Rupert Pupkin Speaks

Monday, September 29, 2014

VCI Entertainment - DENVER THE LAST DINOSAUR - The Complete Series onDVD

DENVER was a show that remember catching in bits and pieces when a kid. Mostly I think I may have skipped past it on my way to other TV shows. I certainly remember the more-than-catchy theme song which memorably exclaimed that Denver was "my friend and a whole lot more". I think, for fourteen-year-old me, DENVER represented something a smidgen too "kiddie" for my soon to be expanding high school tastes. In retrospect I find this kind of ironic considering that I would later do my high school homework on weeknights with the  television tuned to USA Cartoon Express. That said, I found my revisit to this late 80s animated series to be quite pleasant and oddly nostalgic. The nostalgia functioned on a couple levels. Firstly, I was reminded of how much I love cartoons from that period. There's just something about the way they were written, produced, and scored that is such a trip for me. It's like a time warp. I watch a lot of present-day animated fare with my daughter (5) and as much as there are plenty of interesting shows, it's just not quite the same. There's a lot more CG animation for one thing, which I don't really care for too much. Anyway, DENVER is part of what seems to have been a push in the 80s to infuse cartoons with at least some tiny bit of educational material (in this case, info about dinosaurs). The other part of my personal nostalgia for DENVER comes from it's depiction of Los Angeles and California in general during that time. Not that it's in any way reflective of what that part of the country was like then, but it's still an interesting time capsule nonetheless. The kids that find Denver (in a preserved egg near the La Brea Tar Pits) very much represent some stereotypical California youth. A couple of them (especially 'Mario' and 'Shades') have a heavy "surfer dude"/"valley" kind of vibe. This is humorous to me partially because this kind of character shorthand seems silly, but also because I found myself moving to Los Angeles in 1999. While I have occasionally encountered a personage or two along the lines of these boys, it's been rare (which was disappointing to be honest). The other part of this "whoa dude" kind of representation that amuses me is that it reminds me of similar characters from other things like VALLEY GIRL ( the movie). I actually ended marrying a Valley girl in real life so my wife and are always amused and entertained with how folks from The Golden State are represented in movies and TV. Anyway, I digress. DENVER THE LAST DINOSAUR is a charming antiquity of a gone-by era and it's of course nice to see it in a complete set for as VCI has presented it here. Denver is a goofy yet lovable character who is always getting himself into mischief. The Los Angeles setting is intriguing in that some real L.A. landmarks occasionally crop up as well (The Hollywood Bowl, the Capitol Records building). I haven't seen too many cartoon shows set in a specific place like that so it's kind of a neat additional element. 
VCI's 6-disc set has 50 episodes (including the 46 min pilot and the Holiday Special) and also includes some special features which is a cool unexpected surprise. The supplements in this case come in the form of interviews and bonus cartoons. The interviews are with Ted Koplar (World Events Productions President), Bob Koplar (WEP Vice-President) and Jeremy Corray (former Creative director for WEP). All three touch on the iconic nature of Denver and why the show has remained endearing for so long. They also make a point to touch on how they plan to update DENVER for a new show they are developing. As for the bonus cartoons, it's a sampler platter of one cartoon each from many other VCI animation collections.
This is a really neat set for nostalgic fans of 80s cartoons, but also might be cool to show your own kids now. Mine really took to it and we've both been singing the theme song for days now. Have a listen (below) and just try to get it out of your head!
DENVER THE LAST DINOSAUR The Complete Series can be found at VCI's website and other online retailers.

Warner Archive TV Grab Bag - SPENSER FOR HIRE Season 1 and HARRY O Season 2

SPENSER FOR HIRE The Complete First Season (1985)
There were many television programs that I watched regularly with my family when I was growing up. MAGNUM P.I., SIMON & SIMON, KNIGHT RIDER, MACGYVER and MIAMI VICE to name a few. SPENSER FOR HIRE was another big one for us as well. The show debuted on ABC on September 20th, 1985. Also premiering around that time were the likes of THE GOLDEN GIRLS, 227, IT'S PUNKY BREWSTER, GROWING PAINS, SMALL WONDER, THE EQUALIZER,  AMAZING STORIES and the aforementioned MACGYVER. It was a big month for TV and a ton of shows that kids of the 8os (like myself) remember quite fondly (and still continue to try to hoist upon our children). SPENSER was certainly one of my favorites from the fall of '85 and though it only lasted a few seasons, we made sure to watch it whenever it was on.
Spenser introduces himself as "Spenser with an 's'. Like the poet." He means Edmund Spenser who apparently wrote about adventures, chivalry, knights, honor and truth. All this in his most epic poem The Faerie Queene, which was six books long and is one of the longest poems in all of the English language. Anyway, the poet Spenser ties into the detective Spenser in his own codes of honor and truth. The pilot even features an interesting logo for the show which consists of a knight's shield and a man kneeling and pointing a gun (which I guess was scrapped in later episodes). By the second episode, this knight has lost his place to live and takes up residence in a previously unoccupied fire house. I've always found that to be among the coolest "pads" that any TV show character ever had. Also, it gives him something in common with the GHOSTBUSTERS, which is awesome.
Good TV can often be about good chemistry. Robert Urich and Avery Brooks (who plays "Hawk" on the show) have that chemistry. The characters of Spenser and Hawk go together like few other dynamic duos in television history. Spenser is great and a character I like a lot, but Hawk is the reason I love the show. Hawk speaks with the pure annunciation and cadence of cool. He has a huge DIRTY HARRY type handgun that he carries as a signature item (along with his super-cool sunglasses). He is just one of those "close-to-the-vest" kinda characters that rewards your viewership with subtle gestures and bits of dialogue. He, like Spenser, is a fiercely loyal guy and that is one of those character traits that seems to really hook me in TV and movies and also in real life. I dig Hawk so much I might go so far as to call him one of the greatest characters of 80s television in general. 

HARRY O The Complete Second Season (1974)
Harry Orwell is ex-cop turned beach bum detective living in San Diego. He was forced to leave the police force when he sustained a debilitating spinal injury  and has taken to being a private detective in his spare time. Orwell is an interesting almost flipside to Spenser, but the two are both fiercely intelligent, driven ex-cops who can't help but keep pushing out of a sense of loyalty and a moral code to see that the right thing is being done. Orwell is occasionally a bit looser with his ethics, but is nonetheless a great detective. I personally miss the time when a guy like David Janssen was a television star. Known primarily for his hit show THE FUGITIVE, he is a favorite underrated actor for me and to see him at the center of a program like HARRY O is just outstanding. Janssen was about 44 years old during the second season of HARRY O. He was not a conventionally handsome dude in the vein of a Burt Reynolds or other such popular movie stars of the period. He had gravitas though and we have lost sight of that a little bit with the TV actors of today. A lot of that gravitas came from his amazing voice. It is the voice of a man who sounds like he's just finished gargling with razor blades before each scene. As with the "lived-in" faces of character actors of this period, I also miss memorable voices. Those haven't totally gone away, but in our pursuit to have the neat, clean, trim handsome stars of today, a guy with a gravelly voice doesn't necessarily take priority and that's too bad.
I think of HARRY O as another of those "Warner Archive titles" like NICHOLS and THE LIEUTENANT which are all shows that WAC has brought back into the conversation with their DVD releases (and through their streaming service). I really think it's just a matter of time before HARRY O shows up on Warner Archive Instant so more folks can check it out. The second season starts out with a bang (pun intended) with the story of a police Lieutenant (Anthony Zerbe) who is framed for the murder of a junkie snitch. One of the things I love about this show and 1970s television in general is the amazing river of remarkable guest stars they used to have. This particular episode features Rene Auberjonois, James Hong, and Gordon Jump among others and that's a low-key round of guests for this show. It is an endlessly fascinating game for me to watch the opening credits for who the guest stars on each episodes are. I will often squeal with audible glee when names like Larry Hagman, Lou Gossett Jr., Robert Loggia, and Anjanette Comer pop up. It's just a well-made show and with great actors like these you can't go wrong. It was particularly interesting to watch it after having watched a bunch of SPENSER FOR HIRE though as the Southern California locations of HARRY are certainly distinctly different from the Boston of SPENSER. Both are excellent shows, produced about a decade apart. It is intriguing to see how TV changed as far as the way stories were told episodically in one decade versus another. I recommend watching both shows back to back as I did for added enjoyment of both.

Both of these sets can be found at Warner Archive:

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Underrated Action/ Adventure - Blake Lucas

Blake Lucas is a writer and film critic living in Los Angeles. Some of his writing on cinema may be found in the anthologies The Western ReaderThe Film Comedy Reader and The Science Fiction Film Reader, in Defining Moments in Movies (The Little Black Book: Movies in U.K. and Australia), and in The Film Journal and Undercurrent online, as well as in over 100 individual essays on films, filmmakers, film history and film theory in Magill's Survey of Cinema (English-Language, Silent and Foreign Language) and Magill's Cinema Annuals, and in a monograph on John Ford translated into French (“Vers le nouveau monde”) for a 1995 retrospective at the Cannes Film Festival. Formerly a regular film critic for the LA Reader before that weekly closed.

He will be heard in audio commentary with director Monte Hellman and fellow film historian Bill Krohn on the upcoming Criterion release of the 1966 Westerns THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND.
In thinking of action/adventure movies that are not underrated and also very much deserve their popularity, my mind first goes to some movies of the 1960s that remain deeply loved, not only by their original audiences but also those who came to them later.  The supreme example is THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), sustained for a length of almost three hours, and another great example is ZULU (1964); these movies are plenty exciting but what makes them more so is that plenty of time is given to a strong narrative buildup that gets the viewer deeply invested in the characters (the dream ensemble cast of ESCAPE is again an ideal example of how and why this works) so that when the action finally comes, it is so much more absorbing—the final hour of ESCAPE, with director John Sturgescrosscutting among the various escapees with an almost musical rhythmic sense, is, in terms of energy and drive, representative of something profound in what movies are all about.  Later action/adventure movies can have this too, even if a modernist touch makes them somewhat more abstract—so, for example, SORCERER (1977, and a movie which may have deserved to be cited as underrated here at the time of its immediate release and in its first years afterward) has now come into its own as the classic it always deserved to be; here, too, like Sturges and like CyEndfield in ZULU, William Friedkin, who always rightly judged this his best film, was not afraid to take a little time with separate introductions in different parts of the world for the main characters and to set a tone with just a touch of thoughtfulness to what this story is all about, so that the main action when it comes is not only visceral but morepowerful for the internal drama behind it.   It is for this reason, mindful that so many contemporary action/adventure movies have redefined the genre as completely testosterone-driven—with spectacular bursts of action right away (and a high body count usually going with this), and that this seems to have been (understandably perhaps) the main emphasis in the choices on most of the other lists, that I found myself going back to five movies a touch more on the reflective side, and more romantic as well, in the way these kinds of movies so often used to be.

THE EXILE (1947; Max Ophuls) - A project nurtured by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who both wrote the screenplay and produced, as well as starring as exiled English king Charles Stuart, this was the first of four great American movies byOphuls (always billed in his American films as “Opuls”) after five years waiting to catch a break.  It remains the least known of the four and that’s to be regretted because this is as elegant, satisfying and beautifully made a costume adventure as there is.  The younger Fairbanks is perhaps still in the shadow of his famous father but for me was no less talented an actor; he had charm and presence and could hold his own in swashbuckling--evident in his famous role in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA and in other movies too, of which this one, which brings out his sensitive side as well as his ease with physical action, is one of those in which he is most endearing.  Ophuls, along with his mastery of staging in long takes and elaborate camera movement, was most of all a tender romantic though one beyond sentimentality, and that shows here in the affecting love story between Fairbanks and Paule Croset, but he is also just fine with the action scenes—and the final duel between Fairbanks and Henry Daniell in a Dutch windmill is one of the great moments of screen swordplay ever.  All this, and a swooningly beautiful score by Frank Skinner too.

WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (1948; Edward Ludwig) – As this blend of maritime adventure and South Seas melodrama begins, Captain Ralls (John Wayne) is a forbidding protagonist but the beautifully interwoven backstory later revealed in flashback deepens the story with a touch of tragedy as relationships with his love (Gail Russell) and enemy (Luther Adler) are brought into an eventful present and come to a haunting end.  Wayne had just started producing at the time and though not officially one of his productions, this was plainly his project, reuniting him with the fragile, beautiful Russell after ANGEL AND THE BADMAN and giving him the kind of darker, more complex hero that he sometimes liked to play and always did with the same consummate gifts evident in more characteristic roles.  I first saw this movie when I was pretty young, and was surprised by it.  Movies being what they are, it is actually more worthy of Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS than any of the movies based on that novel and even could be argued to have a touch of Conrad in the way its narrative so richly and unexpectedly plays out.  And yet, it is also happy to be a matinee picture, with the kinds of scenes, incidents and ambiance one expects in these exotic dreamscapes.  It has kept its hold on me, and I don’t know of a finer example of what I would call “Republic poetry.”  Talk about the last laugh--that once humble, little respected if not openly derided studio shows us something about cinema that seems more beautiful and true with every passing year.

THE PURPLE PLAIN (1954; Robert Parrish) – Set in Burma late in World War II (and given this, unexpectedly filmed in rich Technicolor hues), this initially meditative and then compellingly physical drama focuses on a pilot (Gregory Peck) who takes every mission, courting his own death after the sudden, traumatic loss earlier in the war of his bride.  After meeting and spending time with a beautiful young Burmese woman (Win Min Than), something positive is awakened in him, but it is then that he is directly confronted with his death wish when his plane crashes in perilous terrain far from home and he and two comrades, one wounded and the other losing his mental balance, must try to survive and make their way back.  A simple story, elegantly scripted by Eric Ambler, it presents Peck in the kind of role he did best—an apparently strong and confident man beset by deep inner conflict—the kind of role he generally played for his best and most frequent director, Henry King, and he is no less superb here under the direction of the still underrated Robert Parrish.  The movie shares with Parrish’s other masterpiece THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY (1959) a protagonist emerging from a spiritual crisis within an eventful journey and deciding what he wants his life, if it goes on, to be in renewal.  The American Parrish is a director who never really found a home, taking assignments as they came wherever they came (this is properly a British film), but in so many ways, the themes and his treatment of them in these two works recur in so many others of his as well, and to moving effect.

MOONFLEET (1955; Fritz Lang) – One of the supreme masters of cinema, Lang could find his personal voice in any genre but his body of work--from his earliest German films to his American ones and then the final German ones-- has three main lines: the crime film, linked later to his anti-Nazi thrillers and postwar film noir; more intimate melodramas of passion, in which some crime would often play in; and finally, his most imaginative world, which could take in matinee adventure as well as the loftiest realms of mythology in DIE NIBELUNGEN.  These lines resonate against each other with many affinities at once aesthetic and thematic, and it would be a mistake to find the last (which includes his Westerns as well as MOONFLEET), somehow more escapist and less profoundly expressive of him than the others.  The eighteenth century English coast on which MOONFLEET is set is perceived through the eyes of a boy (Jon Whiteley)—one of several things which does mark it off in a significant way among Lang movies, as the adult world and the complexity of its moralities, terrors and romance areexperienced somewhat differently here, at once more distanced but also, paradoxically, intensely emotional, and with this comes fresh vision of Lang’s evolved philosophical perspective about fate and character.  At the heart of a story filled with hidden places and false appearances and in which the man to whom the boy’s dead mother sends him as guardian (Stewart Granger) enjoys a reputation of respectability but is also a smuggler, it is the unexpected way the relationship of boy and man finally plays out that makes this one of the most supremely affecting of all costume adventures.  Its also one of the most effectively individual in its imaginative sets and color scheme, has one of the most sweeping and gorgeous scores of Miklos Rozsa, and benefits from a complex characterization given to the charismatic Granger, the 1950s star who could best play every mood of period romance with equal measures of flair and conviction.

THE DESERT OF THE TARTARS (1976; Valerio Zurlini)  The last and greatest of eight features by Zurlini--one of the most brilliant Italian directors even if still little seen and appreciated—adapts a famous novel by Dino Buzzati set almost entirely at a remote outpost, the imagined FortBastiani on the edge of a mysterious, forbidding frontier, where soldiers spend days, years, lives waiting for a never-seen enemy, the fearsome Tartars, to come out of their eponymous desert.  At the center is Drogo (Jacques Perrin), who comes there as a young man along with fellow lieutenant Simeon (Helmut Griem), and around them the other characters who weave through the narrative are played by an impressive who’s who of modern European cinema (Vittorio Gassman, Philippe NoiretGiulianoGemma, Francisco Rabal, Fernando Rey, Laurent Terzieff, Jean-Louis TrintignantMax Von Sydow).  Although it may seem at times the men are giving their lives to what may be only an abstraction of danger, almost a kind of nothingness, their grappling with fear and honor, and the tangible realities of illness and death, make for a narrative that, however long and deliberate in its pace, is never less than thoroughly taut, tense and compelling.

The five films I have chosen are all ones I have loved since first viewing, but none more than this one—though it was of course much later that I first encountered it—and it is my main motivation for wanting to contribute here.  Because I believe that IL DESERTO DEI TARTARI is not simply an underrated action/adventure movie but the apotheosis ofaction/adventure movies.  How much action does it have?  The answer may be surprising, but without revealing how it ends, I will say of how that ending actually plays that it isas thrilling and heart pounding as I have experienced in all my years of movie going.  And if, unlike my other four choices—all falling firmly into classicism for all their individual character—this is a thoroughly modernist work, it is no less elegant a genre piece, stylizing its imposing locations, rich colors and striking sounds with the same passion with which it pursues concerns that are not only existential but arguably metaphysical.  If the modern cinema sometimes lets down those of us who love classical cinema, so often it is simply because there was a road not taken.  This time, gloriously, it was.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Twilight Time - SALVADOR and THE KILLER ELITE on Blu-ray

SALVADOR (1986; Oliver Stone)
I've always felt that, along with TALK RADIO, SALVADOR is one of the semi-hidden gems of Oliver Stone's filmography. People seem to be more aware of it now than in the late 90s when I first saw it on VHS, but it still has never gotten its due credit as a great Oliver Stone movie. Stone had made two features previous to this (SEIZURE and THE HAND), both were kind of horrorish and very much unlike the Oliver Stone we would come to know in the 80s and 90s. SALVADOR was a sort of "last shot" for Stone as he saw it and so you can feel the creative energy and vision behind it and also that sense of a movie crammed with lots of ideas and situations (maybe more than one movie can even handle). Regardless, you can feel the passion and intelligence of the filmmaker Stone wanted to be (as was becoming) and I think that makes the movie very distinct. 
Released in April of 1986 in the U.S., SALVADOR was certainly overshadowed by the epic success of another film that Stone did that came out in December of that same year - PLATOON. Talk about a banner year! That being said, I can kind of see how a small story about a journalist covering the Salvadorian Civil War was lost in the shuffle after the phenomenon that was Oliver Stone's Vietnam War opus. SALAVADOR is no less of a great movie though and it has an excellent cast including a nearly career high performance from James Woods and additionally encompasses James Belushi, Michael Moriarty, John Savage and the incredibly adorable Cynthia Gibb. If you are now or have ever been a fan of James Woods, there is no way you won't love him in this film. He brings all of his wonderful Woods-yness to the character and in tandem with a surprisingly solid performance from Jim Belushi, the film really stands out even among some of Oliver Stone's best work. It has that political nature to it as well an edge and a sense of danger that Stone could carry off very well and would make a big part of aesthetic throughout his career. It's really a classic example of a film which shows the promise of the great filmmaker to come, but in and of itself is a neat little movie.

Special Features:
--This Blu-ray has a few nice features including a commentary by Oliver Stone (which is excellent) and also "Into the Valley of Death" - The Making of SALVADOR as well as some deleted scenes and an isolated score track.

"Oliver Stone on the making of SALVADOR":

THE KILLER ELITE (1975; Sam Peckinpah)
This was a Peckinpah film that had somehow escaped my viewing until this Blu-ray. I even owned on DVD for years but never found my way around to watching it. I had heard a few lukewarm things about where the film sat in Peckinpah's filmography in terms of over all quality, but I should never have let that deter me. What a cast! Outside of headliners Robert Duvall and James Caan, you've got Burt Young, Bo Hopkins, Gig Young and Mako. I have to say that after finally seeing the film that I can kinda see some of the things things that people were put off by. As is discussed in the excellent commentary (see below), the film was very much one of those trouble productions. Script and structural problems are certainly evident. That being said though, the movie hooked me and I truly enjoyed it. There's a decent amount of improvised scenes in the film and though they can sometimes feel a little awkward, they mostly work in this case. One of the best improvised scenes features James Caan and Robert Duvall driving across a bridge. What they've come up with is pretty darned hilarious. Improvisation can of course be problematic in terms of the flow of a film and keeping the overall story focused, but even though the film is a touch on the long side, it is still interesting. It goes to places I didn't expect (which may be a product of the script problems) including a lengthy diversion into what is ostensibly an "crippled character recovery plot". Once it moves away from that shift of gears, it picks up some steam and becomes a more conventional "eye for an eye" revenge kinda thing, but within the trappings of this environment of Caan's profession of being hired to protect people (basically from being assassinated). There are some solid set pieces, one in and around the streets of San Francisco was particularly fun. It all feels just a bit sloppily thrown together, but that shagginess didn't detract from my enjoyment. Regarding the improvising, I was noticing how it is obviously done in a different style than what we have perhaps become accustomed to with the current ongoing wave of Apatow-type comedies. Those young actors of today sometimes have comedy improvisation training and while that helps in some films in others I've found it homogenizes the kind of comedy you get. While I'm guessing that actors like Caan and Duvall had some training in improvisational acting, it's clear that what they are doing is coming from a different place. Some of the choices are silly and some don't work at all, but overall the result is rather interesting and vibrant. One last random thought. This may be the only Peckinpah film to feature ninjas in any capacity and I have to say that's too bad. Saying 'ninjas' and 'Peckinpah' in the same sentence kinda makes me giddy.

As far as the transfer goes, this movie looks just fantastic. Bright, sharp and detailed - everything you could hope for in terms of 1080p quality. Hats off to Twilight Time as this is one of their better looking Blu-rays.

Special Features:
--The disc features a commentary on THE KILLER ELITE with Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and Nick Redman who can easily claim the title "Peckinpah experts". All three are clearly huge fans of the director and in the case of Simmons, actually spent some time on set during filming. The trio go into great detail with regards to the many troubles this production had from casting issues and script problems on down the line. I love to hear Redman and his co-commentators talk about Peckinpah films as they are clearly devoted admirers whilst not being afraid to underline some of their hero's mistakes.  It is a perfectly fascinating listen and is highly recommended to even the least committed Peckinpah fan. 

--Another outstanding inclusion is NOON WINE, a 1966 TV Adaptation of the short novel by Katherine Anne Porter that Peckinpah directed for ABC in a presentation that became known as ABC Stage 67 (a series of 26 weekly shows that varied from dramas and documentaries to musicals and variety shows). This hour-long show/movie had a knockout cast that included Jason Robards, Olive de Havilland, Theodore  Bikel, Ben Johnson and L.Q. Jones among others. This tragic drama was a huge critical success and captured nominations for Peckinpah from the WGA (for best Television adaptation) and the DGA (fro Best Television direction) and was extremely difficult to see prior to its inclusion on this Blu-ray. On top of being able to finally see this rarity, Redman, Seydor and Simmons provide an additional commentary track for it, which is also a very enjoyable and informative affair.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Underrated Thrillers - Joe Gibson

Joe Gibson is an extremely serious Cinephile living in Austin, Texas. He can be found on twitter @Karatloz and on Letterboxd (a highly recommended follow) here:
Joe watches pretty much more films in a given year than any human I know. He may be a robot.

"Thriller" is a tough genre because it covers so much ground (including earlier Rupert Pupkin list topics like detective movies and stuff) so I'm trying to restrict this to the more classical definition of the term, stories that at least vaguely involve a villainous scheme and a heroic attempt to thwart it. And no detectives! We'll see how I do.

Mr. Moto is only occasionally a traditional detective, preferring instead to deliver cold-blooded justice to his enemies with knives, judo, or some combination of knives and judo. This is one of the better ones, but you can consider it a stand-in for the entire Fox Mr. Moto series, which is great stuff if you're a retro-pulp fanatic.

Can't take credit for discovering this one, since it was a Weird Wednesday pick, but it's sturdy stuff in any case. Highlight is Tony Todd as The Count, the quasi-vampiric leader of a street gang called, uh, The Vampires. Todd has always been one of the best bad guys around, and here he gets a chance to really sink his (metaphorical) fangs into the graffiti-soaked scenery.

It's very possible that I've written on this movie on this site before, as I love Tsui Hark and this is possibly my favorite of his (that I've seen, the guy is frighteningly prolific). The repetition is apt, though, since there are DNA strains of a seemingly-impossible number of genres present here (this is, of course, a Tsui signature). For our current purposes here, Agent 999 is a perfect thriller protagonist, and the island band of insane cannibals he's up against are the perfect antagonists.

This is a Hammer joint that blurs the line between horror and thriller, especially since the violence is unusually bloody and gory than what we generally expect from Hammer. The lush visuals, though, are all exactly what the Hammer name promises.

This is another genre-hopper, might be considered more of a horror movie than a thriller (in fact, I saw it at a Terror Tuesday screening a while ago). But I think there's enough thriller juju here to justify its inclusion, like its Pino Donaggio score, which recalls the best of his work with superthriller-maestro Brian De Palma. You could probably cut out the gory kills and still have a decent movie here, as long as you didn't touch anything with Kinski in it. I wouldn't condone this, though.

This is a twisty Psycho knockoff from Hammer Film Productions, and it nails that creepy widescreen black-and-white vibe. Like a lot of Psycho knockoffs, it leans much more heavily on a plot twist or two than Hitchcock ever did, but it is, as they say, a hell of a ride, and very different from the Hammer monster movies that usually get talked about in connection with the studio nowadays.

36 HOURS (1965)
In honor of the recently departed James Garner, I'm including this mid-60s wartime thriller that has one of the best suspense hooks I've ever come across. Garner plays a US Army Major with inside information on the approaching D-Day invasion, which the Nazis still think is going to be in the wrong place. In order to get some proper intelligence on the operation, the Nazis devise an incredible plan: Acquire Garner, knock him unconscious, and when he wakes up convince him that it's actually 1950 and the war ended years ago through an elaborate deception involving a mocked up army hospital. That way he can share the D-Day details with who he thinks are American doctors but are actually ... Nazis! It's a fantastic premise, which the movie (perhaps inevitably) doesn't quite live up to, but it's definitely worth seeing, especially if this sort of thing appeals to you.

I know Brian is a big fan of this one but I double-checked and it's not on his thriller list, so voila. This is probably not a movie that will keep you awake at night after you see it, but it really hits the spot provided you have a spot for quaint, well-plotted genre product they don't really make anymore. Lots of good amusement park footage, and an appearance by the great Craig "Body Double" Wasson.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Underrated Thrillers - Danny Reid

Danny Reid runs and there he covers Hollywood films released 1930 to 34 before widespread censorship.
He can be found on twitter @Mr_Sheldrake/or @PreCodeDotCom.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that the tension in the thriller doesn't come from seeing the bomb explode, but from watching two unaware people have a conversation about baseball while the timer winds down. Most of the thrillers I enjoy don't involve digital countdown timers and big explosions, but an active attempt to play with viewer's knowledge by using what we know of history and human nature against us. And some, well, some are just too fun not to mention.

36 Hours (1965)
An odd "Twilight Zone"-esque movie, 36 Hours works mostly because of the charm of its leads-- James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, and Rod Taylor-- and the oddness of its premise. Can a Nazi trick an American officer into revealing where Allied forces will be landing on D-Day and consequently change the course of the war? Well, we know how history actually happened, which would seem to make the movie redundant-- but 36 Hours instead uses that knowledge to throw a couple of twists and turns into the works. The movie falls apart in its third act (unfortunately, it thinks that clean cut Garner is the hero rather than the conflicted but endearing Taylor), but it's a fascinating attempt to use history as a backdrop to ratchet up tension.

Body Double (1984)
Putting a DePalma flick on this list may sound like a cop out, but truth be told, ever since Criterion released Blow-Out, too many people have been taking the piss out of his great 80s thrillers without knowing what the hell they're talking about. Body Double is DePalma firing on all cylinders, aiming for over-the-top titillation and excitement with naked abandon. There's no subtlety to speak of (the killer arranging a giant drill between his legs as he prepares to murder a woman certainly earns the guffaws it so desires) and the film's sudden musical number is gleefully sleazy and fun. It also ensured that the movie got a music video tie-in in the form of "Relax (Don't Do It)" from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, resulting in one of the most pinnacle 1980s-things in existence. 

Breach (2007)
Based on a true story, Billy Ray's follow-up to the indisputably powerful Shattered Glass got a muted reception on release. The plot follows a young CIA agent who is tasked with taking down a suspected double agent-- who is also one of the most powerful bureaucrats at the company. Chris Cooper gets some great shades of grey out of real life spy Robert Hanssen, and an all-star cast turns in one of those rare movies in the last decade that was made for honest-to-god adults.

Brainstorm (1965)
Jeffrey Hunter is probably best remembered-- if he's ever remembered-- for being the original captain of the starship Enterprise on "Star Trek". But beneath that pretty boy exterior was a fun little dramatic actor, and Brainstorm lets him be as unappealing and strange as he can manage. He's a scientist who falls for a suicidal woman and decides that murdering her husband and pleading insanity is the best way to ensure her safety and their love. It's cheesy but fun as we see Hunter's journey into obsession over committing 'the perfect crime' slip ever so closer across that precipice of madness.

Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
If it was cheating to put Brian DePalma on here, I suppose adding Billy Wilder to the mix may as well incite a riot. To be perfectly frank, though, while Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution is hailed as a classic thriller, it's this, his second movie, that really deserves more lauds. Franchot Tone is the sole survivor of a British tank column from one of Rommel's routs during the second World War. He stumbles deliriously into a hotel that is about to become the headquarters of the German African command to kick things off. Anne Baxter is the French maid, desperate to save her brothers from the concentration camps, and the legendary Eric Von Stroheim is Rommel himself. Gregarious, charming, and an utter brute, Stroheim's Rommel is the performance that dreams are made of. Tone must impersonate a dead butler to unravel Rommel's deadly 'Five Graves' that threaten to end the Ally's war effort in Africa before it could even begin, and that line between being betrayed by Baxter or by his own daring keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. It's also notable for being made in 1943, making it a fictionalized version of history that's about as 'ripped from the headlines' as you could get back then.

Gone (2012)
I adore Gone, which was pronounced dead by critics months before it even arrived. Anyone expecting a conventional mystery will surely be disappointed as the movie is far more concerned with being the story of what life is like as a victim of sexual assault than with providing a standard formula picture. Amanda Seyfried plays a woman who was kidnapped and trapped in the forest for a number of days, and, upon escape, discovers that no one believes her story. In fact, she's openly ridiculed by the police, and thus is the only one who can save her sister when it appears she's also become a victim of the mysterious stalker. The movie is a weighty mood piece as director Heitor Dhalia really pushes the audience past its comfort level to experience for themselves how much a victim is marginalized by society. There are plenty of red herrings and suspicious characters, but rightfully so-- in a world that openly condones sexual violence, isn't everyone a potential threat? The film cleverly makes its finale not about delivering the satisfying comeuppance against the abuser but the police who doubted Seyfried's character all along. 

A Perfect Getaway (2009)
If you go to Hawaii, there's not much of a better way to spend the flight there than indulging in the luscious but ludicrous A Perfect Getaway. Starring not-quite-stars-but-always-reliable-actors Steven Zahn and Milla Jovovich as a couple honeymooning on Oahu, their story takes a dark turn as their hike through a remote jungle sees them come in contact with a couple of suspicious characters. These characters, by the way, may or may not be related to a murderer on the loose in Honolulu who has been removing various victim's extremities. If you start watching and feel your attention wavering, at least make it to Jovovich's story of her first boyfriend, a moment that perfectly violates that old 'show don't tell' maxim and is more horrifying than anything seen in the entirety of the Resident Evil franchise.

The Prize (1963)
Ernest Lehman, who penned the screenplay for North by Northwest, also penned the screenplay for The Prize. I don't really have to point this out since it becomes patently obvious as soon as the dialogue kicks in and the barbs begin to fly. Paul Newman is a wonderful substitute for Cary Grant as he plays a down-on-his-luck novelist who inexplicably wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. This draws him into a world of intrigue and drama as another Nobel winner, played by Edward G. Robinson, begins to act suspicious while plenty of communist spies flutter about in the wings. The movie isn't as solid as North by Northwest as director Mark Robson runs roughshod over the material (he's clearly no Hitchcock) and a number of coincidences undermine much of the tension, but some sequences, such as Newman's attempt to hide out in a nudist convention, are memorable to say the least.

Targets (1968)
"Danny!" you're saying. "How can Targets be underrated when it's one of the greatest movies of all time?"
"Shut up," I'd say, "Until it's at the top of Sight and Sound's poll, on my underrated list it will stay!"

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Kino Lorber Studio Classics - FLESH + BLOOD and TARAS BULBA

FLESH + BLOOD (1985; Paul Verhoeven)
From Kino Lorber's site:
Betrayed by power. Corrupted by love. Bound by honor. In the battle between good and evil, only the strong survive! From visionary director Paul Verhoeven comes this "vivid and muscular" (Variety) epic adventure of medieval bravery and blood lust starring Rutger Hauer  and Jennifer Jason Leigh. In the chaotic, morally bankrupt Europe of 1510, a cold-hearted warrior named Martin (Hauer) leads his motley crew of mercenaries into battle to reclaim the castle of an ousted nobleman. But when the despot betrays them, Martin and his band of ruffians strike back by kidnapping the innocent young maiden (Leigh) betrothed to the nobleman's son - a fearless Renaissance man who must risk life and limb to rescue the woman he loves! This Verhoeven film seems to get lost in the shuffle between his critically and commercially successful Dutch films (like TURKISH DELIGHT, SOLDIER OF ORANGE and THE FOURTH MAN) and his much more well-known U.S. films (like ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL and STARSHIP TROOPERS). FLESH + BLOOD was in fact his first U.S. film and one that ended up being his last with longtime collaborator Rutger Hauer (who had worked together on five projects including this one). Apparently the two had many disagreements on set and were far less than sympatico on this film. This was to be a production plagued by crew problems, weather problems and budgetary issues. It would supposedly almost cause Verhoeven to ponder quitting filmmaking altogether. Regardless, Verhoeven certainly set out to make and succeeded in making a very unromanticized version of a "Middle Ages" with this movie. His view of this period as a place that was home to disease, brutal violence and poverty feels more like the way it probably was. It's an unpleasant "reality" to say the least and thus the film can be tough to watch in parts. Coming from the director of ROBOCOP and TURKISH DELIGHT, one can probably guess that this is going to be a remarkably GRAPHIC film and it certainly is. Apparently the folks at Orion were often asking Verhoeven for a war film along the lines of SOLDIER OF ORANGE, so this is what he and his screenwriting collaborator Gerard Soeteman came up with. Apparently the two were inspired by such westerns as THE WILD BUNCH and VERA CRUZ as well as the Burt Lancaster swashbuckler THE CRIMSON PIRATE. FLESH + BLOOD benefits greatly from the cinematography by longtime Verhoeven colleague Jan de Bont. It's not the prettiest looking film ever, but then it isn't supposed to be (and I still love a nice 2.35 to 1 frame). Jan de Bont and Verhoeven worked together on many films previous to this, but it is interesting to note that as with Rutger Hauer, the two never worked together again after this movie(correction: of course they were both on BASIC INSTINCT together in 1992). The cast, outside of Hauer, includes Jennifer Jason Leigh (who was supposedly handpicked by Verhoeven), Susan Tyrell, Bruno Kirby and cult actor extraordinaire Brion James.
Speaking of the late, great Brion James, here's a brief interview clip of him talking about his troubling experience on FLESH + BLOOD:

Special Features:
This disc includes an audio commentary with director Paul Verhoeven. He is rather energetic in his discussion of the cuts that he had to make to the film for the MPAA (though this is his unrated version) and how difficult the production was for him overall.
Also included is "Composing FLESH" a short featurette interview with composer basil Poledoris. He details how he became involved with FELSH + BLOOD and how he found his way around scoring the movie. 

TARAS BULBA (1962; J. Lee Thompson)
From Kino Lorber's Site:
Four centuries ago, in a barbaric age ruled by violence, vast armies clashed in desperate battles and fierce men struggled to regain their freedom. Taras Bulba, a breathtaking epic that engulfs the screen with high adventure that enthralls from beginning to end. Set in the Ukraine of the 16th century, Taras Bulba stars Yul Brynner in one of his most colorful roles as a powerful Cossack chieftain determined to regain his land from treacherous Polish invaders. Despite bitter dissension in the ranks, he is soon leading his soldiers into savage warfare. But further conflict erupts when his headstrong son Andrei (Tony Curtis) falls deeply in love with a Polish girl. Spectacular battle scenes highlight the nonstop action, arriving at a shattering climax in which father and son must ultimately confront the rift between them.I find it interesting that this film was directed by the prolific J. Lee Thompson, a man I associate with a lot of fun action movies from THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES to his later work with Charles Bronson in the 70s and 80s. Now that I think of it, Thompson was a rather diverse director all around in that he did both action and thrillers/mysteries (EYE OF THE DEVIL, 10 TO MIDNIGHT, THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD) quite well. He even dipped his toe in the waters of horror with his now classic 80s slasher HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. That said, Thompson was certainly not a bad choice to helm this epic and I believe the film to be better for his involvement in it (though supposedly this was a project that was developed to have Robert Aldrich in the director's chair). TARSA BULBAS was scribed by the somewhat legendary Waldo Salt (he of the prestigious award of his own name), who wrote such cinematic memorables as MIDNIGHT COWBOY, SERPICO, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST and COMING HOME. Salt of course collaborated on this particular script with screenwriter Karl Tunberg (BEN-HUR), it being an adaption of a novel by Nikolai Gogol (who, to me, most notably wrote the source story for Bava's BLACK SUNDAY). The same source material was adapted into another film in 2009. It's been stated that this film/story is basically a "Romeo & Juliet" type tale which has an epic 16th century as it's backdrop. That is a fair an apt statement certainly and yet the film reflects a certain era of Hollywood filmmaking which I continue to have an odd affection for. It is made in that grand style of production design that is certainly lovely to behold (especially in anamorphic Panavision). The film cost somewhere between $6-7 million in 1962 dollars and while it was not the most expensive movie from that year, it nonetheless failed a bit at the box office only earning back about half that. The similarly budgeted THE LONGEST DAY ($7.75 million) earned close to $51 million. By way of comparison, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY cost about $19 million, but also made back just under three quarters of that cost. Further, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA was 1 $15 million film that topped box office grosses with $70 million. These number would seem to indicate that the public might be tiring of films set before the early 20th century. This kind of social trend fascinates me and I've always been intrigued by the struggles Hollywood became entangled with in the later 1960s as they came realize they had no real idea what people wanted to see anymore (which resulted in what many have called a "Golden Age" of Hollywood in the 1970s). TARAS BULBA is thought-provoking when viewed in that context. It is an epic of it's time and does feature memorable performances by both Tony Curtis and Yul Brynner as well as a rousing, adventurous score by veteran composer Franz Waxman.

Both discs can be found at Kino Lorber's site:
as well as other online e-tailers.

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