Wednesday, November 24, 2010

John Flynn's 1970's Films: Now Twice as Less MIA on DVD than ever before!

One of my very first posts (number 7 to be exact) was a brief eulogy for John Flynn, a director who specialized in crime thrillers. At the time I wondered why his much revered transcendent exploitation classic Rolling Thunder was still unreleased on DVD. We’ll over three and a half years later and after popping up in High Def on several cable stations as in addition to being well traded on the grey market, Rolling Thunder will finally make its official debut appearance on the digital platform next month via an MGM burn on request endeavor similar to the Warner Archive series.

As happy as this news is, I can’t help but feel this release is a little anticlimactic. Here is a film that has become a staple amongst a certain sect of 1970’s/1980’s genre cinephiles (for naught was it one of the first films covered by the Gentleman’s Guide to Midnite Cinema podcast), most of whom, similar to myself own either a good quality grey market bootleg or have it in their DVRs. Considering it’s rabid fan base, which includes Quentin Tarantino, this release, welcome as it is, is a bit of a disappointment. If I was operating a DVD company with the rights to Rolling Thunder (and hey, I am employable!), these are the special features I would include on the disc:

-Audio commentary with Quentin Tarantino and co-star Tommy Lee Jones (While Tarantino has never provided a commentary for one of his own films, he’s shown up on multiple commentaries for films he’s produced or is a fan of. It would be a hoot to have him and Jones, who made one of his earliest and most distinct impressions here, and has become a director in his own right, team up.)

--Conversation between Tarantino and screenwriter Paul Schrader. (As vocal in his support as Tarantino has been, screenwriter Schrader has been equally vocal in his dissent over changes made by the production company and director Flynn to his original script of Rolling Thunder. It would be interesting to see the results when these two very opinionated and very expressive personalities debate the merits or perceived lack thereof of the film)

--Making of documentary (A feature chronicling the making, release, and growth in reputation of Rolling Thunder featuring stars William Devane, James Best (aka Roscoe P. Coltrane), Jones, and Linda Haynes. As well as various members of the crew)

--Career Retrospective: John Flynn (While never considered an auteur, he’s had a solid career as a craftsman of action thrillers starring such disparate actors as James Woods, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Duvall and Steven Seagal)

--Original script: Paul Schrader’s Rolling Thunder (similar to the original Taxi Driver DVD which featured a readable version of the script, it would be a very interesting exercise to read the script that Schrader felt was misrepresented in the final product. Especially knowing that the original draft featured an appearance from Travis Bickle!)

--Original theatrical trailer (because, c’mon…)

But that’s not all folks, the aforementioned Warner Archives are doing a solid and releasing another 1970’s Flynn directed thriller, The Outfit.

Based on the Parker novels penned by Donald Westlake (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark), but adapted loosely enough from the source material as to remove any sign that it’s the third book of a series, Robert Duvall stars as Macklin (the name Parker was never used in any of the adaptations) who seeks retribution for his brother’s murder by hitting the crime organization responsible in the wallet and then the gut. Flynn doesn’t attempt to mimic the most famous Parker novel cinematic adaptation, John Boorman’s Point Blank, audacious visual and editing style, instead he employs a more straightforward narrative with solemn undertones and a muted palette.

Turner Classic Movies has aired The Outfit a couple of times over the last few years (I finally caught it this year), but the print was non-anamorphic and worn. Warner Archives’s print restores its aspect ratio and is available to purchase now. Now we only need a release of the Jim Brown starring Parker adaptation, The Split, which I wrote about here.

By the way, rumor has it that Warner Archives is having a 5 movies for $50 deal this weekend, starting tomorrow, great for cinema lovers, horrible for my Quixotic Foibles goal.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Life on the Stage

Part of the 1980 Project

Everyday missteps and travails are multiplied to ridiculous heights when you’re a teenager. If you are a sensitive artistic minded teenager at that, these extremes reach through the stratosphere. This is captured well and practically reflected in tone in Fame which follows one class of students of the New York Performing Arts high school from auditions to graduation, a place and film where a character’s soul searching reveal of his sexuality in a classroom can be followed by a five minute impromptu dance sequence in the middle of a traffic filled Bronx street.

Employing a vignette storytelling technique Fame juggles multiple dramatically tried and true soap operatic storylines (teenage abortions, interracial romance, drug abuse, sexual predators) and a handful of archetypal characters (illiterate homeless guy, Jewish girl with overbearing mother, comedian who will reveal his tragic circumstances, ambitious career driven diva). While the film focuses on about seven or eight characters, more frequently than not a true balance is never really found. Some characters disappear for half hour chunks, while others overtake the focus. It’s not surprising this became a television show since it introduces more characters than it can handle. Most of the incidents that drive the story are never fully resolved, which I actually appreciated, since simple solutions would seem rote.

Chronologically landing pretty much midway between two blockbuster dance related films: 1977’s gritty Saturday Night Fever where dance is a temporary escape from struggles and indifference and the more fantastic Footloose (1984) where the power of dance can bring together adversarial sides, Fame looks and acts more like the Travolta film with it’s realistic on location shooting (is there any more grungy colorful place than New York City circa the 1970’s and early 80’s?) and diverse New York flavored casting but still displaying a hokey humorous sensibility and optimistic vision. Parker’s direction with its terse takes and brisk editing often clashes with the tone of writer Christopher Gore’s script early on, but at about the sophomore year section, when characters are firmly establish, they converge rhythmically.

Carny (1980, Robert Kaylor)

Carny, the narrative feature debut for director Kaylor, whose prior film was Derby, a documentary focused on the fringe culture of roller derby participants and fanatics, similarly examines a fringe culture: carnival workers, and the tight knit bond formed amongst them and the lengths they’ll go through to preserve said bond.

Told in an episodic slice of life manner, Kaylor’s film tells the story of two friends and co-workers, the overall ringleader and money man (The Band’s Robbie Robertson) and the clown who works the hit the target/dunk him in a pool of water attraction (Gary Busey) as they go town to town bribing local businesses and scheming together enough money to survive. Their partnership is threatened when a runaway teenage girl (Jodie Foster) joins the circuit and becomes romantically entangled with both.

The film has a nice leisurely pace (though sometimes a bit too leisurely) that we often associated with character studies of the 1970’s, and like Fame there’s no rigid screenplay structure, employing instead a more in depth chronicle of the rigors and personas of the trade. In the film’s last Act, the future of the carnival is at stake and a lifelong member of the family is killed. When a vengeance scheme is hatched, hints at darker themes that truly display the preservation instinct are hinted at, hints which were first alluded to in the film’s opening scene where Busey applies his clown make up in a dimly lit shot that’s presented as a sinister ritual, but ultimately, a more insidious streak is pulled away from at the final moment.

Kaylor could have tightened certain scenes and for a film that stars (and was produced and conceived by) a member of The Band, the music is too obvious and inappropriately toned, but he has a nice eye for composition as well as location and includes many well cast character actors in minor roles including Kenneth McMillan, Tim Thomerson and Elisha Cook. He would go on to direct only one more film, the 1990 tennis sex comedy, Nobody’s Perfect.

Busey gives the film’s most powerful performance. In his normal everyday life he’s seemingly well-adjusted and even tempered, but when the clown make-up is applied and he’s placed in a cage, his inner demons reveal themselves as he picks apart potential customers weaknesses with an intensified fury.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Quixotic Foibles: Act Two

For the uninitiated, this foolish project’s origins are discussed here. Long story short: I am trying to get through all the DVDs I purchased by have yet to watch. And failing miserably.

Look, it says quixotic right there in the title. A drunk knows their boundaries: don’t go into bars. But for the avid collector it’s not so simple. Don’t leave the house is one potential mantra...but damn even the internet offers such sweet sweet discounted DVDs and Blu-Rays within the confines of your domicile. And as such, I had a major relapse this month.

While the last post was still in the works I was actually waiting on four titles I ordered from the Cultcine website. Then I went to the bay area where some free time on a Friday morning led me to two dangerous pit stops: Fry’s Electronics and the home of misfit movies, Big Lots. And then to Streetlight. The month concluded with one more danger zone, a trip to the Pasadena City College Flea Market. All said I regressed majorly. I would like to confidentially say that next month will be better, but Barnes and Noble are having their twice annual 50% off Criterion titles, and, well, I already indulged. On a positive note, I did watch a fair share of stuff, much of which I already reviewed for the site.

The totals and brief discussion of titles watched:

Number of Titles at the Start of the Project (9/7/2010): 444

Total as of last update (9/23/2010): 439

# of New Titles added to Collection between posts: 25!

# of Titles Watched between posts: 14

Total # of Titles remaining: 450

If you want to see the specific titles I need to watch, check out my Rate Your Music page here.

What I did watch:

Stagecoach (1939, John Ford/Blu-Ray): This was the Criterion version, and what a great transfer for an older film. As for the film itself, I totally fell in love with it on this my second viewing. Ford’s direction is peerless and so many archetypes and tropes that would become commonplace not only in Westerns but cinema period were initiated here. Ford also subversively injects a rebellious streak that finds us rooting for the outlaw and the prostitute and thumbing or noses at the aristocratic citizens. (2nd viewing)

The Fog (1980, John Carpenter/DVD): My review (3rd viewing)

Psycho III (1986, Anthony Perkins/DVD): My review (approx. 5th viewing)

Twisted Nerve (1968, Roy Boulting/DVD): My MIA on DVD write-up (if you’re wondering how I watched the DVD of an MIA on DVD film, it’s explained in the write-up). (1st viewing)

The Thing (1982, John Carpenter/Blu-Ray): As you can tell by the 24 Frames feature I did here, the DVD I had was non-anamorphic and just generally too dark (I can’t screen grab Blu-Ray on my laptop). But the Blu-Ray is an optimal presentation that really does justice to Carpenter’s remake of the Howard Hawks desolate horror classic. Imbibing it with a sense of updated dread (the transference between blood during the first real wave of AIDS) and the incredible effects from Rob Bottin make this the consensus response when people say not all remakes suck. (Probably 6th viewing)

Fade to Black (1980, Vernon Zimmerman/DVD): My review (2nd viewing)

The Descent (2005, Neil Marshall/DVD): This was my first viewing since the theatrical experience, and while some nits are to be picked on closer examinations the overall visceral experience is still one of the most effectively dreadful horror films, definitely of at least the last decade. (2nd viewing)

Death Ship (1980, Alvin Rakoff/DVD): My review (1st viewing)

Bad Ronald (1974, Buzz Kulik/DVD): An impulse buy based on reputation, this TV movie from the seventies tells the tale of a teenage boy with a bright future who accidentally kills a girl and is hid between the walls of his mother’s house. When the mom dies and new owners move in, Ronald begins losing his grip on reality and becomes obsessed with one of the young girls of the buyers. What struck me most is how films of the 1970s were unafraid of having films with teenage protagonists that were a bit dour. It’s a welcome change from the modern bubble gummy vibe that we associate with teenage centric films/television. Due to the length of time (the film runs about 70 minutes) some short hand is applied, which speeds along, to a small determinant, the unraveling of the character a little too much. (1st viewing)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989, Stephen Hopkins/DVD): After the success of part 4, this was rushed into theatres within a year and was a major disappointment from a financial and critical standpoint. And cinematic standpoint too, but since part 4 was no great shakes, I was surprised that this, while worse than the Renny Harlin film, is not as awful as my memory served (not that it’s good, it’s definitely bad, but I remember this being nigh unwatchable). The jokey and ironic dream sequences are even more ramped up while the body count is much lower than any other of the sequels. Having Freddy Krueger return via the dreams of an unborn baby had potential, but like everything in this rushed affair, the execution is half-assed. (Approximately 4th or 5th viewing, last time was on VHS).

Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese/Blu-Ray): I am going to withhold talking about this one until I do my 1980 wrap up post in December. (3rd viewing)

Bates Motel (1987, Richard Rothstein): My review (2nd viewing).

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, Susan Seidelman): The other mid-1980's Orion yuppie discovers their inner freak via a blonde in the New York underground holds up execeptionally well thanks to Rosanna Arquette's charming performance and Seidelman's quirky but not gratingly so script and well nuanced location shooting. Many soon to be familar faces are sprinkled through the film's supporting cast including John Turturro, John Lurie, Steven Wright, Richard Edson, Ann Magnuson and Giancarlo Esposito.

Carny (1980, Robert Kaylor): review forthcoming

See you next month!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Under New Management

With the Norman Bates saga effectively concluded (or at least seemingly) with Bates’ return to institutionalization at the end of Psycho III, Universal decided to take the Psycho series to television bringing only the original film and the famous locales along. Riding a wave of a nostalgic return to genre anthology series, by this point the Steven Spielberg produced Amazing Stories was on the air as were new incarnations of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Twilight Zone and other franchises such as Friday the 13th (in name only) and A Nightmare on Elm Street were in the works, writer-director Richard Rothstein, who had written and produced the HBO anthology series The Hitch-Hiker, was tasked with using the infamous house and hotel for what was formulated to be a weekly series focusing on the strange occurrences surrounding guests of the Bates Motel. A two-hour pilot was commissioned focusing on the new owner and the renovation as well as an incident that would also serve as a template for future episodes. NBC did not pick up the series and instead ran the pilot as a movie of the week on July 5th, 1987.

Completely eschewing the events of both sequels, Bates Motel introduces us to Alex West played by the perpetually youthful (the guy looked like he aged about 5 years between this and 1971’s Harold and Maude) and nervous Bud Cort, who as a child murdered his abusive step-father. In the sanitarium a kindly doctor (Robert Picardo) teams the troubled soul with Norman Bates, another youthful and nervous patient (played by Anthony Perkins’ stand-in on the first three films Kurt Paul) and they form a tight bond that provides redemption for Bates and a positive father figure for Alex. After Bates dies he bequeaths his inheritance, the Bates house and motel to Alex who moves to the town of Fruitvale after being declared sane and in tribute to his deceased friend restores it. But as the motel is going through its renovation spooky arbiters of potential doom begin happening: the skeletons of the paternal Bates appear, the vacancy sign turns on and off by itself and a familiar silhouette beings popping up. Is the house haunted by spirits angry that West is starting a new legacy? Or do they just really hate the new gaudy Southwestern décor? Or perhaps there’s some reasonable explanation that will reveal the work of someone who ain’t a fan of no meddling kids a la Scooby Doo? Furthermore, what happens to the first guest, a suicidal middle aged woman (Kerrie Keane), to stay at the new Bates Motel?

As you can probably surmise by the complicated plot summary, one of the major problems with Rothstein’s film is that it tries to be too much coupled with a lack of any sense of tone. When a filmmaker can mix disparate styles and moods seamlessly, it’s a thing of beauty. Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, David Cronenberg, and hey, Alfred Hitchcock are some of the filmmakers that come immediately to my mind as being particularly adept at combining suspense, comedy, drama, violence, or what have you. Rothstein is nowhere near them. So the humor is met with a thud, it’s never really scary or suspenseful and when attempts are made at ethereal experiences, it’s just confusing since they function as a supposed guidance to one character, but are visible and active in the real world as well.

The fatal flaw though is the fumbled manner in which Rothstein attempts to shoehorn the suicidal woman’s storyline with the rest of the arc. After about one hour of the ninety minutes long show (that’s the length sans commercial), the story then focuses on the woman as she meets specters of teenage suicide victims (which includes Khrystyne Haje, Simone from Head of the Class, and Jason Bateman); besides confusing matters when these alleged spirits also interact with the hotel operators, the main problem is it becomes the focus of the story for 20 minutes completely ignoring the West storyline until it’s finally brought back for the final ten minutes. I realize the function of an anthology series is that each week a new character is introduced, but here the narrative flow is completely ruined. And speaking of the resolution to the Alex West storyline which I hinted at a few paragraphs above, for a film that eradicates Psycho II from existence, it sure is okay stealing that film’s major storyline of whether Mother has returned or someone with cruel intent is mimicking her to scare the unsteady protagonist.

Bates Motel is very much a mid-1980s TV movie of the week, so it’s hard to hold director Richard Rothstein to the standards of Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Franklin, or even Tony Perkins, but his inability to balance tone and the strange narrative late turn reflect poorly on the enterprise. The style of the Bates Motel, including the awful remodel, look nothing like the original film. I thought one of Psycho II’s strength was the production design and art direction that did a wonderful job of establishing the transition of the Bates house and motel into color. Bud Cort and Clark Gregg are solid if unspectacular in roles that conform to their strengths so much that little effort was probably involved. Lori Petty as the overall perky tomboy, who may have been West’s love interest if the show went to series, is grating, but I am willing to accept that’s due more to the written character than to Petty’s performance.

Bates Motel received middling ratings and evaporated from the public consciousness (I had actually recorded and watched it on VHS back in 1987—the height of my Psycho love--but completely forgot of its existence until scanning the Psycho Legacy website) but television wasn’t done with Norman entirely yet. Anthony Perkins’ swan song to horror’s most famous contemporary character would follow.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Posterized: Now Playing 1980

Thirty years ago this month the United States elected a former b-movie actor as President, "then whose Vice-President, Jerry Lewis?!?!", but not a lot of films were released. Amongst the paltry selection is an amazing cult classic rock opera musical Biblical parable and a film that single handily led to the erosion of a major studio (and is actually pretty decent despite the era's reviews).

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

1980 Halloween Horror Left-Overs Double Bill

Part of the 1980 Project

Now that the month of October has come to its end (insert crowd loudly sighing in unison) its back to the average 5-8 posts a month here. Again, I want to express gratitude to those who stopped by and/or left comments during the month and it was a blast reading how other blogs celebrated genre cinema during the lead up to Halloween. I have already come up with a theme for next year’s October Horror-a-thon (if life and health permits, which after the last year I am not taking for granted).

Now my movie watching focus lasers in on having my 1980 Project completed and a top ten for 1980 published by December 31st, 2010. So any 1980 Projects reviews will be shorter, about a paragraph or two and bunched together, possibly thematically, possibly not, such as today which is comprised of two horror films I watched All Hallows week, one from America, one from Italy.

Don’t Answer the Phone (1980, Robert Hammer)

Memories of the VHS box cover from my days carefully studying the Horror section at my local video store as a teenager (RIP Photo Drive-Up and your 5 movies for 5 days for 5 bucks deal) and an airing on IFC, which I assumed to equal some barometer of quality, prompted a viewing of this sleazy 80’s slasher modeled after the Hillside Strangler murders in Los Angeles. The result is a West Coast variant on the infamous William Lustig 1980 exploitation classic Maniac (my review) but severely lacking either the skill of Lustig’s direction, the amazing gore make-up and effects of Tom Savini or the uncomfortably intimate tour de force performance of Joe Spinell. The hulking Nicholas Worth is Kirk Smith the dialer of whose phone calls you should not be answering*; his performance lacks the tortuous depths of Spinell’s but does have a certain unbridled gonzo charm of its own. Indicative of the script co-written by director Robert Hammer and producer Michael D. Castle**, his killer is given pretty much every aspect that can be found in any rote psychoanalyst research. He’s a Vietnam vet! He’s a schizophrenic (whose alias is a naughty Latino named Ramon)! He was abused! He’s a chauvinist! He’s obsessed with the sonorous voice of a radio call in psychiatrist!

The first thirty minutes is spent primarily with Kirk as he seeks out and murders his victims, all women share the singular common trait of persons that the producers were able to convince to go topless. These scenes lack suspense, atmosphere or any mature sense of filmmaking. Worse than that, for a film looking to make its mark on the exploitation market, it’s criminally light on gore instead emphasizing on the basest sleaziness of women being choked to death. The rest of the film turns into a police procedural concerning the two wiseacre detectives on the case. Like the killer’s modus operandi, the “police work” is a cornucopia of clichés, no well-worn trope from 70’s cop shows goes unattended. The dialogue has a stilted generic tone that at times seemed purposeful as if there was a tinge of a John Waters or Russ Meyer satirical edge, but I think that’s giving the filmmakers more credit than is deserving. Don’t Answer the Phone is interesting as a chronicle of the period discussed in Stephen Thrower’s encloypedea of exploitation cinema, Nightmare USA (which I just received in the mail and does indeed include a discussion of the film), but as an actual film, it’s best remembered as a VHS box.

*With the exception of the first victim, calling before killing is not really a practice by Kirk Smith so while the title of the film is catchy, it really is not pertinent, unless it’s referring to the radio host who he occasionally taunts on air, but if she doesn’t ever answer the phone, her radio call-in show would be useless.

**The film begins with the following credit: A Castle/Hammer Production, which made me at first wonder, whoa, is this a forgotten collaboration between the British horror studios and famed b-movie pioneer William Castle? Well, no. Hammer, is the director Robert Hammer. And Castle is the producer and co-writer Michael D. Castle. William Castle actually died in 1977, but I wouldn’t it put it past him to have a film released three years after his death.

The City of the Living Dead (1980, Lucio Fulci)

I have admitted this before, but the first Fulci film I watched, the cult favorite Zombie (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters***) left me unimpressed. Sure there was the amazing zombie versus shark scene that will go down as one of cinema’s greatest achievements in what-the-fuckery, but the rest of the film felt monotonous and kind of a slog. This was about four or five years ago, and admittedly the shark scene was so mind blowing that anything that followed couldn’t help but feel anticlimactic, so perhaps I owe the film another shot. My second Fulci was the more giallo/mystery and less gore filled The Psychic, which I thought better displayed the filmmaker’s gifts as a director. So would The City of the Living Dead push me to one camp or not? The answer is yes, I am now going to explore more of his films after being duly impressed.

A confluence of intensity, unique stylist direction, eerie music and yes, a surplus of effective gore and special effects completely masks, similarly to Suspiria, any gaps in logic or narrative questions (seriously can anyone sufficiently answer what was up with that kid at the end?). I am a firm believer that horror films excel when ambiguity and obfuscation are employed. Explaining the sources of terror (a very common trait amongst today’s genre films, prequels and remakes) remove the mysterious aura and by becoming too specific actually are less effective because the more details involved, the less pertinent it becomes to the viewer who does not relate to these specific situations. The story involves a psychic woman who foresees the gates of hell opening when a priest in an unseen town kills himself, unleashing a plague of the walking dead. But the plot mechanics are beside the point, which is Fulci’s synthesis of breakneck pacing and bravado style, which include a sequence that rivals Zombie’s shark scene when a woman regurgitates her entire internal organs including her tongue, intestine, liver, etc.

***Is there some sort of rule that each Fulci film requires multiple English language titles? The City of the Living Dead was released in America as Gates of Hell. Zombie also goes by Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombie 2 (in Europe where it’s considered a sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), and The Psychic also is known by the more giallo friendly titles of Seven Notes in Black or Murder to the Tune of the Seven Notes.

After writing this, but before publishing, the blogger Arbogast on Film posted a much more in depth and astute appreciation of the film, check it out here.

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