Saturday, December 31, 2016
Once again it's time to list my top DVD/Blu-rays of the year. I tried to cut down on my home video purchases--and I still bought way too much stuff, despite the fact I skipped a number of discs. The biggest culprit for taking my money was Kino. That company has been regularly releasing cult movies on Blu-ray with new extras and commentaries, and they've got a bunch of enticing things already lined up for next year. I do have to say that other than the top two on my list, most of what I spent my hard-earned money on slotted more in the "very good" category instead of "excellent".
1. THE THING-1982 version (Blu-ray) from Shout Factory
John Carpenter's controversial remake gets more extras than you can shake a shape-shifter at, and the movie looks and sounds fantastic. Shout Factory is to be commended for going all out on their releases--that's something very few companies do anymore.
2. DESTINY (Blu-ray) from Kino
Fritz Lang's legendary silent fantasy classic receives outstanding treatment from Kino. I wrote a full post on it in September.
3. CARNIVAL OF SOULS (Blu-ray) from Criterion
I always wind up having at least one Criterion release on one of these lists. Herk Harvey's low budget masterpiece is one of the creepiest movies ever made. I wrote a full post on it in July.
4. SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (Blu-ray) from Warner Archive
This release made the list for one reason--it looks absolutely spectacular. If it had any new extras at all, it would have most certainly ranked higher. I wrote a post on it in June.
5. THE VIKINGS (Blu-ray) from Kino
I could have placed several other Kino releases at #5....I chose THE VIKINGS because it's such a great film, and the visual quality on the disc is magnificent. I wrote about it back in March.
Friday, December 30, 2016
Now that some time has passed since the opening of ROGUE ONE, this post will further examine the film. (WARNING: If you haven't seen it yet, don't read ahead, because there will be spoilers.)
I honestly believe that ROGUE ONE is the third-best Star Wars film, behind the original and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. When I stated that on Facebook, some folks reacted with surprise, but I can't see why. It's far better than the prequels, and it's better than either RETURN OF THE JEDI and THE FORCE AWAKENS (both those films are basically retreads of the original STAR WARS). ROGUE ONE is most definitely a war film, and it is a dark one. So dark that all the main hero characters in it wind up getting killed (even the sarcastic droid gets bumped off). When I first saw ROGUE ONE I was amazed that Disney/Lucasfilm allowed this to happen. After all, it's hard to sell action figures and toys of characters that don't have a future. But having the group of heroes not survive was the right choice story-wise. It gave emotional weight to the film, and reinforced how powerful the Galactic Empire was, and how overwhelming the odds were against the Rebel Alliance. How many geek culture films have we seen in the last 15 years where all the violence and destruction in them seemed to have no consequences whatsoever?
As I wrote in my first ROGUE ONE post, the movie is not just a war film--it is specifically a WWII film. A rag-tag group attempts to pull off a desperate mission behind enemy lines against a powerful enemy during a major conflict--this description could fit dozens of WWII movies made in the 1960s. The Empire in ROGUE ONE is building a terrifying super weapon, just like Nazi Germany was doing in many of the WWII films. ROGUE ONE has a scene where dozens of Imperial officers gather to watch a demonstration of said super weapon, and a sequence of high-ranking Nazis conferring with one another was expected in a classic war movie. Most of those Second World War flicks featured actual historical characters such as Hitler, Churchill, Ike, etc. ROGUE ONE also has famous "cameos", the most controversial being the CGI representation of Grand Moff Tarkin as played by Peter Cushing. I've already written a post on that, so I'll just say here that the ROGUE ONE Tarkin worked for me. If the CGI version of Tarkin caused some fanboy angst, the CGI Leia featured at the climax of the story seemed to tick fans off even more--but with what has happened in the last week, closing out the film with the Princess now gives ROGUE ONE a whole new level of poignancy.
The biggest Star Wars "historical" character of them all is of course Darth Vader. Vader's appearances in ROGUE ONE are short but long on impact--exactly the way the Dark Lord should be portrayed. Seeing Vader's "home" on Mustafar was a huge treat....but did he have to choke Director Krennic? Is there some sort of rule that whenever Vader shows up, he has to choke someone?? (And that "choke on your aspirations" line wasn't needed.) Vader's all out attack on the Rebels at the end, though, was a Star Wars geek's dream come true.
I figured that with all its darkness, and all the "inside baseball" Star Wars knowledge contained in it, ROGUE ONE might turn off those that didn't obsess over the franchise. However, the movie is continuing to rake it in at the box office. Be prepared to see Star Wars movies every year for a long. long time--Disney is going to squeeze as much out of this franchise as they can. I wonder, though, how the other stand-alone Star Wars films can match up to ROGUE ONE. What helps ROGUE ONE work so well, I think, is that the story had to integrate exactly with the beginning of the first STAR WARS--it had a very thorough base to proceed from. The Original Trilogy timeline is what I and many others believe to be the real Star Wars, so I hope that Disney places their future stand-alone entries in that period.
One last thing I have to go over--the fact that ROGUE ONE underwent a fair amount of re-tinkering before its final cut. The revelation of this was met with a distinct sense of worry on the internet, with rumors that the film had been ruined. Personally I didn't notice anything in ROGUE ONE that made me think of a troubled production. Some have claimed that the character of Jyn Erso was watered down, but for me the story was far more important than any of the individual characters. Many great and successful movies have had various troubles during production--creativity isn't simple or easy. ROGUE ONE, for me, is a satisfying and entertaining tale, and a true prologue to the greatest movie ever made.
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
This is one post I do not want to write.
As I've stated on this blog over and over again, STAR WARS has had a major impact on my life. When this film came out, I was eight years old, and I became obsessed with every aspect of it. The performers in the film were those characters to me. They almost became something of an extended family--I knew more about them than I did my actual relatives, and that statement holds true today.
There was only one major female character in the original Star Wars saga--and yes, I had a major crush on her. I'm sure every young boy who resided on this island Earth in 1977 had a crush on Carrie Fisher, and I'm sure untold generations in the future will have a crush on her as well.
I've been thinking about why she was seemingly everyone's first crush. The massive popularity of STAR WARS was a major factor, and she was an extremely attractive young woman--but I believe it was more than physical beauty. Her Princess Leia wasn't a dream-girl princess--she had an attitude. She was feisty, and she was tough--and she was a little bit intimidating. Young boys have no understanding of the opposite sex (heck, most adult males have absolutely no understanding of the opposite sex). To any young boy, especially a four-eyed nerdy one like me, any female could be intimidating. Carrie's attitude as Leia--and make no mistake, her attitude as an actress made that character--was something that felt real. Leia was kind of like the girls who tried to boss you around the playground at recess. You were annoyed by them--but at the same time, you wanted them to like you.
Over the years I followed Carrie's various travails with a mixture of worry and frustration. Princess Leia made her an icon--but like most iconic roles, it limited her acting career as well. Carrie Fisher was a lot more talented than she was given credit for--she was the daughter of Debbie Reynolds, after all--and if you want proof of that, check out her appearance on the LAVERNE & SHIRLEY TV show. On that episode she got to be sexy, funny, and she even had a chance to sing.
What really hurts me the most about all of this is that I had a chance to meet Carrie Fisher at this summer's Wizard World Chicago--or at least I thought I did. (The details of this are in a post I wrote in August 2016.) Needless to say, I didn't meet her. And now....
I'll admit it, that's going to haunt me for the rest of my life. If I had met her, what would I have said? I honestly don't know. I probably would have just stood there like thousands and thousands of other geeky guys who lined up to meet her over the years.
Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia still affects pop culture to this day. All the female geek movie icons that have followed in her wake--Ripley, Lara Croft, Black Widow, Katniss Everdeen, etc.--have a little bit of Leia in them. Carrie Fisher has very likely touched more lives than any performer before or since. I hope in some way she understood that--and that all those geeky guys like me truly did care about her.
Rest easy, Princess.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
Out of all the movie genres, the wildest and the wackiest has to be the Spaghetti Western. 1971's BLINDMAN certainly lives up that reputation, with a main character who is...blind. (At least the title doesn't fool you into thinking the movie is something it is not.) The film also stars none other than Ringo Starr. BLINDMAN has just been officially released on DVD by ABKCO, the company that produced the film.
Tony Anthony, who had a long history of appearing in Euro Westerns, stars as the Blindman (he also wrote the script). The Blindman (following Spaghetti Western tradition, we never find out his real name) is a bounty hunter who is tasked to deliver 50 mail order brides to a group of miners in Texas. The Blindman has been sold out by his partners, however, and the brides have been taken by a ruthless Mexican bandit named Domingo. The Blindman travels south of the border to get them back, and faces off against not only Domingo's gang, but the Mexican Army as well.
The very idea of a blind gunslinger seems ludicrous, but Anthony does an exceptional job in making the viewer believe that a guy like this could operate and survive in the Old West. The soft-spoken Blindman fools his opponents into thinking he is helpless, but he's a crack shot with his Winchester rifle (which he also uses as a makeshift cane). The Blindman is also proficient in the use of dynamite (like most Euro Western characters, he seems to have a few sticks on his person at all times). I presume that Anthony was inspired by the Japanese film series concerning Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman.
As for Ringo Starr, he plays Domingo's vicious brother Candy. Nowadays, whenever Ringo posts something on the internet, he adds the phrase "Peace & Love". Well, in BLINDMAN, Ringo isn't very peaceful and loving. His Candy not only tortures the Blindman, he kicks him in the face afterwards for good measure. The reason for Candy's ire is a local girl he's obsessed with who tries to help the Blindman. Those Beatles fans who decide to watch this film will be shocked at how cruel Ringo acts in it. Why he even wanted to play a role like this--in a film like this--is a mystery. Was he trying to show off his acting range? Whatever the reason, the melancholy-looking mop-top appears even more melancholy here--while most Spaghetti Western villains revel in their heinous acts, Candy comes off as droopy and depressed. One would assume that Ringo didn't like making this movie very much--but he did record a song called "Blindman", which appears on the B-side of the "Back Off Boogaloo" single. The song is not in the film, however...it is readily available on YouTube.
Director Ferdinando Baldi uses the widescreen Techniscope format very well, and the action scenes are staged successfully. The music score by Stelvio Cipriani is a good one for this genre, and it fulfills the bizarre aspects of the movie. I must point out, though, that BLINDMAN is not exactly for all tastes. The 50 mail order brides are treated worse than 50 head of cattle would be. Not only do we not get to know any of the women, none of them have any dialogue! During the course of the story the brides are manhandled and assaulted at various times, and their clothes get ripped off frequently. The Blindman's affliction is taken advantage of, and the movie does try to derive some humor from his situation, though not as much as one might expect.
ABCKO's DVD of BLINDMAN presents the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the DVD case says the film was mastered from the original 35mm negative. The movie does look impressive, and considering it's a lesser-known Spaghetti Western, I doubt one can find a version that looks even better. The soundtrack is in English, with a choice between a 5.1 or a 2.0 mix--I listened to the 5.1 mix and it sounds very robust, especially the music score. I assume that since this DVD comes from the company that made the film that it is uncut--there's plenty of topless shots of the hapless brides--but with any Euro Western, you can never say for certain that it is complete.
BLINDMAN will be of most interest to Spaghetti Western fans. I would call it an above-average example of the genre, due to its quirkiness. Beatles fans may want to see it at least once because of Ringo--but they won't be too happy with how his character acts on-screen.
Sunday, December 18, 2016
I was going to wait a bit before writing this post, but the discussion over the use of a CGI version of Peter Cushing in ROGUE ONE has gone viral. Since Peter Cushing is my favorite actor of all time, and STAR WARS is my favorite movie of all time, I felt I had to write a post dealing solely with the subject.
I had heard plenty of rumors beforehand that a CGI Tarkin would be featured in ROGUE ONE, so I wasn't all that surprised to see it in the actual film. What did surprise me was that this wasn't a mere cameo--Tarkin plays a rather significant role in the story. He wasn't hidden in the shadows, and we didn't just get a quick glimpse of him--he's right there, front and center, in a number of scenes.
For better or worse, it definitely looks like Peter Cushing--I even have to say that the effect is almost uncanny. It's a bit jarring, no doubt, but it's also somewhat thrilling to see one's favorite actor "back" on the big screen.
The biggest problem with the CGI Tarkin, from my perspective, is the voice. Actor Guy Henry performed the "base" for the CGI rendering (he's credited on screen as Tarkin), and I assume he did the voice as well. Peter Cushing had a very unique and specific look--and he also had a very unique and specific voice and speech pattern. You might even say Cushing's voice is harder to imitate than his physical appearance. The CGI Tarkin looks so much like the actual Cushing, that hearing a very non-Cushing voice coming from it is kind of disconcerting.
Is it Cushing...or is it Memorex?
I would say that for me, the CGI Cushing worked, even with the strange voice. There's one thing in particular that really sold me on it. It happens at the end of Tarkin's first appearance, after he has a heated discussion with Ben Mendelsohn's Krennic on the Death Star. After Krennic leaves, Tarkin looks back and gives a wicked smirk. That smirk is absolutely, totally something the real life Cushing might have done--he used that type of smirk many times throughout his acting career, especially when he was playing Baron Frankenstein. When I saw that, I started nodding my head and saying to myself, Yes, that's him.
Now, there are plenty of folks who are not so impressed by the CGI Tarkin--and a few others who are upset about it. Many (like my brother Robert) believe that the effect is distracting, and takes one out of the movie. Some think that it is creepy, because Cushing has been dead for over 20 years. The thing about that is, movies constantly have long-dead famous or historical figures in them (played by actors, of course). No one seems creeped out over that.
There's a also a number of people who feel that Disney/Lucasfilm crossed some sort of ethical line by using Cushing's image in this way. Joyce Broughton, who oversees the Cushing estate, gave her permission to Lucasfilm, so from that standpoint I don't think the filmmakers did anything wrong. Some will argue that Lucasfilm shouldn't have done it, period--that they should have hired another actor, or kept Tarkin out of the story altogether.
The problem with that viewpoint is that Tarkin plays a very important role in the proceedings--the character had to make an appearance somehow. As for casting another actor, as I've already stated, nobody really looks--or sounds--like Peter Cushing. Who would you have cast? David Warner? Bill Nighy? In my opinion, to have another actor play Tarkin would have been just as distracting.
As for the idea of "Get another actor and slap some makeup on him", that was done before in REVENGE OF THE SITH. Wayne Pygram played Tarkin, and we only see him very briefly at the end of the film, in a long shot. I think the reason he wasn't shown more is simple, if you look at the picture below. The makeup Pygram wore seems in my estimation overdone--the sunken cheeks may look natural on Cushing, but when applied to someone else it appears bizarre.
Wayne Pygram as Tarkin in REVENGE OF THE SITH
I sincerely believe that the makers of ROGUE ONE wanted to use the "real" Tarkin, and they wanted to honor Peter Cushing, who is, after all, a major geek icon. One of the end credits of ROGUE ONE says "With Special Acknowledgment to Peter Cushing, O.B.E." But I also think there might have been an ulterior motive in the use of a CGI Tarkin. It might just have been a sort of test...remember that Disney/Lucasfilm plans to make several stand-alone Star Wars features, and they may have wanted to see if this was a viable way to bring back an original character. Besides, there's another CGI version of a famous role in ROGUE ONE, and I won't get into that, in case you haven't seen the film yet.
I've been reading a lot of posts on the internet about ROGUE ONE and the CGI Tarkin, and from I can ascertain, the more you love the movie (and the Star Wars Universe in general), the more willing you are to buy into the effect. Those who are bothered by the effect the most seem to be those that could care less about anything having to do with Star Wars. My feelings on the subject are obviously biased, and I'll admit that if a CGI version of a late actor I didn't have any major feelings for appeared in a movie franchise that I wasn't a major fan of, my reaction would most likely be, "What a goofy gimmick!!"
It's one thing to see the CGI Tarkin in a darkened theater, while you are caught up in the film, than it is to be watching it at home, on a HD widescreen monitor, where you can examine it in more detail. Whether the CGI Tarkin will hold up on Blu-ray remains to be seen.
Another part of the CGI Tarkin discussion is what ramifications this will have on the future of movies. I personally don't foresee dead actors popping up everywhere. ROGUE ONE is a science-fiction fantasy film, and most viewers would be more willing to accept a CGI recreation of a performer in that context than they would in a "normal" movie. I doubt that we are going to have to worry about seeing a CGI Carole Lombard placed in a contemporary romantic comedy, or a CGI Ingrid Bergman showing up in a contemporary drama. But...I wouldn't put anything past the 21st Century entertainment industry. In the end it will be the public that eventually decides how far this thing might go.
The CGI Grand Moff Tarkin isn't 100% perfect, but I, as a Peter Cushing fan, got a kick out of it. Think about it this way--all over the internet, people are mentioning Cushing's name. This is very satisfying to me, since the usual reaction I get when I tell people that Peter Cushing is my favorite actor is, "Who's Peter Cushing??" We don't know what Cushing himself might have thought of this, but considering that he mentioned in interviews how disappointed he was that Tarkin's death prevented him from being in the other Star Wars films, I bet he would have enjoyed it. Wherever he's at right now, he's probably nudging Christopher Lee in the ribs, saying, "I'm on the silver screen again, dear boy!"
Friday, December 16, 2016
I went and saw ROGUE ONE today after work. And what are my first impressions?
I absolutely loved it.
This film is set right before the events depicted in STAR WARS. As I'm sure most of you know, STAR WARS is my favorite movie of all time. So, to go back to that "time period" is a huge treat for me. This is MY Star Wars Universe--the Universe of the Sacred Original Trilogy.
I'm not going to go into particular details here, because I don't want to ruin anything for anyone. I'll do what I did for THE FORCE AWAKENS and write a more extensive blog about a week from now...besides, I really want to see ROGUE ONE again.
There are a few things I can discuss. One point I must make is that this is a dark film. It deals directly with the rebellion against the Galactic Empire, and the story is filled with subterfuge and intrigue. I believe older pre-teens can handle it--but very young children will either be bored, or constantly questioning their adult companions why so many characters died. ROGUE ONE was the subject of extensive re-shoots, supposedly to make the movie lighter--and it that is true, it makes me interested in what the original cut must have been like.
I also must make clear that one's enjoyment of the film will be predicated on how big a Star Wars fan one is. If you happen to only "like" Star Wars--in other words, if you have never read a Star Wars novel, or a Star Wars comic book, but you've seen the movies a couple times--you may not truly appreciate all the little surprises that pop up. If you are a major Star Wars geek such as myself, you'll feel as if you were transported to Nerd Heaven.
Another thing I have to point out is that from my perspective ROGUE ONE is basically a World War II movie, much like the ones made in the 1960s. Try to imagine as if the Star Wars Universe actually happened--then the destruction of the Death Star was as important an historical moment as, say, Pearl Harbor or the invasion of Normandy. Many movies have been made about the lead-up to famous World War II events, and they usually revolve around a rag-tag group of heroes tasked with an impossible mission--just like the main characters of ROGUE ONE. These WWII movies often feature "cameos" from important figures such as Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt, etc. ROGUE ONE also features cameos from famous Star Wars figures (I'll go into that more deeply in my future post).
If you are a major Star Wars geek, you need to see ROGUE ONE right away, before everything about the movie gets plastered all over the internet. Be warned, however, that this really isn't a movie for very little kids. I heartily endorse it...I think it's better than THE FORCE AWAKENS. Unlike that movie, ROGUE ONE isn't a rehash of the greatest film ever made...it is more like an addendum to it, an addendum that adds and expands to one's love of the Star Wars Universe.
Monday, December 12, 2016
Here's a list of famous film performers and directors who were born in Indiana. I have to point out that many of these folks spent relatively little time actually living in the state (Carole Lombard, who is pictured above, Steve McQueen, and Howard Hawks fit this category). I'm sure this will only reinforce the idea that some people have about Indiana--that it is a place you have to leave in order to "be somebody". The city in which the person was born is listed after their names.
Anne Baxter (Michigan City)
James Best (Corydon)
Beulah Bondi (Valparasio)
James Dean (Fairmount)
Vivica A. Fox (Indianapolis)
Brendan Fraser (Indianapolis)
Will Geer (Frankfort)
Greg Kinnear (Logansport)
Carole Lombard (Fort Wayne)
Shelley Long (Fort Wayne)
Marjorie Main (Acton)
Karl Malden (Gary)
Strother Martin (Kokomo)
Steve McQueen (Beech Grove)
Red Skelton (Vincennes)
Alice Terry (Vincennes)
Forrest Tucker (Plainfield)
Clifton Webb (Indianapolis)
Fred "The Hammer" Williamson (Gary)
Dick York (Fort Wayne)
Musicians Michael Jackson (Gary) and Hoagy Carmichael (Bloomington) appeared in a few films, and songwriter Cole Porter (Peru) made a significant contribution to the Hollywood musical.
Among the film directors born in Indiana, the most notable are Howard Hawks (Goshen), Robert Wise (Winchester), Sydney Pollack (Lafayette), David Anspaugh (Decatur), Norman Foster (Richmond), and Lambert Hillyer (some sources say Tyner, others say South Bend)
Sunday, December 11, 2016
Today is the 200th anniversary of Indiana officially becoming an American state. To coincide with this momentous occasion, I've decided to take a look at how Indiana has fared in the movies. In all honesty....there isn't really much to go over.
A few movies have been based in Indiana, but not nearly as much as other, more famous states--and there's even fewer movies that were actually filmed in the state. Indiana has a reputation as being "flyover country"--a dull place with no natural wonders, a place filled with boring, ordinary folks. Whenever a character in a film or a TV show is revealed to be from Indiana, it is usually a shorthanded way of showing that the character is naive, or unsophisticated, or a "rube" (does anyone even use the term "rube" anymore?).
Probably the most famous movies set in Indiana are A CHRISTMAS STORY, HOOSIERS, BREAKING AWAY, and RUDY. It's no coincidence that three of those films feature protagonists trying to succeed at athletic events against daunting odds. Most Americans would naturally assume that someone in Indiana would be one of the "little guys", therefore it would make sense to base a sports film in the Hoosier state. Anyone living in Indiana just has to be an underdog.
As for other Indiana films, there's KNUTE ROCKNE, ALL-AMERICAN (like RUDY, a film based more on the University of Notre Dame than the Hoosier state), all the various movies based on the life of John Dillinger, the MGM epic RAINTREE COUNTY, and a number of titles which have sequences concerning the Indianapolis 500, such as the THE CROWD ROARS with James Cagney.
Indiana has made a "cameo" in many famous films. When it comes to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, one always thinks of Devil's Tower in Wyoming--but the scenes involving Richard Dreyfuss' character and his family are set in Indiana. Remember in THE BLUES BROTHERS when the band makes a stop at Bob's Country Bunker? That toddlin' joint is supposed to be located outside of Kokomo, Indiana. (Don't try looking for it--Bob's never existed, although people still ask where it is to this day.) The crop duster sequence in NORTH BY NORTHWEST is one of the most renowned movie set-pieces of all time--and in the story it takes place somewhere in Northern Indiana, even though it was filmed in California. In THE PHILADELPHIA STORY my birthplace and hometown of South Bend is mentioned, and I always get a kick out of that. In REMEMBER THE NIGHT, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck travel to the Hoosier state, and they fall in love while there.
There have been plenty of famous performers who were born in Indiana...including some that would surprise you. I'll examine that list in part two of this post.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
Following up on his magnificent volumes ENGLISH GOTHIC and AMERICAN GOTHIC, Author Johnathan Rigby examines 20th Century European horror cinema with EURO GOTHIC.
In this new book, Rigby deals with four specific European countries--Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Those who might feel that Rigby should have expanded his coverage must be advised that EURO GOTHIC is over 400 pages long, and hundreds of films are given thorough analysis. (If Rigby had tried to deal with every European horror film made since the dawn of cinema, he probably would never had gotten the book done.)
Rigby begins in the silent era, with the German Expressionist classics that laid down the groundwork for so many future productions. The coming of sound (and the coming of fascist dictatorships soon after) curtailed Euro Gothic cinema for a period, and it wasn't till the late 1950s that the genre began to pick up steam, inspired of course by the success of England's Hammer Films.
The 1960s saw Euro Gothic at its full height, and in the 1970s, with violence and particularly sex ramped up, the floodgates opened with an array of bizarre titles and stories. Rigby stops at the early 1980s, when gore & zombies flourished on the continent.
The careers of many leading figures of Euro Gothic are delved into, such as Riccard Freda, Mario Bava, Jess Franco, Antonio Margheriti, Jean Rollin, Dario Argento, Paul Naschy, Lucio Fulci, and of course the iconic Barbara Steele.
The book retains basically the same design of ENGLISH GOTHIC and AMERICAN GOTHIC, and it is lavishly illustrated with two different color sections.
Rigby as usual does a brilliant job in placing the films within the context of the times in which they were made, and while he discusses their pluses and minuses in an authoritative manner, he still manages to work in servings of dry humor. The author makes many perceptive comments about the various titles, such as his statement that 1963's THE LAST MAN ON EARTH would have been better served with a "regular guy" actor in the lead role such as Martin Balsam or Lee J. Cobb instead of Vincent Price.
The titles used of the films covered are those which they were known in the countries in which they were produced, which might cause some confusion for readers familiar with the English versions. (An Midwestern American guy like myself can barely spell TERRORE NELLO SPAZIO, let alone pronounce it--besides, that movie will always be PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES to me.)
When it came to ENGLISH GOTHIC and AMERICAN GOTHIC, I had seen--or at least heard of--just about every single one of the movies featured in those books. With EURO GOTHIC, most of the films featured I had very little or no knowledge of. If you think you've seen everything when it comes to horror films, EURO GOTHIC will dissuade you of that notion. A few of the movies covered in the book I even sought out and viewed on the internet, and I intend to find more. I do have to admit that a number of the titles, especially many from the 1970s, hold no appeal for me at all. The author deserves some kind of award for viewing all these productions--he must have had an infinite amount of patience (and a very strong stomach). If you are someone like me, you've read just about every important book on classic horror films that there is. It's nice to find a volume on the subject that increases your knowledge of it, instead of reiterating what you already know.
ENGLISH GOTHIC and AMERICAN GOTHIC are two of my favorite movie books of all time, so it's no surprise that am I going to heartily recommend EURO GOTHIC. I assume that this will put an end to Jonathan Rigby's "Gothic" film series....but I hope that he might decide to write a sequel to AMERICAN GOTHIC (that book ended in the late 1950s), or maybe he can examine the American science-fiction film boom of the 1950s. Perhaps he can call that book AMERICAN FUTURE?
Friday, December 9, 2016
On this day exactly 100 years ago Issur Danielovitch was born. Under the name Kirk Douglas, he went on to become one of the greatest leading men in cinema history. I couldn't let such a momentous occasion as a 100th birthday go by without writing a blog post.
It's ironic that Kirk Douglas' film debut was as Barbara Stanwyck's weak-willed husband in THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946). Douglas became a symbol of American male movie masculinity, helped by his most outstanding acting trait, an almost manic intensity. Douglas didn't just play a role--he consumed it. Just watching a typical Douglas performance can wear a person out.
In the decade of the 1950s, Douglas starred in an amazing run of renowned films: ACE IN THE HOLE, DETECTIVE STORY, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, LUST FOR LIFE, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, THE VIKINGS, PATHS OF GLORY, and the vastly underrated LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL. He finished the decade starring in and producing SPARTACUS. How many other movie stars have had a ten year period like that?
What made Douglas' leading man credentials different was that he almost never played what would be considered a "normal" starring role. Today actors like Leonardo DiCaprio are lauded for choosing difficult characters to portray, but Kirk Douglas was doing that over a half-century ago. The men Douglas enacted were not simple one-note heroes--they were often conflicted, troubled men, men who could exasperate as well as inspire. Consider his Vincent Van Gogh in LUST FOR LIFE--what I feel is his all-time best screen performance. Could any other American leading man of that period have been able to star in that film? And what about his role in THE VIKINGS, in which his character gets disfigured early on in the story? How many big stars would spend almost an entire film with their handsome faces covered in a gruesome makeup?
Douglas produced several of the films he starred in, and he even directed a couple as well. It was Douglas who helped bring ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST to Broadway, as well as playing the lead role. The multi-tasking, multi-format celebrity we hear so much about today is walking a trail blazed long ago by Douglas.
There are very few real movie stars alive today, and Kirk Douglas is one of them. The best compliment I can give the man is that he never did anything easy.
Thursday, December 8, 2016
36 years after his death, Steve McQueen remains an important pop culture icon--he wasn't called "The King of Cool" for nothing. The documentary STEVE MCQUEEN: THE MAN & LE MANS examines one of the pivotal moments of McQueen's life--the 1970 production of his dream project, LE MANS.
Steve McQueen had spent most of his life involved in some form of motor sports or another, and by the late 1960s, he had accumulated enough clout as a movie star to get his dream of making a "real" movie about auto racing started. As this documentary (directed by Gabriel Clarke & John McKenna) shows, the dream soon turned into a nightmare.
At first McQueen was determined to actually participate in the real 24 Hours of Le Mans race, but insurance concerns stopped that idea cold. Production began without a finished script, and as the filming slogged on and on, and the budget got bigger and bigger, the film's backers wondered if the movie would ever be completed.
McQueen personally chose John Sturges as director--the two men had worked a number of times before. As things began to spiral out of control, Sturges grew impatient with McQueen and quit. The actor finally had to make a major sacrifice just to get the film finished, and the documentary puts forth the idea that the experience soured McQueen on competitive racing altogether.
THE MAN & LE MANS features a fair amount of footage shot for McQueen's film that was never used, and several clips taken on the set during the production. It goes into detail about the many technical advances that were used to film the cars going at their full speeds of over 200 miles per hour. Many people who were part of the crew of LE MANS are interviewed, including some of the professional auto racers who drove on the film.
Steve McQueen's first wife and son are also interviewed. THE MAN & LE MANS pulls no punches when it comes to McQueen's rather complicated personality. The things that made McQueen so exciting on-screen, such as the sense of danger he exuded, his anti-authoritarian, rebellious attitude, and his inability to conform to anyone's standards except his own, were traits that also carried into his personal life--not always to his advantage. McQueen was determined, one way or another, to get his vision of what racing was like on the big screen--and this determination affected his family, his friends, and those who risked their lives driving the cars for the film. Many private audio clips are used of McQueen musing over a number of subjects, and these sound bites reveal the actor to be far more thoughtful than one would expect from his usual public brashness.
This documentary is a must-see for anyone who is interested in Steve McQueen, and for those who get into the "inside baseball" aspects of the movie industry. It is worth a look to racing fans as well, especially for the footage of the vintage cars and the racers interviewed.
The actual movie LE MANS isn't really the bomb some people have suggested--but if you are not a racing or Steve McQueen buff, you'll probably be bored. STEVE MCQUEEN: THE MAN & LE MANS is definitely not boring--McQueen is just as much a fascinating subject as he was during his heyday as a iconic leading man.
Saturday, December 3, 2016
Kino Lorber, through their Studio Classics line, has released the 1986 film BIGGLES on Region A Blu-ray. (On the disc case the movie is sub-titled ADVENTURES IN TIME, but the actual movie only has the title BIGGLES.) The most noticeable thing about this picture is that it is the last theatrically released film to feature a performance from the great Peter Cushing.
BIGGLES is based on a character of a World War One-era Royal Air Force pilot which appeared in a number of novels written by English author W. E. Johns. The only other time I have ever heard of Biggles in any other context other than this movie is when Monty Python would mention the character in some of their comedy skits. Being an American, it's not surprising that I wouldn't know much about Biggles, but I have to wonder how many people knew about him even in 1986.
The movie tries to introduce audiences to Biggles by sticking him with a "modern" counterpart. 1980s New York yuppie Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White) finds out that he is a "time twin" of WWI pilot James "Biggles" Bigglesworth (Neil Dickson). The two men continually pop into each other's time streams. While in Biggles' time, Jim is forced to help the war hero stop the Germans from using a sonic super weapon to change the course of history.
Apparently the producers of BIGGLES felt that the character needed some sort of gimmick to get the attention of contemporary viewers--hence the time travel element. This begs the question--if the filmmakers were not comfortable in Biggles carrying a film on his own, why did they use him in the first place? Director John Hough (who worked with Cushing in Hammer's TWINS OF EVIL) does his best with what he has, and the movie has some nice aerial sequences, but BIGGLES has more than a few problems. The synth-pop music score hurts the movie badly, and ruins whatever adventurous mood is trying to be conveyed. The "time twin" concept doesn't make a lot of sense, even after Peter Cushing himself tries to explain it. The script's many lame attempts at humor fall totally flat, and Jim Ferguson is not written very well--he comes off as annoying and someone you're not all that interested in. Neil Dickson is fine as Biggles, but there's nothing in the story that makes Biggles particularly noteworthy--he seems like just another typical "Steady on, chaps" type of British military officer. BIGGLES would have worked far better as a straight period piece.
The main attraction in this Blu-ray is watching Peter Cushing in his final film performance. He plays Colonel Raymond, who was a commanding officer of Biggles. Raymond is the one who informs Jim Ferguson on what is really going on, and because of this whatever emotional weight the movie has is provided by Cushing. Col. Raymond's "lair" is located inside the supports of London's Tower Bridge, and a large portrait of Queen Victoria is quite prominently featured (Hough places Cushing in front of it a number of times). Cushing looks incredibly frail (he was 72 during filming, but he appears even older), but his determination and conviction as an actor is as strong as ever. As he did throughout his entire career, Cushing brings an absolute sincerity to his role, and it's nice that in his cinematic swan song he got to play an Englishman--and a Defender of the Realm to boot. Cushing fans can at least give thanks that the Great Man's final performance wasn't one of those "old Nazi" parts he played a number of times during his older years.
I must point out that the character of Jim Ferguson's supposed comic relief co-worker is played by William Hootkins, who will forever be known as Porkins, one of the Rebels who attacked the Death Star in STAR WARS. At the end of BIGGLES, the X-Large X-Wing Pilot and Grand Moff Tarkin (Cushing) actually are in the same scene!
Kino's Blu-ray of BIGGLES features the usual fine picture & sound quality one expects from the company. The extras are two brand-new interviews with Neil Dickson and Alex Hyde-White. Dickson reveals that not only did he know about Biggles, he had even read some of the books. Dickson has nothing but positive memories about the project--he even gushes about the film's soundtrack! Hyde-White shares that even though he was the son of British character actor Wilfrid Hyde-White, he was raised in America. Both Dickson and Hyde-White share their admiration for Peter Cushing.
BIGGLES is supposed to be a light-hearted action adventure tale, so maybe my nitpicking is not the proper response to it--but I do feel it could have been better than what it was. The movie will be mostly of interest to Peter Cushing fans. His last movie isn't great, but it gave the actor the chance to go out in a decent role.