Sunday, February 23, 2014
The other day I was watching my DVD of MAJOR DUNDEE, Sam Peckinpah's flawed Western epic. The DVD version I have of this picture contains scenes not included in the theatrical release. Which made me wonder--what is the "official" version of the film...if there is such a thing?
Just about every movie that gets released to home video now has extra scenes, or an "alternate cut", or an "extended edition", or a "directors version" of the film. The real reason for this is to get people to buy or rent the film--"You haven't really seen it until you've seen the unedited version!!!" Most of these extra editions don't really add anything new or change the film in a significant way....but some of them do present major changes to the story or the tone of the production.
And there's the problem. If you are writing a blog about a film, or writing a review, or just telling a friend about a certain movie, you have to figure out what version of the picture you are going to be discussing in the first place. And there can be several. There's about five versions of BLADE RUNNER, about three versions of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, three versions of STAR TREK-THE MOTION PICTURE, and so on and so on. Most people who write about movies seem to pick the general theatrical release as the "real" version--but what if more viewers have seen a home video version which is vastly different? Take STAR TREK-THE MOTION PICTURE. It first came out in 1979, which means that there is an entire generation of Star Trek fans who have never seen that film in a theater. Until recently the available home video versions were far different than the theatrical release--which means that more people have seen the alternate versions of ST-TMP instead of the original one. Does that mean the original doesn't count?
STAR WARS is of course the most famous example. Millions and millions of fans have never seen the original versions in a theater. I'm sure some will say, "What's the difference?" Well, ask anyone who has actually made a film how much difference one editing decision can make.
There's a whole bunch of other problems when you get to silent films. Most silents are in the public domain, which means that anyone who can get their hands on a copy of a certain movie can slap it on a disc and sell it. This means that for a movie like NOSFERATU, there are literally dozens and dozens of DVD versions, all with various running times, and music scores. Some silent films on DVD and Blu-ray have been tinted, some have multiple music scores. Technically each one of these is a different version of the film. For those who say the music score for a silent movie isn't all that important--it's incredibly important, and can dramatically alter how you perceive the film.
I have Comcast cable, which means I have acess to Xfinity On Demand. It's now gotten to the point where each time a new movie pops up on Xfinity for rent, it has two versions...the "original" and the "extended" version.
And...let's not forget that when a broadcast channel shows a feature film, it is usually edited and time compressed, which means it is speeded up to fit into a certain time slot. (You are not supposed to notice time compression, but every so often I'll be watching an old Western on AMC, and some of the actors' voices sound a bit high-pitched.) Technically....that's a different version of the movie, too.
So what is the official version of a certain film? Is it the so-called "Director's Cut"? Well...what about the screenwriter, who may have come up with the actual story? What about his or her version? What about the producer, who may have come up with the idea to make the film in the first place? There are hundreds and hundreds of people who work on a major feature film, and I bet each one of them has their own version of what the film should have turned out to be.
The problem with "Director's Cuts" is that directors have a tendency to change their minds, just like anyone else who has any sense of creativity. You can write something, or paint something, or create something, and think you did a great job....and then a couple years later look at it and think it was terrible. Can a movie ever really be finished? Some directors will say never (see George Lucas). I've seen plenty of "Director's Cuts" that didn't improve the film whatsoever. But who has the right to say that a director (or a producer) should stop working on a film and leave it alone?
One more thing about "Director's Cuts". Recently there have been several films--like MAJOR DUNDEE--where the director has long since passed away, but others have supposedly tried to rework the film to what the late director apparently wanted. If the director isn't around, how can you be 100% sure that this is the director's vision?
Whenever I write a blog about a certain film, I try to acknowledge what version of said film I am talking about, and what format I've seen it on (and if I don't, please let me know). Films have so many versions, and so many formats (I haven't even gotten to 3-D, and IMAX) that it's almost impossible to say what is the "real" version. I guess in the end the "real" version is the one that means the most to the individual viewer.
Saturday, February 15, 2014
Last week the legendary Svengoolie (you can see him on various Me TV stations across the USA on Saturday nights) showed KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. Of course this was the American version of the film. Due to complex rights issues, the Japanese version cannot be shown on American television, or be released to American home video. Toho Studios made KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, and the American version of the film was released by Universal, which still has the U. S. rights (Universal is going to release the American version of the film on Blu-ray later this year, to coincide with the GODZILLA theatrical remake).
You can, however, go on Ebay and get a copy of the Japanese version, if you so desire. Seeing KKVG again inspired me to finally do so. You have to watch out when you order a DVD on Ebay--you have to watch out when you order anything on Ebay--but the copy I got had good sound and picture quality, English subtitles, and it actually worked (which is always a good thing).
The Japanese version runs 97 minutes long, as opposed to the 90 running time of the US version. The original version does not have the silly UN TV reporters, and has a bit more scenes featuring the human characters (which will disappoint some fans). We get more "comedy" from the goofy Mr. Tako--but we also get to see more of Japanese hotties Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayshi (who would both later appear in the James Bond film YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE).
While some of the Japanese dialogue is very different from the dubbed dialogue of the American version, there are a lot of scenes where the lines are exactly the same. The biggest difference between the two versions of KKVG is that the Japanese one has more depth to it--in the character development, and especially in how the authorities deal with the monsters. In the American edition it appears as if the Japanese officials have thrown together a monster-fighting plan in about five minutes--they talk about using electrical towers to stop Godzilla, and boom, there they are. In the Japanese edition, there are more scenes of those great miniature machines going around and building everything used to stop Godzilla. The sequence involving the lifting of King Kong with wire and balloons is lengthier as well.
What the American version is really missing is the original musical score by Akira Ifukube. Ifukube was to Toho Studios as James Bernard was to Hammer Films. His score (which I have on CD--yeah, it's me) gives the Japanese version the only dramatic weight it really has. The American version has a score made up of various musical cues from 1950s Universal Westerns and horror films--if you listen close you can hear several cues from THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.
For a long time there have been rumors that the Japanese version of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA had a different ending than the American version. When I first started getting into monster movies as a kid, I read about this "fact" in several books. The real fact is that the endings are the same. After Kong and Godzilla destroy the Osaka castle, they both fall into the sea, where Godzilla disappears, and Kong is seen swimming away, presumably back to his home on Faro Island. In the American edition, you do hear Kong's roar at the end, apparently signaling that Kong won the battle. In the Japanese edition, you hear the roars of both monsters--maybe that's where the different endings rumor started.
No matter what version of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is shown, I have to admit that the film itself is a bit of a letdown. The whole subplot about the "magic berries" of Faro Island, and the goofy Mr. Tako's company wanting to sell the berries and use King Kong in an ad campaign, is silly. Having two male leads, on two separate ships, takes up too much of the story. Poor Mie Hama gets chased by both King Kong AND Godzilla (a monster movie heroine record). And the King Kong suit is...lousy. This is one time where Eiji Tsuburaya's FX team didn't get the job done. The Kong suit looks as if it was made out of an old rug that you would find in your Grandma's attic. The special articulated Kong head used for close-ups looks even worse. (King Kong wouldn't look any better in Toho's later KING KONG ESCAPES.)
The battles between Kong and Godzilla are spectacular, but they are also somewhat dopey. The monster-fighting scenes would improve over the course of the future Godzilla films. You expect a lot out of a film like KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, but it just doesn't live up to its premise. The next film in the series, GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, is way better. If you ever get a chance to see the Japanese version of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, do it. It's a bit of an improvement over the American version....but not much.
Thursday, February 13, 2014
If you are a World War II buff, you are probably aware of the "Monuments Men", a special group formed during the conflict to retrieve and protect the various art treasures looted by Nazi Germany. There's been a best-selling book written about them (which I have not read), and a number of magazine articles.
Now comes George Clooney's cinematic take on the group. This is a personal project for him--he's the star, the director, and the co-producer and co-writer. Clooney has assembled an impressive cast list: Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin (Best Actor Oscar winner for THE ARTIST), Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett.
THE MONUMENTS MEN does not really have a straight narrative--it's more of a series of small vignettes as the group travels around war-torn Europe in search of priceless relics. A lot of these scenes contain a fair amount of typical war movie tropes, and Clooney injects a lot of light humor in the story. The movie goes along at a pretty quick pace--so much so that we really don't get to know all that much about the individual men or their backgrounds (we assume that all the members of the group are experts of some kind, but they never really get much of a chance to show their expertise).
The only real female character in the film is Cate Blanchett's mysterious French museum curator. Blanchett has the most interesting role, and she spends almost all of it wearing glasses, and with her hair pulled back. This leads to a scene where--you guessed it--she gets dolled up, takes her glasses off, and lets her hair down (I have to admit I groaned when I saw her do this--nothing against Cate Blanchett all dolled up, but that's one of the most obvious movie moments).
THE MONUMENTS MEN is not a slam-bang battlefield epic, or a gut-wrenching realistic war drama. It's a different kind of WWII film (even though it has some of the cliches of the genre), in that the heroes are trying to find stolen art. Clooney does do a good job in explaining why this group, and what they did, was important. Some may think that this movie is not dramatic enough. I wouldn't say that it is a great film, but I do have to give George Clooney credit for making a production about this subject, and also for making a movie that adults can take older children to see (there's no excessive violence or language in the picture). Overall, it's a decent, honest effort....but I have a feeling that a documentary about the real Monuments Men would be a lot more fascinating.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Criterion has just come out with one of their most impressive home video releases ever. Stanley Kramer's IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD gets a 3-DVD, 2-Blu-ray set featuring two different versions of the movie and tons and tons of extras.
The 1963 super-epic all-star comedy was the brainchild of screenwriter William Rose, who wrote the original THE LADYKILLERS. The script found its way to producer-director Stanley Kramer, better known at the time for such serious fare as JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG and INHERIT THE WIND. Kramer wanted to prove he could handle comedy--so he decided to try and make the greatest film comedy of all time. I don't think IA4MW is the greatest film comedy of all time, but it is certainly one of the most unique movies ever made. One has to appreciate the audacity of Kramer to take what is essentially a B movie comedy plot and stretch it out to BEN-HUR-like proportions.
I'm sure just about everyone over the age of 30 knows about or has seen IA4MW. I remember as a kid it was always a big deal when it was shown on network TV. The cast list is incredible (now one can look at it and say it's almost like a Me TV convention come to life), and any film buff would want a copy of this movie just for that reason.
The Criterion Blu-ray of IA4MW is spectacular--the movie looks like it was made five months ago, instead of fifty years. The 5.1 DTS sound is spectacular as well. With the Blu-ray picture quality it is a lot easier to pick out the numerous stunt men that were used, and it's very plain to see that Spencer Tracy was in bad shape (he looks about 10 to 15 years older than his actual age of 62).
The regular version of IA4MW runs 163 minutes, and the extended version runs 197 minutes. I have to admit that I wasn't really all that impressed with the extended edition. Most of the "new" scenes are just longer versions of the existing ones, and they really don't add anything to the story. The only real important information one gets from the extended edition is the fact that Buster Keaton's character (which is barely seen in the regular version) was supposed to smuggle Spencer Tracy's character into Mexico. The added scenes in the extended edition are not of the same quality as the regular version of the film, and the shifting back and forth between the two might be annoying to some. A few of the additions only exist in soundtrack form, with still photos filling in for the action. The extended version is interesting from a film buff's point of view, but it's really not the best way to watch this movie.
The extras are many, including a booklet with an essay by film critic Lou Lumenick, a map of the shooting locations by artist Dave Woodman, several vintage TV features, and a look at the film's FX by modern-day effects artists Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. The best extra by far is the audio commentary by Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo. They cover every aspect of the production, and tell just about everything you would want to know about the film.
How does IA4MW hold up after all these years? In the past couple weeks, I've watched the two Blu-ray versions, and watched the extended edition again to listen to the audio commentary. I have to admit I'm about Mad Madded out. There are a lot of scenes that are still pretty funny (the Three Stooges cameo is one of the greatest sight gags of all time), and there are a lot of scenes that are just silly for the sake of being silly. What really got my attention was all the fantastic stunt work--this movie has more action scenes than most of the early James Bond films. Of course today all those action scenes would be done in CGI. What makes IA4MW stand out is the sheer spectacle of the whole enterprise--no one can ever make a movie like this again. Just like Stanley Kramer did 50 years ago, Criterion has pulled out all the stops to come out with a home video product that a lot of film geeks will be buying.
Sunday, February 2, 2014
Tom Hanks hasn't had a major hit in a while now. He's at his best when he is playing regular guys involved in an extraordinary situation (APOLLO 13, CAST AWAY, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN). The Oscar-nominated CAPTAIN PHILLIPS gives Hanks a perfect role as the title character.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is based on the 2009 incident in which Somali pirates attacked the cargo freighter Maersk Alabama. The event attracted international attention, and Billy Ray's screenplay is based on the book Richard Phillips co-wrote about his experiences (I have to point out that some of the real-life crew members of the ship have claimed that Phillips' account is not accurate).
Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips is just a guy trying to do his job. He's not a father-figure, or a buddy, to his crew--he's just a boss, doing the best that he can. Hanks is not an action hero here, and he doesn't have a snappy one-liner for every situation. His ordinary reactions to major events give this film a realism that most action thrillers could never have.
Director Paul Greengrass (THE BOUNRE ULTIMATUM, UNITED 93) sticks to the main story, and keeps away from the usual Hollywood "extra" stuff (I do wish he'd let his camera people use a tripod every once in a while). There's no fat in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, and once Hanks and the four Somali pirates get into a small lifeboat, the tension--and the claustrophobia--are ratcheted way up.
The pirates are portrayed not as hardened, cunning professionals, but as basically pathetic near-amateurs. Their disorganization is what makes them dangerous. Barkhad Abdi plays the pirate leader, and he steals the film with a stunning movie acting debut (Abdi has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Greengrass doesn't go so far as to make the audience feel sorry for the pirates, but he does give a little insight into the tragic lives of these men.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and it is definitely worth seeing. It's Tom Hanks' best work in years....his breakdown at the end of the film is especially haunting.
Saturday, February 1, 2014
The latest Hammer horror film to be released on Region A Blu-ray is FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, courtesy of Millennium Entertainment.
This movie, made in 1966, came after THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN and before FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. The Baron (Peter Cushing) is portrayed somewhat in-between as well--he's not exactly a nice guy, but he certainly isn't the murderous fiend he would become in FMBD. In this entry the Baron is attempting to capture a person's "soul"...a pretty wild idea, even for a Hammer film.
Baron Frankenstein's young assistant Hans (Robert Morris) is executed for a murder he didn't commit. Hans' distraught (and deformed) girlfriend Christina (Susan Denberg) drowns herself. The Baron, with help from the befuddled Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters), traps Hans' "soul", and places it in the revived body of Christina. Frankenstein and Hertz also use surgery to turn Christina into a gorgeous woman.
It appears that the experiment works--but Hans, still "alive" inside Christina, wants revenge on those who set him up, and Christina becomes a vampish avenger.
FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN is not what I would call one of the best Hammer horror films. Director Terence Fisher does what he can with an intriguing story that has a fair amount of plot holes. Fisher probably saw the film as a tragic romance between Hans and Christina. It's always great to see Peter Cushing as the Baron, especially in his interactions with Thorley Walters and the town villagers.
What makes FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN memorable are the various stills showing Peter Cushing and Susan Denberg (who appears to be wearing a 19th Century bikini). These publicity photos have really nothing to do with the film--no such scene exists in the story--but whenever FCW is mentioned, those photos are usually what comes to mind.
One of the famous publicity shots from FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN--but nothing like this appears in the actual movie!
Susan Denberg is now one of the most famous and legendary of the Hammer hotties, simply because soon after her role in FCW her career was cut short due to personal issues. She apparently lives in Austria, and no one has been able to get an interview or a public appearance out of her. (If anyone does, it will be the Monster Movie scoop of the century.) Denberg's Garbo-like persona gives FCW an extra element for classic horror film buffs.
Millennium just released FCW on DVD last year (heck, I still have the old Anchor Bay DVD of this title). I'm sure most Hammer fans own this film on DVD, so the question is....is it worth buying the Blu-ray? I would say yes, because of the extras. The audio commentary features Hammer expert Jonathan Rigby and FCW actors Derek Fowlds and Robert Morris. The commentary is entertaining and informative, with both Fowlds and Morris giving some insight into the mysterious Susan Denberg. Usually an audio commentary on a Hammer film involves the stars or one of the Hammer hotties, so this one is unique in that it has two supporting male actors. This Blu-ray also has a brand new documentary directed by Marcus Hearn called HAMMER GLAMOUR. This features a number of Hammer ladies, including Caroline Munro, Vera Day, Madeline Smith, Jenny Hanley, Martine Beswicke. and Valerie Leon. This is a great featurette, and I wish it had been longer (it is only 44 minutes). Also included on this disc are two "World of Hammer" episodes: "The Curse of Frankenstein" and "Hammer Stars: Peter Cushing". There is also a seven minute long stills gallery, with numerous photos that I had not seen. And there's one more bonus--five movie cards are packaged inside the Blu-ray case (see photo below).
As for the visual quality of this disc....FCW has always looked rather dull and flat (it certainly does not have the pictorial elegance of, say, THE MUMMY or BRIDES OF DRACULA). This Blu-ray makes the picture look sharper, but I would not say it's that major of an improvement over the other DVD releases of this title. It is the extras that make this Blu-ray a nice purchase for Hammer fans and monster movie buffs.