Thursday, January 08, 2009
Donna and I are only now starting to work on VIDEO WATCHDOG #147. The feature article in this issue will be another of our popular Round Table Discussions, this one devoted to Dario Argento's THE MOTHER OF TEARS, one of the more controversial horror releases of recent years. In this case, our round table is composed of , including input from Kim Newman, Richard Harland Smith, Brad Stevens, yours truly and -- happily making her first VW appearance since our 8th issue, back in 1991 -- BROKEN MIRRORS/BROKEN MINDS author Maitland McDonagh!
On a more personal note... I've been preoccupied over the past four months with writing a short story for an anthology of fiction based on the music of Nick Cave. I've never had much luck with writing short stories, and I guess this still holds true, since this one ultimately swelled into a novelette of five chapters, running close to 17,000 words -- just a couple of pages shy of novella status. I loved working on it and feel very pleased with the result, and am now contending with the usual post-partum depression though my nest is anything but empty. I've sent the story to the anthology's editor and will tell you more about it if and when it's accepted.
In the past couple of weeks, my daily e-mail arrivals have dropped from an average of 40-50 per day to maybe 10. I blame Facebook.
I don't think Don Siegel would have approved of Facebook.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Saturday, January 03, 2009
Born in Hertfordshire, England in 1924, Purdom's early work as a Fox contract player landed him minor bits in TITANIC and JULIUS CAESAR but, more importantly, put him in the right place at the right time. In 1954, when Mario Lanza put on too much weight to carry THE STUDENT PRINCE, director Richard Thorpe put Purdom in the lead, and when his JULIUS CAESAR co-star Marlon Brando pulled out of THE EGYPTIAN, Purdom rode that opportunity to a brief-lived stardom. His star then descended fast: He was named the 1954 recipient of the Golden Apple Awards' "Sour Apple" as "Least Cooperative Actor" and, by 1957, he was back in England working on the TV series SWORD OF FREEDOM. Two years later, he was doing anonymous voice work for THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK.
Much like Cameron Mitchell, Purdom found Rome to be a rich playground of opportunity for actors disregarded by Hollywood. His Italian career began with Riccardo Freda's TRAPPED IN TANGIERS (1957) and would eventually encompass some of the best, worst and most intriguing Italian pictures of his time: FURY OF THE PAGANS, NEFERTITI OF THE NILE, Sergio Corbucci's 1966 remake of THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, Pupi Avati's THOMAS E GLI INDEMONIATI, Jess Franco's LOS OJOS SINIESTROS DEL DR. ORLOFF and UN CAPITAN DE QUINZE ANOS, DR. FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS, Massimo Dallamano's THE CURSED MEDALLION, MR. SCARFACE, Umberto Lenzi's riotous CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD aka NIGHTMARE CITY, PIECES, ATOR THE INVINCIBLE, AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK, ANTHROPOPHAGUS 2 aka MONSTER HUNTER and the TV-Movie SOPHIA LOREN: HER OWN STORY, in which he played actor-director Vittorio de Sica. In 1984, he directed his only film: DON'T OPEN 'TIL CHRISTMAS, a low-budget "slashing through the snow" item in which he also starred.
Purdom also narrated the English version of the film SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL -- which happened to be the subject of two feature articles in VIDEO WATCHDOG #145, still on sale at newsstands at the time of his death.
The IMDb credits Purdom with the familiar quote, "One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important" -- suggesting that he was the sort who preferred a lifetime of work to a "career."
Thursday, January 01, 2009
I've not been able to find out much about Roussel online except for a brief interview by Gerald Peary, which purports to be the only one she ever granted. (Colin MacCabe's book on Godard quotes her, in English, from another interview published in France.) Besides that, the IMDb shows that she has continued to work, for the last decade exclusively in French television. The IMDb lists a December 26, 1962 birthdate for her, while the French website for her current French teleseries DIANE, FEMME FLIC ("Diane, Lady Cop") records her natal day as February 26, 1961. Prior to HAIL MARY, she played small roles in Godard's PASSION (1982) and FIRST NAME: CARMEN (Prénom: Carmen; 1983, in which she's excruciatingly lovely as a swan-necked violinist), but the role that first caught my attention and led me back to these others was Luciano Odorisio's SACRILEGE [La monaca di Monza, 1986], in which she plays the 15th century historical figure of Sister Virginia Maria de Leyva -- the haughty, landowning nun at the nunnery at Monza who publicly offended a neighboring young nobleman, who had his comeuppance by seducing her repeatedly, corrupting her sisters, and undermining her authority in the eyes of the church.
Godard (who has cited Roussel as one of the three faces of his cinema, along with his ex-wives Anna Karina and Anne Wiazemsky) cast her in his films at a point when his work became obsessed with composition and the schism between the static nature of great paintings and the necessity of motion pictures to move. Roussel was the perfect Muse for this era of his filmmaking because her beauty is absolutely in keeping with that of the models who posed for the great paintings of antiquity. Godard underscores this fact in the PETITES NOTES... featurette that accompanies HAIL MARY on the New Yorker Video DVD by dissolving between one of Roussel's screen tests and a Leonardo da Vinci sketch of the Virgin Mary:
Monday, December 29, 2008
There were never such devoted sistas...
Caring, sharing every little thing that they are wearing...
Lord help the mista who comes between the Sushi Sistas!
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Landis, who would have turned 50 next year, published the legendary fanzine SLEAZOID EXPRESS between 1980-1985 and later revived it for six issues with partner Michelle Clifford (with whom he also published the fanzine METASEX) in 1999. The couple collected the best of their writings in the Touchstone/Simon & Schuster book SLEAZOID EXPRESS, published in 2002. He also wrote the book ANGER: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF KENNETH ANGER, reviews for the SOHO WEEKLY NEWS, articles and interviews for FILM COMMENT, THE VILLAGE VOICE, the early years of FANGORIA (his Andy Milligan interview remains one of the most important and amazing documents in FANGO's long history), and other publications.
One of exploitation cinema's most important archaeologists, Landis was the first writer to pay serious attention to the works of filmmakers like Milligan and Michael & Roberta Findlay, and film series like the OLGA pictures, FLESH trilogy and the ILSA saga starring Dyanne Thorne. A whole generation of fanzines, beginning with Michael J. Weldon's original PSYCHOTRONIC, were cast in his image. This IMDb bio tells more, and a whole assortment of promotional interviews can be found here.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
A friend who is similarly enamored of a certain Swedish horror film sent me this link today, along with the following message:
-- . .-. .-. -.-- / -.-. .... .-. .. ... - -- .- ... / ..-. .-. --- -- / . .-.. ..
I thought I'd do the seasonal thing by sharing them.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
As I recently mentioned, my interest in the screen career of Susan Strasberg inspired me to finally acquire copies of her two books, BITTERSWEET and MARILYN AND ME, both works of autobiography. I've read them both now and, while I was very pleased to discover that the personality captured in these capably written books was bright and resourceful and good company, it was disconcerting to find out how frustrated, unhappy and tense she was for so much of her short life. These books make the reader want to reach out to comfort someone who is no longer there.
It was appalling to read the details of the constraint that characterised her relationship with her famous parents, the violent ups and downs of her mostly disastrous love life (which began with a teenage affair with older married man Richard Burton), the hellish abuse that rained down upon her during her marriage to Christopher Jones (whose work I fill find it hard to enjoy again), and the additional tears that came with the birth of her daughter Jennifer, who was born with heart and soft palate problems (both eventually corrected by surgery). She writes with enthusiasm about her early successes, especially those on the stage, which suggests she may have been happier as a stage actress; she writes about her films with less feeling, and is surprisingly (but understandably) antagonistic toward two of my favorites, THE TRIP and PSYCH-OUT, for, as she claims, romanticizing a drug culture whose disastrous effects she had already seen at first hand -- Jones had coerced her into trying pot and peyote, but she had steered clear of LSD because it was a chemical, unnatural, and her feelings about it were confirmed when her younger brother Johnny had taken acid in a despondent mood and leaped from a high window in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, the year before she made those two films. (His life was saved by an awning -- which then bounced him through another glass window.)
BITTERSWEET was written in 1980, when Strasberg would have been nearly 40, and it ends on a note of hard-won wisdom and clarity; she has learned to love a man's soul before his flesh (a difficult lesson for her), to act in order to live (not vice-versa), and she is writing the book that her mother always intended to write, making that family dream come true. My only criticism of the book is that it becomes sketchier as it nears the end, rendering many more contemporary episodes as mere vignettes, probably evidence of the working actor's schedule bearing down on a publishing deadline.
MARILYN AND ME, written in 1992 (when she was approximately the age I am now), presents a subtly changed Susan Strasberg, who was by then a drama teacher as well as an actress. While the book delivers an interesting, candid, fully dimensional account of her friendship with Marilyn Monroe, I found it more rushed, less illuminatingly written than BITTERSWEET. The final chapter crams in an unseemly number of epigrams from other people, often applied to subjects they weren't talking about, and it gave me the off-putting impression of a text written by one of those motivational speakers, or by a teacher so insecure or limited in her own eurekas that she must reference and apply the wisdom of others. The only positive news about this book, really, is that its author has finally become her own mother, Paula Miller Strasberg, likewise a teacher, whose 1966 death in her mid-fifties left her daughter feeling so vulnerable and alone. Unfortunately, part of that metamorphosis was that this valiant survivor would also die young, of the same disease that claimed her mother, at the age of 60, in 1999. The dust jackets of both books mention that Strasberg was working on a novel at the time of their publications, but the (at least) 12-year project never came to fruition.
One of the more surprising episodes of BITTERSWEET, for me, reveals that Strasberg's friendship with Noel Harrison and his family got her interested in Reichian therapy. After reading some introductory books loaned to her by the Harrisons -- including Orson Bean's ME AND THE ORGONE (which Strasberg calls the best and most comprehensive general introduction to Reich's theories, and which I'm presently adapting into a screenplay for a romantic comedy) -- she embarked on therapy for herself and her infant daughter, which restored some much needed pink color into the bluish baby and had apparently worthwhile psychological benefits for herself. It amazes me to think that, while Noel Harrison was making episodes of THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E and Susan Strasberg was making THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL!, they were both involved in Reichian therapy. The world is a much more interesting place than our entertainment usually lets us know.
Code Red, the exciting cult video label, has made my Christmas by announcing on their blog that the first-ever widescreen release of Willard Huyck's MESSIAH OF EVIL is currently being readied for DVD release next May or June. Huyck is supervising the 2.35:1 transfer himself and will be recording an audio commentary sometime in January.
Though it was made in 1973, I tend to think of MESSIAH OF EVIL as the American SUSPIRIA: I don't know if Dario Argento ever saw Huyck's film, but both pictures make similarly auspicious use of disorienting art direction and Technicolor. Unless you happened to see this film during its scattered original releases as DEAD PEOPLE or REVENGE OF THE SCREAMING DEAD, you've had to settle for one of many public domain releases that always make a hash of its original stunning anamorphic framing, making the film impossible to fully experience or appreciate. The mise en scène here, which makes extensive use of neon lighting and eerie post-Warholian murals by Joan Mocine, is truly unsettling.
This is always one of the first titles I mention to people who ask me to recommend an outstanding obscure horror movie; I advise them to run right out and pick up one of those cheap editions -- they won't regret it. But if you still haven't seen it, I would now suggest you wait and see it next summer the way it was intended to be seen. In the meantime, visit the Code Red site and check out some of the other fantastic frame grabs they've posted.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
I did, however, participate in a critical symposium on Cult Movies that appears in the current, Winter 2008, issue of CINEASTE magazine, along with J. Hoberman, Danny Peary (author of the book CULT MOVIES) and others. It's my first-ever appearance in the pages of this venerable publication, and I'm honored to be there. My fellow contributors and I were all asked the same five questions, geared toward to defining and redefining this elusive term "cult movie" for the 21st century, and it makes for interesting reading. This one you can only read by putting on your galoshes and trudging out to your local newsstand, but it's worth the effort.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
This year, in order to keep things more focused and semi-concise, I have asked our contributors to select only their Top 5 picks, with domestic and import titles fair game. The results still offer variety and were able to zone in on one specific favorite title, even though the honored title was still chosen by fewer than half of our participants.
JOHN CHARLES (Associate Editor)
SWEENEY TODD (Paramount): 2007's best horror movie. Cannibal pics (with or without zombies) are always some kind of statement about "consumer society." This movie is frank about it, and we can take the rhetoric and the gloom because it's all so paradoxically artificial and lovely, from the voices to the gouts of blood. Tonally, it's the dour flip side to BIG FISH, the other contender for Tim Burton's best film. The DVD has good docs and spares us a Burton commentary, all good choices.
INNOCENCE (Homevision): Lucile Hadzihalilovic's fable of uncertain time and unfathomable place: a boarding school deep in a forest. Girls arrive in coffins and learn certain skills before going forth into the world's mysteries. Idyllic and lovely, harsh and dreadful, metaphorical and concrete, it's told almost completely and calmly from the girls' point of view.
DEXTER: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Showtime/Paramount): More suspenseful and disturbing than Season One and deeper in its revelations and ambiguities. With boxes of new TV like this, HEROES, PUSHING DAISIES, MAD MEN etc. on top of old shows like THE UNTOUCHABLES, ROUTE 66, HONEY WEST, M SQUAD etc. to catch up on, I propose a moratorium on new releases for five years.
MICHAEL CLAYTON (Warner): Not the kind of socially earnest statement I dread from George Clooney. Suffused with the immanence of an alternate reality and edited with lovely indirectness, this is almost a subtle work of fantasy, a dangerous fairy tale complete with doppelgangers. Every scene combines classical clarity with modernist ambiguity. Tilda Swinton radiates desperation as she tries to swim in a sea of powerful men.
Omitted from this list at great pain: GEORGES MELIES: FIRST WIZARD OF CINEMA (1986-1913), on the cop-out that I haven't finished watching it), BRAND UPON THE BRAIN, THE SAVAGES, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, PHASE IV, NORIKO'S DINNER TABLE, and THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY.
GAUMONT, LE CINEMA PREMIER (Paramount, France): A seven-disc set, attractively packaged in a file box, of early French cinema. Two discs offer eleven Feuillade shorts made between 1907 and 1913, ranging from staged tableaux of social realism to surreal comedy (BOUT DE ZAN VOLE UN ELEPHANT). Three contain the work of Léonce Perret, including two full-length melodramas with strikingly naturalistic performances, L'ENFANT DE PARIS and LE ROMAN DE MOUSSE (which ends as possibly the cinema’s first courtroom drama). Two represent the early career of Alice Guy, the first female film director, who proves to have made great silent comedies: try LA COURSE A LA SAUCISSE, a four-minute chase that becomes increasingly surreal, and the 1907 LE BILLET DE BANQUE, which in eleven minutes manages to prefigure Chaplin’s tramp, Hulot’s dogs, Renoir’s Boudu and even (in the moment when the tramp finds a rosary in his pocket and chucks it on the floor) Buñuel, as well as being genuinely hilarious. A trove for film historians, often a lot of fun, not infrequently beautiful.
THIS SPORTING LIFE (Criterion): A splendid restoration of Lindsay Anderson’s first masterpiece, one of the few real films to emerge from the British new wave of the period. It can be mistaken for mere social realism, but it’s far more than that – its scenes of passion have a terrifying intensity, and its structure recalls Resnais without aping him. It makes me mourn all over again the lost opportunity of Anderson’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS with Richard Harris. The two-disc set also contains (along with much else) two of his early documentaries and his dispirited final filmic statement, Is That All There Is?
Which epic from the Miriam collection? Much as I love EL CID, I’m even fonder of THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, and the Miriam restoration is the kind of treatment it deserves.
Have the colours been boosted a little? I much prefer how it looks here to the appearance of the 70mm print that turned up in Britain last year, faded to amber (appropriately elegiac, maybe, but that kind of inadvertency can pall). Even without the copious extras on the two-disc set (or three-disc, if you can find it), this would be an essential edition of Anthony Mann’s great late film.
I’ve chosen a western, though that immediately makes me wish I had room for the excellent Boetticher box. However, the restoration of Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL is extraordinary – a 1930 widescreen epic in semi-documentary style with vistas as awesome as anything in Ford or Anthony Mann. That the camera hardly ever moves only adds to the film’s power. The two-disc Region 1 set from Fox includes the reshot Academy ratio version, a fascinating comparison in itself.
Leo McCarey’s legendary 1937 box-office disaster MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (rumoured at the time to have driven members of the audience to suicide) is at last available from BAC Video in France as PLACE AUX JEUNES. It may well be the director’s greatest film; it’s certainly his most moving (as much so in its own way as TOKYO STORY, which is a partial remake). The French subtitles are irremovable, but don’t let them put you off. The film is available as a single Region 2 disc or as part of the set HOLLYWOOD CLASSICS: LEO McCAREY, which also includes SIX OF A KIND, BELLE OF THE NINETIES and RUGGLE OF RED GAP.
GRINDHOUSE (Japanese import box set): The long-supressed (in America) theatrical cut, both extended features, all of the American supplements and a handful of exclusive Japanese extras? Okay--color me satisfied. GRINDHOUSE (Japanese import box set) The long-supressed (in America) theatrical cut, both extended features, all of the American supplements and a handful of exclusive Japanese extras? Okay--color me satisfied.
ICONS OF ADVENTURE/ICONS OF HORROR (Sony): A Hammer bumper crop is always cause for celebration, and it's nice to see such potentially "troublesome" titles as THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY and THE TERROR OF THE TONGS slip through, but it's the original British cut of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL that would have landed on this list with or without the accompanying features. And while there's more to it than that, let me say it for the record: "DAMN you, Jekyll!!!!"
THE NAKED PREY (Criterion): One of the most gripping and influential films of my youth--and still the first thing I name when asked about horrific sequences in non-horror films. Amazing work from a near one-man-band (Cornel Wilde) with a healthy respect for nature which comes across in spite of the deliberately disturbing footage of predation by man and beast alike. This stands in direct contrast to...
STANLEY (BCI): Certainly not one of the "best" titles available this or any year, but unquestionably one of the most significant jobs of restoration performed in 2008. Over 15m of extra footage does, indeed, make William Grefe's "respect nature or die" snake thriller a stronger film... and simultaneously reveals it to be a work of contemptible hypocrisy from filmmakers every bit as bad as the fictional snake-bashers earmarked for lethal revenge in their work. Get 'em, Stanley!
WALKER (Criterion): Twenty years ago, I thought I was the only one who liked Alex Cox's ill-received followups to his acclaimed REPO MAN and SID AND NANCY. Well, STRAIGHT TO HELL justifiably remains a cult item at best, but there's nothing like a little Criterion vindication to set the record straight on Cox's astonishing biopic, headlining a mesmerizing Ed Harris as William Walker, the notorioius, self-appointed President of Nicaragua...
Honorable mentions: DIARY OF THE DEAD (Dimension Extreme), THE BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL and HUMAN BEASTS (BCI), RODAN/WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (Classic Media).____________________
2. DOCTOR WHO: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SERIES (BBC Video/2 Entertain): 13 episodes, including more gems from the pen of Steven Moffat (who wrote the best episodes from previous seasons, among them “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink"), a 70m special placing The Doctor (David Tennant) on the Titanic, an 8m short teaming Tennant with the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), and over 4 hours of special features… I haven’t had time to take it all in yet, but the new DOCTOR WHO consistently delivers the goods.
3. A PISTOL FOR RINGO (Eine Pistole für Ringo, KOCH Media, PAL R2): Ducio Tessari’s outstanding 1965 Euro-Western, released in an anamorphic transfer for the first time, making up for the compromised and expensive Japanese release and the more recent (but still non-anamorphic) Thai release. English and Italian soundtracks are included in addition to the German track, but there are no English subs, unfortunately. The lack of English subs does render the extras of limited value to monolingual English speakers, but, still, this is an attractive release of an undeservedly obscure movie that makes for great holiday viewing (it takes place at Christmas). Available from http://www.amazon.de/.
4. THE LAST WINTER (IFC): Graced with a much higher budget than his earlier trilogy of revisionist horror, it should come as no surprise that THE LAST WINTER is the most expansive of Larry Fessenden’s movies, as well as a distillation and summation of his prior work. Like NO TELLING, HABIT and WENDIGO, THE LAST WINTER serves up melancholy horror, but this time it’s melancholy on a planetary level. Following a Toronto screening of HABIT, Fessenden stated that, in an ideal world, the audience wouldn’t know what kind of a movie they were about to watch, and would get drawn in by the drama before being blindsided by the fantastic. Of course, that’s not how the marketplace works, and Fessenden’s restrained, low-key approach to the horror genre can leave some fans feeling frustrated. For those on Fessenden’s wavelength, however, his “arthouse horror films” often resonate in ways that typical scary movies just don’t. Fessenden sees horror films as an attempt at “accepting death [and] coming to terms with our limitations.” It’s impossible to watch THE LAST WINTER without comparing it to John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982); the biggest difference is that, this time, instead of an alien threat coming to our planet, it’s the planet itself that has turned against humanity. Fessenden is much more concerned with messages than Carpenter is, and while his movie does not come close to providing the horror or thrills that THE THING does, THE LAST WINTER has its own, different strengths, among them a genuine emotional dimension, mounting dread, and a poignant and moving climax. A worthy release of the latest feature from one of the most original and interesting voices working in the horror genre today.
THE COLLECTOR'S CHOICE: THE FILMS OF BUDD BOETTICHER (Sony): Following up the excellent standalone edition of SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, here are all the other Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns (THE TALL T, DECISION AT SUNDOWN, BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE, RIDE LONSESOME, COMANCHE STATION), plus a documentary, celebrity intros, etc. Endlessly rewatchable films in optimal editions.
THE OWL SERVICE (Network UK import): I contributed an essay to the liner notes of the R2 Network release of this 1969 TV serial, adapted from the novel by Alan Garner. Three teenagers – notably Gillian Hills (BEAT GIRL, BLOW UP, DEMONS OF THE MIND) in her greatest role – discover mysteriously decorated crockery in the attic of a remote house in Wales, and are caught up in the cyclical re-enactment of an ancient, tragic legend. Ostensibly for kids, this does many startling things adult drama would be afraid of these days. I listed this last year as a bootleg, but the official release is splendid.
TOUCH OF EVIL (Universal): When I reviewed an earlier release of the ‘restored version’ of this major title, containing a cut of the film re-edited after Welles’ death in accordance with a memo he made at the time of the original release, I said it was a shame that the disc didn’t include also the previously accepted version of the film, arguing that the Welles memo was a negotiating document (making suggestions he didn’t really want to fight for as bargaining chips to get the changes he wanted) rather than a hard-and-fast plan. Well, the 50th Anniversary R1 edition from Universal has two versions. The original theatrical release and a longer, ‘preview’ cut (the default version in the UK for as long as I can remember), plus four commentary tracks (including one from the late Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston) and documentaries. Now, the job is done …
GET SMART (HBO): I have the nicely-packaged R1 box set of all five seasons, but various R1 and R2 single season releases are around or coming. In viewing, I’m near the end of Season Three, when the show is slipping slightly – but the earlier episodes hold up remarkably well, not so much for the snappy satire (a commentator in Sight & Sound said Get Smart gave a better sense of how the CIA conducted its business than THE GOOD SHEPHERD) and clever gadgetry but the endlessly funny central relationships, as the blithe, confident idiot Max (Don Adams) is taken to be a superspy genius by everyone, including his more competent but loveblind partner 99 (Barbara Feldon), except his eternally frustrated, driven-to-the-edge-of-insanity Chief (Ed Platt).
PHASE IV (Legend Films): How wonderful to have this 70s rarity - the only feature film ever directed by main title creator Saul Bass - available on DVD and a good-looking one, too. Me Generation sci-fi ponderousness at its best!
RODAN/WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (Classic Media): I never would have packaged these two daikaiju eiga together but I'm glad somebody did... and who better than Toho? Answer: nobody.
RICCO THE MEAN MACHINE (Dark Sky Films): It's so great to have this particularly nasty piece of Euro-sleaze available (especially after such a long delay due to legal wrangling), complete, uncut and gin clear in all its acid-washed glory. If you're been able to watch Manny Zarzo castrated on a 52" flatscreen... a drink to you, sir.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (Dimension): Happy 40th birthday, NOTLD, and what a gorgeous, sharp transfer to mark the occasion. We all grew up with this classic looking like a kinescope on any number of late, late show broadcasts and public domain video tapes; if you haven't revisited this in optimum condition, you may well see it as if for the first time. Toss all previous editions onto the fire.
2. THEM (Dark Sky Films): As much as I enjoyed THE STRANGERS, the exceptionally scary American takeoff of this taut French horror film, somehow THEM left more of a lasting impact on me; those unexplained noises than emanate from my downstairs periodically are now cause for investigation. So riveting is the film’s home invasion component that the dénouement cannot quite measure up to it, but I never felt cheated—not sure if I ever have felt that way following a modern movie experience that failed to reach eighty minutes. Fortunately this DVD is augmented with a collection of featurettes that are worth investing some time in. Skillfully photographed and edited, THEM is one of the most accomplished exercises in suspense to be released on DVD this past year.
3. ICONS OF HORROR: HAMMER FILMS (Sony): This addition to Sony’s Icons of Horror Collection offers tremendous value at its $24.96 SRP, but at the moment the savvy internet shopper can give it a home for well under $20. Hell, I would have paid $20 just for THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, or the enjoyable PSYCHO permutation SCREAM OF FEAR. Also included in the 2-disc set are THE GORGON and the merely passable Hammer film THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB. Special features are limited to theatrical trailers, but each film is presented in an anamorphically enhanced widescreen version for the first time in the U.S. I’ll take multiple widescreen films over supplemental material any day.
4. IRON MAN (Paramount): I cannot say I’m a big fan of the superhero genre; heretofore my two faves were UNBREAKABLE and THE INCREDIBLES. But IRON MAN is as good as any film of this type that preceded it, especially alongside such modern catastrophes as SUPERMAN RETURNS and the crummy X-MEN films. If anything comes along to trump IRON MAN’s surprisingly intelligent screenplay and spot-on performances anytime soon—well—let’s face it, that just isn’t likely to happen (count me among the few who found THE DARK KNIGHT to be a bit overrated). IRON MAN on Blu-ray delivers a particularly potent demonstration of the format’s potential, along with the expected amount of supplemental material (a lot).
5. FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (Universal): I seldom laugh much at mainstream comedies, but no other film this past year made me laugh to the extent of FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. As a fan of VERONICA MARS, it’s always good to see Kristen Bell (aside from Kiyoshi Kurosawa remakes), even though Mila Kunis and Russell Brand effectively steal the show. I’m still no Judd Apatow fan; I truly hated PINEAPPLE EXPRESS—probably the worst film I saw theatrically this past year. But FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL is undeniably funny and well worth repeat viewings. It’s available in various DVD incarnations, including a loaded 3-disc DVD, as well as a Blu-ray disc.
HIGH AND LOW (7/22/2008), THE ORPHANAGE (4/22/2008), THE STRANGERS (10/21/2008), THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS (1/29/2008), ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (11/18/2008).
The flood of great and rare cinema being made available for home viewing continued unabated in 2008. Indeed, it is now hardly possible to keep up with every worthwhile release: I haven't yet purchased Artificial Eye's HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA, while my pile of unwatched discs has now hit the ceiling, and contains films by Visconti, Dreyer, Melville, Naruse, Resnais and Shepitko. The following must therefore be seen as less a definitive list than a casual guide to DVDs which were of personal importance.
1- KENJI MIZOGUCHI box sets (Masters of Cinema and Eclipse): Masters of Cinema released many sublime films last year, including masterpieces by Lang, Pialat, Antonioni and Murnau. Perhaps the finest were those contained in their four Mizoguchi double-billl discs, which, along with Eclipse's FALLEN WOMEN collection, finally provided some long overdue DVD exposure for one of the greatest directors of all time. Now if only somebody would release an English-subtitled transfer of THE LOVE OF SUMAKO THE ACTRESS.
2- MARCO FERRERI COLLECTION (Koch Lorber): Another great director whose reputation has suffered from his work's lack of availability, Marco Ferreri seemed an unlikely candidate for the box set treatment. Koch Lorber's very welcome 8-disc collection (which includes an excellent documentary) contains a mixture of Ferreri's better known films (LA GRANDE BOUFFE, TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS) and rarities such as EL COCHECITO and THE SEED OF MAN. The set's highlight is the rarely seen uncut 113-minute version of the remarkable BYE BYE MONKEY, running 19 minutes longer than Image's disc, which eliminated the character played by William Berger (still uncredited here).
3- MIKLOS JANCSCO (Second Run): Second Run is another UK-based company releasing films for love rather than profit. Recent highlights include Miklós Jancsó's THE ROUND UP, THE RED AND THE WHITE and MY WAY HOME, all of which are accompanied by episodes of the director's documentary series MESSAGE OF STONES. Second Run's tireless founder Mehelli Modhi even brought Jancsó to London to help promote these discs: meeting him was among the most memorable events of 2008.
4- TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (Criterion) and TRAPPED ASHES (Lionsgate): It's been almost two decades since the words "Directed by Monte Hellman" last appeared on our screens, so seeing them five times in one year certainly suggested things were looking up. Four of these directorial efforts consist of documentaries made by Hellman for Criterion's splendid TWO-LANE BLACKTOP disc, which also includes some fascinating screen tests and a new commentary track, as well as a flawless transfer of the film. The fifth is "Stanley's Girlfriend," part of Dennis Bartok's anthology TRAPPED ASHES. The version of this sublime short (a more perfect 27 minutes is difficult to imagine) found in the actual film has been damagingly shortened and reworked, but Hellman's original cut, shown separately at Cannes, is included on Lionsgate's Region 1 disc as an extra.
5- THE FLOCK (High Fliers): The image has been cropped to 1.85, there are no extras, and, quite frankly, the film isn't even that good. But the totally unexpected appearance of Andrew Lau's much revised and reshot (by Niels Mueller) US debut in a director's cut released straight to DVD by a minor UK distributor was certainly cause for celebration. High Fliers didn't bother to boast (and probably didn't even know) about the restored status of their transfer, but any resemblance between this version and the producer's cut (a Region 1 disc of which is available from Genius, whose packaging includes a still from a scene that only appears in the Region 2 edition) is purely coincidental. A comparison of the two variants testifies eloquently to the difference between a film made by a filmmaker and a film made by a committee.____________________
REBECCA & SAM UMLAND
Our “best of” choices are presented in no particular order. Two of our choices are the Blu-ray editions of the films, although the same material is available in SD DVD as well.
PLANET OF THE APES: 40-YEAR EVOLUTION (20th Century-Fox, 5-Blu-ray Disc set):
For long-standing fans of the Planet of the Apes series such as ourselves, this is the definitive set to have of this series—finally! Besides the HD image quality, both theatrical and director’s cuts of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES are included, as well as many hours of exclusive supplements. The set also includes a hardcover book of exclusive photos and other materials.
THE INVADERS: THE FIRST SEASON (Paramount 4-DVD set): Although short-lived, the Quinn Martin produced series THE INVADERS (1967-68)—about the Cassandra-like David Vincent vainly trying to warn the world of an invasion by aliens from outer space—is vintage television at its (paranoid) best. We long looked forward to this series appearing on Region 1 DVD (season two is to appear on Region 1 DVD in late January 2009), and we were not disappointed by the presentation of the series in this excellent box set. Not only does the set include the unedited, never-aired version of the pilot (“Beachhead”), but there are new introductions to each episode provided by Roy Thinnes as well as other supplements. What’s more, the transfers are excellent.
DAVID LYNCH: THE LIME GREEN SET (Absurda): This 10-DVD set is an absolute must-have for fans of Lynch’s work, or those wishing for an extended introduction. The LIME GREEN SET includes 1) ERASERHEAD; 2) the (remastered) ERASERHEAD soundtrack; 3) THE SHORT FILMS OF DAVID LYNCH; 4) THE ELEPHANT MAN, presented here with a new audio mix approved by David Lynch and interesting new supplements; 5) THE ELEPHANT MAN EXTRAS, which includes a documentary plus new interviews with David Lynch and John Hurt; 6) BLUE VELVET with a new Lynch-approved DD 5.1 mix exclusive to this set; 7) WILD AT HEART (identical to the 2005 MGM Sp. Ed.); 8) DVD debut of INDUSTRIAL SYMPHONY No. 1, presented in 4:3 standard as well as 16:9 anamorphic WS; 9) DUMBLAND; Disc 10 is the highly anticipated “Mystery DVD,” which includes roughly three dozen deleted scenes from WILD AT HEART, episodes of OUT YONDER; 4 episodes of RABBITS, and several short clips transferred from 16mm material from the late 60s while Lynch was still in Philadelphia, the “Twin Peaks Festival Greeting” (a short film Lynch recently made for the Twin Peaks Festival), and many other rare pieces. Additionally, the box comes with a 30-page booklet of stills with many rare photos.
BECKET (MPI Blu-ray): BECKET, starring Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas à Becket, is one of our all-time favorite films, a grand historical epic about two old friends who become enemies. It was the martyred Thomas Becket, after all, that prompted Chaucer’s entourage in THE CANTERBURY TALES to undertake their pilgrimage to Canterbury, where the shrine to Becket is located. MPI’s BD issue of the restored print is simply outstanding. We’re delighted to be able to retire our roughly twenty-years old (standard transfer) laser disc.
WHITE DOG (Criterion): We met the inimical Sam Fuller at the 1981 Telluride Film Festival, by which time the filming of WHITE DOG had been completed, but we have waited the twenty-seven years since that weekend to see this film. For us this release was the biggest revelation of the year. We had no idea what to expect, but we were more than impressed by WHITE DOG, one of the final films of the famed auteur.