January 1, 2010

The Best DVDs/Blu-ray Discs of 2009

This was the year that people started to turn “Blu” and buy both standard definition DVDs and high definition Blu-ray discs.  This was the year I made the switch, and boy, am I glad I did.  Even though up-conversion makes standard def discs look pretty good, nothing beats a Blu-ray disc shown on a 1080p monitor or projector.  When it comes to my list of the best discs of 2009, I avoided selecting my favorite movies of 2009 and instead selected the “best” presentation of the finest movies, from any era, that came out on DVD during the year.

A few comments first.  Even though years ago people said only classic films will ever make it to DVD, necessitating the need to keep their VHS tapes, such has not been the case.  Well, let’s face it, most of the horror and science fiction film classics (of every major decade) have been released, and now we are awaiting the release of movies sliding way down in the barrel of quality.  The same is true with all movie genres.  So welcome both the Warner Archive Collection and the TCM Vault Collection, two made-to-order (print on demand for the movie buff) distribution companies that will be releasing those less-in-demand movies, but movies that fans nevertheless are dying to see and own.  And I believe it is this made-to-order DVD availability that should be considered the trend of the year and perhaps even the decade.  Some may complain that Universal’s HOUSE OF HORRORS was released before Paramount’s ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, but the neglect of releasing such classic titles is a rare occurrence these days.  Therefore, besides the classics, this year we applaud the release of those films that typically fell between the cracks, but films that deserve to be watched and enjoyed. 

These releases appear in no particular order, but all of them remain favorites of mine that saw release in 2009.

BORIS KARLOFF AND BELA LUGOSI HORROR CLASSICS—Yes, it is about time that THE WALKING DEAD saw release (even if I consider the movie to be over-rated), but it was also delightful to see the release of those enjoyable B productions YOU’LL FIND OUT, ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY and FRANKENSTEIN 1970.  Most of these programmers have been slammed over the years, but upon fresh-eyed review, looking at gorgeous digital prints, we can re-evaluate these entries and deem them all to be entertaining fun.

ICONS OF SCI-FI:  TOHO COLLECTION—When it comes to those wondrous Japanese monster romps of our youth, besides the early GODZILLA movies and THE MYSTERIANS, the three Toho films that I remember fondly are the three released in this collection—BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, MOTHRA and THE H MAN.  Presented in both Japanese subtitled and dubbed versions, these movies are presented with saturated color, sharp and clear.  The truth of the matter is that these movies were made for children and what thrilled us as children might not perform the same magic as adults.  But the cross-genre crime/horror thriller THE H MAN still features moments of visual horror difficult to forget.

THE WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION—Where to begin?  Should we select the long-anticipated Gordon Scott Tarzan Collection featuring all six of his feature films?  Or should we select those lesser but eagerly sought after film noirs that never before saw DVD release?  The list includes THE FALLEN SPARROW, NORA PRENTICE and EXPERIMENT PERILOUS? Or how about those delightful mystery thrillers such as THE UNSUSPECTED, starring Claude Rains as the masterful murderer?  Or how about those propaganda war movies or post-war movies?  Movies released include I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE F.B.I., THE MASTER RACE and BERLIN EXPRESS.  Even horror movies made their first appearances on DVD, including Hammer’s SHE and the delightful B romp FROM HELL IT CAME.  Seeing the official release of such titles has been the video highlight of the year for me.  Warner Archive, bring it on!

THE TCM VAULT COLLECTION—Appearing late in the year, TCM’s Vault Collection first release was the box set, THE UNIVERSAL CULT HORROR COLLECTION, featuring the release of eagerly anticipated B gems such as HOUSE OF HORRORS, THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX, THE MAD GHOUL, MURDERS IN THE ZOO and THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET. After this collection, not too many more Universal horror/mystery titles remain unreleased, so this TCM release is essential for even the casual fan.  Also TCM Vault Collection released the rarely seen Christmas classic REMEMBER THE NIGHT, with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, working from a script by Preston Sturges.  This rambling bittersweet “road” romp is a true delight and provides something different to watch during the Christmas season.

COLUMBIA PICTURES FILM NOIR CLASSICS, VOL. 1—Yes, the classic and formerly released THE BIG HEAT is included in this collection, causing somewhat of a sour taste in our mouths because we are forced to re-buy a movie most of us already own, but those other releases demand our attention.  Not all of these movies are anything resembling classic noir, but for now seeing those minor gems that have eluded us for years is a real treat.  The movies included in this package are 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE, THE LINEUP, MURDER BY CONTRACT and THE SNIPER.  And with Volume 2 forthcoming, featuring four more new to DVD releases, the wealth of rarities from film noir, affordably priced, just keeps coming and coming.

THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTIONS (Volume 8 is the final release for 2009), which debuted in 2008, continue in 2009, and every Stooge short through most of 1954 has been released.  As the declining quality of the more recent releases has been noted by critics, also duly noted has been the release of the first widescreen Three Stooges shorts and the release of the 3-D Stooges shorts (available in the collection in both a flat and 3-D version, complete with two pairs of glasses included).  With fantastic restoration of the complete, uncut prints, I have gotten so much pleasure and so many laughs out of this series of releases that I had to add it to my top-10 best-of-list for a second year in a row.

The remainder of my top-10 list contains Blu-ray discs restored, re-mastered and replicated in 1080p.  Such is cause for celebration!  Simply stated, whether classic or modern, these movies have never looked or sounded better than they do here.

SNOW WHITE and PINOCCHIO, two of Disney’s greatest classics, arrived in pristine looking and sounding Blu-ray discs during the past year, and both of them are outstanding and bargain priced.  Remember, PINOCCHIO is truly a tale of horror, showcasing the fear of little boys turning into animals and dealing with the horror of body parts that grow too large, too fast.  Disney spares no expense in the Blu-ray releases of their classics.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and A CHRISTMAS CAROL both saw wonderful restorations (with IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE an absolutely pristine, perfect one; with A CHRISTMAS CAROL a noticeably improved one) presented in Blu-ray.  IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE can be watched in both the original black and white version, or the superbly colorized one (by Legend Films) that is also well worth seeing.  To me, these are classic Christmas movies that transcend the Christmas film genre to produce profoundly emotional studies of the human condition.  Both are superb productions that look the best they’ve ever looked in Blu-ray.

SIN CITY (Theatrical and Extended Director’s Cut Edition)—For me this is perhaps one of the most eye-popping cinema experiences of the decade.  Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, coming from the world of movies and the graphic novel, combine talents to co-direct one of the most uncompromising dark crime/film noirs ever produced.  The film made money and was critically recognized, but for me, the film was not recognized to the extent that it needs to be.   It was truly, and still remains, cutting edge for the ages, taking comic books and film noir and transforming them to the screen in the way they can once again be relevant for today’s younger film generation.  I love the interconnected stories, the acting, the stylized photography, the makeup and the crisp dialogue.  On Blu-ray, this film kills.

THE WIZARD OF OZ 70TH ANNIVERSARY ULTIMATE COLLECTOR’S EDITION—Yes, it costs a lot.  But besides getting three discs of movie watching, we get collectable cards, an Oz watch and marvelous reproductions of the movie’s pressbook and a wonderful book that details the film’s production.  In other words, we get the movie and the entire kitchen sink thrown in (stores such as Walmart and Target sold less expensive movie-only Blu-ray versions at a more reasonable price).  But the restoration performed on THE WIZARD OF OZ is mind-blowing and becomes a demonstration of how Blu-ray can make even movies made 70 years ago look pristine and vital once again.  Even if you already own the movie, this version is worth buying once again.  Don’t fight it, just go out and buy it.  You won’t regret your decision.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST—Not as old as THE WIZARD OF OZ, but this 1959 Alfred Hitchcock suspense classic looks as though it were filmed last month, or perhaps looks as though it were mastered from a negative that was stored in a vacuum-sealed vault under ideal conditions, so that the digital prints made look as good as the theatrical prints struck when the movie was brand spanking new.  It is not only the picture but the sound that is also just perfect.  True, Blu-ray was made to make today’s movies look their absolute best. But for anyone who still thinks his VHS of NORTH BY NORTHWEST is anywhere in the same ballpark as watching this masterfully restored Blu-ray version, that person is certifiable and needs to be sealed away in a time capsule immediately.  To be honest, movies such as NORTH BY NORTHEST only testify to the fact that classic movies, those made 50 years ago, or 70 years ago, look and sound incredible in a Blu-ray 1080p release.  Blu-ray brings the classics to rip-roaring life, and that’s why I want to see studios reach further back when releasing new Blu-ray titles.

Another year of home video entertainment has come and gone, but 2010 threatens to see the release of even more vital and breathtaking movie experiences.  Read about all of them in MAD ABOUT MOVIES and MIDNIGHT MARQUEE.

February 7, 2010

AVATAR is Not the Future of American Cinema; It is An Affirmation of its Past!

While I seldom go out to the movies anymore, preferring to wait for movies to be released on home DVD/Blu-ray to watch in our home theater, I wanted to go out and experience AVATAR theatrically. Not just theatrically, but at an IMAX 3-D theater (where the ticket price was $12 per adult).

My friend Bill Littman is a fan of the so-called Road Show theatrical releases of the 1950s and 1960s, where seeing a film theatrically, mostly downtown, became an event.  Many of these Road Show movies featured an elaborate souvenir program book, which could be purchased for a few dollars extra.  Many of the films were released in Cinerama or Todd-AO, or perhaps in 70mm.  And the major way to recognize a Road Show release was to notice the sometimes-longer running time, experience the movie with Intro and Exit music.  And of course the required Intermission occurred before the final hour or so of the production.  Going to downtown theaters, virtual urban palaces, was also part of the experience.  And nothing since has rivaled such cinematic exhibition prowess.  Until now.  Newly emerging IMAX theaters, being slightly downsized from the original IMAX theaters, now modified and housed in multiplexes, allow large curved screens to present, in 3-D no less, something akin to the spectacle of the long gone Road Show production of bygone eras.  Once again going to the movies becomes something very special again.

Of course I must mention a few negatives.  On the ticket I purchased online, it states that the purchase of the ticket only guarantees a seat, but ticket holders are expected to appear half an hour early, required to wait in long lines, to be assured of a good seat (imagine sitting in the front row and having to look straight up to watch the movie).  Also, while waiting for the movie to begin, we are bombarded with never-ending commercials, many of them for TV shows.  Also, on the more positive side, loads of theatrical trailers are shown (most of which are in 3-D).  While the eloquent pageantry of the past has been replaced by the blatant commercialism of the present, IMAX 3-D is still rather special.  And I will say that the sharpness of the digital print and the quality of the 3-D, along with oversized and very comfortable 3-D glasses, only increased the theatrical experience.  Bravo!

But what is there to say about AVATAR, the movie? I must say that AVATAR was an excellent movie and one that grabbed me both emotionally (most important) and visually.  But it was a movie not without flaws.  As many noted, the film presents us with an archetypal cinema experience, but one that has been explored many times in movies past.  The archetypal plot blueprint used before in the past (noticeable in movies such as DANCES WITH WOLVES) delves into the relationship between Native Americans and American settlers, where the so-called savages are revealed to be primitive yet intelligent and imbued with an innocence and closeness to nature.  In such stories we see the roots of AVATAR.  In such films, by the last reel, the primitives are revealed to be more humane, kind and attuned to nature than the so-called civilized folk.  But just because we have seen this story many times before does not mean it cannot be recreated in a new way for a new generation.  Think back to the original STAR WARS trilogy, where the Empire’s reliance on technology and super-science, as symbolized by Darth Vader, is contrasted to the natural alignment of inner energy (the Force) and primitive and seemingly more pure lifestyles, as symbolized by the Ewoks.  And as RETURN OF THE JEDI demonstrates, when technology meets the power of the primitive, the primitive kicks ass!  AVATAR took its time developing its background narrative, and the sequence where Jake Sully’s Avatar is indoctrinated into the Na’vi culture, absolutely necessary and vital to the film’s message, seemed drawn out.  Here the film threatened to become a big over-bloated yawn.  I enjoyed all the visual marvels of Pandora and enjoyed the overblown symbolic characterizations.  But at the same time I was aware I was sitting, watching a movie.

But then something special occurred.  The sequence when the bulldozers appear, suddenly and violently, everything changed.  From this shocking sequence (not shocking it occurred—we knew it was coming—but shocking how it was introduced) until the last shot of the movie, pure visual magic occurred.  Not just the fact that this final section of the movie featured pure action, but it also featured gut-wrenching emotion with horrible destruction and unnecessary deaths.  It just did not enthrall the audience visually, but it engaged us emotionally, all at the same time.  Nothing that came before could rival what follows.  Just the visuals, with or without 3-D, were storyboarded and photographed to perfection.  Also, the manner in which female Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) defends her mate Jake contains such stark imagery that her dramatic stances are frozen into our consciousness and will remain embedded there.  The eventual battle between masterful villain Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and Jake is iconic and gripping (and those mechanical body armor machines are more than a little bit similar to the machine used by Ripley in James Cameron’s ALIENS).  But these sequences, dazzling in visual execution, are equaled by the emotional wallop they deliver.  Perhaps Cameron would argue the first two-thirds of the movie was necessary for the fast-paced payoff of the final third, but this same argument did not work for me during the decade of the 1950s when movie-makers argued that the best monster shots and attacks were saved for the final reel of the movie in order to ratchet up the suspense and not overdo the sequences of the giant monsters early on.  Once we grew up we knew that the decision was almost entirely a budgetary one, but in AVATAR it seems the film’s initial two-thirds could have been tightened up with some tough love editing.  Unfortunately, Hollywood grants directors too much creative control and films, at times, suffer because of that single-minded control.

I do not believe that the future of movies has to be a world of expanded CGI and 3D.  James Cameron should be proud of creating old-style moviemaking in such a technologically advanced production.  His story is old school, as are his characters and the manner in which they are presented.  Good storytelling is good storytelling (even if the rehashed plot is instantly recognizable) and it is Cameron’s ability to assemble the film visually by creating such a fully realized world that becomes its major artistic success.  Even though everyone is lauding 3D as the only answer to Hollywood’s ills, I still feel that the wearing of goggles takes one out of the movie experience and makes us aware that we are, in fact, watching a movie.  I admire the ability of Cameron to envision a world in his head that he makes real on the big screen, and his creation of such a believable society, complete with all its rituals and mythology, is nothing short of amazing.  Yet, viewed flat, I feel such an accomplishment would prove to be almost as great.  Yes, the 3D in this case embellished the movie experience, but the 3D embellished the experience by using a gimmick, though admittedly a gimmick used quite effectively.  But for me such a gimmick took me out of the viewing experience and only emphasized that I was watching a movie.  Someday, if 3-D could be accomplished without the use of goggles, then perhaps the format might become one that sticks.

So, finally, AVATAR is one of the most gripping movie experiences of the decade, an overblown production that was worthy of the production expenses.  But at heart it is only superficially nouveau and remains simply an old-style movie done right, with good storytelling, characterization and cinematic style creating a world we never before experienced.  James Cameron is a sly devil, having both his cake and eating it too.  To youngsters he is avant-garde and cutting edge; to veteran movie buffs he continues to do what great filmmakers of the past has always done.  And AVATAR continues its journey to become the most successful movie of all time.  Bravo to James Cameron for remaining true to his political vision and having the guts to follow it through to the end.  And any movie where we come to hate a segment of humanity and cheer for the alien race to destroy human greed is innovative and gutsy in the most pure artistic sense.  Now that is totally subversive cinema, presented upon the mainstream movie platform!

March 29, 2010
Why the ACADMEY AWARDS Show Isn’t What It Once Was

As a child, I never missed the television broadcast of the Academy Awards program.  I looked forward to seeing the stars, watching movie clips and laughing to the antics of Johnny Carson and Bob Hope, who usually hosted the event.  I was prepared to stay up late and struggle in school the next day (at first as a student and soon as a teacher). The broadcast fascinated me until just about 10 years ago, or perhaps even 15 years.  A sense of lethargy crept in and recently a sense of boredom, created by the sameness of the show and its ungodly length.

But there’s more to it than that.

A generation ago stars were mysterious and seeing them at the Academy Awards was something very special.  Imagine seeing John Wayne interviewed on broadcast TV regularly, or the same with James Stewart or Henry Fonda.  Today, we have shows like ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT or ACCESS HOLLYWOOD or The E-Channel broadcast entertainment news seven nights a week.  If Lindsay Lohan trips and falls wearing her spiked high heels leaving a party at 3 a.m., it is broadcast the very next night.  Stars are overexposed and their sparkle fades quickly.  So seeing movie celebrities on the Academy Awards is almost a form of over-exposure.  We don’t have to wait a year to see or hear them descend upon the Red Carpet.  It has become almost a monthly ritual.

Also, the awards formerly contained surprises and friends would host parties predicting the outcome of the awards, and who and what won was actually a crapshoot.  For this year, every award went down as predicted.  AVATAR was the early favorite, but as the press reported, the little picture that could, THE HURT LOCKER, was fast gaining momentum and ultimately won.  Now that was almost a surprise.  In the past the best movie did not win, the most popular and generally the movie that made the most money or struck a specific chord with viewers was the odds-on favorite to win.  However, this year people wanted to slay the “King of the World” giant, James Cameron, and see his independent-budgeted ex-wife take home the prize, and that she did.  For the first time in ages, AVATAR appeared to be too big a picture to win, too successful, making too much money.  And instead the movie that only grossed $20 million at the time became the new David that slew Goliath.  Today’s winners are almost always predicted correctly the week before the broadcast, but most times one or two awards startle or surprise.  But that was not so this year.

Third, the acceptance speeches have deteriorated into almost a bland press release thanking the winner’s agents, publicist and anyone associated with the movie.  Generations ago, acceptance speeches came from the heart, and celebrities expressed their gratitude by way of a personal reflection or private anecdote.  Who wants to hear a litany of unknown names?  We want heart and soul, and we formerly got it in big bushels.  Today we get a carefully orchestrated (even the emotion appears to be rehearsed … most of these people are performers remember) PR list.  The speeches, which should be the guts of the broadcast, now become humdrum.  Director Kathleen Bigelow, who was the first women to win the best director’s award, did not make mention of the fact and her speech was almost forgotten by the next morning.  It wasn’t even memorable the night before.

The tribute clips are not even so well constructed.  Take the tribute to the horror film shown this year (introduced by stars of the TWILIGHT series). It was very bland.  For most of its few minutes, we were bombarded by colorful images of modern (mostly mainstream) horror movies—NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, THE EXORCIST, JAWS, ROSEMARY’S BABY—and were wondering where the originators and classic clips were hiding?  Toward the end clips from the classic Universal Pictures appeared, all bundled quickly together, but no clips from the Lewton series or other vintage classics appeared (of course PSYCHO appeared).  It was a tribute to a niche genre designed by a mainstream vision, a vision that missed some obvious left-of-center choices (I don’t believe I saw one clip from any Hammer production).  As Anthony Ambrogio would say, this was a tribute to horror cinema by people who do not like horror cinema very much.

Before, a generation ago, when the Best Picture was announced, a feeling of exaltation occurred, a sense that great art was being honored, that this film was going to last in the annals of cinema history and that somehow a torch was being passed on.  We stood alongside the cast and company of greatness and a lump formed in our collective throats.  However, today the greatest films are not particularly great.  Where are the great artists, the John Fords, the Howard Hawks, the Alfred Hitchcocks, the Preston Sturges, the George Stevens?  Where are the stars, the “faces,” and not the cookie-cutter professionals (do you notice that so many of our younger male and female stars all look alike?)?  Where is the magic and glory of Hollywood?

Certainly not at the Academy Awards!

May 2, 2010

One Generation Gets Old With No One to Pass the Torch To!

Last weekend I attended the monthly meeting of the Baltimore-based Imaginative Film Society, a group of fans dedicated to classic horror movies and related subjects.  It was a special meeting, as writer Tom Weaver was the featured guest and equally acknowledged author Greg Mank came along for the ride.  After the meeting was winding down, I was off to the side speaking to the club’s president David Willard about the state of the classic horror film genre and its immediate future.  Willard’s fear was that after the baby boomer generation passes, no one remaining will give a crap about Universal horror classics, Val Lewton, giant bug movies and Lon Chaney shall finally die (to echo the sentiment of Forrest J Ackerman)!  Willard asked me if I had any ideas about how to reach the audience of younger fans, to help keep the torch burning for future generations.

Myself, I am not very optimistic about the torch continuing to burn brightly.  Look around. The torch hasn’t been burning brightly for decades.  Yes, yes, we do have organizations like the Imaginative Cinema Society and the Classic Horror Film Board and various conventions and the like.  But the niche market that cares is small and only dwindling.  Genre magazines are dying and even the so-called fan often refuses to support the remaining genre magazines unless he or she can purchase them at newsstands where the zine can first be examined before purchase.  Mail order purchases and subscriptions seem to frighten such people off.  They argue, suppose the magazine folds before the subscription runs out!  Suppose I like the contents of issue #77 but not issue #78.  Such true fans proclaim they don’t wish to purchase anything sight unseen.  Their commitment to the beloved niche market is questionable.

When we boomers were kids in the 1960s and raving about the classics, we only had to go back 30 years to reach the decade of classic horror movies, the 1930s.  So for those Monster Kids, 30 years took us all the way back to our horror roots.  True, some fans admired the silent movies, but they basically only cherry-picked the best ones (horror chillers such as THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, NOSFERATU, THE CAT AND THE CANARY, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, THE GOLEM and a few others).  For FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND fanatics, other than the battle cry of LON CHANEY SHALL NOT DIE, we pretty much favored the sound era and cared only for the silents if they starred Lon Chaney or featured a monster.

Today’s young movie fan might think of the 1980s as the classic era, much in the same way that the boomers went back three decades to admire the 1930s.  Horror cinema did not begin too much earlier than the 1930s; however, why aren’t today’s emerging horror film fan curious in the earlier decades that featured the origins of the horror genre?  Why not view and study films made 40, 50 or even 70 years ago?  Boomers did not have that opportunity when we were in our teens and early twenties.  I think the boomer generation was interested in film history and tracing, dot by dot, what we liked currently with the evolution of the past, leading right up to current cinema.  In a sense boomers understood only too well, as children, that the films made 20 and 30 years earlier were infinitely better than most of the modern movies (with some exceptions).  We were currently enjoying the best of the American International drive-in theater features and the emerging Roger Corman Poe series, but we also witnessed the current releases of HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, THE FLESH EATERS and FRANKENSTEIN AND THE SPACE MONSTER.  Not necessarily bad movies, but also not classic ones either.

Today’s fan might think that Peter Jackson’s KING KONG is superior to the 1933 classic, by nature of the fact that special effects improved with 70 years of evolution.  They might also think that the new version of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is better than the original one, because technology has improved in the 25 years since the original was released.  For the same reasons today’s fans embrace remakes of movies that only first arrived during the 1970s or beyond (DAWN OF THE DEAD, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE).  Fans today only have the monstrous make-up to admire, or the CGI special effects.  We no longer have genre stars, human beings, to associate with the horror film genre, so fans of the genre are usually fans of makeup, special effects or gore.  We no longer have any Karloffs, Lugosis, Chaneys, Prices, Cushings or Lees to fuel the world of the horror film.  So a dedicated fan base is difficult to maintain.

Of course we realize that younger movie fans shun black and white photography in classic older movies, and before long they might also shun any movie that is not projected in 3-D if this over-promoted gimmick returns and sticks.  When I show the William Castle classic HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL to teenagers today, they jump and enjoy the movie (although they claim the movie does get a little boring in between shock sequences).  But would they rent it on their own from NetFlix or Blockbuster?  I doubt it very much.

So what about the legacy of the icons of horror—the Karloffs and the Lugosis?  How many people 40 years and younger rush out to buy the Universal DVD box sets?  How many people in their 20s and 30s recognize the name of Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi (let alone The Marx Brothers, Humphey Bogart, Laurel and Hardy or even Vincent Price)?

Speaking as both a fan and a publisher (of magazines and books geared toward the classic horror film niche), I can say, without reservation, that book and magazine sales are dwindling.  Once in a while a youngster will purchase one of our products, but that seems to be the exception.  This imaginative film genre we love seems to only appeal to people nearing or at retirement age. 

The bottom line is this.  We love what we remember from our own childhood, not the childhood of generations before us.  How many collectibles from former generations have passed to the wayside, items once highly desirable by a dedicated fan base now forgotten and thrown away as junk.  The photography, direction and acting of those creaky early sound features do not hold the interest of people who are wowed by AVATAR.  It does not matter what is better, what is best.  All that matters is art that speaks to the current generation using the language and communicative tools of that generation.  Movies are based upon or look like video games because that is the art that speaks to young people today.  Computer generated special effects cause young fan’s imaginations to soar because computers are their creative tool and one they love and understand.  Boomers are intrigued by the imagination and technology of Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion animation, and it was truly state of the art for a generation or two.  But now new tools exist, tools that use the imagination of newly emerging technology.  Today people might like movies because they are reminded of their favorite video games, not the other way around.  Video games might be the preferred art format and movies come off as copycat second best.

Movies for our generation were an overwhelming experience, one involving traveling to those sacred houses of the holy, the movie palaces.  And besides one or two feature films, we had the opportunity to watch newsreels, cartoons, two-reel comic shorts, etc.  It was more than a night at the movies; often for many of us, it meant staying the entire day.  And the movies themselves were special.  They were creations of inspired art and imagination that were fun as were.  Today movies are products, seldom art except in the disposable sense, and today’s movie fans think of them as akin to a day at King’s Dominion amusement park.

Even the hope for our generation, those film students graduating from film schools, think of the 1970s as the beginning of the era of classic cinema.  Some may be required to take one class that shows something earlier than the 1970s, but that is akin to kids in school being forced to read a literary classic for a passing grade, not something that resonates with them emotionally.  Most younger film fans simply don’t care about the creaky and outmoded past.  STAR WARS, TAXI DRIVER and THE GODFATHER Trilogy are about as classic as today’s film fans desire.

By mid-century, purchasing a copy of BRIDE OF FRANENSTEIN will be as relevant as purchasing a Harold Lloyd movie is today.  The names Karloff and Lugosi will be remembered about as well as the name of comedian Mabel Norman.  Today’s young people are so obsessed with future technology that they don’t have time to remember the past.  And while baby boomers always worshiped the past, today’s generation does not share that same compelling obsession about that which has come before.  Perhaps we should be sad, or perhaps this is simply a fact of life.  But for so many people today, the past simply does not exist or is considered irrelevant.  At least it’s not in their consciousness.  And our cultural heritage will continue to suffer because of it.

Baby boomers are proud of the torch they seem ready to pass on.  The only problem is no one seems to care to want to reach out and grab it.  And so the flame flickers and slowly fades away.

May 16, 2010
Is BEST PICTURE always the GREATEST movie of the year?

I was fascinated by this year’s battle for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  The techno forward-thinking AVATAR appeared to have the Best Picture award in the pocket until the little picture that could, THE HURT LOCKER, stole the honors.

I then began to think of all the Academy Award-winning Best Pictures that I could remember and then consider are all those movies truly the greatest examples of cinema for that year, or even the best?  And in my introspections, I came up with a few ideas about good, better and best.

First of all, did THE HURT LOCKER deserve to win the Oscar for Best Picture of 2009?  Well, of course it did when considering other less-than-stellar movie that won the Best Picture award.  In other years movies such as TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, ROCKY and ORDINARY PEOPLE (not to forget CHARIOTS OF FIRE and THE ENGLISH PATIENT) won.  Certainly, THE HURT LOCKER was a better movie than many winners for Best Picture from previous years, but in no way was it the best movie of the year.  But the film did not win because it was the best film of the year.  Of course politics and personal agendas dictate that. 

Two types of movies win the Oscar for Best Picture, and I say two types in the broadest sense.  First we have the culturally defining moment movie.  Sometimes this film is huge at the box-office and seems to resonate with the movie viewing public (including those Academy members who have the power of the vote).  In such instances the movie might not be great but for its artistic vibrations to the pulse-beat of the American culture at that moment in time, the movie is great.  The other type of Best Picture is a movie that simply rises up as a movie that is artistically superior and tells a riveting story well, with a cast of actors that make the viewing audience feel and care.  In such movies direction, editing, cinematography all congeal to form a movie that stands above.  It might not be the biggest moneymaker or garner all the hip press raves (but sometimes it rises above all the others because it has been embraced by the hip press), but it simply stands above and gets itself noticed, for whatever reason.

This year’s contest featured such a duel of the titans.  First we had the ground-breaking technological defining movie that pushed CGI light years ahead, much in the same way that 1933’s KING KONG demonstrated an evolution of stop motion special effects that became the standard bearer for generations to come.  That movie AVATAR was a classic visual feast making us believe in and care for computer generated characters (of course CGI characters based upon living, breathing human actors).  Many critics constantly rave about movies that depict a world we never saw or imagined before, and James Cameron’s vision of a new world more than meets that criteria.  But Cameron had a problem … his world and vision was larger than his self-penned script, which became almost a cliché recalling other movies already too familiar.  Movies that come to mind include POCAHONTAS, DANCES WITH WOLVES and many Western movies too numerous to count.  It is acceptable when an original screenplay borrows some ideas from one source, blends them with inspiration from another, ultimately crafting a unique vision that has glimmers to past works of which we are reminded.  But almost every plot gesture in AVATAR is clichéd, even down to the jealous indigenous male warrior who is upset that his indigenous female warrior has fallen for the outsider male warrior.  Very nuance is easily guessed to the point that the plot has very few surprises.  About one-third through the movie Sue knew that our crippled male warrior would find a way to remain in his Avatar body for life.  Everything is predictable and telegraphed to the point that not even the visuals can save the movie.  We have elements of greatness in AVATAR, but we also have moments of the bland generic and lack of freshness. 

The fact that AVATAR was perhaps the biggest grossing movie of all time typically sways Academy voters who tend to vote for the movie that makes the most money.  However, this year, AVATAR broke the bank and perhaps became too boastful of its success (not by any fault of its own).  Making too much money is akin to not making any.  The visuals and technology of AVATAR pushed it nearer and nearer the Oscar, but its inherent weaknesses drew attention to the Academy voters.

Now our second type of Best Picture is simply the movie that told a wonderful story acted by an ensemble cast that clicked, featuring inspiring direction and editing.  THE HURT LOCKER is that movie.  Nothing in the movie is cutting edge.  It is an example of solid old school movie-making, with perhaps its only gimmick being that it was a modern desert war movie directed by a woman who got her start in B horror movies.  But we can’t fault her for that.  Early on in the year, many critics created a buzz that this little movie could become a contender for the Oscar later on in the year.  In a typical movie year such a great little movie, released early in the year, would tend to be forgotten

In my estimation, too many other really good movies would have been recognized first.  THE HURT LOCKER only made something like 20 million before Academy Award night, making it at best the sleeper that may have deserved to win but never does.  But then, after the Academy Awards evening, the film opens wider theatrically and doubles its take in a matter of weeks.  In other words, films such as THE HURT LOCKER become the bridesmaid who catches the bouquet and becomes noticed.  Too many other great films exist, so why should THE HURT LOCKER be singled out as “the one”?

Well friends, the answer is politics.

We all love David and Goliath stories, and AVATAR simply had too big a push. Too many people had too high expectations for the movie.  AVATAR made too much money too fast.  It met all the criteria of what a Road Show style epic encompasses when it is being considered for a Best Picture Oscar, but it flew too close to the sun.  It made too much money and it dazzled too many people’s vision.  If any movie could obtain human characteristics, it almost became too arrogant for its own good.

But the great little picture, the polar opposite to AVATAR, THE HURT LOCKER suddenly had wings of steel.  Of course the press never lost sight that Kate Bigelow was formerly married to the director of AVATAR, James Cameron.  What a great press PR buildup.  The wealthy “king of the world” director of the overwrought TITANIC, James Camera, vs. his former wife, the almost lost in obscurity Kate Bigelow, struggles to have her little epic noticed.  Her movie with not a name star in sight, filmed on a low budget but a movie that looks expensive.  In other words, AVATAR became the over-blow Hollywood production and THE HURT LOCKER the little picture that could.

Once the press and political Hollywood machine got hold of that clichéd scenario, how could THE HURT LOCKER lose?  It was a shoe-in from the get-go. 

Even if we agree that AVATAR is one flawed masterpiece or a movie that advanced technology and computer generated effects at the expense of a decent and original plot, well, other great movies failed to get notice.  In many ways I feel the most groundbreaking movie of the year was UP.  Simply that emotionally riveting montage depicting the life of the two children in several minutes, growing up, falling in love, marrying, aging, with one of them dying, is the most audacious, emotional and classic visual sequence in cinema for that entire year.  If any film other than AVATAR deserved the Best Picture nod, it should have been UP.

But wait, we are forgetting another great one of the year! When it comes to a director who wrote a powerful screenplay and brought it to the screen with pure cinematic exuberance, what film surpassed Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS last year?  For me, BASTERDS was the film of the year and riveted me to the screen for two hours in such a way that I had to fist pump, smile and even yell at the ambition of all the artists who brought such a wonderful movie to life.  Of course it could not win the Oscar for Best Picture.  INGLOURIOUS BASTERS was too violent, sexy, outrageous and weird (its shifts in tone were jarring and artistic at the same time) for Academy voters to take the chance on the one film that screamed out its originality.  Even more than UP, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar.  But for me winning such a gutless and homogenized award would have meant nothing.  Tarantino, by not winning, kept the integrity of what great films did in the past and continue to do in the present—fail to win the Oscar. Great movies are like forces of nature—they simply emerge.  They do not need to be recognized by card-carrying Academy members for whatever agenda preoccupies them that year. Go up to Cinema Paradiso and ask Alfred Hitchcock (Lifetime Achievement awards do not count), Orson Welles and John Ford what it meant not winning an Academy Award.  I’d bet they would say it was their badge of honor! 

May 28, 2010
24 Calls It A Day While Jack Bauer Becomes the Iconic Noir Protagonist for a Modern World

I am very depressed—Fox’s “real time” serial ended its eight-year run on Fox TV this past week.  I have referred to the show here and there, but I never once sat down to write just how important the series meant to me.  I was there the first Monday night when the series started and I NEVER missed an episode during its initial broadcast.  Even during the past few years, when I was able to DVR each episode, I never wanted to hear about surprises second hand the next day at work or online.  I was there, glued to the screen, for all 195 episodes.  While the quality of various “days” or seasons varied, and even during the best “days,” some hours, just like in real life, were less thrilling than others.  But for me this was the essential, time-defining television experience for the New Millennium, the greatest TV experience since TWIN PEAKS left the airwaves, in my humble opinion (LOST was also culturally defining and excellent, but it never stuck to my ribs like 24 did; same with THE WIRE and THE SOPRANOS). 

I can remember clearly some of the most exciting moments from quintessential episodes.  I was there when Jack’s lover Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke) killed Jack’s wife Teri (Leslie Hope) in the final moments of the final episode of Day One, just when we thought that the good guys won and everyone in peril was now safe (to me Teri’s brutal murder was the most shocking moment I ever experienced in fictional television).  I was there when best bud and also worst enemy Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) died TWICE.  I was there when second major love Audrey Raines (Kim Raver) came back from China emotionally broken, shell-shocked, almost comatose, and confined to bed for perhaps the rest of her life.  I was there when 24’s best president, David Palmer, was attacked by a terrorist wielding deadly bio-bacteria in her seemingly innocent handshake, and moments later, Palmer writhers and falls, his hand almost decaying before our eyes, ending that season on a shocking note.  I was there at the beginning of a new season when David Palmer was assassinated by another terrorist who got off a terrific shot that pierced the plate glass exterior of his hotel suite, the bullet lodging in his throat, ultimately killing the ex-president.  I was there when teddy bear Edgar, one of the most endearing nerds working at CTU, the one who always worried about his mother’s welfare, died slowly and painfully in the haze of bio-viral clouds released at CTU.  I was there, this final season, when Jack Bauer, colder than James Bond, walked up to a defenseless (but totally evil) woman and shot her point blank in the chest.  And moments later he delivered the death shot, just for insurance sake.  Also, I was there, this season, when Jack gutted another assassin, using a knife to retrieve a smart card swallowed moments before.  I was there when Jack endured a nuclear explosion and somehow survived.  I was there when Jack was at long last allowed to spend a few minutes alone in the bedroom with his current love, Rene Walker (Annie Wersching), making passionate love, when in the warm afterglow of sex, Walker naked and wrapped in a thin sheet, gets shot in the chest, an inch below the heart, bleeding out, causing the equally heroic Walker to die a painful death as Jack carries her wrapped in a sheet to the hospital, where she dies almost immediately.  I was there when a deadly cougar stalked Jack’s daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert)!  And finally, I was there when in the final moments of one season we see Jack sitting alone in a car and break down and cry after a very bad day.  And these are just a few stellar moments that come to mind.  There are at least twice as many equally impressive moments in a series filled with them.  For instance, how could I not mention the tense moment in one early episode when Jack was ordered by terrorists to shoot his boss in the head, execution-style.  And he did, reluctantly (his boss also gave him the order, for the good of the country).

But why did 24 become such a defining moment in television history?  Oh sure we can speak of the real time approach and the fact that each day (each TV season) was comprised of 24 hours.  We can speak of the cutting edge violence and tension that existed in almost every episode.  But for me 24 was great because Kiefer Sutherland’s performance as Jack Bauer was classic in the same way that Sean Connery’s performance as James Bond was iconic.  The phrase “don’t go Jack Bauer on me” will survive for a long time. He created this psychically damaged antihero and made him raw and real.  And most importantly for me, Jack Bauer became the symbol of the film noir “damaged” protagonist, the noir hero, for our modern times.  When we speak of film noir, we speak of moral ambiguity and the fuzzy distinction between good and evil.  24 was crafted as a suspense thriller, an action adventure with clearly defined characters.  But Jack Bauer became the modern symbol for the inability to distinguish between true right and wrong.  Don’t get me wrong here.  Bauer’s quest was always one to search for and find the right thing to do, but in the past few seasons Jack has found it increasingly more difficult to define the right thing to do.  Every American institution from the FBI to CTU (the show’s fictional Counter Terrorism Unit) to the American government, including the president’s inner circle, was always corrupted or at least playing a high-stakes game of the ends justify the means.  The past two seasons we had the first female president Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), a woman so immersed in her morality to do the right thing that she even sent her own daughter up the river when her child overstepped legal boundaries, thus forcing her husband, whom she loved, to leave and divorce her in disgust.  Now with Day 8 this same president is sleeping metaphorically in the same bed as her enemy in order to orchestrate a career-defining (for HER) peace treaty—but at what cost?  Even her closest friend and adviser abandons her because her diseased sense of morality disgusted him.

Last season was book-ended (and it was one of the finest seasons, Day 7) with a federal investigation of the use of torture to fight terrorism.  Jack Bauer made it clear during a Senate investigation that the enemy does not play by any rules, so if we want to defeat evil, we must also use evil.  People who play by the rules are weakened and ultimately will lose.  Jack’s moral mirror image Renee Walker, introduced last season as a by-the-book FBI agent, was the moral compass that questioned Jack’s fuzzy morality.  But by the end of that day, Agent Walker was using torture to justify the moral ends of catching the bad guys and saving the day at any cost.  The entire journey of Day 7 was to make us question Jack Bauer’s intentions by casting him as a dangerous rogue who takes the law too freely into his own hands.  But by the end of the season, we came to understand exactly what Jack Bauer represents and why he does what he does.  When there is no one else around to do the dirty job and to do it by breaking the rules for a larger cause, Jack is willing to sacrifice all, even his soul, to save his country.  In this season Bauer even stated as much when one terrorist refused to talk under duress and only smirked, telling Bauer he would see him in Hell. Bauer, without missing a beat, stated, “You first!!!!”  Bauer makes no pretenses or justifications for his actions.  He purposely tries not to think things through too thoroughly (and thus avoid becoming the modern era’s Hamlet, who ultimately does nothing).  Instead, he sees the end game and accomplishes by any means that end game goal.  When his lover is killed, he becomes rogue in the sense that Charles Bronson became rogue in DEATH WISH and methodically Bauer tracks down all the parties responsible and makes them die horrible deaths … for the sake of justice.  Of course there is a price to pay for slaughtering higher echelon Russian dignitaries.

Jack Bauer knows he is dirty.  Bauer knows he will most likely burn in Hell.  He knows he is not part of any system or society except his own, and that his goal is saving America from even its own government, fairly often a weak or power hungry president, and always those corporate quasi-military organizations who claim they exist to defend America (Jon Voight’s armed-to-the-gill defense security group became the major evil of Day 7).  Jack is the ultimate individual acting alone and doing what must be done.  At first he worked within CTU, but for the past few seasons he worked with CTU, but from the outside, as a consultant, and always working on his own terms.  As we all know, CTU has more “moles” than Old MacDonald’s farm!

By the end of the series, Day 8, every person from Jack’s past life that meant anything is gone except for daughter Kim and true friend, the quirky and anti-social Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), the woman who rose to become acting director of CTU, rising within the system, while Jack saved everyone’s ass working as the rogue from outside.  Interestingly, the climax of the series finale demonstrated their ultimate friendship as Jack bids Chloe a tearful good-bye and heartfelt thank you.

24 might not be film noir, but Jack Bauer (and Sutherland’s performance) most definitely is.  He plays the tortured (both physically and emotionally) loner who is willing to bring down the US government for the betterment of America.  He is not beholding to any organizations, philosophies or authority figures.  He is a firm believer in revolution and overthrowing any group whose grasp for power means they would sacrifice the good of the American people for its own agenda.  Jack does not respect the powerful or the wealthy because he knows that ultimate power corrupts (as President Taylor has shown this season) and that money is the root of evil.

At the beginning of this final season Day 8, Jack was the doting grandfather playing with daughter Kim’s children.  He was prepared to leave his line of work, move from the East Coast to the West Coast to be nearer Kim, to take a job in the private sector in security and live a mundane normal life spoiling the grandchildren.  But a mere 24 hours later he has lost his soul and crossed the line from which he cannot go back.  He is a man without a country, hated and hunted by both the USA and Russian governments (President Taylor will resign and her successor won’t owe any loyalty or credence to outlaw rogue Jack Bauer), and a man who must abandon his beloved America for his own survival.  He was one plane ticket and journey away from salvation, but as the series creators Robert Cochran and Joel Surrow made clear, they could not envision a happy ending for Jack Bauer.  They felt it would not ring true to the progression of Bauer as a character and the series as a whole.  Before Jack Bauer butchers the murderer of Renee Walker, the equally damaged warrior with whom he might have found a soul mate, he cries out to her assassin, “Why couldn’t you have just left us alone!!!!”  Jack Bauer leaves us as the archetypal modern warrior, a man who cannot ever put his sword down, a man who is manipulated by his own impulses and dedication to a cause that he might not even understand.  And isn’t this the essence of film noir?

I will truly miss Monday nights at 9 pm.  24 is more than merely a great TV series.  It was art and philosophy and existentialism all wrapped up in one untidy, messy package. Jack Bauer has become the iconic, archetypal modern man and the impression he made will live on for a long, long time.  At least longer than the clock ticking away those nerve-wracking minutes that provided the ultimate adrenalin rush for the past eight years.

June 28, 2010

COMFORT FILMS—Why Old Films “Feel” The Best

My wife Susan loves to cook “comfort food” in the winter months, because she feels such long-cherished childhood meals renew the spirit and feed the soul.

Old movies do that for me.  Especially those made during the decade of the 1950s, when I was a kid growing up.

Sometimes I love to put on a movie such as RETURN OF DRACULA, THE VAMPIRE or even THE MONOLITH MONSTERS, because I love the depiction of small town America where everyone knows everyone else and most people get along just fine and dandy.  Everyone greets one another with a smile.  Young teens deliver prescription medicine from the drug store on bikes, usually to houses that are not locked and the person inside invites the person outside in.  And both feel safe. People buy groceries on credit and neighbors trust and respect one another.  Even in films such as I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF or BLOOD OF DRACULA, where there’s trouble in paradise (psychologically damaged teens with anti-social behavior and adult predators who take advantage of such situations), life at high school is depicted as being a nurturing environment, with kids acting as kids at the high school hop, having fun side-by-side with innocent flirtation in the science lab or after school on the parking lot or soda shop.  I am sure back in the mid-fifties, such a world was very Hollywood-esque and not quite realistic, but enough of the truth of such times shines through and movies, such as these and others, remind us of a world and society that no longer exists.

Sometimes I watch movies such as EARTH VS. THE SPIDER and INVADERS FROM MARS because that world or society is  where I would love to spend a little time.  Hey, I would not wish my parents to be zombified by Martians with little probes at the base of their necks that could be exploded, causing fatal strokes, at the whim of the alien overseer.  But wouldn’t you love to play in those sand dunes out in back of your house where the wooden planks end?  Wouldn’t you love to live in a neighborhood where you are friends with all the neighbors and play with all the neighbor kids, and when you go downtown you are on a first name basis with the police force and feel safe?  During the decade of the 1950s your teacher not only challenges you but is your friend, and you are willing to help your teacher in any side projects requested, even if that means exploring uncharted caves that house deadly giant spiders.  The world was so much safer then, so that the threat of mutated monsters was even more frightening because the horrors existing beneath such idyllic worlds created a far greatest contrast. In this world young people were not subjected to violent street crime, drive-by shootings, gang violence or home invasions.  Yes, of course crime existed, but it occurred on a smaller scale.

In those films of our youth we encountered heroes of the chiseled good-looking features variety, heroes who were not morally conflicted and who always took the high moral ground.  Heroes were self-sacrificing and were willing to die to keep their community and friends healthy, safe and happy.  Thus we grew up looking at smiling good guys such as John Agar, Robert Clarke, Arthur Franz, Kenneth Tobey, Ed Kemmer, Grant Williams, Richard Denning, and Gene Barry.  Most of the characters played by these actors did not have complex backstories or troubled pasts.  They were good-natured working people who were productive citizens of their community, people who stood out and willingly gave back.  They were well liked and well known.  They were heroes in whom we immediately could place our trust.   And how did such stereotypes defeat the enemy?  They prevailed by using common sense, intelligence (most of these heroes were doctors, military men, scientists) and courage.  Such characters were usually ordinary in one sense but superior in another—the community usually looked up to such people as being slightly more knowledgeable, even if they occupied the roles of everyday working people. But such characters made children feel safe and protected.

And when it came to defeating the enemy, it usually took a team, either a small community of people working together or the entire community working together.  Think of the quaint independent production (smartly gobbled up by mainstream Paramount) THE BLOB (1958).  Yes, hero Steve MacQueen was a belligerent and flip high schooler (looking as though he were on the ten year graduation plan), but at heart he was a good kid who was a team player (he even called his adversary cop by his first name Dave and, through his actions, he shows he respects Dave, even if he is subject to teenage hi-jinks, such as drag racing on public streets). When MacQueen needs multiple fire extinguishers, he rallies not only his fellow high school buddies but teachers and the principal as well, who all cooperate to destroy this monster from space.  Even when the monster invades the town grocery store, it takes teamwork and intelligence to defeat the Blob.  When MacQueen and citizens are trapped in the diner, it takes communication and cooperation to defeat the monster.  The community pulls together to stay alive.  What starts as a low-rent version of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE soon becomes something else all together, a testimony to young rebels and mainstream society working together (using intelligence, courage and common sense) to defeat the threat to their society.  And by the last frame the monster is being carried away by airplane, the “cancer” being removed symbolically from the quaint Pennsylvania burgh, restoring order and safety because opposing personalities came together to fight a common cause, both rebellious youth and entrenched old-timers alike.

And what makes these old 1950s movies so endearing is ultimately those set pieces that become iconic vestiges of the nostalgic past.  Many of these movies spend quality time in the local doctor’s office, one filled with a waiting room of only 1 or 2 people where the doctor knows everyone by their first name.  Doctors or employees deliver medicines directly to the home.  People walk down main street U.S.A. and seem to know everyone they meet, and everyone has a smile and friendly comment or two.  People in drug stores or grocery stores never seem rushed and everyone cooperates.  High schools seem fun and safe and dances are always high energy with the kids having one helluva blast.  The police are authority figures, but they are also nurturing and friendly, as are teachers, ministers and members of the military and federal agents.  Shopping seems to be more like an excuse to socialize and visit friends then it is to rush through aisles, in high stress, and plunk down money or plastic to buy unnecessary products.  Neighbors always have time to visit and be visited by other neighbors, and everyone has a cup of sugar or tool to loan.  Families sit down and speak and eat together in kitchens or dining rooms.  Family picnics and family togetherness becomes the norm.  Sidewalk streets are safe and neighborhoods have well kept homes and lawns that always seem bright and inviting (exceptions exist; remember what happens to the little old lady who was out too late on the streets in THE VAMPIRE!).  The streets are flowing (never crowded) with roomy automobiles with never a thought of how much the gas prices may rise (with gas costing 39 cents a gallon, why the concern).  Community comes always front and center, with community socials and picnics (either school or church related) bringing people together in bright spirits and camaraderie.

Even though as a child I best remembered the menaces to society, those monsters or alien invaders or mishaps of ego-driven science, but now as an aging baby boomer I most remember that idyllic world, those communities that no longer exist and probably never ever will again.  While Hollywood never tells the truth, it does create an emotional palette on which to paint our collective emotions and feelings about a particular time in our lives, a time when life was simpler, easier, more comforting and emotionally renewing.  When I now watch all the I WAS A TEENAGE… or INVASION OF… or ATTACK OF… style B movies, I do enjoy the monsters and mayhem, but I find myself noticing more of the community backdrop and societal interaction.  I might enjoy a riot in the high school gym, but I find myself noting how the teens act before the riot.  I might enjoy a giant fiend prancing through small town America, but I notice what people were doing before that monstrous rampage begun.  I might enjoy that Cousin Bellac (in actuality, Count Dracula) is living in small town America, and while I enjoy the sequences with stakings and mist, I find myself becoming more mesmerized with the quiet parlor sequences and the family interacting. 

It is no longer only about the monsters, invaders and giant atomic fried creations, it is just as much about that perfect little community that is about to be invaded and the aftermath of that invasion and restoring peace to the community.  After watching these movies for over 50 years, perhaps 10 to 20 times, isn’t it about time avid viewers find some new chestnut to feed upon, to continue to intrigue our imaginations and play to that “comfort food” mentality?  For me revisiting the past small town cinematic America brings a warm, fuzzy feeling that I can never get enough of.  And the greater thought is the idea that as we age we watch the movies that we enjoyed in our youth, but we look at them through aging eyes and focus on different aspects that continue to justify our obsessions watching them over and over again.

Sept 8, 2010

What’s Wrong With TRUE BLOOD!

A few years ago any type of mainstream network vampire series would have been met with explosive applause among horror movie fans, but I have been asking why the HBO series TRUE BLOOD, even though it is a media hit and has amassed an impressive viewing audience, has not exactly impressed the world of horror movie aficionados.  Why is this?

First of all, TRUE BLOOD is too much a mishmash of divergent styles and ever changing tone.  The series has more in common with the wildly exploitative Universal monster rally movies of the 1940s than the classics of the 1930s.  Alan Ball and his crew have thrown in the creative proverbial kitchen sink.  Some of the show works and some of it does not.

First of all Bon Temps, LA must be the monster capital of the world, housing its variety of faeries, vampires, shape shifters, werewolves, were-panthers and ancient Wican goddesses.  Apparently even witches are on the horizon. Not everyone in the vicinity is a monster, but even the rare normal citizens have been possessed by demons or religious fanatics and indulged in murder, violence and nude frolicking in the fields.  Even the serial killer who killed Sookie Stackhouse’s grandmother appeared positively normal by comparison.

The cast is hot and cold.  Take star Anna Paquin as Sookie.  She begun the first season as an innocent yet powerful young woman.  Sookie did not harbor the typical Southern biases (against gays, vampires, rednecks, etc.), yet she has evolved into semi-human status as a women ready to step out of her clothes and allow her vampire lover to bite her and make passionate love while covered in blood.  When Sookie was told she was part faerie, she responded with “How fucking lame!”  In other words, she is no longer innocent or even very human.  She has become powerful yet she has lost something essential that endeared her to us that first season.  The viewers enjoy Paquin frolicking in the nude, blood running down her neck and breasts, yet she now seems odd and kinky and just as weird as the shape shifters and vampires.

Alexander Skarsgard as Eric is an enigma.  We do not know if he loves Sookie, wants to ingest Sookie’s faerie blood, wants to turn Sookie over for his own advantages and safety, etc.  Vampires are evil, they are good, they are conniving, they are self-centered, they are political and they are willing to sacrifice themselves for a more noble cause.  All of this seems to be true, and none of it seems to be true.  The bottom line is that even after we observe all the above, we still are not sure what we can believe and what is the truth about the world of vampires.

Rutina Wesley who plays Sookie’s friend Tara seems to be one of the only characters we can trust, and even she was possessed for part of last season.  But displaying such bold courage in the face of such adversity makes her noble and a person of integrity.  Also Nelsan Ellis’ flamboyant Lafayette is also starting to become one of those damaged yet noble characters.  Even though he wears his sexuality on his sleeve, at least, unlike Eric who dallies between gay and straight sex, Lafayette always is as he appears.  Eric has sex with Russell’s lover Talbot in order to destroy the object of Russell’s love and to avenge Russell’s destruction of Eric’s family a thousand years ago.  Eric is sneaky and conniving while Lafayette has integrity, even when tripping on a “V” high or selling drugs.  Lafayette always has a noble purpose that makes him admirable.

And I must admit that Denis O’Hare’s portrayal of Russell, one of the vampire kings, is always delightfully delivered.  For me O’Hare could have starred as a vampire in a Hammer production, as he has the classic nuance and all consuming evil.  Who will forget the television commercial sequence promoting the Vampire Rights amendment where Russell suddenly appears on the live news broadcast and rips out the commentator’s spine in front of a shocked viewing public.  While the vampires are hiding their aberrant perversity and using synthetic “True Blood” to survive instead of diving into human jugular veins, Russell makes clear he is not the equal of human beings but a superior species who will continue to feed on human blood in the traditional sense.  At least he is monstrously honest and will not deny who he is.  When his lover Talbot was slain by Eric, he gathered up the bloody remains and placed them into an urn that he always carries with him (humans fall in love and marry for 50 years; vampires love for centuries!), even when he has sex with a male prostitute (and later drives a stake through his heart).

In a similar track, teenager and finding-it-difficult-to-adjust-to-vampirism Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) tells her human lover (with whom she recently reconciled) that she cannot survive on True Blood and must drink human blood.  In a supreme act of love her lover tells her to drink his.  Jessica teeters between youthful innocence and confusion and savagery as she tries to reconcile her past human life with her recent conversion to vampirism.

And then there’s Stephen Moyer as Bill Compton, Sookie’s sometimes friend and lover.  His annoying Southern-fried way of saying “Sooookaaaay” becomes annoying, but Compton’s conflicted attempt to find true love with a human being that he allows to remain human is sometimes touching.  At times blood starved he will revert to his animal/vampire nature and attack Sookie and threaten to take all her blood, but then, always apologetic, he will look deeply into Sookie’s eyes and tell her she helped him find the light and his former human spirit inside.  His death shell is now illuminated with the spirit of the living, and how could any girl refuse a come-on like that?

Sometimes that little town of Bon Temps becomes overpowered with ravishing attacks by shape shifting dogs, werewolves, vampires and god knows what else.  At times the show flies too close to Tennessee Williams Southern Fried Gothic Melodrama for my tastes.  At times the subplots overpower one another and we wonder what exactly is the main story thread, and should we even care?

And finally there’s Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten) and Sam (Sam Trammell), two humans who appear to be genuine good guys.  Jason, dumb as dirt but a good ole boy at heart, was brainwashed by the radical Christians who wanted all vampires slain.  But he recovered and this season became a quasi-police wannabe, fighting for the right reasons and causes.  Before he was simply a sex driven man whore, but he has grown and become someone mostly admirable.  Sam, on the other side, is a man-into-dog shape shifter, but one who ran his bar the right way always treating customers and employees with respect, even though he had one hell of a secret to hide.  But this season we learn that he killed two con artists, a man and his sexy woman cohort, who conned him out of money.  When he brutally guns them both down, his guilt causes him to become a heavy boozing and just plain nasty man who says things to his friends that he will regret for a long, long time. 

While TRUE BLOOD is a vampire series in one sense, it is vampire as metaphor (for equal rights, for political power, etc.).  To me the show is more about the flaws of the human animal and how we try to control one another than it is about vampires in the Hammer horror sense.  Sometimes the show goes way over the top with ridiculous sequences that appear to be played for laughs and broad humor, then in the next sequence we have a heart-ripping emotional sequence.

To be quite honest, I do not quite understand TRUE BLOOD overall as a series and do not love it enough to own it on Blu-ray disc.  That’s the bottom line.  I watch each episode dutifully each week, but when it’s done, it’s done.  The series seldom resonates or lingers.  It’s more about the visceral shock of the moment or the nudity or the hot sex sequence.  But somehow, the series never seems to connect as a whole and ultimately TRUE BLOOD is more about the moment, the singular sequence, a five-minute run of dialogue then it is about the integrated artistic statement.  The series is a hoot but a disconcerted one.  Its world of Bon Temps seems overrun with faries, vampires, shape shifters, werewolves and Earth Goddesses that seem to descend upon these southern fried shit kickers without too much rhyme or reason.  To me TRUE BLOOD is too much surface gloss and not enough substance.

Oct 15, 2010
Blu-ray and the Home Theater Ideal—The Deception of Perception

First of all, I am sorry for the lapse in my blogging.  During the summer vacation Sue kept me busy with many Midnight Marquee projects and my time to blog was minimal.  Then the beginning of the new school year began and I was once again inundated.  But things have settled down to normalcy and I hope to return to my blogging of twice per month.  Also I am nearing completion on the latest issue of MAD ABOUT MOVIES and hope to have it available by the end of the year.  But here’s today’s issue at hand…

When home theater enthusiasts convert to Blu-ray, they do so in hopes of bringing the theatrical movie experience back to their home, so that they can recreate the grandeur of how that movie looked and sounded when first seen.  Blu-ray might not be as effective as 35mm projection or as high resolution as 4k digital projection in state-of-the-art theaters.  But for the home, Blu comes darn close.

One controversy that has divided home theater enthusiasts has been the decision by many studios and distribution companies to remove the 35mm photographic grain from Blu-ray releases of movies digitally.  Or at least remove most of the grain, leaving the finished product looking as though it had been filmed with digital cameras and not film.  Perhaps, in the future, as more and more movies are photographed digitally, grain might not be an issue.  But the controversy came to a head when PREDATOR was released recently on Blu-ray with most, if not all, of the grain removed, leaving the tropical setting and the faces of its cast resembling CGI human beings (approximating the look of video games) and digitized versions of real life locations.  Other classic movies released with grain reduction include THE LONGEST DAY and PATTON.  In my immediate movie crowd, all of whom are people who saw Cinerama, CinemaScope, Todd AO and 70mm projection in its golden exhibition heyday, the opinion is divided.  In other words, people who study and love the look of film projected properly in movie palaces of the past do not always agree on how films should look when released to Blu-ray.

And my movie crowd raved over the pours seen in the faces, the tweed pattern of the material in coats and the sharpness and depth of field that left spectaculars breathless in such grain-erased releases as PATTON and THE LONGEST DAY.  Yet, the same sort of film fan has screamed that grain removal is a sin of the most severe sort when it comes to 35mm film projection vs. Blu-ray digital projection at home.  These enthusiasts remind us that film is grain and that when companies digitally remove the grain they are removing the very essence of what film is.  Film is grain, and some directors tend to over-emphasize it (such as can be seen in the recent release of THE EXORCIST on Blu-ray), especially in many classic movies of the 1970s where gritty realism and muted color became the rage.  Many home theater audiences complain that the grain seems to draw too much attention and tends to undermine the advantages of high definition presentation. When audiences expect sharp definition and crisp color, the over-abundance of film grain tends to make movies less colorful, less sharp and generally smeary.  Yet, go back and watch these movies in revival house theaters and remember just how much grain is apparent in many of these classic movies.  On one hand audiences want the movie theater experience recreated verbatim, yet, on the other hand, sometimes we remember movies differently in our minds today than how we thought they looked in the theaters way back when.  And this deception of perception might be at the very heart of the problem.

It harkens back to the controversy—just think how heated this discussion was at one point—between releasing movies panned-and-scanned or letterboxed in the actual aspect ratio they were released theatrically.  Of course it took high definition TV and its conversion from a square 4:3 ratio screen to the new standard of the widescreen 16:9 ratio to convince people that a director framed a movie to look a certain way and that letterboxing is the only accurate way of watching a movie.  Today we have those who want a pristine unblemished presentation of a movie instead of the filmic look it had theatrically.

Perhaps the best solution is to meet somewhere in the middle.  Even when grain is included in home video releases, we must remember that we are not watching 35mm projection at home, we are experiencing digital projection.  While today’s home televisions and projectors come damn close to 35mm projection quality, it is not film that is being projected.  So perhaps the inclusion of grain without overdoing its effect might be the way to go.  Most of us don’t want grain to be a cinematic blemish that draws attention to itself, but at the same time we want to be reminded that what we are watching was shot on film (today’s digitally photographed films are of course the exception) and that even if we watch a movie projected digitally, we still need to be reminded that film stock has a different look than video.

Thus the big bugaboo with archival restoration and re-mastering of classic movies involves how much grit should remain and how much of a digital sheen is necessary.  Among people who know these movies and know the look of good 35mm projection vs. digital projection, the decision is not always an easy choice.  And where artists struggle to recreate the truth, the truth for one man may not be the truth for another.  Truly, the art of the motion picture is in the eye of the beholder.  And some tolerance and compromise is needed whenever restoration decisions are made.

December 24, 2010

The Warner Archive Collection has been thriving for one year now and the controversy continues.  Collectors should note that before the Archive Collection started, classic movies were often sold in box sets (such as the Gangster and Film Noir Collections that Warner Bros. released) that hit the streets for around $40 to $50, or about $5-$7 per movie.  Now, the Archive Collection offers something similar to home spun DVD-R’s for $20 (or more) a pop.  Many voice concern that DVD-Rs that play well today might not track so well in future ever-evolving DVD player technology.

Me, I’ve always been and continue to be a huge supporter of the Warner Archive concept, the idea of providing manufactured-on-demand movies much in the same way as Midnight Marquee Press caters to print-on-demand books.  Yes, when a limited number of books or movies are produced to order, the per unit cost will naturally be much higher, as these titles are limited release niche titles and hundreds, not thousands, of consumers might be purchasing them.  Let’s face it, fans will buy a film noir collection featuring OUT OF THE PAST or other classic titles, or even lesser titles featuring major stars.  But once the prime film noir titles have been released, will collectors support all the rest?  The true film noir fan would want the lesser titles as well.  But instead of selling to a mainstream clientele, such limited interest titles would only appeal to a smaller die-hard crowd.    
That is where the so-called Archive Collection titles are so essential.  For me a film such as STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR is pretty mainstream, starring Peter Lorre in one of his essential movies, and STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR is considered by many to be either the first film noir or an important precursor to the noir canon.  Even though the title has never been released on DVD, the Warner Archive Collection is selling the title as a “re-mastered” title, and that means it sells for five dollars more. 

Humm.  Re-mastered implies that the title had been released beforehand in a less desirable format.  It implies that Warner Archive went back and either found superior source material or paid to digitally restore a less than desirable digital print.  While some of the re-mastered titles had appeared early on in the selection of titles the Warner Archive Collection initially released, most of the re-mastered titles, such as STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, have only been released in their so-called re-mastered format.  Most of the Archive Collection titles appear to be generally superior looking and sounding, quite comparable to the quality of classic titles released in mainstream versions for the past several years.  So what exactly makes a re-mastered title a re-mastered title, and what necessitates a list price of $25, five dollars more than regular Archive Collection titles?  Is this simply a sneaky way for Warner Archive to slip a price increase by the consumer, all in the name of the so-called desirable “re-mastered” quality movie?  Hopefully, Warner Archive won’t be selling all of its new titles in re-mastered $25 versions.  Not for a bare bones DVD-R version of the movie with perhaps, at most, a trailer included.  No additional extras ever appear, not even audio commentaries.  When considering what the market will bear, charging $25 for these limited release old chestnuts is pushing the classic movie collector to the limit.

All the re-mastered titles thus far are not necessarily high interest or essential (Lon Chaney, Jr. starring as THE CYCLOPS???).  Selling the Archive titles for $20 is fair but fair at the high end of consideration.  I think these titles deserve to sell for something closer to $15.  But seeing the recent $25 re-mastered titles emerge has angered me.  Warner Archive hit pay dirt with this novel idea of limited release titles and customers have supported the concept with their wallets and enthusiasm.  But instead of rewarding the collector, Warner Archive is now thinking of new ways to charge even more money for single titles and this is very off-putting.  Complain as I may, I will continue to support Warner Archive by buying titles that I want.  If Warner Bros. closes its vault, many of these titles will never see release.

Sure, Warner Archive does have occasional sales where a specific genre titles are 25 to 30% ore even 50% off, and this really makes purchases more affordable and signals it is time to load up on the more expensive ones.  That makes STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR a gotta-have-it when sale priced at around $18.  And the majority of the titles that normally sell for $20 are even more appealing at 30% off.  True, when Warner Archive sells box sets the cost is always a bargain.  I bought the entire Gordon Scott Tarzan collection, six films, for $60.  Ten bucks a title is truly a bargain.  And recently Warner Archive came out with a wonderful Horror-Mystery Double Features Collection that sold for $18.  In this package were six rare titles including FIND THE BLACKMAILER, THE SMILING GHOST, SH!  THE OCTOPUS, THE HIDDEN HAND, MYSTERY HOUSE and THE PATIENT IN ROOM 18.  None of these titles are classics, but most of them are rarely seen B mystery-horror programmers, titles that fans have clamored for ages to own.  And to own all six movies for less than $20 is a real deal.  So Warner Archive sometimes offers the fan a bargain.  Even though they are priced at a list price of $25, it was nice to see the Archive Collection offer THE CYCLOPS, Allison Hayes in THE DISEMBODIED, William Castle’s MACABRE and the cult classic THE HYPNOTIC EYE for Halloween. Too bad Warner Archives did not release all four titles in a box set lower-priced package.  Think about it, these four schlock titles for $100 is a tad steep.  However, Warner Archives did offer a Halloween sale that brought the titles down 30%.  But paying full price, $25, for THE CYCLOPS is asking the horror fan to dig pretty deeply into his pockets for a cheapjack production.  I mean, I purchased a Blu-ray disc of THE EXORCIST for less than that (and the Blu-ray for PSYCHO went for under $20 when released).  But a DVD-R of Bert I. Gordon goes for $25!

The bottom line is that many titles that had mainstream release (think of the box set that featured FRANKENSTEIN 1970) a year ago will only receive Archive made-to-order release today, since the niche genre collector is willing to pay more for those limited-interest titles.  Unfortunately Warner Archives realizes what a good thing they have going, and if they can charge $25 for a title that they formerly could only charge $7 in a bundled collection, well, they aren’t going to miss the opportunity to profit from the consumer.

The success of the Warner Archive Collection only led to Columbia Pictures offering their own Archive Collection series, called Columbia Classics—Screen Classics by Request.  Besides offering many rare film noir titles, such as 711 OCEAN DRIVE and THE LONG HAUL, Columbia also made available some horror/sci-fi gems such as A STUDY IN SCARLET, THE MAN WHO TURNED TO STONE, 12 TO THE MOON and THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED.  Most of the Jungle Jim features are also available.  And these titles sell for just under $20.  So the success of such Archive made-to-order studio collections seems to be on the upswing.  Complain if you will, but finally being able to buy movies such as THE 27TH DAY and 30-FOOT BRIDE OF CANDY ROCK is an exciting moment for many fans.  Now 20th Century Fox is offering a small sampling of classic MGM movies as “made-on-demand” releases that sell for $20 each.  So the trend is spreading to most of the major studios (remember even Universal released a few made-to-order titles last Christmas).

As they say, it’s only money!  But keeping the cost to $20 or under is to me essential.  What fans flock to today in the heat of initial enthusiasm may not linger two years down the road.  Both Warner Bros., Fox, Universal and Columbia need to continue to unearth rare titles, keep releasing films at a regular pace and sell such titles at a price that the market not only can bear but that the collector can embrace as being fair.  Warner and Columbia have a good thing going and the fan base, though complaining, is very supportive of rare titles being released.  Studios must offer the consumer a fair market price, and the collector must continue to support their efforts to open up their vaults to the movie public.  Handled fairly, it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.