Tuesday, July 22, 2008

To Double-Dip or Not to Double-Dip?: October 7th Edition

The studios are mapping out their DVD release schedule for the 2008 holiday season, and even though it's still July there has already been a bevy of announcements. Many of those said releases are of the dreaded "double dip" variety. So whose going to tell you whether or not the second time will be twice as nice or to save your bucks for the inevitable triple dip? Me, that's who! This time I am focusing specifically on Universal's slate for October 7th.

A personal note, I have made a conscious decision to no longer partake in the whole double dipping brouhaha until I get around to either purchasing a widescreen television set that would allow me to better appreciate the anamorphic transfers and remastered quality or make the inevitable transition to Blu-Ray. Although most of these release may force me to break that rule.

One last note, since all of these titles are classics films of high regard I am going to save us time and condescenion and not provide any unneeded plot synopsis.

Touch of Evil (50th Anniversary Edition)

Replaces: The 2000 Restored to Orson Welles' Vision Edition

New Features: The 2000 disc featured only the 1998 restored version, this new disc offers two whole other cuts: the theatrical version that has never been released on the DVD format and a preview edition that hasn't been seen since 1958. The theatrical version has a commentary by writer F.X. Feeney and the preview version by critic and Welles' biographers Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore. The restored version features two commentary tracks, one by actors Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh that was either recorded from beyond the grave or for the first release and shelved; the other commentary is from restoration producer Rick Schmidlin. Other special features: a reproduction of the memo that spurred the restored to Welles' vision recut and two documentaries about the film and the restoration.

Is the artwork an improvement?: Yes, the stark black and white is more in keeping with Russell Metty cinematography than the blue hued 2000 DVD.

Anything that's missing?: Pretty much no, although a documentary about the legendary opening tracking shot and it's influence would have been a nice feature.

Upgrade?: A resounding yay! Especially since it's going for a mere $20.99 on Amazon, a steal for this Criterion level edition. I might break my no upgrading until Blu-Ray rule for this!

Rear Window (Special Edition)

Replaces: 2001 Collector's Edition which was included in 2005 Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection

New Features: All the features from the 2001 release as well as: Commentary with John Fawell (author of "Hitchcock's Rear Window: The Well-Made Film"), Pure Cinema, Through the Eyes of the Master documentary, Hitchcock / Truffaut Interview Excerpts, Breaking Barriers:
The Sound of Hitchcock,
Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode: "Mr. Blanchard's Secret"

Is artwork an improvement?: I don't have the 2005 collection and have not seen it's individual packaging, but its miles better than the poorly designed 2001 version artwork which feature a still from the film cropped next to a bright blue silhouette of Hitchcock and topped by Hitchcock's signature.

Anything missing?: Again, no, seems pretty complete. I guess a feature about the film's inspiration over the year that would include scenes from Body Double and that Simpsons episode where Bart breaks his leg would be nice.

Upgrade: Yay!

Psycho (Special Edition)

Replaces: 1998 Collector's Edition which was included in the 2005 Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection

New Features: All the features from the 1998 Version, plus: Commentary by author Stephen Rebello ("Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho"), Hitchcock/Truffaut interview excerpts, Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "Lamb to the Slaughter"

Is Artwork an Improvement?: There are two covers from the single disc edition, one featuring the figure of Norman Bates next to the house with a production still of Janet Leigh superimposed over it and a still of Leigh screaming in the shower scene with the Hitchcock silhouette and signature template from Rear Window. This is an improvement over both.

Anything missing?: Considering the Double Indemnity Legacy Edition Universal released a few years ago included the supposedly horrid television remake, it would have been nice if instead of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, which you can find on the individual season sets, they replaced it with the only Psycho related project never released on DVD, Bates Motel, the 1987 pilot for an anthology series that was never picked up by NBC, featuring Bud Cort (of Harold and Maude fame) as the new owner of the Bates Motel. Each episode would have been a self-contained story about the lives of a visitor to the hotel featuring Cort in the wraparound.

Upgrade?: A slight yay. The commentary should be nice considering how intricate Rebello's book is, and obviously if you have a widescreen television, the anamorphic aspect is appreciated, otherwise, wait til Blu-Ray.

Vertigo (Collector's Edition)

Replaces: 1998 Collector's Edition which was included in the 2005 Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection

New Features: All the features from the 1998 Edition, plus: Commentary with Associate Producer Herbert Coleman and Restoration Team Robert Harris and James Katz, Commentary with director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, French Connection, Sorcerer), Foreign Censorship Ending, Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview Excerpts, Alfred Hitchcock Presents Episode: "The Case of Mr. Pelham"

Is Artwork an Improvement:
No: I love the original Saul Bass designed poster (it's framed in my living room) sans the creepy James Stewart insert

Anything missing?:
Friedkin as a commenter is a bore, reiterating too often what's on the screen, if you want an Academy Award winning director whose a fan of the film, why not go with Martin Scorsese?


Monday, July 21, 2008

2 for 1 Criterion Sale at Deep Discount

Getting sick of the relentless sound and fury of the summer blockbuster season? Feel guilty that your favorite film of the year is now a Batman movie? Well friends, you can repent at the alter of the foreign and classic selection of the finest DVD distributor around, the Criterion Collection. From now until July 29th, Deep Discount is offering a two for one special on selected Criterion titles (a quick glance over shows it to be a significant portion of their catalog). So get your Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Bunuel and Godard on. Most non-deluxe DVDs run either $32 or $24 dollars, so that's either $12 or $16 per disc, and as an added bonus, Deep Discount does not charge shipping and handling fees!

Personally, I am going to use the opportunity to pick up some discs I have been putting off buying for far too long: Night and the City, Videodrome, The Man Who Fell to Earth and M--to name a few.

In other Criterion news, October 7th sees the first Region 1 DVD release of two new films from premiere French crime director Jean-Pierre Melville, who is already well represented by extras-leaden Criterion discs (including: Le Circle Rogue, Le Samourai, Army of Shadows and Les Infants Terrible)
the great Le Doulos featuring Jean Paul Belmondo as a morally ambiguous ex-convict and Le Deuxieme Souffle, the first collaboration between the director and Army of Shadows star Lino Ventura.

Artwork below:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Optimist Would Say the Year is Half-Started: Film

I never did get around to doing a top ten film list for 2007 despite it being perhaps the strongest year of the millennium in cinema. As I stated in my 1980 List introduction (oh yeah, that thing) I never really feel comfortable providing a list that I will surely modify when I get around to seeing (or rewatching) all the titles from the year that interest me, a process which often involves waiting for the DVD releases of the blink-and-you-missed-them variety that is all too common amongst smaller and foreign releases. By time I feel confident that I have seen, if not all, at least like 93% of the films that either intrigued me, were directed (or were written by or starred) personal favorites, or garnered the critical acclaim of the handful of critics and bloggers I respect, well, it's July already, and who in this day and age of instant gratification really cares about seven months ago. Besides, did you really need another person telling you how the best three films of last year were Zodiac, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men?

With that said, I will now present a list of my favorite films of the first six months of 2008 for no good reason other than my boss is on vacation and I can get away with updating my site at work. Also, out of the five films on the list only one probably made money, so some use may come if one of my (three) regular readers watches something on the list, likes it, and tells a friend to watch it, and so on and so forth. You know, the whole pay it forward theory.

Before presenting the list, I want to make a few general comments about this year. It's been kind of miserable financial wise for distributors of foreign and independent films (Picturehouse, Warner Independent and Paramount Vantage all will cease to exist soon), yet none of the films on my list were released by a major studio (although several are released from the secondary boutique arms of their corporations), so the whole quality (of film) versus quantity (of viewers) argument comes into play. Looking over the list of thirty-three 2008 releases that I have seen thus far, I would give the ol' thumb up to twenty of them (obviously some with more enthusiasm than others), a solid enough ratio, to give some perspective, if this year was a baseball player, this would be a record setting year in hitting. I've found there to be a lot of interesting, inventive and esoteric fare amongst the releases I chose to see (why oh why did I waste time with One Missed Call & the Prom Night remake?). However, I must conceded if all the films in my mid-year top five end up making my year-end top ten, this will have been a down year. The second tier level of quality of this year's fare surpasses last year in that area, but the top tier cannot compete. To compare: by June 30th, 2007, I had already seen the list worthy releases of: Zodiac (my favorite film of last year), The Lives of Others, Grindhouse, Black Book, Knocked Up, Hot Fuzz, and the re-release of Killer of Sheep.

One more delay before I present the list. In full disclosure I have not seen these films whose reputations suggest they might be up my proverbial alley: Wall-E (I know, I know), My Winnipeg, Encounters at the End of the World, Roman de Gare, Funny Games '08, The Fall, Shine a Light, Shotgun Stories, Mother of Tears, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Standard Operating Procedure, and The Duchess of Langeais.

Okay, here's my top five of 2008 so far:

1. Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings)

Garth Jenning's followup to his over-stuffed adaptation of Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is this charming and sweet (two adjectives that have lost their positive connotations recently due to maudlin cinematic abuses) tale of the transformative power of cinema. Anyone who spent their youth recreating scenes from or plotting sequels to their favorite films in their backyard or at the playground will instantly recognize kindred spirits in the film's protagonists, the scheming, Dennis the Menace-ish Lee Carter and his new friend, and filmmaking partner, Will Proudfoot, who is growing up amongst the creative crippling throes of a devout religious sect. Jennings shoots his film entirely through the kid's eyes. When we see Will and Lee film stunts for their video project, an unauthorized sequel to First Blood that provides insight into each boy's fatherless existence, we see their vision of the impossible stunt, the low budget actuality only seen in fleeting glimpses of the end product. Rambow's far from perfect, things wrap up a little too cleanly and a scene that creates an adolescent’s version of a decadent nightclub is a little too cute and would have worked better as a music video, but Jenning's youthful exuberance is always affecting.

2. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)

Akin's novelistic approach (each Act is split into chapters which we see through the perspective of different characters) to the story of three parent-child combinations deals with the coincidences that bond us, but unlike Crash or Babel, he does not attempt to make any grand statements about racism or millennial communication anxiety, but rather focuses on personal concerns such as forgiveness and acceptance and how it relates locally (specifically for the film in terms of Turkish-German relations). The film is rooted in the natural heartbreak of the everyday moment but allowing for growth and change, encapsulated by the cinematography, which may be murky, a conscious decision I assume considering the visual command displayed in Akin's prior film, Head-On, but sprinkled with transcendent moments such as a slow-motion first kiss between two doomed lovers, the visitation of a spectral image and the final long uninterrupted shot that ends the film focusing on one character's anticipation.

3. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)

McDonagh manages the impossible; he breathes new life into the stalest of genres, the hitman comedy. He brings fresh dialogue (he's a well regarded playwright, so natch) that's genuinely funny, a sure command of the visual medium and the ability to surprise, most notably displayed in a flashback scene and the shoot-out that concludes the film. Colin Farrell as Ray, an immature and impatient hitman who may not be only metaphorically stuck in purgatory in Bruges, gives a career revitalizing performance. And I can't believe I laughed at a midget joke in 2008! But the characters created by McDonagh and the glee that Ferrell imbues Ray with made it so. Let's be grateful for minor miracles.

4. Tell No One (Guillaume Canet)

"Hitchcockian" is a term that gets tossed around too frequently. Any thriller with a twist ending is anointed with the adjective. But Hitchock's films were always about playing with the form of narrative cinema and never about the single "game-changing" twist (well, Psycho, but there's so much of the former going on) but rather a byzatine labyrinth of twist upon twist presented with exuberance and humor, both of the manneristic and gallows variety. Canet gets this and understand the McGuffin, in this case a man's search for his wife who was presumed dead eight years prior, is only the story's catalyst, and the fun is the hell he puts our seemingly innocent protagonist to get there. Thusly, when the full mechanics of the plot are revealed in a one guy explains everything manner (again, like Psycho) the film temporarily loses momentum. Do all the threads add up in the end? Possibly not, but who cares, like the saying goes, the thrill's in the chase.

5. The Strangers (Bryan Bertino)

This tense throwback returns the notion of suspense to the horror genre, a virtue I thought disappeared long ago in favor of loud soundtracks, over-editing and an increased emphasis on gore. First time writer-director Bertino keeps things simple, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedmen are a couple in a rough patch and they are attacked by three people wearing masks and…that’s it. But if you are looking, there’s all kind of character revelation, not in the dialogue, but in body language and action. I will discuss the ending below, please skip if you intend to see it, but if a horror film that doesn’t assault your senses and utilizes visual compositions and practical tricks instead of CGI, then here you are.

SPOILER FOR THE ENDING…The audience I saw this with, mainly a bunch of teenagers and kids who snuck in after buying tickets to Kung Fu Panda, were totally into the film, audibly scared, yelling at the screen, et cetera, until the conclusion when they jeered once the credits started. While I understand their reaction to the extent that it didn’t provide the closure that they are usually fed; there is a complete lack of explanation and, even more significantly, comeuppance to the titular attackers, but it’s this very reason I found the film all the more effective. There is not a lot of mystery left in horror films, too often things are either completly over-explained, see the first hour of Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake, or unnecessary and/or lame connections are arbitrarily included to tie everything neatly together, see funnily enough Halloween II making Laurie Strode Mike Meyers’ little sister. Personally, I find the idea of a 10 year old boy snapping and inexplicably murdering his sister chilling without limp attempts at psychosis. Same goes for three people who randomly choose a couple to play sadistic games with before tying them up, removing their own masks, and stabbing them. END OF SPOILERS.

For shits and/or giggles, here are my favorite moments of the year in cinema thus far presented in no particular order and with some cryptic descriptions to avoid spoiler-dom:

--Will Proudfoot runs home jumping, kicking and shooting a make believe machine gun after watching First Blood, which is probably the first movie he's ever seen, Son of Rambow

--A kiss in a nightclub, The Edge of Heaven

--A fatal trip to the top of the tower, In Bruges

--Footchase, Tell No One

--Shotgun blues, The Strangers

--Amputation!, The Ruins

--The entire opening montage of Speed Racer

--Tony Stark's revelatory press conference, Iron Man

--Upside-down kiss, My Blueberry Nights

--The post-coitous horsing around of two teenaged lovers, Snow Angels

--"The shit gets real": the assaulting third act of Rambo

And because I don't know when to stop, here are the films I am most anticipating for the remainder of the year: The Dark Knight, Pineapple Express, Burn After Reading, The Brothers Bloom, The Road and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Terror in the YouTubes

Terror in the Aisles (1984, Andrew J. Kuehn), a rare example of a studio distributed, theatrically released documentary that consists almost entirely of clips and scenes of other films, think along the lines of Celluloid Closet or Los Angeles Plays Itself only less academic, whose main function is to serve as an advertising tool for the home video sales and rentals unit of it's parent company, Universal Pictures (at the time a subsidary of MCA). To that extent we get scenes from the classic Universal monsters but most notably heavy use of scenes from recent (in 1984) Universal released product such as Jaws II (which gets as much play in Terror as the far far superior original), Halloween II (ditto) and in the most obvious example of corporate cross pollination, the Sylvester Stallone vehicle, Nighthawks, which may feature a great psycho turn by Rutger Hauer, but, and this has rubbed me the wrong way since I saw Terror as a kid, is in no way a "horror" film, but rather an action film with suspenseful moments and a good villain.

In the pre-internet days (set wayback machine to mid-late 1980s), Terror served as a reference guide for this budding horror genre fan. I would often compile lists while watching it which I would take with me to the video store (remember those things, kids?) as a tool for my rental activity, so job well done on that front after all Universal.

Terror intercuts film sequences ranging from the classic, modern and bizarre (I really need to see Alone in the Dark, featuring Martin Landau as an escaped lunatic in the disguise of a milkman) with a discussion lead by co-hosts, Halloween star Donald Pleasence and Carrie's Nancy Allen into the psychology that drives viewers to pay money to get their scare on.

Due to the legal entanglements in clearing the rights of the many featured films and it's relative obscurity, Terror has not, and probably never will be, released on DVD. Although apparently it shows up from time to time on the all-Horror network, Chiller, which I guess is allowed clearance rights since no one actually gets the channel.

Fortunately, some kind soul put Terror in the Aisle on YouTube. Unfortunately, said kind soul decided that instead of cutting it up into approximately eight increments of the maximum allowed 10 minutes intervals to split the film into about 24 three to five minute increments. Further unfortune, of the 24 segments, there are about five missing that were either never embedded or removed from YouTube (those would be segments 19-21 and 23-24).

Here are the first few minutes of Terror, if you enjoy please go here to view the rest of it (or more specifically, most of the rest of it)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Vigilante, City Style

Anybody interested in the psychology that has led to an exodus in America of middle and upper class residents out of the cities and into suburbia, starting from the 1970's and through the present day, can catch a glimpse of and sympathetic ear to those very sentiments in Death Wish (1974, Michael Winner). Hell, one needs only look at the film's opening sequences: we open on a picturesque Hawaiian beach where mild-mannered middle aged architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and his wife (Hope Lange) are on holiday, it's nearing the conclusion of their trip and they lament the end of their visit to paradise CUT TO: New York, rush hour, smog shrouds the city, cars stalled on highways in bumper to bumper traffic and FREEZE FRAME on the title...DEATH WISH.

Director Michael Winner paints New York circa mid-70's as nothing less than hell on earth. Even something as innocuous as a trip to the grocery store results in an accosting by some unruly punks. Those same punks, led by none other than a young Jeff Goldblum, follow Mrs. Kersey and her daughter home where they attack, rape and taunt the women by repeatedly calling them "rich cunts" before committing the ultimate indignity, uh, spray painting their asses(!?!). This attack, which per Winner's directorial deftness is not nearly as harrowing as described, results in the death of the mother and sends the daughter into a catatonic state she will remain throughout the film, thus shaking the very emotional foundation of Kersey, the architect, (hey, symbolism!). See, beforehand, Paul Kersey was a bleeding heart liberal. We know this because of a clever bit of foreshadowing dialogue early that, in the subtle nature of the film, informs the viewer of his character's politics. When a co-worker bitches about the poor and tells Kersey that the underprivileged should be sent to concentration camps, Kersey actually britches at this suggestion! The co-worker says, and I quote: "You're such a bleeding heart liberal!" See, this film isn't totally against poor urban dwellers, the idea of placing the lower class in concentration camp is clearly meant to be seen as a negative thing. Totally fair and balanced.

Of course, the police are of no help. And unfortunately for Kersey he doesn't live in San Francisco where surely Detective Harry Callahan would have this case solved within an hour and forty-five minute running time, so instead Kersey is sent by his employer to oversee a housing development in Arizona where he befriends a businessman who extols the virtues of handguns and an old west philosophy of justice which is literally represented in a Ghost Town Old West shootout reenactment. It's worthy of note that the development they are discussing is a community placed in the midst of undeveloped desert that the businessman insist will bring the working class out of the city.

The businessman leaves Kersey a handgun as a going away present. Returning to urban living after a sojourn in the peaceful desert causes Kersey to have an emotional breakdown. He goes out at night, easily tempting hoods by flashing some green, then leading them to a remote location where he turns the table and using that very handgun, blows them away. His vigilantism provides the first satisfaction he's had since the death of his wife, and results in his becoming an instant mysterious celebrity in the city who inspires the other "good citizens" to fight back from the oppressive criminal elements lurking in every alley and subway.

Interestingly he never really attempts to track down the actual three perps responsible for the attack on his family, perhaps this was in fidelity to the source material, the Brian Garfield novel of the same name. If so, it would seem as if it was one of a very few things. Garfield was mortified and felt the adaptation misrepresented ideas in the work, mainly making Kersey into a folk hero. He wrote a follow-up novel to address his concern, Death Sentence (which was itself turned into a film last year starring Kevin Bacon and helmed by Saw director James Wan, that I assume-haven't seen it yet-probably didn't satiate him). Garfield is correct in his assessment, although in fairness I get the distinct sense that screenwriter Wendell Mayes and director Winner tried to bring into question Kersey's motives and sanity, but just didn't posses either the skills or fortitude to pull it off. Conversely, even if you find Dirty Harry "fascist" as Pauline Kael's famous review claimed, you can't question director Don Siegel visual command, the quality of his rhythmic editing style and an embued sense of humor that leaves the film's intent (same goes for his sci-fi/horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers) ambiguous and open for a multitude of social and political interpretations. Michael Winner, however, is a flat director, so dismissing subtext for formal skill is not possible. He cannot even manage any tension at Kersey's first, or for that matter any subsequent, urban retaliations. In the third act, when he attempts to paint Kersey as a deluded man who believes he's living in and by the rules of the old west, most notably in a scene at a hospital after being shot and caught by Detective Ochoa (Vicnet Gardenia) who has been tracking him and instructed to handle the situation with minimal possibility for Kersey's martyrdom, requests his leaving town, to which Kersey replies "by sundown?", it's too abrupt and Winner too non-committal to the task to have any effect.

Ultimately, Kersey does leave New York City for the apparently safer confines of Chicago. However, in the ironic denouement it's shown that punks have infested every facet of modern urbania. In the final shot (both literally and metaphorically) Kersey points his finger, aimed as a gun directly at some hooligans in the bus terminal, and by extension of the shot selection, directly at us, the viewer. Inferring our responsibility (for allowing the ascension of crime? Hey, you can't blame me, I was negative two years old!) and heeding a warning...his work has just begun. Cue Death Wish 2! One does wonder if perhaps a better place for his mandatory relocation would be somewhere more fitting of the thematic crux of the film, I don't know, like an Orange County gated community, or if Winner was one for dramatic arcs, perhaps the very Arizona development that he oversaw?

Death Wish, like the Friday the 13th series is junk, but I find it to be fascinating and even enjoyable junk . Feel free to psycho-analyze me, registered Green Party, in the comment section. Originally, the producers wanted Clint Eastwood (other casting probabilities included Steve McQueen and Mr Hardass himself, Jack Lemmon), for the role of Kersey. He wisely turned down the role. In a bit of karmic payback Bronson, who was Sergio Leone's first choice to play The Man With No Name in the Dollars Trilogy that launched Eastwood's career (Bronson and Leone would later work together when he played "The Man with the Harmonica" in Once Upon a Time in the West a role in which Bronson, if you allow me to speak in the nomenclature of a cineaste "kicked ten kinds off ass"), nabbed the part that kept him working (albeit on lower and lower budgets) until a hip replacement in 1998 led to his retirement (he died in 2003). The idea of Eastwood, a tall menacing white Protestant, blowing away the underclass and in turn, minorities, of 1970's New York just feels like too much to an already stacked deck and harder to swallow sociologically. Bronson, of Lithuanian descent, but having played in his career ethnicities as disparate as Polish, Native American, Italian and even Japanese, is more of a cultural chameleon, and coupled with his age at the time (he was in his fifties), the fact that he has less of a foreboding stature as Clint and his history of playing troubled and/or emotionally stunted characters makes his breaking point a bit more understandable, even if it's cinematically fumbled by his director.

The fact is that Bronson truly believed in Kersey's brand of justice. The famous story goes that upon being offered the role, the following conversation took place between Bronson and Michael Winner (source IMDB):

Bronson: What should we do next? (Death Wish being their fourth collaboration)
Winner: The best script I've got is Death Wish, it's about a guy whose wife and
daughter are mugged. And he goes out and shoots muggers.
Bronson: I'd like to do that.
Winner: The film?
Bronson: No...shoot muggers.

His tune changed slightly in 1984 when he spoke out against real-life NYC subway shooter Berhnard Goetz, although it didn't keep him away from starring in three more sequels after that!

In a bit of synergistic irony, I viewed Death Wish on the very day that the Supreme Court upheld a motion of gun ownership in cases of self-defense as being covered by the Second Amendment, thus possibly keeping the streets legally safe for the real life Kerseys of the world, or at least those who have yet to move out of the jungles of city living!

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