Saturday, December 18, 2010

Don Van Vliet 1941-2010

"I'm goin' up on the mountain and find me a cave and talk those bears into takin' me in..."
-- Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), "Wild Life" (1969)

A word on the importance of Captain Beefheart.

When I was 16, I was in a bad way: my best friend had committed suicide and my own homelife was becoming unliveable. It crossed my mind more than once that it might be more convenient for all concerned if I wasn't around anymore. Then one morning, I awoke with one clear thought in mind: "I am going to have to start listening to some f****ed-up music."

And so I began to embrace sounds I could not bring myself to embrace before. I started listening to Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, The Mothers of Invention, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges... bands that tapped into emotions that were not traditionally musical -- and I believe hearing those edgier feelings expressed musically, literally saved my life. They also opened my ears to new textures, contours and concepts of beauty.

Beefheart's music may sound crazy to some of you, but it became my refuge from something much crazier. More than any teacher I had, his work taught me to think like an artist and how to use language like paint.

I shared this life-saving confession earlier tonight with a friend, and she wrote back to me, "We should all be so lucky to say that we served such a purpose in this life."

So, thank you, Don, for being the bear on the mountain who took me in -- and godspeed.

Friday, December 17, 2010

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2010: John Charles

John Charles, of course, is VIDEO WATCHDOG's Associate Editor, the author of THE HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY, 1977-1997 (McFarland), and host of the website Hong Kong Digital. He has chosen to divvy his list between a "Best" and an alphabetical arrangement of "The Rest." - TL

By John Charles


Home entertainment has never been more high tech and special features have never been more pervasive, but this superb 3 disc set reminds one of how important it is to support the independent specialty labels. A true labor of love and admirably comprehensive, this is an excellent documentation of how British Right Wing politicians and their allies manufactured a horror videos “moral crisis” to help divert public attention from their own monumental policy failures.

THE REST (alphabetical):

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010; Disney Blu-ray)
I was surprised by all the negative reviews for this Tim Burton fantasy, which ranks among his most exquisitely styled, well cast and satisfying works. It was also the only post-production conversion feature released in 2010 to have anything approaching acceptable 3-D (and is also available on a separate Blu-ray release in that format).

I adore 1930s old dark house mysteries and Larry Blamire’s satirical tribute features the look, casting, and creaky plotting of someone who loves them as much as I do.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Alliance Films Canada Blu-ray)
Some have expressed disappointment in the second and third entries in this trilogy and I suspect it has a lot to do with just how forceful and enthralling this initial instalment is. Noomi Rapace is fascinating as the titular anti-heroine and watching her character across three movies gave me 7 ½ hours of cinematic bliss.

THE RED SHOES (Criterion Blu-ray)
I have never screened THE RED SHOES in black and white, but I’m sure it would still be superb. In color, it is a ravishingly beautiful experience and the recent restoration is skilfully rendered on this stunning disc.

While well past the target age, I could not help but be charmed by the infectious energy and visual invention on display throughout virtually every moment of this Edgar Wright confection. It is also a wonderful visual treat for those who love Toronto.

SHUTTER ISLAND (Paramount Blu-ray)
People have complained about how obvious the twist in this film is, but it should be obvious to anyone who has seen the trailer. The point was never the mystery, but the opportunity for Martin Scorsese to indulge in a deep and meaningful character study; on that level, coupled with his superb directorial technique and fine performances from the principles, it is a complete success.

SPLICE (E1 Canada Blu-ray)
It goes off the rails in the final reel and overdoes the splatter in one sequence, but Vincenzo Natali’s refreshingly intelligent science fiction/horror thriller depicts basic moral issues of experimentation in frank terms that few filmmakers have dared in the past. It is also wonderfully Canadian in the best Cronenbergian sense.

STAR CRASH (Shout! Factory Blu-ray)
My favorite to date of Shout!’s Roger Corman Cult Classics line offers Luigi Cozzi’s campy sci-fi cult classic in a surprisingly elaborate special edition release that certainly won’t disappoint fans who have been waiting a very long time for this sort of loving celebration.

TOY STORY 3 (Disney Blu-ray)
Another superb effort from Pixar, TOY STORY 3 once again bucks the sequel curse, seeming entirely fresh, appealing and witty (it’s part prison movie send-up and a very good one at that), with the sort of dazzling animation we have come to expect from this company (though as with UP, there is no reason to watch this movie in 3-D). For all of 2010’s vivid horror imagery, Big Baby is still the creepiest thing I have seen all year.

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2010: Kim Newman

Kim Newman contributes to a great many publications in addition to VW, in addition to other authorly duties, and in response to our request for his list of year-end favorites, he rightly pointed out that such a list by him appears in the current issue of SIGHT & SOUND -- "and almost all the things I picked were on other folks' lists." That said, he did agree to list some additional Honorable Mentions on DVD, all of which (like he) hail from the UK. Kim's most recent books are the excellent HORROR! 333 FILMS TO SCARE YOU TO DEATH (co-written with James Marriiott, Carlton) and forthcoming appended reissues of his ANNO DRACULA series. - TL

By Kim Newman

The UK BluRay from Optimum of THE GUILLERMO DEL TORO COLLECTION (CRONOS, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE and PAN'S LABYRINTH) - subtitled, and with a pop-up labyrinth in the packaging.

The ongoing releases, also from Optimum, of THE AVENGERS on DVD in significantly improved versions: SEASON FOUR (black and white) and FIVE (colour) collect Diana Rigg's tenure on the show, and arguably the height of its achievement. Even the lesser episodes sparkle with wit and invention.

Lesser-known genre or fringe genre TV releases from Network - SHADOWS, a children's ghost story anthology from the 1970s, and THE GUARDIANS, dystopian ITV science fiction from the same period with remarkably sophisitcated politics.

Kudos to Odeon Entertainment for its BEST OF BRITISH COLLECTION, making rare titles available on DVD - though the transfers haven't always been great: THREE CASES OF MURDER, RETURN OF A STRANGER, STRIPTEASE MURDER, COVER GIRL KILLER/LIFE IN DANGER.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2010: Eric Somer

This list compiles the selections of Eric Somer, who has been contributing reviews to VW since sometime in 2008. Eric studied journalism at Central Michigan University and works for Family Video in Glenview, IL. He is presently working on a book about prize fighting in the cinema, and we expect it will be a knock-out. - TL

By Eric Somer

*NOTE: I stubbornly ignored multi-film sets this year in the interest of establishing a more level playing field.

1. PSYCHO: 50th Anniversary Edition (Universal)
Start naming the greatest films of all time, and then start compiling the greatest horror films of all time. Next, how many films could conceivably top both lists? That third list would have to be brief, but Universal’s new Blu-ray treatment of PSYCHO prepares further evidence that the Hitchcock classic is the greatest cinematic achievement of all time, and thus the greatest horror film of all time. To watch PSYCHO on a large monitor in its most pristine state to date—and with a crisp new 5.1 digital audio track for those interested—is to re-discover every close-up, every acting nuance, every camera movement, every reason why audiences were so taken back upon the film’s original theatrical run, and every reason why the experience holds up remarkably well today, despite countless imitations, including a pointless shot-for-shot remake. Though the supplements are mostly common to prior editions, this new 1080p transfer necessitates the upgrade, regardless of how many times you have purchased/rented/borrowed/lost PSYCHO already.

The elaborate supplemental documentary “Charles Laughton Directs THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER” offers immense ammunition for those who buy into the auteur theory. Some critics have dismissed the once popular school of thought based on the notion that filmmaking is a collaborative process, which it is, but this collection of dailies makes it clear Laughton was not looking for a lot of advice. He obviously had a rigid, predetermined mental image of every sequence, right down to the delivery of each line of dialogue, which he obsessively forced actors to repeat until he was 100% satisfied (he was particularly tough on Shelley Winters and 10-year-old actor Billy Chapin). Can’t really argue with the results, of course. The lone directorial effort from Laughton is a tremendous addition to The Criterion Collection. It’s a shame Laughton never offered a follow up to his hauntingly beautiful fairy tale noir, in which “false prophet” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) menaces a little boy (Chapin) and girl (Sally Jane Bruce) in pursuit of stolen money. All films are about good vs. evil, but nobody describes it quite like Powell (Spike Lee paid tribute to Mitchum with one of his characters from DO THE RIGHT THING). You might chuckle when Willa Harper (Winters) proclaims she is “quivering with cleanness,” but those words strikingly anticipate her last scene, which is no laughing matter. Considering the film’s original release was in 1955, this was probably the most expressionistic noir film of its decade other than, perhaps, TOUCH OF EVIL. This restored digital transfer is available in both Blu-ray and 2-disc DVD editions.

3. MOON (Sony)
Though settings may be futuristic, sci-fi dramatics almost always revolve around present-day concerns, like the exploitation of the working class. In this rendition of the future, the harvesting of Helium-3 capsules via lunar rock on the dark side of the moon has resolved all of earth’s fossil fuel-based energy issues. A presumably large corporate entity oversees the mining operation from earth, keeping expenses under control by reducing the need for human labor to an absolute minimum—all site work is handled by a lone worker (Sam Rockwell), who is contractually bound to a three-year stint (as in METROPOLIS, workers become extensions of their machines). His only companion is a robot named GERTY (memorably voiced by Kevin Spacey). The film’s resolution juxtaposes a proletarian call to action with nightmarish plutocratic realities. Watch it with a friend and rest assured there will be a lot to discuss later. Sony’s presentation of this impressive feature film debut from Duncan Jones (the son of David Bowie) is enriched by multiple audio commentary tracks. Reviewed in VW # 156 by Michael Barrett.

I reviewed this not-to-be-missed Werner Herzog/Nic Cage teaming in VW #157. The First Look Studios Blu-ray might be the most affordable HD option in my Top 10.

5. THE AFRICAN QUEEN (Paramount)
Better late than never, right? At least Paramount treats the U.S. digital bow of THE AFRICAN QUEEN with an awareness of the film’s many fans. The Commemorative Box Set Blu-ray edition, though alarmingly pricey, looks oh-so-cool in one’s assortment of, well, other expensive gift set purchases. It includes a separate audio CD with the original Lux radio broadcast of THE AFRICAN QUEEN, four 35mm frames that illustrate the Technicolor process, lobby card reproductions, a “making of” special feature, and a miniature paperback copy of “The Making of THE AFRICAN QUEEN” by Katharine Hepburn, and of course a restored presentation of the entertaining adventure itself. For whatever reason, I still crack up when Rose (Hepburn) admits to Mr. Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) she needs help getting back into the boat after bathing.

6. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, Music Box)
David Fincher indeed seems the logical choice to helm the remake of this intense Swedish thriller, but the original might be tough to match in light of the unforgettable performance from Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander. Given the forceful, sometimes shocking narrative material that informs this elaborate search for a girl who long ago vanished, the concluding moments are surprisingly heartwarming and reassuring, a testament to the development of characters worth paying attention to. David Kalat’s full VW review can be found in VW #159.

Now available for the first time on domestic home video. Film noir fans are well-advised to snap up VCI Entertainment's welcome remastering of this excellent example of the genre as it existed in the Fifties. Broderick Crawford and Richard Conte offer performances that serve to underline their respective careers, and the hardboiled dialog is top-notch. My full review can be found in VW #159.

It’s this year’s MARTYRS in terms of gross-out factor—your stomach will have to be in tip-top shape at certain “I wish I didn’t see that” intervals. But there is a surprising amount of suggestive cinematic techniques and an engagingly dire atmosphere underscoring things in this undeniably bold effort from filmmaker-to-watch Tom Six. Be sure to check out our upcoming coverage of the MPI home video treatment in VW #160.

9. GAMERA VS. BARUGON (Daikaijû kettô: Gamera tai Barugon; Shout! Factory)
Shout! Factory has done an amazing job with the original Daiei Gamera series, granting the Shōwa era the serious treatment the respective films consistently have been denied in previous domestic releases. My favorite classic GAMERA film was always GAMERA VS. GYAOS (Daikaijû kûchûsen: Gamera tai Gyaosu) until I revisited this inspired sequel to the original GAMERA. It compares favorably to any kaijū eiga and is a must-own even for casual fans of the genre. August Ragone and Jason Varney team up for the commentary duty.

10. HOUSE (Hausu; Criterion)
Landing officially on U.S. shores this year via The Criterion Collection, this delirious exercise in experimental filmmaking won the hearts of film fans 15 years of age and under at the time of its original theatrical release in 1977, though most everyone older had no idea what to make of it; perhaps it’s Japan’s more violent ALICE IN WONDERLAND. There is a neat moment in the supplemental interview with director/co-producer Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, who recalls how the lighting crew devoted hours to finding a tiny screw that fell out of his eyeglasses. When Ôbayashi asked why they spent so much time looking for something he assumed unrecoverable on a ridiculously cluttered soundstage, one of the men said that Ôbayashi was the first Toho director to address him by name, which moved him so that he and the crew decided to find what the director presumed lost.

Other key home video releases (in no particular order):

Notable disappointments:
INCEPTION (interesting on paper and entertaining on film are not always the same thing), ANTICHRIST (admit it Lars, you hate women), MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (Herzog might have something here if he trimmed it down to under 60 minutes), THE CRAZIES (God-awful remake of my favorite Romero film), SHUTTER ISLAND (see comment on INCEPTION).

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2010: Sam & Rebecca Umland

Long-time VIDEO WATCHDOG critics Rebecca and Sam Umland are both educators based at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Their books include DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE and THE USE OF ARTHURIAN LEGEND IN HOLLYWOOD FILM. - TL

By Sam & Rebecca Umland

Along with Flicker Alley’s CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE and Kino’s and Eureka’s THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS, one of the three or four most incredible home video releases of the year containing classics from the silent era.

2) CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE (Flicker Alley)
Another incredible box set consisting of about 10 hours of early, silent era Chaplin, representing virtually all of Chaplin’s work for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. Years in the making and made possible by the cooperative efforts of film archives worldwide.

Yet another important silent era film representing the virtually complete version of Lang’s silent era SF classic. Available in Blu-ray.

Criterion’s welcome edition of this Charles Laughton-directed classic features a splendid Blu-ray transfer along with some important supplemental materials.

BBS—an acronym for Bob, Bert and Steve, the creative team of Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner—made the series of seven Hollywood films contained in this box set between 1968 and 1972, financed by the profits they made from the hugely popular NBC series THE MONKEES. As “countercultural” cinema, the films included here were both critical and commercial successes (e.g., EASY RIDER, FIVE EASY PIECES, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) as well as box-office bombs (e.g., HEAD, DRIVE HE SAID, A SAFE PLACE). The Blu-ray presentations are stellar, and the supplements interesting and informative.

6) SHUTTER ISLAND (Paramount)
Narrative coherence is not as important as the fully immersive visual experience of Scorsese’s engaging and compelling psychological thriller. Paramount’s Blu-ray issue of the film is outstanding.

The 1979 theatrical version of Francis Coppola’s acknowledged masterpiece is included here (finally) for the first time in its proper aspect ratio (2.35:1), as is the Redux, both in HD. The “Full Disclosure Edition” has the additional essential supplement, HEARTS OF DARKNESS, Eleonor Coppola's outstanding documentary on the making of the film.

Joseph Losey’s haunting, memorable film in the most complete version yet available on DVD.

9) PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (Shock Blu-ray import)
We were happy to renew our appreciation of this haunting 1975 mystery directed by Peter Weir on Blu-ray. Shock’s Blu-ray disc contains the “Director’s Cut” (as opposed to the original theatrical version) and doesn’t include the array of supplements contained on Second Sight’s valuable 2008 SD DVD issue, but the improved HD image and sound make this a highly worthwhile edition of the film.

10) MICKEY ONE (Sony Pictures Screen Classics By Request)
Unaccountably neglected, never before released on DVD, and shot by master cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (perhaps best known for the many pictures he shot for Robert Bresson), this fascinating Arthur Penn-directed, Kafkaesque film noir features Warren Beatty as a comedian on the run from the mob. Image and sound quality on this video-on-demand disc is excellent.

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2010: Heather Drain

Heather Drain is VIDEO WATCHDOG's newest contributor, appearing for the first time in VW 160 (on its way to our subscribers now). Her work has also appeared in the pages of SCREEM, ULTRA VIOLENT, THE EXPLOITATION JOURNAL and several other publications, and her blog Mondo Heather can be found here. The only predictable thing about Heather is her unpredictability, and her Favorite Discs list takes a different approach than the others I've posted here, being written in paragraph form, amounting to fewer than five titles, and veering entirely away from our staple genres of horror and fantasy. However, since our point in publishing these lists is to direct VW's readers to interesting and offbeat DVD releases which may have escaped their notice, Heather's endorsements certainly fill the bill. - TL

By Heather Drain

2010 has honestly been one of those blur years, when plenty of great stuff has come out but, due to circumstances, finances and creative ADD, I have not had the chance to properly devour a lot of the discs that have come out this year.

That said, there have been a few recent standout titles that I have had the good fortune to watch. Before going into my brief but mega-worthy list, I will preface it by saying that, yes, one of the four titles was technically released in 2009. But as someone who prescribes to the notion that years do not end and begin cleanly and instead bleed into one another, it works. Plus it's my Favorites list and I will fudge if I want to! Anyway, off to the titles!

First up is the Tribeca film release THE WILD & WONDERFUL WHITES OF WEST VIRGINIA. A documentary produced by Johnny Knoxville's company Dickhouse, this is a gritty and unforgettable peek into the famous/infamous White family from Boone County, West Virginia. They garnered national recognition back in the day for patriarch D. Ray White's unique brand of traditional Appalachian folk dancing. In the wake of D. Ray's violent death, his son, Jesco White, took up the mantle and got even more notoriety thanks to appearances on the DIFFERENT DRUMMER series on PBS. The popularity of that led to the now cult shorts, DANCING OUTLAW and DANCING OUTLAW 2: JESCO GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. Between then (1994) and now, Jesco, along with his bad-ass sister Mamie, have become underground folk heroes. The White family has even been immortalized in numerous songs, the best being Hank Williams III's “Legend of D. Ray White,” which is well utilized in the film.

Charles Bukowski had the quote that nobody suffers like the poor and this fact is all too clear here. The heartbreak of being stuck in a poor, working-class rut, thanks to locale, class status, an extremely faulty system and self destructive behavior that is often the result of the prior factors, is deeply felt. Being someone who has worked and been related to people very similar to this family, it hit especially close to home. The biggest impact, though, is seeing the charismatic Jesco and Mamie, who both are the big survivors of the brood, dealing with the shrapnel of life around them. While you get a good peek into the younger Whites, it is these two that will stay with you long after the disc has played.

Speaking of folk heroes, there's also Troma's two-disc release of Phillipe Mora's MAD DOG MORGAN. While I still feel like this film probably should have been in the hands of a company like Criterion, since it is basically an art film more in the vein of someone like Sam Peckinpah than, say, Lloyd Kaufman, it is still nice to have this film in print and getting some cherry extras. It's a beautifully made film with one of Dennis Hopper's best performances as Dan “Mad Dog” Morgan, an Irishman with a good heart who ends up becoming an outlaw and bush ranger in the wilds of Australia. For anyone used to seeing Hopper playing manic-eyed and occasionally scenery-gnawing characters, it is refreshing seeing him playing such a vulnerable man.

A film that has absolutely nothing to do with Australian folk heroes or documentaries but does have a connection to dancing is the Amero Brothers' cult adult film musical BLONDE AMBITION. Video-X-Pix went all out for this release, complete with a beautiful print, a well-written booklet, a B&W promo card of star Suzy Mandel, two small strips of the negative and two commentary tracks, the first being from John Amero himself. If you're not familiar with the man, John (along with his brother, Lem) was a pioneer in the world of fringe cinema, helming such early sexploitation gems as THE LUSTING HOURS and, later on, BACCHANALE. It's a great commentary from a warm, talkative man. The second one is from none other than the late, great Jamie Gillis. While Jamie's part in the film is a glorified but funny cameo as an effete porn director, his commentary is also fun with a lot of good stories from the days when the adult genre had real actors and filmmakers. The film itself is a frothy and charmingly silly musical comedy centering on the ambitious Kane Sisters, Candy (Dory Devon) and Sugar (former BENNY HILL actress Mandel.) The sex is secondary to the film making, so even if seeing the dirty hula in action isn't your bag, the odds are still good that you will enjoy this film.

Another disc that rocked my world in 2010 was the documentary about the classic Canadian progressive band Rush with RUSH: BEYOND THE LIGHTED STAGE. This Zoe Records release has lots of rare, behind the scenes footage, some dating back to their pre-Neal Peart days, this film is a dream with the perfect mix of live performances and interviews, giving a rounded view of this amazing band. It's another two-disc beast with loads of extras, so it truly is a prog rock feast.

So when you think of this year's releases, as we begin to edge ever so closer to 2011, please think of gritty documentaries, history-based art films, MGM styled musicals with enough skin and sequins to please the eye and of course, Canadian progressive rock bands. I know I will!

Monday, December 13, 2010

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2010: Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell is generally acknowledged to be one of the finest practitioners of the Weird Tale, but he also has a keen insight into the way films work, as evidenced by his ongoing VIDEO WATCHDOG column, "Ramsey's Rambles." He is also the acclaimed author of such novels as THE FACE THAT MUST DIE, THE COUNT OF ELEVEN, ANCIENT IMAGES and THE OVERNIGHT, as well as the story collections DEMONS BY DAYLIGHT, DARK FEASTS and JUST BEHIND YOU, just to name a few of his many publications. In the 1970s, he wrote highly collectable paperback novelizations of the classic horror films THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA'S DAUGHTER under the pen name Carl Dreadstone. Here is his year's end list of favorite things that went bump in his DVD player... which, incidentally, is not limited to works of horror and fantasy. - TL

By Ramsey Campbell

A masterpiece finally gets the treatment it deserves, not just with a splendid transfer but several documentaries, the longest of which reveals much about the making of the film.

One of Joseph Losey’s lost films, in the correct ratio at last and the most complete version. His BLIND DATE also saw a British DVD release. Now where’s his M?

The version we thought was lost forever, almost completely restored, demonstrates that the film is a genuine melodrama, conceived partly in musical terms.

A feast, and it’s fascinating to watch the series develop, just as it is to trace (say) how the EC comics became what they’re remembered for.

This box set rescues three important films. Many Sternberg qualities are already much in evidence, and does any silent film have an ending more understated than THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK?

An exemplary transfer that allows us to relish all Rene Clair’s wit, which is as fresh as ever.

Six of his silent films, and many revelations, not least the wonderful Ossi Oswalda, a great comedienne at last salvaged from oblivion.

STAGECOACH (Criterion)
Chosen not just for improving on previous transfers but for the extras, which include one of Ford’s silent Westerns, BUCKING BROADWAY, and the complete unedited footage of Ford’s famously irascible confrontation with Philip Jenkinson. The booklet reprints the tale on which STAGECOACH was based.

Leo McCarey’s devastating comedy of embarrassment that shades inexorably into tragedy. Arguably his greatest film. I listed the French release back in 2008, but this version doesn’t have irremovable French subtitles and is a sharper transfer. Eureka have it on Blu-Ray.

Now In Effect: Everything 12% Off!

VIDEO WATCHDOG's "12 Days of Christmas" Sale is now in effect! For the next 12 days, everything we sell -- back issues, subscriptions, even the Bava book -- is 12% off, if you use the special code when ordering! Visit our Home Page for more details.