Tuesday, January 03, 2006
Over recent evenings, Donna and I have been spending at least an hour a night watching the Walt Disney Treasures' THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB set, devoted to the show's first week of broadcasts in October 1955. Between these episodes, another that's included in the Walt Disney Treasures SPIN AND MARTY set, and episodes from Universal's LEAVE IT TO BEAVER - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, our household -- which traditionally leans toward the Sixties-centric -- has ventured farther back into the 1950s.
For me, these early hour-long episodes of THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB took a little getting used to, because they predate my own memories of the program. In fact, they predate me! But, by the time we ran out of shows to watch, Donna and I were both feeling fairly hooked. We want more, right away, but I have no idea when the next batch of WDT metal-boxed limited editions are due, or if a second volume is scheduled to be included.
Some world-weary souls might argue that the MMC was as popular as it was because there were only three channels in those days, but I would argue that its popularity was rooted in a spirit that's still there to be enjoyed by those with an open heart. It's a thoroughly engaging production where everything is done in the spirit of creativity, responsibility and constructive encouragement; it's post-war, but a product of the spirit that won the war -- firm, idealistic, and ready to pitch in and make the most of the today and tomorrow of the Baby Boomer generation.
There's an interesting daily feature called "What I Want to Be" that features future GREEN ACRES star Alvy Moore guiding two children through tours of the jobs they aspire to hold one day, as an airline pilot and airline hostess. (The little girl, Pat Morrow, grew up to act on ABC-TV's PEYTON PLACE as Rita, the girlfriend and wife of Christopher Connolly's character, Norman Harrington.) Unfortunately, this segment lasted ten episodes, so we are given only the first half of the entire saga in this initial box set. (Moore also makes a mistake by saying "See you tomorrow!" at the end of the Friday segment, because there were no weekend episodes.) It was an unfortunate bit of strategy that Walt Disney Video chose to issue the show "by the week"; it required a more complete box set -- the first month of broadcasts, at least.
Childhood is always kept in perspective on the show, but so is the idea that the world can be a child's oyster, that it's a wonderful and varied place where all their dreams can come true. The daily change of setting within the program -- "Fun with Music Day", "Guest Star Day", "Anything Can Happen Day", "Circus Day" and "Talent Roundup Day" -- is like a mini-world tour in itself, mixing the regular opportunities for creative expression with opportunities for spontaneity and surprise. The Mickey Mouse Newsreels focus on everyday occurrences and may seem quaint today, but they also helped children to see their own activities as special and may have inspired them to raise the bar for themselves in untold personal ways. We see kids having fun, even raising a little... er, heck, but it's never outside the lines of the law or even propriety. If it's sometimes hokey, at least it's never snide or cynical or some other 21st Century alternative. Most of all, the show is just plain healthy and inspiring, due in no small part to the participation of host and resident songwriter, Jimmie Dodd.
A fellow Cincinnatian and veteran of the THREE MESQUITEERS B-Westerns, Dodd looks like Lampwick from PINOCCHIO... but, like a select breed of folks who made it through the Great Depression, he embodies the very soul of optimism and community. His songs lend sparkle to each episode, their words full of heart and wisdom and wordplay, and his closing remarks (apparently improvised on a set theme) are warmly advisory without conveying any hint of pushiness. He can even quote Scripture without it seeming an inappropriate intrusion into a secular entertainment -- and, in a supplementary profile of Dodd, the Mouseketeers remember him exactly this way, as a devout Christian who allowed people to have their own spiritual "space" and never intruded upon them with his own beliefs. He's the show's lightning conductor and his centrality brings out the very best in all the Mouseketeers who, in these earliest episodes, included not only Annette Funicello but future RIFLEMAN co-star Johnny Crawford (who demonstrates the art of fencing with his older brother Bobby on "Talent Roundup Day"). The first week of shows also gives us a surprise encounter with a surprise Mouseketeer, future DONNA REED SHOW co-star Paul Petersen, who is involved in some heavy-duty acrobatics on "Circus Day" -- but was, I hear, booted out of Mouseketeer camp early on for unruly behavior.
A week or so ago, I added some rhubarbs to another blog's reprimanding of Leonard Maltin's endorsement of some less-than-complete-or-ideal WALT DISNEY TREASURES releases, so let me assert here, once again, that he's the ideal host for these releases, no doubt about it. He does an outstanding job of interviewing a select group of veteran Mouseketeers and also SPIN AND MARTY stars Tim Considine and David Stollery on those respective sets, and he's even named an honorary Mouseketeer.
Initially, I wished that the MMC set had offered personal updates on all the Mouseketeers, but there are places online where you find out about all that -- and, after Googling up tales of the later, unfortunate misadventures of members like Darlene Gillespie (of CORKY AND THE WHITE SHADOW fame), who performs with such enthusiasm here, I can better understand the company's decision to leave well enough alone. Some viewers may wonder why Karen Pendleton, the raspy-voiced pixie Mouseketeer best remembered in tandem with mite-sized drummer Cubby O'Brien, is shown moving about in a wheelchair; WIKIPEDIA reports that she was involved in a car accident in 1983 that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Watching these shows, you do become interested in all this raw talent and what ultimately became of it.
The next batch of MICKEY MOUSE CLUB shows can't reach my doorstep too soon. Till then, I guess it's back to my Jess Franco DVDs...
Monday, January 02, 2006
Well, yes and no.
The fact is, today our VIDEO WATCHDOG website (www.videowatchdog.com) launched a special Updates blog as part of our page devoted to my forthcoming book, MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. Just go to the main page, click on the Bava book link in the left-hand column (you may need to slide the guide bar down to find it), and click on the "Click Here for Updates" link under the book cover. That will take you right to the Update blog, where I'll be posting occasional reports on where the book's progress presently stands.
So why not try it now? I'll meet you over there and fill you in on the rest!
Yesterday I decided to warm up to the new edition by sitting down with both versions and doing a cover-to-cover, side-by-side comparison. Before I get to my findings, I should tell you what the publisher's press release had to say about the new edition. It reports that the new edition is 272 pages, which adds 48 pages to the previous one. Other points of attraction include:
• Never-before published pages from McCay’s private animation production notebook revealing the filmmaker’s ideas for timing and visualizations in "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914), "Lusitania," and "Flip’s Circus" (c. 1921).
• Rare concept art by McCay for a second film starring Gertie the Dinosaur.
• New documentation of McCay’s early career, including the Wonderland and Eden Musée in Detroit, where he sold his first cartoons.
• McCay’s professional relationship and longtime personal friendship with cartoonist Apthorp "Ap" Adams, one of his two assistants on the monumental animated epic "The Sinking of the Lusitania" (1918).
• Full-page reproduction of a 1907 New York Herald showcasing eight top comic strip cartoonists and illustrators including McCay, and their art.
• A complete Winsor McCay Chronology, and extensive additions to the Notes and Bibliography sections.
• Many rarely seen photos and drawings from private collections.
• A new cover, book design and page layout.
What I discovered myself is not always flattering to the new edition, but to go through the two editions simultaneously told me much more than an ordinary sit-down perusal of the new book would have done. One thing that is immediately evident is that, despite the added page count, the new edition is thinner and slighter in stature than the Abbeville incarnation. Upon opening the book, I noticed that the Abrams book is printed on much thinner paper with a slight degree of "see-through" not found in the Abbeville, which subsequently has the richer and more durable feel. The Abrams also opens wider to expose its sewn signatures, while the Abbeville is more sturdily bound. I frankly prefer the cover of the Abbeville edition, which highlights the artist and his creations rather than Abrams' wallpapery detail of one of the "Little Nemo" strips.
The illustrations are comparable in the two editions, but with some interesting distinctions. More than once, a single vintage photo in the Abbeville appears in the Abrams with another similar photo taken during the same session, giving these rare glimpses of McCay's documentary past the fleeting illusion of cinematic reality. Whereas the Abbeville edition was unable to offer color on every page, the Abrams edition does; even when it presents art in black-and-white, it uses color to offer variety of tones, lending enhancing sepia tones to B&W photos and creamier background shades to line art. I was also fascinated to see that almost all of the photos and source art is presented by Abrams with its outer borders intact; both were cropped to present only the art in the Abbeville edition. Therefore, we can now see the tattered outer edges of a gorgeous "Gertie the Dinosaur" poster, and the handwritten notations and surrounding pictures of those photos which reside in McCay family albums. I find this additional textural information fascinating; it demonstrates that our perception of what is important in such documentation has become more exacting since 1987. Context is now regarded as potentially revelatory as content; looking at the same illustration rendered both ways, I found that it really is preferable to see the whole object, warts and all. These "warts" may harbor hidden truths. For example, there is a surviving film cel from McCay's "The Sinking of the Lusitania" that is printed in the two books two different ways. It's flipped the wrong way around in the Abbeville, but presented correctly in the Abrams, as is proved by the newly exposed notation "End" written below the picture line on the uncropped document!
The Abrams book does add quite a bit of newly discovered illustration -- such as the aforementioned Gertie sketches, showing her attempting to cross the Brooklyn Bridge with disastrous results under the sweet heading "She Meant No Harm" -- but sometimes the shared illustrations are larger or more favorably rendered in the earlier edition. Some "Little Nemo in Slumberland" Sunday strips, in particular, are wrecked in the Abrams version by being presented in the book sideways... what fun to turn a large book sideways!... ostensibly to permit a larger rendering, but it also causes the panel midway down to get creased and sunken in the depths of the spine. Of the two books, I must say that the Abrams edition, despite its many other advantages, is not as well designed or laid-out as the Abbeville.
I noticed in the revised edition several instances of additional and amended text, bringing Canemaker's research fully up-to-date. The instances range from newly uncovered information (like correspondence relating to the ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA's acknowledgement of McCay as the father of film animation) to the fine-tuning of nuance. The 1987 John Canemaker pondered whether McCay might have been divining his own imminent death when he placed a death's head in his final editorial drawing, completed three days before his fatal aneurysm, as a personification of the narcotics threat. "Probably not consciously," he hedged, not really knowing but liking the conceit. But the 2005 John Canemaker, perhaps more of a realist or simply more cautious about making such pronouncements, weighs the same evidence and decides, "Probably not."
I love this book, and after comparing the two versions, I've decided that I have to keep them both. If you can only afford one, the Abrams edition -- despite some presentational lapses in judgment -- is clearly the one that represents the subject and its author most accurately. And this Amazon link offers the book at significant savings off the cover price.
Saturday, December 31, 2005
Friday, December 30, 2005
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Saturday, December 24, 2005
"MERRY CHRISTMAS" is what I would have been saying in this photo, taken Christmas Eve of last year, but my little niece Avery felt I didn't look quite festive enough and spent some time covering me with Christmas bows. God only knows what devilry she has in store for me tonight. Thank you all for taking a moment to peek in over the holidays. May you all have a safe and wonderful Christmas Eve, and a relaxing and fulfilling Christmas Day spent among your loved ones!
Video WatchBlog will be back to its usual mayhem... eventually.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
VIDEO WATCHDOG'S DVD OF THE YEAR, 2005:
KING KONG (1933, Turner Home Entertainment), ranked on 5 of 7 lists
And now, our lists! Selections are in order of preference unless otherwise noted...
1. THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE DEFINITIVE EDITION, SEASON 2 - 4 (Image Entertainment): The first volume was released at the end of last year, but this year's continuation -- encompassing many of the beloved series' most memorable episodes -- fulfills its promise and then some. Image's TZ sets have become the standard bearer of how vintage television should be handled and presented on DVD. The casual viewer can be satisfied with the most sparkling transfers these shows have ever seen (mastered from 35mm), while more ardent fans can drink as deeply as they desire, partaking of audio commentaries, Rod Serling lectures and interviews, isolated music tracks, and much else. Exhaustive in their scope, inexhaustible in their pleasures, these sets do Serling and his many talented collaborators proud -- and they deserve to be in every home where imaginative storytelling is respected. SEASON 5, the final set, will be streeting on December 27.
2. EDGAR WALLACE EDITION 1 - 8 (Tobis/UFA import R2): These eight box sets are a dream come true for the krimi collector, and I very nearly put them in the Number 1 position. The transfers (most of them anamorphic) are frequently astonishing to eyes familiar only with the 16mm English-dubbed TV prints put out by Sinister Cinema. To finally have the option of viewing these pictures in German with English subtitles, and to see the early black-and-white entries (like THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON) with their blood-red main titles for the first time, was a heady emotional and educational experience. In short, these sets helped me to understand the full glory and importance of this series, which influenced the James Bond films and even the shockers of Dario Argento. These box sets were actually my favorite DVD releases of the year, but I had to grit my teeth and take them down a notch on principle, because the disc producers opted to withhold English audio and subtitle options from at least one film (but never more than two films) in almost every set, including some titles (like DOUBLE FACE) that can easily be found in English. EDITION 4 (collecting THE BLACK ABBOT, THE INDIAN SCARF, ROOM 13 and THE MYSTERIOUS MAGICIAN) is the only set to offer English options for every feature. Available from Sazuma and Xploited Cinema.
3. L'ECLISSE (Criterion): I had never seen this Michelangelo Antonioni classic with Monica Vitti and Alain Delon before, and it turned out to be the most exciting and moving movie experience I had this year. The black-and-white widescreen photography gleams, and Criterion's extras are also top notch. Criterion issued an extraordinary number of top-notch releases this year (THE TALES OF HOFFMAN, THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, JULES AND JIM, THE RIVER, etc), surpassing even their usual high standard, and I wish I could have accomodated more of them on this list.
4. THE KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI COLLECTION: THE SCAR/CAMERA BUFF/BLIND CHANCE/NO END/A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE/A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING (Kino on Video): This much-needed collection replaces New Yorker Films' earlier VHS releases of many of these titles, and sweetens them with additional colleague interviews and other worthy supplements, including several of Kieslowski's early documentary shorts. While none of these films quite attains the masterly blend of approachability and brilliance of Kieslowski's later work, the last three films in the set are masterpieces and the first three are more than worth seeing.
5. THE VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION: CAT PEOPLE/CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE/I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE/THE BODY SNATCHER/THE LEOPARD MAN/THE GHOST SHIP/ISLE OF THE DEAD/THE SEVENTH VICTIM/SHADOWS IN THE DARK documentary (Turner Home Entertainment): One of the finest bodies of work ever amassed within the horror genre, treated with the respect it deserves. The audio commentaries -- including such VW alumni as Kim Newman, Tom Weaver, and Greg Mank -- are superb, and the documentary about Lewton is one of the best of its kind. My only regret about the set is that Turner apparently couldn't think of anyone who might provide a commentary for ISLE OF THE DEAD, which is one of my personal favorites of the bunch. That's the one where Boris Karloff says, "They call me The Watchdog..."
6. THE QUATERMASS COLLECTION (BBC Video): A perfectly realised, long-awaited collection of all the surviving kinescopes of the BBC's original "Quatermass" telecasts from 1953 (THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, two episodes), 1955 (QUATERMASS II, complete) and 1958-59 (QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, complete). Nigel Kneale's original teleplays for the missing EXPERIMENT episodes are included, and the PIT episodes ameliorate the old problem of the BBC's initial stand-alone release of this title as a single, extended entity. The documentary extras are outstanding, too.
7. THE KING KONG COLLECTION (Turner Home Entertainment): I am still making my way through this mouth-watering set, but it's both a delight and an education. It appears to offer the best-looking and -sounding presentations of KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933) and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) ever. In the case of KING KONG particularly, the image clarity enlarges one's appreciation of the film's technical achievement, and the bonus disc's exhaustive documentary features put these achievements into historic perspective in a way that fully supports the feature's claim to the name "The Eighth Wonder of the World." Long-awaited and worth the wait.
8. A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (Tartan Video): The most skillfully made horror film of recent vintage I've seen, this darkly lyrical South Korean film merges ghost story and dark psychology with a virtuosity seldom encountered anymore. The score by Byung-woo Lee is an instant classic, haunting and beautiful. If you pick this up, I insist you pop for the two-disc deluxe edition, whose supplements are not only informative but offer behind-the-scenes glimpses of the director and his actors that are remarkable in their humanism and candor. One of those DVD releases that extends the boundaries of what the medium is capable of achieving.
9. DAVID CRONENBERG'S THE FLY (1986, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment): Long in the works, this definitive treatment of Cronenberg's "reimagining" of the 1958 classic was worth the wait. Besides an excellent rendering of the film, this two-disc set offers a feast of bonus materials, of which the most notable are a lengthy retrospective documentary and an assortment of invaluable deleted scenes. The "monkey-cat/crab-leg" sequence is the DVD Bonus supplement of the year. I'll go to my grave insisting that Cronenberg opted for a good horror film instead of a great one when he cut this powerful footage, but the disc offers a valid counter-argument of why cutting it was the right thing to do.
10. (tie) DANGER: DIABOLIK (Paramount DVD), THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and VENUS IN FURS (Blue Underground): The year's most stunning Eurocult releases. I had the privilege of contributing to the commentary track of DIABOLIK with its star John Phillip Law, but I include this title mostly for restoring and presenting the most complete and ideal version of the film ever released -- and Steve Bissette's interview tying DIABOLIK into the history of comics and comic adaptations to film is superb. Blue Underground's two releases continue their tradition of going the extra mile with worthy cult items. BIRD is the deluxe edition of Dario Argento's directorial debut that his fans have long been craving, topped off with a stunning from-the-negative transfer supervised by Vittorio Storaro; VENUS is one of Jess Franco's quintessential works, perhaps his definitive psychedelic treatment of romantic obsession. All three films have never looked or sounded better.
Honorable Mention: MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES (PPS Group): This nostalgic collection of home-made 8mm/16mm monster movies, dating from 1952 to fairly recently but emphasizing the 1960s, is a time capsule preserving our love of movies and our desire to share in their magic. Every one of the 20 films included has something to commend it, whether it's raw talent (or somewhat more sophisticated talent), a gift for mimicky, ambition and pluck, or simply the reflected innocence of a less complicated time. Every film is accompanied by an audio commentary that puts each piece in perspective, perspectives which allow the set to cover the whole arc of human emotions from joy to tragedy. I contributed an audio commentary to my late friend Alan Upchurch's film "The Gentle Old Madman," which makes MKHM particularly meaningful for me, but even without my participation, or Alan's, this disc would have touched my heart. Irresistable, and an outstanding debut release from PPS Group. Available directly from PPS Group or from Diabolik DVD.
Other Notables: TITANIC (Paramount DVD "Special Collector's Edition"), THE WIZARD OF OZ (Warner Home Video "Three-Disc Collector's Edition"), THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953; Paramount DVD "Special Collector's Edition"), THE LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION - Volumes 1, 2 and 3 (Warner Home Video), DIVORCE, ITALIAN STYLE (Criterion), UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (Criterion), THE DEFA SCI-FI COLLECTION: THE SILENT STAR, IN THE DUST OF THE STARS and EOLOMEA (First Run Features), SIX FEET UNDER - THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (with the stunning episode "That's My Dog," HBO Video), THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (Warner Home Video), CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (Grindhouse Releasing), GIRL MEETS GIRL COLLECTION (EI Independent/RetroSeduction Cinema), GREEN ACRES - THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (with the stunning episode "Arnold Goes to Hollywood," MGM Home Entertainment), THE FLESH EATERS (Dark Sky/MPI), also THE MYSTERIANS, DOGORA, MATANGO and VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE (Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock).
Best Box Set of 2005: JERRY LEWIS - THE LEGENDARY JERRY COLLECTION: THE NUTTY PROFESSOR/THE LADIES MAN/CINDERFELLA/THE FAMILY JEWELS/THE PATSY/THE BELLBOY/THE ERRAND BOY/THE DELICATE DELINQUENT/THE DISORDERLY ORDERLY/THE STOOGE (Paramount DVD) Okay, I'm taking advantage of a technicality here. The individual DVDs composing this box set were originally released in October of 2004, and I complained then that they should have been collected in a more affordable box set. If you skipped these titles last year because they were too costly, I urge you to take advantage of this economically priced collection. Of course the humor is juvenile, but the filmmaking is frequently inspired, with an original approach to color, set design, spectacle, and an often surrealistic sensibility. If THE NUTTY PROFESSOR is all you know, you must at least check out THE LADIES' MAN. The recording session in THE PATSY had me laughing so hard I thought I might die. Seriously.
Restoration of the Year: THE WIZARD OF OZ (Warner Home Video).
Other Notable Restorations of 2005: ALFRED HITCHCOCK: LES PREMIERES OEUVRES 1927-28, 1929-31, 1932-1940 (Studio Canal, French imports), DANGER: DIABOLIK (Paramount), WILD IN THE STREETS/GAS-S-S-S! (MGM Home Entertainment), THE FLESH EATERS (Dark Sky/MPI) and THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH (No Shame Films).
1. THE VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION (Warner R1): After well-deserved criticism regarding their lackluster catalogue of vintage library titles, Warner Home Video finally got fully on-track in 2005. Their magnificent box set of Val Lewton's subtle RKO chillers proved well worth the wait.
2. THE KING KONG COLLECTION (Warner R1): I have almost no interest in seeing Peter Jackson's gazillion dollar CGI overkill extravaganza, but am glad it finally came out as we now have this gorgeous restoration of the RKO original. Nice extras, plus high quality presentations of the studio's other two giant ape classics make this a must.
3. PHANTASM I-IV SPHERE BOX SET (Anchor Bay UK R2 PAL): No amount of gloss and supplemental goodies can compensate for the travesty that is PHANTASM: OBLIVION, but this set is otherwise exemplary and comes in the year's grooviest packaging: an oversized reproduction of the series' classic silver sphere! With the North American rights to the movies divided between MGM and Universal, an R1 equivalent seems unlikely.
4. DAVID CRONENBERG'S THE FLY (Fox R1): Previous editions of this grotesque but remarkably poignant remake were too bright and lacking in supplements, flaws eradicated by this new, director-approved set. It also offers some of the most extensive and fascinating extras in recent memory.
5. THE CANDY SNATCHERS (Subversive R1): In this age of unabashed double dipping, it is all but unheard of for a movie's very first video release in any format to also be definitive. Subversive Cinema has managed to accomplish just that, offering a beautiful transfer of this essential '70s grindhouse thriller complimented by quality supplementary material.
6. THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (Blue Underground R1): This lovingly restored, uncut presentation of Dario Argento's excellent giallo almost makes me forget that he has made absolutely nothing of worth in the past 15 years. Almost.
7. DANGER: DIABOLIK (Paramount R1): Another studio with a less-than-impressive selection of library titles, Paramount starts to right their wrongs by doing this Mario Bava classic justice. A first-rate transfer and marvelous extras completely wash away the taste of that MST3K travesty.
8. DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY (Anchor Bay R1): The greatest car chase epic to blaze across 1970s drive-in screens finally hits DVD...and in a highly polished special edition to boot! Sensational driving and a wonderful character performance from Vic Morrow keep this platter constantly spinning in my player.
9. FAREWELL FRIEND (Cinema Club UK R2 PAL): Jean Herman's witty, masterfully plotted, and tres cool tale of honor and male bonding features Alain Delon and Charles Bronson at the height of their craft. A barebones release, but the movie and the presentation are so good, it doesn't matter (and you get the complete European version, unlike that wretched public domain R1 release).
10. GAMBLING CITY (NoShame R1): One of the first Italian crime thrillers I saw and still one of my favorites, even in its abbreviated, pan&scan release as THE CHEATERS from Vogue Video 20+ years ago. Naturally, NoShame's beautiful, uncut, widescreen edition is the only version I'll watch from now on.
John's Honorable Mentions: 42ND. STREET FOREVER VOL. 1 (Synapse R1), CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (Grindhouse R1), THE DEVIL'S REJECTS: TWO DISC DIRECTOR'S CUT (Lions Gate R1), DIRTY HO (Intercontinental HK R3), DOGORA (Media Blasters R1), DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1977; Intercontinental HK R3), KING KONG VS GODZILLA/KING KONG ESCAPES (Universal R1), MATANGO (Media Blasters R1), THE MYSTERIANS (Media Blasters R1), THE WAR OF THE WORLDS: SPECIAL COLLECTOR'S EDITION (1953; Paramount R1).
choices in alphabetical order
THE CANDY SNATCHERS (Subversive Cinema): Bizarre, unpredictable Seventies exploitation crime drama is given a sterling transfer and detailed reminisces from two of its female stars.
THE FLESH EATERS (Dark Sky) -- Great transfer of one of the great low-budget genre underdogs.
FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY / CHALLENGE OF THE DRAGON (Mondo Macabro): This fun double feature of Dick Randall exploitation imports will have your friends worrying about your sanity, particularly the Filipino James Bond parody FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY, which stars the diminutive, 3-foot tall Weng Weng as secret agent "00".
HANZO THE RAZOR (Home Vision Entertainment) : Box set of the audacious Seventies samurai trilogy starring Shintaro (ZATOICHI) Katsu.
JUST BEFORE DAWN (Media Blasters) : One of the better slasher pics of the Seventies is treated to an anecdote-filled commentary from director Jeff Lieberman (SQUIRM, BLUE SUNSHINE), whose talks typically contain more useful information than most film courses.
KING KONG (Warner Home Video) : You will see details in the film you never saw before... plus the documentary material is exhausting in its scope. Peter Jackson's recreation of the lost spider pit sequence is unbelievably good, an early Christmas present to all us monster fans.
LONG WEEKEND (Synapse Films): Flawless anamorphic transfer of a highly unusual "nature's revenge" film, where the wildlife attacks are metaphors for a disintegrating marriage.
MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (Warner Home Video) : Sparkling transfer and a heart-warming commentary with Ray Harryhausen and Terry Moore. Effects artist Ken Ralston moderates the commentary, and every time there is a startling stop-motion image, he remarks with deadpan awe, "oh, Ray... oh, Ray."
POINT BLANK (Warner Home Video): This nice special edition of John Boorman's experimental neo-noir, along with new DVD releases of THE PROFESSIONALS and PRIME CUT, made 2005 the unofficial Year of Lee Marvin.
VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE (Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock): All of Media Blasters' recent Toho releases have something extraordinary about them to recommend: MATANGO is essential to anyone interested in J-horror; THE MYSTERIANS has, among many other extras, an isolated Akira Ifukube score... but if I had to pick just one to represent them all it would have to be VARAN, not only for presenting the very different (and much better) Japanese version of the film, but for a fascinating audio commentary with effects artist Keizo Murase, who gives rare insight into the day-to-day life of a starving, struggling Toho studios technician.
P.S. from T. L. - It's Bill's birthday today. Happy Birthday, Bill!
1. DOCTOR WHO - SERIES 1 (BBC import R2): I'll take the tack that TV does deserve to be included, and this revival of my favorite show is simply perfect.
2. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT SEASON 1 and 2 (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment): Probably doomed on network TV, but we'll always have the DVDs.
3. UNIVERSITY OF LAUGHS: Only available on disc in Japan as a R2 import, but with subtitles, this astonishing film has almost no market in the US. Two great actors sit in a room and talk, in a script that takes the awful grind towards Japan's declaration of war in the 1940s and turns into absurdist comedy of the highest order. This may not appeal much to VW's readership, but it is one of the best movies I've seen in many, many years.
4. LE ROI DE CHAMPS-ELYSEES (Reel Classic DVD-R): Buster Keaton's 1935 French language comedy, produced by Seymour Nebezahl and including clips from THE TESTAMENT OF DOCTOR MABUSE, is Keaton's greatest talkie feature, yet long out of the reach of fans. At last a top notch DVD-R with newly translated subtitles can be found online from Reel Classic DVD.
5. DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (BBC R2): The BBC miniseries is a work of apocalyptic dread that takes itself seriously enough to feel plausible.
6. THEY CAME BACK (Fox Lorber): A French zombie drama (yup, not a horror film, a drama) recently on Region 1 DVD, that is unlike any other zombie movie ever made. Finally, something new under the sun.
7. LOST - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Buena Vista Home Entertainment): I dropped it down the list only because the currently airing second season makes the first season look weak by comparison.
8. CHARLEY CHASE COLLECTION VOLUME 2 (Kino on Video): Thank God for Kino, giving this underrated slapstick star an overdue reappraisal. This disc includes the short "Isn't Life Terrible?" which, in my book, is one of the most jaw-dropping pieces of silent comedy ever created. If you like old slapstick and haven't seen this short, your life is missing something.
9. MATANGO (Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock): When I saw that what was once known as ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE was getting a platform release with extras, in Japanese with subtitles, I'd assumed I was the victim of a practical joke. But no, now everybody with $15 to spare can enjoy this masterpiece of Japanese sc-fi delirium.
10. SCARY TRUE STORIES (MPI Home Video): Sneaking out onto DVD at the end of the year, with little fanfare, is one of the important J-Horror releases yet: the birthplace of the genre.
choices include some 2004 releases first viewed in 2005*
1. THE QUATERMASS COLLECTION (BBC Video R2)
2. DOCTOR WHO: SERIES 1 [the new series] (BBC Video R2)
3. THRILLER: THE COMPLETE SERIES [the UK 1970s show, not the US 1960s one, R2]
4. EDGAR WALLACE EDITION 1 - 8 (Tobis/UFA R2)
5. LAURA (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
6. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (Criterion)
7. VIDEODROME (Criterion)*
8. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (Criterion)
9. DEADWOOD: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (HBO Video)
10. DAWN OF THE DEAD - ULTIMATE EDITION (Anchor Bay Entertainment)*
Kim adds: "All sorts of possibles or probables - the Lewton box set (though I should rule that out for nomination since I contributed to it), the King Kong collection, the Universal Hammer and Lugosi sets - might qualify, except I've not even got them out of the shrinkwrap, let alone watched them down to the last Easter egg!"
RICHARD HARLAND SMITH
choices in random order
THE BLIND DEAD COLLECTION (Blue Underground): The ayes finally have it -- essential EuroCult gets its due in a box set that puts the fun back in funereal.
THE VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION (Turner Home Entertainment): Not just a collection of some of the finest horror and suspense films ever made but a primer for shock by suggestion.
TORTURE GARDEN (Columbia Home Entertainment): Not the best omnibus horror film of all time... but better than most that have already been given the digital upgrade and Burgess Meredith is a hoot as Dr. Diablo.
MATANGO/ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE (Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock): Shriek Show finally gets one right, and one of the most disturbing horror films of all time, too.
RACE WITH THE DEVIL (Anchor Bay Entertainment): The butt-ugly cover art aside, which makes this tale of Satanism along the Rio Grande look like a CB radio chase flick, Anchor Bay serves up vintage 70s drive-in shock with all the trimmins'.
ALMOST HUMAN (NoShame Films): Even if I hadn't written liner notes for this bloody slice of ItaloCrime, I'd still give it the thumbs up for being the EuroCult release of the year.
KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (Universal): Wash the taste of that awful re-imagining with the original series. Occasionally excellent, often downright awful, with Darren McGavin as tour guide, THE NIGHT STALKER was at least a fun diversion and had character to burn.
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (Blue Underground): In a word: finally.
THE INNOCENTS (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment): Not only is this classic spooker finally available on DVD, but at an affordable price not much above $10. Do it for the children.
KING KONG COLLECTION (Warner Home Video): Best Buy offered an exclusive box set of KING KONG, SON OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG with extras galore and 10 collectible cards of original poster art from around the world. But even if Warners had put out a no frills single disc, it would have been worth all the chest pounding.
REBECCA & SAM UMLAND
choices in random order
EVIL DEAD 2: BOOK OF THE DEAD LIMITED EDITION (Anchor Bay Entertainment, "Divimax Special Edition"): Worth it for the fabulous packaging, HD transfer, and The Book of the Dead looks great on our mantle.
AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (Criterion): Beautiful transfer of a sublime, flawless film.
NAKED (Criterion): Existentialism without despair, and David Thewlis is simply superb.
DEMON SEED (Warner Home Video): A fine LETTERBOXED transfer of a vastly under-rated film, long overdue on DVD.
POINT BLANK (Warner Home Video): Forget what you’ve read: Boorman’s brilliant film was the real inspiration for Cammell and Roeg’s PERFORMANCE.
DISNEY RARITIES: CELEBRATED SHORTS 1920s-1960s (Walt Disney Treasures): An excellent selection of historically important material, with excellent annotations. We are aware of the controversy this particular issue of the "Walt Disney Treasures" has elicited, but we stand by our assessment that this is an historically important release, despite the limitations of some of the source materials used for the transfers. While the quality of the presentation is important, our decision to include the title is based not simply on the quality of the transfers, but on the historic importance of the material included on the set.
MAJOR DUNDEE: THE EXTENDED VERSION (Sony/Columbia): Who would have believed it? Wasn’t this the GREED of our generation?
KING KONG (Turner Home Entertainment, "2-Disc Collector’s Edition"): Another fine issue of vast historical importance, with excellent supplements.
EDISON: THE INVENTION OF THE MOVIES, 1891-1918 (Kino on Video): What can we say? These films started it all: why we’re writing, and why you’re reading. There’s truly fascinating material on these four discs.
THE WIZARD OF OZ (Warner Home Video, 3-Disc Collector’s Edition): Yet another of the many profoundly important historic sets Warner issued in 2005, with important supplements from the silent era.
Best TV Issue (#11, excluding THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which goes without saying): BUFFALO BILL: THE COMPLETE FIRST AND SECOND SEASONS (Lion’s Gate) One of the most sublimely funny TV shows ever shown on national television, sadly short-lived.
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
A total of seven (7) Kennel regulars found the time to join in the fun, and several of us have annotated our selections at some length, with our total efforts adding up to the biggest WatchBlog yet!
I decided to publish the lists on Thursday rather than Friday, because so many of us (me included) begin to find our leisure time seriously curtailed the closer we get to Christmas weekend. It's always a hectic time of year for us, with Donna and I celebrating our wedding anniversary on the 23rd (this year is our 31st!), taking charge of Christmas Eve catering and spending it with family, and visiting with out-of-town friends on Christmas Day... but feel free to check in at Video WatchBlog through the holidays and see if I've left you a little cyber-present.
As someone who's been involved in a number of DVD releases myself, I can well understand Leonard's stance in all this, and I'm sympathetic. It's true that the experts about these films are often ("often"? always!) kept remote and removed from the actual production of the discs, and therefore have no control over the look or content of the final result. Someone on the Mobius Home Video Forum once asked me if my participation in a DVD release -- providing audio commentary, writing liner notes, or whatever -- should be considered an endorsement of that release. My truthful answer was "Not necessarily." As a matter of fact, I've written liner notes or box copy for movies I don't particularly like; I do this to give myself some extra spending money, and I only accept these side jobs if I feel I can bring some insight or expertise to the assignment, a way of explaining why these films might be of interest to someone else.
But Leonard's involvement with the "Walt Disney Treasures" series has been far more extensive. He not only conceived the line and sold Disney on undertaking it, he introduces each set and his face and name are plastered all over each (pricey) set. Therefore, while I'm understanding of Leonard's situation in relation to Disney as a company (and I would imagine it's a more forbidding company than most), I agree with Al Lutz that the extra dimensions of his involvement are indicative of his active participation and approval, tantamount to his personal assurance as an authority that these releases have been painstakingly restored and are absolutely uncut... which is, unfortunately, not the case.
Sometimes taking the money should mean taking the responsibility. And, with all due respect to one of animation's great scholars, this would appear to be one of those times.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Today: #101,106 in Books
Yesterday: #418,705 in Books
The only thing these figures (which are updated hourly) absolutely mean is that, even today, THE BOOK OF RENFIELD is selling significantly lesser numbers than the more urgent likes of the latest Rachel Ray cookbooks (#3, #17) and WHY DO MEN HAVE NIPPLES? (#11). I realize the number may well drop precipitously tomorrow, or even a few hours from now, but in the meantime, this jump in sales -- or is it merely a slump in the sales of everything else? -- is cause for a hard-working writer's smile. As is the idea that my book might be waiting gift-wrapped under some people's trees this Christmas.
If Amazon.com should sell that last copy before you can get yours, remember it can be found at your favorite local bookstore chain and that copies signed by the author can be found here at no extra cost.
Acknowledgement: KING KONG photos courtesy/copyright Universal.
1. I don't know if it's a good thing that Fay Wray didn't live to see this movie or not. I think she would have liked it enough to have her heart broken a little by it. Fay Wray was Ann Darrow, "the girl in the hairy paw," till the day she died, and that's as it should have been. I'll always love Fay, but I think Naomi Watts is Ann Darrow for me now.
2. I also think Jackson's Kong (Andy Serkis) is Kong for me now. He better embodies a living, breathing animal and conveys a richer range of emotions. I'll always love the original, of course, but I suspect Willis O'Brien's stop-motion model will look more like an eye-rolling toy to me on future viewings, its emotions limited to variations on fury and cute. I know the Obie-Kong inspired a lot of important film careers, but I feel certain this movie will plant seeds of its own. With this Kong, I instinctively knew that, when the theater curtain was raised on him, he would be sitting there slumped over, soulless and shamed -- not the upright manacled trophy of the 1933 film -- and it's a magnificent touch. So is the shot of the life fading from Kong's eyes before he plummets from the Empire State Building. Jackson allowed his King to hold his ground. Bravo.
3. I've read some postings online by people who hated the movie because they could not accept the idea a woman could fall in love with a giant gorilla. Well, there's love and there is love. I had no trouble understanding that Ann bonds with Kong after witnessing the extent to which he was willing to protect her from harm (i.e., the T. Rex brood). This proved that she could be as assured of her safety in his company as she could be anywhere, whereas her own species had placed her in harm's way for commercial gain and would again; it was her open-hearted response to Kong's overwhelming show of love -- or, at least, devotion -- for her. I loved the way Kong made a show of his wounded pride afterwards by refusing to face her in his moment of victory; it was like he was reproaching her for everything he, a king in his world, had to endure because of her capricious decision to run away from him, and it's a fabulous moment when he forgives her by picking her up and flinging her onto his shoulder. In the midst of the Great Depression and unimaginable dangers, Kong becomes a Gibraltar-sized rock Ann can literally cling to. When she later climbs to the peak of the Empire State Building (another deal-breaker for some viewers), I can accept that she does this because she feels so safe in Kong's presence, even when he's vulnerable. She has already faced greater heights and dangers at his side. True, the top of the Empire State Building has got to be much less hospitable in wintertime than Jackson depicts it, but by this time in the movie, emotions should be overriding logic. This story is the very pinnacle of motion picture fantasy; if you need realism, find something with fewer people running away from dinosaurs.
4. I didn't catch a screen credit for him, but I believe that's Howard Shore who is seen conducting the orchestra at Kong's NYC debut. If it is him, his cameo must be painful to him now. How I would love to hear his rejected score! The James Newton Howard score that Jackson went with instead is, in a word, banal. It doesn't hurt the film, but neither does it lodge in the heart or memory.
5. Jack Black. Loved him in THE SCHOOL OF ROCK (which is always a "Stop" sign when I'm channel surfing), but I didn't for a moment buy him as a filmmaker familiar with or equal to danger, or as someone with any working knowledge of emotion, for that matter. Denham should love adrenalin more than money, and he should also know the worth of human lives. Black's Denham is a cardboard money-grubber with no gravitas in his voice whatsoever; he's a Denham for our times, I suppose, for which woe is us. Black's shallow characterization makes the new KING KONG one of the most virulently anti-capitalist films I've seen -- an odd achievement for one of the most expensive films ever made.
6. As thrilled and moved as I was by everything during the wonderfully dizzy-making Empire State Building sequence, I dreaded the coming of the movie's end because I knew Jack Black had some obligatory words to say at the end, and I knew he couldn't possibly say them without sounding like he was quoting the 1933 film. And that's exactly how it played out -- magnificent ESB sequence, followed by a wimpy, hollow sentiment. (What does this Denham know about beauty? He didn't even look at Ann as she passed back through the gate alive.) I know Jackson would think the idea a sacrilege, but believe the movie would have worked better if he'd cut the line -- or given his Denham a more appropriate one to say.
6.5. Speaking of the ESB sequence, the reveal of the biplanes actually made me gasp and wince at the same time. A stunning moment.
7. I love the way Adrien Brody carries Naomi Watts off the Empire State Building on his back, the way Kong slung her onto his shoulder after defeating the T. Rex. That sort of attention to character detail is one of the movie's most winning traits. The movie might have been wiser to fade to the end credits there, rather than fading to Black.
8. Note to cameraman Andrew Lesnie: Was all that arty, jagged, slow-motion crap really necessary? It takes the movie out of its 1930s milieu far worse than Adrien Brody's haircut does (a common complaint in the KONG threads on the Classic Horror Film Boards). During the Great Depression, I suspect that self-barbering was a fairly common practice... and if truth be told, writers as a species are not the world's most image-conscious people.
9. It's a beautiful, heart-rending, flawed movie, clearly the product of a mind that has spent years in awed contemplation of its themes both stated and unstated. It is KING KONG on an operatic scale. Many of its faults and excesses are the result of having loved the original too much. I'm eager to see it again, even though I felt the movie didn't really begin to work as a whole until the ship reached Skull Island. There is an antic energy in the early NYC material that doesn't work for me, and it's in most of Jackson's pre-Tolkein films, too. For all that, the apple-stealing scene is perfect.
10. Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody -- they're Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, right?
Monday, December 19, 2005
With this in mind, I'll be posting my own Top Ten DVDs of 2005 list, as well as those of as many of our regular reviewers as were able to participate.
Compiling my own list, I was reminded of why I hate them so much. I receive many more discs than I'm able to watch; consequently, I've seen far from everything, which admits a bias into the process pertaining to which releases I preferred to watch, or made time to watch. Furthermore, and perhaps even more damningly, my selections are limited to those releases I remembered to include. I must admit to including some titles in my early drafts that, on further investigation, turned out to be releases from late 2004.
One fact that was surely driven home by this project is that 2005 was an amazing year for home video. Even limiting the scope of our lists to horror and fantasy, the candidates seem endless. Quite a few of our most-wanted releases became realities this year, notably KING KONG (1933) , THE INNOCENTS, the Val Lewton and Bela Lugosi and Hammer sets, DANGER: DIABOLIK, Nicolas Roeg's BAD TIMING, Jess Franco's VENUS IN FURS, and the first season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. There were also countless, more marginal releases just as deserving of our attention and enthusiasm, like Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock's widescreen Toho titles, First Run Features' East European Sci-Fi set (including THE SILENT STAR, the original cut of the cult favorite FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS), and RetroSeduction Cinema's box set of Joe Sarno "Girl Meets Girl Trilogy" -- not to mention a wealth of astonishing import releases, including Tobis/UFA's eight box sets of Edgar Wallace krimis and three box sets of Karl May Westerns. It was actually discouraging for me to compile my list because there was no much that was worthy that could not be encompassed, even by appending my Top Ten with a paragraph of Honorable Mentions.
So stay tuned to Video WatchBlog for a parade of very, very, very difficult choices.
THE BLIND DEAD COLLECTION
TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD and
RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD – Replacement Discs
BLUE UNDERGROUND discovered a one-second audio dropout in the Spanish Version of TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, and a one-frame video/audio glitch in the Spanish Version of RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD, included in THE BLIND DEAD COLLECTION. The DVDs have been fixed and remastered.
Replacement DVDs are ready now should any customers wish to replace their discs. Please mail the Disc(s) Only (do not send the plastic case or coffin box) along with the Return Address to:
BLIND DEAD Replacement
11271 Ventura Boulevard #500
Studio City, CA 91604
Sunday, December 18, 2005
First of all, I received a classy early morning e-mail from "Cigarette Burns" writer Drew McWeeny saying that he thought my review of his MASTERS OF HORROR episode was "very fair." He was also complimentary about THROAT SPROCKETS and apologetic for inadvertently blocking the story idea I'd submitted to the show, which was certainly nobody's fault. Our mutual friend David J. Schow told me that Drew was one of the good guys, and his generous response to the blog below ("From the Desk of A. K. Meyers") is solid evidence of that. He didn't mention whether or not I truly was the model for the A. K. Meyers character, so I'll just go on savoring the many similarities, whether I'm deluding myself or not.
Secondly, Kim Aubry of ZAP Zoetrope Aubry Productions wrote to inform me that our collaboration (with John Phillip Law and Steve Bissette) on Paramount's DVD of DANGER: DIABOLIK has been selected by DVD Savant Glenn Erickson as his Number 1 choice for "The Most Impressive DVD of 2005"! This is a marvelous accolade, and a well-deserved, observant tribute to all the extra hard work that Kim applied to the project. We're hoping to get together on another project sometime in the New Year. You can read Savant's comments on DANGER: DIABOLIK and his other top DVD choices for 2005 here.
Let me say right away that no experienced writer is invulnerable to influence. I have probably been influenced on some level by every artist I've even half-liked, and perhaps by some I don't like much at all; I don't believe creative people have a conscious choice in which colors stick to their palette. Therefore, while elements of THROAT SPROCKETS are visible in "Cigarette Burns," I would never accuse Messrs. McWeeny and Swan of deliberately trying to copy me on that basis. In retrospect, though I certainly didn't intend it, I must admit that aspects of THROAT SPROCKETS were influenced by David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME, which is not merely a film I saw but a film that I lived, as someone who was a guest on the set for nine days and who spent a further year of his life researching and writing about it. The notion of image as a weapon, which resurfaces in "Cigarette Burns," is one of the things my novel absorbed as a result of my personal exposure to VIDEODROME -- and I also know that Cronenberg absorbed the notion from his own reading of William S. Burroughs, who wrote about image as virus and contagion. Burroughs was probably riffing on an idea he absorbed from a writer before him. Long before Burroughs' NAKED LUNCH, Manet's painting "Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe" (a landscape depicting a literal "naked lunch") scandalized Parisian society and was branded as obscene. I once had occasion to bring this to Burroughs' attention and he told me he was surprised that he had never noticed the parallel before, nor had anyone previously brought it to his attention. He liked the idea of his NAKED LUNCH carrying Manet's baton, so to speak. Suffice to say that even Shakespeare, in his time, said there's nothing new under the sun.
Some of the specific parallels I noticed between THROAT SPROCKETS and "Cigarette Burns"... Both titles are aggressive sounding and refer to punctures or impressions on 35mm film strips. The "cigarette burns" in this MOH episode are analogous to the "splices" in my novel, which herald jumps in time and blackouts in the narrative. My mysterious director/terrorist character Sadilsa is credited not only with the imaginary film THROAT SPROCKETS, but with another called LONGUE VERIFICATION FINAL AVANT DE LANCER UN PROJECTILE DANS L'ESPACE, which is a very long-winded French way of saying "Countdown" (literally, "Extended, Last Minute Verification Before the Firing of a Missile Into Space"). In "Cigarette Burns," the imaginary movie LA FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE (a wonderful title) is described as "a bullet," which is a kind of missile fired into space. The wings of an Angel figure prominently in this episode, and there is a pivotal appearance by a winged Devil in my book (it was Gahan Wilson's favorite part, I remember). The scene of the hooded film collector filming himself as he inflicts damage on the throat of a woman bound to a chair is very much like the climactic eureka of my book, involving the Glover and the Dark Lady; indeed, if a film is ever made of THROAT SPROCKETS, I'll likely be accused of copying McWeeny and Swan when it reaches that scene.
Another thing: Is it possible that the screenwriters were actually caricaturing me to some extent with their character of A. K. Meyers? (Carpenter supposedly renamed the character, who was named "Peter Dunnigan" in the original script. That's "Dunnigan" as in Donnie Dunagan, who played "Peter" von Frankenstein in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN -- the subject of Tom Weaver's Rondo-winning cover story of VIDEO WATCHDOG #112.) This A. K. Meyers is depicted as a reclusive genre film critic (like me), known for writing lengthy essays on foreign and obscure cinema (like me), who is found sitting in his home surrounded by thousands of pages of an unpublished 30-year project his obsession won't allow him to finish. (Well... I kind of wish I'd been asked to play the part!)
Before I say what I thought of the episode, I should cop to the fact that I had a chip or two on my shoulder going in. Hoping to write for MASTERS OF HORROR myself, I submitted an original treatment on a similar theme to one of the show's producers a few months ago. My story was about a legendary lost horror film and its grip on the imaginations of a group of horror buffs, some of whom were quite deranged. My offering (which gave me chills as I typed the last paragraph) was turned down... because MOH had already committed to film this script, so all their needs for scripts on the topic of "lost" and/or "forbidden" movies were filled. In addition to knowing that my best shot at writing something genuinely scary for MOH had been deflected by this script, I also heard rumors beforehand that there might be some THROAT SPROCKETS parallels, which made me feel all the more guarded and annoyed.
As it turns out, I found "Cigarette Burns" to be one of the most enjoyable MOH episodes. The first act was very perusasive and seductive; the dialogue is very knowing, I loved the props of Bellinger's (Udo Kier's) film collection, and also the bit about the projectionist stealing a frame from PROFONDO ROSSO ("Dude, it's Argento -- gotta have it!"). But whenever the story turned to its subplot, about protagonist Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus, pictured above with Kier) being haunted by his dead heroin addict girlfriend and bullied by her father, I could feel the episode hemorrhaging relevance and myself hemorrhaging interest. When dealing with obsession, it's a mistake to make the object of obsession anything less than constant and overriding. Secondary characters are not a good idea unless they share or reinforce the central obsession.
After the first act, I felt the episode lost its direction and had no idea of where to go. The introduction of the Angel, especially so early in the story, was too fantastic, too much of a WTF moment; its role in the story, which I found poignant and provocative, is never as clear as it needed to be. The gory bit with the Asian manservant poking out his eyes I found embarrassing. But most embarrassing of all is that the long-lost print of LA FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE, which no other collector had been able to track down, was ultimately found sitting in plain sight on a film rack in the late director's home editing suite! For Chrissakes, it's the first place anyone would look! It was also a serious error not to end the episode with Udo Kier's fabulous, climactic coup de theâtre; the episode continues on for several more minutes, none of which add anything of value to the story, even dragging the dead girl's father back in (where'd he come from?) for no apparent purpose.
Despite these faults, Udo Kier used this episode as an opportunity to achieve greatness. He's nothing short of fabulous here. It was wonderful to see him playing not just another cold Germanic bureaucrat, but a role that treats him like the star he is, acknowledging his history as an actor for the likes of R. W. Fassbinder, Michael Armstrong, and Paul Morrissey. His final act with the film projector is a wonderful tip of the hat to the outrageous deaths in the final reel of FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, in which Udo starred over 30 years ago. His casting is a potent reminder that some of the greatest "Masters of Horror" are actors, and more of them should be showcased on this program while they're still among us.
As for John Carpenter, I haven't cared for anything he's done since THEY LIVE (1988) -- I actually cringed for the screenwriters when his, alas, customary possessory credit faded in over the episode's title. Nevertheless, I have to say that "Cigarette Burns" is the most engaging, intriguing, and successful film he's made since PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987), so congratulations are due.
Sure, it's annoying (not to mention ironic) that my original story proposal got knocked out of the running by a script that spends a goodly amount of time reiterating or riffing on something I wrote. But ultimately, "Cigarette Burns" doesn't pre-empt my novel any more than THE RING (also quoted by McWeeny and Swan) did. I still think THROAT SPROCKETS itself could turn the movie or cable TV world on its ear, if given half a chance.
Until that day comes, at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that something I published more than a decade ago is still resonating in the genre, influencing a new generation of writers. It's gratifying, but I envy their opportunity.
Just have to keep working harder, I guess!