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.