Saturday, February 18, 2006

Pretty Paper

You see here a rather fuzzy jpg of the Spanish poster for Riccardo Freda's THE WHITE WARRIOR [Agi Murad il diavolo bianco, 1958], a film photographed by Mario Bava. I spent many a pretty peso to acquire this poster when it appeared on eBay some years ago, and it's one of my favorite pieces of Bava-related poster art. This jpg is fuzzy, but the poster will be sharp and stunning to the eye when it opens the chapter pertaining to that film in my book, MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK.

Poster art is on my mind today. Let me explain why.

To backtrack... As I mentioned yesterday, we're presently working on standarizing what we call the "credits blocks" of the Bava book's main chapters -- you can see what I mean by this by visiting the Bava book site and checking out the second spread of the DANGER: DIABOLIK spread we have posted there as a sample. I originally compiled all the credits off the screen, and added other credits when and if I could find them, so we have decided to standardize the order of the credits to make them easier to read for reference. In doing this, I noticed that I had the distributors listed for some foreign release titles, but not all.

So it fell to me late yesterday afternoon to pull out all of my Bava poster/pressbooks/lobby cards, items hailing from around the world, and open them, one by one, making a record of the full name of each distributor (when possible -- would you believe that some Italian posters list NO distributor?); the correct foreign release title (thus ensuring the title was, say, 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON rather than FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON in, say, the UK or Australia); cast anomalies (did you know that the star of HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON is credited as "Steve Forsyth" on the Italian posters, but as "Stephen Forsyth" on the posters from every other country?); the brand of color and scope ratio specified (these actually differ on the same titles from country to country, a tip-off to some countries that cheaped out on the color processing); and, when possible, the name of the poster artist for specifying in the captions.

And people ask, "Why is the book taking so long?"

To Donna's surprise, and my own, I finished this task around 4:00 a.m. She expected it would take me at least a couple of days, but I threw my back into it and was determined to put the task behind me, stopping only briefly to have some soup. It was equal parts pleasure and pain to open each of the posters (some of them quite large) on the dining room table; pleasure because it was nice to see them again, and because there is a definite tactile satisfaction that comes from handling and smelling old posters, especially old French stone lithographs; and pain because I was reminded or made aware of little tears in some of them -- a stunning Italian due-foglia (two-sheet) poster for Gli invasori [US: ERIK THE CONQUEROR, or THE INVADERS] actually separated and fell into pieces as it was being photographed for the book, and I handled its tattered pieces especially lovingly. There is also the pain of regret where these posters are concerned; I'd need a whole second houseful of wall space to show off even a portion of them properly. But all I can offer most of them is a protective sleeve and repose in a Tupperware coffin. Donna asked if I'll be selling the posters once the book is published, and I really don't know; I'd like to use the collection, which encompasses all of popular Italian horror and fantasy cinema, to create or illustrate more books... but this one has been such a killer, neither of us is feeling too eager to rush into another project like this.

My job today is to organize the seven pages of legal pad scribblings that resulted from yesterday's labors on my computer, and then drop the information into the layout for Donna to insert. So I'd better get to it.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Bulletin from the Bava Trenches

Sorry to keep the WatchBlog's regular visitors in suspense, but the Bava book is keeping me very busy at present. I got a spare minute to steal away because Donna's on the phone with a customer. Yesterday, after staring at an outdated final page for so many hours that my eyes began to sting and my forehead began to break out in little beads of blood, I finally succeeded in writing the final, final page of the the final chapter, a little after 2:00 a.m. Today, we're standardizing some of the minutiae in the captions and the order in which crew jobs will be presented in the credits blocks -- all tedious but necessary work. Also, it appears that Donna accidentally spell-checked all references to Schock and changed them to Shock, which needs to be undone throughout the book, case-by-case. Once all this is behind us, we move on to the layout of the book's front (forewords, introduction, legends) and back matter (filmographies, bibliography, references, videography, discography, indeces, acknowledgements) -- mostly Donna's work, but I'll be involved too in the selection of the graphics that will accompany the text. It's an exciting time.

One last thing: Don't forget to vote in the Rondo awards! I believe today is "Rondo Eve," so time is running out. Don't worry about voting in every category, and if your favorites aren't on the ballot, write 'em in! Pop on over to www.rondoaward.com and cast your ballot now!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Happy 92nd to Kevin McCarthy!

... who shares a birthday with Sax Rohmer, Georges Auric, Gale Sondergaard, Harold Arlen, Mary Jane Croft, Claire Bloom, Florinda Bolkan, Dennis Skotak, Marie Liljedahl, Matt Groening, and "the other Harvey"... Harvey Korman! (Quite a mix, n'est-ce pas?)

This shot was taken at a dinner that Donna and I were pleased to share with Kevin, Joe Dante, Tom Weaver, Frank Dietz, and others at Wonderfest a few years ago. I hope you're having a great one, Kevin, and may the Grey Goose smile generously on your olives!

I Dream of Harvey

A conversation between Donna and me, upon awakening. I'm still in bed, and she's coming into our bedroom after showering and dressing, looking for her shoes.

T: I dreamed we had to go to the dentist. We couldn't go at the same time for some reason, so they had to send a driver for me. When the driver came, it turned out to be Harvey Keitel.

D: I see. It's what he does during the off-season.

T: Right. Anyway, he turns out to be a quiet guy, not a chatterbox like he is in the movies. Stoic. We get to the dentist and it turns out to be a new location. The parking lot looks like the one between Sebastian's and Blockbuster, but the stores are all different. Harvey and I stay in the parking lot, like that's the waiting area... and you know how dreams are, the waiting area is in the parking lot and inside the dentist's office at the same time. I'm sitting there, and suddenly I can hear our car. I look out the window, which is the window of the office and the window of the car, and I can see you outside at the traffic light.

D: Oh, my.

T: And I think, "Boy, I hope she doesn't get lost trying to find this new place and drives right past it!" The light changes and off you go. Maybe it was my anxiety about you getting lost, but I turn to Harvey, who's still behind his steering wheel with his back turned to me, there in the waiting room, and I say, "You know, I'd kind of like to find a restroom before I have to go in to my appointment. Where's the restroom in this place?" Harvey says to me, irritably, that there isn't one.

D: Uh-oh.

T: "What?" I say. "My dentist moves from his perfectly okay former office to a new place and he didn't even check out beforehand if it had a restroom for his patients?" Harvey shrugs. He's reading a paper now. "If you gotta go," he says, "take your problem across the street over there to the orphanage." I look across the street and, sure enough, there's an orphanage over there. But I tell Harvey, "Look, I'm not 'taking my problem' over there. Hey, I like my dentist and everything, but I'm sorry -- this is a deal-breaker!" Harvey shrugs.

D: He's stoic.

T: Right, not like he is in the movies. Anyway, then suddenly you were there, you found it to the new office allright, and... and that's all I can remember. I can't remember where the dream went from there. I forgot while I was telling it. Hell... (buries head in pillow)

D: So, are you gonna get up and make me some coffee before I have to go to the store?

T: (groans, not ready to get up)

D: Okie-doke, I'll make some instant.

T: (emerging) No no no. I can't have you drinking instant. I'll get up! (I get up and throw on a robe. Donna is already in her shoes and skipping downstairs. I call after her.) I know how much you like the gourmet, expensive stuff. When you drink your coffee, you like to taste it. No instant for you! I'll make you coffee that's so good, even Harvey would taste it and do a double-take!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Criterion Sunday, Anyone?

It's St. Valentine's Day, so it is only fitting that I should write something today about love as I know it. With this noble goal in mind, let me say that I don't know about the rest of you, but my Significant Other has much stricter views than I on what constitutes an acceptable evening's Entertainment. With her, it has to be new -- or at least in color -- and preferably "about relationships." No horror, thank you. And no subtitles, "because I've spent all day looking at words on a screen and now I want to relax."

My wish is to serve. Unfortunately, most of what we are sent for review is contradictory to my Wife's pleasure, so it usually takes me a minimum of thirty minutes of humorous offstage crashes as I rifle through bankers' boxes before I can find some oddball release that at least halfway meets her criteria... and then she watches my prize catch while sewing, scrabbling noisily through a nearby drawer in search of a lost thimble, looking at a quilting magazine, or delighting at the antics of our cats as they tussle in front of the TV screen. In the meantime, I'm watching whatever it is 100 per cent. But I am, as they say, a man in love.

We recently had one of these "entertain me" evenings, my Spouse and I, and the luck of the draw -- something acceptably recent (1990), a "relationship movie," in color, no subtitles -- turned out to be a recent offering from Criterion, Whit Stillman's METROPOLITAN. I'd never heard of the film and didn't know what to expect from it, but, as I should have expected from the Criterion endorsement, it turned out to be a sheer, unalloyed delight. An independent, low-budget film shot in New York City, METROPOLITAN was a "first film" for nearly everyone involved, but through some curious means, the end result is remarkably close to perfection. It might best be compared to a Woody Allen movie without Woody Allen's grandstanding neuroses being channeled by the entire cast list, or an Eric Rohmer movie set outside France, or an F. Scott Fitzgerald story set in a Manhattan he never lived to see.

The story, in short, is about a middle-class leftist named Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) who is serendipitously falls into the company of a group of upper class while exiting New York's Plaza Hotel at the height of Christmas debutante season. Tom doesn't approve of debutante parties, or the class snobbery they encourage, but he finds his conversation with these people invigorating and is persuaded to invest in a used tuxedo and tail coat to continue as an escort to Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina). Audrey, who finds Tom more substantial than other guys she's met, finds herself falling for Tom -- but Tom's heart is still tied to the girl who broke it -- Serena Slocomb (Elizabeth Thompson), who re-emerges at one of these gatherings in the company of Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), a young baron whose selfish, womanizing ways are rumored to have driven at least one lovesick admirer to suicide.

Cast entirely with talented unknowns, including some who had never considered acting before, METROPOLITAN is one of the most sublimely written, dryly humorous, and engagingly well-cast American movies I've seen in a long time. (Stillman's original screenplay was recognized with an Academy Award nomination.) It's easy to see how Tom is drawn to these people and "the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie" (the subject of a hilarious sidebar), against his own ideals, and comes to relax some of his personal, social, and even literary biases. Another of the film's engaging qualities is that it never reveals its time frame -- it takes place "not so long ago" -- so that, even if we can't personally relate to the characters' way of socializing, we can accept that these events took place in another recent era. Indeed, some young people watching the film might roll their eyes at the notion that anyone could call sitting around and debating politics, philosophy or books "a party," but these parties are like some great ones I can remember attending in the 1970s. Today's parties (at least the ones in the movies I see) are all about getting wasted; yesterday's parties were about stimulation -- the stimulation of new ideas and new friendships, possibly new romances. I presume the film's time frame is sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, as Stillman brought a few of the actors and their characters back for fleeting glimpses in his late '70s-situated THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998) -- a film I now need to see again.

Criterion's high-definition transfer of the film is splendid, needless to say. The extras include an interesting an informative audio commentary by Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen, and actors Chris Eigeman (who plays Nick, the "abrasive" one) and Taylor Nichols (who plays Charlie, the bespectacled and anxious one -- my favorite of the film's characters); an outtakes montage; a memorial to a key crew member; and an illustrated booklet built around an essay by Luc Sante.

Discovering METROPOLITAN reminded me of one of home video's most enduring rules of thumb: When all else fails, trust Criterion. In fact, with their backlog of DVD titles now topping 300, one could easily devote oneself entirely to Criterion for the better part of a year and come out the other end a more experienced, more fully rounded connoisseur of film. In my line of work, it's all too easy to get side-tracked and bogged-down by other, frankly lesser movies and lose track of some of the things that are truly important. There are nights when I, too, tell myself I'm not "feeling up to subtitles" or coming to grips with unfamiliar world cultures -- but what I'm failing to remember when I think these things is how invigorating the discovery of a real masterpiece can be.

With this in mind, I'm entertaining the idea of setting aside one day per week to catch up with my Criterion viewing -- "a Criterion Sunday," perhaps. I usually have things to watch on Sunday evening (new SOPRANOS and HUFF episodes are just around the corner), but a Sunday afternoon... Now that might be perfect -- kind of like playing hooky and going to church at the same time!

If my "Criterion Sunday" idea sounds good to you, be sure to include METROPOLITAN as one of the titles you should visit along the way.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Bad Times for Korean Cinema

My friends at Tartan Video Extreme sent me this press release today, which should be of concern to anyone who, like myself, feels that some of the best films being made today are coming out of Korea. I've never used this blog as a billboard for press releases or political statements before, and I don't intend to make a habit of it. But, in this case, I felt the news was relevant to the interests of those who read Video Watchdog:

Korean Cinema at a Crossroads
South Korean government drops screentime quota for domestic films
"Oldboy" director and star return Cultural Merit medals to Korean government in protest


LOS ANGELES — Feb. 1, 2006 — The Korean government is betting that homegrown cinema will continue to flourish without the safety of a screen quota system that has protected the Korean domestic film industry since 1966. Local actors, directors and moviegoers aren’t quite so optimistic and are protesting their displeasure with significant public gestures.

Established to help the Korean film market grow from its humble beginnings into the worldwide cinematic hotbed it is today, the quota requires Korean cinemas to show Korean films for 146 days of the year. Starting July 1st, that number will be reduced to 73. The reduction had been demanded for years by the US government as a key condition for free trade negotiations, but its implementation has not been well received by many, including some of the biggest filmmaking names in Korean cinema.

“The government's decision to cut the quotas is equivalent to giving up our culture,'' said Choi Min Sik, star of Crying Fist, Lady Vengeance and the immensely popular Korean film Oldboy.

Choi recently returned his Cultural Merit medal, a prestigious award which honors Korean artists, to protest the quota system. “The medal was personally my pride and honor,'' Choi told reporters in Seoul. “Now it is a symbol of the government's betrayal. I don't need a medal from a country that chooses to stamp on our own cultural rights.''

In addition to Choi, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance director Park Chanwook, currently preparing to promote his latest film Lady Vengeance at the Berlin Film Festival, also returned his medal and commented that he will voice his concerns further at the festival. Tae Guk Gi and The Coast Guard star Jang Dong-gun has also come forward to voice his opposition.

Korean Filmmakers and artists are not the only ones expressing their displeasure. A group of South Korean lawmakers are currently seeking legislation to maintain the country's current quota for the screening of domestic movies, claiming the government's compromise deal with the United States is humiliating.

Korean cinema has witnessed unheralded success the world over in recent years. A Tale of Two Sisters was one of the ten highest-grossing horror films worldwide in 2004. Oldboy received the Grand Prize of the Jury at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Korean cinema has made giant crossroads into America on the success of the Asian horror genre as well as the unique style of its filmmakers.

"This is not a fight only for ourselves,” Choi told reporters. “We are fighting for living between the Korean and American movies and cultures. Oldboy would not have existed without the screening quota.”

Oldboy, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Coast Guard are available now on DVD from Tartan Asia Extreme. Tae Guk Gi is available now on DVD from Sony Home Entertainment.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Revel in Evelyn

There is a mind set prevailing, even among those of us who have HD television and should know better, that there is only so much that old black-and-white movies can deliver in high-definition. When Monsters HD premiered THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) last weekend, I watched them both and came away pleased, but with mixed feelings -- the sort of mixed feelings that become possible after you've lived with HD television long enough to begin to accept it as commonplace.

There is no denying that both films looked better than ever, even better than on DVD, as HD decompresses the visual information. But SON looked better than BRIDE... possibly because it was a richer-looking production, and possibly because the art of cinematography had advanced in that four-year difference. I could even see, for the first time in SON, the slender black wires supporting the weight of Bela Lugosi's Ygor as Boris Karloff's Monster carried him to the family crypt, but I can't say that I noticed anything new in terms of nuances of performance. As wonderful as these films are, they are played pretty broadly; you can "get" all their performances have to offer in low-def. BRIDE and SON were fun to watch in HD, but when all is said and done, neither presentation really knocked me out.

The K.O. came last night, when Monsters HD celebrated the 100th birthday of Lon Chaney, Jr. by premiering Universal's THE WOLF MAN (1941) and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1942). I found the further advance represented by the look of these two films almost startling. They shared with the two Frankenstein films a heightened sense of detail, which brought all of the grace notes buried in the art direction and set decoration to the forefront, but what I found most impressive was their heightened sense of depth, emotion, and temperature.

I never realized it until now, but much of THE WOLF MAN is filmed on studio sets with vast floors, both interior and exterior; the whole look of the film is a celebration of image in depth. A shot of Evelyn Ankers running through the woods, which in a duller presentation one's senses easily reduce to the essential information of her action, is now like watching a beautiful woman who once lived and breathed running through the cinematic equivalent of a magnificent painting. We sense that it must have been a delightful moment for her to perform, as a professional. The fogbound studio sets are a marvel of depth with their receding trees, shafts of light, and rolling fog.

As one might expect, one does tend to see better all the individual yak hairs on Chaney's face, but also hidden recesses of performance. To watch Chaney's performance as Lawrence Talbot in HD is to see much of its seeming bluntness smoothed away. True, he wasn't the actor whom screenwriter Curt Siodmak envisioned when he wrote Talbot as the prodigal son of an old English family and had him using expressions like "chap," but Chaney had an expressive face, the necessary inner turmoil, and the talent needed to convey all the tragic dimensions of the character and story. And then there's the diminutive Maria Ouspenskaya as the gypsy woman Maleva. In my earliest acquaintence with these movies, I can remember thinking that Madame Ouspenskaya was not the most expressive actress in the world. No, she doesn't make a meal of the scenery like some of her co-stars, but seeing her performances in high-def, one can better understand her mastery of film acting technique. She was calibrating her performance to the sensitivity of the camera lens and trusting it to deliver the emotions she was projecting on a more intimate keel. Seen in HD, closer to the readability of a 35mm big screen viewing, Ouspenskaya's Maleva is pitch-perfect: tremulous, fearful, brave, and wearily wise to the mysteries of the world. Even the sound quality is improved, making her muttered dialogue more easily understood.

Another of the uncanny things one can pick up from THE WOLF MAN in HD is a hint of body heat. For example, the scene in THE WOLF MAN where Lawrence Talbot (Chaney), under the boughs of a tree, gifts Gwen Conliffe (Ankers) with the medallion given to him by Maleva; Gwen says she was taught never to accept presents without giving one in return and offers him a penny for it, and Larry says it's not enough -- moving in for a kiss. Their kiss is interrupted before it gets started, but the blossoming of detail in this scene awakens its intended, long-dormant sense of intimacy and makes it surprisingly hot to watch.

Monsters HD general manager David Sehring knows and loves these movies, and one can see his awareness of their chronology and content in the fact that THE WOLF MAN was booked to be shown in tandem with its direct sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. The opening graveyard scene where Chaney is revived in his tomb by a couple of unsuspecting graverobbers, long a top favorite among Universal buffs, is beautifully revitalized in HD. The exterior crane shots come alive in vivid detail -- blowing leaves, twitching trees and a lone crow; when the wind picks up, as one of the graverobbers runs away, the shot conveys a similar thrill to the coming of the tornado in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Inside the Talbot family crypt, one can more clearly read the names on the surrounding name plates inside the Talbot crypt, including one for Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains' character from the earlier film) and another for Lawrence and Anne Talbot, presumably the Wolf Man's grandparents. Seeing the two films en suite like this, one can also better appreciate the ironic arc they represent, as Chaney's character is initially infected with lycanthropy by Bela Lugosi, then seeks the answer to deliverance from this curse from the Frankenstein Monster, whose makeup is worn in the second picture by none other than Lugosi.

In short, Monsters HD gave Lon Chaney, Jr. the best possible present for his centenary. They gave his body of work a new lease on life. And so let it be said:

"Even someone so impure in heart as to shun films in black-and-white may become a fan if they watch Monsters on VOOM, where the picture's so sharp and bright."

PS: Since we last remarked on Monsters HD's introduction of the onscreen station bug, they have further reduced its frequency to only once per hour, so it now appears only once in any film they are presently broadcasting. We thank them for being so responsive to the wishes of their viewers!