Vermont snowfall is hard to resist. But that's very little upon which to hang the film's dubious reputation as a screen classic.

It crossed my mind while watching WHITE CHRISTMAS this year that it might be a fun subject for a belated spinoff series, in which Wallace & Davis (Crosby and Kaye lookalikes, if there are such things) would meddle weekly in the lives of the other downtrodden folks from their pasts, changing their bad luck around with impromptu nationally televised performances originating from garages, solariums, neighborhood bars, or public school gymnasiums. For the pilot, they could find out that their old high school gym teacher (say... George Carlin) has fallen on hard times. They could organize a hush-hush event, gathering all the school's alumni via a "top secret" announcement on Leno, who would all fly back to their old school at their own expense to watch the old guy blow out some candles on a three-tiered cake. The pageant could build to a heart-tugging song like:

He made us do a hundred laps
And hit the showers and turn the taps
Do more chin-ups than we could do
And push-ups till we all turned blue...
But we love him
We love him
As much as we love tumbling or dodging ball
Yes, we love him
We love him
The nastiest son of a gymnast of them all!

Subsequent weeks could focus on Wallace & Davis turning about the misfortunes of their ex-wives (a guest appearance by the Haynes sisters!), their former agents, their proctologists, their IRS auditors, and so forth.

It's dynamite. It's dynamite. Ladies and gentlemen, it's dynamite.

Seriously, a lot of people seem to share my interest in WHITE CHRISTMAS -- my initial interest anyway, as it's presently the #28 DVD title at Amazon.com. Paramount's DVD is anamorphic and has a Dolby 5.1 audio option in addition to the 2.0 ones in English and French. On the one hand, it's the handsomest presentation of the film I've seen, but the image is softish throughout and sometimes rendered blurry by too much digital noise reduction -- during one of the songs, I noticed that Bing Crosby's eyes lost a serious degree of definition. There's an audio commentary and on-camera interview by the great Rosemary Clooney, who has since died. I haven't listened to the commentary, but the interview is interesting and candid, making the movie sound like hard work -- and worth it for her, as it allowed her to work with her idol, Bing Crosby.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Boxing Day Blessings

Today I was touched to discover that both Glenn Erickson's DVD Savant and Dave Kehr's davekehr.com blog have featured links to Video WatchBlog's "VW Kennel's Favorite DVDs of 2005" lists. The gesture is much appreciated, as are Dave's kind words about me and VW in general.

We had a visitor this morning, but my day has mostly been about delving into my gifts and enjoying some nice Sumatra decaf and Donna's pumpkin pie heavily mortared with Cool Whip. I've been perusing the excellent MOJO book THE BEATLES: TEN YEARS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, Bob Spitz's new Beatles biography (much of which I gulped down last night -- it conveys a much greater sense of the stress and difficulty of being a Beatle than anything else I've read or seen), whilst listening to Bear Family's 8-CD Del Shannon box set (which sounds predictably fantastic and contains a previously unreleased novelty track called "Froggy" that I absolutely love) and an intriguing CD called MAMA KANGAROOS: PHILLY WOMEN SING CAPTAIN BEEFHEART -- which is exactly what it says it is.

Second Thoughts on Peter Jackson's KING KONG

I was able to see Peter Jackson's KING KONG a second time over the holidays and was surprised to find my feelings toward it changing so quickly. Not drastically, but noticeably. While I still enjoyed it and count it as a worthwhile experience, I liked the film somewhat less the second time around, mostly due to the overkill of the dinosaur sequences; the sheer excess of those sequences, especially the brotonsaurus rumble, seemed less like operatic effusion to me on the second pass and more like insecure overcompensation. I feel that the movie would probably be extremely well served by losing the brontosaurus scene; the initial reveal of the saurians contentedly munching vegetation in the valley is not particularly awe-inspiring, the shots of people chugging along beneath their heavy four-legged tonnage with little "uh-oh" cartoon expressions is silly and extremely artificial-looking (even Naomi Watts is guilty of this at one point, while running away from a T-rex), and I don't think anyone who gets stomped is particularly missed from the subsequent action. The T-rex sequence is also excessive, but it works better as a whole and helps to push Ann's relationship with Kong to its next, all-important level.

While Naomi Watts gives an outstanding performance, I can now see that I was being too generous in my compliments to suggest that her performance as Ann Darrow eclipsed that of Fay Wray, even if only for me. Fay Wray cannot be eclipsed so easily and, again contrary to my previous remarks, neither can the original Kong. I do believe that the new Kong outstrips the original in almost every way, in terms of being a believable illusion, but the original had its originality going for it... and the original film as his showcase. That counts for a lot. The 1933 film remains supreme, a perfectly measured triumph of the imagination, and apparently an unrepeatable moment despite close to a century's advances in technology and endless additional spending.

While the new version's love for the original is its greatest strength, it is likewise its greatest weakness. The new film has some very clever narrative additions to make, like splitting the romantic male lead between Jack Driscoll and the vain actor Bruce Baxter (the scene where he is inspired by one of his defaced movie posters is one of the movie's great character moments), but I maintain that it shoots itself in the hoof by giving Jack Black those famous closing words to say. His Denham character doesn't follow the arc that arrives at those words, but Jackson's reverence for the original would allow him no alternative. It should also be mentioned, as not enough reviews are doing, that Thomas Kreutschmann brings a lot to the movie as Captain Englehorn.

Where I think the remake beats the original in every possible respect is atop the Empire State Building. Kong's chest-pounding in the wake of defeating the first biplane, standing at the very pinnacle of 1933 New York City's highest structure, is a sublime moment and everything about the scene adds to its suspense, heroism, pathos and vertigo. (That said, it's true that we must overlook the fact that Ann is walking without fear at the very peak of the building in high heels and dressed rather skimpily to look so comfortable in high December winds.) I don't know why it was deemed a good idea to set the New York scenes at Christmas time, just because the movie was opening then; the original KONG wasn't a Christmas picture -- though SON OF KONG was. At least the cold, crisp air gave us the ice pond scene, which I know is controversial but which I like because it works as a microcosm for human experience; in essence, though Ann's relationship with Kong is short-lived, the movie grants this unlikely couple opportunities to experience the highs and lows of a well-rounded relationship. The Empire State Building sequence works as well as it does, in part, because we have seen the idylls of which this twosome is capable disrupted by the military, and because we know that everything Kong has done has been motivated by his love for Ann. Here he scales the Empire State Building and fights back against the biplanes, first and foremost, not because they are attacking him but because he is acting as his golden girl's protector.

It worries me that Peter Jackson is already affirming the likelihood of an eventual "expanded edition" of his KONG for DVD, because this movie doesn't need more of what it already has. It would be much better served by trusting in the power of its images and essential story and cutting back to the equivalent of a few well-chosen words.

Jackson's film is beautiful in many ways, and while its beauty doesn't quite kill the beast, it does bloat it.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

A KONGA Christmas


A wonderful e-card sent to me by the illustrious Charlie Largent. Click for a larger look.