Friday, March 30, 2007

The Forgotten Movies - UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO

A film like UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO is equally refreshing and frustrating. Refreshing because it proves that there are still unearthed or misunderstood gems out there gathering dust on the studio shelves if we only take the time to rediscover them and frustrating because for every one of these there is another forgotten film from the same era you watch that doesn’t match its quality. A part of me wants this film to finally get a DVD release or some revival screenings at the very least just so I can help spread the word. It’s great to let everyone know about the film, but without an outlet to see it you’re just going to piss people off. Then again, films this good are one of the reasons why I started this column in the first place.

I first came across this film through a friend who brought a copy taped off cable when we got together to watch some films one day back in ’99. I remember that we also watched Michelle Yeoh in MAGNIFICENT WARRIORS and THE BLOOD-STAINED BRIDE at the same fest (I don’t know why, I just do) but I don’t really remember anything about them, but UNMAN stuck with me, so much so that I asked my friend to make me a copy just so I could watch it again at some point. Although I never looked at the film again until just recently, I remembered much of it, which I always feel is the sign of a quality film. Another sign of quality is when you have a VHS copy of a cable airing that still engrosses you then you know you’ve got a film that works, and UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO works big time. It’s an excellent combination of mainstream thriller with the tougher, more realistic British crime film of the early 70s that gave us the likes of GET CARTER (it’s no surprise that director John McKenzie later went on to direct THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY). And it’s no surprise, too, that it stars David Hemmings, an icon of the era who not only starred in this, BLOW-UP and Dario Argento’s DEEP RED (one of my favorite films) but also went on to direct Mr. T in several episodes of THE A-TEAM. I have no reason for mentioning that other than the fact that, well, it amuses me. But back to UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO…

Based on a play by Giles Cooper (which apparently still gets performed in schools around the U.K.), the premise is simple: First time teacher Hemmings gets a last-minute assignment to a small boarding school in Berkshire area of the U.K., by the River Thames. It seems as though the previous teacher had met with an accident while walking by the cliffs and a replacement is needed fast. Hemmings and his wife look forward to the opportunity as the start of a new life, but things don’t quite go as well as planned. The students are unruly and don’t seem to care about being taught. Hemmings tries to discipline them but the students inform him this might not be such a good idea. After all, the last teacher tried to do the same thing and that’s why they killed him.

Right there is one of the reasons I like this film so much, it has a great hook. Are the boys telling the truth or just messing with Hemmings’ in order to get their way? McKenzie lets this simmer for a long while before we really know for sure and as the film on edge. And once we do he never really loses us, despite a character bungle near the end that could have been fatal. But before that he comes up with some solid suspense that’s a delight to sit through. One sequence, which comes late in the film and involves Hemmings’ wife, is absolutely masterful in every regard (especially in its use of Geoffrey Unsworth’s beautiful, dark cinematography) and deserves to be regarded as a classic scene in its own right. Casting goes a long way in this, too, with Hemmings delivering an excellent performance; he never really got the recognition as an actor (or singer) that he deserved, along with solid support from the lovely Carolyn Seymour as his wife and all the boys in the class are perfectly cast vicious little British assholes. Special attention must also go to Nicholas Hoyle as Cloistermouth (they all have great British names like that) and the school itself (the Reading Coat School in Berkshire) is a character in and of itself. There’s little about this film I don’t like.

So all in all, a terrific movie. Not a great film, but a terrific one, one you want to show to people to show them how good your taste in movies is. Or write about it in a blog. I wish you could all see it and maybe someday you will, providing that Paramount gets off their duff and does something about it. Does anyone want to forward this posting over to them?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Philly vs. Tribeca, The Hooters vs. The Velvet Underground, It's All The Same

This is the tale of two film festivals. One of them has become a huge event in just five years of existence while the other rarely gets any attention from anyone outside of the local media. One of them is partly owned by an Academy-Award winning film star while the other is owned by a company that specializes in gay and lesbian videos. One of them exists not more than 10 minutes from my place while the other is an almost 2 hour drive and yet that’s the one that I’m planning on attending on two successive weekends. Why is it that the Philadelphia Film Festival kicks the Tribeca Film Festival’s collective ass every year and yet no one in the east coast film community seems to care or notice?

Well, one of the obvious answers is that Tribeca has Robert De Niro behind it, and with him he brings movie stars, more money and bigger films and that’s sort of true. Sort of, I say, because the films shown at Tribeca are, for the most part, a second rate lot. I mean seriously, name one film that’s emerged out of Tribeca the way films do from Sundance, SXSW, or Toronto ? None of them, I tell you, none of them do. Certainly there are some good and decent films shown there, but where are the surprises? Where are the hits that help to make a film festival’s name? Nowhere, that’s where. The programming at Tribeca leaves a lot to be desired. I understand that it’s not an easy thing to and that they’re at a disadvantage in that they’re just before Cannes and all of the major films that may play there are holding out from other festivals in the hopes that they’ll get that Cannes slot. But where are the Sundance and SXSW success stories? They’re not always there. Granted, you’re not supposed to program your fest exclusively with titles that premiered elsewhere first, but in looking over this year’s listings I don’t really see a lot of crossover and that’s a shame. Part of the fun of a film festival to see those films that have great word of mouth from other fests and that’s something Tribeca has always lacked. If you want to make your film festival one that specializes in premieres then please keep in mind that at this point in the year you’re going to have to settle for the films that couldn’t pass muster with Sundance and SXSW. Tribeca is a second-rate fest at best.

Philly, on the other hand, always seems to try hard to put on a good show and give their audience the best possible mix they can. There is always a mix of films from all over, with an emphasis placed on the new films from throughout Asia that seem to make their initial U.S. play dates here before moving on to pretty much every other festival. THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS, MEMORIES OF MURDER and FUNKY FOREST: THE FIRST CONTACT were three such Asian hits that got their U.S. premieres in Philly before showing anyplace else. There is also a running sidebar on Muslim cinema and a wide assortment of foreign comedies, along with new indies, festival favorites and the occasional studio film, although those are usually the low points of the fest. Philly is fresh and unpretentious and even though the screenings are held all over the city, making it hard to get from one screening to another (a “Sophian choice”, as another festival programmer friend of mine once said), the same is true for Tribeca these days. It’s an opportunity to visit a nice city and if you’ve got sufficient downtime then I’ve got one word, and one word only for you, my friend: Cheesesteaks. Yes, they are as good as you’ve heard and from some reason taste their absolute best in Philly. I’ll mostly be playing catch up while I’m there, seeing Doug Buck’s SISTERS, Kim Ki-Duk’s TIME, an extra showing of Johnnie To’s EXILED, and whatever else strikes my fancy. I’m looking forward to it.

So while Tribeca still gets the press and the attention and for some reason gains in importance every year, it hasn’t really done enough to deserve it. Sure, it was a good idea to help revitalize the downtown area after September 11, but it’s been doing fine for more than a few years now, and besides, the bulk of this festival doesn’t screening in Tribeca anymore. I’m not saying they should hang it up, but there’s a lot of work to do to improving this puppy in my eyes. While they get that going, I’ll be in the city of brotherly love enjoying movies and hoagies with Philly Boy Roy. Oh yeah!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

It's DVD's 10th Anniversary - Long Live Laserdisc!

A major anniversary passed yesterday without as much as a mention by any of the major media or even in the online fan community. The only thing I’ve seen has been a posting on The Digital Bits and that’s about all. Not that I was expecting some sort of national holiday, but I figured that someone, somewhere would take the time out to mention that DVD turned 10 years old yesterday. “Officially” turned 10, I should say, since the players actually hit the market in mid-February and the first four titles (a couple of IMAX titles and an animation collection) came out from the now-defunct Lumivision label hit in early March. But March 25 was the official launch date (in 7 markets, at least) for titles from Warner Brothers, MGM, and New Line, the three major studios supplying titles, and that was the day that, well, everything changed. For better or worse, DVDs have changed the way we watch movies, the way we love movies, the way we collect movies, the way movies are bought and sold, the way movies are distributed, the way movies are shot, and the way movies are released. Even though VHS and laserdiscs had brought thousands of films to viewer’s homes, DVDs changed pretty much everything about movies and yet, at this 10 year anniversary no one has stopped to reflect upon this. Considering the fact that they’ve given the millions of movie fans all over the world a new outlet for their love of cinema (not to mention the billions upon billions of dollars these puppies have generated for the major studios in the last decade), you’d think someone would care. Well, I care.

The one thing about DVDs that almost no one ever seems to acknowledge (probably because so few really seem to know) is that there would be no DVDs without laserdiscs. Pretty much everything DVDs can do, laserdisc did first. Letterboxing, audio commentaries, documentaries, deleted scenes, isolated music scores, box sets, and director’s cuts, any and all kinds of supplemental features first showed up on laserdiscs. The only things they couldn’t do were anamorphic widescreen and multiple angles (and play more than 1 hour of a movie per side, but that’s another thing), but other than that there was almost no difference. The picture quality was maybe a shade less, but they were still magnificent things. They were big, bulky, heavy (you felt like you were picking up a movie when you held one) and expensive, but you didn’t care. Because they were such a niche item (only about 2 to 3 million players were ever sold in the U.S. and many of them more for Karaoke purposes) if you had one it meant that you were a die-hard cinephile, a member of an exclusive club. Certainly you were a little geekier, but you cared about a quality presentation and you wanted that favorite film in your collection for posterity. It meant something to you and it meant something to have it on laser. When DVDs were first announced, the writing was on the wall and sales started to slip. Once DVDs hit the market the laserdisc audience slowly started to convert over (some happily, some reluctantly, some kicking and screaming) and by the start of 2000 laserdisc were gone. But while they were here they kicked ass in a big motherfucking way. If it weren’t for them DVDs would be really, really boring and I refuse to let this 10th anniversary of DVD pass without acknowledging them.

That said, I still have about 700 or so laserdiscs in my collection and about 3,000+ DVDs. I suppose I should mention that I only paid for about half of them since I work in the DVD industry, but yeah, I’ve spent a serious chunk of change on them throughout the years and a serious amount of time watching them. I don’t watch as many as I used to (mainly for work), but I will get together with friends every couple of weeks and go through a whole bunch on a Saturday movie bender. I love being able to have a pristine version of a movie that I either love or like or will want to see someday. The fact that so damn many films are now available on DVD, especially so many films that you never thought would be available (from the films of Jean Rollin to the works of Valerio Zurlini) and they’re available because this format exists. As a film fan it’s incredible, the closest to owning your own film print and it’s an addiction that I know I’ll never shake. This whole thing about downloading films may well take over at some point, but not anytime soon and not if they don’t start including the extras that people love so much (and are now accustomed to), so DVDs are here to stay for a while, at least. Yes, there are also a lot of problems with DVDs that are too numerous to mention (such as where can I store all these damn things?) and plenty of great films still not available after all these years, but let’s not dwell on the negative at this point in time. DVDs have contributed so damn much to the movie lover’s life and they make being a film fan a little bit easier. I miss being a laserdisc collector because I knew I was part of a select few, but I love the fact that DVDs have taken all that was great about them and made it more compact and affordable, all without missing the quality. In an odd way, even though they effectively killed them, the spirit of laserdisc lives on in DVD and that spirit is that of the movie lover. It’s a spirit I know I can always get behind.

PS – That is not a photo of my collection, although it’s close.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

HOT FUZZ - Not So Hot

I’ve got to come right out and say it: HOT FUZZ is a big disappointment.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how too many movies these days are not so much originals as they are movies that are simply about other movies. This theory is nothing new, of course, and one can certainly make the argument that many great films have been directly influenced by other great films, such as how TAXI DRIVER pretty much just a contemporary version of THE SEARCHERS or how STAR WARS is nothing more than THE HIDDEN FORTRESS in space. But with the new generation of filmmakers we have fanboys who grew up with the likes of Lucas and Spielberg and now trying to pretty much remake the films they grew up loving. One can argue that while the film school generation grew up with the films of John Ford and Howard Hawks, this new generation grew up with the likes of DIE HARD and ALIENS (or EVIL DEAD 2) and that the older films were art while these more recent films are not. Say what you want, but the likes of DIE HARD, while they may not be art, they’re at least great entertainments that hold up in the same way a great old MGM musical does. And just why is that? Why do those first two LETHAL WEAPON films speak to members of my generation more so than, say, RIVER’S EDGE, a serious film about young people from the same era? I don’t know why that is, but they do. I can’t say for sure if it’s a good thing or not, but that’s the way it is. Feel free to carp about a society that pushes violence without consequence down young people’s throats with movies and video games all you want, but that’s beside the point, really. Simply put, we love this stuff.

Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, who wrote HOT FUZZ together, obviously have the same love of these types of movies as I do and they proved with their 2004 sleeper SHAUN OF THE DEAD that they not only understood how to make a smart and funny comedy that respected the conventions of its genre (zombie movie) but thankfully wasn’t self-referential. You could say that SHAUN was “SLACKER meets DAWN OF THE DEAD” or something like that, but unlike SCREAM, it was a film that didn’t exist in a world of movies. No one stopped to discuss what happened in DAY OF THE DEAD or RESIDENT EVIL and how it related to the situation at hand, they just dealt with the zombies in the manner that the characters would and that was one of SHAUN’s great strengths. The film’s tagline (“A romantic comedy… with zombies”) was spot-on because it was true: the zombies were always, in a sense, secondary to the characterizations. The film was about how Shaun couldn’t get his life together and how unprepared he was when everything started going to hell. That’s not an easy situation to play for laughs and SHAUN OF THE DEAD was brilliant at doing that and that’s why it’s already a classic to some.

For a while there, HOT FUZZ uses the same approach to poke fun at cop movie conventions but also manages to keep its primary focus as a character piece. Like SHAUN, they take their time to develop characters and build a reasonable plot around them and everything works just fine. Pegg and co-star Nick Frost (in the film’s best performance) have a great chemistry and the film is filled with excellent British actors who all have a grand time with some nice, juicy comic parts (thanks for reminding us what a terrific actor Timothy Dalton can be). The film gives us a murder mystery that will no doubt need to be resolved at some point, but you figure that the characters will easily take precedence to it. And then, about 2/3 of the way through this 2-hour film, the identity of the killer is revealed and the film takes a complete nosedive that it can’t recover from. The plot takes over and all of the charm and fun goes away and is replaced by a stupid action film that is everything that SHAUN OF THE DEAD wasn’t. The film degenerates into a massive shootout where Pegg, Wright and Frost can all live out their John Woo fantasies, which was no doubt fun for them, but for this viewer, tedious. Everything that was fun and good-natured about HOT FUZZ simply disappears. While technically proficient, the last half hour of the film becomes downright depressing, watching these talented folks lose their way in nonstop action movie homages and a ridiculous plot wrap-up. One of the first arguments against my little critique would be that HOT FUZZ is cop movie and like most cop movies has to end with some kind of chase or shootout, and it’s a fair argument to make. But SHAUN OF THE DEAD didn’t end like most zombie movies ended and stayed a character piece all the way through the end. HOT FUZZ does not. In fact, all character development simply ceases and never rears its head again, and with it the fun goes, too. There is more I can say about what’s wrong with the last third of the film, but since it hasn’t opened yet I’m going to leave these comments off the site until then. Perhaps when the film hits theaters here in the states we can have a debate. That might be fun.

I wanted to like HOT FUZZ a lot more than I did. In fact, I was liking HOT FUZZ quite a bit until it shot itself in the foot. I love a good action movie as much as anyone else and like Wright and Pegg I was there when the John Woo pictures were new and unlike anything else I’d ever seen and I love and relish those picture still to this day. But I suppose that the saying is true, that familiarity breeds contempt. I’ve been rather contempt of all of the generic zombie pictures that have been made in the last few years, but I still love Romero and I loved SHAUN OF THE DEAD because it was fresh. HOT FUZZ was fresh most of the way but it wraps up in so generic and uninspired a fashion that, while not breeding contempt, it certainly brings about disappointment. If the Gen X era of filmmakers can just forget about remaking the films they loved growing up and make new films that appeal to them as adults they can make new classics. Sadly, such is not the case with HOT FUZZ.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

This Really Sucks

One of the greats. He will be missed.

Admittedly Not One Of My Better Postings, But What Do You Expect For $2?

I’m going to give you all a phone number. Jot it down and call it, then pass it along to your friends. Don’t worry, because it’s just an answering machine. OK, here goes:


This is the number for the Graham Cinema in Graham, North Carolina, and the man you hear in the message is Tim-Bob, the theater’s manager. I’ve never been to this theater, but the accompanying photo is indeed of the Graham Cinema and I would very much like to pay a visit to it some day and meet this Tim-Bob person. Not just because of the answering message, which he’s been doing for years, but because I’d like to thank him for having a single-screen, second run $2 theater in what is no doubt a shrinking marketplace. A few years ago I was living in suburban Buffalo Grove, Illinois for a few months for work and was surprised to see a slew of second run $2 theaters in my area. No fooling, there were about 3 or 4 of them out there, one of them no more than a 5 minute drive from where I was staying. I couldn’t help but take up the opportunity to see a few films I missed in their original runs and a few that I wanted to see again and it was something I truly enjoyed. In researching this piece, I decided to look up this place and low and behold, they’re still in business and still at $2. This does my heart proud, although I say this knowing that these theaters are pretty much on their way out. Used to be that a film would take 6 months from its theatrical opening to its home video premiere, but now that window has shrunk from 3 to 4 months at most, even for big hit films. BLOOD DIAMOND, ERAGON and the shockingly excellent ROCKY BALBOA premiere on DVD tomorrow a mere 3 months after their theatrical premieres. Now, sure, both films are played out theatrically. There might still a theatrical engagement here and there, but these puppies are pretty much tapped out otherwise, so in a sense, I understand. Like it or not, moviegoers are conditioned just like the studios want them to be to catch a movie in the first few weeks of release or wait for the DVD in a few months time. This isn’t necessarily a good idea if you ask me, but hey, it seems to be working, so what the fuck do I know? At a certain point, though, the studios will discover that they’re eating into their own profits, but for the time being everyone, seemingly, is happy. What’s interesting is that movies are now not unlike records, where they no longer have periods where they’re not earning a profit in some form or another. Maybe some of the older ones go out of print for periods of time, but films can now last forever in the eyes of studio accountants.

But what about my beloved 2nd run theaters? Speaking pretty much only for myself (but I’m going to assume you agree with me), I always loved knowing where my local 2nd run theaters were and taking advantage of them to catch those films that I would miss the first time out. Yes, those theaters had always seen better days (they usually became 2nd run when another newer theater would steal their customers) and maybe the projection wasn’t quite top notch, but dammit all they were… um, there. Hey, you got what you paid for and if you were lucky, you’d get a bit more sometimes, like a really good movie. NJ used to have a plethora of them, but now there’s only one that I know of that, thankfully, exists 10 minutes from my place and you can’t find any in NYC anymore, either. The Worldwide Cinemas, one of the last of them in NYC, is now the New World Stages, a multiplex of theatrical stages for small plays and musicals (and a unique place to see a show, I must admit). Places like the Graham or the Buffalo Grove Theaters fill an important niche and I’d love to see more of them come up to help fill the void. Going to the movies cost too damn much and having the option of waiting to see a film in a theater for less is one that I wish still existed for most people. DVDs are great and all, but it will always be about sitting in a big theater for me and to do so for just $2 is worth the price of admission as far as I’m concerned.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Forgotten Movies - THE WENDELL BAKER STORY

Considering that SXSW is currently in the process of wrapping up (and I am not fucking there!) I was thinking back to some of my previous jaunts to one of my fave festivals and was reminded of the opening night screening of SXSW 2005 (a good, but not great year), Luke and Andrew Wilson’s THE WENDELL BAKER STORY. It’s only been 2 years and yet this film has pretty much sunk into movie oblivion, despite plum co-starring roles for Luke’s brother Owen and every man’s favorite hottie, Eva Mendes. Yes, Seymour Cassel, Harry Dean Stanton and Kris Kristofferson are in the film, too, but seriously, dude, Eva Mendes. I mean, come on, she’s hot! Did you see her on the cover of Shape last month? Yowza! What was I talking about? Oh yeah, THE WENDELL BAKER STORY…

So anyway, it wasn’t my first film of the fest that year (the atrocious low budget sci-fi shitburger CL.ONE was) but it was a big show, of course, since the Wilsons are local boys and the film was shot in and around Austin . The screening was at the luxurious Paramount Theater, which was packed to the gills with cast, crew, local celebs and festival goers and everyone had themselves a good time. The film is a pleasant, laid-back little flick, not the greatest film in the world but not a disaster of any kind, with Luke playing a likeable con man (is there any other kind?) just out of prison and placed in a work program that puts him in a dilapidated home for seniors run by the shifty Owen Wilson and Eddie Griffith. Here he befriends several of the residents, tries to win girlfriend Mendes back and goes up against Owen when he learns he’s been stealing from the residents. There’s a lot of nice Austin scenery (applause would follow the appearance of local landmarks) and fine photography from Steve Mason and if you’re looking for something pleasant and unsurprising then this will do ya just fine. I’m especially glad I saw it because I got to shake hands with Harry Dean Stanton in the lobby after the show. Wouldn’t you? If for no other reason, THE WENDELL BAKER STORY deserves my respect.

However, it’s not like I’ve been harboring a desire to see the film again since that night. In fact, it’s pretty much left my consciousness. It’s one of those “Oh yeah, I saw that movie” kinda things. Off and on I’ve wondered if it was going to see a release of any kind and I’d never hear anything. It didn’t even play any other major festivals after SXSW, just 2nd tier ones like Nantucket and Wisconsin and was released on DVD early last year in parts of Europe . So I just figured that it would get the same fate over here, but now I’ve heard that ThinkFilm has picked it up for a limited release in May with a DVD soon to follow. I’m a little surprised it’s all taken so long, considering that there are some major names in the cast and that it’s a decent flick, but that’s what’s happened. THE WENDELL BAKER STORY will probably do OK on disc and cable and who knows, it may gain a following, but when you think about it, it’s pretty lucky that this is happening at all. Certainly this film had a better chance of getting a release than most of the other films that play festivals and never get picked up, but that’s a fate that keeps happening again and again and it’s a little scary, actually. I’ve seen countless numbers of films at the various festivals and markets I’ve attended over the years that have yet to gain a release here in the U.S.; some I’ve liked, others I haven’t. The U.S. is probably much better off by not having CHURCHILL: THE HOLLYWOOD YEARS pollute the shelves of your local Blockbuster, but you’re definitely missing out when you can’t see Panna Rittikrai’s astonishing action epic BORN TO FIGHT, Harry Cleven’s fine thriller TROUBLE or the hilarious Danish CG animated film TERKEL IN TROUBLE except in import DVDs and crappy bootlegs. It's one thing for a film to get made, see a release and then fall through the cracks to become a forgotten film - like BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH, which I recently wrote about here - but for a lot of films to never see a release at all is definitely a little sad, even if it deserves such a fate, such as the lame Steven Soderbergh-produced low budget sci-fi drama ABLE EDWARDS. There's a new breed of forgotten films out there; more orphaned films than anything else, they need to find a home in one way or another but they never do. Seeing these films at these one-time screenings is one of the great things about the festival scene, but also one of its sad parts. I'm sure Luke Wilson doesn't see it like this, but THE WENDELL BAKER STORY is lucky to get a release at all.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Give Me Back My Hand! 20 Years of EVIL DEAD 2

You probably don’t know this, but tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN, and as far as I’m concerned that’s a cause for celebration. You don’t find the films that shape your movie going life, they find you and it was on that fateful opening weekend that EVIL DEAD 2 found me and pretty much screwed up my life for good. Funny thing was, I was never the biggest fan of the original film. THE EVIL DEAD was only the second film I’d ever rented on video when my family got its first VCR and oddly enough I wasn’t quite impressed. I was excited for the sequel I think more for what I had seen about in the latest issue of Fangoria and the fact that I was hungry for pretty much everything horror those days. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3 had just opened 2 weeks earlier and I just fucking loved it (I was a teenager then, so I was allowed) and EVIL DEAD 2 seemed like the natural progression. Odd thing was, I had no idea it was a comedy; the only review that I read was a trashing from the local paper (opening with the very insulting put-down “Since horror fans don’t know or care much about reality…”) and I didn’t so much read the Fangoria set visit as skim through it, so I was in for a rather unexpected surprise. The first couple of laughs caught me totally off-guard, as if I was laughing at the film instead of with it. Once I realized it was intentional I was in seventh heaven, because not only was this a film that was funny and scary, it was also endlessly inventive and freshly innovative. Even though Raimi and company had used some insane camera tricks on the first film, once the Evil Dead take Bruce Campbell through the air and all over the woods I felt like I was in film school and that I damn well better start taking notes. 20 years later, I still consider it one of the most astonishing sights I’ve ever seen in a movie. And I’ve seen a lot of movies since then.

I feel in my heart of hearts that EVIL DEAD 2 is a masterpiece, one of the greatest pieces of pure cinema ever created and I’m not budging on that. It’s the quintessential Raimi film, the one that he’s made his name on the most and the one that most of his longtime fans wish he’d make again. The things he did with the camera, the wild POV shots and whatnot that Raimi perfected may be commonplace now, but in 1987 it was a major eye-opener and watching EVIL DEAD 2 today it’s all still perfect. I suppose that if you were around when EVIL DEAD 2 was new then you’ll always have that on any other generation of viewer since then, but you never realized how much you needed EVIL DEAD 2 until it was sitting there right in front of you. Let’s forget about all the spin-offs (the video games, the off-Broadway musical, ARMY OF DARKNESS) and rip-offs and wannabes this film has inspired and just look at the film on its own. Even though it was a sequel, there really was nothing like this film before it and nothing has lived up to it since. That, to me, is the mark of a classic. Maybe EVIL DEAD 2 doesn’t have things like “depth” and “meaning”, maybe it spawned a movie culture where how cool your shot looked was more important than its subtext (if there was one), but who really fucking cares? It works like a goddamn motherfucker and doesn’t need any sort of emotional content to be the masterwork it is. It has Bruce Campbell giving one of the most remarkable physical comedy performances since Keaton (and truly suffering for his art) and delivering lines as the definitive movie wiseass of his generation (why he hasn’t had a bigger career I will never understand) and that should be enough. You can say that it’s the definitive fanboy movie and you’re probably not wrong, but you have to acknowledge that even those types of movies have the potential for greatness. EVIL DEAD 2 is pretty god damn great.

I should also mention that this week also marks the 20th anniversary of RAISING ARIZONA, and considering that the two films have plenty in common (the early Coen Bros. style was more or less lifted from Raimi, as Joel Coen was the editor on THE EVIL DEAD and the three have been friends for years). What was so interesting was that at the time, EVIL DEAD 2 got some relatively kind reviews, while critics couldn’t praise RAISING ARIZONA enough, but now, while ARIZONA is still an audience favorite, EVIL DEAD 2 probably has a bigger fan base. And this is not intended as a knock on RAISING ARIZONA, an excellent film in its own right, but it proves that people who love movies eventually find their way to EVIL DEAD 2 and don’t ever want to leave. You don’t see RAISING ARIZONA lunch boxes and action figures out there, do you? While I’m happy for the success that Raimi has had with the SPIDER-MAN films, one can’t help but feel he’s turned his back on the style of film that he not only made famous but perfected, as well. He’s been making much more sedate and self-serious films since A SIMPLE PLAN (also an excellent film, don’t get me wrong) but boy, do I wish he’d go back to his roots. I’m not asking for an EVIL DEAD 4, but just get crazy again, Sam. DARKMAN was fantastic, too, and these films are still unlike most of the other crap out there because you make them so damn good. Hell, even the Coens did the likes of THE BIG LEBOWSKI and OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? after FARGO and proved that they haven’t lost it. Those early Sam Raimi films remain the best because there is a joy behind the filmmaking that helps them transcend their supposed limitations and I suspect that Raimi can rediscover that joy inside him some day if given the chance. You don’t have anything to prove anymore, Sam. It’s time to have fun again.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Freaky Blogger Girl Hits The Bigtime

Make sure to watch HQ10 pal Kim Morgan this weekend as the guest critic on Ebert & Roeper, where she spars with big Dick on 300, THE HOST, THE NAMESAKE, and a bunch of other flicks. Kim promised she'd kick his ass for me, so that should be fun to watch, too. Can't wait to see it!

Congrats, Kim!


Jonathan King’s BLACK SHEEP (which is screening at SXSW this weekend) is, for the most part, an entertaining throwback to the early days of Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi, when low budget genre filmmakers were determined to break out from the pack by making their works just as much a comedy as a horror film. While horror comedies are not that uncommon these days (although the good ones are still rare), this was something particularly refreshing in the late 80s/early 90s and I’m sure it’s the reason the likes of EVIL DEAD 2 and BRAIN DEAD remain so well regarded. Watching BLACK SHEEP helped remind me of this time not so long ago (more on that next week) when you could surprise the audience by giving them as much humor as horror, although BLACK SHEEP’s premise (mutant sheep terrorize the New Zealand countryside) does more or less tip the hat before you even step in the theater. Either way, it’s a fun little pic that should please its intended audience, although there’s a risk that some might see it for more than it is.

It’s a sad fact that horror fans are quick to regard certain films as classics even though they’re not deserving of the honor and I fear that may happen with BLACK SHEEP. While it has its charms, the film loses steam with about a half hour to go and then you’re left with, well, the need to resolve the plot and a lot more gore. But when it works it’s fun and I really do have to stress that the film has its charms. By charms I, of course, mean senseless violence and gore, but are those things not charming in the right context? I was also pleased to see the filmmakers attempt to populate their film with likeable characters as opposed to just victims waiting for the chopping block (or lambs to the slaughter, if you will). It shows that they’re at least trying to tell a story and have it be its own movie, unlike the recent Australian zombie film UNDEAD, which wanted to be nothing more than a living videogame. Ultimately the problem is that there simply isn’t enough story to justify even a 90 minute running time. You can try to outwit and outrun a hoard of killer sheep for so long before it becomes redundant and with this picture that takes about 60 minutes or so with another 30 left to go. But the goodwill the film generates helps the film in memory and there are plenty of other positive aspects to BLACK SHEEP. It’s a beautiful-looking film, effectively shot is scope and it uses some beautiful New Zealand locations to great effect. And speaking of effects (a ham-handed segue if I ever wrote one) the sheep FX in the film are excellent, as it’s often rather difficult to figure out the animatronic sheep from the real ones. The cast is fine (female lead Tammy Davis is quite the cutie) and aside from an atrocious music score by Victoria Kelly (and Casio, it seems) there really isn’t much to gripe about. BLACK SHEEP is fun for the most part and a respectable first film for King, but it’s not a classic of any kind and that’s OK as long as the fanboys don’t go overboard on it. I guess we’ll see how that goes after tomorrow night’s Drafthouse screening. Have fun, Austinites!

Monday, March 5, 2007

It's The 2007 Terrible Spring Movie Preview!

Want to know about all of the terrible movies opening in theaters this spring? We've got your sneak peek right here!

DELTA FARCE (Lionsgate, May)
"Director" - C.B. Harding

"Actors" - Larry the Cable Guy, Bill Engvall, D.J. Quails

"Plot" - Trio of National Guardsmen think they've landed in Iraq, but they're really in Mexico. Just like in the real Iraq, hilarity ensues.

Who Stands To Lose Their Self Respect? - Keith David, by a long shot.

Why This Will Be Terrible - With the embarrassing situations at our veteran's hospitals coming to light, the time is right for the one-two punch insult to them that this film will no doubt provide.

KICKIN' IT OLD SKOOL (Yari Film Group, April 26)
"Director" - Harvey Glazer

"Actors" - Jamie Kennedy, Miguel Nunez, Jr., Maria Menounos

"Plot" - In 1986, young breakdance whiz dances himself into a coma and awakens as overgrown child Kennedy, now determined to win his childhood sweetheart (Menounos) back from her creepy boyfriend. No really, that's the plot.

Who Stands To Lose Their Self Respect? - Co-star Maria Menounos, the oh-so-pretty Access Hollywood correspondent who can probably no long interview the Dustin Hoffmans and Al Pacinos of the world by staring them straight in the face after this.

Why This Will Be Terrible - How could it not be?

"Director" - Todd Holland

"Actors" - Some dog

"Plot" - A famous movie stunt dog gets lost and is taken in by the lonely son of a widowed fireman and later learns to save lives.

Who Stands To Lose Their Self Respect? - Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp, who gave excellent performances as Jack and Bobby Kennedy in THRITEEN DAYS, now reunited in a movie where they play second banana to a CGI dog, not played by Kevin Costner.

Why This Will Be Terrible - How many times have we seen this movie? Seriously? When will the children rebel against these films, huh?

ARE WE DONE YET? (Sony, April)
"Director" - Steve Carr

"Actors" - Ice Cube, Nia Long

"Plot" - MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE is remade as a sequel to ARE WE THERE YET, with Cube taking over for Cary Grant. Or for you younger viewers, THE MONEY PIT is remade with Ice Cube in the Tom Hanks role.

Who Stands To Lose Their Self Respect? - John C. McGintly

Who Stands To Lose Their Street Cred? - Cube.

Why This Will Be Terrible - Ice Cube + dilapidating house = GHOST OF MARS keeps looking better and better as the years go by (and really, I do love GHOST OF MARS).

THE NANNY DIARIES (MGM/Weinsteins, April)
"Directors" - Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

"Actors" - Scarlett Johanson, Laura Linney, Chris Evans

"Plot" - From the best-selling novel, the story of a sweet, innocent nanny of a precocious, trouble-making tot born to rich, arrogant, we-don't-understand-our-children-because-we're-too-caught-up-in-ourselves New Yorkers.

Who Stands To Lose Their Self Respect? - Paul Giamatti. That Academy snub for SIDEWAYS must have really hurt, huh?

Why This Will Be Terrible - NYC-based best seller + The Weinsteins = Has this combination ever been good?

SKINWALKERS (Lionsgate, April)
"Director" - James Issacs

"Actors" - Canadians

"Plot" - Good werewolves vs. bad werewolves in a small American town somewhere in British Columbia.

Who Stands To Lose Their Self Respect - Elias Koteas, an excellent actor (see Cronenberg's CRASH and the new ZODIAC) who is also human and therefore must eat food to survive and in order to eat food he must work so that he could afford said food. And food isn't as cheap as it used to be, people.

Why This Will Be Terrible - Werewolves are the new vampires, meaning that there will be so many lame werewolf movies coming out that whatever appeal they once had will be sucked dry by the filmmaker's lack of imagination. Just look at this trailer and you'll see what we mean. Oh wait, we don't have a trailer for you because there's no site up for a movie that opens in about a month. That's studio support for you.

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Forgotten Movies - BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH

It’s a little funny to think about the current documentary boom and realize that for years, decades even, documentaries were considered persona non grata throughout much of the film industry. Despite there being so many famous docs (or docus or docos, as my friend Anthony Timpson calls them), their popularity over the last decade or so is truly an incredible thing. I remember in my days of working in sales for a small NYC film and video distributor and trying to convince the Blockbusters and Hollywood Videos that this or that documentary was worth their time and being told “Sorry, but I’ve already bought my documentary title for the month”. Now they purchase several each month, with an overabundance of titles on a number of worthy topics, although the more mainstream titles and subject matters are usually the ones to get the shelf space, usually leaving that Holocaust documentary to go unviewed by most normal folk.

But with this resurgence in documentaries one doco subgenre seems to have fallen by the wayside: The nature doc. Now, I know what you’re thinking, what about MARCH OF THE PENGUINS and WINGED MIGRATION? Yes, they were hits and beloved by audiences, but after that how many of them can you name from the last twenty years or so? Nature docs used to be a shoo-in for theatrical release and were even the cornerstone of Disney’s live action unit for many years, but for some reason they’ve fallen out of favor. I’m sure the fact that they’re difficult to film and that similar type programming shows up on Animal Planet, The Discovery Channel, and the National Geographic channel all the time may have stripped away some of their theatrical appeal, but when these things work, they work extremely well. For me, one prime examples of this subgenre is Peter Gimbel and James Lipscomb’s BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH, an outstanding piece of filmmaking that has been forgotten by all but a few, but an important film and one that still provides some stunning moments that few films could ever replicate.

I had some vague recollections of BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH left over from my youth when it would air occasionally on TV but it wasn’t until a 2005 screening at Quentin Tarantino’s QT Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin was I able to see the film in its true widescreen glory on the Drafthouse screen with a packed and appreciative house. Quentin screened the film as part of a documentary night which also included the Canadian wolf documentary A CRY IN THE WILD and while that film underwhelmed, BLUE WATER turned a bunch of jaded, seen-it-all moviegoers into wide-eyed easy-to-impress kids again. Apparently there wasn’t much recorded footage of great white sharks when the film was made (1971), so the film was both an effort to study these magnificent bastards and get them on camera. The film’s crew includes some of the true experts on sharks of the era, such as the directors and Ron & Valerie Taylor, who were later hired to film the real shark footage in JAWS based on their work here. Also on the crew for some reason is folk singer Tom Chapin (Harry’s brother) whose musical interludes are sometimes lovely, other times puzzling, and you simply have to wonder just what the hell he’s doing there. The crew begins in South Africa, where they tail a whaling vessel that leaves a whale carcass behind in order to attract Great Whites, and while it provides a popular snack shack for many other types of sharks, the Great Whites fail to materialize. However, the film crew takes advantage of the situation to shoot some remarkable footage of the sharks in the region and, in what can only be described (and I understand that this sounds like ridiculous hyperbole) as one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen in a movie, the divers, realizing that the sharks are solely interested in the whale carcass, leave their cages to swim among the sharks, which outnumber them by the dozens. The audience and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing and it was a reminder that for all of cinema’s gifts to show you sights that you’ve never seen before, it’s only those images that come from real life that truly matter and this is one that I will never forget.

Once the Great Whites arrive in the film’s last third (by this point the crew is in the oceans off of southern Australia) we are once again treated to some jaw-dropping images, as these ferocious beasts become the stars of the show and the footage is still incredibly impressive even after JAWS and Shark Week have seemingly stolen their thunder. The footage also serves as a reminder that these puppies are not to be fucked with - not now, not ever - as they charge the cameras with such intensity that the entire audience was once again awestruck by what we were seeing and by the time the film was over the huge burst of applause it received was more than well deserved. Even if you don’t have an interest in sharks or any other kind of underwater life, BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH’s dramatic footage will still hook you in and once it all done you’ll find a new appreciation for what these brave shark hunters do. I’d love to be able to point you to a DVD or revival screening of the film, but unfortunately it’s currently stuck on a shelf somewhere, just waiting for someone to show it again. I did a little digging (OK, I checked the IMDB) and discovered that since the film was produced by Cinema Center Films, which was CBS’ old theatrical production outfit, so this means Viacom owns it and Paramount has the DVD rights. While they’ve released much of the old CBS Films output (which includes a few classics, like LITTLE BIG MAN, PRIME CUT and SNOOPY COME HOME) there still are a few prime titles left to come out and BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH is one of them. Paramount usually doesn’t know what they have in their vaults and they sit on things for way too long, but with any hope maybe word of this great title will reach them soon and hopefully this exceptional documentary will be seen again.