Sunday, December 31, 2006

Another Year Done Gone

Despite my lingering head cold, which now seems to be moving down my throat, Donna and I began closing out 2006 last night in high style, with a welcome visit from our out-of-town friends Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kilgore of ECCO fame.

This was the year we discovered/fell in love with/collected everything I could find by 50s rockers The Collins Kids (pictured, whom Charles plans to see in concert next month when they preside over a Link Wray tribute in Alexandria, VA), so we treated our guests to a number of the Collinses' TOWN HALL PARTY performances -- available on DVD from Bear Family. The Kilgores had never before seen Larry and Lorrie Collins in action, and they were as delighted as we've been through all three volumes of the Bear Family DVDs and also the two-disc CD box set from the same German import label. The music is rockabilly, but as I was listening to the second disc in the CD set, I was literally stunned by Lorrie's 1960 rendition of "Another Man Done Gone" -- which is such a chilling, despairing and erotic slab of blues that I can't help but imagine David Lynch will build a movie around it someday. I was so flabbbergasted to hear this morbid, piano-wire-scraping masterpiece in the context of so much buoyant fun that I had to play it a second, a third, AND a fourth time in succession just to believe it really existed. Now that I've worked myself up over it again, I'm regretting that I didn't play it for the Kilgores.

After watching a sampling of soda-poppin' performances that showed Lorrie's sultriness and Larry's flea-hopping, double-necked guitar-picking enthusiasm at their finest, we headed out to the nearby Primavista restaurant, with its superb Italian menu and a spectacular view overlooking the city on a crisp, clear, and not-very-cold winter's night. We've only been there once before under its current management, last November 7th for Donna's birthday, but hostess Isabella remembered us and made us all feel well-liked and at home. The food was beyond spectacular, and we can all recommend their Espresso Martini, which we bought for the table and each sampled (with me, the germy one, sampling last). Afterwards, we brought the Kilgores back to the house and treated them to a perusal of the Bava book proofs, and it was exciting to witness a fresh reaction to what we've been creating here all this time.

After our company departed, I scanned the cable channels and discovered that Joe Massot's WONDERWALL, a cult movie from the '60s I hadn't seen, was coming up on Flix -- so I tuned in. It's most notorious for featuring a music score by "George Harrison, M.B.E." (the first solo music by a Beatle ever released, if you don't count "Yesterday"); I'm fond of the soundtrack album, which is inventive and somewhat Krautrockish, but as accompaniment to the film, its aural mandalas and arabesques become rather grating. The screenplay also has a high pedigree, being based on a story by Polanski associate Gérard Brach (there are echoes or presentiments of THE TENANT here) and scripted by Cuban novelist G. Cabrera Infante (THREE TRAPPED TIGERS), but unfortunately it doesn't add up to much. It's basically overbearingly quirky British surrealism about an aging academic (Jack MacGowran) who knocks a peephole into his wall that peers into the otherworldly apartment of his neighbor, a beautiful but depressed fashion model (Jane Birkin). The eccentric supporting cast were impeccably chosen (THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS' Iain Quarrier, THE GREAT ROCK & ROLL SWINDLE's Irene Handl, FAHRENHEIT 451's Bee Duffel all good fun to see in ensemble) and the film itself is imaginatively designed and gives us a lot of Jane Birkin in her prime to admire, which is a good thing. I wasn't stoned while watching it, not even on Nyquil, which might have helped. Curiously, Flix presented the film in a noticeably aged, unremastered transfer with the odd splice, audio thumps, and other imperfections of the sort I haven't seen in a cable broadcast in more years than I can count.

Another long-missed movie I was happy to recently catch was Richard Lester's directorial debut, IT'S TRAD, DAD!, an early Amicus production that Turner Classic Movies broadcast a couple of nights ago under its US title, RING-A DING RHYTHM. The barest of plots finds a couple of college-age kids (UK chart toppers Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas) challenging a curmudgeonly mayor (Felix Felton) who closes down the jukebox at a popular hang-out for lack of an entertainment license. They decide to stage a talent show to force a reconsideration, don't ask me how. Most of the music showcased here is Dixieland swing (the most famous proponent being Mr. Acker Bilk), hardly the sort of thing that would have led to a generational gap here in America, but there are bargain chip appearances by Del Shannon, Chubby Checker, Gary "U.S." Bonds, Joe Meek discovery Joe Leyton, and The Paris Sisters. What keeps the film from being absolutely insufferable, besides the music, is Lester's already developed spirit of madcap innovation and non sequitur comedy. Derek Nimmo, the dove-producing magician in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, is here as a head waiter, and Bruce Lacey (the gentleman in HELP! who trims lawns with wind-up chattering teeth) is also on hand, using hedge-clippers to trim the lettuce off sandwiches. The two leads have dialogue exchanges with the offscreen narrator, who moves them from one location to another by replacing their backgrounds -- momentarily exposing the sprocketholes of the film print, the sort of thing previously seen only in Tex Avery cartoons. It runs out of steam toward the end, where the Dixieland music takes over completely, but it's beautifully photographed (by Gil Taylor) and made with far more invention than the Milton Subotsky script deserved.

This is the last day of 2006 and, as always, one feels an inclination to reflection and resolve. Our big resolution, of course, is to get the Bava book out by the spring, but I am under contract for a second book that will be out in the fall, which should also be exciting... and there's still another book assignment I'm hoping to get. With this, plus the nine DVD audio commentaries coming out in the spring, 2007 is looking like my most productive and important professional year so far, and I'm only talking about part of what's in the works. I thank you all for your continued attendance and friendly correspondence over the past year, and wish each of you the best of health and prosperity in 2007.

Friday, December 29, 2006

A Quiet Day at Home

I've been laid low by a post-Christmas head cold, and haven't felt like doing much of anything the past few days. My favored mode of relaxation and recovery has been converting tapes from the attic to DVD-R -- everything from the Paul Naschy DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (aka ASSIGNMENT: TERROR) to BEAT CLUB anthologies to THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS. It's an appropriately Christmassy thing to do, to focus on the things you're privileged to have, and to appreciate them.

The latest batch of pull-downs from the attic included MGM's 2000 exclusive, Elio Petri's A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY (now out of print). I reviewed this film for VW in issue #72 and haven't thought much about it since; I reviewed it more enthusiastically than I remembered it, actually. I put it on expecting to walk away and do something else, but I found myself instantly gripped by its energy and peculiar way of storytelling. To my surprise, I not only sat there and watched the entire film in my bathrobe, but the movie now felt to me like something profound and significant -- I think it may have joined the ranks of the very limited number of films that have changed my way of seeing. Now I want to see much more Elio Petri.

This raises some interesting questions: Are our perceptions amplified or otherwise altered, when we are running a fever or in some way diseased? Under such conditions, do we respond to films and other stimuli the same way we would when healthy? Does an elevated temperature bring us closer to art and consciousness, or does it effect a distortion? It might be an interesting experiment to watch some other films I feel I didn't entirely "get" on the first pass, and see if they strike more lucid chords in my state of fever.

One thing I completely missed the first time around with this movie: Rita Calderoni, who plays Franco Nero's housekeeper at the villa, is seen earlier in the movie as a model playing a role in one of the "Supersexy" fumettis he reads. If you notice this, it makes her later appearance in the flesh all the more jarring... and it's also curious to see how mousy she is here, in contrast with how prominently sexy she could be in the movies of Renato Polselli.

Anyway, whatever the reason, today turned out to be an exciting day at the movies.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business

The Seed and Creed of Rock and Soul: Mr. James Brown.

The word "LIVE!", shouting from the covers of so many of his albums, seems inseparable from the soul and essence of James Brown. That -- and the boundless energy he showed onstage throughout a 50 year career, not to mention the boundless invention he showed in the recording studio over an equal period of time -- make the news of his death on Christmas morning hard to accept.

Back in the 1970s, when punk was starting to happen, I was in a record store and the seller, who knew my tastes, steered me gently but firmly in the direction of the newly reissued LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOLUME 1 by James Brown. I was a little hesitant because it was an earlier era of music than I tended to buy, and I was mostly listening to trancey avant garde alternative rock; also, the cover art was kind of kitschy, an airbrushed rendering of JB in a vast pompadour howling into a stage microphone. But I bought it and, lo and behold, it was one of the great musical discoveries of my life. I loved it.

I loved it enough to scoop up a used copy of JB's 1974 double album HELL as soon as I found one; it was recorded in a different era than the APOLLO disc, but it was, if anything, even more feisty and infectious. I especially loved the closing, side-long track "Papa Don't Take No Mess," which has the crackly sound of a groove-sampling epic decades before there were such things. It was around this same time that Robert Christgau devoted an installment of his "Consumer Guide" in CREEM magazine to JB, reviewing and grading all of his 1970s-80s work. I think I would have graded HELL a fraction better than he did, which gave me my bearings and stoked my curiosity. Then, just as I was starting to wonder how some things like "Soul Power" and "Get On The Good Foot" sounded, an Australian import appeared -- the first double-album Greatest Hits collection ever devoted to the full breadth of JB's work. Once I heard "Give It Up or Turnit A Loose" and "Sex Machine," there was no turning back. I had to collect the whole story, hear every track, leave no groove unturned. Again, as if by divine coincidence, GOLDMINE chose that precise moment to devote a feature article to James Brown, equipped with a complete discography -- my road map.

Mr. Brown's first record label, King Records, was Cincinnati-based, which made my quest a bit easier to accomplish, but over the course of the following 8-10 years, I subsequently found and bought every legitimately released JB album on vinyl, and then on CD. We're talking more than 100 albums, plus variants, repackagings, and special releases.

Little Richard calls himself "the architect of rock and roll," but James Brown made an epithet like that seem like so many small potatoes. JB was the architect of everything that came after rock and roll: soul, disco, rap, extended grooves and improvs, drum and bass, trance, sampling (he remains the most-sampled artist ever, possibly for "Funky Drummer" alone), and whatever comes next, probably. He was the first R&B artist to venture outside the box of 4/4 R&B shuffles. His rhythms and increasingly complex polyrhythms struck a mathematical counterpoint to the directness and simplicity of his message, which could be pro-social and constructive ("Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved!"), narcissistic ("I paid the cost to be the Boss"), or nakedly rut-hungry ("Can I get INTO it? Can I get INTO it? Can I pull the sheet off of 'em? CAN I GET INTO IT?"). Because the music cut deeper and deeper with each repetition of the groove, no music was ever sexier or more sensual.

I've heard everything he ever recorded, and it must be admitted that he recorded his fair share of material that was dumb or preachy (the very last track on his last album was called "Killing's Out, School Is In") or in questionable taste; and, if truth be told, his live shows have been half-spirited and often tacky since his 1991 release from prison -- but none of that matters in terms of the Big Picture. He was also a visionary artist, a dazzling showman, and he could be very, very funny. (Check out "For Goodness Sakes, Take A Look At Those Cakes," an epic paen to butt-watching in which he actually invites Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles to "lookie here" and "lookie there," or the great moment in "Make It Funky" when Bobby Byrd pathetically beseeches JB to NOT be so funky, and he fires back "I cain't hep it, Byrd.") He was way too prolific to be perfect (someone once said that, if JB sneezed in the studio, he'd release it as a two-sided single), and if his last fifteen years of live performance were not his best, the show with which he toured represented a lot of mouths he had to feed, and he remained James Brown and all that JB represented till the end. Despite that, the quality of his releases always remained respectable (his penultimate album I'M BACK is very good) and his archival releases (especially the unparalleled box set STAR TIME) were among the best on the market.

I don't think any other one person could be said to have changed (hell, revolutionized) the world of music and the art of live performance to the extent that James Brown did. Mick Jagger didn't dance onstage until he stood in the wings and watched JB dance his way through his T.A.M.I. SHOW performance in 1964, a performance the Stones had to follow, which remains one of the very greatest live pop music performances ever captured on film. In 1986, he was one of the first inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, along with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Little Richard and many other fathers of the form; he was the only inductee that year to simultaneously have a new single zooming up the charts (ROCKY IV's "Living In America").

James Brown may be dead, but I guarantee you he's not resting in peace. Somewhere, he's dancing with the renewed energy of a newborn and already scoping out the thangs ain't never been done.

"What I was doin' thirty years ago is what the rest of 'em are doin'... tomorrow." -- JB

You could do a Top 10 of Best Ofs with JB, but I'm not going to cheat you like that. It should go without saying that nascent JB collectors need the STAR TIME box set first and above all, followed by ROOTS OF A REVOLUTION, FOUNDATIONS OF FUNK, FUNK POWER 1970, MAKE IT FUNKY - THE BIG PAYBACK, and DEAD ON THE HEAVY FUNK -- all fabulous archival overviews of specific periods in Mr. Brown's 50 year career. You can live content with the knowledge that you know your James Brown if you have only those, or some of those. THE GREATEST HITS OF THE FOURTH DECADE collects some worthwhile cuts not included elsewhere. For this list, however, I wanted to focus on JB's individual albums. I consider everything listed below a stand-alone album; though IN THE JUNGLE GROOVE and MOTHERLODE look like hits compilations, they are actually compilations of archival tracks previously unreleased, or in previously unreleased form. Albums are listed in my personal order of preference. Can't do a Top 10, but this isn't a Top 10, so I don't have to.

1. IN THE JUNGLE GROOVE 2. LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOL. 1 3. LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOL. 2 (original version; Side Two's suite of "Let Yourself Go/There Was a Time/I Feel Alright/Cold Sweat" may be the single greatest side JB ever cut) 4. LOVE PEACE POWER 5. THERE IT IS 6. HOT PANTS 7. THINK! 8. I'M REAL 9. HELL 10. IT'S A NEW DAY - LET A MAN COME IN 11. IT'S A MAN'S MAN'S MAN'S WORLD 12. MOTHERLODE.

Radomir Perica, 1924-2006

It is with great sadness that I must announce the death of Radomir Perica, on December 23, from congestive heart failure; he was 82. Radomir, whom we met through our friendship with his daughter Simonida Perica-Uth, one of our closest friends, was an accomplished graphic artist and designer. When Radomir heard that we were launching a magazine, back in 1990, he insisted on bringing his expertise to bear on the project and gifted us with the basic template for our front cover -- including our magazine logo, with its imperfect closing capital G and angled star-- which has been the basis of every VIDEO WATCHDOG cover we've produced in the past seventeen years. And, by extension, the logo you see on this very blog.

In Belgade, Yugoslavia, Radomir (whose name is also transliterated in some sources as "Radomira Perice") worked for many years as a cartoonist, a comics artist, an illustrator of books, and finally as the designer of title sequences for Yugoslavian feature films. I often tried to get him to talk about this period in his life, to help me track down examples of his work in this field, but he disliked talking about himself and blew off any attempt to make his past work the subject of discussion. In the early days of VW, Radomir helped me to obtain helpful information about his former colleague Rados Novakovich, the director of OPERACIJA TICIJAN, which Roger Corman subsequently transmuted into PORTRAIT IN TERROR, BLOOD BATH, and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE; he even drew a sketch of Novakovich to accompany the first part of my three-part article about the film's history in VW #4.

It was Simonida who told us most of what we knew about Radomir, including that his own story had been the historical basis of a character in the 1986 film HEY BABU RIBA, who is jailed for getting and flaunting a Mickey Mouse tattoo -- which was seen by the authorities as a flagrant and unacceptable endorsement of American imperialism (and, by implication, a nose-thumbing at Leninist rule). In hindsight, it was an heroic gesture of his belief in the freedom of artistic expression in the face of oppressive government. His wife of many years, Vera, passed away not long after the family's relocation to Washington, D.C.

Radomir never lost his love of cinema (or Walt Disney) and attended new movies with his second wife, Mary, weekly. The films of Luís Buñuel and Ken Russell were among his great enthusiasms (we agreed that CRIMES OF PASSION was a masterpiece), and when he insisted to me that Joel Schumacher's BATMAN FOREVER demanded to be taken seriously -- not as a film, perhaps, but as a visual spectacle of rare scope, achievement, and taste in American cinema -- I was compelled to take a second look at it and came away convinced of what should have been obvious to me on the first pass.

Radomir was a brilliantly unique yet adaptable artist; some of the most outstanding examples of his interpretative art can be found here (these are available as stunning lithographic prints, including "Eve," pictured above), while some samples of a more basic, storybook nature can be found here. He also portrayed Nikola Tesla in the docudramatic passages of his son-in-law Robert Uth's award-winning PBS documentary TESLA: MASTER OF LIGHTNING.

Donna and I will miss Radomir for his absolute mastery of his craft, his warm endorsement of our projects, his animated spirit of fun and mischief -- in short, his beloved and singular place in our extended family.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

VIDEO WATCHDOG's Favorite DVDs of 2006 - Part 2

EQUINOX (Criterion)

In selecting our choice for VW's Favorite DVD of 2006, we limited the contenders to only those titles which made our contributors' Top 10 lists -- no Honorable Mentions, no also-rans; only those discs that, in our estimation, were the creamiest of the crop. Criterion's EQUINOX was the only title to appear on three different primary lists, followed by Sony's THE PASSENGER, Paramount's THE CONFORMIST and 1900, and Criterion's THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN, each of which scored twice.

And now, as promised, my own personal selections...

TIM LUCAS (Editor's Choice):
Though my Favorites list does not reflect this, I spent most of my viewing hours in 2006 happily absorbed in classic television box sets: Warner's THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, CBS Video's PERRY MASON (enjoyably restored to full length) and THE WILD WILD WEST (a new discovery for me, and a very pleasant one), MPI's THE RIFLEMAN (incredibly, each episode of this show seems a revelation), THE "COMBAT!" BATTLE BOX (the complete series, superbly packaged and packed with extras, released on December 6, 2005 and a repackaging of material released earlier, thus ineligible for this year's survey), Paramount's MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (I'm just getting into Season 1 and the color photography -- some of it by film noir architect John Alton -- is Bava-like in its rich palette and flagrant intensity); the list goes on and on.

As always, it seems to me that the challenge of preparing any list of this sort is fighting the impulse to simply pick the 10 best Criterion titles -- which I don't think would be as "simple" as all that -- as they continue to move from strength to strength. 2006 was certainly one of the label's banner years. It was also a year of immense volume, and I apologize in advance to those labels whose outstanding product I may have missed or misfiled in memory.

Jean-Claude Brialy admires Laurence de Monaghan in CLAIRE'S KNEE, one of the highlights of Criterion's ERIC ROHMER - SIX MORAL TALES.

Criterion outdid themselves with this long-awaited but deeply satisfying presentation of my favorite film series -- a feast for the spirit and the senses. Each film has been utterly rejuvenated over the previous Fox Lorber transfers and complemented with marvelous, thoughtfully chosen extras. My full review of the set appeared in the October 2006 issue of SIGHT & SOUND and can be read here.

Don't know anything about Norman McLaren? Neither did I, and perhaps that's the best way to delve into the deep end of this endlessly rich assortment of his work in short form cinema. I'm still in the process of exploring and savoring this set, but animation and experimental film buffs will find that it rewards its purchase almost immediately with its unique and enchanting way of looking at life and art. McLaren (1914-87) was a Scottish-born, Canada-based animator who created a good deal of work with the "camera-less" technique of using strips of film as a direct sketchpad, even drawing in the soundtracks by hand. To watch these films is to sit in admiration of a boundless visual imagination and creative spirit that excites as it entertains. Seven elegantly packaged discs containing 58 short films, assorted documentaries and interviews, audio commentaries, tests, outtakes... a person could conceivably spend an entire year reaping the dividends of this collection. If your collection includes the likes of Ladislas Starevich and Stan Brakhage, this heroic release sits quite nicely between them.

Each passing year seems to further reveal this exquisite film as Krzysztof Kieslowski's finest achievement, and the greatest argument to date has been the film's belated arrival on DVD. The French label MK2 beat Criterion to the punch with their ravishing import release of this title, which included as a special limited edition incentive an actual strip of 35mm film; the exact same material was issued in the UK by Artificial Eye. However, Criterion improved on the MK2/Artificial Eye transfer in ways that are subtle, but significant enough to keep the imports on permanent ice. Additional extras further seal the deal, including a delicious book of essays and one of the year's best audio commentaries by Annette Insdorf.

On the one hand, this is an infuriating release because it's a triple dip released at a time when video consumers know that the HD release of all this material is just around the corner (and has already been shown on HDNET). On the other hand, the films have never looked so handsome or sounded so smashing on disc (new 5.1 remixes), and each film is now accompanied by its own second disc of supplementary materials, new ones (including a CBC interview with Ian Fleming and a radio dialogue between Fleming and Raymond Chandler) along with a balance of materials carried over from previous issues, as well as some premiering audio commentaries.

Thanks to this low-profile DVD release, 2006 was the year I finally caught up with this 1975 film by Michelangelo Antonioni, and it proved one of the year's most absorbing viewing experiences, and undoubtedly the most haunting. There is a formal perfection about the film, an ambition, a deliberate reach for greatness, that may or may not work against it; I'm still undecided. Yet I still marvel at the closing scene -- as I seem to do with all Antonioni. And how many DVDs can boast a Jack Nicholson audio commentary? Happily, it's a good listen and not one of those "I can't talk, I'm watching the movie" tracks that so many actors deliver, and the second commentary by journalist Aurora Irvine and screenwriter Mark Peploe is also rewarding.

This two-disc set is, at once, the perfect presentation of the film, a pitch-perfect tribute to the film, an audio commentary education, and a party on a platter. I've written about this disc at length at an earlier date on this blog, so do a Blogger Search or Google Search and track it down, in case you missed it.

7. MORE SILLY SYMPHONIES 1929-38 (Walt Disney)
I've only been dipping into this new "Walt Disney Treasures" release for the past couple of days, but I'm convinced it belongs here. The two-disc set is evenly divided between black-and-white and Technicolor cartoons and, watched in chronologic order, one can see the evolution of the Disney school of animation in a nutshell (or a tin can); one can even see major Disney characters like PINOCCHIO's Figaro in embryo. Long unseen shorts like "Hell's Bells" and "The Goddess of Spring" are important additions to our fund of animated fantasy, and the inclusion of uncut cartoons like "Cannibal Capers" (included with two different endings) and "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood" make this release particularly commendable as a triumph of restoration.

8. THE CONFORMIST and 1900 (Paramount)
The best of director Bernardo Bertollucci AND cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (not to mention actress Dominique Sanda, the Garbo of the 1970s), brought to DVD in presentations that are not only pictorially splendid, but substantially more complete than they were ever shown in American theaters. These are classic films made with what might be termed contemporary classical craftsmanship, and though the subject matter is relentlessly realistic and historical, Storaro's peerless eye infuses both films with elements of the fantastic. Paramount has gifted both films with a good deal of supplemental respect, proof of the esteem in which these films are held by the film industry, though they are no longer well known by the public at large.

Here, Orson Welles' most intoxicatingly oblique, incomplete, infuriating jigsaw is viewed every way except upside down through a glass of water. The Corinth Video version of MR. ARKADIN, the CONFIDENTIAL REPORT version, and a remarkable DVD-exclusive "Comprehensive Version" are collected on three discs, along with a new paperback of the film's novelization, expert commentaries (arguably the year's best) and interviews, and the three episodes of the radio show THE LIVES OF HARRY LIME that later mutated into the film's basis. The set plays like a feature film adaptation of my own MR. ARKADIN reconstructive articles for VIDEO WATCHDOG, only much more definitive.

10. EQUINOX (Criterion)
Not just a film, but an engrossing, multi-chaptered lesson in grassroots independent film production, deal-making, and the retooling of an elaborate home movie into a full-fledged theatrical feature. The theatrical, polished EQUINOX is somehow less impressive than the film in its original, roughly-hewn state, which MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES producer Joe Busam calls "the moat impressive 'monster kid home movie' I've ever seen." That the young collaborators behind this movie grew up to become the likes of Jim Danforth, Dennis Muren and David Allen makes the material that much more compelling, and the extras explore their creative genius to even greater lengths. Allen's fairy tale short THE MAGIC TREASURE is particularly appealing. Hands down, the most exciting and generous monster-themed release of the year.

CLOSE, BUT HAVE A CIGAR (in no particular order):

We're getting past the creamiest cream of the crop, but it's still a wealth of laughs and grace notes, delivered with eye-popping color and a delightful bounty of extras.

The Showtime series' first season had a handful of gems -- Joe Dante's "Homecoming", Takashi Miike's "Imprint", Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House", Dario Argento's "Jenifer" and Larry Cohen's "Pick Me Up" are particularly worth acquiring -- but horror buffs with deep pockets and a deep fascination with the challenges of genre adaptation and short form filmmaking will find any and all of these individual sets rewarding on some level. The extras are more valuable than the main features on half or more of these titles.

Sorry, Richard Donner, but your "Director's Cut" of SUPERMAN II is kind of a lox, despite a couple of interesting additions and fresh footage of Marlon Brando, Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, to name a few. That said, this mammoth 14-disc set -- in a tin-encased lenticular slipcase -- includes all of the Superman features made to date (including 1950's SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN) and there are some fans, like myself, who would consider the set's (finally!) perfect and glorious transfers of the original Fleischer cartoons adequate compensation for its asking price. I've seen all the previously issued Fleischer cartoon collections, and believe me, you haven't seen the Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoons till you've seen them here -- given the same lustre as Warner's LOONEY TUNES sets.

V FOR VENDETTA (Warner, pictured)
CASINO ROYALE came close but, ultimately, this was the most impressive major studio production I saw in 2006 - a majestically realized adaptation of the Alan Moore/David Lloyd graphic novel. Available in standard "fullscreen," widescreen single, widescreen two-disc, widescreen two-disc with Guy Fawkes mask, and HD editions.

PANDORA'S BOX (Criterion)
The definitive presentation of the G. W. Pabst classic, which looks cleaner and more complete than ever before, and is presented with a choice of three different musical accompaniments (one by Peer Raben, who scored Fassbinder's BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ). There are some engrossing supplementary programs devoted to Pabst and Louise Brooks, and it's all handsomely packaged with a book of some new and all the relevant essays -- and my copy arrived in the mail on the day of Brooksie's centenary. DVD Savant Glenn Erickson has chosen this as the most impressive DVD of the year, and I can see his point... but I was frankly a bit put off by the audio commentary, which more often than not I found uninvitingly academic.

Of all the new horror films I saw this year, this was by far the most effective. Shot on the cheap by Takashi Shimizu between JU-ON assignments, it tackles nothing less than the subject of people's attractions to what they fear and taps into areas of horror that seem both primal and advanced.

Worth acquiring, if only for Roy William Neill's extraordinary THE BLACK ROOM (1935); it's Karloff's DEAD RINGERS, as he plays twin brothers -- one murderous, one innocent -- and gives three astounding performances, one as the murderer posing as his own dead brother. A marvel of trick photography, as well. Also includes THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, BEFORE I HANG and THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU.

David Cronenberg's best film since DEAD RINGERS (1988), brought to disc with interesting extras and one of the director's customarily intelligent, informative and well-spoken audio commentaries.

WRITER OF O (Zeitgeist Films)
Pola Rapaport's exploration of STORY OF O author Pauline Réàge, part documentary, part docudrama, part first-person confession. A rewarding examination of literature at its most courageous, and a moving study of the purpose and process of writing fiction.

THE MAGUS (20th Century Fox)
The film, based on the best-seller by John Fowles, is a bit of a misfire but it's a damnably interesting one and a pleasure to finally see in its original scope ratio. Without delving into the story, suffice to say that it belongs on the shelf with mind-game movies like PERFORMANCE, THE STUNT MAN, and THE GAME. A very nice bonus is a 20-some-minutes profile of author Fowles, with candid input from friends and his step-daughter.

PETULIA (Warner)
One of the great American films of the 1960s, Richard Lester's satirical portrait of middle-aged romance with a kooky member of the Pepsi generation is close to a career best for nearly all its participants, from George C. Scott and Julie Christie to cameraman Nicolas Roeg and composer John Barry (one of his finest non-007 scores). It also had the good fortune to be filmed in San Francisco while its psychedelic music scene was in full bloom, and offers mesmerizing glimpses of The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin). Edited by Antony Gibbs, whose trademark time-fracturing style later resurfaced in Roeg's PERFORMANCE and WALKABOUT.

KING KONG - DELUXE EXTENDED EDITION (Universal), GOJIRA (Classic Media), I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE MAKER - DON GLUT'S AMATEUR MOVIES (Cinema Epoch), JIGOKU (Criterion) and THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (Criterion) -- all likely contenders for my lists, which I haven't been able to screen as yet.

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (Sony); WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN THREE ACTS (HBO - like the Umlands, based on the broadcast, as I haven't seen the DVD); ANDY WARHOL - A DOCUMENTARY FILM (PBS); NAKED CITY - SETS 1, 2 and 3 and LANCELOT LINK: SECRET CHIMP (Image Entertainment); PERRY MASON: SEASON 1, VOLUME 1 (CBS Video); THE WILD WILD WEST: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (CBS Video); THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE - ULTIMATE EDITION, VIOLENT MIDNIGHT and HORROR OF PARTY BEACH/THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE (Dark Sky Films); DUST DEVIL (Subversive Cinema); BLACK CHRISTMAS (Critical Mass); Michele Soavi's CEMETERY MAN (20th Century Fox), UNO BIANCA and ST. FRANCIS (both NoShame Films); BLACK PIT OF DR. M (Casa Negra); THE BRAINIAC (Casa Negra); THE TARZAN COLLECTION, VOLUME 2 (Warner); HENRI LANGLOIS: PHANTOM OF THE CINÉMATHEQUE (Kino on Video); MACUMBA SEXUAL (Severin Films); ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN and LAURA'S TOYS (Retro-Seduction Cinema); and THE ZACHERLEY ARCHIVES (Zacktapes/PS Productions), a wonderful compendium of all the surviving kinescopes of John Zacherle's telecasts -- and more -- which actually came out late last year, but which escaped my notice till 2006.

1. THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION (Reel 23, Dutch, pictured)
The most visionary new film I saw in 2006. A staggeringly dead-on adaptation of J. G. Ballard's non-narrative novel of a doctor's nervous breakdown and the doors of perception it opens for him and others. Although Jonathan Weiss's independently-produced film was first completed circa 2000, it had to wait until this year, and this import DVD, for its first significant distribution. It may not be for everyone, but for science fiction cinema it represents a quantum leap.

Criterion released their own Louis Malle box set this year, 3 BY LOUIS MALLE, as well as a stand-alone release of his dazzling debut, ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (a thriller with a score by Miles Davis). Here they were beaten at their own game by two box sets from Optimum, which include several key titles not yet available in the States in any form -- notably LES AMANTS/THE LOVERS (1958, VOL 1), featuring Jeanne Moreau at her sexiest; ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO (1960, VOL 1), the zany kaleidoscope of a movie that arguably launched what we now know as "the Sixties"; LE FEU FOLLET (1963, VOL 1), a gripping study of post-detox depression with a great performance by Maurice Ronet; and the erotic Freudian dreamscape BLACK MOON (1975, VOL 2).

3. FANTOMAS (Artificial Eye, UK)
All five of Louis Feuillade's feature-length silent serials based on the exploits of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain's masked genius of crime -- available for the first time with English intertitles, and an introduction by VW's own Kim Newman.

4. IKARIE XB-1 (Filmexport, Czech)
Just about the last thing I ever expected to find on DVD: the original Czechoslovakian film that was the basis of the AIP import curiosity VOYAGE TO THE END OF THE UNIVERSE. One wishes, for reference's sake, that both versions had been included in full, but only the opening and closing titles of the AIP version are included -- but to have the original film in its intended form, in 16:9 widescreen with English subtitles... this alone previously seemed too much to hope for.

Eric Rohmer's most recent sequence of films -- A TALE OF SPRINGTIME (1989), A WINTER'S TALE (1992), A SUMMER'S TALE (1996) and AN AUTUMN TALE (1998) -- are here collected in a handsome set, festooned with director interviews and trailers. The films themselves are not as essential as Rohmer's earlier work, but the master's touch -- his appreciation of the magic that arbitrarily springs to life between two people -- remains deft and unmistakable. An essential companion piece to Criterion's SIX MORAL TALES set.

This box set collects four films based on the work of British author Graham Greene, two of which (THE THIRD MAN and THE FALLEN IDOL) are somewhat better served by their Criterion editions. Where this set becomes essential is in its presentation of the shattering BRIGHTON ROCK (US: YOUNG SCARFACE, with Richard Attenborough as one of the iciest crooks you'll ever meet onscreen) and THE HEART OF THE MATTER (1953), which allows the set to bookend with an outstanding lead performance by THIRD MAN supporting player Trevor Howard. British filmmaking at its finest, from first disc to last.

7. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (Gaumont, France)
This two-disc set is analogous to 20th Century Fox's BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: it takes one of the great cult movies of our time, gives it a definitive presentation, and assembles its cast to pay festive tribute to it over the length of a second disc. Includes a 5.1 audio remix of the feature that raises the goosebumps.


This disc, the first-ever digital presentation of Mario Bava's 1961 Viking adventure, represents the first time it has been widely available for viewing in its original ratio and color values in 45 years. One of those films that can't be properly appreciated in a faded, cropped print, this is a prolonged wow of the senses -- a worthy companion piece to your copy of Fantoma's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD. Sweetening the pot is an hour-long documentary focusing on Bava as a special effects master, which offers generous footage from Bava's only two known television interviews with an English subtitles option.

A gorgeous thing. This limited edition import (3000 copies) is packaged in a kind of hardcover book and, after enjoying its contents, you start agonizing about the wait you'll have to endure before you can fill a whole shelf with other titles in this series. (I hope there will be more.) Directed by Javier Aguirre, THE HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE is rightly celebrated as one of Paul Naschy's best performances and one of his most interesting romantic variations on a theme. Warning: Animal lovers (even rat haters) may take exception to scenes involving the immolation of live rats. Includes Naschy's first audio commentary (in Spanish, with English subtitles) and a 34-page color booklet of illustrated essays by Naschy authorities Mirek Lipinski and Christian Kessler.

At long last, a better-than-watchable presentation of one of Luís Buñuel's most delirious films -- the one about the dinner party that refuses to break up and gradually devolves into barbarism. No frills, but this movie doesn't need them; it's enough to finally see everything that's going on.

And last but not least...

Restoration-wise, the buzz on the street this year is the outstanding job done for MGM's JAMES BOND ULTIMATE EDITIONs. Truth is, the Bond films have always looked good on DVD, even if some of the minor details pertaining to the original release prints have only been properly replicated in this latest round. But in simple terms of comparing things, as they used to look, to how they look now on DVD, the most enormous and gratifying improvement is to be found in the color episodes of the 1950s TV syndication series THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN.

These color episodes were originally broadcast in black-and-white, and when they were syndicated to stations in color in the mid-to-late Sixties, they were saddled with cheap color processing that gave them an ugly, porridgey look that got ten times worse whenever one scene was about to dissolve into the next. Fans assumed that the show must have been filmed with some kind of chintzy '50s color process, doomed to quick and smudgy fading, but Eureka! On DVD, these color episodes now evince a bold color design and sharp detail that's gone unsuspected for the past 50+ years. Yes, these later episodes can be juvenile and silly at times -- but have you read a '50s Superman comic recently? The beefed-up color makes sense of these later episodes by reminding us that they were intended to be DC comic book stories of the period brought to life. Consequently, the restoration compels us to reassess the work at hand and regard the series, as a whole, as a greater all-around success.

Friday, December 22, 2006

VIDEO WATCHDOG's Favorite DVDs of 2006 - Part 1

Julie Christie in the unsettling finale of Richard Lester's PETULIA,
one of VW's Favorite DVDs of 2006.

This year, the VIDEO WATCHDOG staff's selections of our Favorite DVDs of 2006 will be presented in two parts. I had planned to include my own choices here with those of our other reviewers, but -- as has been known to happen -- my list got out of hand, as I found myself adding Honorable Mentions, a separate Top 10 of Imports, a choice for Best DVD Restoration of 2006, and so forth. My portion, then, will appear tomorrow, but today I bring you the favorites of VW's Rebecca & Sam Umland, Kim Newman, Richard Harland Smith, David Kalat and Sheldon Inkol. Enjoy! - TL


Over half of our selections for the best DVD issues of 2006 are classics of Italian cinema. We make no apologies for over-loading our list in this way, because as it happened, 2006 saw some outstanding films by Italian filmmakers released on DVD. Our choices are not ranked.

Vittorio De Sica, in his first collaboration with Cesare Zavattini, proves that nothing can surpass a simple story well told, in this case one about a small boy emotionally devastated by his parents’ crumbling marriage. Criterion’s edition doesn’t have the vast number of supplements to which we’ve become accustomed, but those few included on the disc are insightful nonetheless.

“Fists in the pocket” is a figure for repressed anger or rage. Given the meaning of the title, it seems odd that no one seems willing to step forward and definitively call Marco Bellocchio’s first feature (1965) a horror film, but it has a number of its typical features: a tormented, alienated anti-hero, a cursed genetic inheritance (“taint of blood”), matricide, fratricide, and incest. It’s easy to forget that Criterion's mission isn’t just to present pristine versions of classic films adorned with supplements, but also to rescue certain films from undeserved or unaccountable neglect: this is one of those films. The biggest revelation of the year.

AMARCORD (Criterion)
Fellini’s purpose here seems to be nothing less than “to see a world in a grain of sand.” There may be some who are willing to dismiss Fellini’s films as quaint museum pieces of Modernist cinema or “a cinema of personal expression,” but we refuse to do that. Criterion’s 2006 two-disc reissue of one of its mainstays since the days of laserdisc is the best home video presentation of the film so far, and is loaded with supplements.

This welcome DVD release of Antonioni’s haunting film is the “international version” that restores about seven minutes of footage deleted from the American version. The disc, happily, includes an informative commentary by Jack Nicholson. There is an additional commentary by Aurora Irvine and screenwriter Mark Peploe.

THE CONFORMIST and 1900 (Paramount)
These DVD editions by Paramount -- two of Bernardo Bertollucci’s best films -- are among the major releases of the year. 1900 (Novecento, meaning, more accurately, “the twentieth century,” not the year “1900”), has its detractors, but we think the film is utterly compelling, especially in the five hour plus version released, finally, on a two disc set by Paramount. Both releases feature excellent transfers and great supplements.

Referring to Ang Lee's masterpiece as a “gay cowboy” film is as reductive as saying CASABLANCA is about an American expatriate who owns a café catering to refugees in French Morocco during World War II -- true, but such a banal description does violence to the film’s richness and complexity. Universal’s DVD issue contains an excellent presentation of the film, along with valuable supplements.

Robert Aldrich had a natural affinity for the grotesque, probably because deep down he saw the world as a tragic farce. While it is impossible to deny that WHAT EVER HAPPENED... was made in the shadow of SUNSET BLVD. (1950), for us, Aldrich’s story of two sisters bound both by necessity as well as by mutual loathing is somehow more profound -- and more compelling. As portrayed, brilliantly, by Bette Davis, the aged Baby Jane Hudson, as a garish caricature of her younger self, is as great a creation as anything in American cinema -- or Samuel Beckett, for that matter. BABY JANE is Grand Guignol, perhaps, but it is not camp, as the film is so often (and, as we see it, unjustly) characterized. However, if you want camp, go to Disc 2 and watch Bette Davis on THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW from 1962, belting out, in her best Chubby Checker fashion, a pop rock version of her 45 single, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”

QUAY BROTHERS: THE SHORT FILMS 1979-2003 (BFI; PAL Region 2, pictured)
Based solely on this package’s attractive graphic design, the information crammed into the accompanying 24 page booklet (“A Quay Brothers Dictionary” that defines influential figures and important concepts in their work, as well as the original treatment for STREET OF CROCODILES), the value of the interviews and the audio commentaries provided by the Quay Brothers, this two-disc set issued by the British Film Institute gets our vote as the best DVD issue of the year. The information, commentaries, and interviews, as well as some of the rare shorts included on these discs, is available nowhere else.

As far as we’re concerned, the high-definition “revolution” cannot happen fast enough. Although there have been many outstanding HD DVDs released this year (and many more announced for next), Warner’s HD DVD of FORBIDDEN PLANET was our favorite. We were not disappointed by the film’s stunning presentation, as the HD format delivered everything we’d been promised -- and more. Morever, the disc is loaded with supplements (in 420p, however, not in 1080p, like the feature), including the 1957 feature THE INVISIBLE BOY (in which, following FORBIDDEN PLANET, Robby the Robot has a starring role), full-length documentaries, a half-hour TV show featuring Robby, TV show excerpts, and trailers of 50s SF films. On one side of a single DVD, one has easy access to an entire evening’s worth of entertainment and information.

Janus Films’ heavy, extravagant, slip-cased box Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films; Pandora’s Box (Criterion); Charlie Chan Collection Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (Fox); Emperor of the North (Fox); When the Levees Broke (HBO; note: we saw most of Spike Lee’s documentary during its HBO premiere but haven’t had the opportunity to review the DVD issue, released late this year); and Celine and Julie Go Boating (BFI).


ADAM ADAMANT LIVES! (2 Entertain Video, R2)
A near-forgotten 1960s UK TV series given optimal presentation, with a rare insightfil making-of documentary, script.pdfs of the episodes missing from the archives, the tie-in comic strips, and much other material. Mostly studio-bound and shot as live, the show remains strikingly imaginative and bizarre, with a terrific central performance from Gerald Harper as an Edwardian adventurer preserved in ice and let loose to continue his career in the swinging 60s.

Another outstanding Criterion release, with a second disc of extras, but making this list because this is a case where the remastered transfer really brings out strengths of the film (especially its wonderful sound design) not seen in previous home video releases (including a previous UK DVD). Also, this is one of those films that gets better with every viewing.

This three-disc box edges out the DOUBLE INDEMNITY set (which has the TV movie remake) by including all three Warner Bros. adaptations of the Dashiell Hammett novel, plus three radio versions. Having gone through all the extras, I thought I should at least take a look at the main attraction, a film we all know by heart, and found myself as caught up in it as on the first viewing. Bogart grinning with amused sadism round a cigarette as he disarms Lorre is a defining moment of movie stardom.

A four-episode French TV series from 1965, about a masked figure lurking in the Louvre, starring Juliet Greco. In France, this is one of the best-remembered TV shows ever, but it's not much known elsewhere. Here's a chance to see something important. No, there are no English subs. If you don't understand French, learn. By the end of four episodes, you'll have picked up a lot. You rarely hear French, German, Italian, etc fans lament that any given DVD doesn't have subs in their languages, so it's time we Anglophones stopped whining.

PETULIA (Warner)
An underrated, still-startling picture, directed by Richard Lester, shot by Nicolas Roeg, starring Julie Christie. This hasn't looked as good since it was in cinemas.


Beloved by few, these Lon Chaney starrers hold a peculiar fascination for me and, while not representing his best work by a long shot, are an effective fair-to-middlin' showcase for his limited but engaging talents.

What a package! I would have paid the asking price to have DOCTOR X by itself on DVD, but to have MAD LOVE and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (among others) thrown into the mix makes me giddy as a schoolgirl.

A gem of early 70s atmospheric horror is given a first rate if bare bones release. An audio commentary would have been wonderful, but I'm not kicking about having this old favorite in pristine condition.

It's no NIGHT STALKER, but it's still a lot of fun and has at least one classic scare in it. I could have gotten behind this as a weekly series.

Universal has shoe-horned in several of its Eisenhower era classic SF titles with nothing in the way of extras, but again it's nice having THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, TARANTULA and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (among others) looking so pretty.

Great cinema it's not (it's not even great camp cinema), but there's a compelling aura of post-Camelot ennui hagging this shaggy dog story of a disfigured NASA android (and passable JFK lookalike) facing down Martian invaders to a quasi-Merseyside backbeat. [Check out RHS's full-length FMTSM review at, link above. - TL]

JIGOKU (Criterion)
There's so much classic Japanese horror needing to be on DVD and this is a great start.

EQUINOX (Criterion)
I'll admit to balking at the prospect of the Criterion Collection treatment for this title... but I'll willingly eat my hat after seeing both the grand treatment afforded this still obscure but influential horror title and what the behind-the-scenes story tells us about the art of film-making.

I had very little to do with this release (apart from writing the box copy), so I don't feel it's too much of a sweetheart deal to praise this lavish collector's edition. It may even be more than this very modest movie deserves, but you can't fault NoShame for going the distance for their consumers. And the amulet is wicked cool.

Finally, I'll get to see the rest of THE BOOGEY MAN WILL GET YOU! And again, the asking price would have been worth it for THE BLACK ROOM alone. Karloff lives!


GOJIRA (Classic Media)
I’ve been waiting for something like this since the very first day I went to a seminar on DVD technology back in 1995. What more can I say?

INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH KEATON (Laughsmith/Mackinac Media)
In last year’s list, I stupidly cited a disc that, I hadn’t realized, was a one-off DVD-R I bought at a convention that wasn’t commercially available. But since it was a Keaton rarity, I was blind to those demerits. This year I have the pleasure of listing a disc that is indeed widely commercially available, and the best work (so far) of the bright minds behind Laughsmith. If you love cinema, you must by definition love Buster Keaton, and if you love Buster Keaton you probably have obsessively watched and rewatched his films. But even so, if you think you’ve seen it all, this lovingly packaged disc collects some true gems that will startle even the diehard fans. I’ve heard a sequel is in the works, and I can hardly wait.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of the most consistently fascinating filmmakers working today, and while the majority of his recent work is well represented on DVD, his enormous back-catalog of pre-CURE flicks remain obscure and unavailable even in Japan. I’ve been longing for a release for Kurosawa’s SWEET HOME for years, but this fabulous treat is even better. It’s like a mad slasher film by the makers of THE OFFICE, a wicked satire packed with ripe visuals and colorful characters. Add an enlightening commentary by scholar Tom Mes, and you’ve got a movie that keeps on giving. (OK, now where’s SWEET HOME?)

This edition is adapted slightly from the actual live broadcast so daring attempted in 2005—but the excellent commentary track explains the logic and justifies the decision. Like Peter Jackson’s KING KONG, this is a remake mounted by folks with abundant respect for the original source.

I don’t have much truck with the conventional wisdom that Orson Welles did his best work early in Hollywood, and then flamed out. For me, his low-budget European pictures are more inventive and rewarding for their idiosyncrasies. Criterion’s megatastic presentation of this Eurocult thriller goes a long way towards proving my point, and ranks alongside their similarly-inspired deluxe version of BRAZIL as one of the best applications of DVD. Watching these three variants and their attendant bonus features is like a VIDEO WATCHDOG article come to life.

A&E dug deep into the vaults for these rarely-seen episodes. I considered myself a serious AVENGERS fan and I had never seen these before, and knew almost nothing about them. They are experimental, and crude—in both content and ragged archival picture quality. Honor Blackman’s Mrs. Gale is not yet a full-timer, sharing the co-star slot with such characters as Venus Smith (!), Steed’s character is still embryonic and sometimes wears a derby instead of a bowler (sacrilege!), and the storytelling is not as tight as it would be just a year later -- but the effect is like watching the creative process at work. It’s the next best thing to sitting in on the actual production conferences as one of the best shows of the 1960s was born.

TYPHOON (NTSC import, CJ Entertainment)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—the best movies being made today are being made in South Korea. This puts American action movies to shame. Plus it has real depth—a geopolitical thriller that refuses to buy into absolutist concepts of good guys and bad guys. Why don’t movies like this get released to theaters anymore?

Taiwanese cinema has long been the movie-world’s version of PBS: committed to highbrow notions of culture and edification, willfully defiant of what people might wish to watch, and dependent on government handouts to stay afloat. Then, in the past couple of years, along came a handful of upstarts to challenge the traditions and say, well, what’s stopping us from trying to make something fun? This Taiwanese variant of the J-Horror style is an extraordinary debut by some brash youths with a real eye for how to make the screen sparkle.

My daughter Ann has become a huge Whovian lately, thanks to the revival series with Christopher Eccleston/David Tennant. It has inspired her to seek out the classic series on DVD, and so we sat down to enjoy this together. I expected her to reject it, since the 1963 iteration is so exceedingly different than its current manifestation, but she ate it up and couldn’t get enough. Proof if any were needed that classics endure.

FANTOMAS (Artificial Eye, PAL R2)
This 2 disc set from England is not much different from the French disc put out nearly a decade ago—it loses some of the French edition’s extras and is more spartanly packaged. However, it adds something the French import lacked—English subtitles. Now, nobody reading this has an excuse not to rush out and join Fantomania!

ARSENE LUPIN (Thai import) is a French pulp blockbuster that might yet launch a new franchise; THE BUSTER KEATON 65TH ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION (Sony) gives props to a much-maligned era in Keaton’s career but overdue for reappraisal; HOLLYWOOD'S LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION (Warner); THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M (Casa Negra) is a packed-house of an exploitation movie with no less than three “monsters” on the loose; and DANCING LADY (Warner) offers a Pre-Code musical with Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire and the Three Stooges, a huge “I Love Beer” finale -- what more could you want?


1. EQUINOX (Criterion)
Perfect. I've waited a long time for this release, but I couldn't have dreamed it would be this good. Whether or not you like the movie, odds are you'll enjoy this DVD. I completely concur with Bill Cooke's review in the current VW. Essential.

2. BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (20th Century Fox, pictured)
Almost perfect. Another long-awaited DVD that exceeds expectations. If only it had some of those tantalizing deleted scenes glimpsed in the stills galleries...

3. METROPOLITAN (Criterion)
Appropriately enough, released on Valentine's Day. A smart, funny, wistful movie I never grow tired of. Watching it is like spending time with old friends. If you like Whit Stillman's debut, I strongly recommend his BARCELONA and, to a lesser extent, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (in which several METROPOLITAN characters make a cameo appearance).

4. PETULIA (Warner)
Richard Lester. Nicolas Roeg. John Barry. George C. Scott. Julie Christie. It starts with a Janis Joplin performance staged for the movie and shot by Roeg... and it just gets better, culminating in one of the most haunting endings ever. It may be a time capsule fashioned at the end of the Sixties but the emotional content is more relevant than ever. I find it shattering.

Doctor Who done right, with a focus on moral dilemmas and human emotions. Thirteen episodes of excellent TV and nearly five hours of special features. "The Unquiet Dead", "Dalek", "The Empty Child" two-parter and the season finale are simply outstanding drama, whether or not you care for the Doctor. The packaging is annoyingly awkward, though.

An excellent if clunkily titled box set featuring RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, THE WILD BUNCH, THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE and two versions (although neither can be definitive) of PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. I admit I unloaded CABLE HOGUE and replaced it with MAJOR DUNDEE, but a worthwhile purchase nonetheless.

7. THE SPAGHETTI WESTERN COLLECTION VOL. 12-16 (Wild East Productions)
Taken individually, none of Wild East's 2006 Italo-Western releases (THE DIRTY OUTLAWS, GENTLEMAN KILLER, TASTE OF KILLING, MATALO! and A REASON TO KILL, A REASON TO DIE!) could be objectively termed an indispensable DVD, but collectively they represent an important and ongoing campaign to preserve the most obscure and rare titles of a dead sub-genre. Wild East shows us what fans are capable of accomplishing and their efforts should be applauded by those of us who love cult movies.

8. THE PROPOSITION (Capri Releasing/Maple Pictures)
This has to be the most brutal and depressing Christmas movie ever made, and is certainly a potent antidote for excessive holiday cheer (even moreso than BLACK CHRISTMAS). But it is also beautifully and sincerely executed, with a great cast bringing a smart and morally complex script (the first by Nick Cave) to life.

Despite the reported absence of some sound effects (not immediately apparent to me), this is an attractive release of a horror classic that still stands up over 30 years later. The generous extras also capture important testimonials from participants who have only recently passed away.

10. ERASERHEAD (Absurda)
Yes, I know this has been available for a few years now, but David Lynch's "dream of dark and troubling things" only became widely available through retail outlets at an affordable price in January of 2006. The extras are fascinating but do leave one wanting more. Hopefully a R1 LOST HIGHWAY and the second season of TWIN PEAKS will surface in 2007.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Midnight Rambler

I realized recently that my attitude toward DVDs is very much like the attitude I once had, during a certain season of my youth, for baseball cards. DVD labels are like baseball teams, directors and stars are like MVPs, and the discs themselves are loaded with stats: 16:9, HD, audio commentary, trailers, foreign languages. They're lightweight, fun to handle and to watch, but the greatest fun of all is boxing them away, or putting them on a shelf (depending whether you're a hoarder or a displayer), and just knowing that you have them.

I used to love displaying my VHS pre-records on a wall in my living room, until the collection got so big, it had to be boxed up and moved to the attic. Donna was happy to reclaim the neutrality of the living room for awhile, but that space soonafter became the homebase for half my CD collection, including all my box sets. It's kind of ridiculous to pretend the room is about anything but entertainment when there's always a 53" widescreen television staring you down in there.

As the holidays draw near, Donna has made it known that she would like all the DVDs which have accumulated in recent months to leave the dining room, and make it more attractive to holiday guests. Naturally I wrestle with questions like "What's so unsightly about DVDs?" but I'm giving in and spent today starting to chip away at the accumulation by cataloguing the discs and putting them into banker's boxes. Then, risking a hernia, I carry them two at a time upstairs into the attic -- where there's already entirely too much entertainment. The most exquisite agony of doing this work, besides realizing how much time it all amounts to and the ever-decreasing odds of living long enough to enjoy it all, is being reminded of how much of one's collection is still in the shrinkwrap, and noticing that some of these cellophaned items are now relics, having been replaced on the market by expanded, remastered editions. There is, at least, the pleasure of knowing these things will be around when you need them. The question is, with so many amazing things coming out on DVD every week, what are the chances we'll ever need them? These are dangerous questions for a video magazine editor to ask, so I will now step away from the precipice and change the subject. I'm just rambling, having fun -- are you?

Last night, Donna and I had the pleasure of a dinner at Romano's Macaroni Grill with our friends Patty and Joe Busam (Rondo's Monster Kid of the Year), and afterwards, we wandered over to the Barnes and Noble bookstore next door. It had been awhile since I'd been in a DVD store, and it was a pleasure to look around and discover things by chance, in their actual three-dimensional state, rather than as a clickable title on a screen next to a thumbnail. I remembered that it was the street date for the latest batch of "Walt Disney Treasures" tin sets, and after looking all over the place, I finally found a few -- but not THE HARDY BOYS, the one I was most excited about. I decided to spring for MORE SILLY SYMPHONIES, and I'm glad I did.

I usually can't watch more than 45 minutes of cartoons at a time, but I found the shorts and commentaries in this second SILLY SYMPHONIES collection so absorbing, I was already 90 minutes into it before I looked at a clock. A big selling point for this set is that it includes the 1939 Technicolor cartoon "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood" -- which, like quite a few titles here, is uncut for the first time in many years. The controversial (ie. "politically incorrect") cartoons are separated from the main program and placed in a special area called "From The Vault," where they are preceded by an introduction by Leonard Maltin, who ably defuses them for the general viewing public... but it bothers me when I see brilliant caricatures, like the one of Fats Waller in "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood," included in a discussion of what's "wrong then and wrong now." I felt even more strongly about this when I saw Whoopi Goldberg give a similar "we're so much wiser now" spiel in THE LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION VOLUME 4. I think it's fine to precede these cartoons with historical background, but the tenor and length of the apologies we've been getting incriminates them a bit too much for my taste.

I spent this entire day cataloguing discs and listening to music. Having wrapped that up, I felt the need to write something here; after all, I encouraged you the other day to check back, and after a day like today, blogging helps me to feel less like a combination clerk and moving man. But now it's high time I pushed myself away from this computer, poured myself a favorite beverage, and spent some time in front of the other glowing screen downstairs.

Brothers and sisters of the cathode ray, children of light, who among you will return to this blog on December 22? Now night arrives with her digital remasters, so retire to your parlors and your rec rooms. Tomorrow I start assembling the VW Kennel's lists of our Favorite DVDs of 2006. I want to be ready.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Back to Audio Commentary

Yours Truly with actor John Phillip Law, during the 2004 commentary sessions for Paramount's DANGER: DIABOLIK.
Photo (c) ZAP Zoetrope Aubry Productions.

You should know me well enough by now to know that, if I'm not busy here, I'm busy somewhere else. I was able to post only a couple of blog updates last week, not counting the letter of comment, because I was immersed in preparations for a new round of audio commentary recordings. Happily, the first phase of this work is now behind me; over the weekend, I recorded not one, not two, but three new audio commentaries for a set of DVD releases scheduled for early 2007. And I'm contracted to deliver another four by the end of January. I'm not at liberty to reveal any titles as yet, but I can tell you that, come next Spring, there will be no fewer than eight new Tim Lucas audio commentaries on the market -- the now-known quantity being Dark Sky Films' March 27th release of Mario Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL!, which announced last week.
Before this past weekend, I had recorded commentaries for BLACK SUNDAY and the aforementioned KBK for Image Entertainment (the latter unreleased till now), THE WHIP AND THE BODY and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE for VCI, DANGER: DIABOLIK for Paramount and Kim Aubry's ZAP Productions (with John Phillip Law), and a short commentary track for "The Gentle Old Madman" in The PPS Group's MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES. Now I've brought that number up to 9.
No matter how often I do this sort of work, it's always a bit anxious-making... especially when I'm flying solo. It's an entirely different process when you have someone else to work with, whether it's a helpful producer/director of the track or someone associated with the film you're talking about. Working with John Phillip Law and Kim Aubry on the DANGER: DIABOLIK commentary was pure pleasure, not only because they both made the experience more relaxed, but because John and I had the luxury of speaking at length, knowing that our comments would later be edited into a finished track.
I recorded these latest tracks at home with the assistance of a rented Fostex FR-2 Field Memory Recorder and a Sennheiser studio quality digital microphone, and the set-up was easy to use and fun getting to know. It's been more than a year since I've done work like this, and it's difficult for a writer (and a not-very-talkative one, at that) to cultivate a relaxed and graceful presence in sound -- at least it has been for me. It's even more challenging when you've made the choice to be scene-specific in your commentaries, which require one to keep one eye on one's script and the other on the test disc's timecodes. My initial steps with the Fostex weren't very confident, but fortunately, I was able to scrap those early files and keep only those I was pleased with. Even in the midst of an acceptable take, one can't help but falter over a word here and there, so I left some silences for the editor to surgically remove my stumblings. If all goes well, the tracks should come back sounding ideal.
The first commentary took the longest to get off the ground; the second went more smoothly; the third, I'm happy to report, was a breeze. And now I have to put these wonderful toys down for a few weeks, and come back to them next year... once I've gotten un-used to them again.
Actually, I'm feeling pleasantly tired after writing three 17-page, single-spaced scripts and creating commentaries from them in the past week or so; I'm actually quite happy to sit back now and devote this last week before Christmas to rest and recreation, in happy anticipation of the holidays. (Hey, this could be the year I actually read Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL... if I feel like it.) But considering the unseasonable weather Cincinnati has been having, it's hard to believe that the year-end holidays are upon us; I'm still wearing my summer clothes around the house and sleeping mostly outside the blankets.
Come to think of it, the next week can't all be rest and relaxation. This blog has its second annual Favorite DVDs lists yet to present, and I should try to post them here by the same date they were presented last year: December 22. After that, our annual Merrython is on -- wedding anniversary, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day -- and I'll likely be gone for a little while. But knowing me, this week, I just might spend some time here. This is my fun, after all.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

From My Mailbox

I watched the new Network "Special Edition" of HANDS OF THE RIPPER a few weeks ago and considered writing to you about a problem with the disc at the time. Then I decided that, when you reviewed the disc, you'd notice the error yourself and make a note of it. But you didn't, and I ended up giving myself a mental clip behind the ear for not writing in the first place. So, better late than never...

Unfortunately the print of HANDS OF THE RIPPER supplied by Carlton International to Network (and, I assume, also to Anolis, although I haven't actually seen the German disc to compare them) is a cut version of the film. The scene which has been truncated on the DVD is the murder of Dolly the maid. In the original cinema version of the film, the character of Anna swings the hand mirror back over her shoulder and it shatters against the full-length mirror behind her. She then slashes the maid back and forth three times across the throat and the film cuts back and forth between shots of Anna swinging the glass shard and POV shots of Dolly reacting as the three distinct slashes are streaked across her neck. (I have always assumed that part of the reason Marjie Lawrence was cast in this pretty thankless role was because she has such a long, lovely, swan-like neck – just perfect for the indignities which are heaped upon it!) Anna then buries the shard in the side of her neck and Dolly staggers backwards into the bath.

In the " special edition" DVD, the repeated slashes have been removed. Dolly appears to have her throat cut only once and then the shard is seen protruding from the side of her neck. This excision leaves a noticeable jump in the soundtrack and, if you look closely, has resulted in an unfortunate continuity gaffe with the placing of Anna's hands. Peter Sasdy might not be Alfred Hitchcock, but he did assemble the scene with surprising intricacy, editing back and forth between Anna and Dolly to the rhythm of the music and carefully building up to the savagery of the murder itself. The missing shots completely disrupt this rhythm, giving it a slightly anti-climactic feel.

As I said, the uncut throat slashing was present in the movie when I first saw it in the cinema (at least a couple of times) back in 1971. Part of the reason it stuck in my mind was because it was a genuinely brutal sequence even by Hammer's standards, and did have the power to kill stone dead any giggles or chattering in the cinema!

One might attribute my 30-year-old memories of the scene to an overactive imagination, except... A few years later, when I was helping run my university film society, we booked a 16mm library copy of HANDS OF THE RIPPER to screen to the student body. It was common practice for us film nerds to run private screenings of the films once the prints had been delivered, when we had a chance to play around with the projection and run scenes back and forth, dissecting how they had been put together. (You have to remember that this was all pre-commercial video, when one had no access to the pause button, let alone fast forward and rewind.) A group of us sat and watched that sequence over and over ad nauseum, working out the cutting sequence (no pun intended) and generally deconstructing Sasdy's work. So, in this case, I do know categorically that a longer version of the scene exists.

Needless to say, all subsequent TV screenings of the film cut the scene even more substantially than the current DVD version (and also trimmed the later murder of the the prostitute Long Liz, excising the shot of the hatpins being stabbed through her hand, as well as the shot of her hand pulling away from her face to reveal her mutilated eye). And, while I have never seen it myself, I understand that the US version of the film also trimmed the murders and used additional footage to bulk up the running time.

When I realized that Network's new DVD was cut, I e-mailed the company and pointed out the mistake. Although initially treated by the company like the Village Dunce in a Fifties monster movie – "Yes, Mr Taylor, I'm sure you really DID see a giant praying mantis crawling over an uncut print of HANDS OF THE RIPPER last night. Take two aspirin and call us in the morning." – I was forwarded to a very helpful woman who explained that the print Carlton had supplied was the "most complete available". We also mused that the British Board of Film Censors, as it was known back then, had inflicted some unspecified cuts on the film for its cinema release and wondered whether Hammer had noted their decision and gone ahead and released the film uncut anyway. (It's one of the amusing secrets of British film distribution that films were frequently released intact after their trip through the censors - film companies sent the films in to the BBFC for their verdict, but the cuts were never imposed and uncensored prints just shipped out to cinemas around the country, it being virtually impossible to monitor whether they were the approved version or not; I can cite numerous examples of times when I went to see films for a second time, after they had been booked for a second run at the cinema after the original roadshow presentation, to find myself watching an entirely different print of the film to the one I had seen first time round, with supposedly censored scenes unaccountably restored.) It was entirely possible that Carlton had supplied Network with the BBFC-approved cut of the film, but that uncut prints of the film had slipped through the net t the time of its theatrical release and been in circulation ever since.

Anyway, the lady at Network did ask me to keep my eyes open and said that, if I managed to track down a version of the film that included the scene as I described, to let her know. A similar situation arose with the DVD release of FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL awhile back, when the film was reissued after various scenes had been found and restored from other DVD versions. I had been curious as to whether the German version of HANDS OF THE RIPPER was any different to the UK version, but your review would seem to indicate that it is not. I am currently trying to get hold of the Japanese DVD release of the film, which was issued some time ago and is now OOP, to see whether that is any different.

It's ironic that I only bought a copy of the new special edition of HANDS OF THE RIPPER in a burst of nostalgia to see the film after all these years, and have inadvertently been thrust into the role of its unofficial restorer – a role for which I am probably ill-equipped to fulfil! Anyway, if you or any of your readers can cite a release of HANDS OF THE RIPPER that includes the scene as I have outlined above, please let me know. Hammer films have had a pretty spotty history on home video and DVD; they may not all be masterpieces, but one wishes that they were treated with a modicum more respect than they have been in the past. (To be fair, Network have to be applauded for unearthing that formerly excised scene for their recent re-issue of TWINS OF EVIL and including it as an extra on the DVD). HANDS OF THE RIPPER is, I think, one of the best of the 70s efforts and it would be nice to at least have a definitive copy of the film after all these years.

David Taylor

If anyone has any information about more complete prints of HANDS OF THE RIPPER on video, please drop me a line at the Contact link and I will forward the information to David.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Royale Screwfly Confidential

CASINO ROYALE (2006, Sony Pictures theatrical)
Producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have jump-started the long-running 007 franchise with a picture that makes all but a select few Bond movies seem trivial. Daniel Craig (pictured) may not be our idea of Bond initially, but this is effectively the story of the birth (or more to the point, the finessing) of Bond, and it's a pleasure to see the hard granite edges of Craig gradually smoothed and polished as he acquires professionalism and as the stakes of victory require a higher standard of him. What's strange about the film is that it's not a completely fresh start; Judi Dench is back as M, and there are also certain (forgive the word) spectres of the past, including the use of a 1964 Aston Martin; also, because the film is not only contemporary but technically cutting edge (if not advanced), this Bond is no longer a Cold War relic but a distillation of ruthless self-interest put into national harness. The formula has likewise been played with; instead of the pre-credits stunt showpiece that's been more or less standard since THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977), there's a slow, cerebral simmer to the familiar gun barrel logo, quickly followed by an early stunt showcase at a construction site that's easily one of the series' most breathless and exciting. Several more follow, accentuating hard-hitting realism over fantasy, all the more impressive for never succumbing to profanity or vulgarity. Complementing this new blond Bond are an unusual emphasis of brunette Bond girls, including Eva Green in an appreciably mature performance as Vesper Lynd, whose character arc shapes Bond's future attitude to women and gives this film an emotional resonance not found in the series since at least THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH and perhaps not since ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. To be perfectly honest and unsentimental, I think this film taps into real romantic emotion better than either. CASINO ROYALE embodies such a revolution of thought about Bond that only time will tell how good it truly is, and I'm in no rush to sell out the past. But I can 't think of another introductory Bond film as successful as this one on so many levels -- and when the deliberately withheld Bond theme enters in the final scene, only the most hard-hearted viewer will be able to contain their cheers.

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (2006, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment DVD)
This film reunites artist-screenwriter Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff for the first time since their remarkable GHOST WORLD (2001), a film I'm proud to have seen probably ten times. For anyone expecting a feature-length exploration of Illeana Douglas' art class in that movie, ASC is bound to disappoint on some level, but it's actually a far more profound rumination on the costs that come with choosing this path in life. We follow protagonist Jerome Platz (Max Minghella, pictured) from his arrival at Strathmore Art College on a course that encompasses naive talent, first love (when the Davy Jones-eyed Minghella first sets eyes on Sophia Myles, we half-expect them to twinkle like stars), the discovery of a topic, the pursuit of a personal style, heartbreak, cynicism, madness, opportunism, ruthlessness, and finally a form of commercial sell-out celebrity that denies him everything but his dream of success and the pleasure of gazing upon that which inspires him. The final shot is one of the ouchiest twists of a narrative knife I've ever felt from a movie, and it strikes me as complete a metaphor for what it means to be an artist as I've seen. For all the pain -- and there's at least as much here as there was in BAD SANTA (2003) -- there's even more humor and intelligence, confirming Zwigoff and Clowes as one of the great teams of American independent cinema. Sony's DVD includes a nice featurette and 11 minutes of deleted scenes, nearly all valuable but which would have darkened the film even more. Producer John Malkovich gets the film's instant classic line: "I was one of the first."

MASTERS OF HORROR: "The Screwfly Solution" (2006, Showtime)
Season Two's reunion of director Joe Dante and screenwriter Sam Hamm ("Homecoming") adapts a 1977 story by the late "Raccoona Sheldon," one of the pseudonyms used by science fiction writer Alice Bradley (1915-87, also known as "James Tiptree, Jr."). It concerns the spread of an airbourne virus of unknown but apparently deliberate origin designed to wipe out the human race by turning the aggression of the male reproductive impulse into a homicidal one. Dante and Hamm use the story (which can be read in its entirety here) to illustrate the extent to which dangerous levels of misogyny are already countenanced in our society (like the free use of words like "bitch," and even a commendably we-bad clip from Season 1's "Imprint"), which makes the seemingly far-fetched scenario not so great a leap of the imagination, hence not only shocking but horrifying. Elliott Gould (pictured), in the supporting role of a grizzled gay scientist, gives what may be his best performance since his Altman days. My only complaint -- and I have to precede this comment with a SPOILER flash -- is that it builds to the revelation of an alien cause, with a CGI alien that looks like it stepped out of a SHOWGIRLS variation on THE ABYSS. This twist may be faithful to Sheldon's story, but it cheapens (and, to a degree, contradicts) the long and unflinching gaze into the mirror that precedes it. Nevertheless, this is not only the best episode to yet emerge this season, but one of the very best episodes of either season, and an outstanding work of feminist -- no, make that humanist -- horror.