Monday, July 27, 2015

ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS reviewed

Since the musical hasn't been in the best of health since sometime in the 1950s, it is always tempting to regard any subsequent work in the genre as someone's attempt to resurrect it. ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS (1986), released this week by Twilight Time at $29.95, is a very flashily designed musical about life in 1958 London, when the city was poised to become the center of the pop cultural universe for the next decade. Directed by MTV video veteran Julien Temple, who also had the Sex Pistols opus THE GREAT ROCK & ROLL SWINDLE (1980) behind him, it's one of those aggressively visual films that surprise you, as you go looking through it for frame grabs, because it's almost impossible to find a shot that looks well composed. Rather, it's a film of constant movement, unexpected shifts of image and combinations of color, and lots of brassy music and bold maneuvers. It doesn't give the viewer time for anything to sink in, perhaps because it doesn't want to be caught at not being anywhere near as smart as its layering looks.

You certainly can't argue with its architectural ambition - which it announces with an early sustained take showpiece that unfolds over several minutes on a preposterously detailed, surreal recreation of a London area that puts the faux New York sets in Stanley Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT to shame - but the story is so slight (two teenage lovers, a photographer and his model, grow in different directions till they find each other again), it's like a sundae heavily piled on top of a cherry. Although the story would seem to be about heartbreak and all the other teenage emotions, nearly all the performances maintain an ironical, winky-winky distance from any real emotion - save hate, which is conjured up vividly enough when the picture takes a third-act turn toward Teddy Boy violence and incendiary race rioting. The opening narration and general enterprising attitude of the piece prepare us for anything but the plunge into ugly realism we get. Along the way, the pleasured eye makes apologetic excuses, urging us to forgive the rest - the actors are good-looking, the sets are impressive, the whole thing is technically impeccable - but it's annoyingly evident that Temple had nothing much to say, just the opportunity to say it.




Now we come to the first of the "buts." When David Bowie turns up, about halfway through the picture, he provides a welcome distraction from the piling disappointment - and also something of an unwelcome relief map, pointing out to us that the two leads (Eddie O'Connell and Patsy Kensit) really aren't all that good-looking or interesting. Looking like the proverbial Man of Bronze, Bowie's small part in the film includes the most inspired filmmaking in the picture, a musical number that shows what a marvelous addition he would have been to MGM in its heyday; you can't look away from him and he moves with both grace, style and imperative. (Alas, the spoken side of his performance gives no hint of the fine actor he could be under other circumstances.) There is also a nightclub scene with a performance by Sade that is very enticing. These are a far and happier cry from an elaborate yet embarrassingly bad number featuring The Kinks' Ray Davies, staged inside a bisected rooming house set constructed à la THE LADIES' MAN. Davies plays the henpecked father of our hero, and if the point of the number was to show us what O'Connell was hoping to get away from... well, after a couple of minutes, we share his feelings.


Temple also includes allusions to his GREAT ROCK & ROLL SWINDLE universe with appearances by Tenpole Tudor and Irene Handl, and to Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg's PERFORMANCE (an infinitely greater film about London) with appearances by James Fox and Johnny Shannon. There's even a point in the Bowie number that seems to allude directly to that film's show-stopping number "Memo From Turner."


As for the other "buts," let's go back to that "aggressively visual." Home entertainment systems have been around for awhile now, so the expression has gone somewhat out of fashion in terms of reviewing new product - that said, this is a pretty solid "demonstration disc." If you want to show off your video set-up, the early extended take number - or the Bowie number - spilling out of your speakers in 5.1 DTS will serve very nicely.

Also, take note that this is a Twilight Time release, so this is a limited edition Blu-ray with an isolated music track. This sort of feature is usually of appeal to soundtrack collectors, but this one offers a much broader musical spectrum, so that it's probably of greater interest as a musical release than as a film. Its soundtrack encompasses not only Bowie, Ray Davies and Sade but The Style Council, and the entire soundtrack was arranged and conducted by jazz great Gil Evans, who includes a vocal version of Miles Davis' "So What" as a climactic surprise. With the movie playable in 5.1 or 2.0 DTS-HD MA, this disc sounds better than any soundtrack album of this material, and the isolated tracks are exclusive to this release. Therefore, as Twilight Time releases go, ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS has unusual provenance and collectability. If you want it, move fast - limited to 3,000 copies.
   

KINGS OF THE SUN reviewed


Kino Lorber's KINGS OF THE SUN (1963, $29.98 BD/$19.98 DVD) comes packaged in what appears to be eye-popping Frank McCarthy artwork of Yul Brynner and George Chakiris engaged in mortal battle before the stirring backdrop of an Aztec pyramid with a roiling red sun arising behind it. It's the original United Artists poster art for the picture, but seeing it makes one realize how uncommon to see such graphically splendid art gracing a Blu-ray package; and, fortunately, it makes a promise of old-fashioned matinee spectacle that the film pretty much delivers.

Set in an unspecified time (the trailer says "a thousand years ago") and narrated by an uncredited James Coburn, the story opens with the young Mayan prince Balam (Chakiris) inheriting his slain father's crown at the very moment that the army of Hunac Ceel (Leo Gordon) sieges his pyramid temple to challenge his claim to it. Balam - assisted by sage advisors that include a heavily bewigged Richard Basehart and a strapping Barry Morse - leads his people to ships that take them safely away to a new shore. There, theypresumptuously begin to rebuild their city before meeting or making peace with the Native American locals, led by Black Eagle (Yul Brynner). Black Eagle is wounded in get-acquainted battle with Balam, carried behind the Mayans' fortress walls, and nursed back to health by the raven-haired Ixchel (THESE ARE THE DAMNED's Shirley Anne Field), who hasn't the authority to inform him that he is being restored in order to be sacrificed to ensure, as per their culture's tradition, that their lands remain green and fertile - unaware that this new land has never known the droughts of their former stomping grounds. Naturally there is a love contest between the two kings for the unusually blue-eyed Ixchel, whose very existence brings the two cultures together while also driving them apart. But the eventual surprise arrival of a common enemy (guess who?) restores things to their proper balance in time for a rousing finale.

Directed by J. Lee Thompson and primarily scripted by James R. Webb (previous collaborators on 1962's CAPE FEAR), this film may be guilty of rechewing some dramatic conflicts as old as Shakespeare and dressing them up in some amusingly fruity costumes and anachronistic hairstyles, but the dialogue and staging have real conviction. If Chakiris doesn't carry the same weight as Brynner, this storyline admits as much (he has to learn what Black Eagle already knows, not only about fighting but about loving), and one of the most interesting passages of the film is when the two cultures lower their weapons and become hesitantly receptive to what they stand to learn from one another. (Judged solely from appearances, the movie seems to think that one of the great Mayan contributions to our culture was pomade, but they fortunately stress engraving.) Both Brynner and Chakiris move as lithely as the dancers they were in the fight scenes, but Brynner is particularly fascinating in that he gives the more proudly physical performance; he also imbues his character with a cat-like sensuality rarely encountered in films of this type. Because of this, Black Eagle is not only a warrior but a man as comfortable in his soul as in his physical being, and thus worthier of Ixchel than the man introduced as our hero.

Shot mostly on location in Yucatan and Sinaloa, Mexico, the film's sense of spectacle is on par with the Tarzan films being shot at various points around the world at this time (ie., TARZAN GOES TO INDIA) and there are battle scenes engaging literally hundreds of extras. It occasionally crosses one's mind that this is the kind of picture that Mario Bava could have shot a lot cheaper and sometimes to even greater effect, but there is much here that Bava could not have done so well on a tighter budget. Further bolstered by a rousing Elmer Bernstein score and the anamorphic cinematography of Joseph McDonald (MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, NIAGARA, BIGGER THAN LIFE), this is a nice surprise.

Streets tomorrow, July 28.





   

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Magic Band at Western Costume

This Guy Webster photo of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band - an outtake from a 1967 session for the STRICTLY PERSONAL album gatefold - shows Don Van Vliet (center) wearing the mask created for the Edgar G. Ulmer film THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951).


I've known this for awhile, but what I didn't notice until seeing this photo is that the stocking-masked gentleman second from the left might well be wearing the slouch hat worn by Vincent Price during his skulking scenes in HOUSE OF WAX (1953)!


Drummer John French, who is wearing one of these get-ups, remembers that the group obtained the wardrobe and props from this shoot from Western Costume rental in Hollywood. I wonder if any of the other space helmets or other props seen in this photo can be traced to other classic films or television shows? If any of these others, um, ring a bell - let me know at tim@videowatchdog.com.

Friday, July 17, 2015

On A Personal Note

SNOOPER (little girl on the right)
June 29, 1997 - March 11, 2014

BLABBER (little boy on the left)
June 29, 1997 - July 17, 2015

"The Twins" brought many, many years of comfort, humor and warm companionship to our home and offices, and Donna and I loved them dearly, from before the day this picture was taken (when they came to live with us, when they were about a month old) through their final illnesses. They will be in our hearts forever.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

THE VIDEO WATCHDOG BOOK - Now Digital!


THE VIDEO WATCHDOG BOOK - a collection of my pre-VW Watchdog-oriented articles for VIDEO TIMES, FANGORIA, GOREZONE and FILM COMMENT - is now available digitally!

Entire chapters devoted to Terence Fisher, Edgar Wallace, Dario Argento and Jess Franco! With cover art by Stephen R. Bissette, interior illustrations by Brian Thomas - and a foreword by Joe Dante!

Order your download at http://videowatchdog.com/home/digital/library

Friday, July 03, 2015

The QUATERMASS Rejuvenation

As with all frame grabs, click to enlarge.

On July 27, Network Distributing in the UK will release Nigel Kneale's 1979 mini-series QUATERMASS as well as its condensed theatrical version THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION on DVD and Blu-ray, priced at £19.99. Both versions of the story (one three-and-a-half hours, the other 106m 14s) were directed by Piers Haggard, who had previously directed one of the best horror films of the 1970s - the Knealean THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, which made similar use of the English countryside - and who had also won the BAFTA Award for directing Dennis Potter's PENNIES FROM HEAVEN for television.

One could be forgiven for looking at previous DVD and VHS releases and imagining that the QUATERMASS projects had been lensed in 16mm, or perhaps shot on video and converted to 16mm, because they have always looked stale and sounded dreadful on home video. However, for this new Network release,  the original 35mm camera negatives were accessed to produce incredible-looking, high-definition masters that completely revitalize the films, enriching their sense of landscape and bringing us more into the direct presence of their performances, by the likes of Sir John Mills, Simon MacCorkindale, Margaret Tyzack, Barbara Kellerman and Toyah Willcox. Also, for the first time ever on home video, QUATERMASS has been remixed in 5.1 audio from the original triple-track audio elements, while THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION is presented in what we assume to be its intended original aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

In this story, set in an unspecified near future when Britain is overrun with wars between street gangs, Professor Bernard Quatermass is lured out of his retirement in Scotland in search of his missing granddaughter, and invited to comment on an allied space mission between the United States and the Soviet Union ("the symbolic marriage of a corrupt democracy to a monstrous tyrrany," he says). To his horror, the mission is fatally disrupted by an unknown force, a random beam from space that is soon found to be leading young people by the thousands to megalith sites, to pulverize and harvest some important chemical element found only in the young, and vomiting the rest into an increasingly discolored atmosphere.   
 
Here is a series of grabs from QUATERMASS:
 

The next two sets of grabs illustrate the differences in framing between the miniseries version and the 1.78:1 theatrical version. As you can see, the TV version exposes slightly more information at top and bottom, while the widescreen theatrical framing adds more to the sides while focusing the information on the whole.


 Additional grabs from THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION:


I must admit that, on the basis of the presentations previously available, I have always feltt unkindly toward THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION. However, on the basis of more recent screenings, I've changed my opinion and now believe the feature to be an admirable reduction of the whole. In fact, it was not the usual hatchet job but was creatively condensed by Kneale as he was writing the two versions simultaneously. The only thing really missing from it are opportunities for the characters to reel from and grieve their losses - otherwise, all the essentials feel there, along with a sharper sense of geography and cause and effect. Kneale's novel QUATERMASS remains the best version of this story, but - as this magnificent restoration helps us to see - this is a genuine science fiction epic of ideas, more relevant than ever after a passing of 35 years. Furthermore, this release stands with Arrow Video's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE and THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE as one of the most exciting and needed restorations of the year.

Though Kneale conceived the story in response to what he saw happening in the world in the late 1960s, it speaks with startling clarity to the world we inhabit today - where news sources cannot be trusted, where large collectives of people have turned away from education toward superstition, where shootings are rampant. Indeed, just as Kneale's Martian hypotheses in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT have become accepted by scientists as a reasonable scenario for the origin of intelligent life on this planet, some of this film's theorizing about magnetic templates existing far below megalith sites like Stonehenge have been bourne out by recent research. 

Had QUATERMASS not been made for television, had it been freer to show the real obscenity of apocalypse that it can only hint at, people might regard its two versions at least nearly on par with Romero's first DEAD trilogy. Taken as a whole, the Quatermass tetralogy - THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, QUATERMASS II, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION - is to science fiction what Romero's trilogy is to horror: stories of alienation and apocalypse on a global scale that rally our last shreds of humanity and intelligence to the surface.

As one character says, "They knew it was the only way... to beat the dark."

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Hope For the Lonely, from THE MONKEY'S UNCLE (1963)

Sometimes if you wish for something hard enough...
... it just might come true!

"Ladies, please! There is plenty of me to go around!"

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave: Joe Dante's BURYING THE EX


Joe Dante's BURYING THE EX, based on an original screenplay by Alan Trezza, is opening in select theaters across America today and also premiering on VOD. Whereas most Opening Day VOD slots are tagged for Rental Only, I found this one also available for purchase at iTunes - and buying it is advisable if you have any interest at all. Why? Because it's a Joe Dante movie and the set decoration is as densely packed with trivial referentia as the screenplay is fraught with in-jokes, so the treats for people who come back for additional viewings are part of its design. They aren't always on the level where you may be looking, either; some, like the title I've given to this review, in reference to the title of a 1971 Italian horror picture by Emilio P. Miraglia, had to be pointed out to me by my wife!

Anton Yelchin is Max, a young manager of a Los Angeles horror merchandise shop (a quality place, as they display VIDEO WATCHDOG right next to the cash register) who happens to be in a sexually gratifying but otherwise souring relationship with Evelyn (Ashley Greene), a pushy vegan environmentalist. Max is biding his time, waiting for the proverbial right time to tell Evelyn that it's over, but he's sympathetic and caring; she's mourning a recently deceased mother and looking for some permanence in her life. She's also looking to change Max, who finds his Monster Kid obsessions morbid, and she surprises him when he comes home from work to discover the apartment they share suddenly green and girly, with all his precious foreign horror posters ("They're not even in English!") folded (ARGHH!) and put in drawers. (When he shows just a hint of his carefully marshaled anger, the whimpering Evelyn has one of the funniest lines in the movie: "I'm sorry, but it was my mother's birthday and I wanted to have fun!") Their conflicts come into even greater relief one day when they visit a new ice cream store in the neighborhood called I Scream - yep, a horror-themed ice cream shop with many scary flavors - managed by the comely Olivia (Alexandra Daddario), who, unlike Evelyn, gets Max and all his references, and bumps into him again later at a Val Lewton double feature at the New Beverly. Max is on the point of cutting things off with Evelyn when life beats him to the punch: she's hit by a bus while running toward him. He's racked by guilt, nursed along by his horndog half-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper, playing pretty much the same character he played on the last season of CALIFORNICATION), and starts falling for his perfect match, who is conveniently available - until somehow, either by a magic trinket in Max's shop or sheer will power - a zombified Evelyn claws her way out of her plot at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.


Though undeniably grisly, this is very much a comedy - the term "zom-rom-com" leaps to mind - and on that level, BURYING THE EX pretty much plays by the rules set by other rom-coms of the present era. The characters are for the most part teen comedy caricatures who speak and act outrageously, there's an emphasis on love that is expressed only through sex, and the women are treated pretty badly by the men - and still worse by the other women. This is not to say the film is misogynist, as a couple of critics have charged, because the roles of Evelyn and Olivia are beautifully detailed, sympathetic to the audience if not always to their fellow characters, and very well played. In comedy terms, it does its job and the target audience should be pleased.

That said, because this is a Joe Dante movie, you do get more. Max's torment in the wake of Evelyn's death is genuine and played straight by Anton Yelchin; when she returns from the grave, he is divided between the wish fulfillment and the bad timing of the situation. Ashley Greene is a believable zombie in all meanings of that word - the programmed health nut zealot she was while living, and the rotting reminder of lost love she becomes. Alexandra Daddario plays Olivia as a woman filled with self-doubts and real sexual hunger after surviving a bad relationship of her own, and she is particularly well-cast in contrast to Greene as a type; Evelyn may be green-friendly, but Olivia radiates a more down-to-earth, better match for Max. The success of the film really rides on Anton Yelchin, who plays the lead more or less as the comedy's straight man. After Evelyn is hit by the bus, he sells the wake of that accident with real sensitivity and emotional conflict, his deadpan underscoring the irony of the situation (hasn't she become what's he's always dreamed of, a monster girlfriend?) and a love for this crazy, and now dead, woman that simply cannot transcend their differences as people. Some may watch the film unsure of whether the situation is real or a projection of Max's survivor's guilt, but that's really irrelevant. The situation plays as a very apt metaphor for a love affair that has lingered on well past its expiration date, and the clever dialogue is constantly tossing up phrases that we've all heard or used at various times, which raises the question of why it took so long for this obvious metaphor to be played out in a comedy.

For all that, it's the prevalent Monster Kid culture underlying the story that comes across as its most profound idea. The conflict being played out between Max and Evelyn is foregrounded here in a world where horror has become culturally pervasive. If we look at the film objectively, the stores and shops that figure in its storyline - the  monster-oriented and the ecological - are both rooted in how we, as a people, learn to accommodate different forms of fear. We either fight it as best we can, or befriend it. This is the world pretty much 50 years down the pike from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis setting of Dante's MATINEE (1983), where horror has somehow become ubiquitous and such a touchstone of commonality that it's a touchstone of cool. Meanwhile, the naivet√© that was pretty much universal in MATINEE - except for those involved in the sly world of show business and showmanship - is here reserved for "green" people like Evelyn who abhor horror and live under the delusion that their trendy life choices can move the equivalent of a mountain. Though Evelyn's living concerns are deliberately overplayed to look a bit silly, the problems posed by her return from the grave surprisingly touch on issues (more than that, nerves!) that are serious, committed and eternal - and a touch melancholy as well, because they are issues that were of capital importance to the people of MATINEE's time but which don't carry the same weight in today's uncertain world. Things like the importance of keeping a promise. In taking this story to its end, Dante and Trezza must take their characters to some unlikely extremes, sometimes actually cross-cutting between the human extremes of life (as Max and Olivia urgently take their relationship to the next level in a parked car) and death (as finicky undead eater Evelyn suddenly discovers her zombie appetite), but it deftly succeeds in zipping through some dark straits to arrive at a point of warm resolve and a hearty closing laugh.


All in all, this is that rare zombie movie outside the Romero universe to use the zombie concept to some serious ends, and it amounts to Joe Dante's best work since his two outstanding MASTERS OF HORROR episodes of a decade ago, "Homecoming" and "The Screwfly Solution." It is also his best theatrical feature since SMALL SOLDIERS some eighteen years ago, which is no mean achievement. Of course, Jerry Goldsmith isn't around to score for him any more, and his great HOWLING/GREMLINS cameraman John Hora is only on hand for a cameo as an actor, but BURYING THE EX has pretty much everything you could possibly want from a Joe Dante movie, including a welcome cameo by the (supposedly retired) character actor Dick Miller, who gets to say a couple of things that his fans will be quoting whenever they speak of him, for years to come. It is also delightful to see so many homages in the film to Christopher Lee, which are particularly sweet in light of his recent passing. But most of all, this film has that quality you really don't get anywhere else nowadays: that of a nesting doll form of cinema, where the broad comedy contains keen social satire, where the escapism contains reminders of our human (and humane) responsibilities, and where a palpable love for the sheer variety of people and their interests contains a just-as-palpable despair for the ways they sometimes treat each other.