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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Kino Lorber Studio Classics - THE ENEMY BELOW and FIXED BAYONETS on Blu-ray

THE ENEMY BELOW (1957; Dick Powell)
"It's always either too cold or too hot wherever there's a war on"
This movie was unknown to me until the late 90s when I was rewatching CRIMSON TIDE at one point. I was fully immersed in my love for Quentin Tarantino after PULP FICTION and JACKIE BROWN so anything he talked about was basically the words from on high for me. It came to my attention that QT had done some uncredited script doctoring and I was on the hunt for things he had worked on. Obviously, he had expressed his fandom for Tony Scott and that lead to his script for TRUE ROMANCE being directed by the man. So CRIMSON TIDE was mentioned as a script he had "helped" with and I watched it again to see if I noticed anything. There's a great bit where Gene Hackman and Denzel are talking about horses that seemed like it came from QT, but there were other things in there too. One scene in particular had James Gandolfini asking some other younger naval dudes questions like, "Who played the German sub commander in THE ENEMY BELOW with Robert Mitchum? Was it Curt Jurgens or Hardy Kruger?".  My first thought upon seeing this scene had to do with having never heard of this Mitchum sub movie and that I had to see it as soon as possible. Secondly, the lines seemed very Tarantino-esque to me in that they referred to some fairly obscure character actors that I felt like QT would have known about. Back then, any tidbit or morsel that I could glean about Tarantino or the movies he loved was incredibly valuable to me. As much as I adored the work he himself had done, I also loved the idea of seeking out movies he had a passion for that could have informed his filmmaking. Many of the ones that I had heard he loved ended up being really enjoyable films so THE ENEMY BELOW shot to the top of my list. I already loved Robert Mitchum and I loved sub movies. I had seen THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER many times and it had always struck a chord with me. In that same scene in CRIMSON TIDE, the movie RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP was also mentioned. I ended up seeing that first and loving it so THE ENEMY BELOW was highly anticipated. It did not disappoint. Though it is not entirely a sub movie - it has to do with the conflict between a German U-boat and an American Destroyer escort ship - it was still a great watch. It is not strictly an underwater battle, but the more about the strategic maneuvers of the commanders of both the ship (Mitchum) and the sub (Curt Jurgens). I am an absolute sucker for military strategy movies like this and THE ENEMY BELOW is one of my favorites. There's just something about the cat and mouse chess game of it all that really appeals to me. Something about a battle that is taking place on the open ocean really elevates the stakes too. If you screw it up, your vessel will undoubtedly sink and you and your crew will possibly be killed. It's this kind of naval head to head conflict that informs some of the best STAR TREK episodes and films and it just makes for great dramatic storytelling. If you are a die hard Mitchum fan like I am and you've not seen this one yet, it is well worth adding to your collection. It should also be noted that this movie was directed by Dick Powell. Despite being most well known as an actor, he proves here that he's no slouch as director either. 
Here's the trailer for THE ENEMY BELOW which includes a short intro by Dick Powell:

Buy THE ENEMY BELOW on Blu-ray here:

FIXED BAYONETS! (1951; Samuel Fuller)
"Somebody's got to be left behind to get their bayonets wet"
Another thing that I really got into back in the day because of Tarantino was Sam Fuller movies. In an early interview (around the time of RESERVOIR DOGS) that I saw with him, he called out several directors that he referred to as "cinema guys" as influences. He mentioned Mario Bava, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller as three such gentlemen. I had heard Fuller mentioned in passing prior to that, but this was the direct impetus I needed to start hunting for his films. At the time, they weren't necessarily easy to come by. The Criterion Collection had already issued SHOCK CORRIDOR and THE NAKED KISS on Laserdisc, but I was years before I'd have an LD player in my possession, so I wasn't even aware of those releases. I had to focus on what was on VHS and there wasn't much that could be easily watched. I worked at a Blockbuster Video in college and we had only a few Fuller films in our inventory (THE BIG RED ONE and MERRILL'S MARAUDERS if I recall). There was another video store on campus and they were independent. They were "the cool video store" and when you went there, you could see why. They had several copies of the newest independent and arthouse films on VHS as well as lots of older stuff. They had several more Fuller films than we had and so I made it my mission to see everything they had. If I remember correctly, that's how I first came across FIXED BAYONETS. It was perhaps the second film that I had seen having to do with the Korean War (the first was one of Fuller's masterpieces - THE STEEL HELMET). It takes place in early 1951 and Fuller dedicates the movie to the U.S. Infantry with the opening card. Fuller himself served in the Army and was an infantryman there, so his take on war and how it was portrayed in his films was always a little different than your more traditional John Wayne, rah-rah war movies. Fuller's films always had some kid of an edge to them. Something about the details made them feel more authentic and as such, they were often more powerful. The things that FIXED BAYONETS! has going for it are plentiful. First off, it's Fuller and he always brings it. Next, it was one of several collaborations between Fuller and one of his favorite actors - Gene Evans. Evans reminds me of poor man's Sterling Hayden. Very gruff and tough and grizzled. He's great and if you watch enough Fuller movies, you'll come to love him. The supporting cast is solid too and includes the likes of Richard Basehart, the underrated Skip Homeier and an uncredited James Dean in a small part. It as also shot by the great Lucien Ballard, who brought us such cinematic delights as THE KILLING, TRUE GRIT and THE WILD BUNCH among many others. Also like THE ENEMY BELOW, FIXED BAYONETS! has a solid amount of military strategy going on it. This time on the ground as opposed to at sea, but it's all still quite effective. Fuller seems to carry a certain reverence for men in regiments like this and the chain of command that they are supposed to follow. He still has a character who has difficulty with the responsibility of it all though and therein lies some interesting drama and Fuller's potential point of view on the difficulties that are inherent in having to take responsibility for other men's lives through one's actions and commands. 

Special Features:
This disc includes an enjoyable and educational Audio commentary by Film Historian Michael Schlesinger and Also Christa Lang Fuller (Sam's wife) and Samantha Fuller (Sam's daughter). Some nice personal asides here about the man himself.

You can buy FIXED BAYONETS! on Blu-ray here:

Friday, September 23, 2016

Underrated '66 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong habit of obsessive movie watching. His current project, #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project can be found at Find him on twitter at @007hertzrumble.

See his Underrated '76 & '86 lists: here:

Since 1966 is widely regarded as the "Year of the Spy" - the year that the entire world went crazy for spy parodies, knock-offs and re-interpretations - I felt it would be a disservice to, well, everyone if I accommodated both spies and non-spies in a list of reasonable length. I was told by the proprietor of this here website that the only reasonable solution would be to create two distinct lists. Obviously! First up is my gaggle of non-spies, though you'll undoubtedly note that James Bond still manages to make an appearance.

A Fine Madness (Irvin Kershner, 1966)
Between outings as James Bond, Sean Connery starred in this droll comedy about a poet named Samson Shillitoe. Poor Samson can't finish his epic masterpiece and cleans carpets in order to pay alimony to his first wife. His beleaguered bread-winning current wife (Joanne Woodward) objects to his sex addiction and anger management issues. You know, as you would. Samson Shillitoe represents Sean Connery's attempt to avoid action hero typecasting. He's a loathsome, offensive brute and Connery brings the character to life with the swagger of an actor buoyed by creative freedom, unshackled from the restraint required to play cool, calculated 007. And much to his credit, director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) appears to give Connery misbehavior carte blanche to wreak social and moral havoc. Shillitoe assaults a police officer and a civil servant. While on a cleaning job, he sleeps with an office secretary while flooding the building with carpet bubbles. Later he seduces his psychiatrist's wife in a mental institution's therapy tub, an action that directly leads to Samson being given a quasi-lobotomy to quell his anger problems. (Spoiler alert: It doesn't work.) The movie earned a number of positive reviews from the press, but studio head Jack Warner regretted the project from the outset. He thought he'd hired Connery for a Bond-style action film. Once he finally read the script and understood the film as an anarchic dramedy, he demanded a multitude of rewrites. After the completion of filming, Warner banned Kershner from the Warner lot and ordered re-edits and a new score. The notorious stick-in-the-mud Warner clearly never got the joke. Now it's impossible to tell where Kershner's version ends and Warner's meddling begins. The film flopped at the box office, presumably because the audience, like Jack Warner, failed to see the brilliant joke inherent to the notion of James Bond, pugnacious poet.

The Wrong Box (Bryan Forbes, 1966)
Is there a narrative vehicle inherently more British than the tontine? (Tontine: n. - an annuity shared by subscribers to a loan or common fund, the shares increasing as subscribers die until the last survivor enjoys the whole income.) After all, British humor is best served when deft comedic mania explores the latent bits of our dark and mangled human nature. The Wrong Box is stuffed full of Victorian anti-manners that indulge humanity's worst eccentricities. Oh the hilarity of the misplaced mutilated body in a barrel gag! Making light of the tottering and impossibly old and senile butler! High-speed horse-drawn hearse chases! Consider further that Michael Caine's character plays one of the lone voices of naïve sanity and reason. The Wrong Box is Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore, John Mills, Ralph Richardson and Peter Cook almost all behaving badly-very, very badly-in the name of cold cash. A fortune falls into the lap of the Finsbury brother that outlives the other. The families of each man are torn between forcibly keeping them alive or knocking them off to ease the burden of dealing the old fools... or pretending they're actually alive to dupe the other family (kind of a proto-Weekend at Bernie's). Morris (Peter Cook) and John (Dudley Moore) believe their uncle Joseph has died and try to conceal his death to win the tontine. Meanwhile, Michael (Michael Caine) has falsely reported the death of Joseph's brother, causing a chain reaction of erroneous judgment. The movie devolves into anarchic slapstick and chase scenes as the twisty narrative unfolds and the characters grow even more desperate and maniacal. In the best possible way, of course. Based on the 1889 novel by Robert Louis Stephenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, The Wrong Box clearly sought inspiration in style and substance from the Ealing comedies of the 1940's. The "otherwise decent people doing horrible things" genre has a grand tradition, and the Wrong Box updates that formula for the 1960's by tenuously straddling the line between good taste and outright offense. Fans of distasteful British gallows humor have just discovered their new favorite movie.

Gambit (Ronald Neame, 1966)
An oddly underseen comedic caper considering the star wattage involved. The narrative may not be seamless and the gotcha! ending may or may not be worth the rigmarole, but director Ronald Neame (Hopscotch, Tunes of Glory) turns on the camera and gets out of the way. He makes the film all about his young stars Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. Harry Dean, a Cockney thief (Caine, obviously), and his sculptor partner hire Shirley MacLaine's red-headed Eurasian nightclub singer/firebrand to help them steal a priceless statuette from middle eastern millionaire Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom). You may have noted the preposterous casting of MacLaine as a person of Asian descent and Herbert Lom as a kind of demi-Shah. Shahbandar sniffs out the ruse and ruins Dean's con. Or does he? Of course he does. Or not. I refuse to speak further on the matter; you'll just have to watch. Gambit serves up a familiar brand of light-hearted heisting, but this movie boasts Caine and MacLaine and those other movies don't. The snappy script hits narrative beats at a pace that resists scrutiny and gives its stars plenty of time to play off each other. If not for Michael Caine day on TCM a couple years ago, I wouldn't have heard of this highly entertaining flick. And that's a shame. Born out of a classic Hollywood mode of filmmaking - stars first - Gambit crackles with vim and vigor. Twisty fun without pretense.

Lord Love a Duck (George Axelrod, 1966)
Lord Love a Duck left me a little awestruck. It's a brash and ballsy slapstick criticism of the sex- and commercial-crazed 1960's. Breaking taboo left and right and in between, Lord Love a Duck could be seen as the dark counterpoint to the Frankie and Annette Beach Party movies (which were, admittedly an easy target, and already parodying themselves by the time Lord Love a Duck was released in 1966). I'm not even sure how anyone approved such a bizarre and baffling movie for release... but I do thank them for it. It's almost as if the studio heads didn't understand the duplicity of the script and just gave the film the go ahead based on prolonged scenes of jiggling, bikini-clad bottoms. Tuesday Weld (in perhaps her best display of Tuesday Weldness) plays Barbara Ann, a high school girl of limitless ambition. Alan Mollymauk Musgrave (Roddy McDowall) aims to make all of it happen with a wink and a smile. They sign a devil's pact in wet cement, and Alan facilitates Barbara Ann's ascent to becoming a bikini-clad cinema idol. Is Alan a deranged, delusional high school student with an unhealthy obsession with Barbara Ann? Or is he something much more subversive? If it all weren't so much goddamn fun, you might notice how untoward Lord Love a Duck really is. Director George Axelrod was best known for the notches on his screenwriting belt, having provided the blueprints for classic films such as The Manchurian Candidate, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and The Seven-Year Itch. Lord Love a Duck feels like the product of a disillusioned Hollywood insider set to undermine the institution. Many contemporary critics considered him an old Hollywood creep merely ogling teenage girls. Clearly, like the studio that greenlit this picture, they just didn't get the joke. Axelrod runs roughshod over popular culture, his targets plentiful and his attacks often unfocused. As a result, Duck's construction begins to feel slapdash (hamfisted?) during the second half of the film, overburdened by the volume of Axelrod's satirical efforts. This amateurish construction embellishes the chaos unfolding on screen. It's clearly the film's satirical successes and narrative miscues that have endeared it to cult movie fans for decades. Lord Love a Duck becomes far more interesting as a result of its faults. Much of the credit must go to the impressive cast - Tuesday Weld and Roddy McDowall, of course, but also Ruth Gordon, Harvey Korman and the deft Lola Albright who plays Barbara's mother, a perpetually drunk, cat-tailed cocktail waitress. The actors commit to Axelrod's script even as it pulls apart at the seams. What's left is a curiously satisfying concoction of bizarro moments. If you watch Lord Love a Duck and you start thinking "This isn't all that odd," just wait until the cashmere sweater scene. If you're still watching after that, you'll be hooked on the Mollymauk.

The Swinger (George Sidney, 1966)
The Swinger opens with Ann-Margret serenading audiences in a black cat-style suit from a rope swing (because kitschy synonyms and innuendo!). Clearly audiences couldn't get enough of that face-to-face Ann-Margret pre-title action. Bye Bye Birdie was just the appetizer. The movie then gives us a Los Angeles travelogue. Fender-benders. Shopping. Food - mostly hot dogs, for phallic reasons. And finally Hollywood, the movies, specifically infernal nudie pictures. Now the introduction to Sir Hubert, the letchy bottom-pinching proprietor of Girl-Lure Magazine, a symbolic stand-in for all that is wrong with the modern world. For the next 80 minutes, The Swinger offers a criticism of this sex-crazed, misogynist patriarchy while also appealing to the very same sex-crazed patriarchy. "There is more to people than just sex glands," Ann-Margret's Kelly Olsson scolds as a Girl-Lure representative (Anthony Franciosa) rejects her "cute" writing and tells her to go home and bake something. In that moment, she decides that the easiest road to publication is writing a dirty dimestore paperback. Before I continue, I'd like to make one thing perfectly clear. The Swinger is both a successful satire and cinema of gross miscalculation (but perhaps only from our modern perspective). The film is probably best known for a couple of scenes where Ann-Margret channels her fictional character to prove that she's written scandal from firsthand experience. I don't care who you are; there isn't one person alive that won't raise an eyebrow at the combination of Ann-Margret, striptease, and body paint. A spread appeared in Playboy to promote the body-paint scene in The Swinger. Longer cuts of the "paint-dance" sequence and the striptease exist, but no one can seem to agree whether the post-release editing was done to appease censors when the film ran on TV or merely trim run time. The notion of a mainstream 1960's skin-flick beaten down by old-fashioned protestant decency paranoia offers much fodder for titillating analysis but its probably far from the truth considering that by 1966, most of these cultural censors would have been crippled by the sexual revolution, encroachment of racier European cinema, and the increasing popularity of underground films from Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis. To put 1966 in finer perspective, Antonioni's Blow-up became a stateside hit that same year and offered American audiences their first fleeting glimpses of pubic hair in a mainstream film. By the time this film aired on TV in the 1970's and the edits were made, I'd be surprised if this was anything more than time management. The appeal for modern audiences remains, of course, Ann-Margret in a multitude of outfits that showcase her timeless assets. The secondary appeal is revisiting the 1960's as a screwy Technicolor wonderland filled with dopey guys and dopey dames who all just want to have a bit of fun without a stubbornly focused political agenda. But then again don't we all? After my rewatch for this blurb, I believe now that The Swinger is actually more intelligent than it lets on, and it's a shame that the movie is so completely unavailable. Once available to watch on Amazon Streaming, the only remaining venue seems to be YouTube (both were the edited version).

The Swinger on Youtube:
Full paint dance scene from The Swinger:

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Olive Films Signature - HIGH NOON and JOHNNY GUITAR on Blu-ray

HIGH NOON (1952; Fred Zinneman)
This film is an interesting classic for me. I think it was my introduction to Gary Cooper and it honestly put me off him initially. First off, it was my initial exposure to Cooper's very specific cadence in the way he delivers dialogue. If you've not seen him in a movie before, he might seem a little stiff - but it's just the way he does his thing. So I had the hurdle of getting over that and on top of that the movie itself is about cowardice and facing up to that which must deal with or die trying. It's tricky because the Howard Hawks fan in me must have kicked in and my knee-jerk reaction was similar to Hawks' response. Supposedly, Hawks saw HIGH NOON and was so turned off by it that he made RIO BRAVO as a response to it. For that, I am forever indebted to director Fred Zinnemann as RIO BRAVO is one of my very favorite films. Apparently John Wayne wasn't a HIGH NOON fan either and was said to have called it, "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life". Howard Hawks said, "I didn't think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn't my idea of a good Western." All fair points, but I've come around to HIGH NOON over the years and a lot of it has to do with the tension and the structure of the thing. Zinnemann isn't any slouch as a filmmaker and HIGH NOON is a well made movie for sure. The editing alone makes it worthy of study. Though it doesn't quite play in real time, it's pretty darn close and the clock motif is woven in nicely. 
While I can see why Hawks may have seen the film the way he did, the more I've watched it, the more I see it a little differently. I see Gary Cooper more as a man that's doing what he feels like he has to do. His town marshal character is caught in a mighty conundrum. A man that he had sent away for murder is returning to town after being released and has vowed to kill him. Though all the townsfolk are encouraging him to run away - as fast and as far as he can - he seems to know that he'll never fully escape without dealing with this situation. He's literally just gotten married and he knows that this killer will not rest until he gets his vengeance. So while Cooper is kind of running around town trying to scrape together any and all help that he can, he has still resigned himself  to his fate. He will face it and take what comes, whether he gets help or not. He'll even let his wife leave him instead of retreating with her. It's not the Hawksian way exactly, but it has a certain resonance nonetheless.
As a movie, it's an entertaining and suspenseful little ride. It has a great cast outside of Cooper and Grace Kelly - including Beau Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Lee Van Cleef, Henry Morgan, Lon Chaney and Otto Krueger. Also - Grace Kelly is about the sexiest Quaker woman I've ever seen in a movie. Her wedding dress is gorgeous and the way it clings to her slender frame is downright stunning. Lastly, as another reason why I am grateful this movie exists - it has inspired other enjoyable "real time" films. Without HIGH NOON, there wouldn't be any THREE O'CLOCK HIGH - which is one of my favorite films if the 1980s. John Badham's NICK OF TIME is pretty good too.

Special Features:
This disc and JOHNNY GUITAR are the first of Olive Film's new "Olive Signature" line. They've already issued these films on Blu-ray, but these new editions include new transfers and extra features. Think of these discs as Olive's attempt to appeal to collectors and cinephiles who love Criterion Collection releases. Both films are mastered from new 4K restorations and both have some nice extras. HIGH NOON's include:
-“A Ticking Clock” – Academy Award-nominee Mark Goldblatt on the editing of High Noon
-“A Stanley Kramer Production” – Michael Schlessinger on the eminent producer of High Noon
-“Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon” – with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein
-“Ulcers and Oscars: The Production History of High Noon” – a visual essay with rarely seen archival elements, narrated by Anton Yelchin
-“Uncitizened Kane” – an original essay by Sight and Sound editor Nick James
-Theatrical trailer

You can purchase this edition of HIGH NOON here:

JOHNNY GUITAR (1954; Nicholas Ray)
Though we don't have them as much today, I do miss the idea and practice of "B" movies. The kind of cheaply produced features that were made to fill out double bills back in the day. They were such a big deal in the Hollywood studio era, that many little studios like RKO and Republic Pictures sprang up to meet the demand for this kind of material. Some of them even specialized in specific genres and became these little factories that were just cranking them out. Republic's main thing was westerns. They produced tons of them. Many are not that memorable, but what I love about these little studios is that every so often they would hit it out of the park and do something that absolutely transcends what a B picture should be. JOHNNY GUITAR is one of those pictures. It is really not like any other western I can think of anc that is for a variety of reasons. First and foremost is the creative and unique vision of director Nicholas Ray. Ray was one of those individualist filmmakers that really brought an artistic and a poetic sensibility to his work. Apparently, he studied architecture under the great Frank Lloyd Wright before becoming a director and it's clear to see that he was greatly influenced by that time in his life in terms of how he decided to compose his frames. Interestingly, JOHNNY GUITAR was Ray's second color film and he followed it with one of his greatest successes in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE the next year. Both films use color in interesting ways, but JOHNNY GUITAR is most interesting in this way in that it is a western and this a genre that is not often defined by its use of color - especially with regard to the costumes. Another thing that's unique about the film is that it has two very powerful women at the center of it. Some may classify this as a feminist film as a result of that central conflict, but that's a bit more complicated to define when you look at the movie as a whole. Regardless, it is fascinating to see what would seem to be a traditional role reversal in terms of what we might have come to expect from a western. The westerns is a male dominated genre, so it is quite interesting to see Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge go head to head through the course of JOHNNY GUITAR. Their passionate anger and seeming hatred of one another drives the movie for the most part and that is quite refreshing. This brings me to Joan Crawford's presence in the film specifically and how it had an impact on it becoming a different kind of take on the genre. She was in her fifties at the time, but was still riding the wave of her stardom to a degree. Working with a smaller studio like Republic after all her years of success with the majors gave her some influence on the film and how it turned out. Basically she became upset by the potential of being upstaged by Mercedes McCambridge and demanded that her character be made the lead and that several scenes be added to bolster that idea. As a result, she is much more prominent than she would have been and the film shifted completely from what it was to have been. One of my favorite podcasts, YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS, just finished a neat series on Joan Crawford and I highly recommend it. It gives a nice context for JOHNNY GUITAR and how Crawford came to make the film.
As I have often done here at Rupert a Pupkin Speaks, I must give a nod to Danny Peary for introducing me to this movie. He wrote about it in his amazing book CULT MOVIES (which if you don't own you should snap up a copy). I highly recommend reading his essay included in that book as it examines the film from a few different angles - be they its potential feminist elements, as parody of the western genre and also its angle on being "indictment of McCarthyite mob hysteria and bigotry". What's great about movies is the variety of ways they can be interpreted and embraced by audiences even decades after their initial release. Some of them are thin with subtext and others (like JOHNNY GUITAR) are waist deep in it.
Westerns have been a round for a long long time and we've seen them rise and fall from popularity for as long as movies have been around. They never totally disappear though and they says something about how we as an audience must have some kind of primal connection to them. Maybe we all long for a simpler time and see these as very stripped down stories, free from the entanglements and complications of technology and our "modern" lives. Who knows the reason why westerns are still with us, but I hope they never go away. There is always room for more of them as far as I'm concerned and the best ones are the films they try to do something a bit different with the genre. JOHNNY GUITAR is timeless in that way and though it may seem a bit strange in comparison to some, I find it to be a really great one.

Special Features:
This disc is even more stacked than the HIGH NOON disc, including lots of new material and a commentary. For fans of Criterion Collection releases I would have to call this a must 
own. Supplements included:
-Introduction by Martin Scorsese
-Audio commentary with historian and critic Geoff Andrew
-“Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar” – with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein
-“Is Johnny Guitar a Feminist Western?: Questioning the Canon” – with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich
-“Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures” – with archivist Marc Wanamaker
-A critical appreciation of Nicholas Ray with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich
-“My Friend, the American Friend” – Nicholas Ray biographical piece with Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich
-“Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western” – an original essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum

You can purchase this edition of JOHNNY GUITAR here:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Criterion Collection - CAT PEOPLE on Blu-ray

CAT PEOPLE (1942; Jacques Tourneur)
This movie is inextricably tied to academia for me. I studied it as part of a horror genre film class in college and it really hooked me back then. Rarely have I seen an old horror film with such ambition and underlying craftsmanship as to transcend its low budget roots.
I've always marveled at how influential this film has been over the years - without as much acknowledgement as it probably deserves. In my class, we studied the film's use of sound "buses" as a device to keep the viewer off balance. In a lot of ways, these are the grandfather of the modern jump scare that we still see in regular practice today. In the case of CAT PEOPLE, they are quite literally buses that pull up out of nowhere, blasting through the sparse moments of absolute silence on the soundtrack for the best effect. CAT PEOPLE is an amazing example of taking a film's budgetary limitations and turning them into creative challenges. Lewton seemed to be a master producer with respect to this. It's obvious enough to say, but of course it is the viewer's imagination that often fills in the most important and affecting details left out of a movie. CAT PEOPLE features one of my favorite frightening sequences in any horror movie and it is a scene where the "monster" remains obscured from view by dark shadows so it can only be heard and not seen. It's an amazingly well made sequence of terror and it still plays well today. That's what so great about the movie though - it plays effectively as a piece of entertainment, and holds its own against the contemporary horror films of the time. Granted, this is a little while after the Universal stuff like FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA - and THE WOLFMAN came out the year prior - so horror was still a popular and sought after genre for audiences back then. I feel like CAT PEOPLE is a classic on the level of the Universal monsters and perhaps only doesn't get mentioned with them because it came from a smaller studio and doesn't have one single character that folks can see as iconic. CAT PEOPLE is as well written (if not more so) than those movies though and Lewton is certainly a huge factor in that. Lewton was a very literary minded fellow you can certainly feel that in the films he produced for RKO. CAT PEOPLE has the overt monster story contained in its title, but it also has this undercurrent sexuality and all this other stuff going on. It's a very layered film and there is an almost poetic quality to some of the dialogue throughout. It's almost kind of a "trick" movie in that the scariest creatures are mostly hinted at and not shown and there is a lot of subtext going on. Also, the cast is quite intriguing and not necessarily filled with big stars. You may recognize Kent Smith, but Tom Conway may be the most known member of the cast for classic movie fans. French actress Simone Simon is perfectly cast as the exotic and sensual Irena and she will stay forever burned onto your brain for her turn here.

If you are unfamiliar with Lewton's genre work from this period, CAT PEOPLE is a nice introduction that will likely inspire you to want to check out more. Also recommended are I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (another film that subverts the expectations that come with its title), THE LEOPARD MAN, THE BODY SNATCHER (featuring a fantastic Boris Karloff performance) and THE SEVENTH VICTIM.
Some folks may not realize it, but this CAT PEOPLE Blu-ray is actually a Criterion upgrade. While CAT PEOPLE did already come out on DVD (in Warner Brother's excellent Val Lewton Collection), it also came out via Criterion on Laserdisc back in the day. I still have that disc and I plan to hang onto it as there is a commentary track featured on it (from Bruce Eder) that has not made the jump to the new Blu-ray. I miss the old Criterion laserdisc commentaries. They are often a bit more dry and scholarly, but they were always informative and gave me a much greater appreciation for the films. Sadly, many of those tracks are seemingly lost now (I've rarely seen them added to the  new DVDs and Blu-ray upgrades that followed) and so I must recommend that hardcore Criterion fans get themselves a laserdisc player to get a sense of what this sort of thing used to be like. Don't get me wrong, Criterion has absolutely stepped up their commentary game since the days of LDs. They were pioneers of the audio commentary as format we all know very well now. I just sometimes miss the stilted and awkward tracks from way back when. 
Special Features:
Lots of nice supplements here. A few have been brought over from previous DVD releases (commentary, Lewton Documentary), but they are certainly excellent and make this disc all the better. One of my favorite new things included is the Jacques Tourneur interview. I have long been a fan of his films (OUT OF THE PAST and CAT PEOPLE being two of his best) so it was quite lovely to see him speaking in person about cinema and his approach to it. The interview runs about 27 minutes and it is really neat. Here's a full list of the disc's features:

-New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
-Audio commentary from 2005 featuring film historian Gregory Mank, with excerpts from an audio interview with actor Simone Simon.
-Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a 2008 feature-length documentary that explores the life and career of the legendary Hollywood producer.
-Interview with director Jacques Tourneur from 1979.
-New interview with cinematographer John Bailey about the look of the film.
-PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien

The New cover art is by Bill Sienkiewicz

CAT PEOPLE can be purchased on Blu-ray here:
or from Criterion directly:

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

New Release Roundup - September 20th, 2016

CAT PEOPLE on Blu-ray (Criterion)

CAT'S EYE on Blu-ray (Warner Bros)

SALEM'S LOT on Blu-ray (Warner Bros)

BLOOD SIMPLE on Blu-ray (Criterion)

FIXED BAYONETS on Blu-ray (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)

THE ENEMY BELOW on Blu-ray (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)

BEWARE! THE BLOB on Blu-ray (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)

THE RIFT on Blu-ray (Kino Lorber/Scorpion Releasing)

DEAD-END DRIVE-IN on Blu-ray (Arrow Video)

IT on Blu-ray (Warner Bros)

JOHNNY GUITAR Signature Edition on Blu-ray (Olive Films)

HIGH NOON Signature Edition on Blu-ray (Olive Films)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST 25th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray (Disney)

FANNY on Blu-ray (Shout Factory)

NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING on Blu-ray (Universal)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Underrated '66 - Justin LaLiberty

Justin LaLiberty holds degrees in Critical Film Studies and Film Preservation in Archiving. He is currently responsible for programming at Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, NY and is an itinerant projectionist, ready to run reels if you've got 'em. He is a regular contributor to Paracinema and can usually be found in whichever NYC art-house is showing the most sordid content on a given day.

Check out his Underrated '96, '86 & '76 lists here:

CHAFED ELBOWS (Robert Downey Sr.)
Robert Downey Sr’s still image driven opus of incest runs barely 60 minutes yet manages to throw in enough counter culture ethos, sock sniffing, and jabs at the then current cinema zeitgeist for a dozen pictures. And it even features a filmmaking character named Leo Realism. Downey at his most transgressive and sincere.

I feel like I’m cheating by including a short here, but when your short is as provocative and wonderful as HOLD ME WHILE I’M NAKED is, I think that it’s a safe choice. Kuchar at his most Sirkian, with his penchant for melodrama giving way to some sort of cinematic inner struggle ala 8 ½. Never a filmmaker to shy away from putting a lot of himself in his work, this may be the most personal film Kuchar made and it’s 17 minutes of bliss.

SECONDS (John Frankenheimer)
If the opening credits scene here doesn’t make you fall in love with cinema all over again, you may as well just stop watching movies. Frankenheimer at his most paranoid and assured, with each nerve shredding set piece managing to outdo whatever came before. It’s also the movie that turned me off of drinking wine forever.

THE BIG GUNDOWN (Sergio Sollima)
There are few things that I want more in a western than the presence of either Ennio Morricone or Lee Van Cleef. THE BIG GUNDOWN has both. And it adds Tomas Milian to the mix. Add in some absolutely despicable bad guys (who would go so far as to rape a 12 year old girl), good old fashioned questionable law enforcement and some classy knife throwing and you’ve got yourself a spaghetti western for the books. This deserves to be mentioned in the same breathe as anything that Leone made. 

I unabashedly love the work of Joe Sarno, especially CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, and when it comes to excessive melodrama marketed as sleaze, nobody compares. MOONLIGHTING WIVES is pure Sarno and it also manages to be one of the better portrayals of an ever shifting gender paradigm in America in the 1960s, with a group of women taking control of their lives by any means necessary. As far as the myth of the American Dream is concerned, this deserves to be in the same 60s company as EASY RIDER and MIDNIGHT COWBOY.

VIOLENCE AT NOON (Nagisa Oshima)
Before Nagisa Oshima shocked the world with IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, he made a lot of small, borderline avant-garde dramas, none of which could predict the politics and aggression of his later work as much as VIOLENCE AT NOON. An increasingly dour tale of rape, revenge and loss, VIOLENCE AT NOON is sort of the decidedly Japanese answer to BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL. In a current, 2016, climate its title alone feels like a trigger warning yet nothing can really prepare you for Oshima’s assault. Brutal, elegant stuff.

THE SHOOTING (Monte Hellman)
It may not be as “Violent. Sadistic. Merciless” as its one-sheet may suggest, nor is Warren Oates given nearly enough screen time, but THE SHOOTING is classic Hellman in its pacing, attention to detail and vistas of America than anything else he would make. The script here is existential in a way that could predict titles like EL TOPO or DEAD MAN and Jack Nicholson is in top form – the fight between he and Oates is perfect. Impressively bleak and never comes close to wearing out its 82 minute runtime.

BLOOD BATH (Jack Hill & Stephanie Rothman)
The saga of BLOOD BATH is as fruitful and fun as the film itself (and can be explored in full via Arrow’s incredible blu-ray release from earlier this year) and that’s saying a lot as the film itself is fan-fucking-tastic. Barely an hour long, this gothic chiller begins as basic drive-in fodder but turns into something much more singular, with a lot to say about the status of The Artist in America in the 60s (much of which rings true today). The black and white photography shines in the new restoration, enough so that you may be tricked into thinking that you’re actually seeing the bloody reds of the “dead red nudes”.

QUEEN OF BLOOD (Curtis Harrington)
Bless Curtis Harrington. Aesthetically and on paper, this is pretty much PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. Only the talent behind the camera is Harrington and Roger Corman and on screen you have Dennis Hopper and John Saxon. More psychotronic than Bava’s film and imbued with a kinky sensibility that wouldn’t be out of place in a space opera directed by Jean Rollin, this deserves to be rediscovered by a bunch of weirdos ASAP.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


As far as B-movies from the fifties go, this one seems a bit less known than others. This may be partially due to a lack of home video releases outside of VHS. The movie certainly seems to have something of a fanbase (probably from old TV airings over the years). In the wake of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and its success and its sequels, it is no surprise that some lower budget knockoffs would spring up. Instead of a jungle setting, PIEDRAS BLANCAS takes place at a small seaside village where some bizarre murders have been occurring. The victims are often found near the beach with their heads cut clean off. The towns people are baffled and scared and only the ornery lighthouse keeper seems to know anything. He's not talking though - just complaining about not getting his meat scraps while the local grocer whips the town into a frightened frenzy with his tales of the legend of the Monster of Piedras Blancas (who he blames for the killings). While it's a bit of a slow-mover, Monster movie fans will likely want to add this to their collections as the Blu-ray looks nice and certainly tops any video transfer or bootleg they had prior to this release. Though we don't see him until late in the picture, the monster himself is pretty memorable and worth waiting for. The mere fact that the monster decapitates his victims and carries their heads around also makes this one a but more freaky than most of its contemporaries. If you enjoy this type of movie, this one will likely be a solid fix for you on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
And now to provide a much more useful commentary, I've attached Joe Dante's Trailer's From Hell Commentary below:

You can buy PIEDRAS BLANCAS on Blu-ray here:

JEKYLL & HYDE...TOGETHER AGAIN (1982; Jerry Belson)
Of all the movie monsters of cinema, Mr. Hyde gets the least amount of love from the masses. Everyone remembers FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE WOLFMAN, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THE INVISIBLE MAN and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (granted, these are all Universal horror icons at this point), but the Jekyll & Hyde characters - though they've been made many times into films - don't get too much credit. Perhaps it is because they have been done so much and there is less of a definitive version of them that one can point to? Not sure, but regardless, I've always found it a wonderful metaphor on the duality of man. The push and pull of the need to be civilized and the want to be unabashedly animalistic and crazy. This movie isn't really interested in any of that though as it's pretty much a head-on goofy spoof. It has one of the more "Huh?" inducing opening credits sequences that I've seen in a while. It's very short and basicallay consists of white cursive credits of the producer's names that are connected by a long white line to the title of the film. When we get to title, the screen angles slightly and it becomes apparent that the credits are in fact lines of cocaine which are promptly snorted up by a big nose just to the left of the frame. Then the movie cuts its first scene (in a hospital) as the credits continue. Right away, it's made clear that we are in a heightened and very silly universe where characters look preposterous and do dippy and broadly comedic things at the drop of a hat. As we watch Dr. Jekyll performing a delicate surgery, a woman comments about how he has the steadiest hands of any man she's ever seen. Cut to: Jeykyll pulls down his mask and we see he has like half a dozen bits of toilet paper on his face from all the cuts while shaving. That kind of visual gag as well as folks just doing odd voices run rampant in the film. It reminds me of stuff like STUDENT BODIES and PANDEMONIUM (both of which came out around the same time) - where it's the kind of thing that amuses you a whole lot more as a child than it might as you get older. As much as I end up comparing everything like this to AIRPLANE! (and they all inevitably fall flat), I still don't mind the occasional brainless comedy - especially from the early 1980s. JEKYLL AND HYDE ...TOGETHER AGAIN plays things both seriously and not seriously in a way thats reminiscent of the Zucker output of the period, but not as good. That said, the style of dumb comedies back then is not like the SCARY MOVIE and it's lesser spinoffs we see most often today. There's something about them that makes me oddly nostalgic. Maybe it's the fact that you can feel a bit more of the silent comedy influence on some of their gags and slapstick? I can't say for sure, but this one amused me nonetheless and if you like 80s spoofy ludicrousness, you may enjoy it too. 

You can buy JEKYLL AND HYDE on Blu-ray here:

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