Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Tribute To Svengoolie

Rich Koz, better known as TV's "Svengoolie", has had to take a break from his show due to some recent health issues. I thought now would be a perfect time to explain what Sven has meant to me.

I've literally been watching this man for over 30 years. Rich Koz started out as "Son of Svengoolie" back in 1979 on WFLD, Channel 32, Chicago. He's just as funny and inventive now as he was back then. In fact, Koz is now probably more popular than ever, due to his being syndicated over the Me-TV Network all over America. If you've never seen a Svengoolie show, it's kind of hard to explain...yes, he's a horror-film host, but his comedy is not just restricted to monster movies. Koz has always mined popular culture, and he's always been able to stay current. Every "Svengoolie" show features a song parody, and Sven has "covered" just about every Top 40 musical act of the past 40 years.

Of course Sven pokes fun at whatever movie he happens to be showing, but he does it in a way that shows he respects classic horror and science-fiction. He laughs WITH the movie, not at it. He always provides bits of information about the films he shows, and he truly knows the genre and the talents behind it. I've seen clips of other horror-movie TV hosts, and most of them couldn't tell the difference between Lon Chaney Jr. and Ken Griffey Jr.

It's obvious that Rich Koz is a Baby Boomer and he grew up watching classic television. The comedy of Svengoolie is family friendly, and it appeals to all age groups. Unlike self-proclaimed "geniuses" like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, Sven doesn't demean his audience or go out of his way to prove how clever he is. Every Svengoolie show is written by one man--Rich Koz. Unlike today's TV "talent", Koz doesn't have a staff of 20 or 30 writers.

But why am I writing a movie blog about him? The simple fact is, Svengoolie helped make me a film buff. Name just about every classic horror and science-fiction film ever made, and I first saw it on Svengoolie. The great films of Universal, Hammer, American-International, Toho....I first experienced them all through the courtesy of the great Sven.

You have to remember that when I started watching Svengoolie, there were no cable movie channels, no VCRs, no DVDs, no Netflix, no YouTube, none of that stuff. If you wanted to see a great monster movie, you had to rely on Sven.....and there was nobody better to rely on, at that time. I'm sure there are many others who got their first exposure to classic fantastic cinema because of this man. For that fact alone, he deserves the highest of accolades.

In a TV world of Ax Swamp Pickers and Alaskan Dance Preppers, Svengoolie truly reigns supreme. Hopefully, for many, many years to come, the cry of BERWYN!!!! will be heard throughout the land.

Thank you, Mr. Koz.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Special Guest Appearance

I've written a guest blog on VIGIL IN THE NIGHT for Lara Fowler's Carole Lombard Filmography Project. The link to it is

VIGIL IN THE NIGHT happens to be the only film which features my favorite all-time actress (Carole Lombard) and my favorite all-time actor (Peter Cushing). So check out the blog!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Steven Spielberg and Hollywood History

Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN is another triumph for the director, and it will surely be given a number of Oscar nominations. Some people seem surprised that Spielberg made this movie, but they really shouldn't.

When one thinks of Steven Spielberg, the first thing that comes to mind are the many huge box-office spectaculars he has helmed. But he's also directed more historical dramas than just about any contemporary filmmaker--THE COLOR PURPLE, EMPIRE OF THE SUN, SCHINDLER'S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, AMISTAD, MUNICH, and WAR HORSE. Even films that are not considered "historical" such as the INDIANA JONES series and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, deal with a specific time period. One of the great things about movies is that they are able to take you to a time and place that you can never really experience--they are sort of a time machine, if you will. The Hollywood studios of the 1930s-1950s did that better than anyone else, and Steven Spielberg is a descendant of that system.

Spielberg is usually lumped in with his contemporaries--directors such as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese. While he has a lot in common with them (most of them were film students who broke into the business in the late sixties), Spielberg isn't really like them at all. He certainly isn't one of the "Raging Bulls and Easy Riders"--he's not a rebel and he's not an experimentalist. Even when dealing with important subjects and/or controversial events, Spielberg is still able to make his films accessible to a mass-market audience. In this way Spielberg fits in more with the old Hollywood studio system than the 21st Century.

Spielberg's real contemporaries are Michael Curtiz, Howard Hawks, and John Ford. Just like those men, Spielberg has worked in just about every type of film genre. He has the ability to change his style for a certain story and film--something Hollywood studio directors had to do out of necessity.
LINCOLN is a perfect example of this. It's an actor's movie, not a director's. There's not a multitude of grand battle sequences or sweeping visuals. In LINCOLN Spielberg gets out of the way, and lets the actors and the story do the work.

If there is one film director working today who could easily fit into the old Hollywood studio system, it is Steven Spielberg. Movie buffs are always saying, "They don't make movies like they used to." Steven Spielberg is one person that does.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


One of the more interesting Blu-rays to be released this year is the Director's Cut of 1986's LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. The film was based on the cult Off-Broadway musical, which was based on the cult Roger Corman movie. This version gained cult status for what was NOT put into the theatrical release.

LITTLE SHOP is not an easy film to categorize. It is best described as a musical/horror/dark comedy. It was produced by David Geffen and directed by Frank Oz. A huge amount of money was spent on the production, especially the special effects. The main "Skid Row" set in the film was actually built at Pinewood Studios in England. (It's amazing how much money people will spend to make something look run down.)

The story revolves around geeky Seymour (Rick Moranis), who works at Mushnik's Flower Store. Seymour finds a rather unusual plant, which he names "Audrey II" after the co-worker he secretly pines for (Ellen Greene). Seymour soon finds out that his plant grows on human blood.

Rick Moranis is good as Seymour, but it's Ellen Greene who steals the show (at least among the humans in the cast). Moranis and Greene did their jobs so well that they created the reason why this movie has a director's cut (more on that later). Steve Martin has a small role, and their are a number of celebrity cameos from the likes of Bill Murray, John Candy, Christopher Guest, and Jim Belushi. Martin and Murray are particularly funny but all the cameos are a bit distracting from the main story--one wonders if the producers felt that Moranis and Greene couldn't carry a big-budget film on their own.

Frank Oz is of course best known for his work with The Muppets. He was a perfect choice to helm this project, and not just because of the animatronic work involved. Remember that just about every episode of "The Muppets" had  a couple musical numbers.

The real star is the man-eating plant, called "Audrey II". It was created by SFX artist Lyle Conway, and it's a magnificent piece of work. The plant has different stages of growth, and even winds up talking (the voice is by R & B legend Levi Stubbs). If this story ever gets remade (and yes, there are rumors it will be) the plant will probably be CGI, and it will look terrible. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken wrote the story and music--they both went on to other major projects including several Disney films.

Now...why is this Blu-ray Director's Cut important?

When LITTLE SHOP was originally previewed before it's theatrical release, the story ended just like the play--the lead characters both get killed. Preview audiences liked the performances of Moranis and Greene so much that they reacted negatively to the film's finale. David Geffen and Frank Oz decided to reshoot the ending--Seymour and Audrey live, and Audrey II is destroyed. This was the version that was shown in theaters.

But soon after LITTLE SHOP's release, a number of movie publications such as "Cinefantastique" (see picture above) documented how the original ending also included a show-stopping 15 minute sequence featuring several giant "Audrey II" plants going on a rampage and taking over the world. That sequence soon grew to legendary proportions--to the point were whenever LITTLE SHOP was mentioned, the sequence was always brought up. The original ending became more famous that the film it was cut from, even though no one had ever really seen it completed and finished for the big screen.

The original ending has been available on the internet and was put on an earlier home video version of LITTLE SHOP, but it had never been fully completed or integrated into the actual film until this recent Blu-ray. It's almost like a mini-movie, and it has some brilliant FX work. It's worth buying the Blu-ray just to see this new/old ending.

It's great that both versions are on this Blu-ray, and they both have quality picture and sound. But which version is better? It's easy to see why preview audiences were angry at seeing Seymour and Audrey being killed. The theatrical version of LITTLE SHOP is the more crowd-pleasing one--but the director's cut is really the better movie. LITTLE SHOP is, after all, a dark, satiric comedy. It's also another take on the Faust legend. Seymour makes a deal with the Devil (Audrey II) to gain fame and respect. When you make a deal with the Devil, one way or another, you're gonna have to pay.
You certainly don't want to see Seymour and Audrey die, but it does go with the tone of the story. And the giant plants taking over the world is something that never should have been cut out. (Why didn't the filmmakers think to include it as a dream sequence, to make Seymour realize what he was unleashing on the world?)

The LITTLE SHOP Blu-ray package includes a mini-booklet with photos and info about the film. The Blu-ray extras include some featurettes and commentary by Frank Oz. Kudos to Warner Home Video for putting out both versions of this film. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS may not appeal to everyone, but if you have a taste for unusual fare, this film is worth trying, especially to those who are interested in the original ending.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Daniel Craig As James Bond

In one of my earlier posts on Timothy Dalton, I mentioned that an actor who plays James Bond has to be appealing to the movie-going public. I then wrote "Daniel Craig is the exception--his Bond is a prick--but that's a post for another day." I went and saw SKYFALL this week, so that day is here.

Daniel Craig's James Bond is so far removed from the template laid down by the other Bond actors that it may be years before Craig's performance can adequately be interpreted. It's almost as if Craig is playing another secret agent named James Bond. First of all, Craig is not a classically handsome leading fact, some people think he's downright ugly (I'm just a straight guy from Indiana, so I'm no judge). The Craig Bond is surly, arrogant, and a smart-ass. The other Bonds were all pretty sarcastic...but actors like Sean Connery and Roger Moore had the ability to say a funny comment and make it seem as if they were speaking to the audience. Connery and Moore gave off the attitude that the audience was with them on their spectacular adventures. You get the feeling that Craig isn't with anybody.

The 21st Century James Bond is a sullen, dour-faced professional killer who makes Timothy Dalton seem like a stand-up comedian. The recent Bond movies play this up by making Craig suffer as much as possible--in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, he's seeking revenge for the loss of the woman he loved; and in SKYFALL, he's suffering from a near-death experience and what he feels is a personal betrayal. When Craig finishes an action sequence, he actually has cuts and bruises on him. (Roger Moore could be chased by bad guys for five miles, then fall off a 100 ft. cliff, and his hair and clothes would still be perfect.)

Even before he landed the role of James Bond, Daniel Craig was considered by critics to be a serious, respected actor. I think of him as a "brooding" actor--no matter what film he's in, or what character he happens to be playing, he always looks like he's ticked off about something. Whether that is great acting skill is up to the eye of the beholder. Craig is a very good actor--probably the best "pure" actor to ever play Bond. But what I think is interesting is that while it seems people accept Craig as Bond,  and they respect his acting ability, it doesn't seem that he's beloved by the fans. All three of the Bond movies Craig has starred in have all made huge amounts of money--but I don't think it's because of him.

When EON Productions acquired the rights to make CASINO ROYALE, they had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They REALLY could start over--not just a reboot, or a remake, or a reworking--they could actually go right back to the very beginning of James Bond. The Broccoli family, to their credit, took that opportunity and did something they should have done back in the 1980s. They decided to start making the Bond movies in a totally different way, with a totally different James Bond. This isn't your father's--or your grandfather's--James Bond. The series now has supporting actors like Ralph Fiennes and Javier Bardem (the days of people like Grace Jones and Denise Richards are long gone) and directors like Sam Mendes. Go to any magazine rack and Daniel Craig is just about on every cover. He even made the cover of "Rolling Stone". (Ten years ago, that publication would have given the latest Bond film a two-paragraph review, if that.) The Bond movies are now being covered and taken seriously by elitist media. Whether Daniel Craig's version of Bond is widely popular or not, the series is now stronger than ever.

What do I think of Daniel Craig as James Bond? Well, I must admit that his take on the character was one I always wanted to see....but I also have to say that sometimes he tries just a bit too hard to be a bad-ass. There's really no way to compare Craig to Connery, Moore, and's like comparing apples to oranges. Craig had the advantage of being able to start at the "beginning"...if he had debuted as 007 in a "normal" Bond film, it wouldn't have worked. His Bond is unique.

And what of SKYFALL? It's a lot better than QUANTUM, but it's not the greatest Bond film ever made. It goes on a bit too long (does EVERY film made now have to be two and a half hours in length?) For the third Bond film in a row, the villain is a weird, creepy foreign guy who's more silly than dangerous. Javier Bardem is a disappointment...he seems to be auditioning for the role of the Joker in the next Batman production.

In closing, I appreciate Daniel Craig's portrayal of Bond, but I wouldn't say he's the best Bond ever. Now that Craig's Bond has his "own" M, Q, and Moneypenny, it will be interesting to see if the series might go back to some more traditional Bond storylines. Maybe we'll even get to see Craig crack a real smile.

Friday, November 9, 2012

My Five Favorite DVD Audio Commentaries

With the baseball season over, and the NHL season....delayed (ahem), I've had some time to go through my DVD collection and pick out some audio commentaries that I had not yet listened to. Usually it takes me awhile to get to a certain DVD's commentary. There's still dozens and dozens of them that I own that remain unheard.

I've listened to just about every type of audio commentary imaginable. There's what I call the "Eyesight to the blind" commentary, in which the speaker decides to tell you what is happening on the screen ("This guy just walked through the door. Now he's walking across the room..."). There's the "Facts on steroids" commentary, in which the speaker decides to tell you every single fact connected to the movie, no matter how trivial. (I've heard commentators who didn't just mention the relevant credits of a certain actor, they list EVERY CREDIT THE ACTOR EVER HAD.) Then there's the "We're watching a movie?" commentary, where the people involved just decide to shoot the bull for two hours and say absolutely nothing about the film they're supposed to be talking about.

An audio commentary is not as easy as it sounds. The average length of a feature film is about...what? 100 minutes? Could you talk about your favorite movie for 100 minutes? Could you make it interesting? Could you make it relevant? Could you avoid running out of things to say? Could you know how to pace yourself, and match that pace with the tempo of the film? Doing an audio commentary is basically like giving a performance. I'm not saying that every commentator has to sound like Morgan Freeman, but a decent sounding voice and the ability to articulate your thoughts are essential. It amazes me how many actors (who are performers) are lousy at commentaries. I guess the old saying "An actor is lost without a script" has a ring of truth to it. In my experience I have found that the bigger the name, the worse the commentary (George Lucas, anyone?).

There are a number of film scholars/historians/experts who do commentaries, and who have a lot of interesting, thought-provoking things to say....but their deliveries are as dry as dust. I can't tell you the number of times an audio commentary has caused me to fall asleep. (If you suffer from insomnia, try it sometime.)

Having said all that, here's a list of my five favorite (at the moment) DVD audio commentaries.

I know you are reading this and saying, "WHAT!!???" Well, let me explain. Sam Sherman was the theatrical distributor of this little gem, and he spent most of the 60s and 70s on the grindhouse level of the American independent film industry. Sherman's stories about the distribution, production, and promotion of low-budget features are an education. Sam's a great storyteller, and he's far more entertaining than the movie itself. He's never boring, and you feel as if he's having a conversation directly to you. I am absolutely serious about this--it is a great commentary.

2. Roger Ebert--CITIZEN KANE
Just about every film buff has seen KANE probably about a dozen times. But when you listen to Ebert's commentary, it's like watching it for the first time. Of course Ebert's knowledge about the film is astounding, but it's the little details and elements that Ebert brings attention to that make this a worthwhile listening experience. It's a shame Ebert was not able to do more of these.

3. Weird Al Yankovic (with Jay Levey)--UHF
This commentary gets high marks for it's originality. Weird Al not only gives you relevant information (including the actual street addresses were certain scenes were shot), he uses the commentary as a source for comic gags. And not just audio gags--visual gags as well. (At one point Weird Al announces he has to go for a while--and we actually see him get up and leave.) Weird Al also talks to co-star Michael Richards and fields a phone call from leading lady Victoria Jackson (of course the mainstream media now consider Richards and Jackson two of the most evil people who ever lived).

4. Tim Lucas--BLACK SUNDAY
Tim Lucas wrote the book on BLACK SUNDAY director Mario Bava (no, really...he DID write a book on Bava). Film expert Lucas (the founder of VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine) gives us all sorts of information and analysis, and there's no one better at dissecting a movie. BLACK SUNDAY has been re-issued on DVD and Blu-ray, and Lucas' commentary has always been included. Lucas has done similar work on a number of DVDs, but this one is his best, and it has a legendary reputation among horror film buffs.

5. Christopher Frayling--THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (Blu-ray)
Frayling wrote the book on Sergio Leone (no, really....he DID write a book on Leone). Listening to this is like taking a college course on Italian Westerns. The most impressive aspect about this is...GBU is about three hours long, and Frayling never runs out of material. He's interesting and informative right till the end.

I need to also mention film historians Tom Weaver, Greg Mank, and David Kalat. I couldn't really pick out just one of their many commentaries...they are all uniformly excellent.

Now...would you like to make a comment on my comments on commentaries?

Friday, November 2, 2012

DVD Review: Frank Capra--The Early Collection

Sony Home Entertainment has recently released on DVD a set of five films directed by the legendary Frank Capra. The films were made between 1930-33 and are some of the more obscure items in Capra's career. They were all made at Columbia, the studio were Capra achieved his greatest work. None of the films have been on DVD before, which is hard to believe, considering Capra's fame. (Amazingly, there are still a number of Capra films unavailable on DVD.)

The title of the set should really be "Frank Capra & Barbara Stanwyck", because four of the five films feature the actress. This set shows both Capra & Stanwyck early in their careers, before they reached their peak. Capra's talent as a filmmaker is obvious--even though none of these movies can be considered among Capra's best, each one of them contain some of his touches. Despite some of the weakness of the storylines, Capra is always trying to do something different visually--from staging a scene in a unusual manner to using unique camera angles. Although the period represented here is still very early in Hollywood's talkie era, Capra handles sound very well and incorporates it in a number of ways that the average contemporary director wouldn't. It would take a couple of years before Capra really found his style and basically invented his own film genre ("Capraesque"), but this early work shows that Capra was already a standout talent. Every film in this set has two of Capra's most famous touches: a rain scene and a sequence involving a giant crowd (only Fritz Lang and Sergio Leone handled large crowds as well as Capra did).

As for Barbara Stanwyck, she's certainly not as polished as she would be by the late 30s-early 40s, but her performances here include a number of those famous Stanwyck "emotional moments" where she blows the screen away. Capra apparently fell in love with Stanwyck during their early collaboration, and it shows in the way she is photographed in these films. A number of times Capra lets everything come to a stop and he just has the camera linger on Stanwyck. There were other famous leading ladies who worked well with Capra, such as Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, and Donna Reed, but none ever had the raw intensity that Stanwyck did in the early 30s.

The films that make up this set are:

LADIES OF LEISURE (1930): Capra and Stanwyck's very first teaming. Barbara plays cynical "party girl" Kay, who is hired as a model by rich magnate's son/aspiring artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves). Kay and Jerry fall in love, upsetting his father. The title makes one think that there's going to be a lot more going on then what really is. This is almost a two-role story, and it doesn't help that Ralph Graves is a pretty unappealing leading man. One wonders why Kay goes to all the trouble she does to win him. Capra & Stanwyck try hard to inject some life in the tepid storyline.

RAIN OR SHINE (1930): This is the only film in the set which does not feature Stanwyck. It's about the problems of a down-on-it's-luck circus run by Smiley Johnson (Joe Cook). The story was based on a Broadway musical, but Capra removed the songs. What's left can only be described as strange. The movie is filled with various surrealistic gags--it's almost as if Capra used up all the tricks he had left over from working with Mack Sennett and Harry Langdon. Most of the "jokes" fall flat. The climax features a violent brawl between the circus troupe and an entire big top audience--and then the circus catches on fire. The juxtaposition between the realism of the fire and the bizarre comedy routines is somewhat jarring.
Joe Cook was a famous Vaudeville personality of the time. His persona here is that of a fast-talking con man, and he comes off as very annoying. Included on the RAIN OR SHINE disc is the "international" version of the film, which is 20 minutes shorter. It's part-silent with sound effects, and it has different scenes and a different ending. This version actually plays better than the original one--there's less weird comedy, and you don't have to listen to Joe Cook talk.

THE MIRACLE WOMAN (1931): A movie which anticipates ELMER GANTRY by about 30 years, THE MIRACLE WOMAN has Barbara Stanwyck as a preacher's daughter who becomes the main attraction in a big-time revival show. One of Stanwyck's great career moments occurs at the very beginning of the film. Just after her father has died from the strain of being replaced by his church, Stanwyck has to address the entire congregation. She proceeds to call them all out as hypocrites, and then she REALLY lets rip. It's a powerful scene--you feel as if Babs is making the paint peel from the walls.
The revival show is really run by a shady con artist (Sam Hardy), and one wishes the story had spent more time on the machinations of this "religious" organization. Instead, too much time is spent on the romance between Stanwyck's Sister Fallon and a blind war veteran (David Manners) who was inspired by listening to Fallon on the radio. Once again, Stanwyck is paired with a bland leading man (a common fate for lead actresses in Pre-Code Hollywood). Capra stages the revival show as a cross between a sporting event and a vaudeville revue. The climax has yet another large-scale fire. An interesting film, but one gets the feeling it should have been much better.

FORBIDDEN (1932): This one is a soap opera all the way--Stanwyck is the mistress of a rising married politician (Adolphe Menjou), and the mother of his child. The story gets more and more unbelievable as it goes along, and only the lead actress and the director make it worth watching. Barbara gets to have an out-of-wedlock child, commit murder, and age about twenty-five years. Menjou is certainly an upgrade over most of Stanwyck's leading men at the time, but once again one wonders why she bothered with him.

THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933): This is the highlight of the set--Capra's attempt at an "art film". Stanwyck is the fiancee of a missionary based in civil war-torn China who winds up in the hands of brutal warlord General Yen (Nils Asther). During her stay at the General's palace, the prim woman starts to fall for him. With lush art direction and exquisite cinematography by Joseph Walker, BITTER TEA feels almost like a Von Sternberg product. The interracial coupling was pretty controversial even by Pre-Code standards--and Pre-Code or not, Barbara Stanwyck is not going to wind up with a Chinese warlord.
Some 21st Century viewers may be uncomfortable with a Swedish actor portraying an Asian, but Nils Asther does well under the circumstances. Stanwyck's Megan is a far cry from the working-class roles she usually played at this time. BITTER TEA is not just a atmospheric romance--there are some well-staged battle sequences. The story opens with a large-scale evacuation of a war-torn Chinese village--something that Capra would sort of re-do in his later LOST HORIZON. Capra admitted in his biography that he was trying to win an Oscar with BITTER TEA, but the movie was not a success and the director never made anything quite like it during the rest of his career. THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN would soon be overshadowed by Capra's later productions, but it now stands as a very underrated film.

Each film in this set gets it's own DVD (unlike some DVD sets which cram two or three movies on a single disc). The extras included for all five include publicity, still, and poster galleries, liner notes, featurettes with Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and Michel Gondry; and there are two commentaries: Jeanine Basinger for FORBIDDEN and Jeremy Arnold for LADIES OF LEISURE. The set is only available from the Turner Classic Movies website or Movies Unlimited.