Monday, July 31, 2017
A REAL Batman movie has just been released on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993) was produced by the folks behind the wonderful BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. That TV show--and this movie--are far more truer to Batman's comic book roots than any of the character's live-action appearances.
Major gangsters are being killed in Gotham City, and the Batman is being blamed for it. The Caped Crusader's investigations of the murder wave lead him to some painful memories--mainly a broken relationship with the beautiful Andrea Beaumont, a woman that Bruce Wayne almost married. Andrea may have a connection with the gangland killings through her father. Batman's pursuit of this new vigilante--the Phantasm--also puts him in the path of the nefarious Joker, with devastating revelations for all concerned.
Clocking in at a compact 76 minutes, this movie might be mistaken as just an extra-length episode of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, but it's much more than that. MASK OF THE PHANTASM carries a PG rating, but it is a very dark story. The Phantasm does kill people, after all, and much of the story takes place during rain-soaked night scenes. During a flashback concerning Bruce Wayne's romance with Andrea Beaumont, the millionaire crime fighter feels guilty that if he marries the woman, he is turning his back on his vow to avenge his parent's deaths--which leads to Bruce having a breakdown in front of his parents' graves. This sequence has more emotional resonance than all the live-action Batman movies combined.
Usually when there is a romance for Bruce Wayne in a Batman movie, it comes off as contrived. Here it's totally believable, due to the earnest vocal performances by Kevin Conroy (who has portrayed the Dark Knight more than any other actor) and Dana Delany (who would go on to provide the voice of Lois Lane in Warner's Superman animated series). The Bruce Wayne-Andrea Beaumont relationship gives MASK OF THE PHANTASM a layer of dramatic weight that the "real" DC movies do not have.
The Joker has a only a supporting role in this film, but it's an important one, and Mark Hamill is dangerously funny as the Clown Prince of Crime. We also get to hear such character actors as Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, and Dick Miller. I would be remiss if I did not mention the droll subtlety of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred.
BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM comes to Blu-ray in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1 widescreen. The movie is also presented in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The movie looks much brighter than the old DVD version, but it retains the classic animated look, which I prefer to today's too-perfect and too-sterile computer animation. The sound is presented in DTS-HD 2.0 stereo, and it is a booming mix, showcasing the action scenes and Shirley Walker's haunting music score.
I've always felt that BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES was the best representation of Batman in any medium other than DC comics. MASK OF THE PHANTASM was made during the series' height, and I can truly say that the only better Batman movie that has been made since is BATMAN BEGINS. If you think that animated means "kids stuff", you would be totally off the mark concerning MASK OF THE PHANTASM. It is a Batman movie for true Bat-fans. I do have to point out that it might be too dark for very young children.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
I've always admired Christopher Nolan's film making abilities. He is a master at putting together intense, thrilling action sequences. I just haven't been able to love his movies as much as others. I've found his films to be overlong, overly complicated, and filled with too many climaxes.
With DUNKIRK Nolan has found the perfect subject for his considerable talents. Focusing on one historical incident brings out the best in the writer-director. The real-life saga of the British Expeditionary Force trapped on the coast of France in late spring of 1940, and facing utter annihilation from the German military, has enough dramatics on its own without Nolan inventing more. The actual timeline of the event keeps the film at a crisp 106 minutes, and Nolan has the audience on the edge of their seats during the entire time.
The film has three main points of view--an ordinary British soldier trying to get off the beach, an English civilian sailing his personal boat to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation, and a Spitfire pilot in the skies above. Nolan switches back and forth between the three subplots, compressing and stretching time, never letting the viewer catch a breath. There's no downtime in this film--Nolan strips away the usual war movie cliches. There's no scenes of wives and girlfriends waiting anxiously back home, or meetings of the German High Command, or shots of Winston Churchill staring pensively at a map. We're right in the thick of things with the protagonists in the sea, the air, and on the beach. The overall effect is riveting--and Nolan pulls it off without copious amounts of CGI gore.
We get no background information whatsoever on the characters in this film--for most of them we don't even get to learn their names. Some may find this annoying, but I think in this instance it works. Because we don't really know the characters we don't know how they will react to the various situations inflected on them--thus increasing the drama. There's no obvious war movie types here--the overall situation is more important than any one single character.
DUNKIRK is very much a visual experience--the images of real Spitfires soaring through the skies are awe-inspiring--but the sound design is noteworthy as well. Mention must be made of frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, who contributes not so much a classic music score, but a driving tonal effect that ratchets up the tension.
It would be very easy for me to go on and on about DUNKIRK--but I would much rather have you see the film for yourself than spend time reading my opinion on it. I wonder if the movie will find the wide audience it deserves--at the screening I attended for it I was the youngest person in the theater, and I'm in my mid 40s. I hope DUNKIRK does not get branded as a "old white persons" story. The Second World War was the most monumental event in modern history--and in 2017 it's very easy to take for granted that the Allies won. If the BEF had been wiped out on the beaches of Dunkirk, or captured, the United Kingdom very well might have had to sign a treaty with Germany--and if that happened, where would have the D-Day invasion been staged from? DUNKIRK is a brilliantly made spectacle concerning human courage and tenacity, and it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, no matter what their backgrounds or ages may be.
Saturday, July 22, 2017
Movies don't get much more offbeat than SHALAKO. The 1968 Western was filmed in Spain, directed by a man who came out of the Hollywood studio system, and stars a collection of international actors. SHALAKO has just been released on Region A Blu-ray by Kino Studio Classics.
Sean Connery is SHALAKO--this was one of the first films he made after his initial retirement from the role of James Bond. The movie was based on a novel by Louis L'Amour, and a text introduction by the author states that throughout the 19th Century, European elites would take excursions into the American frontier in search of adventure and excitement. Connery's Shalako, a frontier scout, encounters a group of such aristocrats in the American Southwest. The group, which includes a Countess (Brigitte Bardot), a Baron (Peter Van Eyck), an English couple (Jack Hawkins and Honor Blackman), and a former U.S. Senator (Alexander Knox), has been led into Apache territory by their unscrupulous guide (Stephen Boyd). Shalako tries to warn the group of the danger that they are in, but they refuse to take him seriously, leading to the Apaches attacking and the embattled party having to work together to survive.
During the beginning of this film it takes some getting used to seeing Connery decked out in cowboy gear and riding a horse, but he does rather well in the role and the period. The actor is certainly masculine enough to put across the idea that he's someone well versed in the ways of the frontier. The characters of the hunting party are basically arrogant fools, and one wonders why Shalako would risk his life for them. Shalako is interested in the Countess, for obvious reasons (she's played by Brigitte Bardot, after all), but it's hard for a viewer to make a connection with her because Bardot's accent is so thick it's almost impossible to understand what she's saying. (Bardot also spends the entire movie wearing enough eyeliner to punch a hole in the ozone layer). Shalako may go out of his way to save the aristocrats for the Countess's sake, but it's doubtful the two characters could have a lasting relationship.
The leader of the band of Apaches is man called Chato, and he's played by Woody Strode. Apparently Chato is the same character played by Charles Bronson in CHATO'S LAND (talk about your shared cinema universes). Strode makes a powerful impression with very little screen time, but the big showdown between Chato and Shalako at the end of the film is something of an anti-climax.
A couple of other Bond veterans were part of the SHALAKO crew--cinematographer Ted Moore and stuntman/stunt arranger Bob Simmons. Simmons was kept pretty busy on this film (lots of folks fall off of horses in this story), but director Edward Dmytryk handles the action sequences in a generic fashion. (Dmytryk, who is more notorious for his involvement in the Hollywood blacklist controversy of the early 1950s, made a far better Western called WARLOCK.) As for Moore, his photography is hindered by the arid, depressing Spanish locations (if you've seen a number of Spaghetti Westerns, you might actually recognize some of them).
The Spanish locations, and the international cast, reminds one of a Spaghetti Western--but SHALAKO is nowhere near as outlandish or stylish as a typical outing from that genre. The movie will be most appreciated by Sean Connery fans and film buffs.
Thursday, July 20, 2017
The Marvel Cinematic Universe steamroller continues with SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING. Tom Holland made a fine debut as the Web Slinger in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, and he capably handles the responsibilities of being the main star of a major comic book film.
Holland is the third big-screen Spider-Man in the last 15 years. At this rate, in a couple of decades from now, there will be as many Spideys as Doctor Whos. Hopefully Holland will stick around for awhile, because he's appealing and believable as a misfit teen aged Peter Parker. This new Spider-Man film spends a lot of time dealing with Peter's high school adventures, so if you are like me and don't look back too fondly on those years, you might get somewhat impatient during these scenes.
But there is plenty of requisite comic book movie action. Remember that now the movie Spider-Man is an official part of the MCU, which thankfully broadens the character's scope. Spidey's taste of action in CIVIL WAR leaves him hungering for more, and badgering Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr of course) for a shot at the big time. Stark provides Peter with a special tripped-out Spidey suit, and the young hero is able to "communicate" with it. This comes very close to the Iron Man-Jarvis dynamic....but Peter's gadgets are taken away from him before the finale, which sets up a variation of the "with great power comes great responsibility" motif, provided by Tony Stark, of all people.
Despite Holland's fine performance, the real standout of the film is Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, aka "The Vulture". Many of the Marvel Films' villains have wound up being underwhelming, but Keaton's Toomes breaks the mold. Keaton's Vulture isn't a powerful being with an outlandish scheme for global domination--he's an ordinary guy who feels he's doing what he needs to support himself and his family. He's someone that you could believe might really exist, and Keaton's interactions with Holland are some of the best hero-villain confrontations in comic book movie history.
I do have to point out that the major plot revelation in this film might be too much of a coincidence...but I still wouldn't put it in the "My mother's name is Martha" category. This movie is also definitely skewed toward the younger crowd, with all the high school hijinks. But old fogeys like me will enjoy it--I certainly did. I was kind of surprised that Marisa Tomei's Aunt May didn't have more of a major part in the proceedings, but that's probably because she's being set up for an important role for the next Spider-Man film (watch HOMECOMING and you'll know why I think that). SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is fun and enjoyable, and it's a comic book movie you can take kids to see.
Friday, July 14, 2017
One of the most unusual war films ever made comes to Region A Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber. HELL IN THE PACIFIC (1968) is about as stripped down a film as you can get--if features Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as two soldiers stranded on a small island in the South Pacific during World War II, and the duo make up the entire cast.
The movie was directed by John Boorman, a man who has one of the most diverse and intriguing resumes of any living filmmaker. Filmed on location in the Palau Islands, HELL IN THE PACIFIC makes no allowances to its audience whatsoever. We are given absolutely no backstory on the two men fighting for survival--we don't even learn their names. The duo start out trying to outwit and outfox the other, but eventually come to a grudging unspoken agreement to work together in getting off the island. Even toward the end there's no "special moment" in which the men connect--they always remain alien to one another, and they barely communicate. The story has very little dialogue, but when Toshiro Mifune does speak his words are not subtitled--Boorman did this to make viewers appreciate the characters' plight.
Suffice to say, the artistic highlights of a film like this are probably lost on those used to 21st Century entertainment. I suspect that many who saw this picture when it first came out were puzzled by it as well. Boorman doesn't go the easy route and make either Marvin or Mifune an obvious "good" or "bad" guy--they are just two men trying to deal with circumstances and with each other. The duo are not super warriors or emotionless iron men, but they are not men to be trifled with, either. The best thing about this film is the casting of Marvin and Mifune. Both actors didn't have to act tough--they were real tough guys, the type of men who could say more with a steely glance than by spouting a couple pages of dialogue. (Both men were also actual veterans of the Second World War.) Marvin and Mifune were perfect for this story.
The other highlight of HELL IN THE PACIFIC is the majestic cinematography from the legendary Conrad Hall, who makes grand use of the beautiful desolation of the South Pacific. (By the way, the camera operator on this film was none other than Jordan Croenweth, who would become a renowned DOP in his own right on such films as BLADE RUNNER.) The outstanding visuals are much needed on a story that does not have many action scenes. If you are expecting Marvin and Mifune to engage in an out-and-out lengthy slugfest, you will be disappointed. HELL IN THE PACIFIC runs 103 minutes, and after a while one gets the feeling that Boorman was working hard in coming up with things for the characters to do without killing each other and bringing the tale to an end. This Blu-ray features two different endings, and both of them are very anti-climatic. In my opinion, HELL IN THE PACIFIC is an admirable effort, but it is not a movie for all tastes, and it definitely is not a mainstream war picture.
Kino does its usual excellent job on this Blu-ray, with superior visuals and sound. A brand new interview with John Boorman is provided, and the director delves into the many difficulties involved in making this offbeat production. Boorman reveals that his biggest challenge was Toshiro Mifune--the Japanese cinema legend went out of his way to cause all sorts of problems. (Lee Marvin and Mifune, however, got along great--the two spent most of their off-camera time together getting drunk.) There is also an interview with art director Anthony Pratt, who shares his experiences working on the film.
An audio commentary is provided on this Blu-ray featuring Travis Crawford and Bill Ackerman. Both men give out numerous details about the film, including the many connections between much of the behind-the-camera talent and Toho Studios....but the duo also spend a lot of time talking about John Boorman's other directorial efforts, and they sound much more enthusiastic while doing so. The Blu-ray case sleeve is reversible, and the alternate cover image makes the film look like a typical 1940s Hollywood WWII flick.
Saturday, July 8, 2017
In the early 2010s, IDW in association with Fantastic Press released a series of books on what might be considered the best films from three distinct genres. The books were TOP 100 HORROR MOVIES, TOP 100 SCI-FI MOVIES, and TOP 100 FANTASY MOVIES. All the volumes were written, edited, and designed by Gary Gerani (who is the main force behind the many STAR WARS Topps trading card books). The latest book in the series is TOP 100 COMIC BOOK MOVIES.
I have all the books in the TOP 100 series. They have a colorful, clean design, with several stills from the movies discussed. Gerani gives a concise overview of each film, and includes basic cast & crew information and a very brief (thankfully) plot summary. He then goes into why he has included the film into the book's top 100. The books are for more of a mainstream audience than hard core film buffs, but I appreciate that tack--by doing this the author avoids being pretentious and he also brings up films that are not one of the "usual suspects" when it comes to lists like this.
TOP 100 COMIC BOOK MOVIES continues in the same vein as the other volumes in the series. The one drawback of this book is that the way these comic book adaptations are being churned out, Gerani may have to rewrite the whole thing about three years from now. That being said, the author does not strictly deal with only major comic character films made in the past couple decades. Movies that have been adapted from newspaper comic strips qualify for this list, so we get films such as the FLASH GORDON serials, the 1982 ANNIE, and a 1931 tale called SKIPPY starring a very young Jackie Cooper (who of course went on to play Perry White in the Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN movies).
I have to say that out of all the TOP 100 books the comic book entry is the one on which I disagree with the author the most on the placement of certain films. I think he has both X-MEN and WATCHMEN too low, and he has the recent DC films way too high. I don't have any major problems with the book overall though. If you love the 21st Century big-budget spectaculars, you'll find many of them here--and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is well-represented. (Gerani's take on some of the various MCU entries is quite unique.) I'm not going to reveal what the author believes is the No. 1 comic book movie, but if you are a purveyor of Geek Culture, you can easily figure it out on your own.
At the end of the book Gerani gives a quick appreciation of several comic book movies that failed to make the list, and he names his Top 10 Comic Book Movie Makers. The book also has a very welcome index.
A few folks may not like to admit it, but the fact is that films based on comic book material are basically driving and sustaining the entertainment industry. I think that ignoring this, or treating comic book movies as unworthy of proper analysis and discussion, is a mistake. TOP 100 COMIC BOOK MOVIES is a fun, colorful, easy to read book that is a step in the direction of treating these films as a separate genre that deserves articulate and thoughtful critical interpretation.
Wednesday, July 5, 2017
The 1966 British science-fiction/horror film ISLAND OF TERROR has finally been given a Region A Blu-ray release courtesy of the good folks at Shout Factory. Directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing, the movie has gained some new fans in recent years due to it being shown by Svengoolie on his MeTV program.
Terence Fisher is best known for his mastery of English Gothic cinema, but he did helm more than a few science-fiction features. ISLAND OF TERROR is the best of that group. Eminent doctors Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing) and David West (Edward Judd) travel to a small island off the east coast of Ireland to investigate the discovery of a body without any bones. The two men learn that research at a mysterious laboratory on the island has caused the creation of creatures called "silicates"--creatures that were supposed to destroy cancer cells. The silicates are now running (well, actually, moving slowly) all over the island, attacking any beings in their path. The creatures are seemingly indestructible, and Stanley and West must find a way to stop them, despite the fact that they are stuck on an island with very little resources and very little time.
What makes ISLAND OF TERROR work is Fisher's concise, get-to-the-point directorial style. The story moves quickly, and suspense is built up due to the characters being trapped in a remote location. Peter Cushing gets to play a contemporary, "normal" person (if you consider a distinguished pathologist normal), and he's obviously enjoying himself here, bringing to the role a dry sense of humor. Cushing is helped out by the underrated Edward Judd. Judd always brought a slightly cynical, let's get on with it type of attitude to his fantastic film roles such as FIRST MEN IN THE MOON and THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, and he and Cushing make a great monster fighting team. Their realistic approach as actors to an outlandish situation adds immeasurably to the film.
Every good monster movie has to have a Scream Queen, and Carole Gray capably fills that role here. The only reason she is in the movie is because she's young, attractive, and female--her character could have easily been written out of the script with no effect to the story whatsoever--but hey, I'm not complaining. Several of the locals on the island are played by veterans of other British fantastic films, such as Niall MacGinnis, Eddie Byrne, and Sam Kydd.
Probably the most memorable--some would say the most notorious--characters in ISLAND OF TERROR are the silicates themselves. I would describe them as a cross between a large mutated turtle shell and a disfigured rock. They can suck the bones out of humans or animals just by contact--but they're not exactly the fastest monsters in the world (they make Lon Chaney Jr.'s Kharis the Mummy seem like Rickey Henderson). But they do have the ability to climb trees! When the silicates divide, they leave a residue that looks like chicken noodle soup--another reason why ISLAND OF TERROR sticks in the memory of so many Monster Movie fans.
A Region A Blu-ray of ISLAND OF TERROR has been long overdue--as a matter of fact, the movie never even got an official Region 1 DVD release. I've seen ISLAND OF TERROR a number of times, and the color has always looked pale and yellowish. This Blu-ray is without doubt the best I have ever seen the movie look. The visual quality is sharper, brighter, and definitely more colorful--if you have bootleg copies of this title on disc, you don't need them anymore. The movie is presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen, and the audio, which is full and vibrant, is in DTS-HD Mono. I must point out that this Blu-ray features the uncut version of the film--which means you'll get to see in all of its glory the infamous sequence where Edward Judd uses extreme measures to save Peter Cushing from the silicates.
The Blu-ray has some nifty extras as well. A new audio commentary is provided by Dr. Robert J. Kiss. It's an excellent one, as Kiss offers up pertinent detail on all aspects of the production and still finds time to give some critical analysis. He also gets in some droll comments as well (thankfully he doesn't take the movie too seriously). About halfway through the film, Kiss takes a back seat and allows Rick Pruitt to provide his memories on what it was like to view ISLAND OF TERROR at an American drive-in during its original U.S. release. A five-minute still gallery is also included, and it has some stunning stills of Carole Gray. There's also a very worn-looking original trailer. The Blu-ray has a reversible disc cover, and in my opinion the best image is the one in the picture above.
An official American DVD or Blu-ray release of ISLAND OF TERROR has been long overdue. Why Universal never got around to doing it is a mystery, especially since the film's star is a legend like Peter Cushing. Thankfully, Shout Factory under its Scream Factory label has given the movie the home video treatment it deserves.
Monday, July 3, 2017
I'm sure most of you are aware of the so-called "Dark Universe"--the attempt by Universal Studios to have their own Marvel-like multi-feature storyline featuring legendary classic monsters instead of comic book characters. I don't have too much confidence in this idea--but if Universal was smart, they'd hire author Frank J. Dello Stritto right away as a production consultant. His new book A WEREWOLF REMEMBERS--THE TESTAMENT OF LAWRENCE STEWART TALBOT is a unique and fascinating examination of the Universal Monsters legacy in the form of a "biography" of Lawrence Talbot, the character played by Lon Chaney Jr. in five films, and better known as The Wolf Man.
The author starts out with the supposition that Lawrence Talbot disappeared after the events of ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, and Talbot's steamer trunk was left behind in an apartment house. The landlord of the house was the author's Uncle, and after his passing Talbot's journals were found inside the trunk. Dello Stritto "reveals" the contents of the journals.
The result is a Old Monster Movie Fan's dream. This book is not written as a joke, or a gimmick. The author has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about the Universal Monster series, and he creatively fills in several of the "blanks" that exist in the Universal Monster timeline. One of the things that has always bothered me about the original THE WOLF MAN is the idea that Claude Rains and Lon Chaney Jr. were supposed to be father & son. Dello Stritto explains why the two could be so different yet so closely related by delving into the history of the Talbot family, and ingeniously using stills of Rains and Lon Jr. from other films to represent other members of the clan. The author also goes into what happened to the Wolf Man when he was supposedly "dead" in between his film appearances. We also find out why Talbot was back to his wolfish self in A & C MEET FRANKENSTEIN when he was apparently "cured" at the end of HOUSE OF DRACULA.
Dello Stritto doesn't just limit himself to Universal horror films. Many characters from other thrillers made in the 1930s-1950s pop up in the narrative...and quite a few fictional folks from non-horror films of the period as well. I don't want to reveal who some of these characters are, simply because I want the reader to be as pleasantly surprised by these cameos as I was. Most of these characters will be familiar to above-average film buffs, but even I had to check on IMDB to figure out who some of them were.
These classic film references are not just a film geek's crazy theories haphazardly thrown together. Dello Stritto weaves pop culture signposts in and out of the tale with the touch of an assured novelist. The overall story never seems contrived, or ridiculous....and I dare say it holds together far better than the scripts of the films that the author was inspired by.
I really enjoyed this book--in fact, it even exceeded my expectations. The creativity shown in it is astounding--I can't tell you how many times I stopped reading and said to myself, "I wish I had thought of that!" I've spent most of my life watching the Universal monster movies, and the various other films referenced in this book, and I know them like the back of my hand. Seeing them presented this way--as if they actually happened in history, and that their stories and characters overlap with one another--is pure catnip for movie geeks.
I do have to say that your enjoyment of this book will be directly related to how much of a film buff you are. It was published by Cult Movie Press, and it has a very attractive design. It runs over 500 pages, so you are certainly getting your money's worth. I believe it is one of the best movie books I have read in the last few years. I could go on and on about this book, and what's in it, but I don't want to, because it needs to be read, instead of blogged about. Here's hoping that Frank Dello Stritto winds up writing a series of these books--maybe next there will be a look at the life of Baron Victor Frankenstein, as played by Peter Cushing?