Saturday, October 29, 2016
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON has just been re-released on Blu-ray by Sony in a number of different formats. The version I bought has a 26-page booklet built into the disc case, featuring interviews with director Ang Lee and co-writer James Schamus, and an essay from David Bordwell about Hong Kong Martial Arts Cinema.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is one of my 100 favorite movies of all time. I was blown away by it when I first saw it during its American theatrical run in 2000, and I find it even more impressive every time I see it. It has some of the best--and most unique--action sequences ever put on film (staged by the legendary fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping), but it is also a very human drama about the consequences of one's choices in life. The three lead performances by Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi are magnificent. I was especially impressed by Ziyi in her breakout role, so much so that she has become one of my favorite actresses of the 21st Century.
The movie won a number of Academy Awards, and it also has to be looked on as one of the most influential foreign films in recent years. Almost every Asian martial arts tale that has come through America in the last 15 years is advertised as being "in the tradition of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON".
I believe what attracts me most about CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is that despite its being set in ancient China is really is a mixture of several genres, including swashbucklers, historical epics, and American Westerns. You could even say that the characters of Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh are very reminiscent of Jedi Knights. What is also admirable about the film is its Un-Hollywood nature--the most important & strongest characters are women, and the ambiguous ending is something that would never have been allowed by mainstream American producers.
Sony's new home video release of the movie features a brand new transfer which is stunning. The audio is in 7.1 Mandarin with English subtitles and a 5.1 English vocal track. The Blu-ray has a number of extras, including a new retrospective which has Tasha R. Robinson interviewing Ang Lee, James Schamus, and editor Tim Squyres. There's nothing fluffy about these talks--much of the movie's production history is covered, and Lee reveals that CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON did not have a very high budget. (I found this surprising since the film has a expansive look to it, and a sumptuous art & costume design.) There are multiple audio commentaries, a photo gallery, and a selection of deleted scenes.
Even if you already have CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON on Blu-ray, this new edition is a worthy upgrade. In my opinion it is one of the best films made in the last twenty years. It is also the perfect movie to introduce someone to the joys of foreign cinema.
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
There was some sad news yesterday in the film geek world with the announcement that Tim Lucas' VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine is coming to an end (in print form, at least).
Many of the horror/science fiction movie magazines I have read since my younger years--titles such as STARLOG, FANGORIA, CINEFANTASTIQUE, SCARLET STREET, and many others, have already bit the dust. I believe FILMFAX is still around, but I haven't read an issue of that in years. It seems the only major ones left are CINEMA RETRO and Richard Klemensen's wonderful LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS. I know it seems ironic for a guy writing a movie blog to be lamenting about the demise of a print magazine, but there's a special satisfaction in getting off the internet and reading a great book or a periodical. Each new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG was a special treat.
VIDEO WATCHDOG was known as "The Perfectionist's Guide to Fantastic Video", but to me personally it was more than that. The magazine exposed me to tons of films and television shows that I would have never bothered to seek out on my own. Obscure Spaghetti Westerns, German krimis, Italian giallos, no-budget 1970s American grindhouse features, British TV serials--VW covered them all. You couldn't really pin VW down, and you never really knew what you were going to see inside its pages. VW was scholarly and insightful, but at the same time the magazine never took itself--or the movies it commented on--too seriously.
I started buying VIDEO WATCHDOG regularly in 2000/2001. It was about that time that the DVD boom started to really kick in, and the magazine's home video reviews were essential reading. Those reviews, even the ones years old, still hold up today--I can't tell you how many times I have watched a film, and then scoured through all my many VW back issues to find the appropriate review of it. Most of the films covered in VW have never been properly analyzed in print anywhere else. I always learned something new in every issue of VW--or at least looked at a supposedly familiar title in a different light.
I know that Tim Lucas and his wife Donna worked incredibly hard to put out each issue, and that commitment was obvious on every page. VW, unlike a lot of short-lived "monster movie" mags, never appeared cheap, and it never talked down to its audience. A number of fantastic genre scholars made their mark on its pages, including the likes of Tom Weaver, Kim Newman, and Eric Somer. Many of the covers featured incredible work from artists such as Mark Maddox and Charlie Largent. VW may have been an independent publication, but there was nothing small-time about it. There's no doubt that many home video companies such as Kino, Arrow, and Blue Underground were influenced by VW--especially when one considers how many of VW's writers (including Tim Lucas) have contributed many excellent audio commentaries on numerous DVDs and Blu-rays.
VW #112--signed by Donnie Dunagan at the 2013 Monster Bash Conference
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the regular columns featured in most issues of VW, such as the one by Ramsey Campbell and the "Audio Watchdog" column by Douglas E. Winter. In recent years filmmaker Larry Blamire's "Star Turn" column, in which he examined guest star performances on episodes of classic American TV shows, was particularly noteworthy. With the proliferation and popularity of such "retro" TV networks as MeTV, these performances are finding a whole new audience, and I'd love to see Mr. Blamire turn the column into a full-length book project.
The world of cinema is going to lose something without any more print issues of VIDEO WATCHDOG. I for one was really hoping that my good friend Joshua Kennedy might get one of his pictures reviewed in VW some day. I don't know what the future for the VW brand might be (an annual special issue--or a career retrospective?), but I hope it continues on in some form.
I have to admit that many of the films I've read about in VIDEO WATCHDOG I have not seen--and many of them I probably will never see. But the magazine has inspired me to seek out and view titles I never thought I would be interested in, and, yes, it has caused me to buy some of those titles. VIDEO WATCHDOG made me a better film geek, and I will miss it.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
Kino has released the 1964 British science-fiction film THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING on Blu-ray. The title makes one think of a globe-spanning out-and-out thrill ride, but this movie is definitely not that. It's an efficient, low-key little B picture, nothing more.
If this movie is remembered at all today, it is because it was directed by Terence Fisher, master of the English Gothic. THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING is decidedly English, but it certainly isn't Gothic. The movie seems like it was made in 1954 instead of 1964. It is very reminiscent of the black & white programmers Terence Fisher directed for Hammer Films before his "breakthrough" with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The co-producer of THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING was B movie maven Robert Lippert, who also produced a number of those early Hammer films directed by Fisher.
The movie starts out with a number of individuals dropping dead right in the middle of doing something--we see a train, a car, and a plane crash. (If these scenes remind you of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, that's because some of the footage was taken from that movie!) The focus then switches to a small English village, where eventually seven survivors gather--five middle-aged men and women, and a young married couple. The group comes to the conclusion that some sort of gas was used to kill nearly everyone off, and that this is the beginning of an invasion. Soon bizarre robots are seen roaming the village, and the survivors have to fight off these threats as well as the corpses reanimated by the automations.
THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING is only about an hour long, and it feels more like an episode of a TV show instead of a feature-length film. The entire story takes place in and around the English village, and although the survivors talk about how what ever is happening is going on all over, we never really see any of it. The survivors also assume that the robots are controlled by aliens--but once again, we never really get any proof of that. The movie's very low budget makes the supposed world-wide phenomenon seem very local and very compact--diluting the fear that the entire Earth is at stake.
What also hurts the film, excitement wise, is that the leading man is American actor Willard Parker, and he isn't exactly the most dynamic guy in the world. The performer who makes the most impact is the great British character actor Dennis Price, as a shifty survivor who later gets "zombiefied". Price does have the advantage of having the most interesting role. Thorley Walters, who memorably appeared in a number of Terence Fisher's Hammer horrors, is in the film as well, but his character is more ineffectual than humorous.
Terence Fisher does the best he can with the slight material. Obviously science-fiction was not his forte, despite the fact that he directed a number of films in that genre. (My pick for the best Terence Fisher sci-fi film is ISLAND OF TERROR.) Fisher usually gets either too much credit or not enough from film buffs. In THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING he gets a few chances to bring something extra to the tale, such as revealing the robots the way he would reveal a vampire or one of Frankenstein's monsters. Like just about every British sci-fi film of the 1950s and 60s, (including DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, THE CRAWLING EYE, ISLAND OF TERROR, NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT, etc.) much of the story takes place in a pub-like setting, where the characters talk about what is going on instead of the movie visually showing what is going on. I can imagine that plenty of kids were squirming in their seats while watching this movie when it first came out.
THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING does have a connection with the geek culture of today--with its reanimated zombies threatening a rag-tag small group of survivors, it anticipates not only NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but the whole "Walking Dead" genre that is so prevalent in the 21st Century. I wouldn't call it a groundbreaking film though--I've seen episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that had a far more imaginative scope. The movie does feature an atmospheric music score from Elisabeth Lutyens.
Kino presents THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING in black & white 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the visual and sound quality is top notch. An animated image montage is included, and a few trailers of other Kino releases. The main extra is an excellent audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith. Smith gives an entertaining and informative talk, and he goes out of his way to compare the film with other similar genre outings. He also brings up the urban legend that Terence Fisher made this film because he was under "exile" from Hammer due to the underwhelming response of the 1962 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
Saturday, October 15, 2016
Why am I reviewing a comic book series on a movie blog? Well, that comic book series happens to feature one of the most iconic movie characters of all time. Marvel's DARTH VADER series comes to an end with the just-released 25th issue. Ending the comic may seem to be a surprising decision, considering that this title was a major seller for Marvel, but it makes sense when you think about it.
For one thing, Vader always wears a mask, which doesn't make it easy for any artist to portray his emotional state. Vader also isn't the chattiest guy in the world, and he keeps his interactions with other beings to a minimum, so any comic book writer has to find their way around that. And let's not forget the fact that Vader works best in small doses--kind of like Christopher Lee's Dracula and Blofeld in the James Bond movies. The more exposure one gives to a character like Darth Vader in a monthly comic book, the more chances there are of that character not living up to fan expectations.
Despite all these limitations, I thought the regular writer and main artist of the DARTH VADER comic, Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca, handled things admirably. Gillen captured Vader's succinct speech patterns perfectly, and made the Dark Lord's actions throughout the series believable from a Star Wars fan's viewpoint. As for Salvador Larroca, he, in my opinion, was the real star of the series. Thankfully Larroca didn't try and do an interpretation of Darth Vader--the artist drew the character exactly the way he appeared in the movies. What Larroca did do was show what Vader was thinking and feeling by the way the Sith Lord was placed within the frame, and by his posture. Larroca also had a way of showing Vader's state by how much "light" was shown on his helmet. To take a character that looks the same at all times and successfully transfer him to the comics world--without changing that character's appearance--is no mean feat. Salvador Larroca did fantastic work on the DARTH VADER series, and I hope he gets to work on future Marvel Star Wars material. I got the chance to meet Larroca at this summer's Wizard World convention in Chicago.
A print of Salvador Larroca's work for Marvel's DARTH VADER--signed by the artist!
The DARTH VADER series began right after the destruction of the Death Star. Because Vader was the only Imperial survivor of that event, he's under suspicion from the Emperor. In the early issues of the series, Vader spends his time seeking out the pilot that destroyed the Death Star, which leads to the Dark Lord finding out about Luke Skywalker being his son, Vader starts to run his own personal "missions" with help from a disreputable archaeologist named Dr. Aphra. Dr. Aphra became something of a sounding board for Vader, which is understandable for a comic book. (If Vader didn't have a "companion", he probably wouldn't have said a word during most of the issues.) I felt, though, that the character of Aphra--young attractive female who can kick butt and has a sarcastic attitude--was designed too much for the tastes of the average fanboy. I kind of wish Vader had an allay that was a bit more original.
Vader and Aphra were joined by the droids Triple-Zero and Beetee. These two were basically evil versions of C3P0 and R2-D2. Triple-Zero still had C3P0's fussiness, but he spent his time going on about how much he enjoyed killing and torturing other beings. The droids were funny when first introduced, but after a few issues I kind of got annoyed by them.
At the end of just about every issue of DARTH VADER, the Dark Lord would find himself in a dangerous situation up against impossible odds--and of course, because he's Darth Vader, he would find a way to get out of it. The various characters in the series who were created to be obstacles to Vader--such as the mad scientist Cylo, who was creating warriors for the Emperor through genetics--didn't seem all that much of a threat. One could tell as the series went along that Marvel was grasping for ideas on what to do with Vader.
I felt the highlight of the series was the "Vader Down" storyline, which was introduced in a special VADER DOWN issue, and continued in both the DARTH VADER and STAR WARS comics. Darth Vader finds out from Dr. Aphra that Luke Skywalker is heading to an ancient Jedi temple on the planet of Vrogas Vas. Vader, in his personal TIE fighter, heads off to confront Luke there, only to find that the planet is home to a secret Rebel base. Luke purposefully crashes his X-Wing into Vader's ship, causing the Dark Lord to land on the planet. A huge Rebel force is sent to take Vader out once and for all, and Princess Leia and Han Solo accompany them. The entire storyline would make a great standalone Star Wars film, and it contains my favorite scene in the entire Marvel DARTH VADER comic series. It happens at the end of the VADER DOWN special issue (which was written by Jason Aaron with art by Mike Deodato), soon after Vader crash-lands on Vrogas Vas. Vader is met by a huge Rebel force, and is told that he is surrounded. In response, Vader solemnly intones, "All I am surrounded by is fear. And dead men."
Marvel's DARTH VADER was good enough for me to start going back regularly to my local comic book shop, which is something I haven't done since the mid-1990s. I certainly felt that the series had the proper Star Wars tone to it....and that's something I couldn't always say about the Dark Horse Star Wars comics of the 1990s, or even the classic Marvel Star Wars issues of the 1980s. I wouldn't be surprised if Marvel has special Darth Vader mini-series and annuals in store for the future. I just hope that they involve Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca.
Friday, October 14, 2016
SHIN GODZILLA, the latest Toho Godzilla movie, is essentially a re-boot. The film has no connection whatsoever with any earlier Godzilla feature, except for the fact that some of Akira Ifukube's original music for the classic series is used. It is very different from any other Godzilla entry--in fact it may be the most realistically-based one of them all.
In SHIN GODZILLA the monster's appearance and actions are examined through the eyes of various Japanese bureaucrats and government functionaries. The main human character in the story is a young Deputy Cabinet Minister named Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), who leads the effort to find a way to stop the giant beast. Having a politician as the lead "hero" is a bold concept, especially with what's going on in the real world these days, but Hasegawa gives a fine performance as the driven government official (Yaguchi is the type of politician even I could actually get to like).
Much of SHIN GODZILLA is made up of numerous meetings and discussions among the Japanese ministers about what to do with the King of the Monsters. Thankfully, co-directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi keep up a rapid pace--as in most 21st Century films, the shots here don't last very long--and there is a sense of a real-time disaster unfolding before our very eyes. (Unfortunately, because of all the horrid events happening in the world lately, the scenes of crisis response and management seem very familiar.)
There's not a lot of Godzilla in SHIN GODZILLA, but the Big G gets far more of a showcase here than he did in the lukewarm 2014 American GODZILLA. This "new" kaiju evolves during the story into the biggest, baddest, ugliest Godzilla of them all. This Big G also has an ability that makes him far more powerful than any of his earlier incarnations. (I'm not going to reveal it here, because the surprise revelation of it is one of the movie's biggest highlights.)
I have to point out that SHIN GODZILLA does not feature a man in a suit--this time around Godzilla is a fully computer-generated creature. For some this might be an improvement, but for me one of the main reasons I love classic kaiju films so much is because of the monster suits and the wonderful models and miniatures. For the most part the CGI works well, but some of the effects shots are a bit dodgy.
Something else I must point out...this is definitely not the goofy type of monster rally that defined the Godzilla franchise in the 1960s and 70s. There's almost no real humor in the film, there's no annoying little kid wearing a baseball cap, and the requisite hot female Japanese character isn't a spunky reporter or the leading man's girlfriend or sister...here she's an ambitious American special envoy (impressively played by Satomi Ishihara). The reason she's an American is that the USA plays a major part in the story by demanding that Japan agree to have Tokyo nuked in order to destroy Godzilla. (The implications of the US dropping a nuclear device on Japan a third time are of course brought up.)
If you do try to see SHIN GODZILLA in the theater while it's still playing in the US, be aware that it is subtitled--and because there's a lot of dialogue scenes, there are a lot of subtitles. (Not only that, but every government official is identified by a title, and every tank, aircraft, and bomb used against Godzilla gets a title on-screen as well!) I know that there are some who feel subtitles are annoying and distracting--it didn't bother me, since I've watched tons of subtitled films. But I have to say that a dubbed version might have made watching the film easier. (I wonder if the home video release of SHIN GODZILLA will feature a dubbed cut.)
This is the third time that Toho has rebooted the Godzilla film series--the first time was in 1984, after the classic Godzilla series ended in 1975. After the 1984-1995 Godzilla series came the horrid 1998 American GODZILLA, and Toho revived the series in 2000. The last Toho Godzilla entry was GODZILLA: FINAL WARS in 2004. It seems that SHIN GODZILLA is Toho's attempt at re-establishing their Godzilla brand after a mediocre American adaptation, much like the company's GODZILLA 2000 was an answer to the '98 US Godzilla. SHIN GODZILLA is doing very well financially in Japan, and its story does leave room for a sequel, so one assumes that there will be a new continuing Godzilla series. But considering how different SHIN GODZILLA is from any other Toho Godzilla picture, what will that series wind up being like? If any future entries have the same tone as SHIN GODZILLA, it's hard to see other kaiju like Mothra and Ghidrah popping up, or aliens from outer space trying to use Godzilla to take over the earth. If Toho does continue the series, I'd love to see the characters played by Hiroki Hasegawa and Satomi Ishihara return.
SHIN GODZILLA may not be as "fun" as the classic films everyone thinks of when they reference Godzilla, but it is an effective giant monster science-fiction film. It's far more interesting than the 2014 American GODZILLA, which I have to admit I barely remember now.
Thursday, October 6, 2016
Over a decade ago, Universal released a Region One DVD set of eight Hammer horror films. The set was one of the best Hammer home video releases for the North American market at the time, despite some sniping about it on the internet. I (and many others) have been calling on Universal to upgrade this set to Blu-ray, and the company has finally done it--to even more controversy than the original DVD set faced.
This time out the controversy centers around the aspect ratio of the films in the set. Out of the eight films in the Blu-ray set, three of them have a different aspect ratio from the DVD set. Many internet critics have decreed that the aspect ratios for these films are wrong, and some have even opined that the aspect ratio of every film in the set is out of whack.
I try not to get too technical on my posts, because there are several sites and reviewers out there who are far more knowledgeable in that area than I am. I'm sure most of you know what the term aspect ratio means, but for those that are not familiar with it, I'll try to cover it as simply as possible. The aspect ratio of a film refers to the shape and size of the screen image. The higher the aspect ratio, the wider and more rectangular the picture image will be. Many non-film buffs don't even think about the aspect ratio of a film, and many of them don't even realize--or probably don't even care--that much of what is broadcast on television now is re-formatted to the 1:85.1 ratio of a typical widescreen monitor. This includes everything from 21st Century films made in 2:35.1 widescreen or classic TV shows filmed in the once-standard 1:33.1 ratio.
The reason the aspect ratio of a film is important is that, if it is changed, the intent of the filmmakers is being tampered with. There's a reason why a director chooses a certain ratio to work in, and there's a reason why a cinematographer shoots a scene a certain way. If you take away any part of the original image--or expand that image to make it fit a certain ratio--it's basically the same as taking a painting and cutting portions of it away to fit a certain frame.
Now, when it comes to the films in this Hammer Blu-ray set, all eight of them were made in the early 1960s. Trying to find a "official" original aspect ratio for these films when they were first released is a daunting task--a book or a website is liable to give you a totally different answer than another book or a website, and you can spend all day doing nothing but arguing with other Hammer fans on various internet sites over what the "right" aspect ratios supposedly are. If you want to know from me what the aspect ratios on this Blu-ray set "should" be, I honestly can't tell you.
The Universal Hammer Blu-ray set has the eight films spread out over four discs--two movies on each disc. The first disc could be called "The Terence Fisher Disc" since it contains a pair of the famed Hammer director's best films: THE BRIDES OF DRACULA and THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. On the Universal Hammer DVD set, BRIDES was in 1:66.1 aspect ratio and WEREWOLF was in 1:85.1 ratio. On the Blu-ray set both movies have a 2:00.1 aspect ratio--a very unusual widescreen setting. In my vast home video collection I don't think I have any other titles that are in 2:00.1 It is this ratio that has caused so much consternation on the internet.
Does the 2:00.1 ratio make BRIDES or WEREWOLF seem noticeably different? In all honesty, I personally don't think so. I can't say that the shot set-ups are affected very much. What I did notice was how much more colorful the films appeared to be. BRIDES has a lot of grain to it, but I think it looks fantastic. That's especially high praise from me, considering how much I love BRIDES (it is without doubt my favorite Hammer film, and it contains my all-time favorite Peter Cushing performance). WEREWOLF looks great as well. Both movies, as well as all the titles in this set, are in 2.0 DTS mono sound, and in my mind the audio for these films is richer and fuller than what was on the DVD set.
The second disc contains NIGHT CREATURES and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Both these films are in the same aspect ratio that they were in the DVD set--that 2:00.1 ratio. Both movies look and sound perfectly fine to me.
The third disc features PARANOIAC! and THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. PARANOIAC! is one of Hammer's so-called "mini-Hitchcocks", and the black & white film has the same aspect ratio as it did in the DVD set--2:35.1. THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE had a 1:85.1 ratio in the DVD set--in the Blu-ray it is presented at 1:78.1, and I have to say the visual quality on it looks splendid.
The fourth disc might be called "The Freddie Francis Disc" since he was responsible for directing the two films on it. NIGHTMARE, another of the "mini-Hitchcocks" is the other black & white film in the set and it has the same aspect ratio of 2:35.1 that it did in the DVD set. THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN also has the same ratio as it did in the DVD set (1:85.1). I've seen EVIL more times than I care to remember, and I have to say that I've never seen the movie look as good as it does on this Blu-ray set.
There are no extras whatsoever on this set--not even trailers. But what this set does have is a group of legendary Hammer horrors that in my opinion look far better than I have ever seen them. The colors on the films are much more dynamic, and the audio is better.
Many on the internet have called this set a failure because of the aspect ratios. Even if the ratios on some of the films are not officially "proper"--I still think this is a worthy set. I'm not in any way trying to minimize improper aspect ratios, but for me at least it didn't impair my viewing, or my enjoyment of this set.
I fully understand that many people out there believe this is a bad set. Some of those people have pointed out that just about all the titles on this set have been released in supposedly better Blu-ray versions abroad--but those versions themselves have also come under fan criticism. Besides, many American Hammer fans don't have a region-free Blu-ray player, or they don't want to go to the trouble of spending a lot of money getting international Blu-ray discs. I got this Universal Hammer Blu-ray set from Amazon for about $40 with tax, and that averages out to $5 per movie. The Warner Hammer Blu-ray set which came out a couple years ago cost about the same, and it had only four movies (and it's my belief that the Warner set doesn't have the overall visual quality that the Universal Hammer set does). If you really want to see some expert comparisons between the Universal Hammer set and other Blu-rays featuring the same titles, go to the excellent DVD Beaver website.
I would heartily recommend this Blu-ray set to Hammer/classic horror film fans. (By the way, according to DVD Beaver, the set is region-free.) If the aspect ratios are that much of a bother for you, go ahead and keep using the Universal Hammer DVD set--but take into account that the DVD set crammed the eight movies on two double-sided discs, and many have had playback issues with it (I've had a couple times as well). The movies on this set are some of the best titles Hammer made. The aspect ratio problem (if you feel it is one) is disappointing, and all these films cry out for extensive extras, so this set certainly isn't perfect...but for those with Region One Blu-ray players, it is more than likely going to be the best Hammer product we can ever expect from Universal.
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
This month (October 2016) Turner Classic Movies is spotlighting the film career of Christopher Lee. This is a welcome, if long overdue honor, even if it appears to be inspired by the fact that Halloween is at the end of the month.
TCM kicked off their celebration of Lee by showing a film which features one of his best performances--despite the fact that very few people have actually seen it. JINNAH is based on the life of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern Pakistan. JINNAH wasn't just making its TCM debut--it was making its North American broadcast debut.
I had never seen JINNAH, and I was particularly excited to finally be able to view Lee in the title role. Lee is quite impressive, but the film itself is a bit challenging to watch.
First of all, as a Midwestern American, I have almost no knowledge whatsoever on the historical background of Jinnah's life, or of the partition of Pakistan and India. The film, co-written, produced, and directed by Jamil Dehlavi, seems to assume that the viewer already knows the pertinent details. There's a lot of incidents going on here, and plenty of other historical figures are presented in the story, such as Nehru, Gandhi, and Lord & Lady Mountbatten. Watching JINNAH I kind of wished for a commentary text at the bottom of the screen to give me some idea of what was happening.
The other problem with JINNAH is that it is not a traditional biography with a linear narrative. The movie starts in 1948, with the aged Jinnah near death. The old man suddenly finds himself in a sort of "way station" where a talkative guide tries to decide where to send Jinnah's soul. Jinnah and the guide spend the rest of the film looking back at various points in the statesman's life, making the film even more confusing. (It also brings to mind such films as A CHRISTMAS CAROL and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.) The story shifts from one time period to another, flashing back to Jinnah's younger days to his success at finally creating a homeland for India's Muslims.
Because of this strange story structure, Lee isn't so much playing the "real" Jinnah as he is playing a fantasy version of Jinnah who is reviewing his life and times. At one point Lee as the elder Jinnah even has a conversation with his younger self. I suppose if one knew about all the details of Jinnah's life, this might be interesting, but it's a very unusual way of presenting a screen biography of a historical figure.
It also makes it hard for someone like me to truly judge Jinnah as a person. Are the scenes presented in this film representations of actual historical incidents, or are they just the biased memories of a dying Jinnah's mind? The movie obviously shows favoritism toward Jinnah, but I'm sure that the man had plenty of detractors, as all major political figures do.
As for Lee himself, he's magnificent. Not knowing anything about the real Jinnah, I can't accurately say how realistic Lee's performance was--but he portrays the statesman as a majestic, proud, and stubborn figure, maybe too proud and stubborn for his own good. Lee's greatest attribute was his powerful screen presence, and Lee uses that to convince the viewer that Jinnah was strong and capable enough to literally change world history.
There's also a great sadness underlying Lee's performance as Jinnah. Lee shows a man who has given up much personally and professionally to achieve his goal, and he also shows that Jinnah is well aware of the human cost of that goal. At the climax of the film, Jinnah is shown going back in time and visiting refugees on their way to Pakistan. When Jinnah comes upon a little girl who has lost her mother, and the girl's father, the statesman breaks down and cries--and you can tell Lee isn't acting, he really did break down. Like all great actors, Lee let the emotions of the moment and the story affect his performance. For a man who spent most of his life playing "unhuman" characters, it is a very true human example of Lee's talent.
Jonathan Rigby's excellent book CHRISTOPHER LEE: THE AUTHORISED SCREEN HISTORY goes into detail on the various controversies surrounding the making of JINNAH, especially the decision to cast Lee as a renowned Muslim leader. According to Rigby, Lee received death threats and the Pakistani government withdrew funding for the production. The actual movie certainly doesn't look cheap, and Jamil Dehlavi directed the film very well. JINNAH is watchable for a Western audience (it was filmed in English), and it isn't boring, but if you don't major knowledge of the people and events shown in the film, you may find yourself somewhat lost.
Despite its problems, JINNAH should be seen by any true Christopher Lee fan just for his performance alone. (After seeing it on TCM, I found out that JINNAH is available on YouTube.) I just wish the movie had been more of a "straight" biography--if it had been, I think Lee would have gotten far more mainstream critical acclaim for it. I've known all along that Lee was a great actor, but JINNAH is just more proof of his larger-than-life talent.
Saturday, October 1, 2016
THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS (1958) is more famous for its publicity photos (such as the one above) than anything that happens in the film. The stills, which show the Monster in various poses with a human head, have appeared in dozens of horror film books & magazines. These images prove that the movie has a bit more gruesomeness than the typical 1950s sci-fi/horror flick--but in the end it still remains nothing more than a okay little low-budget monster tale.
THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD by Olive Films (I purchased the DVD version). A small sleepy village on the coast of California is being beset by horrific murders which involve the victims having their heads severed. The excitable local grocer seems to think that it is the work of the legendary "Monster of Piedras Blancas", while the grouchy lighthouse keeper seems to know more about what's really going on than he's willing to tell. The local doctor and constable team up to try and solve the mystery, with help from the lighthouse keeper's voluptuous daughter and her biologist boyfriend.
This movie is 71 minutes long, but even at that length tends to drag at times. The Monster, which looks like a cousin of the Creature of the Black Lagoon, is barely seen until the climax. Director Irvin Berwick manages things in an efficient if workmanlike manner. The film was produced by Jack Kevan, who had worked as a make-up technician in Hollywood on such films as, you guessed it, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.
The best thing about THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS is its small-town atmosphere, due to the real-life California locations. The movie doesn't have a "Hollywood" feel to it, and neither do the lead actors and extras. except for familiar character player Les Tremayne as the doctor. In the story the local grocery also has to serve as a temporary mortuary (I bet this made the townsfolk think twice about buying ice cream). Considering that this town is so small, and the only authorities are a middle-aged doctor and a even-older "constable", I had to wonder why no one thought to call in some help from the county or the state. (Of course, if they did, the movie would have lasted about 15 minutes.)
Jeanne Carmen plays the lighthouse keeper's daughter, and she makes a very attractive Scream Queen. She also gives the girl a independent mindset, but she still winds up wearing a nightgown and being carried off by the Monster (not that there's anything wrong with that). The climax involves the lead characters, the Monster, and the lighthouse, which is another actual location. I couldn't help but feel that the lighthouse ending was reminiscent of the windmill ending featured in James Whale's 1931 FRANKENSTEIN. (An earlier scene in the film, where a distraught father silently carries the body of his little girl though the town, also brought to my mind the Whale classic.)
Olive Films has released THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS in black & white 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture and sound quality are fine--I doubt a low budget almost-60 year old film is going to look any better. As usual with Olive, there are no extras.
I wouldn't call THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS a great film, or even a great 50s monster picture, but it does have some unusual elements. The most unusual is the gruesome tone--and that's not just referring to the decapitations (in the actual film we only see a couple quick shot cuts to a human head). Among the victims are two young brothers and a little girl--it's very rare to have victims that age in a movie like this. You can call this a poor man's CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON--but unlike the creature, the Piedras Blancas Monster doesn't engender much sympathy from the audience.