Rupert Pupkin Speaks

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Underrated Thrillers - Matt Barry

Matt Barry is a New York City-based writer, filmmaker and all-around cinephile. His favorite genres are classic comedies and film noir. You can read more of his thoughts on film at his blog, The Art and Culture of Movies (http://artandcultureofmovies.blogspot.com/).
He can be found on twitter here:
https://twitter.com/matthewnbarry
Also, he contributed a list to my Underrated Action/Adventure series which I recommend you have a look at:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2014/07/underrated-actionadventure-matt-barry.html
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AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945, dir: Rene Clair)
First-rate adaptation of the Agatha Christie story about ten strangers gathered for dinner on a remote island who learn there is a murderer among them. A fine cast of character actors, including Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, C. Aubrey Smith, Richard Haydn, and Roland Young, among others, under the breezy and stylish direction of Rene Clair, make this mystery-thriller one of the best of its kind.

SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (1929, dir: Benjamin Christensen)
Directed by the eccentric, brilliant visual stylist who also gave us HAXAN (WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES), this is a nightmarish twist on the “Old Dark House” genre that was so popular during this time.  Christensen plunges his two protagonists (Creighton Hale and Thelma Todd) into a terrifying plot that involves them having to escape from a house belonging to a Satanic cult. An offbeat but highly entertaining (and genuinely scary) late-silent era gem.

THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (1936, dir: George King)
There have been many films of the “Sweeney Todd” story, but this one has the major advantage of starring the great character actor Tod Slaughter in the title role. Slaughter was a larger-than-life performer who’d learned his craft on the Victorian stage, and brought a mix of over-the-top theatrics and genuine menace to his roles in a number of British horror films during this period. This gruesome thriller features Slaughter in probably his most memorable performance, and remains an effective screen version of this classic story.

THE PHANTOM FIEND (1932, dir: Maurice Elvey)
Early talkie adaptation of the novel “The Lodger”, which had been famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1926, and had also starred Ivor Novello in the title role.  While obviously overshadowed by the Hitchcock classic, this version of the story is still an effective and atmospheric thriller. The rather dialogue-heavy script (co-written by documentarian and film theorist Paul Rotha) is enlivened by some interesting touches from director Maurice Elvey, often working with the same kind of high-contrast visual style that he brought to his silent “Sherlock Holmes” series.  This is one of those public domain films that is readily available on budget DVD sets at Walmart as well as online, so it’s an easy one to see.

YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937, dir: Alfred Hitchcock)
I’m not sure I can qualify any Hitchcock film as “underrated”, but this is an oddly overlooked film from his British period. Maybe that’s because it comes between the well-known masterworks of THE 39 STEPS and THE LADY VANISHES. Or perhaps it’s because this one is a relatively low-key film lacking the kind of really memorable set pieces that mark Hitchcock’s best-known work. Regardless, it’s a tight, suspenseful thriller that is every bit as good as the best films Hitchcock was making during this period of his career, and contains his favorite theme of the wrong man accused of a crime he did not commit. Expertly directed, tightly-plotted, and featuring one of the most audacious and impressive camera moves ever executed.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Scream Factory - THE BATTERY on Blu-ray

THE BATTERY (2012; Jeremy Gardner)
Like a lot of horror movie fans, I've got a full-on case of zombie fatigue. I even burned out on THE WALKING DEAD early on in season two (though I know it gets better and I may jump back in at some point). The zombie genre is justifiably greatly maligned because there have been (& continue to be) so many mediocre to bad zombie movies made. Horror films in general have always been a cheap and easy thing to do and within that, zombie films are relatively straightforward in terms of ease of production. All you need is a little green makeup and some boarded up windows right? What if you crossed a zombie movie with David Gordon Green's ALL THE REAL GIRLS? That's kind of a little bit of what THE BATTERY is like. I know it can be annoying to reduce a movie to a combination of other existing things or styles, but I feel like this kind of shorthand is: a) fun to try to figure out and b) helpful in catching people's attention and perhaps piquing their interest in seeing a film they might not have been inclined to see before that. As I was saying to my son in regards to THE BATTERY, sometimes I like it when films show you the less exciting, more mundane bits of life that are often left out of the story. Early on in THE BATTERY there's a short scene of the two guys (Ben and Mickey) standing in a driveway, brushing their teeth. Now that's not a scene I've seen in too many zombie movies. In fact, it's not really fair to the film to call it a zombie movie. I mean, yes there are zombies in it, but THE BATTERY seems to me to be more of a mediation on loneliness and isolation. In a remarkably realized, low-key observational way, the movie lets us slowly get to know the two main characters and how they got to be where they are. It really is such a refreshing little film. The dialogue between the two guys feels quite real and grounded. They feel legitimately like two dudes who've been stuck together for a long time. They have a shared comradery, but they also have a tendency to get on each other's nerves. The movie subtly delves into the psychological toll that this situation would have on these two guys. My son (15) turned to me at one point whilst watching the film and said, "This movie is kinda depressing". I had to agree with him, but I pointed out that it's not the worst thing in the world to watch a depressing movie from time to time. I warner him at the outset that this movie wouldn't be like SHAUN OF THE DEAD (which he is a big big fan of) and that it may be a little more in line with THE WALKING DEAD (which he also likes). THE BATTERY is it's own thing though. It has humor, and scares and pathos. It is a very unique and excellent little movie. What's more remarkable is that it's all that it is and was made on a budget of around $6000. That's a damned miracle. It really hangs on the performances of writer/director Jeremy Gardner (who plays Ben in the film) and Adam Cronheim (who plays Mickey). The movie lives or dies by their interactions and they totally pull it off. There are some long dialogue scenes that could easily leave the actors out to dry if they weren't as capable as they are. I was quite impressed with the movie and you will be too.
When I first heard the announcement that Scream Factory was bringing this film out on Blu-ray I was immediately excited by the idea. What a match made in heaven this is. I've certainly enjoyed the fact that Scream has not only dedicated themselves to putting out remarkable Blu-ray editions of horror cult classics and genre favorites, but they've also made a nice effort to put some new horror films out in the world via their brand and THE BATTERY is without question the best of these new movies. Along with their collaboration with longtime filmmaker Larry Fessenden on the Scream Factory release of his film BENEATH, this is my favorite new film from Scream. I am excited for more like these and I hope Scream will continue to be on the lookout for wonderfully talented people like Jeremy Gardner. I very much look forward to his next feature.

Special Features:
Included on this Blu-ray is one whopper of a nice supplement in the 90-minute making of documentary: TOOLS OF IGNORANCE (great title). Within the doc, Gardner remarks at one point that just prior to making THE BATTERY he had been devouring DVD special features and commentaries and he does his part to give back here to other young filmmakers with his insights (and those of his cast and crew) in both the doc and the commentary. Outside of being a solid film, this disc is a great resource for people who'd like to try to cheaply make a film themselves. Gardner details his process of creating the film, assembling his crew and dealing with various issues and mistakes throughout the course of the production. It's a neat little "film school in a box" type package.
-The Blu-ray also has an great audio commentary from Jeremy Gardner, Adam Cronheim and Director of Photography Christian Stella. It's recorded interestingly at a time when the three were unsure there would even be a DVD release of the film as a "just in case" kinda thing. It's a very neat track and is largely quite screen/scene specific. This is fascinating as the gents reveal much about how certain scenes were originally shot (and where) and how they came to change/adjust them to fit the movie as a whole. They made some cool choices based on what is said here and all of it adds to the learning experience one could take away from this Blu-ray.
-The disc also has a pretty funny outtake reel and a featurette on the music used in the film.


THE BATTERY on Blu-ray has a price point (about $15) that makes it an easy blind-buy for the curious horror fan and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
It can be purchased via Shout Factory, Amazon and elsewhere:
https://www.shoutfactory.com/film/film-horror/the-battery

Underrated Series - Thrillers

There's probably good reason why Alfred Hitchcock was most at home working in the suspense genre. Suspense and tension are some of the most fun things to build in cinema and they are a fun thing to be engaged by. As a longtime movie-watcher, I find myself drawn into the suspense of a lot moments and situations in films and TV shows - even with comedies. A simple moment of awkwardness between to characters can provoke ad remarkable response from me as I am quite sensitized to any scenario wherein there is some kind of tension. To this very day, I often find myself covering my eyes and crying out "arrrggh!" (yes, like Garfield) when I get caught up in a show I am watching. I really do like that I am still affected that way and I think it says something about the inherently cinematic nature of suspense. Thrillers are certainly films I go to with a good deal of frequency. Any movie that can get my blood pumping and give me that charge is a compelling view in my book. Here are a few thrillers I find to be under-appreciated:


RAW COURAGE (1985; Robert L. Rosen)
This is a very interesting DELIVERANCE-style thriller penned by star Ronny Cox and his wife Mary. Some right wing militant nutjobs make captives  of a group of marathon runners in training. Also has that SOUTHERN COMFORT vibe of course (may be a little more in line with this with the military folks in it). A New World VHS release that has never seen any type of proper DVD.



CRY TERROR! (1958; Andrew L. Stone)
Stone is a wonderful directed of crime and suspense films. One of the first times ever heard him mentioned by Quentin Tarantino in the DVD commentary for TRUE ROMANCE (wherein he mentioned Stone's film HIGHWAY 301). I had already know QT to be a Stone fan though as he had come into the video store I used to work at and purchased Stone's excellent sinking boat movie THE LAST VOYAGE. I watched THE LAST VOYAGE because of Tarantino's purchase and enjoyed it very much. It kicks off quick with the captain of the ship getting a note that says "Fire in the engine room" within the first couple minutes. It was clear to me that Stone was a guy who liked to cut to the chase. The chase in CRY TERROR is that Rod Steiger has kidnapped James Mason's wife (Inger Stevens) and daughter and wants to use an bomb that Mason's character has designed to ask fro $500,00o in ransom. The is fantastic and also includes Neville Brand, Angie Dickinson, KennetH Tobey, Jack Klugman, Jack Kruschen and William Schallert.


THE SATAN BUG (1965; John Sturges)
Before OUTBREAK and CONTAGION came this solid procedural virus-on-the-loose movie from the director of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK and THE GREAT ESCAPE (John Sturges). Some vials of a governmentally developed virus known as "the Satan Bug" have gone missing and must be recovered to avoid cataclysmic consequences. Cast includes Richard Basehart, Anne Francis, Dana Andres and Ed Asner. Based on a novel by Alistair MacLean who also wrote the source books for GUNS OF NAVARONE, WHERE EAGLES DARE, FEAR IS THE KEY and ICE STATION ZEBRA.





MIDNIGHT LACE (1960; David Miller)
In an early take on a DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE type story, Doris Day is an american woman in London who is tormented by a sadistic stalker and has trouble convincing the authorities or her husband Rex Harrison. Also stars Myrna Loy, John Gavin, Roddy McDowall, and Herbert Marshall.



TIGHTROPE (1984; Richard Tuggle)
I remember the creepy "horror movie guy" in the 80s farce MOVING VIOLATIONS making reference to this film (and some gruesome scenes in it) amidst a flurry of other horror films I was already aware of. Once the gauntlet was thrown down and this film was put into that company, I was quite intrigued. TIGHTROPE is a very interesting in that it is Eastwood moving into some even more mature and dark territory than he had gone for prior. Kinky sex is a big part of the M.O. for the serial killer he is after in this film. And it's not a DIRTY HARRY film which is also intriguing. I am glad of that too because as much as I enjoy that series of films, the fact that he is Detective Wes Block and not Harry Callahan allows the film to dig a little deeper into the warped psychology of both Block and the killer as well. I remember this being an early R-rated film that I saw as it came also as part of a big Clint Eastwood kick I went on as a youngster (starting with the Leone westerns and movie through all of his films that I could get my hands on). Co-stars the lovely Genevieve Bujold.



WOMAN IN HIDING (1950; Michael Gordon)
Highly suspenseful paranoid thriller with Ida Lupino as a woman on the run from her psychotic husband (played with effective menace by Stephen McNally), who clearly wants her dead and may be responsible for her fathers death as well. Excellent nail-biter with some scenes that really got me (and I only saw it for the first time this year).

TALK RADIO (1988; Oliver Stone)
Still one of my favorite Oliver Stone films and one of a handful of stage play adaptations that I truly enjoy (as a general rule I have trouble with them for the most part). Adapted from a  a stage play by Eric Bogosian who plays the lead in the movie (with elements of a book by Stephen Singular).


Honorable mentions:


SUTURE (1993; Scott McGehee/David Siegel)
This film mixes influences from things like SECONDS and Hitchcock films and comes up with a unique modern arthouse melange that still packs a punch. 


NIGHTMASTER (1987; Mark Joffe)
This might have also slotted in nicely on my Underrated Action/Adventure list, but I think it can work here too. My friend described it best when he said "It's like TAG: THE ASSASSINATION GAME, GYMKATA and AMERICAN NINJA had an Australian baby". I cannot think of a better way to sum it up. And it has a young Nicole Kidman, 4 years after BMX BANDITS and 2 years before her American breakthrough in DEAD CALM.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Arrow Video - THE BURBS and KILLER KLOWNS on Blu-ray

THE 'BURBS (1989; Joe Dante)
This was easily one of my most anticipated Blu-ray releases of the year. It is up there among films that I unabashedly adore and return to often. I am a huge proponent of Tom Hanks' comedy films of the 1980s. I miss his comedic persona a lot. I still love him in most every film he's in and he's always excellent, but the he is one of the great comic actors ever and it's a Shane he doesn't do that anymore. THE 'BURBS is an amazing confluence of awesome for me in that it combines that Tom Hanks with the macabre comedy and style of the always fantastic Joe Dante. It also has the likes of Bruce Dern, Corey Feldman, Carrie Fisher and the amazing and amazingly underrated Rick Ducommun. All of these folks are tip top in this movie and that is certainly part of what makes it great, but the movie-stealer is Ducommun. I believe, and I stand by this, that Ducommon's performance in THE 'BURBS is easily one of the great comedic performances of the 1980s. If you've seen films like DIE HARD ("I need you to shut off grid 212") or THE LAST BOY SCOUT, you've gotten a small taste of Ducommon, but THE 'BURBS is where he gets let loose and really blows the doors off. He and Tom Hanks are an antagonistic duo to behold here. They play off each other amazingly well and their energy combined with that of Bruce Dern makes the movie a freight train of funny. I mean, it's really a simple story of suburban curiosity (a group of folks think they have some odd neighbors who seem more than a little "off" and they begin to be suspicious of them). You can make the inevitable Hitchcock/REAR WINDOW comparison, but THE 'BURBS is so much more than that. Joe Dante has this remarkable ability to take that Spielbergian notion of suburbia and turn it on it's head in this gloriously skewed way. The way Dante can create and maintain this kind of tone has always been something I adore. Few directors can pull it off consistently and Joe Dante has the magical ability to be able to do so. You just know that the tone is coming from this unique sensibility that is seemingly Dante through and through. The word "auteur" gets bounced around a lot and though I've come to question the theory a bit more since I first learned of it in college, Joe Dante certainly has a signature to his movies and I think that's what gives them the longevity they've had. THE 'BURBS is, for me, one of the great examples of that Dante signature. I cannot get enough of the movie and I never will. I've seen it countless times, I quote it often and I have championed it to as many people as I can as often as I can in the years since its release. It's just wonderful, silly, dark fun. 

Special Features:
Several years ago, I interviewed Joe Dante for a film magazine and during said interview I made a point of telling him that not only was THE 'BURBS my favorite of all his films (followed closely by MATINEE), but that I would camp out for a Criterion Blu-ray of the movie. In all honesty, I was quite doubtful the film would get a Criterion release or even a Blu-ray release at all (maybe a bare bones disc at most). Arrow has made my dreams come true though and come through with one hell of a nice special edition here. It's a Criterion-level Blu-ray for sure. The supplements here include the following:
--A New audio commentary with writer Dana Olsen, moderated by author Calum Waddell. This is a neat track and though it's not Dante, there's a lot of fun stories and information here.
--There Goes the Neighborhood: The Making of The ’Burbs – A new 60 plus minute documentary including interviews with Joe Dante, actors Corey Feldman, Courtney Gains and Wendy Schaal, director of photography Robert M. Stevens and production designer James H. Spencer. This is probably the highlight of the disc. Again, a few actors are missing here that I'd love to hear from, but the ones that they talked to and of course Dante himself make this an enjoyable view and a delight for 'BURBS fans.
--The original Workprint cut of the film transferred from Director Joe Dante’s personal copy, on home video for the very first time – includes deleted and alternate scenes! This is quite a spectacular thing to have included. There were several scenes and sequences I was not aware of, most notably the dream sequence, which was longer and hinted at some things about Tom Hanks' character that were cut out (including a short bit with Kevin McCarthy as Hanks' boss). It's also interesting to hear the movie with temp music too.
--A Tale of Two ‘Burbs – Video featurette comparing the differences between the Workprint and Theatrical cuts of the film, with optional audio commentary from Dante. This feature isolates all those differences I was trying to figure out whilst watching the workprint and its a treat to see them especially in the context of what they finally decided to do with them in the finished film.


Bonus:
Joe Dante discusses THE 'BURBS with Rue Morgue at a screening.

KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988; Stephen Chiodo)
KILLER KLOWNS is one of those cult films that you just kind of have to marvel at. It's such an odd, interesting idea and films that carry out their odd but interesting premises with the utmost care for joking details have to be respected and adored. If you can watch KILLER KLOWNS and not see it as at least somewhat brilliant, we aren't thinking on the same plane. It boggles the mind to think how anyone could have come up with an idea like this. Alien clowns that are basically giant scary vampires come to earth and want to capture people to take them back to their huge circus tent ship and wrap them in cotton candy cocoons? It's a film with one foot planted in the sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s and the other in the 1980s. I love it and I always have. From the very first notes of the Dickies theme song, the Chiodo Brothers had me won over. It's widely known that clowns are often perceived as kind of creepy and that there are many folks with straight up phobias of them. To be honest, outside of Bozo the Clown, I've always thought of clowns as either scary or sad, but never much in the way of funny. It's an odd thing that, but it makes for a great horror comedy that's for sure. And clowns make for good movie creatures in the world of old-school special effects and design of 1988. There's just a lot to love about the movie though and it's kind of easy to see why it's legacy has lasted as long as it has. At it's core, it's really kind of a family monster movie if you will and it's not too scary really. It is a nice gateway type movie to show a youngster to possibly start to bring them over to horror movies. I remember showing my son before he was ten years old and he loved it and though we are still working on the transition to horror movie love (that I'm pretty sure he will come around to), I know that the film was a big hit with him and he still talks about it today (he's fifteen now). I am anxious for the day that I think my 5 year old daughter is ready for KILLER KLOWNS as I am quite sure she's going to love it too.

Special Features on this awesome Arrow Special Edition include:
--Audio Commentary with the Chiodo Brothers
--The Making of Killer Klowns – a 20-minute featurette looking at the film’s production, including an interview with the Chiodo Brothers alongside behind-the-scenes footage.
--Visual Effects with Gene Warren Jr. – an interview with Charles Chiodo and visual effects supervisor Gene Warren Jr.
--Kreating Klowns – an interview with Charles Chiodo and creature fabricator Dwight Roberts.
--Bringing Life to These Things – A Tour of Chiodo Bros. Productions.
--Chiodo Brothers’ Earliest Films – a look back at the Chiodo Brothers’ early homemade productions.
--Tales of Tobacco: A brand new interview with star Grant Cramer.
--Debbie’s Big Night: A brand new interview with star Suzanne Snyder.
--Komposing Klowns – interview with composer John Massari.
--Deleted Scenes with Director’s Commentary.
--Bloopers.
--Klown Auditions.


Bonus:
Here's a 10 minute Fangoria interview with the Chiodos wherein they talk KILLER KLOWNS early in the summer of 2014:

Warner Archive Grab Bag: YOUNG JUSTICE Season One on Blu-ray

YOUNG JUSTICE (2010-)
I have to credit Warner Archive for shoring up my interest in Super Hero cartoons that I never necessarily thought I'd have an interest in. Previous to this, I've discussed how I was quite taken by both their BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD Season 1 Blu-ray (Season 2 just came out as well btw) and their GREEN LANTERN Animated Series Blu-ray sets. Had they not cropped up in WAC's stable of stellar Blu-ray releases, I'd never have given them a second look. But after hearing them raved about on by the fellas on the Warner Archive Podcast, I was completely turned around and came to see these series as the fascinating and creative stories that they were.
One thing I love about the show is the interesting structural choices with regards to story structure. There a a lot of episodes which thrust the characters into a situation where they (and we as the viewers) have no idea what's going on and they slowly figure things out. It's this kind of "trust" in storytelling that is very uncommon for animated shows of this type. It is trusting in that it places trust in its audience to stick with the stories in good faith that all will be revealed. This is especially rewarding in a show aimed at younger folks and with a cast of "kids" as it were. These youngsters are going through all the things you might expect them to from young love and angst to general insecurities. The catch of course it that they are all young superheroes who are coming to terms with their abilities. Let's do a little roll call. You've got Kid Flash (runs really fast), Robin (like Batman of course), Aqualad (like Aquaman, but with a rig that allows him to use streams of water as weapons), Miss Martian (can fly and has mental telepathy powers), Superboy (like Superman but more grumpy) and Artemis (an archer a la Green Arrow). They are quite a dynamic team and throughout the first season they are constantly put into situations that would seem beyond their league, but they somehow find a way to save the day. I don't mean that to sound all tidy and bland because it isn't. There is a lot of emotion in the show which is a perfect fit considering the ages of the team's members. The arcs of the characters take some unexpected turns and there is a good deal of peril that makes for fun, suspenseful viewing wherein the stakes are properly set up and feel real in the midst of lighter moments (lots of solid villains). It's a great show overall, with sharp writing and voice acting. It features the likes of Danica McKellar ("Winnie Cooper" herself from THE WONDER YEARS), and a group of others I didn't know previously but who I came to enjoy very much. The supporting cast and guests includes such titans as Edward Asner, Rob Lowe, Bruce Greenwood, Clancy Brown, James Remar, Danny Trejo, Adrian Pasdar, and Alan Tudyk among others. It's a great show for kids I think in that it pushes some boundaries a little, but never goes to far into extremely scary or sad territory (in my opinion). My 5 year old girl was hooked immediately (I think she enjoyed the girl characters quite a bit), but your mileage may vary with your kids. I eagerly anticipate season 2 on Blu-ray as these episodes look quite excellent in this format.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Masters of Cinema - THE GANG'S ALL HERE on Blu-ray

THE GANG'S ALL HERE (1943; Busby Berkeley)
"Don't be a square from Delaware, get hep to yourself."
Busby Berkeley is a name that is sadly lesser known to non-cinephile's despite his vast impact as a stylist that has carried into a lot of contemporary cinema today. Films as disparate as Spielberg's INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM the Coen Brothers' THE BIG LEBOWSKI and Disney's animated BEAUTY AND THE BEAST all pay loving tribute to Berkeley and his pinache for staging. The words "visionary" and "genius" are thrown about a lot and thus diluted a bit, but Busby Berkeley was certainly both. Though he apparently couldn't dance a step himself, he managed to choreograph and film some of the most delightful and surreal sequences in all of musical cinema. He was truly a master of "making the camera dance" as it were. It's been said that, as a director, Berkeley could be somewhat unsympathetic to his actors especially in terms of the demands he made of them (many many takes, complicated camera setups). That said and as much as I do feel for the actors, I must admit that what he brought to the screen in his films is still truly dazzling. As much as I think of more contemporary directors and more prolific movers of the camera, Berkeley was certainly no slouch in this department. Apparently, the man loved his crane shots and that is absolutely on display in THE GANG'S ALL HERE right out of the gate. The opening set piece is a glorious and dizzying thing of beauty that plays out in a giant soundstage that is meant to be an enormous nightclub with the capacity to put on outlandish and impossibly huge musical numbers for their relatively small crowds. THE GANG'S ALL HERE is something of a bittersweet movie in that it is kind of Berkeley's swan song interns of making a film with carte Blanche and full studio backing (Daryl Zanuck was a huge Berkely supporter so he had his back). That said and especially with the addition of technicolor into the kaleidoscopic mix, it really does make for one of the most exuberant and wonderful musicals ever made. THE GANG'S ALL HERE is quite a singular film, even within Berkeley's remarkable filmography. He really pushes the bounds of the stylistic paradigm he established with his prior work and the result is something quite magnificent. Beyond the amazing "Busby Berkeley-isms" I also must not forget to mention the swell cast here that includes the likes of Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda (who does a couple of her most famous songs), Edward Everett Horton, Eugene Pallette and hugely popular bandleader Benny Goodman.
Masters of Cinema has put out a stunningly lovely Blu-ray here and this transfer alone may be enough to convince done skeptical classic film fans that they finally need to aquire a multi-region player. It is a choice display of what the Blu-ray format can do for even an older film like this one and the results are splendid. It's a must own for fans of classic musicals to be sure. A fantastic disc.

Special Features:
This Masters of Cinema Blu-ray includes a nice commentary track from film critics Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme as well as Film Historian Ed Hulse. I enjoyed this track very much as it is clear that these three not only know their cinematic stuff (of course), but are very excited to be talking about it in regards to Berkeley and this film in particular. They have a great deal to comment on throughout from various aspects of the production, the actors in the cast (and their careers), historical and studio-related contexts, the difficulties of filming in technicolor, as well as innumerable scene-specific details. It is a Criterion-worthy track and an excellent supplement to this disc.
Also included is "Busby Berkeley- A Journey With a Star" (20 mins). This short restrosoective piece includes interviews duel conversations with USC film professor Rick Jewell and President of the Institute of the American Musical Miles Krueger. Both gentlemen have clearly steeped themselves in classic Hollywood history and are devout fans of Berkeley in general. A lot of neat things are touched on here from Berkeley's place in a studio system that could be both supportive and extremely restrictive to a creative mind such as his well as lots of things that he did as signatures that were part of this film as well as his others. A lively and passionate discussion of the man.
Lastly, there is also a 5 minute deleted scene here as well.

Bonus:
Here's a little 3 min clip of something called "Frame By Frame: Busby Berkeley" in which:
"University of Nebraska Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon takes a spin through the extravagant films of musical director Busby Berkeley."

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Kino Lorber Studio Classics: ACROSS 110TH STREET and COTTON COMES TO HARLEM

ACROSS 110th STREET (1972; Barry Shear)
It's hard not to associate this film with JACKIE BROWN. The opening title song by Bobby Womack is forever burned into my brain because of its use in the beginning and closing of Tarantino's film as well. It encapsulates Jackie herself (as played by the great Pam Grier) wonderfully and works perfectly (and arguably better) in JACKIE BROWN than this movie where it originated. That being said, ACROSS 110TH STREET is still one of the better things that Blaxploitation cinema has to offer. The ghetto fights back here as "The Family" finds themselves suddenly at war to keep from letting Harlem slip from their grasp. Anthony Quinn (in one of my favorite of his roles) is a NYC cop caught in the middle. Quinn's character is also caught up in the political rigamorall that has seen fit to assign another cop to a murder investigation in Harlem. That straight-laced by-the-book cop is played by Yaphet Kotto. Quinn's character is a rather old-school fella who still believed that roughing up a suspect is all part of the process of getting things done on his beat. Naturally, these two cops don't get along none too well. Kotto is among my favorite actors and he shines brightly in this film. He has this remarkable intensity to him when he wishes to call upon it. When he raises his voice, it is impossible not to feel him taking over a room. Also very good in this film is actor Paul Benjamin (ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, DO THE RIGHT THING) who kind of had his breakout a bit with this movie. This movie has a remarkable energy about it throughout. The black vs. white tension can be felt in almost every scene and it gives the whole thing the feeling of a powder keg ready to explode at any second. Unlike some other Blaxploitation films from around this time, this feels like a more realistic, gritty portrayal of the NYC ghetto. There's no John Shaft superhero-type to ride in and kick some ass. These are sad desperate people and they have no qualms about letting their primal anger take over. In the words of Bobby Womack's title tune, "Breakin' out if the ghetto is a day to day fight". As portrayed in this film, it's more like a an all-out war and an ugly one at that. It all makes for a mighty powerful procedural. Early appearances by pre-ROCKY Burt Young and a pre-Huggy Bear Antonio Fargas are a welcome sight indeed. As an aside, it is always fascinating to watch how police work is done in films pre-computers. Cops combing through phone books, pulling paper files and other such tribulations are an antiquated but amusing sight indeed.
Director Barry Shear was primarily a television guy working on such varied series as THE DONNA REED SHOW, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. and TARZAN as well as other shows and TV-movies. He also did a movie called THE DEADLY TRACKERS which was based on a novel Samuel Fuller (who was to direct and started to, but the project fell apart and was reassembled). Anyway, Shear may show his TV background a bit in terms of the style of 110TH STREET, but I didn't find it particularly bothersome. 
The transfer here is pretty good, plenty of grain throughout but heavy early on for sure, Solid detail though and I get a sense this film was made cheaply and quickly and was not meant to look like Vittorio Storaro or Gordon Willis shot it (the film stock used at the time may be a factor as to the way this transfer looks as well). DP Jack Priestly has also shot plenty of TV and some other NYC films like WHERE'S POPPA? and BORN TO WIN prior to this and those films are a bit more verite than stylish as is 110TH STREET.

Bonus:
Here's a neat interview I found with Paul Benjamin from 1995. He touches on his beginnings as an actor and works his way up to ACROSS 110TH STREET.



COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970; Ossie Davis)
"Was that Black enough for ya?"
Owing it's characters to a series of source novels (by Chester Himes) featuring them, detectives "Gravedigger" Jones (Godfrey Cambride) and "Coffin Ed" Johnson  (Raymond St. Jacques) don't feel like they belong in the ACROSS 110TH STREET universe. The dimension they exist in is no less dangerous, but they themselves are more like supercops than Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn. At one point early on in the film, the duo demonstrate a near super-strength when they toss a man high into the air like some sort of rag doll. And the way these two speak in a clever, more traditionally hard-boiled kinda way makes them feel more a part of the Dashiell Hammett- verse than the real world. None of this is a problem mind you, I actually tend to prefer this kind if stylized canvas of crooks and cops going at each other. This film was cowritten (adapted) and directed by the great Ossie Davis. For me though, Godfrey Cambridge is the highlight here. He gives one of the most smug performances I've ever seen in a movie. He smirks his way through 90 percent of his time on screen and it's almost too much. He can pull of this kind of  hotshot pomposity like few others and whilst still making it entertaining.
The background of COTTON is filled with memorable character actors like Cleavon Little, Redd Foxx, Helen Martin and others. COTTON COMES TO HARLEM is certainly notable for its place as an early part of the Blaxploitation Cannon. Seeing such a large cast of black actors in a studio film was not a common thing around this time. There are very few white actors in the movie at all. One of the most notable  of them in the film for me was Leonardo Cimino (aka "Scary German Guy" from THE MONSTER SQUAD). Another highlight is it's depiction of Harlem circa the late 1960s. Lots of interesting locations and businesses with names like "Big Wilts", "King Fu Chow Mein" and my personal favorite, "Chili Woman".
This is a pretty nice looking transfer. The print appears clean and the colors pop nicely. Good detail here as well. 

Bonus:
Here's a sort of retrospective interview with Ossie Davis from 2002.

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