Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Forgotten Movies, New Year's Eve edition: Allan Arkush's GET CRAZY!

Back on Memorial Day weekend of 2002, I attended a screening of GET CRAZY that was part of a Malcolm McDowell retrospective at Lincoln Center. McDowell was there for several films in the series, and pretty much the only reason he stuck around for GET CRAZY was because it screened right after A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which was understandably a much hotter ticket (couldn’t score one myself, sadly). McDowell’s intro was refreshingly honest – he didn’t remember much about the movie, as he’d only seen it once at the cast & crew screening back in 1983 - but he was looking forward to seeing it again. I hadn’t seen it in a long time myself, not since its cable TV days, but my memories of it were good ones, and I’d long loved director Allan Arkush’s ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, so I was quite enthused to see it again. However, seeing it with a crowd of Walter Reade Theater regulars and Kubrick devotees who were only staying for another Malcolm McDowell film, the film just died; though a few laughs did seep in, I was assuming that my memories of the film made it something more than the film I was seeing. McDowell was almost apologetic afterwords, explaining that he needed some work on his house at the time and that, along with the fun of playing a rock star and getting to do a comedy (which he said he did enjoy) was why he did it. He didn’t seem to enjoy the film much and wondered why they played it (the programmer explained she felt it was a great McDowell performance, which is true), but McDowell flippantly said, “Well, I’m sure it must have some fans”, to which a young man in the audience raised his hand and explained that GET CRAZY was his favorite movie and that he drove all the way from Connecticut to be there. Not that this shut anyone up, but it sure as hell proved that GET CRAZY was sure as hell not a movie for the Lincoln Center crowd.

Moving forward to February 2009, they screened GET CRAZY at the Alamo Drafthouse as part of the Music Mondays series, and I almost wasn’t going to go, in part because of my memories of that screening and also because I’d been having a shitty day. But I’m glad I did. It played a lot better than it did back in 2002, and the audience (and the context of the screening) had most everything to do with it. To go from one audience who couldn’t get into the film to one who openly embraced it made a huge difference, and I’m happy to say that I’m a fan of GET CRAZY once again. It’s not that the Alamo crowd was easy to please and predisposed to like any early 80s comedy (and trust me when I say that it sometimes is the case), but that they went in either as fans of GET CRAZY or were ready to love it because they get where it’s coming from. As it was a Music Mondays show, they were ready to rock, ready to laugh, and knew a little something about what Arkush and his collaborators were poking fun at (and playing tribute to). Based on Arkush’s years at the famed Fillmore East (and, in a very nice touch, dedicated to his fellow staffers) GET CRAZY is certainly an exaggerated account of those experiences (updated to then-modern late 1982), but it gets right its love and respect for the world of rock ‘n’ roll music, at least when it’s all about the music and not the money or the egos. Yes, it pokes a lot of fun at various types in the scene – punk rockers, new wavers, bluesmen, hippies, megastars, tortured artists, the fans – but it’s also an unquestionably affectionate spoof of the scene. As long as you love the music and don’t concern yourself with money, then you’re OK in GET CRAZY’s book.

What I particularly like about GET CRAZY is that Arkush takes the same controlled madness approach that he also applied to ROCK ‘N’ ROOL HIGH SCHOOL; the film flies off onto wild little tangents from time to time that have nothing to do with the plotline, but always finds its way back without any issue. This not only allows Arkush and co-writers Danny Opatoshu, Henry Rosenbaum and David Taylor to come up with lots of crazy ideas (this is one movie that really lives up to its title), but to also give the excellent supporting cast moments to shine. Best of these finds none other than Lou Reed playing a reclusive, Dylan-esque rock star who agrees to play the film’s New Year’s Eve rock show, but spends most of the night in the back of a cab looking for inspiration. Whoever had the great idea to cast Reed (or whoever turned the role down before he said yes) deserves big thanks, because Reed almost walks away with the show, displaying unfathomed dry comic skill and energy (even the first cutaway to him is hilarious). Everyone gets a moment to shine, especially McDowell (as the film’s Jagger stand-in, Reggie Wanker), Lee Ving, John Densome of The Doors (unexpectedly animated as McDowell's drummer), Lori Eastside as new wave star Nada (she gets the film’s best line) and Bill Henderson as King Blues, who does a great rendition of “The Blues Got Soul”. They’re all great, but this truly is Arkush’s show. He never really had it this good again (he’s specialized mainly in TV since, winning an Emmy for directing THE TEMPTATIONS), but with this and ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL he’s proven himself a master of the rock ‘n’ roll comedy, one of the few directors anywhere who really knows how to artfully combine the two (you’re damn right I used the word “artfully”, and I’ll do it again in a second). I think it’s probably more a matter of Arkush being someone who loves rock ‘n’ roll who also knows comedy, but no matter what he’s made two of the best rock movies ever. Perhaps he’s peaked early, like too many rock ‘n’ rollers, but he left us with two great ones, and his place his history is assured because of this. Rock ‘n’ roll and movies; this is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Monday, December 21, 2009

People I Know Make Stuff

When I say "make stuff", I'm talking about taking the time out to really make something, to bust your ass for months on a passion project that you're not going to profit on, just something that you know you want that you can only get by putting the pedal to the metal and making it your own damn self. Pal Kayla Kromer had a such a passion this time last year when she decided that she wanted a hamburger bed, which then went on to become an internet sensation that even turned me into an online superstar for a bit. Kayla sold the bed over the summer and quickly went to work on her latest passion project and the results are even more impressive. My inner 10 year-old is pretty damn jealous that Kayla has made her own Millennium Falcon bed, and having seen the damn thing in person I had no idea how much I wanted one until it was standing there in front of me. Aside from being a damn comfortable bed, it looks great, has working lights and a compartment for a keyboard and mouse pad (Kayla works on her bed; she teaches first grade) and even a cockpit for Han and Chewie to zip around the galaxy in. Like its predecessor, the Millennium Falcon bed has become a big internet hit, showing up on the home page for STAR and no doubt earning Kayla thousands, if not millions, of online marriage proposals. Kayla's craft making abilities have earned her some much-deserved fame, but it's her desire to make something on her own and her talent at putting it together that truly makes her awesome. Great job, Kayla!

(photo by Heather Leah Kennedy)

I first met Richard Gale at the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival when his short film CRITICIZED screened to a pretty rapturous audience reaction (it won one of the audience awards). He met up again when the film screened at Fantastic Fest and again at a NYC genre film fest that fall and we just hit it off like the right people do. Richard's experience on the festival circuit was so much fun that he decided to make another short with the idea for getting it ready for Fantastic Fest 2008. Coming in just under the wire (I had no idea the short was playing until I saw Richard at the fest), it turned out to be one of the fest's biggest hits and won a special award, the first of what has become a long series of festival awards for THE HORRIBLY SLOW MURDERER WITH THE EXTREMELY INEFFICIENT WEAPON. The list of audience awards for this puppy is pretty non-stop (seven thus far), but the real exciting part is what happened once Richard finally uploaded it onto YouTube this past Halloween. Not only is THSMWTEIW one of the highest-rated shorts in YouTube's relatively short history, it's now approaching nearly two million hits, which is puts this at "Lazy Sunday" level in terms of internet popularity. And I pleased to say it deserves the success, not just because Richard is such a good guy, but also because he made a very entertaining short that takes an admittedly one-joke premise and sustains laughs for ten minutes straight. It's a pretty fast-moving piece and it shows Richard off to great effect (usually the point of most hsort films), so it pleases me to hear about its success. It's down below for those of you who haven't seen it yet.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Forgotten Movies: Cy Endfield's HELL DRIVERS

If you want to define the quintessential British movie tough guy, then look no further than Stanley Baker. Over the course of a full, yet too-brief career (Baker died of a lung cancer at 48) he defined postwar British action and tough guy roles in such films as CRIMINAL, ZULU (which he also produced), HELL IS A CITY, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and ROBBERY, among just a few of his hits. As much of a respected dramatic actor as he was a popular movie star (he played Henry Tudor in Olivier’s RICHARD III and made several acclaimed film with Joseph Losey, including ACCIDENT, written by Harold Pinter), Baker often found himself playing a tough guy with heart - like Cagney, Bogart, or Marvin - types are those who are rough around the edges, but good souls who truly want to be left in peace. But like most tough guys, they find themselves in situations where been pushed too far and have to fight back, and they sure as hell know how to fight when the situation demands it. This, in a nutshell, is Baker’s role in Cy Enfield’s HELL DRIVERS, a guy who finds himself in a situation where it’s a fight for survival, even though it’s the last thing he wants. Of course, none of this is nothing new or really original – even back in 1959, when the film was made – but there’s a fine British grit to HELL DRIVERS that makes it feel just right, and even though it doesn’t hold much in the way of surprises, it’s a solid piece of entertainment that still works, 50 years later.

When I made the Bogart/Cagney comparison to Stanley Baker, it’s not just because he’s in their league, but also because HELL DRIVERS is the kind of picture that Warner Brothers could have made back in their crime drama/social outrage drama heyday of the 1930s. It also takes a page from the likes of Jules Dassin’s THEIVES HIGHWAY to discuss the seedy world of trucking and the exploitation of the drivers – always overworked, always struggling to fill their quota, always in fierce competition with each other – while remaining a tough guy movie all-around. Baker’s character is just out of prison, looking for work, and is sent to a small trucking company (hauling gravel) out in the countryside. He’s without a license, so if he’s caught he’s doubly screwed, and as the new guy he instantly butts heads with most of the other drivers, especially top hauler Patrick McGoohan, who’s also a bit of a psycho. So yeah, the script to HELL DRIVERS was already nothing new back in ’59, and I’m not saying that it’s anything all that special. But presentation is indeed everything in this case, and HELL DRIVERS is certainly a fine example of taking familiar material and making something tasty (if not fresh) out of it.

A large part of this is in the casting, not just with Stanley Baker, although he definitely makes for the right lead needed in a picture like this, but also with a supporting cast that seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ve already mentioned McGoohan (perfectly scummy), but you’ve also got a young Sean Connery, CARRY ON’s Sidney Havers, Herbert Lom as an Italian who’s Baker’s sole friend and confidant (needless to say, he’s toast), and a young David McCallum as Baker’s brother. Thanks to this cast, HELL DRIVERS is a movie with some personality and they all make it very easy to watch even when you know what’s coming. Enfield (who would later direct ZULU), generally a muscular director to begin with, also infuses it with some tight pacing and always keeps it moving (there’s a lot going on within each frame), so it’s easy to get caught up in it all. But at the center of it all is Baker, easy to like and root for, who is the key to HELL DRIVERS’ success. He makes otherwise tired material fresh simply by showing up and caring enough to do a good job, and it’s no surprise this was one of his biggest hits. It gives the British tough guy movie a good name.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Greatest Trailers of All Time (Halloween Edition) - EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC

I suppose it's easy to look at this trailer for John Boorman's EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC and say to one's self, "No wonder this thing turned out how it did", but I think that's beyond the point, really. Think what you want to about the film itself (I find it to be both insane and insanely watchable), but there's no way you can't look at this trailer and not be sucked in. Whoever cut this puppy (might it have been Boorman himself?) knew how to take a movie that no one would like and made a trailer that makes you say, "Whatever the fuck that is, I gotta see that!" EXORCIST II sure isn't THE EXORCIST (or EXORCIST III), but this trailer shows that whatever the hell it is, it's a one of a kind sort of thing, indescribable and crazy on one hand, but absorbing and completely watchable on another. The trailer actually makes the film seem a bit more like an EXORCIST rip-off (thanks to the fabulous Morricone score), but if you know the finished film, then you'll know that EXORCIST II is its own animal that by no means can it be confused with anything else, which is what I like about it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fantastic Fest: Five Films You Shouldn't Miss

Yes, Fantastic Fest 2009 has now begun, and we’re all buzzing about what films we want to see and what films might be the sleepers of the fest. Well, having seen more than a few Fantastic Fest titles already (part of the job), let me tell you that this is as strong a year as we’ve ever had, and some of the best films are (as usual) the ones that are flying under most people’s radar. They don’t come from major studios or big-name directors and aren’t adapted from comic books or graphic novels, but they’re all pretty awesome and damn well worth your time.

Sunday, September 27 @ 2pm
Monday, September 28 @ 1:45pm

Sion Sono’s LOVE EXPOSURE is still my favorite film of the year, and unquestionably one of the most unique, distinctive films of the decade. The first thing everyone mentions is the film’s four hour running time, like that’s a bad thing; all that really means is that you are in for a cinematic journey that’s going to take a lot out of you, but it also means that you’re going to get a hell of a lot more out of it. This epic tale of true love, religious fervor and upskirt photography is a true work of geek art that you’re never going to forget.

Sunday, September 27 @ 6:55pm
Wednesday, September 30 @ 9:15pm

Some may think that a small domestic drama like Ben Wheatley’s DOWN TERRACE would be out of place at a genre fest Fantastic Fest, and we would like to remind you that the “fantastic” in the title doesn’t just mean fantasy but also films that are downright fantastic in quality. DOWN TERRACE certainly is that. Produced by the Mondo Macabro DVD label, DOWN TERRACE is the kind of dark-as-night, pitch-black comedy/dramas that most film festivals or distributors don’t know what to do with, but genre cinema fans will easily understand and quickly embrace. Fantastic Fest is honored to host the world premiere of DOWN TERRACE, and we strongly encourage you to see this one and spread the word about one of the major finds of this year’s fest.

Saturday, September 26 @ 11:59pm
Wednesday, September 30 @ 11:55pm

Fans of bizarre cinematic sleaze (and make no mistake, this is certainly that) should make a bee line for Tom Six’s HUMAN CENTEPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE), easily one of the most whacked-out movies at Fantastic Fest this year, and we mean that in a good way. This is one that works best going in blind, because it really goes all over the map into some pretty sick and extreme places; but it’s also pretty damn hilarious and audacious to the hilt, anchored by a wonderfully strange performance by Dieter Laser as a mad scientist whose God complex has gone into overdrive. Outrageous doesn’t begin to describe this one, but fucked up beyond belief certainly comes pretty damn close. And again, we mean that in a good way.

Friday, September 25 @ 10:30pm
Sunday, September 27 @ 11:45am

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s A TOWN CALLED PANIC is definitely weird, but it’s also squeaky clean and ideal even for kids, albeit hip kids who dig watching movies with subtitles. Based on the Beligian TV sensation, it’s like a feature-length version of playtime with your action figures when you were six years old and your imagination and sense of fun were limitless. It’s also full of wonderfully unsophisticated stop motion animation and anarchic humor that never lets up.

Tuesday, September 29 @ 1:10pm
Wednesday, September 30 @ 6:30pm

South Korean cinema has provided some of the best commercial cinema over the last decade, a tradition that continues with Dae-min Park’s PRIVATE EYE, which is part of our Next Wave competition. It’s one of the freshest takes on the private eye tale I’ve seen in a while, set in 1910 Korea, a time when private investigators were relatively new to the Korean landscape, with a mystery that goes deep into the heart of the Korean government and crime world. The setting certainly makes it unique, but PRIVATE EYE is also a fresh piece of commercial filmmaking, energetically directed by Dae-min, with delightful performances from Jeon-Min Hwang as the private eye of the title and Ryu Deok-hwan as the med school nebbish who desperately needs his help. It’s a lot of fun.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Greatest Trailers of All Time: STUNT ROCK (1978)

Brian Trenchard-Smith's STUNT ROCK, which I wrote about in the early days of HQ 10, has finally shown up on domestic DVD (courtesy of Code Red), and to celebrate this I figure it's time to run the film's now-famous trailer all over again, since it was a major force in getting the film rediscovered. Alamo Drafthouse founder/my boss Tim League likes to tell the story of buying this trailer in his early days of print and trailer collecting and programming it at many of the early Alamo Drafthouse screenings. It became a staple of Harry Knowles' annual Butt-Numb-a-Thon, where the film itself was finally screened in December of 2005 to an unsuspecting (and rather unimpressed) audience.

I'd never seen the trailer (or heard of the movie) until I saw it on a now out-of-print trailer compilation DVD called TRAILER TRASH, and pretty much like everyone else I was literally gobsmacked by what I saw. It's impossible to tell what the film is about (I thought it was a straight documentary), but that's the charm of the trailer, as it's just this bizarre barrage of images and sounds that make absolutely no sense but are also unquestionably appealing. What's this band? What do the stunts have to do with them? Is this just a bunch of crazy stunts set to rock music? What's going on? As stupid as it is, this trailer really does pull you in and make you want to see just what the hell STUNT ROCK is really all about, like great trailers do. The fact that STUNT ROCK itself doesn't exactly live up to this magical trailer is beyond the point. They sold this fucker and they sold it well; years later, those who see this trailer still want to see the movie and that makes this one great trailer.

Now if I can only get the soundtrack...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The New Awful: Mark Region's AFTER LAST SEASON

There is a fine line between clever and stupid, as the saying goes, and there is an equally finer line between parody and legitimate outright awfulness. If something is so amateurishly put together that it comes across as being awful, like Ed Wood’s body of work, it’s an also incredibly difficult thing to do something like that in an intentional manner. There is a sincerity to amateurism, in how those involved really did try their best but proved to have no real talent, that you can’t fake, so those who try to poke fun are always at a disadvantage. It’s certainly possible to parody these kind of things so that they come close (SCTV being the true masters of this art), but no matter who you are, no matter how talented you may be, you simply can’t fake being awful. That’s something that has to come straight from the heart.

This is what I’ve been keeping in mind when I think about Mark Region’s AFTER LAST SEASON, which has become a bit of an internet sensation of sorts after the film’s inexplicable trailer somehow ended up on Apple’s trailer page. There’s no way this thing could be real, people thought, looking so inexplicably bad that it had to be a phony, and there’s no way this thing is ever going to come out in theaters, they believed, too. Well, on June 4 AFTER LAST SEASON actually opened in four markets in the U.S., one of them being Austin, TX, and there really wasn’t any way you were gonna keep me away from this one, not in a million years. I have a real fascination with cinematic car wrecks - the more obscure, the better – and I figured that whether it was fake or the real thing, I had to check this one out while I could. The first word on the film from someone who saw it (and the first review to pop up online) came from my friend Rodney Perkins, who writes for Twitch and is a pretty smart guy who can spot a fake when he sees one, and Rodney came back with the news that AFTER LAST SEASON was the real deal, not only a legit piece of The New Awful, but a memorable one, at that. And then the weirdness on this one intensified: First, an e-mail interview with Region that seemed to raise more questions that it answered ($5 million? Really!?!), followed by word from one of the cast members that the film was not just legit but that Region, apparently an Asian who did not speak perfect English, was 100% the real deal, a guy with no actual filmmaking skills who lucked into getting to direct a movie.

If you’ve seen the trailer to AFTER LAST SEASON (embedded below), then you have a very good idea of just what kind of film it is, because what you see there is truly what you get. It’s a movie of small talk, lame acting, inexplicable plot lines and amateur filmmaking of the highest order, and it’s like this for 90 minutes solid. I was trying to actually piece together just what the film is about (there’s an experiment in mind reading and the ghost of a murdered grad student) but by saying that it makes AFTER LAST SEASON sound like some kind of genre film, which it most definitely is not. It’s incredibly slow and ponderous due only to Region’s obvious lack of filmmaking abilities, possessing absolutely no concept of plotting, pacing or storytelling, and it prods on filled with scenes of characters discussing little things that don’t have anything to do with the events that eventually transpire, so when the plot kicks in, it’s so amazingly far-fetched and ridiculous (and so poorly thought out) that you slap you head in astonishment. Then there are the scenes filled with 1993-era CGI that take up a large part of the third act, all so bizarre and out of left field that you’ve got to wonder what the point is. And then when they supposedly get there in the final scene, you’re not only left wondering just what was going on, but what kind of lines did Region use to convince a clueless Christian or New Age church to pay for this thing? One hopes they haven’t been bankrupted by their funding of AFTER LAST SEASON.

But there’s always a “but…”, and for AFTER LAST SEASON it lies in it's unmissable sincerity. At the very least, AFTER LAST SEASON tries to be about something meaningful, though I’m really at a loss as to just what that something is. The level of storytelling amateurism on display here is preferable to the fanboy amateurism to be found in the latest zombie or comic book hero wannbe flick because there’s an attempt to say something from the heart here that would be admirable if it weren’t so incoherent and dumbfounded. I’m reminded of a playwriting course that I took in high school that wielded numerous plays about parental troubles, peer pressure, and relationship troubles that were by no means good, but the authors meant every word that they said 100%, and that gave the plays some value. Region believes in his message (which I think is about the power of memory and how those we love never leave us after they’re gone), so at the very least he seems to be trying to say something meaningful (at least to Region), so I can cut him a tiny bit of slack for not making something soulless. If Region knew what he was doing and had some real imagination and storytelling skills AFTER LAST SEASON could have been something interesting and possibly worth discussing, but let’s face it, Region doesn’t really possess any talent, so the point is moot. There’s no question that AFTER LAST SEASON is memorable, and awful, and most likely 100% legit. I feel bad for Region because he’s going to get mocked at for the rest of his life when all he wanted to do was tell a story that, it turns out, he had no idea how to tell. Despite all this, I honestly have to say that as bad movies go I have definitely seen a lot worse, and most importantly, that sincerity is what saves the film from being a slit-your-wrist kind of film going experience. At least they tried.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fantastic Fest 2009: The First Titles

What you see below you (or at the end of the post, to be exact) is the first official press release for Fantastic Fest 2009. Obviously, there’s some pretty good stuff here, but if you’re looking for Hollywood blockbusters and big name stars and directors, I suggest you hold tight and wait for further announcements (they will be coming, believe you me). This fest has pretty much been my lifeblood for the last year and the work that’s gone into it from myself and the rest of the staff (along with the work yet to come) will hopefully bring one of the most memorable film festivals of all time, no question. That may sound like a totally bullshit statement, but honest to god, if things pan out like we want them to (and I have a good feeling that they will for the most part), 2009 will be the year Fantastic Fest makes a big motherfucking name for itself.

What you see below you is a lot of the international and independent selections, and it’s a pretty good lot, complete with Sion Sono’s amazing LOVE EXPOSURE, still my favorite film of the year, and a few other goodies (check the website for my write-ups on that and JOURNEY TO SATURN). BREATHLESS, which has won numerous awards throughout the year, is quite good (very Kim-Ki Duk-ish, which I like) while the likes of BUARTINO are outright bizarre (my boss does like the weird stuff). Not much here that hasn’t already been seen on the international scene already, but they haven’t been around too much and there’s no question that they all fit in quite well.

Sponsorship-wise it hasn’t been all that easy a year (not much of a surprise). However, as of this writing I’m ahead of where I was last year and there are some excellent prospects on the horizon that give me a lot of hope that we’ll have a sponsor roster that looks a lot like the kind I want it to look, though I’m not going to get too much into that yet until I really know for sure. No question the economy has been kicking my ass (when one major beverage company can’t even supply you with free product, you know things are in the shitter), but there have also been a lot more folks who want to work with us and are even making an effort to support Fantastic Fest. Again, I’m not going to count all my chickens before they’re hatched, but I like how things are looking and am saying nightly prayers that they pan out. And I am not a religious man.

So anyway, here’s the first official press release, complete with a lot of talk about our 3-D sidebar and Jess Franco retrospective and lifetime achievement award (whoever came up with that idea must be damn handsome), along with some chat about The Highball, our new hopefully douchebag-free nightspot. There’s another one of these coming August 17, with a hell of a lot more goodies on that one!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Greatest Trailers of All Time: NAKED LUNCH

It was pretty incredible that a film version of William Burroughs' NAKED LUNCH ended up getting made in the first place. Despite the film's lack of adherence to the actual novel, the resulting film (one of David Cronenberg's finest) is a pretty extraordinary achievement in it's own right. No, what truly strikes me as most surprising about the film version of NAKED LUNCH was that the film was distributed by 20th Century Fox, whose marketing department astonishingly came up with a trailer that not only did a remarkable job of selling the film, but also sold it properly. Not only did they not hide the film's literary origins, but they also didn't make the film out to be anything that it wasn't. They could have sold it as a thriller, a horror film, or even a straight drama, but instead they sold it as what it was: NAKED LUNCH, a weird, one-of-a-kind hybrid of the visions of Burroughs and Cronenberg and a damn great film. Even stupid people would look at this trailer and say to themselves, "Damn, this I gotta see!". Although the film was nothing more than an arthouse success in the U.S.(unsurprisingly, much more successful overseas), you sure as hell can blame the marketing department for the box office on this one.

Friday, June 19, 2009

"The Good News is Your Dates Are Here..."

(Originally posted on the Alamo Drafthouse blog.)

Man, let me tell you about the weekend I had last week.

When my good friend, Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures, called to let me know that he was producing the long-awaited DVD for the 80’s horror favorite NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, I knew we had to do something. Michael was already thinking the same thing and suggested the Alamo host a cast & crew reunion screening (not unlike the 2006 MONSTER SQUAD reunion screening), which would be filmed for the DVD. Writer/director Fred Dekker was already on board, and it was no problem getting stars Tom Atkins, Jill Whitlow, Steve Marshall and Jason Lively to agree to come in. The good folks at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment agreed to let us screen the original director’s cut that will be made available on the DVD (which hits stores on October 20), Mondo Tees and Jon Smith put together an outstanding glow-in-the-dark poster, and we got Ain’t It Cool News’ Eric Vespe (aka “Quint”) to host the show. And with this, the stage was set for a memorable weekend for all concerned.

If you were at the show (which sold out in a matter of hours), you saw how much fun these people were having on stage, obviously enjoying each other’s company and the thrill of meeting just some of the film’s many fans. But I happened to have the pleasure of hosting this group all weekend long, and let me tell you what a blast we all had. On top of the thrill of meeting the cast and director of a longtime favorite movie, everyone turned out to be super cool and just a pleasure to spend time with, and since it was the first time in 23 years they all saw each other, it was also a major kick to take part in their reunion, even though I was never there the first time out (although I actually saw NIGHT OF THE CREEPS during it’s very brief theatrical run in August 1986). Yes, Tom Atkins is as cool as you think he is (and that’s pretty damn cool), while Jill Whitlow remains a dream girl and Steve Marshall and Jason Lively are cut-ups of the highest order. And what can I say about Fred Dekker except that he’s one of the good guys, as nice as he is talented, smart as a whip and someone you could spend days talking movies with like he’s an old friend. After this weekend I’m convinced that the world desperately needs more Fred Dekker movies.

Alamo pal Heather Leah Kennedy took these fantastic pics that perfectly capture the fun that everyone had that evening (even with that biker rally going on outside), so we encourage everyone to check them out. Big thanks once again to Michael Felsher and the Red Shirt Pictures crew; Jason Allen of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; the Alamo Ritz crew; everyone who attended, and, of course, Steve Marshall, Jill Whitlow, Jason Lively, the great Tom Atkins, and the man himself, Fred Dekker.

I guess we better that ROBOCOP 3 reunion screening going, huh, Fred?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"Polar Bear Fell On Me" OR "Pain Don't Hurt" OR "I Used To Fuck Guys Like You In Prison" - 20 Years of ROADHOUSE

Thursday nights at the old HQ 10 were usually the most fun night of the week for the theater staff, because almost always meant an after-closing screening of the new films for that weekend, which could sometimes mean an all-nighter of movies that I was always up for. We would call this process "checking prints", meaning that we had to make sure that the prints were suitable for showing to the general public, but this was pretty much bullshit, because in all my time there this kind of problem only occurred once, when a lab fuck up gave us a print of HALLOWEEN 5 that repeated a scene twice (fitting for such a repetitive movie). These screenings would usually just contain a few of us (usually those who didn't have school the following day), but some of the bigger movies brought in more than a few folks, and our Thursday night showing of PULP FICTION damn near packed the house with staff, managers, and their friends. I wouldn't necessarily say that any of these screenings were among the greatest movie going nights of my life - memorable as the were, it was never a substitute for seeing a film in a packed theater - but there is always one that will stand out in my mind, and it happened 20 years ago last night: ROADHOUSE. Rowdy Herrington and Joel Silver's ode to beatin' up rednecks that has endured a hell of a lot longer than anyone would have anticipated, though it shouldn't have been a surprise, as indicated by that HQ 10 screening.

First off, let's get this out of the way: ROADHOUSE is not a good movie. I know a lot of people love it and it's their favorite movie, but it's so colossally stupid that, as entertaining as it is (and it's pretty damn entertaining), it should not be mistaken for anything of quality. Hell, I seemed to know that even then, as a chubby brat fresh out of high school, though I definitely enjoyed myself and would occasionally stick my head in to re-watch some of the better moments during the film's relatively brief HQ 10 run. It's a very LCD kind of movie, made to appeal to the idiot in all of us, that's also a pretty cynical one; ROADHOUSE knows what it is, knows what it's audience wants, and delivers it all in heaping doses - tits, blood, fights, explosions, macho dialogue, you name it. There's a moment where Ben Gazarra, referring to his mistress's choice of music, shouts, "I can't stand that crap. It's got no heart!" and that pretty much nails down what's wrong with ROADHOUSE. As much fun as it is, it's a rather soulless thing that I've only ever enjoyed on a superficial level, like a cheeseburger. While it's silly to ever expect anything more out of it, I've seen numerous other films of its type that have done much more with much less that I've never really been a fully-fledged member of the cult of ROADHOUSE. Sure, it's a slick and professional exploitation movie - nothing wrong with that - but anyone who tosses the word "classic" before or after this title hasn't a single idea what they're talking about. You want a moronic action movie that's worth remembering? Take a look at Brian Trenchard-Smith's THE MAN FROM HONG KONG, then watch ROADHOUSE again, and let's talk. There's stupid done right for you right there.

OK, so I've aired my grievance about ROADHOUSE, but I must also take this opportunity to confess that I've seen the damn thing several times, have shown it to friends who have never seen it before, and even saw a not-very-good camp Off-Off-Off Broadway theatrical production starring Timak from THE LAST DRAGON in the Patrick Swayze role. It's definitely so bad it's good, even if it is a piece of shit in some ways at least it's a watchably entertaining one. That's been my reaction all along, but this is a movie that the Spike TV audience has taken to heart in ways that I'm not 100% comfortable with and that's always been the problem. That HQ 10 screening 20 years ago was memorable in part because all of us employees - Kev, Cahill, Bender, Strat, Bev, Hatley, Moriarity and whoever else I may be forgetting - were the proper age for enjoying that movie and enjoy it we did, making for a fun night of hooping and hollering and having a good time. But what got to me was that when it was over, everyone loved it so much they decided to run it again, the first and only time that ever happened at HQ 10, while I decided I couldn't do that and watched Savage Steve Holland's HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE instead (which I also decided I couldn't do either and left halfway through). I won't deny anyone their love of ROADHOUSE, but for God's sake get it out of your head that it's anything more than enjoyable trash. There are better action movies, better hicksploitation movies, better uses of Sam Elliott and, hell, even better Patrick Swayze movies out there to enjoy. The fact that ROADHOUSE is still remembered fondly 20 years later certainly shows that the dumb guys won this battle, but let's not kid ourselves about it. I enjoy a good, stupid movie as much as the next guy - and I enjoy ROADHOUSE - but I also got my standards and I know I've seen better. Yet, I also know I will probably watch it again at some point before I die. Such is it's power.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Dug Alert!

So Pixar/Disney have sent out the following clip of Dug's first appearance in UP and I'm passing it along to show you all that my love for this animated pooch is completely, 110% justified. Prepare to love him yourself when the film hits theaters on the 29th.

Damn, I can't wait to see this again!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Greatest Trailers of All Time: MIRACLE ON 34th STREET

One of the great things about old trailers is how so many of them went out of their way to emphasize how different and unique the films were, even if the opposite was true. There's no better example than the trailer for George Seaton's beloved classic MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, a wonderful film, no doubt, but not one that we think of bizarre and unclassifiable.

Part of the reason for the unusual (but effective) concept of the trailer was to hide the fact that MIRACLE ON 34th STREET is a Christmas picture, since Fox opened the film in May 1947 (actually 62 years as of this Saturday), apparently because Zanuck argued that it would do better in the summer (he was right - it was one of the biggest hits of '47). I love the idea about how it's a film that's so unclassifiable that the studio doesn't know how to sell it ("Is it a romantic love story? Is it an exciting thriller? Is it a hilarious comedy? Make up your minds!"), but it's the word of mouth (supplied by such Fox contract stars as Rex Harrison, Anne Baxter, Peggy Ann Garner and Dick Haymes) that really sells the picture, so no matter what season it is, it's a film worth seeing. It would all be laughable if it were any movie other than MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, but since it really is all those things they describe it as (I had no idea that "groovy" was around back in '47), you've got to let it pass. This is one of the few classic movies that really lives up to it's classic trailer:

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"I Was Hiding Under Your House Because I Was Scared and Because I Love You" - Pete Docter and Bob Peterson's UP

Whenever a new Pixar movie comes around and everyone struggles with superlatives to praise it, they usually tend to focus on one element, lest they sound like they're merely repeating their review of the previous Pixar film. RATATOULLIE has the best script; FINDING NEMO has the best design; WALL-E is the most artistic; CARS is the least good, ect. With their latest film UP, the point of praise is going to be pretty easy, as it's easily the funniest Pixar film to date. The ads may be selling UP as a fantasy/adventure, and it certainly has those elements, but what everyone will be talking about afterwords will be the comedy, and justifiably so. Some of the biggest laughs I've had in a movie in the last few years are in UP, and like any great comedy I find myself looking forward to seeing it again in order to see what I missed when I was laughing so damn much.

My favorite Pixar film to date remains MONSTERS, INC., which was also directed by Docter, and the two share remarkably dense, clever and creative screenplays (this one written by Peterson, Ronnie del Carmen, and an uncredited Thomas McCarthy) to their immense credit. With both pictures they're populating these worlds with not just memorable characters, but unique ones - all of them funny and fresh and unlike most anything you see in movies these days - and then go wild with them. The best example (and my favorite, as evidenced by the accompanying pictures) is unquestionably Dug, the talking dog (voiced by Peterson), who is one of the most charming, lovable and unique characters to come along in most any movie in a long time. I got to see a rough version of the opening 45 minutes of UP at last December's Butt-Numb-A-Thon, and not knowing very much about the picture I was delighted when Dug popped up and had hoped that the filmmakers would keep him and some of his most hilarious moments ("Squirrel!") out of the public eye until the film's opening. Well, if you've seen the film's trailer then you know that idea has gone to hell, and even though the cat (or dog) is out of the bag, I'm still a little reluctant to go into detail as to just what makes Dug so great. But I will say this: Docter and Peterson have created the first movie dog that I can remember that personifies just why dogs are so great in the first place. The unrequited love and affection they give, their excited and inquisitive nature and their honesty and devotion are much of what I love about dogs, and I see all of that here in Dug. He feels to me like what a real dog would say if he could talk (or if his thoughts could be read), and on top of all that, Peterson does a wonderful job voicing him, and his line readings are so hilariously perfect in many cases that Dug may very well be my favorite Pixar character of all. What's also wonderful about him is just how unexpected his presence in the picture is; at no point are you expecting a talking dog to pop up, and when he does, you're wondering jst where they'll go with it, so the fact that he makes UP so wonderful is, to me, a true testament to the creativity if Docter and Peterson. I haven't had a childlike reaction to a movie character like this in ages, but I think that says something about Dug, and I also think it's quite likely that many others will soon feel the same once they see him.

Something else that's refreshing about UP is in how it restores the simple sense of fun and adventure back into Pixar's filmmaking. The last few Pixar films have all been ambitious to a fault, as if they knew that by being Pixar movies they all had to be something other than mere entertainments and had to say something "important" to prove their worth. UP is just fun, plain and simple, though it is by no means lightweight or insignificant, and by not taking itself too seriously it's actually Pixar's best in a while. It's not heavy-handed, self-important or cloying, it's just a well-told yarn that gives off nothing but 100% entertainment and leaves you with a big 'ol smile on your face. There are definitely moments of poignancy (especially at the beginning) and through the sheer likability of the characters it proves it's got a lot of heart to go along with the laughs. Anyone who knocks this for not being WALL-E is exactly the type that this picture mocks, those who can't truly live and enjoy life. Yes, there are a lot of movies about fulfilling your dreams and have an adventure no matter what your age, but so many of them are phony and half-hearted, while UP is one of the few that truly seems to get it. Everything this movie accomplishes it does so because it feels totally genuine and heartfelt, and it doesn't condescend to the audience in any way. UP is exactly how you feel when you leave the theater and how you remember the film long afterwords, and it's going to stay that way with you for a long time. Squirrel!

Monday, April 20, 2009

No More Room in Hell: 30 Years of George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD

I grew up in a world of civil servants. My father was a fireman (later a fire chief) and my mother, after having brought up us Kiernan kids, went back to work as a receptionist at a local hospital. Most everyone in my parent’s social circles, be they friends or relations, worked for counties or townships and served the people more than they did themselves – cops, medics, other firemen, telephone men, gas workers, even priests. They all made decent livings and, most importantly of all, were decent people, those who could be depended upon when you needed help, the kind of people who were (are still are) the backbone of America. I’d never met any kind of intellectuals or liberal hippie types growing up; everyone was what you would classify as middle class (the working middle class in this case), and they were never the type to talk trash about the government, have key parties or discuss Moliere, because they simply weren’t those kind of people. It was a good childhood, and although I knew early on it was not a life that I could live for myself, it gave me a core set of values and ideals that I keep with me through this day, along with a respect for those who do the kind of work that my parents and their friends did. It takes a certain kind of person to run into a burning building, chase a purse snatcher or give someone CPR, and I’m proud to say that I’ve known people like this all of my life and can call some of them family. But rarely do I ever see them portrayed convincingly on a movie screen.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I first sat down to watch George A. Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD on January 17, 1985. I knew it was a zombie movie, I knew it was set in a shopping mall, but that was about it, and Romero’s zombie epic hit me like a ton of bricks. Going beyond all the elements that have made it so popular over the years – the gore, the zombies – DEAD OF THE DEAD was a major revelation to me because (and granted, I’d seen a lot of fantasy-type stuff that appealed to kids of the era before it), it was honestly the first time I’d ever seen an existence like the one I knew of in a movie. The characters in DAWN OF THE DEAD all felt like people I knew in one way or another, and they acted like real people to me, too. The choices they made were the kind that honest, decent people made only in the name of survival and their actions were worth rooting for because of the good people they were. In most similar-type genre movies that I’d seen before it was usually the scientist or the military man who were the lead characters, but here it was cops and helicopter pilots who were people I understood, even related to. Anyone one of them could be my dad, my uncle, a neighbor, anyone I grew up with, and I felt I could follow them through this adventure as a fellow survivor of the oncoming apocalypse and be alright. I knew these people had my back and I'd have theirs, too, even giving my life up to ensure their survival if I had to. And it should go without saying that I absolutely understood the appeal of holding up in a shopping mall. Those places were special to me at the time, the kind of place you went to only on weekends, special occasions or during the holidays, and whenever you did, you’d find something new, something cool. Not just a place to buy stuff, but another town to visit, all bunched together with a roof over it where it would never get too cold or too hot. Beyond just the whole consumer culture satire (which I definitely got), the mall setting remains part of the genius of DAWN because it made the film something everyone could understand and relate to. After all, when all hell breaks loose, who wouldn’t think of holding themselves up in the local mall?

It’s this element about DAWN that is the one reason I believe it’s endured for so long; DAWN OF THE DEAD reaches beyond class systems to become a film that can appeal to most anyone. Romero understands the working class of America better than most any American filmmaker I can think of, and he made a film that showed the bravery and will of these folks in a manner that was completely respectful and honorable. But the film is also very smart, quite clever, and emotionally powerful at points (its many effective shifts from extreme horror to comedy to action to sometimes tender drama can leave a stunning effect on the viewer), so much so that it can admired by intellectuals and even film critics (well, some film critics). And if you’re not that bright then, yeah, it’s as gory as fuck and has a lot of zombies getting blown up and shit, so it’s definitely a picture that can be appreciated with several brews in ya, no question. While you might not look at it as a picture that requires you to think, even dumb folks tend to think about what it says it afterwords, and I think that's saying something, and when you talk about films that have universal appeal, DAWN OF THE DEAD isn’t brought up enough, but it damn well should be. Yes, certain elements seem a little dated (specifically Tom Savini’s makeup FX, so revolutionary back in 1979, but have been outdone by many, even Savini) and it’s not quite as technically proficient as many other great films can be (seen theatrically, Michael Gornick’s cinematography contains so many out of focus shots that it’s sometimes embarrassing to watch). But it’s brilliantly edited by Romero and scored with a perfect selection of Romero-chosen library music and a score by Goblin for an effect that still makes DAWN a one-of-a-kind film experience for me. I look at DAWN OF THE DEAD as being 100% unique and original (amazing when you consider it’s a sequel!), a film that hit upon something in the American psyche that we still carry with us, a crystallization of both what makes us great and what’s wrong with us at the same time, about how the world is going to end due to our own self gratification. It’s not a hopeful film in the end, but it’s still, in an odd way, also a celebration of those people in this country and in this world who are good and decent and are going to be swept up by all this when the shit goes down, as tremendously humane film a film as it is a violent one (and it's pretty damn violent). I doubt anyone would have anticipated that when DAWN OF THE DEAD opened 30 years ago today that not only would we still be talking about it, but that it would be a film whose relevance hasn’t faded one bit. The fact that we are, however, says less about shitty state of the world or movies than it does the power and the greatness of George Romero as a filmmaker. He understands us better than many of us do ourselves, and he brings us to places that we may not want to go, but probably will eventually. This is just part of what makes DAWN OF THE DEAD not only the greatest American horror film of all time, but one of the great American films of all time. And it will most likely outlive us all.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I Heart Zooey Deschanel - Marc Webb's 500 DAYS OF SUMMER

If you are a heterosexual male with a brain and a pulse, chances are you have a crush on Zooey Deschanel. Since I happen to be such, I do indeed a big ol' crush on Ms. Deschanel, and what I'm talking about here is a crush - nothing more, nothing less - and no reason to call the cops or hire bodyguards or anything. Yes, I'm fully aware that she's engaged to the lead singer from Death Cab For Cutie (lucky bastard), so this is but a mere distant appreciation, but I happen to think she's the bee's knees. I really don't know just what that expression means (honestly makes no sense), but it's meant to denote a certain admiration in a person, and since I also happen to admire Ms. Deschanel for her works as an actress and as a singer on top of her external loveliness, the bee's knees it is, unless I find out that it's not meant to be complimentary. How about I just call her a vision of loveliness and leave it at that?

My feelings for Ms. Deschanel have come to the forefront thanks in part to her starring role opposite Joseph Gordon Levitt in 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, which recently screened as the closing film at the SXSW Film Festival here in Austin. In as such that Zooey Deschanel represents a fantasy girl for men who like smart women, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER feeds off that fantasy by giving us the ultimate scenario of meeting Zooey Deschanel, finding out she likes the same music we like (The Smiths!), discovering that we have a lot in common and that she really is the coolest, smartest and all-around prettiest girl to ever walk the earth. She's hip without trying to be hip and lovely and charming in a 100% natural kinda way, the ultimate early 21st Century dream girl. Like in any other movie romance you need people who you can fall in love with, too, and for my money Ms. Deschanel unquestionably fits that bill, and I suppose if you're a young lady then Mr. Gordon Levitt will likewise suffice, and he makes for a good surrogate for the young men in the audience with Zooey crushes. I have been told that there are some (stupid people, mostly) who are not quite as bewitched by Zooey Deschanel as others are, who find her acting ability lacking and her musical skills wanting, and all I can say to them (aside from, "Are you a fucking moron?") is that they are probably not the target audience for 500 DAYS OF SUMMER and they should probably steer clear. But for the rest of us, this picture is pretty much cinematic Zooey catnip, the sensitive young man's equivalent of a Nora Ephron click flick, although this one is actually good. Directed with much creative energy by music video vet Marc Webb, it's definitely a picture with its heart in the right place and a pretty good feel for many ups and down of young love. It's also got a sense of whimsy to it that I liked in the end, though I suspect others won't take to it, working overtime to throw caution to the wind and be a film that captures a feeling more than a thought, and it's admirable in how sincere it is in trying to do that. More than just getting you to remember what it's like to fall in love and have your heart broken, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER wants you under its spell so it can do that to you, too, and its secret weapon is, no surprise, Zooey Deschanel, and no surprise, it worked on me, though I guess I'm a sucker for it.

Still, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER may not perhaps be a defining film of its generation but it is one that the generation can certainly be proud of. But it does seem to catch the spirit of the moment, at least as best as I can summarize, feeling like a 2009 kinda movie through and through, though I hope that doesn't date it in another 5 to 10 years. And Zooey (we're on a first name basis now) is a vital part of that, the character of Summer being as sweet and lovely and bright and creative a young lady as one would ever hope to meet and fall in love with. Perhaps the character of Summer isn't anywhere close to the real Zooey Deschanel, but it doesn't matter. The real Zooey is indeed young, talented, and unquestionably beautiful in a natural and unforced way, but wherever Zooey ends and Summer begins (if they ever meet at all) it feels like the person you think she is or want her to be, which is kinda what movies are all about. No doubt Zooey Deschanel will go on to many more roles in the years to come and will eventually prove herself to be more than just the character of Summer, but for this moment in time, Summer she is and that's just right for all concerned. It is, in a sense, an ideal Summer movie.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Thank You, Warners!

If you've been paying attention to any of the film or DVD news sites then you've probably already heard of the new Warner Archive DVD line, wherein Warner Brothers is digging into their archive to make films previously unavailable in the marketplace directly to the consumer via the Warner Archive website. These are the films that have been sitting on the shelf for too long, the ones that get DVD-R'd when they air on TCM, and the ones that most folks wouldn't care much about, but the true movie lovers are most excited to find. It's not quite like there are any long-overdue classics in here, but there are certainly hidden gems a-plenty: WESTBOUND, the last of the Beotticher/Scott westerns to hit DVD; Frankenheimer's ALL FALL DOWN; Coppola's THE RAIN PEOPLE; George Roy Hill's THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL; Floyd Mutrux's DUSTY AND SWEETS McGEE; John Flynn's THE SERGEANT and Jack Webb's THE D.I. (what an interesting double feature that would make!); several missing Cary Grant titles (CRISIS; DREAM WIFE; Leo McCary's ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON; MR. LUCKY and ROOM FOR ONE MORE, directed by Norman Taurog); and many, many more, over 150 in total. And this is just the beginning, as Warners has vowed to make pretty much their entire collection available as long as the sales allow it. And I couldn't be happier.

Sadly, it's the erosion of DVD retail that's made the timing of this so ideal; with most retailers going (Transworld) or gone (Circuit City; Virgin), Warners doesn't risk pissing anyone off by going direct to the consumer, and the Best Buy and Target really could care less about these titles. I have to assume that they'll make a deal with Amazon or Netflix soon enough, after their direct sales to inch downward. From what I've heard, Warners is quite happy with the numbers they're seeing, and since there's no middle men or discounts (other than free shipping) anywhere in the equation, it's all pretty much found money for them at this point. While even I have to admit that the appeal for classic or obscure films is limited, Warners has certainly hit upon the correct formula at a point in time when catalog titles on DVD, the only real place where real movie fans can get any satisfaction in DVD these days, are being passed over by the blockbuster-hungry public and retailers. Add to that the fact that Warners has made sure each disc is in its proper ratio, 16x9 enhanced and contain the occasional trailer, the fact that these discs are nothing more than DVD-Rs still makes them worth your time and money, providing you actually have some of that around.

What I'm interested to see now is how the other studios, many of them with similarly deep catalogs, will react. Sony had announced a similar deal way back in the fall of '06, but nothing came of it and no titles were ever announced, so the whole idea is not without precedent. Everyone has been updating transfers over the last decade due to DVDs, new cable networks and satellite/HD broadcasts, so there is plenty of stuff not out there that could keep the fans pleased for a long time. But the question is whether or not they'll take the time and trouble to make this happen. Everyone's laying off staff and home video divisions are being folded into bigger departments, so the attention to detail that a project like this requires could possibly fall by the wayside. On top of that, the majors surely know that even though they will be giving their DVD market a much-needed shot in the arm, none of these titles are going to do more than a few thousdand copies each. There will certainly be profit, but it might not be enough for the bean counters to see the positive side of things. But all I can say at this moment in time is that I'm extremely excited by what Warners has done here and I hope and pray that others follow their lead and get in touch directly with the fans. Like I said before, these are still exciting times for catalog DVD titles, providing the majors still take the time and trouble to make them available. Warners, as always, is leading the way, and it's up to consumers like us to prove to them that we're still ready to support these releases.

And now if you'll excuse me, I've gotta go order WESTBOUND...

The Return of the Crazy Spaniard.

Since his Fantastic Fest 2007 smash TIMECRIMES finally hits U.S. DVD today, let's pay a return visit to everyone's favorite crazy Spaniard, Nacho Vigalondo and his new short/video I WANT TO SLEEP, which started hitting the internets around the end of last year. I don't know too much of the backstory, except that it's an extended ad for a mattress and that's it damn good. What else do you want? Sit, relax, enjoy...

Monday, March 30, 2009

Is Digital!

The great exploitation director Frank Hennenlotter once told me an anecdote about the changeover of the various 42nd Street/Times Square porn houses from 35mm to video. This being the late 80s/early 90s, we’re not talking about the multi-million dollar kind of changeover that’s occurring in multiplexs the world over, but a basic addition of a large rear-screen projector (usually the kind on a stand, not the overhead ones) in front of the 35mm theater screen. The 35mm projectors would usually sit silent for months on end, but these theaters would play tapes mainly because that’s where the new product was and also because it was a hell of a lot cheaper than playing them on 35mm (theaters would occasionally screen older porn films, usually because the theaters had prints on hand). But since these theaters were smack dab in the middle of NYC, where the unions wielded a lot of power, all these places would have to employ union projectionist, all of whom were getting paid pretty good union wages to pretty much just change tapes and align rear projection monitors. Digital projection has been around for 10 years now, and while it isn’t quite as simple as changing tapes around, having now experienced how it really works it firsthand (beyond merely as a member of the audience), I can’t help but think about how it really is the end of film as the predominant form of projection and needless to say, that’s more than a little sad.

My office is based out of the Alamo Drafthouse’s Village theater, and starting on Monday we had a small team of technicians (including the Alamo’s tech geniuses, Andrew McEathron and Josh Jacobs) disassembling our 35mm projectors and installing new Sony 4K digital cinema systems (we did keep one 35mm projector on hand, thank goodness). Oddly bulkier than its 35mm cousin, they look like HAL 9000s or Colossus and don’t give the impression that they’re spitting out wondrous worlds of entertainment. Having been a former projectionist myself (non-union), I always marveled at the bizarre little system a movie would go through to pass its way from platter or reel through a projector tree, then the projector and onto the screen itself. With this new system, it’s just a giant box with a little monitor screen on one end and a lens on the other, but fuck me if it doesn’t give you a superb image on that big screen. The first time I look at it at the Village (to check out one of the few decent scenes in WATCHMEN) I had no idea that the digital convergence had taken place and thought it was just the normal film print, so to say I was floored when I was told of the change later is a bit of an understatement. I am usually very nitpicky about my projection and have taken a certain amount of pride in having been able to spot digital projection or photography in the past, but these Sony 4K projectors have fooled even my trained, world-weary eyes. I’ve seen 4K projection in the past and have always been impressed, but I always felt (and still do) that top-of-the-line 35mm projections could beat it outright, so I didn’t feel any need for it. To see it here at the Alamo Village with these state-of-the-art projectors (and in 3-D, too), however, I really do feel like I’ve seen where things are going. Yes, it’s been going in this direction for quite a while, but it feels to me like it’s finally being done right, and while I can’t say I welcome the change 100%, I have to admit that it works like a son of a bitch.

I can recall going to see the first digitally projected movie (STAR WARS EPISODE 1) ten years ago and coming out impressed but not convinced it really was the future, and subsequent screenings over the years have still not turned me into a believer. I think the problem was that all too often, digital projection has looked too digital - too clean, too bright – and never enough like film. The two words I always use to describe the difference between film and digital are "depth" and "texture", and I can always feel that shooting and projecting on film (even if the movie is complete shit) can provide that, while digital very rarely can. Digital seems to me to be about clarity of image – everything is allegedly 100% clear and in focus – which probably why it all looks the same, while film requires much more craft to it, but what you get is an image that feels more substantial and multi-layered. I don’t think that most filmmakers have really been able to make something like this with digital (the exceptions being Michael Mann’s stunning HD work and Soderberg’s CHE, shot with the Sony Red camera), while with film, everything can look distinctive an unique. But with these projectors, I can feel that they’re finally getting it right. This looks like film, never once revealing its digital origins and never once taking you out of the picture with something that doesn’t feel right. This might not seem like a big deal to most any of you, but for me it’s an eye-opener and I’m ready to drink more from the well. Thankfully, the Alamo will never give up its 35mm origins, and it’s also quite nice to know that Austin’s Paramount theater can also give us screenings in beautiful 70mm when need be (I saw WEST SIDE STORY there a few months back and was blown away), while IMAX still kicks all their collective asses. But I’ve seen the future now and it’s free of dirt, is always in focus and looks just right. I’m reminded of a quote from Francois Truffaut (sorry to get all hoity-toity on you here), where he once said, “Even if a film is bad, I like to look at the scratches”, and perhaps that is a pleasure of the moviegoing experience that is fading away, but it might also be time for it to step aside. If we can make it so that you never have to worry about lousy projection ever again, that would take away some of the trepidation we sometimes feel about the experience, and perhaps we can work on getting people to shut the hell up. That would be a wonderful thing.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over: Thoughts on the DVD Industry in 2009

Since the last time I checked in on the DVD industry, things have predictably gotten worse. More retailers are folding (goodbye, Virgin Megastores) and those fewer retailers out there are tightening their belts and are sticking with the hits. Best Buy has announced once again that they are restructuring their buying methods to concentrate on the majors and all of the Indies have to go through an intermediary. Overall DVD sales are down for the first time while rentals are up (thank you, Great Recession) and titles that were doing 2,000 units this time last year are only doing 1,500 units now (one major studio publicist informed me that they’re now seeing sales of catalog titles in the hundreds. Major studio titles!). Many labels have folded (including New Yorker Films, Fantoma Films and the great BCI Eclipse) or are on their last legs. Digital downloads and iTunes have not really done much to pick up the slack, and probably won’t be much of a revenue source to begin with. And the buyers are still idiots.

It is not, however, all doom and gloom out there. Fewer pressings mean fewer returns, so labels aren’t getting hit quite as hard as they used to (don’t mean it doesn’t still happen). Some great indie labels - like Criterion, Synapse, Mondo Macabro, and Severin Films – are still chuggin’ along and doing exemplary work. Blu-Ray sales are growing, albeit slowly, and while they will probably be no more than the laserdiscs to DVD’s VHS, they do represent some growth in the marketplace and sure as hell look pretty, don’t they? But the best news in all this is that, with almost all of the classic DVD holdouts finally released (except for THE AFRICAN QUEEN, apparently currently undergoing restoration), things are getting real interesting in the catalog releases department. Studios are not so much scraping the bottom of the barrel now as they’re starting to look in old boxes that they completely forgot they had. If you think about some of the great films that were finally released on DVD in the last year – The Budd Beotticher/Randolph Scott films; MAN OF THE WEST; AGE OF CONSENT; ROAD HOUSE (with the delicious Kim Morgan/Eddie Muller commentary); THE FURIES; MANDINGO; THE SILENT PARTNER – most die hard movie lovers have to admit that this is the moment they’ve been waiting for, when the floodgates have started to open and the rare and unique titles have truly started to show themselves. The majors may not be that enthused about putting out older catalog titles as they used to be (harder to sell them at Wal-Mart), but they’re still at it, thank goodness, and we can still count on them for at least a little while now. (As long as they make their money back, that is.) Seeing a title like Fritz Lang’s MAN HUNT get announced for May release (as part of Fox’s annual WWII Memorial Day assault) still gives me hope that the majors are not abandoning their catalogs, even if they feel the only way they can sell them is to group them with similar titles. Hey, we’ll take what we can get.

Still, I feel like we’ve got to treat all this with cautious optimism. As long as sales stay within reasonable profitability, we’ll be OK. But once we get out of that zone, it’s going to hurt. Studios are cutting back, budgets are being slashed and people are getting laid off. Playing it safe will be the standard M.O. starting relatively soon (if it hasn’t happened already) and the fun we’ve all been having with DVD may end faster than we want it to with still too many cult films, classics and obscurities yet to be released. While it’s impossible to support every new release that come down the line (especially in this day and age), try and support as many as you can, either by purchase or rental. Try to get your hands on as many of these classic new releases in one way or another to send a message to the studios and the indie labels that you love them and want more of them. If you know you’re going to buy one of them and you know you can find it at Best Buy, then buy it at Best Buy (use the store locator available on their website). If you just want to rent it, put it in your queue ASAP so that the rentialer (yes, it’s a real word, though a diminishing one) will order more copies (or order more of a similar one). I know a lot of this sounds like a simplistic way to keep a complex industry humming, but in all my conversations with DVD industry folks through the last few months, that’s what I’m hearing. It’s an industry mostly filled with fellow movie lovers who care about it as much as you do and don’t want to see it fade out. It’s a great time in a lot of ways, but it’s walking on a wire at the moment and could go either way. Let’s support it enough to keep it going strong.

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Anwar Sadat" - Jon Hamburg's I LOVE YOU, MAN

I’d like to think that I’m getting past my “guy” stage. I’m sure others will disagree, but while I enjoy hanging out with friends just as much as the others do, I’ve been seeing that this extended adolescence isn’t really doing me much good. There are certain parts of living that I no longer have an interest in that I used to, while others that once seemed alien to me are becoming more appealing. I’m not sure if this is what you would call “growing up”, but the idea of doing things that my parents did when I was young has become more interesting to me (except for playing Bridge), while all those things that have I’ve been doing since graduating high school are becoming passé. I explain all this to you not because I see HQ 10 as an online therapy session, but rather to explain my reaction to Jon Hamburg’s I LOVE YOU, MAN, which opens the SXSW Film Festival tonight before opening nationwide next week. This is a movie about Guydom, about being a dude and hanging out with other dudes away from the wives, girlfriends and kids. Certainly there are a lot of “guy” movies out there these days, and perhaps they do represent a new shift in American culture away from what the definition of a man was over the last, say, 50 years, away from the post-WWII Playboy era that gave us the likes of Lenny Bruce and Lee Marvin, to the post-Iraq (or soon-to-be post Iraq) Maxim era that brings us Vince Vaughn wannabes. Manliness isn’t quite what it once was and may never quite be that way again, replaced by a new dudeness that says it’s OK to keep playing video games and jamming with friends well into your 30s or 40s. I can’t criticize I LOVE YOU, MAN for presenting this situation as-is, because I know it’s not too far from reality, but I can’t really like it too much because I’m a bit sick of it in reality and wish to move off from it, personally. This may sound like the words of a lifeless killjoy, but I don’t care. Maturity sometimes has its advantages.

This is all a bit of a shame to me, because I LOVE YOU, MAN has a solid idea for a comedy, the search for male bonding and a best friend when well into adulthood. This is something that a lot more guys go through than they will probably admit, and I LOVE YOU, MAN is not wrong in portraying all this as a “Bromance”, because it can be like that. It gets some of these moments right, and it shows the awkwardness that goes with it in a manner that I can relate to. But what it doesn’t get right, and what eventually disinterested me in the film, was in how it disintegrates into a movie-version world of relationships between men of my age. Sure, I understand that I LOVE YOU, MAN is a comedy, but a backward celebration into juvenile behavior that treads on a lot of familiar ground for these kinds of pictures. It wants to be the kind of comedy that ruled in the late 70s and early 80s, with an SNL sensibility, some raucous humor and a bit of heart, but there’s nothing new here that suggests anything other than a collection of gags. It’s interesting to see Jon Favreau pop up in a supporting role, since he was the one who practically invented this genre with SWINGERS back in ’96, and the freshness that I felt for that back then is long gone here. I LOVE YOU, MAN is predictable in its plotting and situations and doesn’t really do anything with its premise, nor does it really care to say anything about this. If you look at pictures like THE ODD COUPLE, or even THE CABLE GUY, which was a silly comedy and also a dark, sometimes powerful, statement on loneliness and the attempt to make friends when you don’t possess the right social skills, you’ll know that it can be done right and done smart. I LOVE YOU, MAN is not smart enough.

And now for the confession: I did laugh quite a bit at I LOVE YOU, MAN. The film is well performed by total pros who are very good at what they do and sell a lot of this material better than it has a right to be, so a lot of the jokes hit their mark than should. There was even one gag (about a puggle named after a late world leader) that had me laughing for several minutes straight. Paul Rudd and Jason Segel are both funny guys and they have a good rapport in the film and make it a lot more tolerable than I would have expected it to be otherwise. The film is loaded with talented people – Jamie Pressly, J.K. Simmons, Andy Samburg, Thomas Lennon, and the lovely Rashida Jones – and they all help make it better than the material really is. I also couldn’t help but enjoy the film’s unabashed love and support of the band Rush (who are even in the fucking thing!), which is actually one of the few things that sets the film apart, since there are not of other movies out there that praises this much-underrated band (yes, I’m a fan). It’s certainly a watchable movie, and I won’t deny that I laughed while I watched it, but when it was all over I realized I didn’t like it very much. It’s too easy, too conventional, and too mired in its own cleverness to realize that it isn’t the picture it should be. It’s funny, I’ll admit to that. But it’s also quite unremarkable and stilted of any growth, and I couldn’t get behind it. I guess I’m getting old.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Forgotten Movies - John Frankenheimer's 52 PICK-UP

In honor of Larry Aydlette's Welcome to L.A. John Frankenheimer tribute comes this tribute to one of my favorite Frankenheimer films, 1986's 52 PICK-UP. All HQ 10 readers are advised to check out Welcome to L.A. and this wonderful tribute to this great American filmmaker. Great work, Larry!

There are a lot of things you can say about Cannon Films, but you can’t deny that within all of the crap and muck of the Chuck Norris and AMERICAN NINJA, they actually did find the time to make some terrific movies. Golan and Globus were known to be pretty crazy (or at least Menahem Golan was) and pissed away their money on a number of substandard films, but they did know talent when they saw it, which is why the likes of Robert Altman, Jean-Luc Godard, Franco Zeferelli, Barbet Schroeder, Norman Mailer, and Hebert Ross made pictures there. They were generally not known as meddlers, although they were always committed to their release dates and certainly were cheap, no question about that. There are numerous stories about Cannon shortchanging filmmakers (usually at the last minute), but the best Cannon pictures are usually the ones that were delivered by total pros who knew how to operate within the Cannon confines. Quick, cheap but good was not impossible, and for my money there’s no better example of this than John Frankenheimer’s 52 PICK-UP, a film which, the more I think of it, is probably my favorite Cannon film of all. I know I said that about LIFEFORCE some months back, and I love them both, but LIFEFORCE is crazy and stupid, while 52 PICK-UP is crazy and smart, and that every time in my book. It’s great sleaze made with great style and I’ve come to love it to death.

The main thing that makes 52 PICK-UP so damn good to me is in that it’s an excellent match of director and material. The film is based on a novel by Elmore Leonard (which Cannon previously adapted 2 years earlier as THE AMBASSADOR, shot in Israel by J. Lee Thompson with Robert Mitchum), and it seems as though Frankenheimer could have directed nothing but Elmore Leonard adaptations for the rest of his career and he would have made one terrific picture after another. Those who know Leonard’s work know that he really understands the criminal underworld pretty well and never skits back from presenting it as it pretty much is, so part of what’s great about 52 PICK-UP is how Frankenheimer understands this, too, and likewise doesn’t hold back. They give us a great team of villains taken straight out of the book and don’t sugarcoat them in any way; these guys are pretty fucking brutal. But they’re not as smart as they think they are (they attempt to blackmail businessman Roy Scheider with the murder of his mistress, only to learn that Scheider is in debt to the IRS), which makes them even more dangerous. One of the great things about Leonard’s writing is that he knows that criminals are generally not as ahead of the curb as they think they are, which is how they get caught or get the better of, but he also knows that because they’re criminals and murders, they don’t really care about what happens to them or to others, and that’s part of the thrill of the story. When things go south they really go south, and while it’s great to see these guys get theirs, there is also an understanding that they will most likely come back shooting, so the fun is in watching how pissed they’re going to get and how Scheider is eventually going to get back at them. In that regard, 52 PICK-UP ends like a motherfucker.

All of this also makes 52 PICK-UP a great Cannon movie, too. It’s pretty obvious to see the appeal of the material to Cannon – it’s got all the ingredients that the 42nd Street and Hollywood Boulevard audiences would want – and Frankenheimer doesn’t dare class it up. It’s got some pretty brutal killings, lots of nudity, and it wallows in its late-80s porn scene setting (all you fans of that era will notice a lot of familiar faces in those scenes), but that’s what this film needed. Hell, even Gary Chang’s totally 80's synthesizer score works just right. Frankenheimer knew he had to keep this gritty and dirty or it wouldn’t work. He also cast this one beautifully, getting John Glover and Clarence Williams III (later a Frankenheimer regular) as the villains, and they’re two of the best of the era. Glover, with his Philly accent and Wesley education, is terrific, a real hoot in a lot of ways but also smooth and deadly in the most appealing of ways; only Dan Dureya could have delivered a performance this alluringly dangerous. Williams, meanwhile, really does come across as a guy who’s done time, and to see him always cleaning his gun and looking behind his shoulder without cracking a smile you get the feeling that he’s the one who can take this whole thing to hell in a split second. But it’s because 52 PICK-UP has two solid leads in Roy Scheider and Ann-Margaret that it works like a good thriller or film noir should. Both are enormously appealing actors, instantly likeable, and you feel what they’re going through in an instant and don’t want to see them go through all this horrid shit. You want a guy who looks like he can convincingly outwit three crooks and even kick their ass, and that’s Scheider all the way. Once he’s figured these guys out and has them in his pocket, much of the delight in this film goes to seeing him turn it to these guys, and he also does a fantastic job with all of the sweet Elmore Leonard dialogue (Leonard may be the best dialogue writer in all of crime fiction), so much so you wished he could have done all those hypothetical Leonard adaptations with Frankenheimer (though they did reunite for THE FOURTH WAR, which I have yet to see). Big props, too, to Frankenheimer’s great use of backstreet L.A. locations. Hell, there ain’t nothing wrong with this film at all.

Happily, 52 PICK-UP is available on DVD from MGM, and even though there are no supplements, the transfer is lip-smackingly beautiful and the disc is quite cheap (only $15), so it’s definitely worth the purchase. I’m proud to place it with all the numerous Frankenheimer films on my shelf.